A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
We’re invited to dinner with the Hi (prounounced Hee) family. Driving past the botanic gardens and national orchid garden with its 1000 species on the way there I really wish I could go in. We’re obviously in the upper end of town because all the homes here are gated and free standing. As we pull into the driveway I notice three Mercedes and an in-ground pool. Mr and Mrs Hi have been bestowed the prestigious titles of Datok and Dating which I think are a bit like Lord and Lady and reserved for people who have made a bucket-load of money. They must be wondering what happened to us when we arrived looking bedraggled and exhausted from travel and our colds (there should be another name for this in the tropics). Lachie falls asleep on their couch. Dinner at a restaurant at the six story shopping mall Great World City though, was sensational. The highlights being the shark fin and crab soup, along with roast pork and roast duck. Still in need of rest, I make an excuse to leave early to take the kids back to Pearls Centre and their beds leaving Nani to enjoy the company who all communicate in Foo Chow. There’s only so much nodding and smiling one can do when one doesn’t speak the lingo no matter how appreciative of their generosity.
Christmas is a laid back affair which I love. We had decided to celebrate with Nani’s side of the family on Christmas Eve because we were intending to catch up with my side Christmas Day, but sadly they felt it best with our coughs and colds, to not expose my elderly grandmother so we won’t be seeing them this trip (one of my main reasons for going to Singapore). John has booked the function room at his River Valley Rd condo alongside the three pools, sauna, spa and downstairs from the gym. Luxury. Honey baked ham with scored fat and a little clove in each square made by the scoring glistens invitingly. The turkey tastes smoked and while a little dry is very tasty. This complimented by hainan chicken, satay and topped off with trifle (yes trifle!) makes for an east meets west fusion Christmas dinner.
The kids after being inspired by The Karate Kid were doing the usual moves on each other and having a wrestle, but were all being told by well-meaning adults to either stop it or be careful. I told one mum that as long as our kids don’t bleed or break bones we didn’t mind them bashing each other up a little – it’s all part of growing up isn’t it? It appears this behavior is off limits to Singaporean kids and she replies she didn’t fancy a trip to the hospital tonight. One child was even told to be careful sitting on a fitness ball. It was annoying that the kids couldn’t really be kids and I end up telling Nani that the next person who says “Be careful!” was going to get it. The words were barely out and a shortish lady with a brown top and short hair (looking somewhat Filipino) said to one of the kids “Be careful!” I mutter into her ear that I have to shoot the brown-bloused lady now. Apparently rough housing is not the Singaporean way but the way I figure it you can mend broken bones and stitch up cuts, but raising kids to be afraid of getting hurt is something much harder to fix.
I’m trying to book this train to Kuala Lumpur for boxing day and not having much luck. I’ve registered online with the Malaysian transport website KTM Berhad and it’s telling me that there are five seats available, but when I jump through all the online hoops, the final step tells me they don’t accept online bookings less that 48 hours before the journey. WHAT?!?! I finally find a phone number that someone will answer and they tell me there’s no seats left. But there are online I say. They repeat that there aren’t any. I say well what about tonight? Can I book the night train? She says that she can’t sell me tickets, but there are berths available if I just rock up at Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore (about 45 minutes away) I should be able to get on. I’m thinking, so I’m supposed to get two boys and their packs to Woodlands by 11pm tonight and maybe, hopefully, possibly get a ticket? I’m starting to get frustrated. I have been so looking forward to going cross country to Kuala Lumpur off the bitumen and through the country side by train due to some nostalgic idealism that train travel would somehow be quaint and going clickety clack rolling through the Malaysia would be a great segue to the fishing day that we’d planned there. Brother in law John confirmed my thoughts. I would have to coach it instead. I conceded that it was still better than flying. Yes it is only and hour and fifteen by plane, but it seems so surgical and artificial. Ground travel gives time to absorb, to think and reflect. To really leave one place and arrive in another.
While all this is going on, it’s Christmas day and where else would Nani be than shopping? She puts in a five hour effort today. Looking for what and buying what is anyone’s guess. I suppose she figures that she’ll make hay while the sun shines – not many people get to shop on Christmas Day after all. I wonder how things would go down if I went fishing on Christmas Day, but I don’t dare to find out. Call me under-the-thumb – call me whatever you like, but experiments like these are best left to either the more daring, the more stupid or both. She has been saying that she doesn’t know how she will cope coming home to Tasmania because she’s gotten so used to being able to buy whatever she wants to eat, whenever she wants it.
Nani regales her horrified family with tales of how dangerous it was to visit Bako National Park and warned them against being there. She said the boat she traveled on was virtually un-seaworthy. She mentions how it got so bad the boatman ordered her pack off and life jacket on and how the waves were so big her small boat almost capsized. She claims that tour guides don’t book people to Bako during monsoon because it’s so dangerous – and that’s just getting there. Once there she claims the jetty is crumbling and she almost fell through. Crazy monkeys with fangs like “this” (demonstrating on her own face with a couple of index fingers how big the incisors are) and poisonous vipers hanging from every tree not to mention the sting rays. She goes on to tell the spell bound audience that “no-one goes to Sandakan” (not sure how she knows this) and claims that the men on every street corner with dark skin who stared at her until she was out of sight were in fact pirates. At what point pirates jump ship to sit on street corners and leer at Chinese girls is anyone’s guess, but there you have it. I’m annoyed and interject claiming that they’re great places to go and not to listen to her. I had booked the itinerary after much reading and discussing with other travelers and had good reason to be in those places. She switches to mandarin and finishes the story in a language I don’t understand. I resign to being misrepresented but also with some satisfaction that no-one would listen to Nani tell stories about the good times she had shopping at ViVo, Ion, Far East Plaza or Great World City mega malls. At least I’d given her tales to tell – and tales that grow taller with the passage of time.
Being our last night Ik Hui has really bent over backwards to try and check off a couple of things I’d mentioned we’d like to do whilst in Singapore so we’re off to the luxury Marina Bay Sands to watch the water show Wonder Full. On Singapore’s famous waterfront a couple of times each night is an amazing celebration of life using light projection, multimedia, sound, lasers, sprays and jets of water. Sitting together on the steps we are wowed by the display together with a few hundred others in the warm night air. The back drop of Singapore city was equally picturesque. I watch as our children jump up to try and grab illuminated bubbles floating past and failed to make them sit down. There is something about bubbles that are magnetic to children isn’t there? After the show, people were slow to leave. While it was crowded, it seems that the beauty and wonder of the show somehow united our humanity and we were connected by a common experience and the emotion generated.
Singapore may be a place geared entirely around making money the most efficiently as possible. Its benevolent oligarchy has ensured that anyone who gets an education and works hard has the opportunity to be wealthy, live in a condo and employ a maid. In the little spare time that families have, the two national past times of eating out (which can be done incredibly cheaply) and shopping in the latest and greatest malls are pursued with passion but it’s the constant kaching-kaching of Asia’s cash register that actually allows them to put on amazing free displays like the one we just saw and develop one of the world’s most beautiful waterfronts – just because they can.
After the show we slowly walk to Cold Rock for an ice-cream (the one where you choose the flavor and lollies you’d like smashed into it) and wander past Fendi, Armani, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. I wish I could tell you that these were people we met on the way but I can’t. Chrome and glass and the polished tiles refract and reflect light coming from every direction in this luxury shopping area. At some point, Nani can resist no more and walks into Tiffany & Co for a quick look. I don’t understand why. Bemused, I try and shout through the closing bullet proof glass doors as she darts in that I’d already got her a Tiffany ring but she appears not to hear. I had visited a diamond mine in the Northern Territory of Australia a few years earlier and bought a champagne diamond. Together we trawled the Tiffany website and selected a beautiful white gold diamond ring, printed the design off and sent it all to my aunty in Singapore a jeweler who had it made to size and sent it back. All this to replace the original diamond engagement ring I’d bought Nani after proposing. She lost this one within ten months of being married – it’s loss presumably contributed to by the fact that she considered it more a grain of sand than the “rock” she was hoping for. But the replacement – this counts as a Tiffany ring doesn’t it? Evidently not, because Nani says one day she wants to get something from Tiffany in that little blue box. I wonder to myself if those boxes can be bought on Ebay.
Abbey has a fever and is listless and hot to touch but she says she’s cold. It’s nearly time to leave Sandakan so we pack and then I scoop her floppy little moist hot body off the bed and sit her on the dunny. Then I start up the shower on lukewarm and begin hosing her down. She seems to like it but afterward says she’s feeling cold.
I don’t have kiddy Panadol so I jump online to find the dosage. 15mg per kilo of body weight. I ask the boys how much she weighs and they reckon around 25kg so one 500mg tablet should be more than enough. She stalls and doesn’t agree to take it and wants time to think about it. I’m a bit whatever. If she wants to sweat it out she can. If I make an issue of it she’ll start to whine and then probably spit it up anyway. I offer her a lolly and break a tablet up in some water and add a little sugar. Eventually she takes it and gets it all down. The waiting game works.
We check out of Winho Lodge B&B and aside from our room being as small as a prison cell and the floor being rather sticky and the bathroom not very clean, we’ve had free wifi, breakfast provided, 24 hr air con, TV (2 channels) and the use of their computer all for 80 rm per night. Bargain. Our driver Faris whose people are the Sungai (river) picks us up along with Tom the German (would that make it Thom?) who climbed Mt Kinabalu up and down in a day and drives us the 2.5 hours south to Sukau Kampong where we are to stay the night on the banks of the legendary Kinabatangan River the second longest in Borneo.
On the way he pulls up at what looks like the Malaysian equivalent of a 7/11. It’s a grocery shop that sells freshly baked goodies sweet and savory, fried fishballs and chicken, rice things steamed in banana leaf and Kuih (my favorite is the soft chewy green pancake wrapped around gula Melaka coconut filling. Outside the front door three or four hawkers are selling steamed corn in eskies. Next to them a little girl around 5 or 6 years old is selling mangoes and rambutan. I assume belonging to her parents but I can’t see them. I buy four mangoes and a bag of rambutan while Nani gets a big tray of goodies. I get so excited I photograph it at the register.
The only excitement on the 2.5 hr run through to Sukau is seeing two trucks run off the road being retrieved. Along the way is wall to wall palm oil trees and the associated industry (plantations named “prolific yield palm oil industries” etc) trucks laden with seed and tankers. One plantation has electric fencing and signs of one man pointing a rifle at another man surrendering. Apparently it’s open season on trespassers.
The road gets worse until we slowly trundle through Kampong Sukau and past beautiful (I use this word in the nostalgic sense) ramshackle little wooden houses on stilts, yellow skinny dogs, blokes in nothing but shorts hang out around little hawker stalls, feet up smoking cigarettes next to tiny grocery shops with various packets all pegged up along the front and we finally reach Green View Lodge.
After a quick rest and a cup of tea in the restaurant it’s off for our dusk safari. We are joined by a group of students who as it turns out are Aussies. It seems wherever we go they keep turning up. This time from a private school in the mid south coast hinterland. They were a bit noisy and I would have preferred to soak up the peace of the jungle but on the whole they were pretty well behaved and at times somewhat funny.
The river looks about 200m wide and is brown, turbid and slow flowing carrying clumps of plants, sticks and logs toward the sea. On the banks are water bottles tied in two’s as floats for prawn traps. Bamboo fish traps are placed along the bank that are the same funnel design and simple constructions that have been used for centuries by the people of the region.
Our Yamaha 15 and 25HP four strokes purr gently but powerfully as they deftly propel our long fiberglass boats. We see white and purple herons before the kids find a group of ivory hornbills the size of black cockatoos feeding on some fruit in a tree. As we watch they fly at the fruit, expertly grab one in mid air and alight on a branch before trying to toss it back like a tequila slammer. Numerous times they miss and the small round fruit falls to the ground. I realize they are expert at grabbing these in flight because they must get a lot of practice. I’m glad I have lips.
We pull up and watch a group of long tail (crab eating) macaques playing in a tree. Up and down they race, pulling on each others tails, leaping, falling but always grabbing something to break their fall. One humps another on the ground but I think they’re just playing too. I wonder if they ever miss and fall into the water and get whacked by one of the crocs that haunt this river.
I’m grateful when we move on because I’ve seen plenty of macaques. I’m really desperate to see wild proboscis and most of all the “man of the forest” the Orang Utan and the Malaysian elephant that were spotted about three days prior.
In the distance I spot a proboscis monkey but too far away to really see. The guide says we will see more in a half hour or so because they nest near the water. Turning up a narrow tributary with thick jungle either side we find a troupe at the waters edge in the overhanging canopy. Everyone is still making noise and the visible ones turn their backs, move a couple of meters and are so good at hiding they simply and quietly disappear from view. The proboscis is much shyer than the macaques and the noisy Aussie students learn the hard way.
We find another troupe feeding and watch them in silence for a long time stuffing their faces with leaves. We are told they have two stomachs – one for poisonous leaves, the other for regular foliage. The monkeys have long grey legs and tail, light browny orange backs and become more intensely orange around their heads. The females have a short comical pointy pink Pinocchio nose. The alpha males look even more comedic. They have a strong muscular backside, a huge beer gut and their nose is long and bulbous. But it’s the way they sit that makes them look really funny. One foot up, the other dangling down, legs wide open, leaning back with a huge gut stuffing their faces with their old fella proudly on display. It is this look that earned them the nickname “Dutchman” by the locals.
The alpha male has up to 20 females in his harem and is the most shy of all of them keeping mainly out of view. Apparently their prowess encourages the Chinese to hunt and eat them for their aphrodisiac properties. I would be shy too.
We stop and watch another troupe of macaques but in the distance I see a tree shaking and branches moving. It is an orang utan building a nest to sleep in but we can’t see it. We watch straining our eyes but it settles down and we don’t get to see it. These solitary primates that are some 97% similar to us genetically can build up to five nests a day. I’m disappointed I didn’t see it.
Some wild pigs come down to the water to drink warily. The adult sow sniffs at us and looks agitated. This is when crocs have the best chance at fresh pork. Colorful kingfishers take flight low across the water as we approach.
On our return an enormous barge being pushed by a junk carries two big fully laden lorries down the river.
A delicious buffet dinner was served by the Green View crew of rice, stir fried beef, fried beans, curried veggies (melon, pumpkin or sweet potato, green chilli, and tomato) fried beans, and spicy omelet followed by some canned fruit and jelly. We’re hungry so we bolt our food and go back for more except for Abbey. She is still pretty sick and lays across two dining chairs but she’s not complaining and I’m grateful for this.
We are alone for the still warm and moonless night safari and the guides
shine a powerful spotlight up and back sweeping the waters edge and up into the canopy as we glide along the now dark river. A large fishing owl has caught its dinner and holds the fish in one talon and a branch in another. It must be blinded by our light and spreads its wings to get out of the way. As we continue down the river I’m desperate to see some of the Bornean mammals – tarsier, clouded leopard, flying lemur but I settle for a very small croc, a stork bill kingfisher, an uncommon black capped kingfisher, and sleeping proboscis monkeys.
Suddenly our visibility is cut as thick fog rolls in. The guide says “too much fok. We go back”. I’m disappointed that we didn’t see as much as I thought we would, but glad that we were getting Abbey to bed – she desperately needs the rest and we are waking at 5.40 for the dawn safari. The guides warily shine spotlights ahead in the mist to dodge oncoming logs weaving their way back to our jetty where allegedly crocs like to hang out.
Because we’re not really up to speed on Malay food and usually eat Chinese hawker food (Nani being chinese can’t get enough chinese food) but it’s a bit harder to find in Sandakan downtown so we wing it. My grandmother is a Nonya who fused chinese and malay food and is an amazing cook (her recipe book was recently published) so I at least know some dishes.
We order our lunch:
Nasi Lalap is a crispy skin chicken and rice dish served with cucumber and a delicious chilli, ginger, lime and what tastes like laksa leaf dipping sauce.
Mee rojak is a cold yellow noodle dish with loads of spicy satay sauce with crunchy cucumber, fried bean curd and prawn crackers sprinkled on top.
Bakso is a bee hoon style noodle soup with beef balls.
Char Kway Teow (we eat this a lot) is a flat rice noodle stir fried with a slight charred flavor with chicken and prawns and a silky gravy.
After our first night eating at the waterfront we find a shopping center three stories high called Genting Mas. Nani switches straight into shopping mode and she’s going to cover this sucker from top to bottom. I drag my carcass as far as the second floor but am overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of merchandise on the shelves leaving very little room to move around other shoppers. I go all sensory overload. All I want is some hair bands for Abbey. I notice a sign near the escalator that said “No Spitting” with a great demonstration on how not to do it. Next to this is a photocopies sign saying “No Photograph” so I take a sneaky pic – for posterity.
Finding a bench to sit on with the little one, I sit while the boys free range and the mother who is a shopping machine goes to work. Presently we are surrounded by a group of urchins- two girls (around five) and a little boy of maybe four. The girls are really pretty, one with dimples and long silky hair, the other with curly hair. We all start high fiving and asking names. The little boy had a nasty habit of driving his index finger into the girls crutches so I warned Abbey about this. They follow downstairs and help carry our groceries, passing through the check out with us and into the street. We walk a little ways and they follow. We aren’t really sure where they belong, or to whom.
The next night back at the waterfront, we’re ordering our food and the girls come round the corner, this time with a new friend. They stop for only long enough to introduce her to us and keep moving down to a hawker stall where loud pop music is playing and start dancing. Our kids are fascinated giving us updates – “they’re dancing with a pot plant now Dad!” We still have no idea who they belong to.
After a diet of noodles and rice, Lachie, sorely lacking in fibre, has returned from the toilet at WinHo to announce that he couldn’t flush it down. He’s basically given birth to a foot long brown sea cucumber that lurks menacingly in the bowl stubbornly refusing all efforts to get him down . The hideous monster survived 24 hours the flushing of our family of five before it gave up it’s foothold and retreated presumably back out to sea to where it belonged.
The stores in town close (reminds me of home) pretty early but a market thrives at the bus station amidst the chaos and diesel fumes selling all kinds of things. I feel the need for more mangoes, rambutan, durian and bananas. On the way to get some durian I had asked the taxi driver if he eats it and he nods enthusiastically. I ask how much do they cost – berapa? He says he doesn’t know. Go figure?!
It’s not easy to engage people and ask for directions. English is pretty scarce here so my wonderful, resourceful (and talented) wife gives up on English and picking out Chinese from Malays she chats to them in Mandarin or Cantonese to find where to eat or shop. This works pretty well. I’m guessing that because it’s a bit off the beaten track, there isn’t much need to speak to foreigners or use English – but the fact that it is off the beaten track (lonely planet trail) I think is what makes it attractive to me.
I’m starting to wonder why foreigners are charged double prices? I’m not talking about being ripped off, I mean admission fees and the like. There’s a price for foreigners and a price for locals. I wonder if Malaysians would like it if they traveled abroad and had to pay double or triple to get in places.
I missed having a bum hose at WinHo and realise I’m pretty much sold on them. They really get into there and make it spotless. A little dab with dunny paper to dry off is icing on the cake (or cellulose on the coit if you like). You just have to watch the high pressure ones and clench up a little, unless you want a colonic irrigation. I’m confident I can rig something up back home.
Sandakan is a pretty laid back place. It seems a bit of a port town to me. It’s easy to walk the length and breadth of downtown and The Heritage trail is a great walk and well put together. Nani reckoned that she was stared at too much which unnerved her and Lachie said the random blokes who squat on every street corner smoking and following us with their eyes didn’t make him feel safe, but I felt fine. At one point a young bloke actually laughed at me. When I raised my eyebrows, he said “so tall!” Apparently being 6’2″ is funny?
Lachie confided in me the little Genting Mas boy got him in the bum.
We argue on the side of the road and I send the kids around the corner so they don’t have to hear it. The kids have pissed Nani off all morning with various antics but mainly because she wrote our hostel address on pieces of paper in case they got lost and they thought it was silly. Then I got in trouble because I hadn’t taught them to respect her properly. I offer to take them on a walk and she can have some down time but she wants to come. I’m worried that if she comes she’s going to be a bear with a sore head and it will ruin something I’ve looked forward to for months. “So it’s all about you then?” she’s says. Now I’m getting pissed off and there aren’t going to be any winners here. She says that she will calm down if I sort the kids out and keep them on a leash – if they die it’s your fault kind of thing. I agree and we patch things up a bit.
Up the 100 steps we go (the kids count around 121) alomg the Sandakan Heritage trail and out of the concrete jungle to Agnes Keith House on the hill. I had read the beautiful story The Land Beneath the Winds and loved reading about pre war Sandakan and her story as wife of Conservator of Forests Harry Keith. I had read snippets of the book to the children months ago.
Here are my thoughts on our visit to Agnes Keith House
We walk through the English Tea Garden after hearing a peacock calling and crossed the croquet lawn to investigate. We found a male peacock. Apparently he had a girlfriend but she got sick and was taken away to recuperate. He and I both have woman problems I guess.
Back down the hill and we’re at Sandakan Museum. It’s a funny museum because aside from recreated palm, bamboo, rattan traditional model houses from various tribes there wasn’t much to see. Most of it was reading posters about adventurers, hunters and explorers Martin and Osa Johnson who explored much of Borneo. It was exciting though looking at photos of their journeys up and down the mighty Kinabatangan River and all the tribes and wildlife they encountered.
My tourist map is about A6 size so I have trouble finding the chinese Sam Sing Kung temple the oldest building in Sandakan. I know I’m near it but feel like I’m circling a bit. Near the sports ground a bunch of kids – most likely illegal immigrants’ children, are playing soccer. We join in and make it Australian Socceroos v Malaysia for a penalty shoot out. Lachie bangs the first one home and we defend a few corners well, but fittingly they prevail and we wave goodbye spying the temple at the back of the soccer ground.
We take our shoes off and shelter from the burning sun inside the temple. There is a dour lady selling incense and fake money to be burned and she seems to hesitate before a cursory nod. I disable flash photography – it doesn’t seem appropriate and I try and capture a sense of the place. It does seem a little dark and mysterious. It seems to be more of an ancestral worship temple more than just worshipping Buddha. I sit for a bit of a rest and a think but Nani wants to go. She says the incense smoke is getting into her lungs. I have a sniff and it doesn’t seem too bad but don’t want mama bear back so we move on.
Across the road we negotiate a teksi to the War Memorial. This is main reason for my being in Sandakan. I have been captivated by the plight of the 1500 or so Aussie POWs stationed here during WWII (some 900 British soldiers were with them). The memorial is a large park beautifully designed at the location of the original camp. Some original artifacts still remain. A central building tells the shocking stories of brutality, attempted escapes, the cage, work on the airfields and the death marches. Of all the soldiers that were in Sandakan only the six Aussies that escaped into the jungle during the death marches survived to tell the story.
I think that of the men who did not arrive, they were all shot. Those who could not march in the morning would fall out and go to a spot when we moved out, after which we could hear shots all the time. Chaps who dropped out of the march would be accompanied by a guard who would come on later, alone … In the morning, when the men were too weak to stand, we used to shake hands with them and say goodbye as they more or less knew what was going to happen.
Aussie spirit does shine through though. One POW said he determined to get out of his bunk each day to try and annoy at least one Jap. He says he would never let them win and that even though they beat his body, they won’t break his heart or mind. Others sabotaged the constructions they were put to work on. Tools and supplies mysteriously disappeared. Crews that had to dig out unexploded bombs weighing up to 500 pounds while guards would take cover. They would put lifting logs under them and ‘accidentally’ stagger towards the guards who would yell and point where to take them.
The kids are very sad and deeply affected as they read the accounts, and quotes and watch a slide show of the faces of the POWs. Lachie says he doesn’t want to visit Japan anymore and Oscar is angry. He says he wants to fight someone. I try and explain the best I can.
Back at the entrance, we take a minute silence – Lest We Forget.
On the way back into the city we stop the taxi driver to buy Durian. I don’t really know any westerners that can handle this fruit. The saying goes that it “smells like hell tastes like heaven” but most foreigners think it smells like shit so forego the tasting. The roadside hawker sniffs a good one out and overcharges us before hacking the thorny green outer rind open with a cleaver and deftly transferring the yellow custardy flesh covered seeds into a polystyrene tray. I try and hold the bag tightly to avoiding stinking out the teksi but it’s not possible. We get dropped off at another memorial in town (most buildings ban durian) and stuff our faces. The smaller two reckoned that they didn’t want to eat it but they have a go and end up asking for more.
After a dinner of steamed whole fish, belacan kang kong and Tom Yum soup at the waterfront we wander back to the square outside the museum as the churches of Sandakan have a Christmas celebration. St Mary’s choir are fairly serious and Calvary Charismatic have a lively drama in Malay – something about Sunday Christians not being very committed and then some real deal Christian with a samurai sword turns up and turns the heat up on everyone including the devil (wearing a Slayer T-shirt). Our favorite is the little kids from Sandakan Baptist. They’re really cute. Our kids were given balloons and a little gift box of cakes. Sitting on the ground listening to some carols was a great way to spend the night.
For me, the temple was a bit of a dark and grim place. The christmas concert was bright and happy and told of Jesus love. The war memorial, sandwiched in between was absolutely heart wrenching. I wonder where those poor diggers thought God was, or did they think they were already in hell? Then I decide not to think about it because these kind of questions never seem to have a satisfactory answer.
Reading through my Lonely Planet Guide Borneo, I was fascinated to find out about Agnes Keith who lived in Sabah between the 1930’s – 1950’s. An American author married to the British conservator of forests she wrote various books about her experiences there between 1934 to 1952, including one about being a P.O.W in Borneo during the war, with her toddler son. The whole family survived and she wrote the story Three Came Home about that experience – subsequently made into a film by 20th Century Fox
I put a request through to the local library and was captivated reading her book Land Beneath the Winds about Sabah – being a land sheltered from trade winds by neighboring Philippines.
Today we visited Agnes Keith House in Sandakan, which was bombed and then rebuilt after the Keith’s returned from internment near Kuching at the end of the war.
Theirs is a wonderful inviting story very different from the imperial colonial story of outsiders coming in and trying to change everyone to their ways. They embraced and loved the local people and went on long treks into the interior to document and learn about the people, flora and fauna of Sabah.
Agnes was brutally beaten in the Japanese prison in Kuching and suffered from her broken bones. I read somewhere that other prisoners had observed she had kept to herself a little and had tried to ingratiate herself to the Japanese but that they had understood because she was trying to protect her toddler George.
She kept diary notes on tiny scraps of paper. These were hidden in cans and buried. Sometimes she would wake in the night and rebury them in safer places. Other notes were sewn into George’s stuffed toys. Her ration was a bowl of gruel and 70g of rice in the last months before liberation and took a year in British Columbia to recover before rejoining Harry in Sandakan who rebuilt their “Newlands” two story bungalow while she wrote the story “Three Came Home”. After her return to Sandakan she penned “White Man Returns”.
I could say so much more about how they met at Berkley University, how she was bashed by a drug addict as a young journalist and lost sight of her eyes for months, how they mourned the loss of one of their beloved Murut servants’ babies but tried without success to get them to receive medical assistance, the cheeky Murut boy Usit, the animals they raised and nursed back to health, her beautiful drawings and their travels.
Unfortunately I’m not allowed to photograph inside – not sure why but it’s the same at the Sandakan Museum, but we will all remember the pictures conjured up in our minds of their extraordinary time here in Borneo and I’m going to try and get a copy of the other books I haven’t read yet and devour them with the kids.
Well here is the rough draft after much reading, surfing the net, reading forums, asking for advice and listening to podcasts.
At this stage there’s not much that we’re doing that requires us to lock in early, now that we’ve decided against climbing Mt Kinibalu so we can be fairly flexible.
1. Kuching 8 NIGHTS. Nani has a wedding dinner to attend here so we can’t shorten the time here in Sarawak. Having said that, it’s not hard to fill it in. We’ll visit Semmenggoh NP to check out the orang utan rehabilitation. We’ll do this in Sepilok as well, but at Semmenggoh apparently you get closer and on the odd occasion not many turn up so we’re hedging our bets between the two centres. The Sarawak cultural village and museum will be touristy but no doubt be really educational and I love learning new stuff.
Bako NP is an amazing place from all reports with loads of walks and it’s a great place to see the Proboscis monkeys early morning and evening. Apparently they’re quite shy so the kids will have to be in stealth mode. Because there’s so many walks there, and it’s a bit hard to get to (bus and boat) I reckon we’ll stay at least one or two nights in the park, although the accommodation is a bit sketchy from reviews. I’d suggest booking early rather than late, as it starting to book out months in advance.
Tattoos. I’m thinking seriously about getting some tribal ink in Kuching. International award winning Iban tattooist Ernesto Kalum (Borneo headhunter) is there, who’s recognised globally as being a leading tribal tattooist who also uses the traditional method. That’s the needle on the stick and bang with another stick method. I’m fairly sure the traditional method sounds a bit…. slow and maybe more painful than the machine, but the emails I’ve had from his offsider suggests it heals faster than machine – but I might just stick to what I know.
When I’m freshly inked I think we’ll check out the Santubong area north of Kuching and climb the mountain, do some walks, visit the fishing village nearby, grab a couple of kayaks and maybe stay in the Permai tree house for a night with the kids. How cool would that be?
Optionally (because we’ve got around eight nights in Kuching while waiting for a wedding dinner) is to head to Serian for a day trip where apparently there are some really nice waterfalls there.
2. Mulu. 3 NIGHTS. We’ll fly from Kuching to Mulu and stay at the Gunung Mulu NP for a few nights while we visit the famed caves there, dig around in the batshit and watch them fly out at night, look for carnivorous plants that might eat one or two of the kids and millipedes as big as your foot. I might even take the 10 year old and hike the Pinnacles which is a three day two night jungle trek with the last part hoisting yourself up rope ladders, which sounds like a great challenge.
3. Sandakan. 4 NIGHTS. We’ll then fly to Sandakan via KK and check out Sepilok Orang Utan rehab centre and then check in to Uncle Tan’s jungle camp. Apparently spartan but it’s on the Kinibatangan River which is the most densely populated wildlife place in East Malaysia so our chances of seeing elephants, orang utan, and proboscis monkeys will be great.
I’m really keen to do the historic walk in Sandakan and visit the war memorial and tell the kids about the 1400 aussie diggers that were killed on the death marches there by the Japanese in World War II. Only six, who escaped and were looked after by villagers survived. I’m going to pay my respects. Agnes Keith house will be fascinating too. She was an American author, who along with her husband and toddler, survived the brief occupation in a prison camp in Kuching and wrote about her experiences living in Sabah.
4. Mt Kinibalu. 2 NIGHTS. I don’t like the idea of flying everywhere. It’s disjointed from the landscape and gives a false sense of distance and time, so from Sandakan to KK we’ll go by coach. That way we can slow things down, and be forced to wait, watch, anticipate, rest, talk and think about what we’re doing. It will give us a perspective perhaps on the 250km march to Ranau that the diggers did through the jungle, some in barefeet. Stopping at Mt Kinibalu NP we’ll stay from a couple of nights and do some of the great walks in the area and get a good view of SE Asia’s highest peak.
5. Poring Hot Springs 1 NIGHT. After hopefully covering a few kilometers at Mt Kinibalu , we’ll head across to Poring Hot Springs nearby and soak in them and do some walks there and relax for a night. I think the kids will really like it here and we’ll probably stay outside of the park. There are some nice waterfalls to visit as well.
6. Kota Kinibalu 2 NIGHTS. After that we’ll finish up in Kota Kinibalu, the capital of Sabah (it used to be Sandakan before it was bombed to oblivion by the Japanese), where I’m dying to try the Filipino night market barbeque and visit the Tunku Abdul Rahman chain of islands to snorkel, swim and relax on the beaches before jumping on a plane and heading back to KL via Singapore.
We really want to be able to relax and take our time to absorb culture and a sense of place as we move through East Malaysia, so we will consciously resist the sense of “I’ve got to see as much as I can because we’ve spent so much to get here” which can easily suck you in. The harder you push with kids, the less enjoyable things are.
We’ve got relatives in Singapore and since we’re in the area, we thought we’d stop over there on the way back to KL for several nights. I’m not keen on this leg of the trip because I’m not a fan of the concrete jungle, but I’ve drawn up a bit of an itinerary that will hopefully be relaxing and enjoyable with the kids whilst steering clear of Orchard Rd and avoiding affluenza like the plague.
Any thoughts about our itinerary? Anything we could cut out or should maybe add in? I’m still agonizing about booking internal flights because I’m really not sure how long to stay in each place. Once again – a victim of procrastination.