The seventy-eight metre long Chéngyáng Wind and Rain Bridge is the most exquisite bridge built by the Dong, an ethnic minority living in China’s northern Guangxi Province, among other places. Several more of these bridges, albeit smaller ones, connect a number of pretty Dong villages in the area. Another typical feature of these villages is their drum tower, a pagoda-like tower which serves as a religious and meeting place. The Dong are renowned carpenters and not a single nail is used in their constructions. Although concrete has found its way here, like everywhere in China, fir logs are still being prepared on the village square, to be used in the construction of some impressive new wooden houses.
Train travel in Vietnam is pretty straightforward as there’s only one line between Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the north. Traveling the whole length of the Reunification Line would take a time-effective two nights and one day, in a comfortable soft sleeper coupe. The only thing stressful about it is buying the tickets in the huge ticketing hall of Saigon Station, where little English is spoken and queues are long.
Our plan was to transit through Vietnam rather quickly, but we did split up the long journey by stopping over in Phan Thiet and Hoi An for a few days. The most time, however, we spent in Hanoi sorting out our Chinese visa. It took four visits to the embassy and a lot of waiting and improvising, but after five days we had our visas in hand and could finally buy our train tickets to Nanning. Interesting detail: in order to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi you must have a valid ticket to China, but to buy a train ticket to China you must have a Chinese visa (guess how we solved that one).
Veteran backpackers will remember Phnom Penh’s lakeside, a cluster of ramshackle guesthouses and restaurants on the south shore of Boeung Kak. Many of these had lounge docks built over the water with great views of the lake. The favourite pass time here used to be watching the sunset from a hammock or lounge chair, while drinking chilled Angkor Beer with Bob Marley stuck on repeat. I’ve stayed in Boeung Kak myself a few times, during my Wander Year ten years ago and also on my first trip with An in 2008. Not long after that, the lake has been drained and the area slated for redevelopment.
Although this time we were staying in a boutique hotel in central Phnom Penh, we went to have a look at what has become of the city’s former backpacker hangout. Obviously, many businesses have disappeared or moved to another location, including the popular Number 9 Guesthouse. Number 10 Guesthouse is still around, but the view of the lake has been replaced by a wall. Accomodation is dirt-cheap, as the few remaining guesthouses are trying to attract customers in order to survive. A handful of nostalgic travelers still hang around, but the once so lively lakeside has become depressingly run-down and quiet these days…
Apart from the bamboo train, there has been no Cambodian train service for over six years. On the old station clock in Battambang it is always two minutes past eight, the rails have been overgrown and the space between them reclaimed by villagers to play volleyball. But things are about to change. The Chinese are rebuilding the country’s decrepit railways (with a lot of Australian money) and within the next few years trains will be riding again on the south line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. In a later stage, service on the west line to Poipet will also be restored for the first time since the Khmer Rouge destroyed it. One day, it might even become possible to travel all the way from Bangkok to Saigon via Phnom Penh, the missing rail link between Singapore and China.
But until then buses are the only option. Our route runs along the south coast of the Tonle Sap River, past Battambang and Kompong Chnang, a part of the country we’d skipped on previous trips. As always we enjoyed Cambodia, for its countryside that is dotted with buddhist temples, its warm people and that frontier feeling one gets while traveling here.
Bangkoks cityscape is changing all the time and it’ll only get more impressive as new buildings are erected around town. I love being in the Thai capital, it’s one of the few cities in Asia that I could actually live in. A modern metropolis that’s buzzing day and night, very international and easy to get around in by skytrain or metro. Not to mention the food! We stayed for five days this time, before moving on to Cambodia. But leaving Bangkok, never easy…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?’
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.