Saturday, March 19, 2011

Photos - Sabah & Sarawak

The photos of the recent trip to Sabah & Sarawak (under Malaysian flag) have been uploaded to my Travelogue.

20110310 Sarawak – Kuching

Upon arrival at Kuching, I know this was far from my expectation, so quiet to be a city. I thought I would enjoy the similar lively atmosphere like KK. Wrong! I asked the opinions of tourists around, many preferred Kuching indeed for its serenity.

I stayed close to the China Town. To my disappointment the food courts here were so small and hardly provide various choices. Local foods like Kolo Noodle and Sarawak Laksa were OK, but in general not special, the prices were not cheap either.

It was quite fun to walk around the downtown. Many buildings preserved the traditional architecture and deco, beautiful for photographing. Good souvenir shops with attractive displays could be found. Liked the primitive “artistic” sculptures or carving from the local tribes, but I knew my mom would see them too evil. Let’s wait till I have my own house. There were many museums in town, not so interesting except the Arts Museum. The riverfront was the hot spot in the evening for a stroll. A few stalls selling finger foods, souvenir vendors displaying the cheaper products, street artists’ performance enliven the atmosphere.

In fact, the main selling points in Sarawak were the visit to different national parks, ranged from nature escapade to traditional culture exploration. Due to the remoteness of some places, we could hardly avoid to engage tourist agent to organize trips. Don’t expect that the aboriginal tribesmen are living still in the stone age and waiting for our visit. In fact many places have been commercialized and modern amenities are well integrated into their life. I’m not interested to see the modern tribesmen, I want the authenticity, but I have to travel deeper into the forest…

All these packages are not cheap and longer expedition needs longer time. I was in rush to return home, couldn’t arrange in this trip. I could only make up to Bako National Park for a day trip, not far from Kuching. Trek was fairly easy, but I was exhausted after 6 hr trek over 8.5km.

Sarawak Culture Village (SCV) is a living museum, with example of traditional dwellings of different tribes. It was more interesting than you might think. This was just exhibits, looked too solid and too clean to the reality. The 40min cultural performance was excellent, superb music and dancing.

20110307 Sabah – Kota Kinabalu

Better known as KK, the capital of Sabah state. Famous for the climb of South-East Asia highest peak 4095m Mt.Kinabalu – Malaysia’s first Unesco World Heritage that attracts the most tourists in Sabah. I had no plan to climb the mountain due to my knee problem.

It has strong influence of Philippines, seafood is cheap, many restaurants, several shopping malls and many many more hotels. The city is touristy. Best of all, the beer is cheap! I stayed every evening at Beach Street for some drinks while enjoying the live band performance. The Filipino market is lively at night, plenty of food stalls serving grilled seafood, mostly have the same menu and the prices are standardized… of course a little negotiation may grant you further discount.

Mamutik, Manukan and Sapi Islands, mostly within 20 min boat ride from KK, white sand beach and large number of fishes ideal for swimming and snorkeling, good places for a day trip. Facilities on the island were well established but slightly expensive. Sadly the environment was not well kept, rubbish still could be spotted here and there.
Sabah Museum was not really interesting, except some photos of the last century. A small exhibits of contemporary paintings but not my preference. The Heritage Village displayed several real size house models of different tribes. Not much excitement.
The bus system in KK was a little confusing and frustrating. Most of the places are a few km apart, sometimes walking could be faster than wasting time on waiting for bus.

Friday, March 18, 2011

20110306 Sabah – Sandakan

Sandakan had nothing really interesting or spectacular to show. Anyhow I dropped by a day since it was just an hour drive from Sepilok. This is the 2nd largest city after Kota Kinabalu. The city itself spread out wide and far .The coastal old town was busy in the day time but the crowds moved to Bandar Indah at Batu 4 in the evening for nightlife and entertainments.

The fresh cheap seafood is the main draw in Sandakan. I headed straight to the famous Sim Sim Village, looking for Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant. The shore was dirty, lots of rubbish scattering around. Obviously it was an accumulation after months, wondered why the municipal didn’t clean up the area.

The lively seafood was displayed. You picked and the restaurant cooked for you. Fresh and cheap, but the cooking was not so scrumptious.

Sandakan was occupied by Japanese army during WWII, plenty of Prisoner of War (Australians, British) were transferred from Singapore to construct airfield. The notorious Death Marches claimed lots of life. The Memorial Park in the city recorded the unpleasant history, mainly descriptions, no gory photos. The young visitors had no sympathy to the tragedy but fooling inside the exhibition building, what a shame. Apparently our education had not been teaching the students to respect the history.

The Kadazan Museum conducts exhibitions occasionally. The photo gallery of last century was interesting, leaving precious record of life not long ago.

Many new commercial lots are erected in front of the waterfront, a good place to stroll and have a beer in the evening. Plenty of restaurants and hotels catered to different budget travelers, but not enough space for the public to hang around.

I scraped the plan to visit Turtle Island, the sole agent increased the price almost 2 folds since 2 years ago. A 2D1N package for single person costs about EUR100, too expensive.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

20110304 Sabah – Sepilok

Probably the 2nd most frequented place in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu, for its ace attraction Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center (SORC). The center is harbouring mainly those orphaned or injured orang utans. The daily twice feeding sessions gathered almost all tourists to the platform, watching the superstars swinging around and eating bananas. Personally I didn’t find it exceptionally interesting.

There are several trails inside the park leading into the forest. Birder’s Trail was the only open to the public during my visit. It was easy in the beginning until I stood in front of a stretch of muddy path ahead of me. I wouldn’t want to smudge my shoes… and the leech was my concern too.

A short distance away is the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC). It turned out to be more interesting. The displayed artifacts were informative. The staggering expensive Canopy Walk granted an excellent view 20m above the ground level.

SORC is for the orang utan, while there is a sanctuary for proboscis monkeys at Labuk Bay though it is always overshadowed by SORC and sometimes is neglected. Don’t miss it, it is better than SORC, its set up is more natural and up closer. Plenty of proboscis, a few hornbills, and the tamed silverleaf monkeys interact with the tourists. Unlike the governmental managed SORC, this sanctuary was run by private sector. The oil palm plantation owner allocated 1/3 of the land for this sanctuary, while preserving the precious wetland. Good effort!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

20110303 Sabah – Sukau & Sg.Kinabatangan

Sg.Kinabatangan, the mighty 560km longest river in Sabah fames for the wildlife spotting. Sukau had been many years the place to organize river cruising and jungle trekking. It is just a small village (population 2000) but not so backpacker friendly. It seemed to be very safe. Due to the occasion floods, many houses were built on stilts.

There is no efficient cheap public transport from Semporna or Sandakan. Buses normally stop at Sukau Junction, 42km from Sukau. Private minivans are waiting to accomplish the transport. MYR50 for a busload or MYR20 per “tourist” head (local people obviously paid less, but I was charged as tourist). Along the road, thousand acres of precious rainforest has been fell and replaced by commercial oil palm plantation, which means the original ecology has been destroyed. Is it worth in exchange for country development? I strongly disagree.

Most of the homestays or B&B are quite far apart. Transportation was not easy to be organized in this village. The popular budget B&Bs recommended by Lonely Planet were all fully booked. I ended up lodging at a local homestay. The irresponsible minivan driver didn’t help me to locate the homestay but pulled out my knapsack and dropped me at the square. Bastard!

I tried to organize river cruising but I had to rent the whole boat since I was the only guest in the homestay of the day. Eventually the owner granted me a good discount.

At 03:30pm, we set off the first river cruising. Boat navigated through small rivers slowly and quietly, observing animals along the river bank, mostly monkeys, proboscis and birds. 2 small snakes were spotted coiling on the tree branches, but no pygmy elephants and orang utan. Journey lasted for 2 hr.

After dinner, we proceeded with the night cruise, more interesting indeed. The nocturnal animals become active at night. The guides used spotlights to search around. Interestingly some animals like king fishers would be stunned and stay put when the light was shined on them. Really up close, within touching distance. Crocodiles, flying fox, monitor lizard and civet were seen.

The skillful guides were good to spot the animals that hiding in the dense bushes along the river, so do at night. The experience counts! Though the qty was not many, the feeling of observing wild animals was not the same as in the zoo.

I gave up jungle trekking because it was too expensive to be alone to hire a guide. An acquaintance said he encountered a wild orang utan during his adventure. Sounds very exciting, I should organize another trip here in future.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

20110228 Sabah – Semporna & Sipadan Island

Sipadan Island, a world renowned diving spot, attracts lots of divers throughout the years. Here, I came.

The small town Semporna has become the hub of all scuba operators for activities around the adjacent islands. The nearest Tawau Airport was 1.5 hr drive away. No shuttle bus prevailed. The tourist traffic is relatively low and majority is foreigners, probably this explains why the private transportation companies charged fairly high price.

The town was small but all basic facilities were available. Most places were within walking distance. All luxury exclusive hotels set their base on the islands (except Sipadan) while the economic options were found on the mainland.

Walking around, I was upset by the dirtiness which could hardly be linked to tourist spot. Rubbish floated on the shore - even at the resort, the pungent stinky rotten sea products smell enveloped the jetty and market. The empty broken seashells were disposed right back to the sea. I asked around, why as such? There were many floating villages along the shore, accommodated mostly the early stage immigrants from Philippines and fishermen. The sanitary system and dumping area were not well planned and enforced. Environment conscience evidently was not fostered. The rubbish and discharge were poured into the sea habitually, sadly.

I liked the small town feel, kinda fun and nostalgic to move around seeing the old-fashioned buildings. Don’t miss the visit to the floating villages. No permission was needed, people might throw curious eyes to the foreigners but a smile said it all, was a beautiful place for photographing. Be aware not to step on the missing or broken plank wood on the platform. You wouldn’t be able to recover your slippers or any.

Foods were so-so, alcoholic beverage was fairly cheap. KaraOK and bars were available, but in general the entertainment was quite dull.

02-Mar, heavy rain pour started in the midnight, luckily it turned drizzling around 8am but the thick dark clouds still hung low in the sky. Boat departed at 9am, 7 divers with 2 dive masters, 1 hr chilly journey to Sipadan island on the fairly rough sea. 3 dives to be arranged on this day.

Frankly I had forgotten a few procedures as my last dive was done exactly 2 years ago, no big deal. The first 2 dives at “White Tip Avenue” and “Barracuda Point” were not special. Water was a bit milky due to overnight rain. Not much big fishes, many turtles and white-tip sharks. Disappointed for not seeing school of barracudas (was said easy to find at this spot). The last dive, we were led to the famous “Turtle Cave”, but only allowed to stay at the entrance. Was fun, first kind of my experience. Best of all, school of jacks around us! The most amazing dive I ever had!

There are several other islands in this area (e.g. Mataking, Mabul, Pom Pom) worth exploring too.