Planning a trip around the world is harder than you’d think. Dozens of flights, hotels, car rentals, trains, buses – a myriad of details to be booked (and it helps if you book them for the right dates). I’m often asked, “Do you ever make mistakes in your planning?” Well, folks, the answer is yes. And my flight to Borneo was a prime example.
There were no direct options for getting from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu but there were a number of cheap options with connections. After researching the options, I decided to fly Air Asia from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and then Malaysia Airlines on to Kota Kinabalu. All was going according to plan until I landed in Kuala Lumpur and began looking for the Malaysia Air gates for my connection.
Turns out…Kuala Lumpur has TWO airports. I flew into LCCT (which serves primarily Air Asia) and needed to fly OUT of KLIA. Now, usually I’m really good about checking to make sure connecting flights on various airlines are going into/out of the same airports, especially when dealing with discount airlines that often fly out of smaller airports. I mean, I’m well aware that most major cities have more than one airport and I swear I always double-check airport codes. Somehow this one got by me.
I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur half a dozen times and always flown in/out of KLIA, it never even crossed my mind that there was another airport. Yikes! Luckily, there was a bus that runs between the two airports and they were only about 20 minutes apart. I raced to the bus and got through security at KLIA, just in time for my flight to start boarding. Whew!! (2017 Update: Air Asia flights now go out of KLIA2 in Kuala Lumpur which is connected by airport train to the main KLIA terminal.)
Unfortunately, when I looked up at the screen for the departure gate, there was a big, fat “Canceled” listed next to my flight. Uh-oh. So, I found the Malaysia Airlines service desk and forked over my boarding pass with a humbled look of defeat. Luckily, they had already re-booked me on the next flight which was leaving only an hour later. No major harm done. But the airport switcheroo certainly gave me a scare. Here’s hoping I have my act together on the rest of my flights…perhaps an itinerary review is in order.
But on to the Borneo update! First, a little background…
Question #1: Is Borneo a country?
Technically, no. The third largest island in the world, Borneo, has 3 sovereign nations with territory on it: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is the only island in the world divided this way. Malaysian Borneo consists of two states – Sabah and Sarawak. The area I’d chosen for my visit was Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah.
The Malaysian state of Sabah, which faces the South China Sea, is a sweltering tropical Eden covered with jungle, filled with rare species of wildlife and home to Asia’s 3rd highest peak, Mount Kinabalu. As it turns out, I should have done a lot more planning for my visit to Borneo. Many of the top attractions are far from the city and require a myriad of permits and advance reservations to visit. Whoops.
But I was here and I’d make the best of it. There had to be something I could see in 3 days.
I arrived at my hotel in Kota Kinabalu (or KK to the locals), Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu, just in time to catch the end of cocktail hour in the Executive Lounge. I even managed to score another suite (here’s hoping this is a trend that will continue!). The one thing I didn’t have was a plan for my two days in Borneo. I hadn’t had time to do much research on the region but the loose itinerary I’d been formulating in my mind called for one day of beaches and one day of seeing the local wildlife.
So, because I was tired and time was limited, I did something I rarely do. I went down to the tour desk in the hotel lobby and perused the options. They had several island excursion options that included pick-up at the hotel, round-trip boat to the island, lunch, snorkeling and a little beach time for around $50 US. They also had a river cruise to see Borneo’s famous proboscis monkeys in their native mangrove habitat that sounded interesting for about the same price. Check and mate.
I bit the bullet and booked both, the beach for Day 2 and the monkey cruise for Day 3. I’m usually no fan of group tours, but I was assured by the agent that the groups were very small, just 4-5 people. And at this point, throwing a little money at the problem seemed like the best idea. So, with my 2-day plan set, I went back to my room to log on for the work day since it was now Monday morning in the States.
After very little sleep, I wasn’t as anxious to hit the beach as I thought I would be. But once I got on the boat to Mamutik Island, I got a second wind. As the boat neared the island’s dock, I knew right away that I’d made a great choice for my day.
The tiny island of Pulau Mamutik is only about a 20 minute boat ride from KK and offers some of the best snorkeling in the area. There are no hotels on the island, just tents set up in the middle to serve lunch to those on day trips. There were hardly any other people around so after walking the island to take a few pictures, I picked a spot in the sand and spent some quality time with one of the books I’d bought in Bangkok.
I did some snorkeling in the South China Sea and even tried out my underwater camera equipment for the first time. The equipment is basically just like a big Ziplock bag that seals the camera inside so you can still use the controls through the case. It worked pretty well on my clunky DSLR once I got used to it. And the smaller case I’d bought for my phone was handy as well.
After snorkeling, I went over to the tent for what turned out to be a delicious BBQ lunch and then shortly after lunch I decided to hop the boat back to town for an afternoon nap. I was anticipating another long night of e-mails during the Tuesday workday (it’s not easy working remotely and traveling the world but it definitely beats the alternative!).
I awoke from my short nap just in time for cocktail hour in the Lounge but I also wanted to take some pictures of the Night Market just across the street at dusk. As any photographer can tell you, there’s a brief span of time around dusk where the sky is this spectacular color of blue and the city lights have just come on. This is what’s referred to as the “magic hour” of light and it makes for some awesome pictures. Unfortunately, the “magic hour” for photography also coincided with the “magic hour” for free cocktails in the Lounge. I don’t think I’m being overly-dramatic here when I say it was a dilemma reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice.
I split the difference and ordered a glass of wine from the Lounge and took it back to my room for later. Then I grabbed my camera and headed out to the Night Market. The market was quite a scene with smoke emanating from grills on row after row of food stalls. At each stall was fresh seafood right off the boat and any kind of meat on a stick you could ever dream up. Each row was set up as its own little restaurant with dinner seating. You could just point to what you wanted at the end of the table and then they’d make up your plate and serve it to you. How fun!
I wandered the market for a while soaking up the atmosphere and trying a few of the food items before heading back to the hotel and calling it a night.
In Search of the Proboscis Monkey
For my last full day in Borneo, I’d booked a cruise down the Klias River which was a 2-hour drive away from KK. There were 4 people in my group (all girls) including 2 doctors from California who had just finished a medical mission in the Philippines and were now enjoying a little vacation time before heading home. It was fun to have some other Americans to talk to on the ride – sometimes I go weeks without seeing another American on these trips.
When we arrived at the river, we donned our life jackets, climbed into the boat with our guide and headed out on the river in search of monkeys.
The proboscis monkey lives almost exclusively in mangrove forests, but can also be found in lowland rain forests. They are known for their long nose and big bellies and depend on the mangroves near river edges for resting and sleeping. They avoid deforested areas and human settlements since one of their main predators is man.
Proboscis monkeys were once protected by their mangrove habitat, which was uninhabitable for people. Now that technology has made it possible to clear-cut the mangroves and fill them in, logging has caused the loss of the proboscis monkey’s habitat. In 1977 it was estimated that 6,400 proboscis monkeys remained in the wild. It is now estimated that only about 2,000 remain in the province of Sabah with another 1,000 in the nearby province of Sarawak. They are listed as an endangered species and are threatened with extinction. Since they have not survived well in captivity, the only place to see these monkeys is in their natural habitat, the rapidly disappearing mangrove forests of Borneo.
So, that’s where I found myself, in a boat speeding through the waters of a Borneo mangrove forest looking for movement in the trees. And it didn’t take long. We found our first troop of monkeys almost immediately. Proboscis monkeys live in groups called “harems” which is pretty much what it sounds like – one male with multiple females and young. (I guess being a male proboscis monkey is good work if you can get it.)
Each male will have his own harem and several of these harems often come together to form a troop. A little research revealed that females can transfer from one harem to another when young, but the harems are mostly stable. Since proboscis monkeys are not a territorial species, one group’s range will overlap that of many other groups.
And we saw many, many groups on our 2-hour ride down the river. It was fascinating to see them all in the trees and have our guide point out the male, the females and the babies. Every time we’d spot movement in the treetops, the boat would pull over and we’d just watch them eating and swinging from the branches. Unfortunately, since they were so high in the trees, it was difficult to get good pictures of them even with my zoom lens, but I did manage to get a handful of decent ones.
After the monkey hunt was over, our boat took us back to the dock where dinner was waiting. On the way back we watched the sun set and the bats come out overhead by the dozen in search of dinner.
After another good meal, it was time to get back in the boat for the final event of the night – a cruise to see the fireflies. It was pitch black on the river by this time and it was more than a little eerie to be cruising down this wild river in the blackness of night. It was beautiful though, to see the trees outlined by thousands of tiny fireflies – almost as if someone had hung white Christmas lights throughout every tree. Amazing, yes, but virtually impossible to capture on film…and believe me, I tried. As we sat in the darkness our driver would flash a beam of light every few minutes to let other boats know our position (swell idea) making the whole event very Blair Witch.
Finally, we made it back to the dock and hopped back in the van for the 2-hr drive back to the hotel. It was a fantastic day and I feel like I got a good look at Borneo between my two excursions. I’d love to be able to go back someday and actually hike Mount Kinabalu or explore Sarawak. Borneo has so much to offer if you have the time to plan ahead.
Tomorrow, I’m on to Brunei!