Borneo Chapter Two: Into Gunung Mulu


We left Kuching for Gunung Mulu National Park in the middle of an afternoon thunderstorm. Our twin-propeller plane took off directly into a snarling black wall of clouds and sideways rain and serious doubts about near-term safety. Luckily, the inclement weather was mostly low lying, a meteorological bluff that gave way to sun and a fluffy white bed of clouds a few thousand feet off the ground. Far less (superficially) dangerous, was our arrival an hour later at Mulu Airport, swooping down over mountainous jungle into a remote town set so deep in the heart of Borneo that one must fly or travel by boat to reach it (logging roads exist, but it is almost impossible to reach Mulu by land).

Gunung Mulu National Park is a 546 square kilometer old-growth jungle preserve set almost in the geographical center of Malaysian Borneo. It is also one of the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia, and probably the world. I don’t toss around descriptive absolutes like ‘most spectacular’ lightly, but Mulu deserves it. Why the effusive praise?

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

CAVES. 286km of cave systems; the largest known cave chamber on earth – Sarawak Chamber at 700m in length, 400 meters in width, and 70m in height; the largest cave passage on earth (or was, apparently the recent discovery of a cave in Vietnam has usurped this title, but I’m not an official, so 1st or 2nd biggest) – the entrance passage to Deer Cave is about 2km deep, 174m high, and a couple hundred meters in width depending on your location; the longest cave in Southeast Asia – Clearwater cave clocking in at 180km of explored passageway; and a variety of other superlatives that I will skip. The caves are almost incomprehensibly enormous. The entrance to Deer Cave hits 300m tall in places. If you wanted, you could sail the entirety of the United States 7th Fleet into Deer Cave and probably have room for a 9-hole underground golf course.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long snouts do not emit light.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long ‘lanterns’ do not emit light.

FLORA AND FAUNA. Do you like old growth jungle? Do you like rare, exotic, Burton-esque types of insects and land mammals? Or 170 distinct species of orchids? Does the phrase, ‘10 different species of the carnivorous Pitcher Plant,’ arouse your curiosity and/or toss gasoline onto the always smoldering ember of wanderlust buried right beside your gypsy heart? Well, maybe you’re not a botanist, perhaps it takes giant moths, emerald pit vipers, pygmy squirrels, Rhinoceros Hornbills, hand sized snails, face sized spiders, 276 species of butterflies – including the luminescent Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing, porcupines and deer and scampering lizards to pluck those traveler chords. While exotic, the terrestrial leeches and extremely aggressive ants aren’t as fun. Granted, population densities for mammals are quite low, and many animals are active nocturnally, so sightings are not guaranteed, but that makes any encounter even more special.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

MANAGERIAL EXCELLENCE. Gunung Mulu National Park is an incredibly well managed, world-class eco-tourism destination and  is consistently voted as one of the best managed parks in all of Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Park staff are courteous, knowledgeable, and professional; activities are diverse and well organized; the food is good; the trails are well maintained; the amenities are nice; the internet can be slow, but hey, you can’t even get to the park by car so if clouds problematize satellite reception facebook status updates will have to wait. Stay at Park HQ if you can. It is a collection of bungalows and cabins nestled right at the edge of the rain forest and it is remarkable. If time is a concern do the Canopy Skywalk, Deer Cave, Clearwater Cave, and the  Night Shift. If time isn’t a concern add some adventure caving, a river boat tour, and lounge around to your heart’s content listening to the gorgeous aural environment.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

By making a list of things designed to capture the superlative nature of Gunung Mulu I may have given the impression that the beauty, scale, and otherworldly character of the park is somehow quantifiable. I don’t actually believe that is the case. Take for example Deer Cave. Its entrance is roughly the size of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 3 million bats chatter away about 180m above your head. It is a 60 million year old testament to the geological alchemy of acidic water and limestone. None of those numbers really convey the historico-emotional synesthesia of being there. To rephrase without bullshit hyphenated terminology: being inside Deer Cave sets off some kind of innate sense of rapture that always existed and continues to exist in the cracks and recesses of the brain.

And the same goes for the afternoon and evening showers. Laying in a bungalow, with slatted blinds open, and the rain – its rising and falling percussive waves of sound – washing over the room, the bed, everything. The rain in Mulu is felt, and the rain begets a throaty, raucous, insistent insectoid symphony that wrings an unlikely harmony out of chaotic dissonance. It is such a deeply sensory experience; I want to write myself straight out and into a purpled, adjectival wilderness. And I guess that desire for descriptive excess is kind of the point: Mulu is special in a way that few places are – a truly unique, irreplaceable part of our world. I want to avoid valedictory clichés like, ‘go see it for yourself,’ or, ‘make it part of any Southeast Asian intinerary,’ but I have to say those things. So do it, go, you should, absolutely; see the bats, and the caves, and the lantern bugs, and definitely, definitely listen to the rain.

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Hiking Badachu

Beijing, China, Badachu

Badachu Park is a collection of rolling hills, trails, and narrow roads just outside urban Beijing’s northwest corner. It was a gorgeous day, and we spent about 6 hours hiking a fairly large (and often quite steep) loop through the area around old monasteries and temples.


Borneo Chapter One: Monkeys, Boat Rides, and a City of Cats

borneo, travel, photography, malaysia, Kuching

I truly enjoyed telling people about Borneo before the trip, it’s a rare destination and the name alone carried enough cache to make it sound like we’d be off on an Indiana Jones style adventure, or to undertake some anthropologically significant research in a land existing beyond the reach of time.  What with all its connotations of primordial jungle and mangrove swamps and untouched, mist enshrouded mountains I made myself into an intrepid voyager just by mentioning the name.

The reality of course was far different, but no less fun. Most people would be surprised to find that Borneo is more developed than many neighboring tourist destinations. This is due partly to the fact that the British turned coastal Borneo into a kind of exotic, but well appointed getaway, and partly to the fact that despite Japanese occupation during World War II, Malaysian Borneo emerged relatively intact. A mix of oil, industrial, and agricultural wealth has further lent the region an agreeable mix of development and low prices. Malaysian Borneo is divided into two major administrative districts: Sarawak in the east and Sabah to the West. Our trip began in Sarawak, in Kuching, the ‘City of Cats,’ so I’ll begin there.

Malaysia, Borneo, Photography, Travel

Aromatic herbs and spices, rice, locally grown produce, and a variety of coloful wares entice shoppers along the Main Bazaar, one of Kuching’s busiest thoroughfares.

From Beijing we flew into Kuching, Borneo’s largest city with 600,000 residents, and the capital city of East Malaysia. Downtown is quite walkable and friendly, with narrow streets, small cafes, and arcaded sidewalks filled with an assortment of colorful spices, dried fish, and locally produced handicrafts. One of the most fascinating things about Kuching is its poly-ethnic character. Malays (a majority of whom are Islamic), Chinese, Indians, native Iban, Dayak, the city is truly a melting pot and appears, to an outsider at least, fairly well integrated. Dragon bedecked temples, strings of red lanterns, and large, boisterous dining halls all testify to a pronounced Chinese diasporic presence. The absence of alcohol and pork from many restaurant menus (and from most local stores, including 711), the numerous local mosques, and prayer bells all attest to the strongly Muslim character of Borneo.

Downtown Kuching is a vibrant place, so how to fill days spent in the city? Eat seafood at Top Spot, have dinner at The Junk (seriously, The Junk is fantastic), stroll along the water front, drink coffee and browse for gifts. Sit and enjoy an afternoon of heavy clouds and everyday minutiae. Borneo Delight Café, located about a block off the waterfront in the heart of downtown is wonderful, extremely cheap, and serves traditional Malaysian food, so I would highly recommend grabbing lunch at the outside tables. With a pronounced lack of booze heavy nightlife typical in so many other tourist destinations, first time visitors to Kuching would be better served just ambling around town during the evenings. Because the city is so pedestrian friendly, just about everything can be accessed from the riverside promenade, itself breezy, well lit, and dotted with small restaurants.

orangutan, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

At 350 or so pounds, Richie (the big guy on the ground) is the undisputed alpha male of the park. He was rescued by a local journalist from illegal captivity – he was being kept in a tiny cage for display.

Kuching is charming, yes, but its real attractions lie outside the city at Bako National Park and Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Semenggoh sits less than 15 miles outside the city and is one of the premier destinations in the world to see Orangutans. It isn’t a zoo, the animals are not caged and roam the 650 acre park freely. For most of the year they remain elusive, feeding on wild fruit, but, when the fruit season ends the animals descend from the tree tops twice a day and head for one of two feeding stations. We were fortunate enough to see 5 of the 23 residents, all of whom were either rescued from illegal captivity, injury, or were actually born within the park. Unlike a zoo, there is no glass, no wire, and no enclosures of any kind between the visitors and animals; we were all warned to run if approached.

For us, Bako was the most amazing part of the Kuching area. Small, yeah, but it is loaded from its rain soaked ground to its canopied tree tops with rare, often bizarre forms of wildlife that appear to have sprung directly from the canon of jungle stereotypes. From Kuching an hour ride on public bus No. 1 will drop you right at the Bako Market dock, from which visitors to the park must take a boat.

Malaysia, Borneo, photography, travel

Looking out at the South China Sea, and a second round of approaching storms after we’d made it to the entrance of Bako National Park.

The boat ride out to the park probably deserves an entry to itself, but I’ll try to explain relatively quickly: We boarded a small sampan, maybe 18ft. in length, and headed up the Sungai Tabo River out into the South China Sea past pristine mangrove swamps backed by towering primary jungle forest. What made the ride so interesting were the storms. A great black angry wall of clouds was marching south, chasing rain and swells and white capped waves towards our little vessel. With a face like chiseled stone our pilot pointed the boat straight out into the bay, apparently unconcerned about the rough seas, the rising swells, and the approaching storm. Unconcerned I guess because he was actually racing other taxis towards a narrow channel cut through a minefield of shoals. I am sure this memory falls victim to retrospective embellishment, but at the time it felt like we were riding a gas powered canoe into a line of South Pacific squalls.

monkey, proboscis, bako national park, travel

A male Proboscis monkey hanging out in the trees near the Bako National Park visitor’s center. Note his distinctively shaped nose, which can be used as a snorkel when swimming.

Anyway, drenched by rain and spray we made it to the entrance of Bako, laughing for the most part about the ride and were greeted almost immediately by one of the park’s more comical inhabitants: the Proboscis Monkey, or, if you’re under 18 and male, and/or enjoy mid-low tier penis jokes, the ‘Chode-Nosed Monkey’. Bako is home to about 275 of these highly endangered animals, in addition to a larger number of Long Tailed Macaques and some Silvered Langurs. The Proboscis monkeys are very distinctive, a reddish blonde with long, powerful tails, males have a huge pendulous nose that continues to grow with age.

Wildlife and natural scenery are plentiful at Bako. Established in 1957, many of animals are far less wary of humans and are more concentrated, meaning that any visit will mean a variety of citings. Beared boars, monkeys, giant monitor lizards, beautiful Asian Pit Vipers, frogs, and tarsiers, tiny deer, a tremendous variety of birds – the list is long. Flora is also a major draw, thick primary jungle covers the whole area, a variety of carnivorous plants abound, and all kinds of strange flowering varieties greet you on walks.

Toss in an extensive network of well maintained trails, stunning cliffs, remote beaches, food, lodging, cheap and easy access, and concentrated natural beauty and Bako is an across the board win. If you are in Kuching, if only for a couple days, Bako should be on your itinerary. It is extremely easy to fit into a day trip.

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