The End of my Bali Adventure

Hello Travelers,

It’s the last day of my adventure through the Island Nations of Southeast Asia, so I will try and wrap up my experience, starting with the last stop, The Island of Bali.

I had two reasons for choosing Bali as the end point for this adventure. First; it is close to one of the primary destinations of my trip, Komodo National Park, Second it is a World Class resort area and I wanted a little relaxation before the long journey home; all in all it worked out better than I hoped.

To be honest I didn’t know a lot about Bali before getting here, consequently my stay was full of surprises and joy. I did know where Bali is located, a small island in the Indonesian Archipelago between Java and Lombok Islands and that a little farther along the chain of islands were the 4 small islands that are the only home to the giant lizards known as Komodo Dragons. I also knew that Bali’s population is primarily Hindu in a nation predominately Muslim and internationally known as a resort destination. But when it came time to find a place to stay on the island, I didn’t do a lot of research, I went with a friend’s recommendation. It seemed to be a good quality hotel, reasonably near to the beaches, shops, restaurants and airport and the price was good; in the end I am satisfied with my choice.

I stayed at the Best Western Kuta Beach; about 10 km from the airport, I could see the runway from the roof-top lounge, and a 100 meter walk from the famous sandy beaches. I knew there were a lot of hotels in the area and that it was popular with Australians looking for a cheaper beach vacation than they can find at home. I didn’t realize just how popular and how crowded with hotels, shops, restaurants, and bike rentals the area actually is. I was there in January, the rainy season, so the crowds of tourists were down, but the shops, hotels etc. and locals are here year round so at times it still became quite hectic.

The national currency of Indonesia is the Rupiah (Rp) with an exchange rate that fluctuates but is about Rp 12,000 = US $1; during my stay the US Dollar gained a little against the Rupiah. Prices were very reasonable, nearly all of my meals were under US $10 and included a main course of a rice or noodle dish, spring rolls and one or two beers or a Mango juice.

I had over a week on the island and didn’t want to spend all that time at the hotel or the beach so I planned to do some touring. My first trip was to visit Hindu temples and rice terraces. That took me into the interior of the island and saw the island outside the beach community of Kuta was beautifully rural with forests, stretches of rice paddies, and small villages, towns and small cities.

I’ve seen Hindu temples in other cities outside of India and they were always crowded and filled with brightly painted statues of spirits and gods. The temples I saw in Bali were much different. The population is intensely religious and every home, most businesses and every road have small shrines, sometimes only a foot or two tall and some very large. All made of carved stone and each adorned with one or many small woven leaf basket, a few inches square and filled with green leaves, colorful flowers, pieces of fruit, incense sticks and sometimes cigarettes or small coins. Every village and town has a community temple and then there were the large temple complexes I visited. They were all very large with beautifully carved spirits or deities at the entrances and well groomed and flowering park-like gardens. I was there on a ceremonial day commemorating the full moon and many of the visitors to the temples were dressed in white or colorful batik dresses making offerings. Every morning people are out early placing new offering baskets in front of every door and shrine.

Everywhere I went the people were smiling, happy and gracious, always interested in where I was from and what I thought of Bali. Most didn’t speak English but always knew a few words. They seemed both surprised and very pleased when I told them I was from America. I always felt very safe but avoided doing foolish things like walking alone at night on dark streets.

Traveling solo has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that taking tours isn’t always easy since they normally require two person minimums. But even when I joined tours that had already been booked I ended up taking a solo tour with a personal guide. I don’t know how that happened but was very pleased. The two day tour to Komodo National Park was like that and for the most part went very well. It was a two day and one night tour; I’d already paid for my hotel in Kuta so just kept my room there while gone for one night on Flores Island, and a short flight and long boat trip to the park but well worth it when I got close to the famed giant lizards, and after seeing them live in the wild understand the name and do believe that given the chance they would eat me. The city of Labuan Bajo where I stayed was small but the draw of being the jumping off point for the tourists going to see the Dragons means it gets lots of tourists and is planning on more. The airport is undergoing a major upgrade to handle more passengers in a large, air-conditioned and modern architecture terminal; I would have liked if they had made the improvements with a building designed to reflect at least the appearance of a small island community instead of the silver wave design that seems totally out of character to the island. The National Park is also undergoing badly needed upgrades including raised walkways although with a rather overdone entrance gate. Also new facilities such as the small café and toilets for visitors. The park rangers are getting modern accommodations outside the headquarters compound instead of the wooden cabins on stilts they now live in during their 10 days of duty on the island.

The guide I had for my first tour on Bali was Wayan Edi, and asked to be called just Edi (Eddie). He is an independent contractor with the tour company, only working for them when they needed a guide. At other times he uses his small van as a taxi or as a private tour guide. I told him about my interests in masks and birding so he arranged to be my driver to a community near Kuta that specializes in wood carving and arranged for a private bird watching tour to the National Park on the island. He was more than just my driver and a wonderful source of information about Bali, the island’s people and the Hindu religion. We became friends and was honored when he invited me to his home for a meal and to meet his family; a wonderful experience.

Everywhere I went on the island I was impressed by its beauty from wide valleys of rice paddies and farmland, rice terraces that climbed the sides of the interior mountains, early morning markets teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables, park like temple compounds, coconut palm lined and deserted beaches and clean, orderly cities away from the crowds of tourists who mostly never get more than a mile from the beaches and resort hotels.

I saw many resorts and hotels in the mountains and away from Kuta so those parts of the island are not unknown, just uncrowded. However the isolation from cities like Kuta means they are harder to reach so more expensive to get to and probably to stay at, there are fewer restaurants and nightlife options outside the hotels but those are not disadvantages for many travelers.

Few Americans visit Bali, mainly because of the distance and expense of getting there, it is closer to Europe so many Europeans visit and very close to Australia so lots of Aussies come for cheap holidays. If you’re interested in visiting Bali, and I highly recommend you do, determine what you want to do and see before coming; maybe splitting your time between the beach communities nearer the airport and more sedate hotels or even other islands. I don’t think you will be disappointed if you plan ahead.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Birding in Bali Barat National Park

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

On Monday I had arranged for a private Bird Watching tour to the Bali Barat National Park at the Northwest corner of the Island of Bali. It is the opposite end from where I stayed in Kuta, and was told it was a 3 hour drive. Birding means you have to be up and where the birds are when they wake up in the morning, which here is about 06:00 to 06:30. That meant we had to leave the hotel very early.

I requested a 02:15 wakeup call and set my alarm at 02:00. My only mistake was using the alarm clock radio in the room and not my reliable wind up alarm clock; the radio apparently turned on at 2 o’clock but the music station I set it to went off the air overnight, the soft sound of static didn’t break my sound sleep. Luckily the phone rang at 02:15, it was the front desk, not my wakeup call, but calling to see if I got the wakeup call, I hadn’t and didn’t think more about it; one minute later the automated system called my room.

About 02:40 I was in the lobby waiting and Edi arrived at 02:45 along with his nephew. The nephew wants to learn to be a guide so Edi brought him along for some experience and to practice his English, however he never spoke except when I asked a question and then only in 1 word replies. He knows some English but is too shy around foreigners to actually use it.

We sped through the empty streets of the city, pausing before going through red lights with emergency flashers on, then continuing on our merry way. In about 15 minutes we were out of the city and I began to notice landmarks from my earlier tour to the Hindu Temples. By 03:30 we were getting into the mountains, I noticed my ears popping whenever I yawned. In the countryside Edi really flew along, 80+ kilometers per hour and occasionally up to 100 kph (60 mph) which is pretty fast on the narrow island highways though I never did see a posted speed limit; I don’t know if there was one and I didn’t ask. By 03:45 we were at the mountain lake with the beautiful little city and lakeside Hindu temple; the day of my earlier visit it had taken 3 hours of driving time to get there. Past the lake we continued up an ever more steep and winding road and were finally at cloud level. The clouds must always obscure the tops of these mountains and I am sure it is considered a cloud forest, but I couldn’t see beyond the headlights. The highway was in very good condition and painted with a wide white centerline which we followed. In the Pea Soup Fog of the clouds we just crawled along at a snails pace, when we reached the crest of a rise the white line would fall away and we would creep along until it came back into the car’s headlights.

Once over the summit the road became even more winding and steep. Edi pointed past the edge of the road on one turn and told me we were driving along the edge of a cliff. The steep, narrow valleys on the mountain created many switchbacks along the decent. Once out of the clouds it was an easier ride for me, holding on to the hand grip over the side window and trying to look relaxed was tiring me out.

At the bottom of the mountain we stopped for gas and from there Edi could again get up to speed. About 05:45 we pulled off the highway into a parking lot near a cluster of buildings with a sign for boats to a nearby island. We were in the Bali Barat National park which includes some offshore islands and the coral reef. The friend of Edi’s who would be my birding guide works there as a guide for everything from trekking to snorkeling and scuba diving. He arrived about 5 minutes later and we continued down the road for a few kilometers where we pulled off to the side of the road. From there the guide, whose name I couldn’t pronounce or remember, and I walked into the dark forest and Edi and his nephew drove back to the parking lot to get some sleep.

With my guide leading the way we followed a narrow trail through the thick undergrowth, using his cell phone’s screen as a dim flashlight. The trail started up a hill which had me breathing pretty hard but a little after 6 AM we came to a clearing along a ridge and stopped. It made a great viewing arena. The clearing allowed us to overlook the canopy of the forest in the valley and also the smaller trees on the forest edge. About 06:30 it was becoming light enough to see and the sound of many different types of birds filled the air as they woke up and greeted the day. My guide would identify the birds by their calls and told me the first we would see would be Bulbuls. Occasionally a bird would fly up or down the valley but always too far away to identify. Then a tree about 30 feet from where I sat came alive with the calls of birds and minutes later a rush of Yellow-vented Bulbuls sprang from the tree and settled in the trees at the edge of the clearing and I got several excellent sightings.

Soon more and more birds flew by with some perching where I could get good looks for identification. I don’t have the talent, patience or equipment for proper bird photography so I just enjoy watching and identifying them and have no marvelous bird pictures to share. After 7 o’clock we moved down from out clearing into the small valley and looked for forest birds in the underbrush. Only one good sighting as my guide pointed out a bird in the canopy directly over our heads, normally canopy birds are hard to sight and identify from below but there was just enough opening and light to see it.

We followed the stream at the bottom of the valley to the highway. There we walked along the road a short distance and I had more good sightings including a beautiful small blue kingfisher, flying along the stream and perching on overhanging limps looking for prey. We crossed the road and walked through what appeared to be the back yard of a small coconut farmer’s house, through coconut and mango trees to the mangroves that line the sea shore. There on the mudflats I saw more birds including a larger blue kingfisher.

After a while we walked back to the highway, this time crossing in front of the farmer’s home, where he and his family were relaxing outside on mats spread over a raised platform under a thatched roof that acts as the outside living room for the house. My guide greeted them and they said hello, and seemed happy to have people walking through their yard. The farmer smiled and waved to me as I said Good Morning. We crossed the highway again, following the opposite side of the stream. We heard many birds around us including hornbills and wild chickens but in the underbrush and thick foliage, I didn’t see any. A little disappointing since they were two of the species I most wanted to see.

By this time it was well after 8 o’clock and we went back to the spot where we entered the forest and Edi was there waiting for us. It was suggested that I could take a boat to a nearby island and there see more birds, but 2 hours hiking in the humid forest had drained me; my travel vest and shirt were both drenched in sweat and I declined. Even though I hadn’t seen a couple of birds I wanted, it had been a great birding experience, I identified 28 different bird species, 20 of which were new to me for my life list of birds.

I was getting hungry and after dropping off the guide and thanking him for an excellent experience, we continued down the road and I suggested we stop for breakfast. Edi seemed very hesitant to stop and finally suggested that if I could handle it, we would drive to his home and eat there. I had forgotten we were to have lunch at his home with his family and eating a late breakfast would disrupt that. Once I realized what he was thinking, I quickly agreed, luckily I’d packed some snacks in my backpack and satisfied my hunger with potato chips

The drive Kuta took us along the west coast of Bali, not back over the mountains in the center of the island. The main road along the coast is Highway 1 and very well maintained. We didn’t need to speed and drove along at a good pace, giving me an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Bali. The road passed through a small city with a beautiful park of open lawns and monuments. The highway was tree lined most of the way with the branches arching over and shading the road. Along the highway was forest, rice paddies and coconut plantations. Where it neared the shore I could see the waves crashing onto rocky beaches and no signs of the intense tourism that dominates the southern tip of the island.

The trip to Edi’s home took two hours and I enjoyed every minute. Pulling off the highway we took a narrow rural road through his village. On one side of the road was farmland, the rice paddies ready for harvest. On the other side homes lined the road down a small slope. Parking on the narrow shoulder, we walked down the drive way to his comfortable house which he shared with his father, mother-in-law, wife and 10 year olds son. Seated in the shade of the covered patio I could look past the small neatly trimmed garden to the home’s Hindu shrine. In an open sided building next to the house that served as an outdoor kitchen or work space, several ladies were busy sorting, cleaning and filling small round baskets woven from palm fronds. The ladies were neighbors helping prepare offering baskets for a family ceremony of offerings to the Hindu spirits and gods that they hold twice a year and would take place in two day. It is a very important ceremony for the family so neighbors help out but don’t participate. When the neighbors hold their own ceremonies, the ladies of Edi’s household will help them.

Edi’s father, a very friendly man about my own age seemed truly happy to have me at his home, he spoke no English but used both hands to shake mine. Edi introduced me to his wife and when his son came home from school made a big deal about getting his son to say hello to me, the boy was so shy he resisted coming near. Edi’s wife came out and shook my hand and served a large meal there on the patio. Edi told me they eat most of their meal outside on the small round concrete tables. His mother in law, a little lady about 5 feet tall with white hair didn’t speak to me but smiled broadly and eagerly shook my hand.

Lunch was great, we had rice of course along with Balinese style chicken with peppers and lemon (hot and spicy), boiled eggs with a red pepper sauce that was very mild and tasty, ground chicken liver, hearts, and spices steamed in banana leaves, bean sprouts with other vegetables, fried noodles with cabbage and chicken feet with potatoes in a green chicken broth. All of it was excellent and I had some of everything. Only Edi ate with me, I think more because it was not yet noon and not because I was a guest, and the ladies stayed inside except when serving. For desert they brought out fried banana slices and fresh fruit along with excellent Bali Coffee served in old Dutch Blue china cups. I was stuffed so had only one slice of the fried banana and one piece of fruit. The fruit bowl had small Bananas, green Oranges, red Rambutan and Snake Skin Fruit. Snake Skin Fruit is brown, shaped like a fig and has scales looking exactly like snake skin, hence the name. It pealed easily revealing three large cloves of firm fruit containing the large seeds. Biting into it, it was almost crunchy, tasting like a good, slightly sweet apple; excellent. I had eaten Rambutan with its spiny skin many times in the Philippines but the Snake Skin Fruit was new to me.

After pictures of everyone and the ladies working on the offering baskets it was time to leave. I was full to bursting and impressed that Edi had taken me to his home to meet his family; I felt honored. We drove along more good roads back to Kuta, the beauty of the country side morphing into the outskirts then hustle and bustle of the beach resort community. It wasn’t yet 12 noon and I was tired from a long day of driving but very satisfied by the birding trek in the forest and the wonderful lunch with Edi and meeting his family; a wonderful final outing on Bali. Not only had I seen the beach city that is most peoples destination but experienced a little of the real Bali that most tourists don’t see and may not even know exists.

Next time I’ll wrap up my trip to Bali, but for now it is time to relax.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Face to Face with Komodo Dragons

Hello Fellow Travelers

A primary reason for my trip to Bali besides Beautiful Weather, Beautiful Beaches, Beautiful Women, etc. is that it’s close to Indonesia’s Komodo National Park and the four islands where the largest lizards in the world live, Komodo Dragons. They live up to 50 years and males grow to over 9 feet long, females over 6 feet. The four islands are in the string of islands that stretch East of Bali. The Dragons are restricted to those islands because they can’t swim more than 500 meters; being cold blooded their body temperature drops too low. There are a few islands they can swim to, but these have no water sources so the Dragons return to the islands they came from.

The tour I booked had a two person minimum, luckily there were two tours already booked so I just had to choose which best worked for me; my tour was for two days and one night.

The morning of my tour, the driver was at the hotel a little early and I was out before 05:30. At the airport my driver handed me two airline tickets, one for that morning and one for the return trip to Bali. He let me out at the curb with very cryptic instructions. Since the Denpasar airport is undergoing major construction the walk to Domestic Check-in was long and circuitous. Finally through baggage screening I found the check-in counters, but not the one for my airline, TransNusa, after asking one security guard and then another, I finally found my counter in the next room. With just enough in my back-pack for an overnight stay, I didn’t check a bag and went through screening to the gate. There were several Europeans waiting for the same flight and a small café was open. The first concerns came when I noticed my flight was not on the Departure Board and no one from the airline was at the gate. At 06:30 my plane was supposed to board but still no activity at the gate, then my flight appeared on the Departure Board, for 08:30 departure. Minutes later a man arrived at the gate so I asked him what was happening. He said the ticket had the correct time and the plane would board shortly. About 15 minutes later he opened the doors and told everyone to wait for the bus to the airplane. Five minutes later the bus arrived and we were finally on our way. The plane was a Fokker 50 Turbo Prop with 4 across seating in narrow seats. Luckily it was only about half full so I moved into an empty row and had an empty seat next to me for the one and a half hour flight. The attendants passed out small boxes for the light breakfast; a glass of water and sweet roll, not even coffee. With my early start breakfast was a little disrupted: a small bottle of juice, donut and coffee in my room, cup of coffee and bad cheese sandwich (two pieces of thin bread and one slice of processed cheese, no butter, etc.) at the airport and the water and roll on the plane.

When we landed at Komodo Airport at Labuan Bajo on Flores Island, my tour guide Marshal was waiting. Surprisingly there was no one else going on the tour with me, I didn’t mind having a private tour but surprised since I was supposed to be with at least two other people. We drove to the city harbor, about 5 minutes away. The busy harbor had a large pier with lots of small wooden boats moored, bow to the pier. My boat, the Rainbow Star was one of the smaller, with an open bow covered by an awning, small pilot house, small head (toilet stall) and galley (kitchen) behind that and the stern enclosed with mattresses covering a low platform. The boat was manned by its Captain and one crewman who Marshal always referred to as “The Crew”. The bow was about 3 feet lower than the pier and the crewman struggled for about 5 minutes trying to position a ladder to the boat, but it kept slipping off the bow as the boat moved about from the rough water. Finally the captain went to the larger boat alongside with a higher bow. I got down on hands and knees, reached down with one foot to find the boat’s bow, then brought down the other leg, not a graceful maneuver. Then it was easy to climb over the railing onto my boat. All the time many hands trying to help and instructions in broken English made it harder than it needed to be.

Finally under way, we squeezed backward out from among the tightly packed boats at the pier. Once out of the harbor the water became rougher with large rollers coming in from the open sea. I was told the boat trip would take two and a half hours, it fact it took over three hours. The first hour was rough with the boat going straight into the large rollers then turned to Port and they met us broadside, giving a nice roll to the boat. Finally past a couple of island with the outer reef giving protection, the water calmed and we made better time. Finally we came to Rinca Island, one of the four islands making up Komodo National Park. There are two villages on the island with about 1000 people living there. Around the island on the side opposite the villages is the headquarters for the National Park. As we finally rounded the last bit of land, the pier to the park came into view, it was almost 12 Noon. Three other boats were at the pier as we dropped our anchor from the stern and nosed to the low pier and it was an easy step off from the bow.

At the end of the pier we met my park ranger guide on the island, Sherif. He was young, in his twenties and a Park Ranger for about 3 years. He works 10 days on then 10 days off, staying in cottages with other rangers at the park headquarters. All visitors must be with a ranger who carry long forked sticks, their only protection from the Dragons. From the pier I could see Long Tailed Macaques playing in the mangroves at the water’s edge, much better view of them than I had at the National Park in Sarawak. The trail from the pier is being upgraded and raised with concrete curbing but now it is just a muddy trail between the new curbs that are still being poured in places. A new entry gate is completed and the trail leads through it across a wide mud flat that floods during extreme high tides. At the Ranger Station I signed into the Park and paid the entrance and Ranger fees. With the Conservation Fee of Rp 150,000 it cost a total of Rp 280,000 for my visit (about US$ 25).

I was given the opportunity to choose which trail we would hike; two short tracks of 1 to 1 ½ hours, one medium trail about 2 hours and a long trail taking 2 ½ to 3 hours. It was getting hot so I chose the 1 hour trail; it was after 12:00 when Sherif, Marshal and I start out. Less than 50 yards on, before we got out of the headquarters compound we saw the Dragons. 5 huge lizards were resting in the shade next to and under one of the cabins built on stilts the rangers live in. There were 3 large males, up to 9 feet long, a smaller male and a female about 6 feet long. One of the precautions given to all visitors is to not get within 5 meters of the Dragons. Sherif stood in front with his forked stick in hand, making sure we always had the 5 meter buffer zone between us and Dragons. They were all resting calmly, since they usually aren’t active during the heat of the day. Though the Rangers don’t feed the Dragons, they have a keen sense of smell and the food in the raised cabins attracts them. At one point a rush of water from the sink in one cabin poured onto the dirt and two Dragons immediately rushed to it. They were incredibly fast, luckily it was in the opposite direction from us standing there so I could see how fast they could move without having to test my own sprinting abilities. Once they determined there was no food in the waste water, they ambled back to where they were resting before. Much better to see them walking than just lying on the ground. It was also a chance to see them flicking their long forked tongue which is sensitive to smells, literally tasting the air; they can smell food up to 5 kilometers away.

Soon watching them lying about lost its appeal so we continued on our way. Alongside the trail was a nesting area where one of the females lays her eggs. She will dig several nests and bury her eggs, 35 to 50 at a time. The decoy nest help protect the eggs from other Dragons which will dig them up and eat them. Birds known as Megapods also bury their eggs in the nests. The birds lay their eggs about 1 meter deep and the Dragon’s eggs are about 2 meters deep.

The trail led along a small stream then up the hill to the open grass lands that cover the interior of the island. On the edge of the forest we came across a large Water Buffalo bull grazing on the rich green grass of the rainy season. Wild Water Buffalo, Deer and Wild Boar are the main food sources of the Dragons. The Dragons give vicious bites and are considered venomous with over 60 different types of bacteria in their mouths. They will wait in ambush, springing on their prey, biting them once then letting go. The bite is so nasty, it will immediately become infected and the Dragon will wait until the animal dies which can take from 2 days to 2 weeks. Because they are cold blooded they can go up to a month between meals. Because of their keen senses, when one makes a kill many other Dragons will converge on it; up to a dozen eating one Water Buffalo.

Alongside the trail Sherif pointed out a 2 foot long, pencil thin snake with a green belly and red stripe down the back. He called it a Pencil Snake because it was so long and thin, it is also non-venomous. The only other wild life we saw on the rest of the trek was a baby Macaque hoping through the tall grass going between trees and a crow that flew off.

After 1 hour hiking in the intense heat we had circled around, back to the headquarters. I needed to sit down. There was a new raised and covered rest area with large tables and benches along with a small shop selling a few souvenirs and cold drinks. Another group of six people was resting also, when they headed back to their boat I asked Sherif if I would see anything different on the other short trail, he just smiled and said No, pointed to the sun and said it was too hot. I agreed it was too hot and said I would just go back to the boat. I had seen everything I wanted, saw my Dragons and was satisfied. Sherif said good bye, and after shaking his hand and thanking him, Marshal and I walked back to the boat.

A couple more boats had moored at the pier, and everyone seemed to be having lunch. We got underway and soon after the crewman set lunch out on the small table under the foredeck awning. I was nearly in shock, he served Glazed fish steaks in tomato sauce, Rice, Fried Noodles and a warm salad of Green beans and julienned Cucumber. It was delicious, how he managed to cook it all in the tiny ship’s Galley I’ll never know. Marshal told me he had taken courses in tourism at college which included cooking classes.

Then it was the long 3 hour cruise back to the harbor and the water was a little rougher than in the morning. Marshal spent most of the trip laying down and when he was up, looked more scared than sick, I don’t think he liked being out on the water, especially when it was rough. Back at Labuan Bajo, I gave the Captain Rp 50,000 tip (less than US $5) and a van took me to my hotel for the night where I gave Marshal his tip.

The hotel was great, close to the beach, nice pool and huge rooms but no TV and the kitchen was closed. It was nearly 5 PM when I checked in so I took a quick walk around the garden then a warm shower and changed clothes. At 6:30 the hotel van drove me to the next hotel on the beach where I had dinner in their restaurant overlooking the wide sandy beach. Of course it couldn’t be perfect, the mosquitos nearly ate me alive in the open air restaurant until the waitress brought me some insect repellent; finally I could eat my dinner, drink a cold beer and watch an international Badminton match on TV. The next morning breakfast was at the same restaurant where I watched shore birds while eating then back to my own hotel where I watched Sunbirds feeding in the garden while waiting to leave for the airport.

I left the hotel about 10 AM for my 11:30 flight. The Labuan Bajo airport is named Komodo Airport and undergoing a major upgrade. A huge new terminal is nearly completed but until it opens the old, small wooden frame building next to the runway is still used. Baggage screening to enter the terminal may or may not be manned and your bag may or may not be scanned. Once inside there were a few Europeans and several more locals standing near piles of baggage and a few people talking at the three airline counters. When I stepped up the man behind the counter told me my flight on Sky Aviation was cancelled but I would have a seat on the 11:30 TransNusa flight. For the next hour workers for the two airlines would huddle first behind the counter, then move to one of the offices, then back to the counter. Finally about 11:15 and after the next airplane had landed, one man finally sat at the computer terminal and began to make out the new tickets. Mine was the 5th name called and I very thankfully took it, paid the Rp 30,000 (US $3) airport tax, and walked thru security where I was waved through without X-raying my bag or me through the metal detector, everyone one was in too much of a hurry.

The plane was a BAe 146-200 four engine jet, lots of room and full size seats. We were finally loaded and took off about 12:00, only a half hour late. A quick meal was served, the same glass of water and sweet roll served on my flight to the island. With no checked luggage I got from the plane to the arrivals area of the airport on Bali in no time. There were maybe 20 people holding signs for people but none with my name nor the name of my tour company. After 30 minutes waiting, I walked to the Taxi Counter and paid for my own taxi back to the hotel for Rp 70,000 (less than US $7). The morning had started so good at the hotel but after the frustration of not knowing if I would get onto the plane in Labuan Bajo and no ride at the airport in Bali, I was tired. A good shower and late lunch helped and I could finally relax. My trip to see the Komodo Dragons was a success and I had some good travel stores. My next adventure will be a private bird watching trip across to the other side of Bali.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Hindu Temples and More

Hello Everyone

Bali is a world class resort destination, mostly it is a place of Beaches, Night Clubs and literally thousands of Hotels; from back packer and surfer havens to 5 star luxury Resorts. But the Island of Bali is much more, it has a Hindu tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

My flight arrived late in the afternoon, it was a long trip from Kuching, only 600 miles but I had to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Bali so it took me all day. I arrived at the hotel in Kuta about 8 PM. It was easy to check-in, but the room wasn’t ready, why it hadn’t been made up before then I have no idea, but after a short wait I got to my room and could go find something to eat, across the street are a couple cheap restaurants.

My first day on Bali showed me I had booked in the center of the Beach Crowd Bali, short walk to the beach, crowded with Australians and Europeans as well as tourists from all over Asia. Where ever I stopped on my walk, someone would ask where I was from and the local’s eyes all lit up when I told them “America”. Few American tourists come, especially since the bomb blast in 2002. All of the locals I met were very friendly. My first day’s objective was to plan some tours while here. At the hotel tour desk I booked a tour for the next day to the interior of the island to visit Hindu Temples and an area of famous rice terraces in the mountains.

The hotel tour desk had no information about tours to see Komodo Dragons and the closest they could come for a bird watching tour or private guide was a tour that included a Bird Park with birds in enclosures, not exactly what I call Birding.

About a mile down the beach from my hotel I found a tour counter that did offer several options for a side trip to see the Dragons. All of the tours had a two person minimum but after some negotiation and phone calls, I was able to sign up for a tour by joining a group already booked. This was on Tuesday and the tour was for Friday. I booked the 2 day tour since the only purpose was to visit the Komodo National Park and see the dragons and not a tour of several islands.

The rest of the day was spent staying out of the heat, getting to know the area and watching the busy crowds. It was interesting to watch the different types of tourists who visit Bali. Australian surfers and beach bums with beer in hand and tanned from long hours in the sun along walking past Europeans with pale white skin ready for a good burn in the hot sun. Lots of Asians including Koreans, Chinese and Japanese usually in groups. Others from Southeast Asia, often Indonesians from other islands usually traveling in family groups and families of Middle Easterners almost always families and the women everything from stylish head scarfs to others draped in black from head to foot and only a small slit opening for the eyes. It really is a cosmopolitan beach community.

Indonesia is a predominately Muslim Nation, but with large populations of other religions. On Bali the population is predominately Hindu but I saw nothing that indicated any problems between the groups. The terrorist bombing in 2002 was an anomaly that to my knowledge has not been repeated. That bombing targeted Australians and they have returned with little concern for their safety. There is some street crime, but for people who don’t do stupid things, I feel Bali is very safe.

The next morning my tour guide was waiting for me at 09:00, his name is Edi and proved to be great. I turned out to be the only guest so riding in the front passenger seat, I had a private tour of Bali’s interior. The vast majority of visitors to Bali come for only the beaches and don’t venture far, even on day tours from the hotels.

The first hour was mostly spent getting through the heavy traffic on narrow streets in the city, even with the good traffic discipline it was slow going. Once out of the cities near the beaches a different Bali revealed itself; light traffic, forest, large valleys of intense rice farming and small Hindu shrines and temples everywhere. Several times we were slowed at intersections by processions of people dressed in white and carrying flowers and colorful offerings to temples. They were celebrating the full moon and a holy day for Hindus.

We finally arrived at the first stop on the tour. The Temple of Taman Ayun. It was very old and covered a large area of several acres surrounded by a wide moat. As we parked just outside the gates, I noticed several men quietly sitting fishing on the edge of the dam controlling water levels of the moat. For a small fee I could tour the grounds, just not into the holy grounds in the very center of the complex. Outside the inner walls, a stone walkway led around the holy area but the low wall allowed me to see in. It was very peaceful with lots of shrines. Between the moat and the inner wall were a few small temple buildings and a large park, the trees marked to identify different species and wide stone paths. It was great to walk in the shade or just sit and contemplate life. The path was definitely not handicap accessible with steps up and down everywhere, seldom more than three or four up or down, but enough for my oft stated mantra: God I Hate Stone Steps. One of the unique features of the temple was that part of the complex was a very ornate Cock-Fighting arena, not large but with statues inside the arena where the fights took place.

After 45 minutes of peaceful strolling, I was back at the gate and we continued on our journey. Along the highway we pulled over at a large sign “Coffee Break”. Subak Bali Agro is a small locally owned organic farming enterprise that grows and sells coffee and tea. Not a typical coffee shop, first you walk through a small demonstration garden where the coffee, tea and spice plants are displayed. We passed a small bamboo hut where ladies were roasting coffee over an open fire and grinding coffee and spices the traditional way. Next to the hut was a small cage holding what she called a Mongoose but I believe to be an Asian Civet Cat. The most expensive item they make and sell is Luwak Coffee famous the world over as the most expensive coffee. The Civet eats the coffee beans which pass through the digestive system. The cat’s poo is collected and the beans removed, washed then roasted and people pay big money for it.

Finally the lady brought me to a small thatched shelter where all of the products they sell were set out in small glass jars. Except for the Luwak coffee the tastings were all free, it cost Rp 50,000 (less than US$5) for a cup. For my “Bazaar Foods” moment, I took a cup of the famous brew. She also mixed me a cup of Bali Coffee, famous for being dark and rich flavored. The Luwak coffee was a murky brown color and wasn’t bad but had a much different flavor, it was mild without the rich flavor I enjoy in good coffee. The small cup of Bali Coffee on the other hand was magnificent. So the coffee break was actually an impromptu tour and sales opportunity. After tasting several different coffees and teas: Coconut Coffee, Ginger Tea, Ginseng Tea, Lemon Grass Tea, etc. I was full and ready to go. The exit path led through the sales shop where the organic coffee etc were available. A 100 gram packet of Luwak Coffee cost Rp 400,000 (nearly US$ 40). I just paid for the cup I drank, thanked them and continued on my journey across Bali.

Edi drove into the mountains in central Bali. Along the way as we were becoming more comfortable chatting, I told him about the lack of birding tours. He told me he had a friend who was a birding guide and after several phone calls we worked out a private tour for me on the following Monday. It would be a long day because the best area for what I wanted was all the way across the island from my hotel, but that would be worth it.

The next stop was at the Ulun Banu Beratan Temple on the shores of a high mountain lake. It was a beautiful location, green forest reached from the surrounding mountains to the water’s edge with a small city on side. Cool and green, it was a haven that I know many expats would love to call home. I wandered the grounds for some time, enjoying the beauty of the small temples at the waters edge and park like grounds of the temple complex. There were many people there and even some larger tour groups but no huge groups since the larger 60 passenger buses would not make it up the windy mountain road getting there.

After I had tired myself in the heat of midday, we drove to a restaurant for lunch. Not a small local restaurant but a large buffet that catered to tours. The food was good, all you could eat and could have been in any tourist stop anywhere in the world. But that is what happens on tours, they take everyone to restaurants that the guides know are safe and reliable.

After lunch we crossed the mountains to the famous Rice Terraces, through small villages and towns, along winding and steep rural roads. And everywhere the local temples decked out in bright colors with offerings of food and flowers.

The valley famous for its rice terraces is narrow and steep. The narrow terraces reach far up the slopes and worked by hand, too narrow for machines to operate in or even get to. I had seen similar terraces in the Philippines. Those were even narrower and reached farther up the mountains, but they also only produced one crop of rice a year and in danger of being abandoned because it is such hard work for so little rice. In Bali they can harvest 3 crops a year and it remains economical to work the fields. We were the only car at the overlook area when we arrived but soon after another small van drove in and parked. It was driven by a European couple with no guide or driver. Edi commented how dangerous or fool hardy that could be. The local police are very strict of tourists who violate regulations and personally the risks of driving yourself far outweigh the cost savings of not hiring a driver.

The last stop of the day was a temple back on the coast so we headed down the mountains again, across the fertile rice growing areas and through more villages and some small cities. The one city seemed very nice with tree lined streets, good roads and very nice homes. A sign for a housing development caught my eye, a small two bedroom, one bath home with small garden and parking area cost Rp 300,000,000 or about US$ 30,000 and could make for a very affordable retirement home. The Pura Tanah Lot is a complex of three shrines built along low cliffs overlooking the ocean. The first shrine was on a rock connected to the shore by a narrow walkway over a natural stone arch with waves breaking on the rocks below. It also offered the best view of the second shrine built on the point next point of land. Below the cliffs was a rocky beach and some climbed down the rocks to get there. All along the pathway that ran next to the top of the cliff was a very low curb, no safety rail which would be required in the US, only signs warning of danger. At the second shrine were pointed concrete spikes poking up from the curb with the sharpened end painted red and acting as a barrier to the edge, they looked more menacing than the cliffs.

Between the shrines were open lawns and shaded park areas. This was the most crowded of the temples we visited with most of the Hindu faithful there to give offerings to their Gods and Guardian Spirits going to the third and main shrine built on a small island about 30 yards off shore which you could walk to at low tide. The tide was low when we were there so men in white and ladies in beautiful Batik dresses crossed to the island carrying baskets of food and flower offerings. Non Hindus couldn’t go onto the island or into the shrines but stood on the rocks playing in the water or taking pictures of the beautiful images. In a small sea cave next to the path to the island a sign said “Holy Snake” For a small fee you could go in and see or maybe touch the holy snake which I have to assume was a Cobra since I didn’t pay the fee to find out for certain.

By now it was getting late and I was tired from the hot sun and walking around the temple grounds. In the comfort of the air-conditioned van I regained my strength but was very happy when we arrived back at the hustle-and-bustle of Kuta and my hotel. Edi and I finalized arrangements for my tour to go bird watching. Then it was back to the same little restaurant for dinner; with good food, reasonable prices and cute waitresses, why go anywhere else.

My next adventure would be to Komodo National Park to see the Dragons, but that is a story for next time.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Sarawak Cultural Village

Hello My Friends

My last full day in Kuching had no scheduled tours or events so I went exploring on my own. It really wasn’t completely unplanned. Near to Kuching, about 45 minutes by car from the city on the Santubong [SA1] Peninsula is the Sarawak Cultural Village. A center to display traditional life of the people of Borneo and Sarawak in particular. It collected some of the few traditional Longhouses which were the traditional living arrangements of the tribal groups that once existed on the Island. The long houses were large communal living spaces for tribes where extended family groups or clans would live and work under one roof.

Since it isn’t easy to reach without a car, bus companies offer minivan service there. One of these companies picked up passengers at a hotel about a 10 minute walk from my hotel. I could have taken a tour but that would basically be the same thing except they would pick me up at my hotel and bring me back, for a much higher fee.

Since the Cultural Village held a native dance show twice a day, I planned to get there in time for an hour or so to walk around before the 11:30 performance. The minivan schedule was every two hours starting at 07:15 so I planned for the 09:15 bus. I took a leisurely walk to the hotel where I bought a return ticket (round trip ticket) from the concierge of the Grand Margherita Hotel which was the pick-up-point, for RM24 (about US$7). I was a little early so had about 20 minutes to wait. The hotel is next to the Sarawak River and I took a walk on the promenade along the river. A wide and well maintained paved walkway which is a fine focal point and leads past the Main Bazaar area to the hotel and shopping area of the city; it is well used by locals and tourists alike.

It was a dry and calm Sunday morning with just a few joggers and strollers on the promenade. On the river there were no large shrimp boats going down to the sea and one lone wooden rowboat with two fishermen on the calm waters. I watched as one man stood rowing with two oars at the stern of the boat as another man in the bow worked the net. I was so fascinated I lost track of time and had to hurry back to the Hotel. I needn’t have rushed, at 09:15 the van was there parked but the driver seemed in no hurry to start collecting passenger. Finally about 09:25 he opened the door to the van and walked slowly to the hotel. I took that as my cue, with my prepaid ticket in my hand, I boarded the empty van to wait for the driver’s return. About 5 minutes later I saw him at the hotel doors talking with the concierge and then he herded 9 Chinese tourists to the van. After they were squeezed into the 12 passenger van we were finally off. The driver maneuvered through side streets and finally got back to the main street along the promenade going in the opposite direction. We stopped at another hotel where a South Korean tourist squeezed into the last fold down seat. Since the A/C in the van didn’t seem to work, I was finally able to open the sliding window on my side which offered a welcome blast of air in the crowded, stifling van.

We headed out of town, going along a fine highway that eventually turned into a not so fine two lane country road with very well worn and rough stretches, interspersed with rubble zones where 6 or so very low speed bumps were laid out across the highway as speed control devices. Finally we arrived at the Cultural Village on the edge of the resort area around Damai beach. Most of the passengers piled out there, the few others continued on in the van to the beach.

The entrance fee for the park was RM60 (about US$17) and for that I got a Passport which explained what the sites were and spaces to be stamped at each stop on the circuit. Each stop represented a village of one of the 7 tribal groups of Sarawak plus Chinese farmers who arrived in the early 1900s. These are built around a manmade lake which is symbolic of the fact all the groups originally built their villages and homes near rivers and the ocean. A paved or wooden board walk circles the lake with the large, raised wooden building housing the restaurant and theater between the lake and the entrance.

I didn’t stop at all the exhibits but did visit most of them. All were buildings moved onto the site and are probably the only examples of original buildings of their type tourists are likely to see in the Sarawak. Any buildings like them that do exist have been modernized with plumbing, electricity and modern interiors so even though it is pretty cheesy, it’s worth the visit.

There were displays of workshops and living spaces with people from the tribal groups in traditional clothing and doing traditional crafts and to talk with visitors and answer questions. Leading to the first house was a traditional bamboo bridge, the trail led around it for those too squeamish to walk across the seemingly fragile and flexible structure. I walked across on the two large bamboo logs that made up the walkway of the bridge, only occasionally grabbing the rail that due to the crossed bamboo supports were just at the end of my reach on either side. I thought I was doing fine until the young Chinese lady following me asked if I needed a hand. I said no and sped up my pace.

Inside the Iban tribe’s Longhouse, a lady was slowly weaving a traditional design on a very simple loom. I also saw a traditional tribal mask, I liked that because I had something to look for in a mask. Unfortunately I never did find a mask that looked anything like it in any of the souvenir shops I looked through during my stay in Sarawak and found one that I think is of traditional design, I’m sure it isn’t a real antique but I wouldn’t expect to find an original tribal mask in my price range.

I did climb the three flights of stairs to the Orang Ulu Longhouse, I hate wooden steps almost as much as stone steps, but it did get me out of the rain that started coming down in buckets just as I got to the bottom of the stairs and there was no other sheltered area nearby. Inside the Longhouse a very pretty lady was kneeling behind a small table selling a few souvenirs. Seeing her was worth the long climb up the stairs. Standing on the covered porch waiting for the rain to stop or at least let up a little, all I could think of was the smiling Chinese gentleman from the minivan who had told me he and his family were headed to the beach; I hoped they were able to find shelter. Around the lake, the Melanau Longhouse also had long stairs leading to it, so I just took a picture and walk on, it had stopped raining by then.

The Malay House had one flight of stairs so I climbed those but just poked my head in through the door to take a picture because you had to remove your shoes to enter; I had worn my hiking shoes and not sandals so took my pictures and stamped my Passport before going back down the steps.

My last stop was the Chinese Farmhouse. Divided into two parts and built at ground level, the farmhouse contained the family living area with beds, kitchen, etc. on one end and at the other end where work took place were farming tool displays including small, wooden, hand powered thrashing and cleaning machines for pepper, one of the major crops farmed by the early Chinese.

By that time I was getting hot and tired from walking in the heat and humidity so I retreated to the Theater/Restaurant building. It was still about 20 minutes before the cultural dance performance so I found a seat in the shade outside the restaurant and relaxed, watching the other tourists coming and going. I had brought my own bottled water so didn’t buy anything to eat or drink.

When one of the workers began ringing a gong, I guessed the doors to the theater were about to open so I moved over to a seat near those doors while the other visitors queued up at the door; the line quickly stretched out from the shade of the overhanging roof to the direct sunlight. I figured there would be plenty of empty seats so decided to wait in the shade. Shortly thereafter the South Korean young man who was the last to board my minivan came over and sat down beside me. He didn’t speak much English, and I don’t remember any Korean, but we had a rough conversation anyway. Finally a tiny, skinny man dressed like a forest ranger opened the doors and the now much longer line of people moved inside. When the end reached the shade my Korean friend and I got in line. To my surprise the theater was air conditioned, built like a building within a building, the traditional wood and thatched roofed building hid a 400 seat theater with tiered, cushioned seats. The crowd spread out into separate groups scattered throughout the seating area, I followed my friend to the front row and on the left side was a nearly empty row of seats; we were about 1 meter from the stage. The doors opened a little after 11:30 and it was at least 11:45 before the curtains finally pulled back.

I can’t describe the entire dance show. I could barely hear and understood nothing the announcer said about each performance. I just enjoyed the choreographed routines of the dancers in colorful costume on the stage as they performed traditional dances. The last and longest routine was by two men in leather hide jumpers and cotton loin clothes carrying blowpipes and shields dancing a routine of hunting in the forest. It was very graceful and a crowd pleaser as they would make like they were aiming at something in the trees then lower the blowpipes to point into the audience. They picked out one lady in the front row who they acted like they took offense with and kept going back to her throughout the dance like she was their next target, all to great laughter. Finally one of the men demonstrated his accuracy by popping balloons on the wall of the right side of the stage from the far left side. With one balloon left, the two men went down into the audience and brought a pretty young lady up to the stage. After a drawn out and funny routine the men popped the balloon for her and the show was nearly over. All of the dancers came out on stage and invited people from the audience to come dance on the stage and then it was over.

Back outside the crowd dispersed, my friend from Korea and I ate lunch in the restaurant and then went to the front gate to wait for our ride back to Kuching; it was supposed to be there at 1:15 PM. A different van than the one we came in pulled up and a group who didn’t arrive with us clambered in, filling it to the hilt. It left and a man came over and told us that it had been our van but was full and they were trying to get a second van to come for us. About 15 minutes later the van and driver we came in arrived and we were told to get in. Just as we settled in the first van reappeared, it had taken some people to the beach and came back. There were two empty seats left, the two fold down seats. However when we got on, two others also boarded. I was in the second fold down seat, my friend in the one in front of me and the two others sitting on the engine hump behind the driver’s seat facing backward. The A/C worked in this van but not enough for the 14 passengers in a 12 passenger van. The suspension was overloaded and hitting the rumble zones and rough patches on the highway bounced the van so much that the Scottish gentleman in the 4th row seat finally yelled at the driver to slow down, which he did for a while. By the time the 45 minute drive was over, mine and my friend’s backs were about broken from the terrible seats and the grumbling from the back row was getting louder. At the hotel everyone got out, even those going to other hotels. For the first time ever, I complained to the driver about the ride, little good it did, I’m not sure he understood a word I said. But it made me feel better and the Scottish man agreed loudly.

I was hot, my back hurt and I needed to do a bit of souvenir shopping before going back to the hotel. I walked about 20 minutes down the now lively promenade to the main bazaar. There I went through several shops before finding the few things I needed, including the mandatory mask for my collection. Only then did I head back to my hotel and a couple of well-earned Gin and Tonics.

My journey across Borneo was over, in the morning I would leave for Bali and will tell about that next time.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Orangutans at Semenggoh Wildlife Center

Hello Fellow Travelers,

The Island of Borneo is one of only two places in the world where Orangutan are found in the wild, the other being the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. Near the city of Kuching is one of the oldest centers for the rescue of these endangered Apes called Orang Utan or “Man of the Forest”. The van picked me up for my morning at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center within the Semenggoh Nature Reserve at 08:00, since the hotel started serving breakfast at 07:00 I was ready to go. Louise, a young lady from Ireland also booked the tour from the Lime Tree Hotel and we joined the English couple I had met on my trip to Baku National Park.

The drive to the Wildlife Center took about 45 minutes through the morning traffic of Kuching and we arrived just on time. Because we were in a small van, we could drive to the car park inside the center, large tour busses are too big to turn around so those passengers have to walk the 1+ kilometer to the viewing area. From the car park it was just a short downhill walk to the viewing area along with washrooms, small café, souvenir shop, photo gallery, etc. and even a few cages holding large crocodiles; the only animals other than Orangutan at the center. The covered viewing area was for a feeding platform across a small gully from the buildings. The other viewing area a couple hundred yards into the forest for a feeding platform used when the Orangutans are in that area.

At 09:00 a park Ranger stood up a podium near the roped off trail and called everyone over to relate the rules of the center. He stressed that the Apes are wild and not all or even any were guaranteed to show up for the feeding. January is in the fruiting season so there is a lot of natural food available for them in the wild. There are 27 Orangutan at the center, 11 rescued from traffickers and as pets or found as orphans and taken to the center; the others were born in the center. He reminded everyone not to get closer than 5 meters from them, even if they approached on the ground. Never to make eye contact and if they appeared aggressive, don’t stand still but RUN away. The largest males can reach nearly 500 lbs and even the smaller ones are extremely strong and there are not enough Rangers at the center to overpower them if they grabbed someone. He also stressed that there could be NO flash photography, evidently the Orangutans don’t like the flashes of light and can cause them to either leave or be aggressive. We were instructed to be as quiet as possible once on the trail and at the viewing area and not matter if all 27 or none of the Orangutan appeared, we would only have 1 hour maximum to observe them.

When the Ranger finished he lowered the rope blocking off the trail and we followed him through the forest to the viewing area. The track was a bit muddy but well maintained and well-trod by the tourists visiting the twice daily feedings. The viewing platform was not covered but had raised wooden tiers so everyone could get a view of the feeding platform built about 6 feet off the ground across a small steam. Surrounding the feeding platform were mature trees and the undergrowth cut back. Large ropes were strung between some of the large trees and others led down from the trees to the feeding platform.

As we arrived at the viewing area, a mother Orangutan with a baby clinging to her breast was hanging from one of high overhead ropes. She slowly worked her way down the trees and ropes to the platform where one of the park rangers was piling bunches of bananas. The Orangutan didn’t pay any attention to the 60 or more tourists on the viewing platform or lined up on the trail at the rope strung between trees which was the only thing separating us from the Orangutans.

Soon another mother and baby arrived high in the trees and she used her long arms and legs with hand like feet to climb down almost effortlessly. She approached the platform from the opposite side as the first Orangutan. While one mother was at the platform the other would hold back. Sometimes when the Ranger’s attention was on the first mother, handing her bananas, the second mother would reach onto the platform to grab a bunch, holding bananas in her feet as she reached for more with her free hand. The babies clung on to the long hair of the mother’s chests and the mother only supporting them occasionally.

Shortly after that a juvenile male Orangutan came down from the high trees, working his way hand over hand, or hand over foot across the long span of ropes. When the mothers were close to the feeding platform it stayed high up, only slowly working his way down along the ropes when he saw he could approach the platform without getting close to the other apes. The strength of his arms and legs was amazing as he seemed to do slow cartwheels along the ropes; grab with a hand, then swing up his leg to grab with his foot, followed by his other hand then the other foot. He would hang upside down by his feet, seeming to plan his route to the platform.

The Orangutan would peel the bananas with their teeth then eat the fruit and let the peels drop. Mothers would sometimes peel bananas for their babies and the babies seemed to have learned to do it themselves at other times.

The Ranger tossed out other fruits to go with the bananas and the apes seemed to like the variety since they grabbed the new fruit as soon as it appeared. One mother grabbed a coconut and that seemed to satisfy her, she climbed high up into the trees, holding the precious coconut in her foot. There she pounded the coconut against the tree trunk, the sound echoing through the forest. Finally it cracked and she could get to the juice and then broke it apart to get to the coconut meat inside.

After about 45 minutes the Orangutans seemed to have had their fill and slowly started moving farther up into the trees and farther from the feeding platform so the tourists and their tour guides began moving back down the trail, stopping to take pictures of each other and talking again. Back at the road people milled around planning their next moves. Then word came that two more Orangutans were up at the car park and everyone moved quickly up the hill.

At the car park, about 20 feet up a tree next to the pavement was a mother and baby, a little older than the two babies we saw at the feeding platform. This youngster wasn’t clinging to its mother, but stayed close to her side. This was much closer than we got at the viewing platform, everyone crowded around the cars, jostling to find the best position to get pictures of the pair of Orangutan, or posing with themselves in front and the Apes in the tree behind them.

After about 10 minutes a Ranger with a sack of fruit showed up and he offered it to the pair. The youngster came down and took a couple of bananas but then retreated back up the tree. He began to play, swinging between trees, climbing to the top of small trees causing them to bend over until it came to another tree and the young ape would move to the branches of the new tree and move on. Soon the guides started ushering their charges back to the cars and vans. The one hour on the tour schedule was well past and they wanted to either continue on to the other included sites on their tours or take their charges back the hotels.

It was a better experience than I had expected. Since the Orangutans were not tame or in a controlled environment, it was nearly like seeing them in the wild since they could come and go as they wanted and most did forage for their own food. Especially seeing the two Orangutan at the car park was wonderful since it wasn’t a scheduled feeding and felt like a real bonus.

Back at the hotel it was nice to have some time to go wandering the streets and shops near the hotel, I took the opportunity to replace the $2 flip flops I bought in the Philippines and blew out in Brunei with rubber slippers for 10 Ringgits (about US$3). For dinner I wandered the street near the hotel where every third shop seemed to be some type of restaurant. Everything from high priced Pubs and air conditioned eateries with western cuisine to sidewalk vendors who set out a couple of plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk and lots of Malay Buffets with several dishes in serving dishes which seems to be the standard eatery in Malaysia. I stopped at a small shop about half full of locals, open in front with only fans blowing on the seated customers inside. On one side of the entrance was a man ladling soup and noodles into bowls which he passed to customers at tables outside. On the other side was a glass case on a counter with roast duck and Chinese Barbeque hanging inside; a small menu hand written in English taped to the glass.

At the counter behind the display case, I told the lady I wanted the “Mixed Duck and Rice with another dish of just Barbeque with no rice” she looked a little confused but a lady sitting close by spoke to her quickly and they both smiled. I took a seat and when another young lady brought a bowl of clear broth and glass of hot water with fork and spoon in it, I pointed to the sign of a can of Green Tea for my drink. Very quickly I was served one plate with rice and chopped up roast duck and another smaller plate with sliced Chinese Barbeque along with a can of Green Tea and Glass of ice; exactly what I ordered. It was a great if simple meal, the clear broth soup was warm and pretty tasteless but other than that I cleaned my plate. The meal cost RM12.50 (about US$4).

I had one more day in Kuching and planned to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village the next day; that will be in my next story.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Posted in Borneo, Malaysia | Leave a comment

Sarawak Malaysia, Baku National Park

Hello Travel Buddies,

I flew from Brunei on a direct flight to the Malaysian State of Sarawak, still on the Island of Borneo. I am in Kuching, the principle city of Sarawak and a pretty bustling community with many sites and activities within easy reach of the city. I arrived late in the afternoon but was able to arrange for two days of tours that evening. I am close to the downtown area so it was an easy walk the first night to find a shop to get a new USB Memory for my computer and get back into the business of sending out emails and pictures. Then dinner at a Malay restaurant, Black Pepper Chicken and rice with Iced Tea for 9 Malay Ringgits, about US$7.

The first morning I was up early, 05:30 so had my first cup of coffee in my room before my alarm went off. The Lime Tree Hotel is small, modern and very handy, they also serve a good breakfast at 07:00 so I was fed and ready to go when the tour bus driver arrived at 08:05, 15 minutes early. Tours require 2 person minimums but I was lucky enough to connect with a tour already booked by two people from another hotel. My driver took me to the Bako National Park entrance by myself, the others in my party would have a different ride from their hotel.

The Park entrance is just a car park and building in a small town outside the city. Behind the building is a Jetty on a river for the boats that actually take everyone to the Park. If there is a road to the park I never heard of it or saw it on a map. As I waited for the others to arrive, I spent my time on the pathway around the building watching Sunbirds feeding on Hibiscus flowers next to the car park. I spotted two species on the one bush; I hoped that would be a good omen for the day.

While waiting I met Joe who would be my guide in Bako, I asked about the birds I was watching and he didn’t know anything about them but went inside and brought out a park ranger who was a bird specialist who told me more about them than I could remember.

Soon the van with my two tour companions arrived; Graham and Sue were about my age from England, I was relieved since I knew I wouldn’t be left in the dust while hiking with them. Once Joe had signed us into the park, the four of us boarded a small open boat with canvas awning for rain and sun protection. The boat sped down river, through the village; homes, shops and car parks on the right hand shore which had the road and on the left side were homes built over the water on stilts with lots of boats moored and pulled up into boat houses or beside the homes, there was no road on that side and people crossed the river by boat to their cars to go to work or into the city.

The ride down river was between Mangrove and mud flats to the bay where the driver maneuvered though fish traps and nets in the shallows near shore. After about 40 minutes we passed sandstone cliffs and formations to a wide open beach. There the boat came close into shore, turned so the 85 horsepower engine was towards the beach and backed in as close as he could get then the driver and Joe got out to pull us in closer. Then with shoes in my backpack and pant legs rolled up I waded ashore. We walked across the wide sandy beach to a walkway, still barefoot, that led to the Park headquarters. Next to the walkway was a paved area with bench and water taps to wash our feet and put on our shoes. We caught up with Joe in the Park headquarters building where we had a few minutes to relax before our hike began.

The first stop of the hike was just in front on the lawn where a large wooden map of the park showed the 18 trails that crisscross the park and showed the expected time to hike each. The shortest was expected to take an hour and a half, the longest 7+ hours; the three of us were relieved Joe planned to take us on the short route. Before we got to the trail though, Joe led us through the grounds of the headquarters. Unlike most guides I’ve had in my travels, Joe was not a non-stop talker, he always answered our questions but didn’t spend a lot of time telling us what we were doing next or why. Leading us behind the main building, he then turned off the raised pathway on to a narrow path leading to a rundown building where he told us to wait while he went around the building and into a small cluster of trees in a swampy area behind the building. He then came back and told us to follow him, he led us to the edge of the swampy patch to a concrete drainage channel and told us to walk along it. The channel had two 4 inch wide sides separated by a 6 inch wide ditch, we walked with one foot on either side. Sue at first refused to go but after much coaxing she followed Joe and Graham and I followed her. About 10 feet along the ditch Joe pointed out a Large Green Snake resting on a limb of a small tree, about eye level 10 or so feet from us. The snake was about 3 feet long, blending magnificently with the green foliage. It was a Wagler’s Pit Viper, one of the two venomous snakes in the park, the other being a cobra. Luckily it was the only snake we saw that day, but it drove home the point to always look before reaching onto a tree branch for a handhold.

Back on the pathway, we diverted again through a fence to the area where the workers quarters were, there Joe slowed and then pointed to the trees; above and around us were several Silver Langur monkeys. We had been warned before even getting into the boat that there were no guarantees to see any wildlife, but that most visitors to the park do see some. With a Pit Viper, Silver Langurs and a couple of new birds I already felt the cost of the tour was worth it. Back on the pathway, we didn’t go 100 yards before a commotion in the trees to the left of us turned our attention to a group of Proboscis Monkeys, it was led by a large male and consisted of several females. The Proboscis is the star of the show in Boku National Park, considered one of the best places in Borneo to see the endangered species. It gets its name from its prominent nose that can be truly gigantic on large males.

Also along the trail, still on the headquarter grounds we walked within a few feet of a Wild Boar calmly feeding next to the pathway. All the animals are wild and seem to know that within the park and especially close to the headquarters they are protected, farther into the forest they are more wary of humans.

After seeing the tiny fiddler crabs in the mud flats near the boat jetty on a small stream we crossed a raised wooden walkway built across the stream and through the mudflats and mangroves. It was well worn and I wondered how long even the local hardwood would last in that climate and conditions, it felt strong as we walked over it but didn’t look very sturdy.

Once past the mangroves, we started up the dirt track into the forest. At the junction where we turned onto our trail, the path went straight up the side of the hill, I had a mental flashback to my hill climb in Brunei. Joe assured us the track we followed would be easier, lots of ups and downs but not nearly as demanding as the other trails. So we turned off to the left. The trail was mud and sand between tree roots, picking where to step became a full time job. I continually reminded myself to look at every root and branch I wanted to grab onto for support while going up and down the undulating trail. At steep spots there were wooden steps, some 6 to 8 inches high and others up to 18 inches, “God I Hate Steps, All Steps”.

Shortly after we entered the forest Joe, who was always looking side to side and into the trees, stopped, took a few more steps then stopped again. He pointed up to the right and motioned for us to look there. After a few seconds I saw a rustle in a tree about 50 yards away and there was a Long Tailed Macaque. It wasn’t as good a view as the earlier monkeys but none the less, we were treated to seeing all three species of Monkey in the park; not everyone is that lucky.

After more than an hour on the trail, and after a particularly hard uphill stretch, Joe told us that after we climbed one last section that went up and crossed behind a massive boulder, it was all downhill from there. As we struggled up the last uphill part, gingerly finding footholds on the wet sandstone and muddy tree roots, we came to the narrow gap between the boulder and the hillside it had broken away from many years ago, we looked down at the steepest part of the trail. The wooden steps could have accurately been described as a ladder. Then it was down to a level, soggy steam bed, but before we could rejoice over the level ground we heard the sound of waves and knew we had made it to the end finally. A hundred meters further on the forest opened up to a wide sandy beach. There Joe offered us a surprise, options for the return leg of the journey: A; Walk back along the trail we had just come in on. B; for 20 Ringgit (about US$8) a boat would take us back to Park Headquarters. C; for 35 Ringgit (about US$11) a boat would take us on a short sightseeing trip along the coast then back to the headquarters. It was a quick vote as the three of us all opted for plan B.

We had a 30 minute rest on the beach, as several more groups of hikers found their way out of the forest, most climbed the rocky shore to one side or splashed in the shallow water off the sandy beach as several boats appeared around the headland. Evidently boat rides back are a favorite of hikers.

We waded out to the boat and as it turned the headland, we could see the headquarters building a few hundred meters along the shore. At extreme low tides there is a fourth option available, to walk along the shore but that was not available to us since the water washed up to the cliffs most of the way back. Joe just laughed as it dawned on the three of us just how close we were to the starting point after an hour and a half of climbing through the forest. But we were not disappointed, the short boat ride was well worth the price.

The tour included lunch in the headquarters Canteen and it was a choice of several Malay dishes with rice and also included fried or scrambled eggs (leftovers from breakfast) and French fries. I stuck with fried rice, a couple types of chicken and veggies. Graham chanced some scrambled eggs and French fries and fried chicken. He also bought a round of beer for the three of us; not cold by Australian standards but tasted great.

Since we hadn’t walked back, we were about an hour and half ahead of schedule so we could wander the grounds or take another short hike into the forest. Since we had seen all the wildlife we were likely to see, we took the option of going back. The same boatman who brought us from the trail head took us back. It hadn’t been as tiring a trip as I had experienced in Brunei but was a good outing. Even with the rigorous hike, I was satisfied with the exercise, I needed that, and I had seen a few new birds along with the wild animals, especially the Proboscis Monkey.

Back on the dock, I paid the boatman the 20 Ringgits for the ride from the trail and gave 20 more to Joe as a tip. I was well satisfied and felt he had really done a great job. One driver was there to take the three of us to our two hotels. Not five minutes into the drive back to the city it began to rain, if I’d needed proof we made the right choice in returning early that was it. We were already soaked to the skin by perspiration from the hike in the hot humid forest but standing in a torrential downpour would not have made for a pleasant walk. Once at the hotel the rain stopped shortly so I didn’t get rained on as I said good bye to the driver and my two hiking companions. Talking on the way back we discovered we were booked for the same tour the next morning so I expected to see them again.

Back at the hotel, I holed up in my room most of the afternoon catching up on the trip report from Brunei; with the USB memory drive I was again able to do my blog. I am now only one day behind in writing.

It rained all afternoon so at 6 PM I went up to the roof top bar and had a couple Gin and Tonics, just for medicinal purposes to fight malaria you understand. I didn’t feel like walking in the rain to a restaurant so I ordered a hamburger from the hotel café. Sitting in “Limelight Lounge” eating a hamburger from the “Sublime Café” at the Lime Tree Hotel (Do you sense a pattern), not a bad way to end a rainy day in Kuching, Sarawak Malaysia.

Next I’m off to see the “Man of the Forest”; Orangutan.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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