Malaysia: That ain’t no croc, it’s a log

*To leech or not to leech, that is the question*- Shakespeare… well, kinda

If I was an orangutan, I would slide down the rope, yelling a war cry and then jump off, doing a somersault in the air and punctuate my landing with a dab.

Let’s put this in more context.

We visited the ORC (Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre) in Sepilok, Borneo where we stood waiting among the patient crowd for an orange mammal to show itself (no, I am not talking of Donald Trump). We had arrived earlier than feeding time which got us a front row seat and I’m proud to say I was the first person out of about 50 people to notice the fuzzy creature rambling down the wire.

But before all this happened, we had to wait for a while. Fifteen minutes passed. Nothing. My eyes would dart around the vegetation, watching for the slightest sign of life, the slightest twitch of a leaf. Ten more minutes would pass. Still nothing. The crowd was growing bigger by the second and soon I was squashed between desperate ‘professional’ photographers. Five more minutes passed.

And then, some scurry of life came into the corner of my eye and, my heart beating furiously, I frantically turned to the sight of…. a squirrel.

Sighing, I watched the squirrel make its way down the tree to steal the food set out for the orangutan. Not a minute later, the squirrel set back up the tree and disappeared.

Yet 10 more minutes passed and not even a fly appeared. A few more minutes. Nothing.

And then I felt it.

A drop of water.

It began to rain. Quite suddenly. And quite strongly too.

Being at the front, meant exposure to the downpour but a fellow observer was kind enough to shelter me and my mum under his umbrella. The rest of the crowd ventured towards the back, protected by a roof. It was probably pointless, but I kept an eye out, searching frantically. Nope. Not even an orange hair.

Eventually the rain stopped and I continued scanning past the green lush vegetation and vines snaking around tree trunks and then, another scuffle brought my attention and I looked up to see… the very same squirrel.

I rubbed my forehead in frustration as the squirrel collected its next load of nourishment before it vanished again.

I wasn’t going to give up yet so I waited patiently and soon enough something appeared. And no, it was not the squirrel.

As a large orange beast came bumbling down the line, I screamed out in ecstasy, causing many heads to turn and suddenly the entire crowd which was relaxing on the benches, sheltered by the roof, immediately surged forward, aggressively fighting for the best spot. The photographers went away with their cameras, and the peaceful silence that I had embraced a while ago was replaced by their incessant clicking, all happening within the mere two seconds of witnessing an animal. I love humanity.

Rather than falling into the trap that the rest of the crowd so easily followed, I just stood there and watched the orangutan with a smile on my face. It was nice just being THERE, just OBSERVING and not being all over the phone or camera, or off on Messenger or Instagram to tell people “OMG an orangutan came out!!” (or maybe I didn’t because my parents had taken away my phone at that time)(edit: my mum added this in the last second. Honestly mum, don’t make me sound like a hypocrite).

The orangutan’s movements were hypnotic in how it would swoop across the rope, it would bend down to pick up the food and it would position itself while eating. Once, it was dangling from the rope with one hand and one foot while eating upside down.

*when mum says dinner is ready*

And then suddenly, monkeys joined the show. A whole silly bunch came sprinting out of nowhere, from under the platform, from over the platform, from trees to trees, from handrails… I absolutely loved it. Here’s to the folks who left five minutes after the orangutan decided to appear. You see what you missed? Soon we had a battle between prime mammals fighting for food with baby monkeys scampering about. It was quite a shame when we left.

That day we didn’t just see orangutans though. We visited the sun bears, not too far away from the ORC. Within a minute of entering the park, a deep loud roar reverberated all around, instantly startling us. But when we actually approached the creatures, they seemed so small and sweet, it was hard to believe they were the ones that made the noise. They looked like a cross between a panda and a bear, and they certainly acted like the former, by climbing up tall trees and lying lazily on the top branches.

Someone said cookies?

Only few showed themselves, still, it was satisfying watching them, and the way they went about their daily routine was just incredibly interesting.

And of course, monkeys came to steal their show too. As soon as the staff came out to feed the sun bears, the furry little creatures came rambling along, already pecking at the food. As sweet and cheeky as they were, I was more interested in watching the sun bears but we had to leave soon after.

But that was in Borneo. It was our last stop, so let’s rEwiNd. ⏪

/// radio static /// ▶ PLAY

A little baby looks up at his mother, his big brown eyes blinking, cooing innocently.

// uh. That’s a bit too far.

EXT. CITY: DAY

As I picked up my big red backpack, I turned and exhaled, taking in my first sight of Malaysia. Specifically, Johor Bahru. We had taken a local bus from Singapore, the drive taking only half an hour.

Taking a Grab to our Airbnb, I sat in the car, musing over possible different features our flat was going to have. It became a trend for me later on, always imagining how our flat was going to be.

While entering the flat it may have seemed bland and small at first, but it soon came to be my favourite Airbnb, even now, 10 countries and 6 months later.

It was actually a two-bedroom flat. My sister called dibs on the single bed bedroom so I was stuck with sleeping on the couch. At first I complained, but I soon came to love the sofa. Partly because if I woke up at the right time, I could catch the sunrise glinting off the windows, the skyscrapers standing boldly in the background, and partly because I had the entire living room to myself, meaning access to computer, phone, fridge whenever I wanted and without fear of waking up a family member (most of our accomodations since the beginning of our trip comprised of sleeping in one room). One day, I stayed awake between 5-7am to play PUBG with a friend of mine back in Europe.

So, as small as it was, it was a flat of memories and I did feel comfortable and happy living there. As a bonus, the building had a huge swimming pool and an Infinity Pool that bended precariously over the edge, a beautiful place to lean over and take in the sunset behind the vibrating city life.

So most of the time, you could catch me gazing at the city from the pool or sitting on the couch studying on the computer.

But don’t think we spent all our time cooped up in our little flat like a bunch of couch potatoes (not that I have anything against potatoes).

Considering that we spent a LOT of time sightseeing in other countries, we didn’t do much, but we still walked enough to have our legs aching at the end of the day. We mostly browsed in shopping malls, but also toured the city, visiting Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Senibong Cove Marina, Istana Besar Royal Palace and Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque.

I didn’t know what to expect of Malaysia, till one night, in the Phillipines, I caught a glimpse of it in a scene in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. I was in awe of the tall skyscrapers towering bravely in the city and the huge spacious malls. By then it was already clear that Malaysia was my type of country.

We spent about a week in Johor Bahru before taking a bus to Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital.

… And I thought Johor Bahru was grand.

Kuala Lumpur was even more thriving and modern with even more skyscrapers and malls, all their lights twinkling harmoniously at night while I gazed out the balcony waiting for New Year’s.

Talking of New Year, it all felt sudden and quiet. Maybe it was just because the previous years we celebrated it, we were surrounded by many people, whether it was with the entire extended family or many guests in a hotel, complete with fireworks setting off nearby. But this time… We were in an Airbnb quite far from the centre, so the fireworks weren’t either loud or big. And it was just the four of us, me and my dad sitting out on the balcony, my sister and mum inside. I remember the first thing I said when the clock turned 12: “it’s 2019 already?”

As for what we did, it was very similar to JB. My sister and I would study for 5 hours, we would swim a bit in the pool and go out to buy dinner and then watch a movie. We visited some malls and the Petronas Towers, tallest twin towers in the world.

The towers that pierce the sky

Well, of course, we did much more than that. We’re travellers, not tourists. We go off the beaten track!

So we also dragged our feet along to Sri Mahamariamman Temple (oldest Hindu temple in KL), Suria KLCC (huge shopping mall near Petronas Twin Towers), Istana Negara (historical palace) and KLCC Park.

So we spent a week in KL – our Airbnb was good even though the flat started smelling a bit after we brought takeaway sushi one night😂 – generally taking it easy. But we weren’t done with Malaysia. We took a plane to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, where we expirienced a completely different aspect of the country.

The first day, we jumped on a boat and snorkeled around three islands, Sapi, Gaya and Pulau Mamutik – not far from the coast.

I was very excited to go on the zip line between Sapi and Gaya. Though just 250 metres long, apparently it is one of the few zip lines in the world spanning two islands. It felt terrifying in the beginning but going down the line was a surreal experience. Zipping past the wind, going up to 60kmph, high over the crystal blue water: it was a bliss.

On the last island, we mostly remained on the shore, entertaining ourselves with a rope dangling from a tree. I made it a challenge to climb all the way to the top 😜.

Monkey on a rope

After that relaxing island cruise experience, we spent the next day walking all around Kota Kinabalu.

We planned to go to KK City Mosque, of interest because it floats on water. However we didn’t go inside as apparently we weren’t ‘covered’ enough, even though my parents had come prepared with scarfs and long trousers. They demanded that we rent clothes on top of paying for entrance – it didn’t make sense so we decided not to go.

We walked through the fish market, a grand array of busy stalls selling colourful seafood – literally colourful : fresh fish spotting all shades of pink, red, blue, green scales! A sight you wouldn’t get in your typical fish market in London.

The following day we left for our next stop which was going to be deep in the jungle, really REALLY basic, no phone service or WiFi and squat toilets with a bucket to flush. We had electricity but only from 7-10pm. We would be sleeping in tents, a small sheet to serve as a mattress and a ‘pillow’ which was really a small tight box. At least it wasn’t as hard as a rock.

I admit I felt uncomfortable at first especially because of the amount of insects. What was scary was that we had no knowledge of these insects. Maybe one of them was poisonous. One night, walking back to the tent, my dad almost stepped on a snake-looking animal. It turned out it was the very venomous borneo viper: good thing he had his phone’s torch on… if they bite you, you die in minutes.

But it wasn’t the snake that freaked me out the most. To me, the scariest animal we encountered: leeches. They may look adorable and silly at first, as they are literally thick blobs slouching around like worms but they. are. scary. I didn’t even know they existed until we entered that jungle, but now I shudder whenever even a thought of them comes across.

You see, they are malicious souls with a thick body, always hungry for blood, their gaping mouths searching for an innocent prey as they scooch their evil shape forward. They’re blind and rely on smell and mostly reside… LITERALLY ANYWHERE in the jungle. What is worse, you won’t feel it latching on you, nothing more than the slight tingle of a tickle, thus they can sneak in and remain there for hours. One day my sister took off her t-shirt to go swimming and on her chest was a huge clotted bloody stain…  the undiscovered leech having slouched off, satieted at some point earlier.

But wait, there’s more.

Because I’m such a scaredy-cat when it comes to leeches, I panicked whenever one took a hold of me so it was difficult for me to prise it off. You have to repeatedly flick it so eventually it loses its grip. But that ‘eventually’ usually takes a minute or so and if I have a leech on me for more than two seconds I would freak out. So it would be up to the person beside me to help pull it off. But if there wasn’t someone beside me… Well, let’s hope it didn’t happen.

It did happen. I walked a bit far ahead of the group and I got distracted by a perfect picture opportunity. That one-minute break gave enough time for a leech to discover me. So now I had a leech on my ankle and I was all alone and panicking. My hands shaking, I pressed my fingers together to flick it off but my brave attempts were to no avail. Finally, it worked and satisfied with my brave conquest of the vile leech, I stood up only to realise another one had taken ahold of my hand (MY GOOD HAND, MIND YOU) which meant I had to use my LEFT hand to flick that one off. I also succeeded, and while I was proud of myself (self-pride is very important) my senses were on OVerDriVe and my brain was like EJDKGKFKFJSJSICE and my feet were like LET’S GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE.

I followed my feet.

//

That happened when we were along the Kinabatangan River, and also the last time I encountered leeches. Go figure.

Luckily, while in Lupa Masa Rainforest Camp, I didn’t encounter any leeches, just the snake and a few creepy insects. The rest of my family did, however, fall to their unlucky demise. I still hadn’t been attacked by those works of Satan and I’m pretty sure I jinxed myself when I decided to openly brag about how I was the only one who hadn’t been bitten by one yet.

But how did we get so deep in the jungle where there wasn’t even phone reception? Well, we took a bus to a small village on the edge of the jungle where guides were waiting for us. It was actually quite fun (even though it meant carrying our heavy backpacks), crossing through rivers, rickety bridges and dodgy rocks. It took about half an hour to arrive. The camp actually wasn’t so bad (as basic as it was). We were the only guests and the common area was where we spent most of our time, sitting on the table, me reading my kindle, my sister playing a game with my dad and my mum editing pictures of our journey on the laptop. Food was basic and vegetarian but really good too. Our tents were down by the river and it was nice getting to sleep by it. This was nature. It was really a beautiful feeling.

At night (it took me a while to fall asleep especially because the ‘bed’ was so uncomfortable) I would lie there, listening to the roaring water (it was so loud I could hear it even without my hearing aids). For some reason, it was really relaxing.

We even went for a swim in the rapid river. And man, was it freezing!

The second day in the jungle (without any internet connection! Yes, we were very brave) we took a jungle survival course, which included making a fire and collecting and drinking water from bamboo sticks, making a tent from those bamboos and making traps to capture animals.

The guy who was our survival course teacher actually had gotten lost in the jungle when he was a child and survived. He slept cocooned in a hammock in the common room and I was suspicious that he had mobile data.

We went for a night trek that evening, supplied with flashlights. We walked for a bit and then suddenly, our guides halted, their torches aimed high up the tree. Confused, we looked up but because we were city people, we remained thoroughly oblivious of the creature. Then, one of the guides explained to us in a low voice that it was a clouded leopard (known as ‘tree tiger’ in Malaysia). Still then, I couldn’t pinpoint the animal. Dang, I swear these people had 20/15 vision.

Further down the path, they spotted a viper curled up on a tree, very close to where we were. We had to be really careful going past, as we were THAT close.

snek

We spent three days in that jungle. Three days without WiFi. Three days surviving the attacks against ugly leeches, unknown insects and two vipers. While it was a great feeling being in nature, I think I’d stick to city life for the moment.

Our next stop was Sepilok where we visited the orangutans, as mentioned in the beginning of this post. Our accommodation there was all right: I had missed the feel of sinking into the soft bed and decided from then on, I would never take sleeping on a bed for granted.

There were about 20 other people at the resort, which felt so crowded after being alone with the family and four locals for three days in the jungle, including a family with two boys, from the Netherlands. They invited me to play Pokémon with them one night which was fun even though we didn’t speak the same language.

From Sepilok my parents had organized a homestay for a few days in a village on the Kinabatangan river, to contribute to and really expirience the local life (as my mum put it).

We took a minibus with two other travellers, a Canadian, Tess, and a New Zealanders, to the village; we were going to live in a local’s home for the next couple of days. Our allocated house was massive, the living room could have been a dining room and the common area could have been a ballroom. The host was a lady with a full figure and a hyper toddler who was very strong for his age.

We got up at 5am one morning to begin our schedule, I was literally dozing off standing. But our host’s kid – he was running around the house, yelling his head off. He would storm into the room, yelling gibberish, constantly come into our room as if he were part of the family, push the table, slam the doors and he even emptied his bladder on a dress on the floor once.

On the good side, the host cooked great food, including some delicious donuts, to my dad’s delight.

There was a schedule set up for us: it was clear and straightforward. Our schedule mostly involved meandering up and down the river with a guide, stopping at some places.

In the river there were crocodiles, so of course, I spent most of the time scanning the murky waters for the slightest sign of a croc and the amount of times I mistook a log for a crocodile’s back is unnumberable. We passed another group on a boat who started frantically claiming they had seen a crocodile farther down the river, but they would have had to work harder to fool me. Ha, nice try :/. (They really didn’t. Our guide confirmed that)

Our guide was very upbeat and very informative, constantly happy to provide us with some fascinating facts. One fact I could just not forget: there are buffalo leeches which reside in stale water and they cling onto you, get inside your skin and reproduce inside your body and burst out.

So…. Leeches straight from the movie Alien? Mysterious crocodiles which would be difficult to pinpoint under the murky waters? The Amazon rainforest has some competition…

But it wasn’t all terrifying animals. We saw my mum’s long-lost family… the proboscis monkeys (it seems to me that my mum has a big nose😜). They were really adorable. We used binoculars to see them as they were mostly high up in the trees. In each ‘clan’ /group of monkeys, there was a male leader who was big and fat. Kind of like within human society: it definitely brought the current political scene in mind.

EXCLUSIVE! NEW! FOOTAGE! OF THE PRESIDENT!

We stopped for lunch and to do some trekking in the jungle (which was where I bravely vanquished the leeches). When we returned from our trek, we discovered a commotion in the common area: another guide had found a fallen monkey with a broken leg. It looked so scared and fragile, unable to move, surrounded by a crowd of humans – it probably thought it was its end.

We went further down the river to plant a tree, guided by an enthusiastic deaf local who communicated with signs. It was part of a project from the government in conjunction with palm oil corporations which donated a portion of their land along the river. The palm oil business is very controversial because of its damaging effects on the environment. Here, specifically, it had destroyed the natural habitat through deforestation, the release of toxic gas and pollution of the waters of the river, which had left many animals, including monkeys and orangutans, stranded and dead. Claiming back the riverbank land was a really nice gesture from the government in an attempt to restore an environmental balance. And the trees we planted were special, we were told – give it a couple of years and they would already be as tall as a giraffe.

When I heard there was a volleyball court nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to go there. This also gave me a chance to interact with local boys from that village. It was quite fun, but they were so much more experienced than I was and taller, so I felt like the odd one out. 😂

We also visited a cave and climbed up a hill which gave off a brilliant panoramic view of the jungle and the river snaking around it.

We took a bus to a city called Semporna, specifically famous for the amazing experience of diving and snorkeling.

And an amazing experience it was.

We floated on the water, our eyes taking in the colourful corals waving and the fish darting about. There were creatures of many shapes, sizes and colours. It was such a blissful feeling, lying there in our wet suits in the warm water, studying sea life. We were actually lucky enough to see a humongous turtle – as big as I was! I was so tempted to stroke it but we were clearly briefed by our guide that we were not to touch any forms of sea life – with the risk that we would contaminate it.

We were the only people going snorkeling in our group – the rest were divers. I was really keen to go go diving, but it was too complicated because I needed to get a license to dive which meant training with an instructor for three days and we just didn’t have the time.

Our guide was very skilled, he could manage to dive all the way down to the level of the divers and remain there for at least 10 seconds (without diving equipment – he was snorkeling like us). I attempted the challenge as well but I barely got halfway down before I gave up. He also could blow a circle of air underwater! I also attempted that, to no avail. This guy also actually managed to catch sight of a vegetarian baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) under a rock! Honestly, I swear he is a merman.

Sometimes I would hold my breath and dive down to get a closer view of the corals and fish. It was a great experience, but left me with a throbbing headache at the end.

We eventually went back to Kota Kinabalu, where we stayed in a cool capsule dorm. It didn’t feel so cool though after realising I forgot my teddy there, something I had been carrying around since I was a baby. We wrote an email to the hostel and they said they’ll try their best to return it, but never did. RIP Teddy. I’ll miss you. 😭

Our next stop was some sort of a childhood dream for my mum. There was a book she loved to read when she was younger, called Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem. It’s based on the island of Labuan, just off Borneo, so, of course, we had to take on the chance to visit it. What’s so impressive is that Salgari, the author, Italian, managed to write this book, based on a completely different culture and lifestyle which he himself had never experienced. I didn’t even know there was an island called Borneo, much less Labuan, before we came here. Reading the book with my sister, we recognised objects of interest – buffalo leeches, orangutans, durian trees etc.

Contrary to the book hero though, we didn’t do much of anything in Labuan. We did some walking around the city and across the beach.

What was unusual about this beach was that the sand was dark gold. It’s funny how things had changed – white sand used to surprise me. To be honest, I still prefer beaches with white sand – it looks so tropical and the sand is so much softer.

Walking across the beach, I noticed many little holes in the sand which, upon close inspection, we could see were made from the little crabs burrowing in and out. Something else though wowed my parents: a huge group of oil tankers, big and small were dotted about the water, plumes of smoke billowing out. Apparently, the island is one of the biggest crude oil terminal in Malaysia and the boats were there to transport it. I actually thought they ruined the view. Can we ever just enjoy the splendid view of nature without works of mankind hovering about?

Whew. And I thought my Turkey blog was long.

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