The Antarabangsa Ekspres

Bangkok Station

The Antarabangsa Ekspres has arrived in Hualomphong Station, Bangkok.

The international Antarabangsa Ekspres arrived in Hualomphong Station at 9:30 in the morning. The journey from Butterworth in Malaysia to Bangkok took around twenty hours, including border formalities. Thai sleeper trains are very comfortable, with one lower and one upper berth on each side of the aisle. During the daytime, these are converted to seats. If, like us, you didn’t bring your own food, you can order dinner on the train and an attendant will serve it at your table. The only thing missing was a bottle of wine, but this we could buy duty-free at the border post…

Upper berth An

An in the upper berth, reading throughout the journey as usual.

Aisle

Curtains provide some privacy during the night.

Food Capital

Penang food stall

This popular food stall on Chulia Street is turning out hundreds of plates of Wan Tan Mee every day; tasty noodles served with wonton dumplings and a dark soy sauce dressing, garnished with barbecued pork slices.

Traveling, to me, is as much about the food as anything else. Although I liked George Town for more than its eating scene, our days here often revolved around where we’d have our next meal. Malaysia’s food capital, as it is called, has a great selection of unique street food dishes to explore, as well as some very fine restaurants. Penang is primarily Chinese, which is reflected in its cuisine, but there’s also Indian and Peranakan influences. Some typical dishes we’ve been trying: Penang Laksa (probably the most famous), Char Koay Teow, Wan Tan Mee, Roti Canai and the ubiquitous Mee Goreng.

Penang resto

Some restaurants are just eating halls lined with different cooking stalls, each one specialising in a particular dish. Here we’re trying Char Koay Teow (garlicky noodles with prawns) and Penang Laksa.

Penang Laksa

Penang Laksa: rice vermicelli in an incredibly aromatic fish-broth, with hints of prawn paste, lemongrass, ginger, mint, and so much more.

Restaurant Kebaya

Besides street food, George Town boasts a few excellent restaurants. The best one is probably Kebaya, part of the Seven Terraces Hotel, housed in a nicely restored row of seven heritage buildings.

Kebaya starter

Fine dining at Kebaya. As a starter, we had the Otak Otak (red snapper pastries) and Ban Xeo (crispy wafers stuffed with shredded chicken, crispy tofu and stir-fried vegetables in a tamarind sauce). Simply the best dinner of our trip so far.

Malaysian Holiday

Trishaws in Melaka

Macho drivers in their pink fluffy trishaws, waiting for tourists in front of Melaka’s Dutch-built Stadthuys. This could count as WTF-moment of the day.

After Borneo we took a holiday in a holiday on Peninsular Malaysia. This is the most modern part of the country and very easy to travel in. The tourist crowd you meet here is similar to the one in Vietnam or Thailand; think sleeveless beer shirts and fishermans pants, although the new trend seems to be open side shirts through which people can admire your sixpack or bra…

We quite enjoyed spending a few days in metropolitan Kuala Lumpur, the first big city on this trip. After KL we followed the westcoast tourist trail from Melaka to Penang, stopping for cool air, hot tea and sweet strawberries in the Cameron Highlands. Easy, and relaxed.

BSB Stopover

BSB Mosque

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB).

Brunei was a short two-day stopover on our way between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Except for shopping, we found there’s not much going on in BSB and it was by far the least lively capital that we’ve been to in Asia. But still interesting to get a glimpse of life in the worlds last sultanate, a tiny state that is thriving on oil money.

Mount Kinabalu

Kinabalu trekkers

Trekkers on the descend from Mount Kinabalu’s summit. As the sun rises, the mountain is casting its shadow on the clouds and the landscape below.

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest mountain, was high on my personal to-do list for this trip. The mountain is part of Kinabalu National Park and the trek to the summit, at 4095m elevation, typically takes two days. It’s a very popular trek, but since not everyone walks at the same pace the crowds didn’t bother us much.

On the first day, the trek from park headquarters to the basecamp at Lapan Rata, a long 1400m ascent, took us about four hours. Like most people, we stayed in the lodge run by Sutera, a company that basically has a monopoly on the mountain as there’s no other accommodation and camping is not allowed. Although expensive (all food and provisions have to be carried up by porters), we found everything was well organised and it was certainly the most luxurious trek we ever did, with great meals after the hikes and a comfy dorm bed during the night.

At two o’clock in the morning, everybody got up to begin the trek to the summit, some eight hundred metres above camp. The wind got more and more fierce as we gained elevation and temperature dropped significantly on the exposed rockfaces. For the first time since we left Belgium, we needed our warm clothes. As planned, we made it to the summit just in time to see the sunrise at six in the morning. No need to say the view over Borneo was breathtaking. After the mandatory photos, we returned to Lapan Rata for our second breakfast (An’s favourite meal of the day) and to start the hike back to headquarters.

Although we didn’t find the Kinabalu climb to be particulary difficult, certainly no more than for instance Fansipan in Vietnam or Rinjani in Indonesia, the 2300m of vertical descent on day two was a real leg killer. The next few days we took it very easy…

Borneo’s Lost World

Maliau

Guide Ijan in the jungle of Maliau.

Somewhere deep in Borneo’s state of Sabah, there is a hidden world that was only discovered in 1947, by a British pilot. The Maliau Basin, a remote area the size of Singapore, is covered with primary rainforest and, except where the Maliau River exits the basin, is surrounded by steep slopes (you can clearly see its shape if you zoom in on the map). It has never been inhabited and it wasn’t until the eighties that the first expedition took place. To date, only a few thousand people have set foot here, and we are so lucky to be among them.

Today, the Maliau Basin Conservation Area is a strictly protected wilderness. Trips here are deliberately cost-prohibitive, so only real nature lovers are visiting (actually, we didn’t see anyone in four days). To keep the cost reasonable, we didn’t use a trekking agency but organised our trek directly with the Maliau staff at their office in Tawau. This takes a few days but is well worth the savings. We also carried our own stuff, including food for four days, that we cooked ourselves at the camps. So the biggest costs that remained were the transport (you need a 4×4 to get into the park, at least for now) and the guide.

The first day around noon, our driver dropped us at Agathis Camp. The camp was deserted and looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. We reckoned our guide would be arriving soon, so ate our lunch and took a short nap. After two hours, however, there was still no sign of a guide. We started to worry a little. Maybe we hadn’t made ourselves sufficiently clear at the gate, as the staff didn’t understand much English. Since we didn’t fancy hiking back twenty eight kilometer on an exposed jeep track, and our cell phone was pretty useless without a signal, I decided to force my way into the camps staff room. Inside, much to my relieve, there was a UHF radio mounted against the wall. ‘Two trekkers waiting for guide in Agathis Camp, over. Two trekkers waiting for guide in Agathis Camp, over.’ After a few tries I got a creaking response, which I didn’t fully understand, but at least they knew we were here. Half an hour later we heard a jeep stopping, and met our guide Ijan.

Over the next three days we hiked approx forty-five kilometers of trails. At night we slept in basic camps, one of them built by a Camel Trophy crew in the nineties. Although pretty spartan, the camps were a luxury after a day in the jungle (and out of reach of the leeches). The trek itself was pretty strenuous, especially on day three, when we made an eleven kilometer detour to Maliau Falls. After scrabbling down a difficult, slippery trail, an impressive seven-story waterfall revealed itself, creating a rainbow where the water plunged down into a black pool. There were no other people, only the jungle surrounding us. This had to be one of the most beautiful and serene places we’d ever been in Southeast Asia. Over the course of four days, Ijan guided us to three more waterfalls: Aktob Takob, Giluk and Ginseng Falls, each one spectacular in its own way.

Maliau is home to a lot of wildlife and our guide was pretty good in spotting it. That would go like this:
Ijan: ‘Look, snake! See it?’
We: ‘Nope, where?’
Ijan: ‘There, in the tree, green snake!’
We: ‘Ehm, nope.’
Ijan: ‘In the bamboo, see it?’
We: ‘Nope.’
Ijan: ‘Oh, it’s gone now, let’s go.’

But we were able to spot quite a few other animals: sambar deer, barking deer (after hearing its terrifying scream echo through the forest a few times, we were glad it was just a deer), a few red monkeys, and civets that came sneaking around in the camp at night. Most of the time we only got a short glimpse and the animals disappeared before I could grab my camera. There’s also pygmy elephants living in Maliau, but unfortunately we didn’t see any (although we did come across their dung…). The most impressive, though, were the hornbills: giant birds sounding like electrical drones when they came zooming over. Beautiful.

Will Maliau remain a lost world forever? Probably not. The road from Tawau has already been paved two years ago and works are in progress to upgrade the access road into the basin. Staff told me this road will be paved too by the end of 2016, which will allow more people to visit as a 4×4 won’t be necessary anymore. Some even dream aloud about a nine kilometer death ride… Enjoy it while it lasts.

Access road

The access road into Maliau Basin.

Leeches

Everytime we stopped moving several leeches would attach to our shoes, trying to reach our flesh for a bloody meal. Luckily, we’d gotten ourselves a pair of leech socks which were very effective in stopping the slimy bastards.

Agathis Camp

Dormitory at Agathis Camp (which we had completely to ourselves).

Cooking

Cooking up an improvised veggie curry with rice in Nepenthes Camp.

Giluk

Giluk Falls, one of Maliau’s four beautiful waterfalls.

Jungle bridge

Crossing a jungle stream of clear water that looks like black tea.

Ginseng Falls

Ginseng Falls, with An wearing her funky leech socks.

Viper snake

On the last day, we did spot another snake (and before our guide did). This large, venomous green viper came sneaking down on Ijan while he was sitting against a tree, having a snack. An noticed that Ijan was about to be turned into a snack himself when we were about to get moving again, and the snake had approached him to less than two metres.

Bornean Reality Check

Buttressed tree

Buttress roots of a giant tree in Niah National Park, Malaysian Borneo.

I’ve always had these romantic visions of Borneo as a rainforest covered island with black rivers snaking through its dark interior. An island that is home to tribal people, exotic birds and plants, and creepy insects crawling across the forest floor.

But reality is never as romantic as you imagined. Although such places still exist, both Kalimantan and Malaysian Borneo have been heavily deforested in the past decades, with primary rainforest being burned and logged to make way for agriculture. In the seventies and eighties Indonesia even had a transmigrasi program to move poor farmers to Kalimantan, so they could clear and work the land in order to feed the country’s ever-growing population. But with the jungle gone, the soil quickly eroded and became unfertile. Nowadays, Borneo is the worlds largest supplier of palm oil and monoculture has been taken to the extreme. We’ve been riding past hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of palm oil plantations; sometimes it felt like the whole island is covered with rows of palm trees.

At many ethnic longhouse villages, like Kampung Patrick Libau where we stayed one night, literally everyone works in the palm oil plantations. Modern amenities like cell phones, televisions and internet have made their way here, and the economic development provides these people with an income. However, it’s not always helping them forward. They’re selling (or sometimes losing) their land and their soul to powerful corporations, and with it the forest they’ve always depended on. So people get stuck working in conditions that are far from ideal.

What’s most depressing though, is the ongoing loss of rainforest that has existed and survived for millions of years and is the habitat of an incredibly large variety of fauna and flora, including the endangered orangutan. Not only are these animals losing habitat, they’re often injured or killed in the deforestation process, or when trespassing on plantations or fields in search of food. At Tanjung Putings visitor centre, we’ve seen pictures of orangutans that have been burnt alive.

Palm oil is used in a large variety of products (chips, shampoo, you name it), so it’s not easy to avoid. Only since this year, the EU is requiring companies to correctly mention the use of palm oil on their product labels. Maybe we should start thinking twice before buying these products in the supermarket, or that fancy garden set made of tropical hardwood…

Palm oil plantations

Only from the sky you can see the true extend of Borneo’s palm plantations.

Sail another Day

Speedboat

Boarding the international speedboat from Nunukan to Tawau. Given its name, the Labuan Express, I suspect in another life this boat used to ply the waters around Labuan Island.

It wasn’t our week. After finally making it to Tarakan, we missed the direct boat to Tawau (Malaysia). Indonesian immigration had closed an hour or so before departure and, of course, we couldn’t board without our exit stamp. Time for Plan B. We got on a speedboat to Nunukan, still in Indonesia, but only to get stranded again because the onward speedboat to Tawau had already departed. Little English was spoken here and depending on who we asked, the next boat would leave at seven, eight or nine o’clock the next morning. To be safe we went to the port as early as possible, so early that we were assigned seat number 1 and 2. It turned out the speedboat would depart at eight, giving us plenty of time to have one last plate of mie goreng, before leaving Indonesia.

Fly another Day

Police and us

An getting a little bored of posing…

On every big trip, we seem to have at least one encounter with the police. This time we arrived at the airport of Balikpapan with (what would turn out to be) falsified tickets. Appearantly, the travel agent we bought our tickets from that morning had deliberately booked us on tomorrows flight, edited the tickets before they were printed and overcharged us for this special service. So we were screwed, as the airline refused to check us in and changing the ticket dates would incur a hefty fee. After some discussion, the staff suggested we’d file a complaint against the travel agent with the airport police.

The police was quite helpful and after explaining our case, half the corps escorted us back to the travel agent, whose face turned pale when we entered his office accompanied by five law officers. The first thing the police did was taking pictures with their phones of everything and everyone. This, however, quickly escalated into a lenghty photo shoot of An posing with every single officer, which was great fun for everybody except for the travel agent who just sat there, undergoing it all.

To cut a long story short, the police did their job and everything turned out fine; we were able to catch the afternoon instead of the morning flight to Tarakan, at the travel agents expense. Why we hadn’t noticed that the dates were missing on our tickets, we don’t know, but maybe the fact that we rather impulsively booked this flight at six in the morning after arriving in Balikpapan on the horror bus, had something to do with it…

Regenwoud

Salang Ai

Ook na aankomst in het dorpje Salang Ai bleef het nog uren regenen, terwijl wij onze spullen probeerden te drogen rond het vuur.

Loksado, een dorp in de Meratus bergen van Kalimantan, staat bekend om zijn mooie jungle-treks. Veel westerse toeristen vind je er niet, of toch niet in het regenseizoen. Onderweg ernaartoe ontmoetten we slechts één Duitser, Johan, waarmee we aan een driedaagse trekking begonnen.

‘It will be quite a strenuous trek,’ zei Olaf nog tegen Johan voordat we vertrokken, met een blik op diens opkomend bierbuikje.
‘I’m quitz vit,’ antwoordde Johan, met die rare glimlach van hem.
‘Do you have a sweater?’ ging ik verder, want het kan ’s avonds best koud worden in de bergen. ‘A rain coat? Long trousers? A sleeping bag?’
Niets van dit alles bleek Johan bij zich te hebben, enkel een t-shirt, short en wat hij noemde ‘trekkingsandalen’. Maar hij was er niettemin van overtuigd dat hij de tocht zou aankunnen.

Onze gids Amat had niet gelogen over de fysieke moeilijkheid van de trek. De eerste uren ging het steil omhoog. De inspanning en de vochtige hitte van de jungle maakten ons meteen drijfnat. Het werd ook snel duidelijk dat Johan niet zo vit was als hij dacht. Puffend en hijgend als een stoommachine liep hij achter ons aan. Telkens als we een rivier overstaken hingen er dertig bloedzuigers aan zijn voeten en kuiten, en het aantal muggenbeten op zijn blote vlees was niet te tellen. Maar het moet gezegd worden: hij klaagde weinig en Olaf en ik konden volop genieten van de wilde jungle met haar torenhoge bomen, planten die op planten op bomen groeiden en het jungle-fruit dat voor het oprapen lag.

Tot het begon te regenen. Gieten. Urenlang stortten er bakken water uit de hemel. We probeerden onze rugzakken zo goed mogelijk te beschermen met onze regenjassen, maar zelf waren we in een mum van tijd drijfnat. Alleen die arme Johan, in zijn t-shirt, herinnerde ons eraan dat het altijd nog erger kon.

Na uren lopen in de regen kwamen we eindelijk aan in Salang Ai, het piepkleine dorpje waar we zouden overnachten. (Elf families rond een traditioneel long-house, dat is in de jungle de naam dorp waard). De moed zonk in onze drijfnatte schoenen toen we merkten dat onze slaapzakken en reservekleren toch vrij nat waren geworden.

Veel comfort vonden we niet in onze homestay, we sliepen op de harde plankenvloer en een toilet was er niet – of zoals Amat het verwoordde: ‘toilet is anywhere’. We waren dan ook niet verbaasd dat Johan de volgende ochtend wilde terugkeren. Eerlijk gezegd vonden Olaf en ik het niet zo erg, want de regen had ook onze moed weggespoeld. Gelukkig leidde Amat ons via een andere route terug naar Loksado en werd het toch nog een interessante tweedaagse trek. Maar volgende keer nemen we toch geen Duitsers meer mee, hoe vit ze ook beweren te zijn.

Airborne

ATR propeller plane

Boarding an ATR 72 propeller plane for TriganaAir flight IL125. What I like about propeller planes is that they fly below the cloud level, so we got a nice aerial view of Kalimantan (although it’s depressing to see the scale on which rainforest is being replaced with palm oil plantations). Propeller planes are also more ecological than jets.

Many villages in the jungle-covered interior of Kalimantan are accessible only by boat or (bush) airplane. The few roads that do exist are often in bad condition, making transport incredibly slow and uncomfortable. The night ride from Kandangan to Balikpapan was a grueling twelve hour journey in a hot bus with barely enough leg space for the average Indonesian (who is half as tall as us), no head rests and reclining seats that had permanently stopped reclining a long time ago. To make sure that this wouldn’t keep us from sleeping the bus was also filled to the brim with noisy, chain-smoking passengers.

And that was the easy part. The onward journey to Tarakan, close to the Malaysian border, would have taken another twenty hours by road. Our weary bones were glad to get on a one-hour LionAir flight instead. It saved us some time on our Indonesian visa’s too, as they’d soon be running out.

Two other flights we took: TriganaAir IL125 from Pangkalan Bun to Banjarmasin, to avoid another twelve-hour Indonesian bus ride, and the long stretch to Peninsular Malaysia as there are no direct ferries from Borneo anymore.

Orangutan Spotting

Male orangutan

A sixteen year old non-dominant male orangutan in Camp Leaky. Male orangutans are eight times stronger than us, humans, weigh up to 150kg and become 1m50 tall.

The year was 1971. A young twenty-five year old woman, together with her husband, arrived in the rainforest of Borneo and founded Camp Leaky. The next thirty years Dr. Galdikas devoted her life to the field study and protection of orangutans, the great ginger apes that are only found on Borneo and Sumatra. Not only was her research groundbreaking, she also started a rehabilitation program for orphaned and ex-captive orangutans. The program was a success and several new generations of so called ‘semi-wild’ orangutans have been born here over the years, living happily in the jungle alongside their wild cousins. Protection of the orangutans habitat is essential, now more than ever, as more and more of Borneo’s rainforests are being logged or replaced with palm oil plantations.

Today, Camp Leaky is part of Tanjung Puting National Park and can be visited by boat. We chartered a klotok, a basic wooden houseboat, and spent three days on the Sungai Sekonyer river. It became one of the highlights of our Indonesia itinerary, a truely unique experience, floating through lush jungle and spotting wildlife on the river banks, while relaxing in a comfy chair on the deck or having a nice meal prepared by our own personal cook. At night we slept on the deck under a mosquito net and in the morning we were awakened by the wonderful call of the gibbon, at 5 AM, still better than the usual call for prayer at sunrise time…

But the main reason to come to Tanjung Putin is of course to spot orangutans. We went ashore to visit Camp Leaky and two other feeding stations. These are in fact little more than bamboo platforms on which rangers empty a few baskets of fruit at feeding time, once a day. If you’re lucky, a few (semi-wild) orangutans will materialise from the jungle after a while. Some of them are quite shy, but as a visitor you can still observe them from pretty close, maybe five to ten meters and without a fence. It might also be that there’s plenty of food in the forest at the moment and no apes come down to the platform at all, though you can always return the next day and have more luck (like we did). All in all we’ve been very lucky and have seen many orangutans, including one dominant male in Camp One. And since we visited during the rainy season, there were no crowds, we even had one station to ourselves for a while.

A wild gibbon stealing as many bananas as he can carry from the platform and quickly disappears into the trees again.

A gibbon stealing as many bananas from a feeding platform as he can carry, before disappearing into the trees again.

Proboscis monkeys

Ah, the life of a proboscis monkey, watching the sunset from a tree along the river bank, without any shame…

Watching wildlife from the boat

Spotting crocodiles and other wildlife from our comfy chairs.

Selamat Datang di Sampit

Welcome to Sampit

Welcome to Sampit, on the island of Borneo!

We boarded the Leuser, a passenger ship operated by the state-owned Pelni company, in Surabaya to cross the Java Sea to Kalimantan. This journey to the Indonesian part of Borneo took a long twenty-seven hours, but was very comfortable as we traveled in a nice two-berth cabin. Unfortunately, this way of slow travel is becoming less of an option nowadays, as more and more ferry routes in the world are being replaced by low-cost flight connections.

Leuser cabin

Old-school travel in a first class, two-berth cabin with ensuite bathroom and all meals included, at the same fare as a cramped AirAsia flight on the date we traveled. A bargain.

Het Blauwe Vuur

Ijen krater

De krater van de Ijen vulkaan in het oosten van Java. Het kratermeer is het grootste zure meer ter wereld, het water is zo zuur dat je kleren er gewoon in zouden oplossen (en jijzelf waarschijnlijk ook).

De krater van Kawah Ijen is continu gevuld met gele zwaveldampen die zo heet zijn dat er blauwe vlammen ontstaan. Het ‘Blauwe Vuur’, zoals men het hier noemt, is enkel in het donker te zien. Dus vertrokken wij na middernacht naar de krater voor een steile klim naar de top van de 2600m hoge vulkaan.

De sereniteit van onze nachtelijke tocht werd enigszins verstoord door de honderden lokale toeristen die samen met ons naar boven trokken; hier in het weekend komen was duidelijk niet het beste plan. Maar het was grappig om de macho-Indonesiërs, die ons eerst met veel vertoon waren voorbijgestoken, al snel achter ons te laten. Als we iets in de Himalaya hebben geleerd is het wel hoe je een berg op moet lopen: langzaam. De parabel van de haas en de schildpad is niet zomaar een verhaaltje.

Eenmaal op de top van de vulkaan begon de echte uitdaging: via een steil, glibberig pad omlaag de krater in om tot vlakbij het Blauwe Vuur te komen. Bij zwaveldampen denk je meteen aan stank, maar er is nog veel meer: het gas doet je ogen tranen, snijdt je ademhaling af en brandt in je keel. Terwijl wij beneden ons best deden om zo goed mogelijk uit de giftige dampen te blijven, liepen de mijnwerkers – die samen met ons in de krater waren afgedaald – de dikke gele wolk in tot op het punt waar de zwavel wordt afgezet. Wij kropen vermoeid weer naar boven, maar ondertussen zeulden zij veertig, sommigen zelfs tot tachtig kilo zwavel op hun schouders mee naar boven. En dat voor een luttele achthonderd rupiah per kilo (een goeie vijf eurocent). Die tocht doen ze bovendien twee of zelfs drie keer per dag.

Gelukkig kunnen die arme mannen een beetje van het toerisme profiteren, door figuurtjes van zwavel te verkopen. De Indonesiërs waren er dol op en zeulden hele zakken mee naar beneden. Ironisch genoeg was het beeldje van de schildpad hun favoriet…

Ijen miner

Nog voor zonsopgang vult een mijnwerker zijn manden met zwavelblokken voor de eerste keer, met het Blauwe Vuur op de achtergrond.

Ijen miner selling sulphur

Sommige mijnwerkers verdienen iets bij door zwavel te smelten en in vormpjes te gieten om te verkopen.

Ijen warning sign

Een bord op de top van de krater waarschuwt bezoekers, maar wordt door iedereen genegeerd.

Olaf en An in de krater van Ijen

Een vochtige handdoek maakt het ademen iets gemakkelijker, maar houdt lang niet alles tegen. Het heeft dagen geduurd vooraleer de zwavelgeur uit onze neus was verdwenen.

East Java

East Java

While the ferry is about to dock, the evening call for prayer sounds from a mosque in the distance with Kawah Ijen as the backdrop. We’ve crossed the narrow Bali Strait to East Java, the islands most natural region and home to no less than forty-five active vulcanoes. Mount Semeru is the highest and together with Merapi the most active, Bromo may be the most beautiful, but on this trip we’ll be visiting Ijen.