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Malaysia: Sabah (Borneo)

sunny 33 °C
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On the morning of our flight to Malaysian Borneo we got up early and sat in the communal area of our KL hostel eating breakfast. I lusted over another girl's avocado on toast while chomping on my muesli. Lauren told me later that she was in the toilet next to said avocado girl and that not long after she'd consumed the nutritious green fruit she had loud and violent diarrhea. This made me glad for my muesli.
One of the hostel staff kept telling us we were up way too early for our flight and that we'd be waiting around for hours at the terminal. Feeling a little bit shamed we pushed our planned leaving time back by 30 minutes and got on the monorail to good old Sentral station.

From there we eventually (no thanks to any signage) found the bus terminal and got on a coach heading to Kuala Lumpur international airport; KLIA 2. We arrived at the airport and, as foretold by the guy at Sunshine Bedz, we ended up waiting around bored for a few hours. Not wanting to deviate from tradition I continue to blame Lauren's pathological over-punctuality.
Our flight to Sandakan (in Malaysian Borneo) was as easy as pie. I was sat next to some sort of film guy who was reading scripts and directing notes. The air stewards were gorgeous young men with plenty of sass and I'm pretty sure one of them was trying to get hired by aforementioned film guy.

After collecting our bags I spotted a tourist couple and, much to Lauren's dismay, ran over to ask if they wanted to share a taxi into Sandakan town to save some ringgits. The couple agreed and turned out to be very lovely; from Holland and on a 3 week holiday to Malaysia. They even gave us more money than they should have for the cab - ker ching!

We were dropped at Harbourside Backpackers hostel which was up two flights of stairs and nestled between two buffet restaurants. We thought we had booked into a shared dormitory but we got a pleasant surprise when the gentleman checking us in told us we were actually in a private double room. He said "I'm really sorry we only have a double room available, all of the twin rooms are occupied. Will this be ok?" We looked at each other and tried our best not to smirk and nodding said "ok yes that'll have to do".

Our most pressing chore was to get the sweaty crud out of our clothes but at 13 ringgit per kilo we politely declined our hostel's rate and stepped out into Sandakan hoping to find a little laundry shop. Despite the presence of 2 KFCs, 2 7/11s and 1 McDonalds, Sandakan felt much more 'local' than Kuala Lumpur. Of course there were a few 'visible' tourists out and about but generally the streets were filled with Malay people, most of whom were dressed in traditional Muslim clothing (women in hijabs and men in taqiyahs).
Sandakan is very much a town; there is a long high-street filled with independently owned shops and cafes. There's a market square beside the harbour that's used daily. There's a multi-level shopping mall with many recognisable brands in it and there's also a daily food market set in an old car park. To me it kind of felt like we'd gone from the Trafford Centre (KL) to Salford Precinct (Sandakan) - grittier, more working-class, semi-dilapidated but with lots of character.
We definitely observed more people looking and staring at us in Sandakan compared with Kuala Lumpur. It was mostly men who would do double-takes or just full-on stare at us. They seemed preoccupied with our faces, bodies and Lauren's tattoos and we'd often catch people doing an 'up-and-down' look. Yes this is a disheartening at best and pervy at worst but we tried to take it with a pinch of salt and react with smiles and confident eye contact. We never felt endangered or intimidated. We would also remind ourselves of the double-takes and looks that Muslim people get back at home, especially if they're wearing a niqāb or burqa.

We eventually located a launderer; on the 3rd floor of a manky old concrete block of flats. The lovely lady at the window charged 4 ringgits per kilo and said she'd have everything done by the following morning.
We chose to eat at the restaurant next door to our hostel for our first meal as we really couldn't be bothered deciding on somewhere else. Consistent with our overriding Malaysian food experience so far Lauren had very few veggie options and so had to settle on boring steamed rice and veggies. I on the other hand selected a delicious, spicy sizzling mee ayam plate (chicken and noodles) that almost smoked the whole restaurant out.

For our first morning in Sandakan we relished the free-breakfast options that included eggs and OATS! All this time I've been squirreling away porridge oats so I don't have to consume the ubiquitous white doughnut bread every single day and now they're here, and they're PROVIDED!
We collected our laundry which was not only dry and lovely-smelling but was also ironed and very neatly folded up. What a treat.
We's been told by our hostel that there was only one bus to Sepilok (where we wanted to go) and that it left the bus station at 9am. After a bit of our own research we didn't fully trust this information and so walked to the bus station hoping to find another bus. We were directed to a different bus station a few hundred metres head of the one we'd gone to and managed to find out that the number 14 bus went to Sepilok every couple of hours but that the next one was in 90 minutes. We started walking back into the town with plans to come back to catch the bus when a young Malay gentleman dressed in a tight black t shirt, acid wash jeans and dodgy Ray-Ban sunglasses jumped out of a bus labelled '14' and shouted over to us "SEPILOK!". We approached and he told us that the bus was heading to Sepilok Orangutan Centre and that there was room for us. We were understandably tentative and poked our head into the bus to see around 15 teenagers in school uniforms, giggling at our faces. We tried in vain to ask them if the bus was indeed heading to Sepilok and they just looked at us and smiled. We agreed a price and got on; our eagerness to get to our destination overrode our suspicion.

I'm sure you'll be glad to to hear that we did make it to Sepilok and that the journey itself was quite fun. The guy who'd called us over spent the drive showing us rubbish American pop music videos and photos of him with monkeys and an American 100 dollar bill (that was clearly fake).

We first visited the Sun Bear Sanctuary where Bornean sun bears are rehabilitated and put back into the jungle (if suitable). The bears are endangered and are often kept illegally as pets or hunted. What struck us was how small they were; the adults were no bigger than a large dog. The bears have yellow orange or white markings on their chests and these markings are completely individual to them; like a fingerprint. We walked around all of the high jungle walkways and watched the bears playing and chilling in their natural environment. We couldn't get close to them (they're not put on show they just roam around the sanctuary) which I think some people would find (selfishly) disappointing, but we were just happy to catch a glimpse of them in their true habitat and their true state.
We also watched a documentary film there called Racing Extinction which was very good and focuses on endangered animals and their plights all over the world on land and sea.
On the way out of the sanctuary we came across an orangutan just sat on the wooden slats watching everyone. One brave Chinese woman got up real close and even took a selfie with him/her.

Swapping bears for more big orange monkey-humans we entered the orangutan centre. The centre pretty much does the same thing that the bear sanctuary does, except it has a more intensive and bigger programme including outdoor and indoor nurseries for the little ones. As with the bears, when the orangutans are ready, they are released into the wild of Borneo's jungle (hence the rogue one outside the bear place). These wild orangutans then sometimes return to the area they were rehabilitated in for the twice daily feedings they do on high platforms in the trees. We made sure we coincided our visit with the afternoon feed where we saw big and small, male and female, alpha and beta orangutans coming from all angles of the jungle to snack on cabbages and bananas.

We also saw the baby orangutans playing in the outdoor nursery which was brilliant to watch. Most of the young ones wrapped themselves around the handlers legs and had to be dragged outside as apparently they're not fully confident outdoors just yet. Their personalities were everything you'd hope for; cheeky, mischievous, playful, lazy, argumentative, intelligent, moody and just so funny. We heard about one young female who regularly climbs up onto the roof of the building just because she knows that to get her down the handlers bribe her with food and she's a greedy so and so. I think I've found my spirit animal.

The centre is also looking after some baby pygmy elephants who were found wandering around a palm oil plantation lost. It is presumed that their parents left them behind as they were confused and fearful of the change in their environment. Unfortunately because the elephants were still very traumatised they were not allowing the public to see them but we could hear them loudly roaring (we originally thought it was the bears).
After a full day of furry animal watching we got the last bus back to Sandakan. This time we were charged the normal bus fee which was half what the other guy had charged us but that's what we'd expected. We did get a bit of a VIP transit I suppose.
That evening we ate at a restaurant on the harbourside and then got ourselves a 'pudding' of what can only be described as fig rolls but instead of fig it was coconut. We hung around the market square a bit watching the locals bartering and queuing up for flavoured milky jelly/bubble tea.
We went back to the hostel and put one of the copied DVDs on in the common area - Anchorman 2. We found ourselves spread out on the large U shaped leather (sticky) couches along with 4 other British backpackers. We got chatting after the film and it turns out they all have connections with Bristol (studying and living there) and couldn't praise it highly enough - which obviously made us quite smiley about our soon-to-be new home.

Not content with bears and orangutans the next day we made the 1 hour trip to Labuk Bay centre, along with two of the girls we'd got chatting to the night before (and one Chinese guy who also got on the bus). Labuk Bay isn't quite in the same league as the centre's in Sepilok; it came into being because a palm oil plantation owner realised there was a market to be had with showing tourists the amazing native wildlife in Borneo. It isn't though (as far as we can tell) actively cruel or damaging to the animals (albeit the whole surrounding plantation has ruined their natural habitat).
So we got to the centre and bought our tickets and were escorted to Platform B and as soon as we walked through the gate we saw 10 or so silvery lutung monkeys, a couple of them with their bright yellow babies tightly clasped around their torsos.

As we walked further along the wooden platforms we then looked out into the lush jungle and saw a whole load of proboscis monkeys sat around; hanging out, foraging and looking up at us with knowing faces. We immediately spotted the alpha male who was huge; as big as a border collie. Certain other attributes of his were rather large too; firstly his notorious dangly nose, and secondly his long, thin and bright red 'lipstick' that pointed enthusiastically up towards the sky.
The proboscis monkeys were quite argumentative and a few tiffs broke out over food that were quickly resolved by the alpha showing off his fangs.

Weirdly, our bus driver also turned out to be a hornbill whisperer. We asked about seeing some hornbills (specifically the oriental pied hornbills that live in Borneo) and he set to work squeaking and squawking for them to come over. And they did. A few times the monkeys tried to steal their banana pieces but luckily they came back and we got to see the amazing birds up close.

While we were being entertained (and mildly scared) by the wild roaming beasts around us, we spotted three little kittens lounging. They were surrounded by large monkeys and they were totally unfazed. I couldn't help going over for a little cuddle. Then I realised I was in a wildlife centre with some of the most endangered species of monkeys in the world and I was playing with cats. One day Lauren will dump me and I can be a spinster cat lady.

After a couple of hours we were ushered to Platform A where we saw a different 'pack' of proboscis monkeys. We also saw a massive monitor lizard having a drink and cooling off in a little pool.

For some reason during our visit to the centre we were followed around by 3 camouflage and semi-automatic gun clad men. We asked a worker why they were there and they said it was normal for gun-toting soldiers to accompany people around tourist spots. Ok then. I suppose one of the monkeys could have tried to kidnap us or something.
After another hour in the blazing open sun in the midst of the jungle we had had enough and travelled back to our hostel. We ate at a different harbourside restaurant that served us shit, overpriced tofu dishes. While we were eating something weird happened; I noticed that two young men who were sat adjacent to us were laughing hysterically at something on their phones. I then clocked that they were filming and photographing us while we were just sat chatting and eating dinner. Every move we made, every fork-full that entered our mouths they loudly sniggered at. I started to get really pissed off so turned to them and said "no - stop!". And they did, for about 5 minutes, before starting up again. This time we decided to fight fire with fire and Lauren started filming and taking photographs of them. This was the winning tactic as they soon shut up. Horrible little bastards.
We finished the eventful day off by sitting with some other guests and watching some film about old people in a hotel in India that was a bit shit but also a bit funny.

For our penultimate day in Sandakan we pretty much just chilled out. We fully explored the shopping mall in the town; taking note of the many massage chairs and bubble tea stalls. I even bought myself a t-shirt with cats on it. We walked around the ex-car-park that is now Central market, checking out the fresh food on offer. On the top floor of the market was a hawker food court where we had some delicious (and very cheap) buffet plates for lunch. We bumped into Julie the Dutch girl we'd met in Cameron Highlands and filled each other in on our travels. Our main triumph for the day was finally eating the tin of baked beans we'd been harbouring since Phnom Penh.

Our last day was another uneventful one. We did a bit of the 'heritage walk' which mainly involved walking up 100 steps and snooping at the weird English tearoom/restaurant at the top that had a perfectly manicured garden with croquet sets available. We figured it must be the place that British package tour holidaymakers go for dinner as to not upset their delicate sensibilities. In all honestly the menu sounded pretty appealing (it's been a long time since we've had fish and chips) but it was out of our price range by a long shot.

Borneo was great; we wish we would have done more there to explore the amazing environment. Lauren's made me promise that we'll go back there one day to sail along the river. In extreme comparison to Borneo's lush greenery we've now got to go back to the concrete and skyscraper city that is Kuala Lumpur for a night....

Posted by advensha 01:39 Archived in Malaysia Tagged kuala_lumpur malaysia borneo sandakan sabah orangutans teksi sun_bears racing_extinction

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