Malaysia Pictorial

From the futuristic Petronas twin towers to the stunning reefs of Sipidan, the colonial backstreets of Malacca and Penang to the wildlife of the great Kinabatangan River, Malaysia truly deserves the cliched title of “the land of contrasts.”

As we move on to the remote Indonesian state of Kalimantan in southern Borneo, we have put together another pictorial to capture just a bit of the visual overload in Magnificent Malaysia.

Malaysia: What a Dollar Can Buy You

In many ways, Malaysia reminds me of the Philippines. It’s a country torn between development and deterioration where one can find open sewers right next to super-mega malls, biological wastelands next to intact jungle, and sea gypsy settlements right next to high-end resorts. While much of the Malaysia experience is decidedly third-world, the prices don’t always reflect that. In fact, Malaysia can be downright expensive.

Dragon Fruit

Although some food options can be quite cheap in Malaysia, accommodation and transportation are more expensive than other parts of Southeast Asia. But the greatest shock to the wallet is the very high cost of activities here. Although most temples and mosques are usually free, other entry fees are often quite pricey. And experiencing Malaysia’s natural heritage (or what’s left of it) can border on extortionate.

Prices are especially high when leaving peninsular Malaysia and traveling through Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. There, fueled by the logging and palm oil industries, prices can get a little crazy leaving visitors scratching their heads in disbelief and seriously asking themselves whether the trip was worth it. Here a dirty dormitory bed can cost more than an air-conditioned hotel room with cable TV in Bangkok. Anyone up for a $1000 3-day camping trip? Yikes. Let’s just say with the money we put out in Sabah, we could’ve spent a month in Paris.

But not to worry. Malaysia is not a lost cause for the budget conscious. There are still a few affordable things to be had for three ringgit or about a buck:

  • 3 roti canai and a small plate of curry (great lunch)
  • 1 hour of Internet access
  • 2 cans of coke
  • 9 minutes on a Rest’n Go massage chair
  • 1 mango lassi (if you look very hard)
  • 1.5 visits to the “premier paid toilet” at Suria mall in KL
  • 4 liters (1 gal.) of drinking water
  • 3 ferry crossings from Butterworth to Georgetown
  • 6 vegetable samosas
  • 1.5 km in a taxi (after the initial flag-down rate)
  • 3 Granny Smith apples
  • 1/2 kg of clean laundry
  • 1 large dragon fruit
  • 300 g of steel chain (don’t ask)

A Different Kind of Palm Desert

“Wow, Sabah is so beautiful. There are so many palm trees everywhere,” the Dutch tourist blurted out as she walked into the restaurant opposite Sukau Greenview. Tony and I looked at each other, jaws dropping. Our eyes said it all. How can you come all the way here and not realize that massive deforestation and palm oil plantations are the reasons the planet’s oldest rainforest is disappearing before our very eyes?

Sadly, the Dutch girl was right in one respect, there are Continue…

The Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River is tragic and miraculous at the same time. One of Sabah’s premier attractions, the river flows through a stretch of surviving secondary and tertiary forest sandwiched between the industrial-scale palm plantations of the Kinabatangan region. Perhaps the strongest testament to wildlife’s ability to survive and adapt under desperate conditions, I can personally say that, in all my travels, I have never seen such a boxed-in forest region with so much wildlife and such diversity – it is simply incomprehensible.

Our first outing on the river was especially well timed just moments after the end of a tropical storm which had cooled the air significantly. Within the first ten minutes, we had spotted four of the eight hornbill species found in Sabah, including the phenomenal rhinoceros hornbill. We saw more hornbills in that one outing than we’ve seen in our entire four years traveling in Asia. The river was lined with troop after troop of proboscis monkeys and crab-eating macaques.

As if that weren’t enough, 30 minutes into the trip Continue…

Après-Dive

What did you say, Tony? Your mango-sago ice blend looks like a frogfish? Clearly, too much diving. I guess the nitrogen must have gotten to you… 🙂

Organizing your Trip to Sipadan

Sipadan is consistently listed as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. And, as we discussed in our post Is Sipadan All Hype?, with its amazingly rich sea life and unique topography, the island definitely lives up to its reputation. But with so much focus, the tiny little island was in serious danger of being too beautiful for its own good. By the early 2000s, overbuilding and pollution threatened to destroy what Jacques Cousteau had labelled “an untouched piece of art.”

In an extraordinary example of environmentally sound decision making (with perhaps an added dose of financial self-interest), the Malaysian government decided to close Sipadan island for overnight visitors and impose a rigid permit system allowing only 120 people to dive the island each day. While the permit system, which will hopefully protect Sipadan far into the future, is a major environmental blessing, it does make diving Continue…

Is Sipadan All Hype?

Wait until you get to Sipadan… Sipadan, Sipadan, Sipadan. That’s all we’ve heard for the last few years. No matter where you dive, someone’s always there to point out that Sipadan is so much better. Even after more than 80 dives, we were told Sipadan can top them all. It almost seems dive sites around the world are measured against the one and only standard: SIPADAN. You want to see turtles? Go to Sipadan. You want to dive with reef sharks? Go to Sipadan. Huge, whirling schools of fish? I’m sure you guessed it, go to Sipadan. So we did! And now that we have dived Sipadan, we can answer the question: Is Sipadan as good as everyone says, or is it all hype?

Well, after two full days of diving at Sipadan, we can comfortably say Continue…

Eat Your Heart Out, Cousteau!

OK, we haven’t quite matched Cousteau’s accomplishments yet, but we’re getting there. Sipadan was one of his favorite locations in his later years. Although dive operators already started exploring Pulau Sipadan in the early 1980’s, Jacques Cousteau’s 1989 documentary The Ghost of the Sea Turtles catapulted this small island in the Celebes Sea to stardom. Now, 21 years after the great sea explorer came here, it’s our turn and we are literally diving in!

Borneo Bound

Thomas and I have finally taken the leap… out of mainland Southeast Asia, that is. We’ve made our way to the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

When people hear the name Borneo, they envision a vast wilderness shrouded in dense jungle – a 21st century “heart of darkness” which has somehow fended off the plague of modernity engulfing the rest of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Borneo is the ultimate battleground in the war between environmentalists and commercial interests seeking to harvest the world’s resources. Much of Borneo has been devastated by these interests – and we come here fully aware of that fact.

I have been to Borneo before in 1991 and that battle was in full swing even then. Large-scale deforestation and conflict with native peoples presented scenes far more devastating than any fictional scene in Avatar. In some ways, the war is over now and the commercial interests have won. So why do we come to Sabah knowing that?

Because Borneo still offers up Continue…