Friday, July 23, 2010

Malaysian Borneo - Swingin' in Sandakan

The mere mention of Borneo, as the Lonely Planet says, conjures up a host of vivid images: thick jungle teeming with wildlife, wild rivers flowing through tunnels of overhanging trees, orangutans swinging through forest canopy, craggy mountains soaring above the steamy lowlands, and remote longhouses inhabited by the descendants of head hunters.  Incredibly, all of these images are accurate.  You'll find this and more in Malaysian Borneo, but what is surprising are the prosperous cities  with first class resorts, efficient public transport, and an extensive network of paved roads.  Borneo - the world's 4th largest island, is located just east of peninsular Malaysia and is made up of two countries: Malaysia in the north and Indonesia in the south.

 I needed to find somewhere to occupy my time for the next week and a half until Jacob and I meet up so I decided to head to the northern state of Sabah in Borneo.  A nature lover's paradise, Sabah is the place to see some of Borneo's famed wildlife.  It's also home to one of the world's best dive sites, the uninhabited island of Palau Sipadan - a massive coral fringed oceananic pinnacle in the Celebes Sea.  But, the main reason I came to Borneo was to climb the craggy peaks of Mt. Kinabalu, the 13,435 foot freak of a mountain that dominates Borneo's northern landscape with its twin granite peaks. 

After researching the ridiculous bureaucratic requirements involved with climbing the mountain (apparently people book a permit as early as 1 year in advance), I decided to first fly to Sandakan, a city four hours east of the mountain to spend more time figuring out how to reserve a permit to climb.  Since I only had 10 days time before I flew out of Borneo to meet Jacob, timing was an issue.

Sandankan is a city with an interesting past.  It was once a thriving port heavily involved in the timber industry that depleted much of northern Borneo's forestry.  Surprisingly, Sandakan used to be the home of the world's highest concentration of millionaires.  This is no longer the case as I would find out from a local that befriended me at the airport.
I arrived in Sandakan late at night, not exactly sure of how I would get to the town center.  After I got off the plane, I ended up talking to a local guy from Sandakan that lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur.  He asked me how I was getting to town and I said I'd probably take the bus.  He insisted that he and his family give me a ride into town.  I was hesitant at first, but when I met his elderly mother and the rest of his family, I felt a bit more comfortable. 

CT, as he liked to be called was a Chinese Malaysian and had been educated in London.  He spoke with a British accent, which I never expected to hear coming from a Chinese guy.  It appeared CT's family had profited substantially from the logging industry since he along with his three brothers had all been educated in England.  CT explained that he owned his own business in KL, but was visiting home to see his sick father in the hospital.

CT dropped me off at a hostel in the city center and walked inside to make sure the place looked ok.  He gave me his card and told me he'd be happy to show me around the town after he visited his father the next day.  I thanked him for his offer and the ride and he left.

The next day, I visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, one of only four orangutan sanctuaries in the world.  At 10 AM each day, they feed the orangs a tray full of........(you'll never guess)................bananas and milk, what a surprise.  It was an awesome experience to see these endearing and freakishly human-like creatures up close (especially since I was still bitter about my like of animal sitings in Taman Negara).  Their movements are clearly that of a primate's, but their facial expressions make it seem that they clearly have some emotional intelligence. 

The rehab center's goal is to take injured and orphaned orangs and nurse them back to health.  This involves training them how to climb and find food on their own, which I thought would obviously be instinctive.  Surprisingly, baby orangs must be taught to climb and find food and if their mothers aren't around to teach them, they won't survive on their own.  Some orangs in the center take as long as 10 years before they are capable of surviving on their own and others never even leave.  But, in my opinion, and with my vast knowledge about orangutan habits, I think the link between humans and orangutans is even closer than we know.  The situation is similar to our welfare system in that there are always those orangutans that exploit the program and live off the government cheese or in this case, free milk and bananas.  So apparently, political issues exist even in the confines of an orangutan sanctuary. 
Government Cheese

Later that day, I received a call at the hostel from CT to go for lunch and a tour of the city.  CT took me to lunch where I was introduced to some local food that included chicken and deer satay, which is basically schiscobobs with some fresh peanut sauce.  We also tried a cool dessert made of partially frozen milk, fresh fruit, jelly, and strangely, soy beans - an interesting, but tasty mix.  CT refused to let me pay for lunch and I thanked him graciously.  We later drove all over the city where he pointed out where he grew up and the areas that were heavily developed for the logging industry.  CT explained how the town was essentially a wild, rugged cowboy town back in the boom days where rough uneducated men suddenly became rich by stumbling into the logging business. 

Shortly after the the timber industry took off, the town began to rapidly develop and expand with huge hotels, casinos, bars, and night clubs - hence the highest concentration of millionaires.  This is all much different than it looks today though.  Once the timber started to run out and the government finally stepped in by putting restrictions on the industry, the town began to burn out.  Today, Sandakan is a faded boom town with many abandoned and dilapidated buildings.  Not exactly the most charming city, but travelers mostly use it as a base camp for outdoor related excursions.

Some Spaniards and I with CT
Later that night, I met CT along with some friends I'd met at the hostel for a drink along the harbor.  He took us all in his car to a lookout above the city and later, a famous British tea house, once occupied by some famous author I cared nothing about...nice of him to do anyways.  CT's hospitality was very unexpected and I was wary at first since we don't usually have people that friendly back home.  In the end, he ended up being a nice and genuine guy who was interested in learning about me and showing me his city.  

 After researching my options for hiking Mt. Kinabalu, I decided my best chances of hiking the mountain would be to go directly to the headquarters at the base of the mountain and do whatever it took to get a permit, whether it meant begging, sneaking, bribing, or selling my soul (not all of it, but maybe just part of it).

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