Monday, July 7, 2008

Kuching - Day 8 - Bako National Park

Sunday, March 9, 2008

(By Jim)

At 8:30, I left Barbara in the Executive Lounge planning her day. I was in a hurry to get underway to get to Bako National Park, since I would only have the one day there. Bako is known for its wide array of wildlife, plants, and jungle trails, some of the best in Sarawak, and is only 30 minutes away from Kuching.

The Hilton's doorman was fantastic, offering me two choices, join up with a tour group that would leave at 9:30, or hire a taxi and boat independently. Since I was trying to maximize my time there, I opted for the latter. He made the arrangements with a taxi driver, and away I went.

At Kampung Bako, I paid my park admission and hired a boat. There was an older Austrailian woman there who wanted to share a boat with a group, but she wanted to share it with a large group to get the cheapest fare possible. I wasn’t as worried about cheap, so I took the boat by myself. We ran down the river past the village with its little houses and net frames the locals use for fishing.
Park offices and jetty at Kampung Bako

Running downriver past the village
Welcome to Bako National Park
Good advice in any language

The tide was out, so the boatman beached his boat and I made a feet wet landing at Telok Assam, the park headquarters. We agreed he'd be back at 3 PM to pick me up. I checked in with the office there, and the person at the office recommended for me a short trail, the one to Telok Paku, a small beach. I thought it was rather silly to say that a 1km trail would take an hour. I was wrong.

Let me introduce you to the idea of jungle trails. These aren't nice, gently sloping up and down walking trails you might find in a park around here. These are uphill, downhill, climb over rocks, roots, narrow stairs, planks, and things that are not what I would call trails. I was watching the little markers that said 100 meters, 200 meters, and wondering if I would make it to the beach before I expired.
These are all part of the trail

At the 500 meter marker, my phone rang. My cellphone. I was in the middle of the jungle in Borneo, and my cellphone was ringing. It's Barbara. Just wanted to see how I'm doing. Next time I'll turn off the phone and pretend that modernity hasn't entered the jungle yet. Shortly afterwards, I got to the end of the trail and the beach.

[Barbara and I have talked about this, and we agreed that she would have hated this. If we ever go back, I'll hire a boat to take her around. Or take us both. I'm not as interested in jungle treks as I thought.]

When I got there, I had a little tropical beach all to myself. No other people, no macaques stealing things. I'm like Robinson Crusoe with dry cigarettes. Ok, one dry cigarette. So, it's smoke break time. I put my camera down, set the self-timer, and took a picture of me there. Then I went for a swim. The water was cloudy because of the river outlet there, but it was still pretty, and warm, and a nice way to recover from sweating myself silly on the trail. It's a very slow slope there, so I had to walk a long way to get to waist-deep water.
Jim at Telok Paku scaring away the wildlife
A little shelter right there at the beach

I still hadn't seen any critters, but after about an hour some people started showing up, having come from the tour group. So, I packed up and headed back to the lodge to figure out what my next hike would be. The hike back was just as tough, but since I knew what I was getting into, it wasn't as hard as the trip out.

After I got back near Telok Assam and on the boardwalk, I saw my first wildlife, proboscis monkeys in the mangrove across from the jetty. Big nose, pot belly, red fur and a long thick white tail.

As I was taking pictures of them, a macaque came walking down the handrail of the boardwalk across the mangrove. I took a dozen pictures of him coming and going, and he ignored me completely.

Once off the boardwalk and onto the concrete path, I saw a water monitor. All of the wildlife was hanging out at the lodge while I was hiking through the jungle to see them.

I changed clothes at the lodge, putting my sweaty stuff into a plastic bag. I decided to go ahead and have lunch, a simple cafeteria set-up, with mee goreng, rice, and curry chicken.
While I was eating, a bearded pig came by. Holy cow! They hang out there at the lodge looking for scraps and handouts.

I spent some time walking the beach near the lodge, checking out tiny little crabs. Then I stopped to talk to another traveler, and he told me about a place up one of the other trails where he saw several green snakes. I headed that way, but got delayed because there were lots of proboscis monkeys hanging out in the mangrove now, and I took a lot of pictures.

By the time I got through there, it was time to get my boat back to the Kampung and meet my taxi. Boat number 22 was there as agreed.

This boatman did a great job for me, slowing down so I could take pictures of the people and houses along the river and running upriver past the kampong jetty to see if we could see any crocodiles, which inhabit that stretch of river. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any that day.
People over on this old boat - not sure if it was a picnic or home for fishermen
Working the nets in the riverElection flags - this was the day after the parliamentary elections

The taxi ride back was uneventful. Barbara was hanging out at the hotel, after having done her own tour of some of the local craft demonstrations, and so I headed across the street to a little food court place where I could get a bottle of beer and a pack of cigarettes. After a beer and a smoke, I felt almost human and headed in for cocktail hour in the executive lounge.

We went out to dinner at a place highly recommended by the guide book. There were no locals there, only tourists, and the food was mediocre at best. This is the only place I’ll say that about in our travels. On the bright side, we were near the big cat statue in the middle of the road near the Holiday Inn and I got some great night pictures.

The next day, we went to see orangutans, the old men of the jungle. I was so sore from my hike that Barbara was outrunning me, and that never happens. Also, I found out that while my sunscreen did a good job on my body, it didn’t do so good on my scalp where I part my hair and where my hair is thinning in back. That hurt. Jim’s new rule: Wear a hat if you’re in the jungle in the tropics.

Prices are approximate. If you're in Kuching, your accommodations can probably contact one of the tour operators to get you on a tour to Bako for RM165 (US$51) or so. CPH Travel is one operator that is often mentioned. Or, you can do it the way I did. Taxi was RM85 (US$27) to Kampung Bako, admission to the park was RM10 (US$3), and the boat ride was RM90 (US$28), which you can share among a group if you're willing to wait. You pay the taxi driver and boatman at the end of the trip. Lunch was cheap, though plan to buy large bottles of water at RM2.50 or so after your trek.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Kuching - Day 7 - So, where are we staying?

(By Jim)

We woke up more rested than we expected from our night at the Singgahsana. Barbara and I called around and found that the Harbour View, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn are booked up. The Hilton has rooms, so we decide to head over there. But first, some breakfast. We didn’t want to have breakfast in the lodge, so we head across the street to Green Hill Corner, which is one of the ubiquitous food courts where various cart/stalls with various dishes are set up. We’re looking around at the various things available, fried noodles, coffee, and we get to one of the carts and the woman cooking there says "Laksa?" Yes, yes we do want laksa. Sarawak Laksa is a local specialty, coconut milk with spices, rice noodles, chicken, shrimp, cilantro and green onion and bean sprouts. It’s a joy for breakfast. [And you can’t get the mix, so far as I know, in the US. Unless you order a lot from Barretts.]
Laksa soup
Jim happy with a belly full of laksa
After this, we head over to the Hilton. They didn’t have any regular rooms, but they did have their Executive Level rooms with a river view for $150, which includes breakfast in the morning and cocktails in the afternoon. It was expensive, but it made Barbara happy, and it didn’t make me unhappy. Turns out, it made me happy too. Comfy bed, big room, gorgeous view, nice bathroom, and free drinks. What’s not to like?

Big roomNice bath
Beautiful river view

Decamping from the Singgahsana wasn’t a problem, but sort of messed up our Kuching schedule. Instead of going to see the orangutans or Sarawak Cultural Village, we ended up spending the day in town shopping. So, I decided to make my trip to Bako National Park on Sunday a day trip and Barbara can visit some local craft places that day instead of coming with me for an overnighter. Turns out, this was a good idea because the jungle trek wouldn’t have been to her liking and the “rustic” accommodations at Bako would have really made her unhappy.

I spent the afternoon doing things like toting laundry over to a place (Spot Free maybe?) near the Grand Continental hotel. The City Laundry across from the Hilton wasn’t open on Saturday, but this place did it all in 4 hours. They also charged by the piece, not by the pound, but it ended up costing around RM60 (less than US$20) for a suitcase full of laundry. This seemed to be the going rate in Kuching, as I later had another suitcase full done at the City Laundry for the same price. Melaka was much cheaper; around RM20 for the same amount.

On the way over, I noticed a bar called "The Cottage" that advertised Kilkenny beer on tap. Since I hadn’t had that since we were in Ireland in 2003, I made note to take Barbara back there another night.

After drinks in the Executive Lounge, we wanted to check out the Sunday Market, which gets started on Saturday afternoon along Jalan Satok. We taxied over there from the hotel, then walked around a little. I was a little hungry, and we decided to stop for some satay on sticks.

Then, more market strolling. They had all kinds of souveniers, fish, meat, and vegetables you could want. I chatted with the fish merchants, and looked at what looked like some of the prettiest king mackerel I’ve ever seen. I would have bought one if I only had a kitchen to cook it in.
Outside the shops, there was a band playing. To me, the music sounds like the Del Shannon tune "Runaway".

Barbara did find something to buy; a bundle of fresh orchid stems for RM4 (US$1.25). Barbara put them in a water glass in the room, and they brightened it up. When we left, we gave them to the woman at the Executive Club registration desk.
After this, we decided it was finally time for dinner. We took a taxi over to the Top Spot, a parking garage with a seafood food court on the roof. We let ourselves get taken to a table by one of the many roving waitresses for each of the food stalls. This was probably a mistake, as we were sort of captive there without having seen the rest of the places. For new folks, don’t do this, take a look at all of the fish displays before going. That night, we had kankong with spicy sauce, and two fish, one with a black bean sauce and one fried. It was good, but wasn’t as good as it could be if you know better what you’re wanting. We came back twice after this, but went to a different stall. I’ll tell you more about that when we get to Monday. We enjoyed our dinner, and shared it with a lame cat who was hanging out up there. Then we slowly walked back to the hotel.
Tomorrow, Jim goes to Bako and Barbara goes looking for local crafts.

Singapore-Kuching-Day 6 - Shopping and Travel

(By Jim)

After the busy day yesterday, we could have been forgiven for indulging ourselves in the Singapore café scene the next day before beginning our travel to Johor Bahru and Kuching in Borneo. Instead, we went shopping.

First, though, we took breakfast again at the hotel, then packed up and checked out, leaving our bags stored with the hotel. Barbara had read about a funky, cool shopping area on Bugis Street, and read that it was 24 hours, so we started out to go there. Our taxi driver dissuaded us, telling us it wasn’t open 24 hours, and if we wanted to go shopping, let’s go to the Mustafa Center first which was open 24 hours, then we could take another taxi over to Bugis Street later in the morning.

Mustafa Center was impressive. 4 stories, and a city block long. Anything you need, you can find here. Groceries, jewelry, clothes, souveniers, or electronics. We ended up getting a shot glass for my brother here.

We stopped at a café for coffee and water. At 11 AM, we decided it was time for Bugis Street. We got there and half of the shops were still closed, and the ones that were open didn’t offer anything that we needed, that were funky and/or cheap.

We were pretty disappointed with the shopping. I know now that this area doesn’t get cranking until 4 in the afternoon. Next time I’ll ask the more than friendly clerks at the Hotel 1929 before I go out shopping. Another café, another hot coffee for me and iced coffee for Barbara.

We had checked with the hotel desk about how long it would take to get to the airport in Johor Bahru. For a 5 PM flight, best leave Singapore by 12 or 1 PM, he said. We decided to go ahead and begin our new adventure at 11:30, figuring we couldn’t find anything else we wanted to do in Singapore for 30 minutes. We caught a cab back to the hotel, got our bags, then headed for the Queen Street Bus Station, where you can get long-distance taxis (S$40) to take you across the causeway to Johor and the Bus Station there. You can also take a bus that is much cheaper, but with the taxis you don’t have to unload and reload your luggage at immigration and I thought we would enjoy the less-stressful option.

[Singapore taxis are almost all Toyota Crowns. They remind me of Checker Taxis in the way they are high-roofed, bench-seated, and comfortable carrying large amounts of luggage. Singapore is one of those compact cities that you don’t break the bank by taking taxis everywhere.]

Either we got lucky with the causeway or immigration, or the expected rush of school holiday-makers had yet to materialize, but we zipped across the causeway, stepped out of the car to get fingerprinted by Singapore immigration, and were in Johor in an hour. Another cab, this one from the bus station to Sultan Ismaili, or “Senai” Aiprort
[Note that AirAsia, the low cost carrier, never calls it this on their website, instead calling it Johor Bahru, but none of the locals ever refer to it by anything other than Senai.]

We had lunch there, and watched a 747 from Singapore Airlines do touch-and-gos .It’s an impressive airport, with a pretty modern fountain outside.

Also, there is a large fountain/waterfall in the men’s room for the urinal. I didn’t take any pictures of this, but fortunately there’s a video on Youtube.

And there is a water feature in the ladies room as well.
AirAsia flies from JB to everywhere, and it’s a lot cheaper than flying Malaysia or Singapore Air out of Singapore. AirAsia is the Southwest Airlines of Southeast Asia. I think our tickets were US$120 for both of us from JB to Kuching, and $125 from Kuching to KL. From Singapore to Kuching, it was $220 each on Malaysia. AirAsia is strict about its luggage weight charges. I think we got hit with RM75 ($25) at JB, and RM180 ($56) coming back from Kuching, but even then it was much cheaper for us to fly them. The flight from JB to Kuching was full, but I had paid extra for Express Boarding so we could be sure to sit together. Downside is the time to get across the Causeway.

Our flight to Kuching was uneventful. When arriving in Sarawak from Peninsular Malaysia, you have to clear immigration again, but it is usually only a formality. Our bags came out quickly. At Kuching Airport, you buy a coupon inside and give it to the taxi drivers, rather than haggling with them for the price. Traffic was a bugger, but we finally got into the city and to our accommodations.

Singghasana Lodge was not what we expected. We had to walk up one floor (with our bags). I knew we had to take off our shoes, but Barbara didn’t and hated that after the travel. Our room was on an alley that motorcycles kept running through. And the room was dusty smelling and the air conditioning was struggling to keep up. On the other hand, it was cheap at less than US$40 a night. But it was more hostel than hotel.
Our bed, note bamboo mat and concrete floor below.
Curtain covers window looking out on alley.

Toilet/shower combination

We went out to get some dinner, and stopped at this place on the corner showing American movies on a big screen. Strike 1, they didn’t serve beer! Strike 2, the waiter was hovering over us which didn’t help Barbara’s mood. We ate there anyway, then headed across the street where I could get a beer.

We decided to tough it out for one night, then look at things in the morning. I checked a couple of places online and by phone, including the Harbour View Hotel, the Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn, and Hilton. (Thank goodness for our cellphones and our Digi SIM card.) Xanax and beer made sleep possible, and the next day we moved on.