I’m awake at 5:45AM, probably due to jet lag. I turn off my alarm, get cleaned up, and go downstairs for breakfast at 6:20AM. The coffee is acceptable, and I have some toast, yogurt, and a muffin before going back to my room to finish packing. I catch the 8AM airport shuttle, and arrive before WestJet has opened their baggage drop counter in Terminal 2. Once they take my checked bag and check my passport, I ask them to print my boarding passes, despite having already checked in using their app on my iPhone.
To my relief, I have TSA Pre printed on my boarding pass for the flight to Vancouver. I clear the TSA Pre-cleared security check in literally two minutes, and I’m in the gate area for my flight. I grab a cappuccino from a nearby coffee shop and find my gate. It is controlled chaos in this very congested area with 5 gates where there should probably be two.
My WestJet flight loads quickly and since I’m in Group 2, I board before most. The aircraft pushes away from the gate on-time at 12:05PM, and the captain announces the flight will take two hours and 20 minutes – a bit faster than the stated flight duration. As I did on the way down, I again buy the hummus and crackers snack at a cost of $4, and along with some Coca Cola, call that lunch. It’s a very scenic flight north to Vancouver – I see Pyramid Lake in Nevada (see banner image above), and the weather in Vancouver is perfectly clear, so the approach to the airport is quite scenic.
I clear Canadian Customs and Immigration at Vancouver airport in short order, clear security again, and find my last gate for this trip – a 20-minute flight to Victoria. I calculate that I’ve traveled some 35,500 kms or 21,300 miles in the last 20 days!
I’m up at 5:15AM, put my bag out and have breakfast at 6AM downstairs in the hotel with the rest of my tour group. Since all the bags and people are aboard the bus, we leave 15 minutes early for the Kuala Lumpur International airport. Our local guide Susan is a Type A personality, so everything is highly organized for us! We arrive on Level 1 where our driver Mohammed drops us off. We then take the elevator to Level 5 where Departures are located. We check-in, go through security and clear Malaysian immigration. We then take a train to the departure gates, find our gate and board our Airbus A330 – a four hour Dragon Air flight to Hong Kong, which leaves on time at 10:30AM.
After disembarking, we re-group at the end of the Jetway and Michele suggests a few of us who are more mobile go ahead to start the transfer process to our flight to Los Angeles, which includes two security checks. It is a pretty long trek across this huge airport – taking about a half hour to find our gate and get ready for our much longer flight across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles. It is totally disorganized at the Cathay Pacific gate, with Business Class and priority boarding mixing with Premium Economy, but everyone eventually is aboard and seated.
The Premium Economy upgrade some of us went for is expensive and only applies for the return trip segment between LA and Hong Kong, but it includes a nicer dinner menu with more choices, complementary alcoholic drinks, a seat which is much more comfortable with a recliner and foot rest. We also get to board before regular economy, and have our own cabin with an exclusive washroom.
About an hour out of Hong Kong, we are served drinks and dinner, and are then given a bottle of water and an overnight kit. I plug my notebook computer into the 110v outlet under my seat – another perk of Premium Economy. I’m satiated and relaxed as we head eastward over the Pacific aboard Cathay Pacific’s Boeing 777-300ER. I manage to sleep off and on for the first seven hours as we fly through darkness. The Milky Way and southern constellations are beautiful as I observe them out my south-facing window. At the seven hour mark, we have blue sky, but I can’t see the Sun rising because we are heading due east.
We land 12 hours after departure – two hours less than the flight in the opposite direction. As a Canadian, I qualify for the faster customs and immigration kiosks at LAX, however once through that hurdle, I still have to join a second line to see an agent before I’m free to collect my bag.
I say goodbye to Michele at the baggage carousel and walk over to the hotel shuttle pickup area to catch a shuttle to the Best Western Airpark hotel. The hotel is nothing special, but it is clean, quiet, and the best deal in the area. I immediately have a shower and go to bed for three hours. After waking, I go across the street to Roscoe’s Chicken Waffle restaurant, which is very busy. Just like the name says, they serve chicken and waffles…not a vegetable in sight except for some greens listed on the menu that nobody seems to order! The chicken is good, the waffle is OK, and I’m no longer hungry. Let’s just say it was an interesting cultural experience!
I return to the room and browse online before going back to bed. Flying eastward means I get to live today twice, gaining some 15 hours in the process while crossing the International Date Line. In reality, all it means is that I’m tired from the long flight and my body’s clock will be screwed up for a couple of days!
We seem to be getting up early virtually every morning on this tour. It’s not relaxing, however we are having lots of new experiences. Before we go to the Kuching airport to fly to Kuala Lumpur, we drive to the Sarawak Cultural Village. The various tribes found in Sarawak each have their cultural displays in their own houses arranged in a circle around the lake on the grounds: Bidayuh, Iban, Penan, Orang Ulu, Melanau and Melayu. There is also a Chinese farm house – which is the Cina tribe.
We also see a cultural show in an air-conditioned theatre, which is professionally produced and performed, unlike the other dancing in longhouses we experienced previously in the various villages we visited. We wrap up our visit by having a pre-arranged lunch in the air-conditioned restaurant before leaving for the one hour drive to the airport. We say goodbye to our guide Lemon, his assistant and driver as we navigate through the airport to find our gate.
Our guide Susan meets us at the Kuala Lumpur airport and Mohammed drives us to what is perhaps our favourite hotel on this trip, the Hotel Majestic. All the staff are great here, it is a very fancy hotel, and the breakfast and dinner buffets in the restaurant are excellent. It is after 8:30PM when we arrive at the hotel, so we go directly to the buffet for our farewell dinner, leaving our bags to Susan and the hotel bell staff to sort out and put in our rooms.
I am up at 5:45AM, put my bag out at 6:30AM and have breakfast with the group.The tropical rainstorm lasted all night and only let up as we leave in the boat to board our bus waiting for us at the jetty on the other side of the lake. We have a long day ahead of us, driving over a road that is full of construction and bumps.
This afternoon, we stop at the Kampung Annah Rais, a Bidayuh longhouse – actually a series of houses strung together with bamboo boardwalks. There are 160 families and about 3,000 people in this community. The place is very quiet, since most residents are at work or away at school. They have a skull house, which contains about a dozen very old skulls from headhunting days long ago. Interesting note from our guide Lemon, although the Bidayuh were headhunters, they were not cannibals.
After arriving back in Kuching, we are again staying at the Waterfront Hotel. There is some time for us to explore Kuching on our own in the late afternoon and evening. The hotel is adjacent to the Harmony Arch in old Chinatown, the old courthouse and jail, and the Kuching waterfront on the Sarawak River.
After breakfast this morning at the resort, some of us take the canopy tour: hiking up a hill behind the resort to walk among the treetops to discover the canopy layer of the rainforest on a 120 metre-long (425-foot-long) walkway, suspended 56 metres (165 feet) above the jungle floor (see banner image above). We all find it challenging in the morning heat, and we see no animals or birds. We check each other over for leeches and ants before returning to the resort.
Later in the morning, we take a longboat trip upriver to visit the 34-family Mengkak Longhouse of Iban tribe. First, everyone toasts with their rice wine called tuak, then we watch them perform the Hornbill dance in costumes, have some lunch in the longhouse, and then return to the resort in the afternoon. They appear to be well-pleased by our gifts of exercise books and pencils for the children. Some work their way through us shaking hands and bowing as they return to their quarters after the chief distributes the gifts to each family. The tribe is protected by a carved wooden statue of Agum, which is setup right above the longboat docks at the entrance to the longhouse.
By the time we are taken back to the resort in the longboats, I’m pretty well wasted by the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. I retreat to my air-conditioned room, have a shower and go to the bar for a beer before returning back to my room, since the patio at the bar is far too hot. After I recover a bit, I sit outside on the covered deck with one of our group. We discuss our travels as we watch a thunderstorm break over the lake and enjoy the sounds and smells of the ensuing tropical rainstorm.
Although the Aiman Batang Ai Resort is quite elegant and large, it is showing its age. I would estimate that the facility is about 40 years old by the age of the original plumbing and other fixtures in the rooms and common areas. The staff work hard, but a facility this big is hard to keep operational, when the “works” are aging. It appears to me they have about half the rooms mothballed.
2021 Update: Sadly, the Aiman Batang Ai Resort is now closed.
The bus leaves at 8AM, so I’m up by 6:20AM and put my bag out and have breakfast at 7AM. These early starts to the day are killing me, but at least the breakfast in our hotel is very nice, and they have cappuccino! Lemon takes over as our guide since Sarawak is his home turf.
Our first stop is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which is only about a half hour’s drive south of Kuching. This sanctuary for Orangutans is only open for an hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon. The morning feeding, although crowded with people is very rewarding photographically. The camera angles are better than the wildlife sanctuary in Sabah, and two Orangutan mothers show up with their babies clinging to them. I’m very happy with my photos of these fascinating creatures!
We then spend several hours in the bus – another endurance contest. We stop twice: once for a rest break and a visit to the local market in Serian, and a second stop for lunch at a Chinese-run local restaurant beside the road in Lachau. We all order fried rice and at Lemon’s suggestion, buy some exercise books and pencils as gifts for the Iban villagers we will be visiting tomorrow.
We end up at a jetty on an artificial lake created by a hydro electric dam, and take a launch to the Aiman Batang Ai Resort, which is located across the lake. We are now only 1°24’ north of the Equator. Temperatures are in the high 30s C and the humidity is right up there as well, so everyone is feeling the heat as we get settled into our rooms.
I am up at 5AM, have breakfast and the bus leaves at 7:30AM for the 15 minute transfer to the airport. We are flying from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu, and then to Kuching in Sarawak. Our first flight to Kota Kinabalu is delayed several times over the next couple of hours. The alternate arrangements made by Malaysian Airlines changes a couple of times as well, much to the frustration of the members of my group. We are finally told that there was a bomb threat made on our original flight. At this point our flight is cancelled.
We have lunch at KFC at the airline’s expense while they rebook our whole group: to Kota Kinabalu, Bintulu, and then to Kuching. Ultimately, we arrive at Kuching airport about 9 hours late at 9:30PM! We stay at the very nice Waterfront Hotel just one night before leaving tomorrow on a driving tour to see the country, orangutans, and at the end of the day, take a boat to our next wilderness lodge.
I am up at 6AM and put my bag out to be picked up before I leave to have breakfast. The hotel has a self-serve super-automatic espresso machine, so I have two cappuccinos along with some fruit, yogurt, and pastries. I check out and board the bus by 8AM.
Everyone is onboard ahead of time, so we leave at 7:50AM for the one hour drive to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in time for the first feeding at 9:30AM. This is a private sanctuary for the monkeys operated by a palm plantation owner. Everyone in the group take fantastic photos and video of the monkeys, since they are only a few metres away from us. The monkeys are well-behaved, not aggressive at all.
After we have lunch in the highlands at the classic English Tea House & Garden, we drive to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, arriving in time to see the afternoon feeding. As always, our guides are well-organized and ensure everyone is at the feeding platforms ahead of the crowds, so our group all take some wonderful photos and video.
We then check in at the nearby MY Nature Resort. This is another resort run by the same company as our last lodge on the river. This travel company also supplies the guides and boats we have been using. This is a very nice resort, and thankfully the chalets are very roomy and have air conditioning, so it is much more comfortable to sleep at night.
Our guides conduct another night walk at the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, but again I pass on the opportunity since leeches are a very real risk at that location.
April 14, 2018 Saturday – Sepilok Orangutans and Sun Bears
After breakfast, we spend the full day at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, seeing both the morning and afternoon feeding of the organgutans. We also see the nursery, where young orphan orangutans are socialized, taught how to forage and build nests, and build up their strength. They are encouraged to explore the adjacent rainforest sanctuary, since there are no fences or barriers. For their own safety, they are housed in a nursery building at night. After about four years, they are released to a protected area if the staff are convinced they have the skills to survive in the wild.
We also visit the adjacent Sun Bear Conservation Centre. These small, cute bears encounter the same issues as orangutans – encroachment of human settlements on their rainforest habitat, poaching, and locals keeping them as pets. The CEO and Founder of the Centre is Dr. Wong Siew Te, who gives us a personalized tour. We are fortunate to see three of the Sun Bears come out of the bush and literally pose for us on a stump right in front of the viewing platform.
Today we trade our posh Le Meridien hotel in Kota Kinabalu for a wilderness lodge in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. We fly to Sandakan in East Sabah this morning, drive along the Kinabatangan River (Sabah’s longest at over 500 kilometres) to Sukau and the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge.
Along the way we pass through many kilometres of oil-palm plantations, and arrive in time for lunch (served buffet-style). When one of the staff takes my bag to my cabin, he is attacked by a troupe of Macaque monkeys and is bitten. Not an impressive start to my stay!
Late this afternoon we take our first river cruise in search of Pygmy Elephants, but our guide Junior only finds fresh elephant dung, since they appear to be on the move. We do see a large group of Proboscis monkeys high in the trees beside the river, Silver Langur monkeys, and the Borneo Civet after dark as we return for a late dinner.
The cabins at the lodge are pretty basic, with no air conditioning, just fans and screens on the windows. There are bugs in the room and especially the bathroom. I started taking my Malarone anti-malarial medicine a couple of days ago in preparation for this segment of our travels, however despite the lodge being located right on the river, I see no mosquitos.
April 11, 2018 Wednesday – Kinabatangan in East Sabah, Malaysia
We leave the lodge by boat at 6:30AM for a 2.5 hour trip along the Kinabatangan River. We spot a beautiful Stork-billed Kingfisher soon after we leave the dock. Unlike yesterday evening, today I have my full camera kit with me for the boat trip, I take some good photos of a female Proboscis monkey with a baby in a tree, some Hornbills, a Black and Red Broadbill, a male Blue-eared Kingfisher, a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, an Oriental Darter, some Silver Langur monkeys, a Wrinkled Hornbill, and a small Monitor Lizard. This is my most productive day for wildlife photography!
Our guide Junior gives a presentation on how he started out as a waiter in a resort, becoming a guide 35 years ago, and had the opportunity to work with David Attenborough on The Living Planet series. The biodiversity on Borneo is very concentrated, lending itself to feature films about the rainforest, such as the National Geographic Great Migration series. Junior tells us he is self-taught as a guide, but he is licensed by the government. Same goes for our other guides, which includes his son.
On the afternoon boat trip, we go up a tributary of the main river, where we spot: a Stork-billed Kingfisher (again), a Roller Broadbill (aka Dollar Bird), and an Oriental Darter bird. We see a couple of wildlife bridges built by the government wildlife service to help the Orangutans cross the river channel (since they don’t swim). Our guide tells us the wildlife bridges are mainly used by the monkeys.
I skip the night cruise, since photography is pretty well out of the question, and I really don’t want to be bitten by bugs, pick up any leeches, or attempt to photograph bugs by flashlight.
April 12, 2018 Thursday – Kinabatangan to Sandakan in East Sabah, Malaysia
On our morning boat trip, we see: Proboscis monkeys feeding (including a male), a Cattle Egret in breeding plumage, a pair of Hornbills, a male Black and Red Broadbill guarding its nest, and a young Crocodile on the muddy shore.
After lunch, it is time to leave the lodge by taking a 2.5 hour boat trip down the river to the jetty at Sandakan. This turns out to be an endurance contest, despite having a rest stop half way at Abai Jungle Restaurant and Lodge, a lodge on the lower river run by the same company (S I Tours) as where we were staying. The boats are going about 40 knots and when we are in exposed sea water in the Sulu Sea, the ride is very rough and noisy. I wear my noise-cancelling earbuds to reduce my stress level.
Once we arrive at the jetty in Sandakan, our bags are taken by hand carts to the bus waiting for us, and we are driven a short distance to the only deluxe hotel to be found in Sandakan, the Four Points by Sheraton. It has an infinity pool, gym, 2-level lobby with a piano, and is over 20 stories high. It’s quite pretentious, however I’m happy to have an American-style room with air conditioning, hot water and comfy bed after the last few nights spent in the river lodge!
We start the day with the fascinating, colourful, and very busy city fish market (see above banner image). I shoot video with my GoPro camera to capture the action, and take close-ups of the seafood to capture the colours and patterns. We then take boats to see the four Malay stilt villages located across the harbour from the city in the South China Sea.
We drive to the Masjid Negeri Sabah state mosque, which has a certain understated elegance. The Puh Toh Tze Buddhist temple is next, where there is a huge statue of Guan Yin in front, in addition to the traditional temple. There is also a giant drum and bell to presumably call the faithful to worship.
We wait for sunset to light up the Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu city mosque located on Likas Bay. That doesn’t happen since there are too many clouds on the horizon, however the mosque is lit by the very pretty golden hour light, which I capture in the time lapse high definition video I shoot with my GoPro Hero action camera.