For an Amazon in South America, there’s a Borneo in South East Asia- a pole of unapologetic wilderness and its antipode. Borneo, one of the largest islands in the world, hosts one of the oldest rainforest on earth. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an account.
The overnight showers had rendered a misty morning in Kuching, a southwestern town of Malaysian Borneo. An early morning bus ride along the length of Sarawak River brought us to the Bako Boat Terminal. At the riverfront, travelers paid for return rides, put on their orange-colored life-jackets, and often teamed up to share the cost of a relatively expensive park guide.
The Crocodile Delta
About ten people in, the boat propelled further north and so did the adventure. Our guide narrated a story of the legendary Easy-Going Bachelor, a giant crocodile that had killed many and had to be blown up with grenades. It was so named because it did not find a mate for itself! Then another ‘monster’, few years ago, had turned up on the banks and killed a fisherman. Sometimes, when kids went missing, people hunted crocodiles, cut open their bellies, only to find disfigured bodies of their beloved.
Listening to the man vs. crocodile face-offs, many travelers took their dangling hands out of the warm water. We shifted to the center of the seat, away from the edges, as the longboat sputtered and went airborne with every ripple. The bumpy ride had us clutch on to whatever we could get our hands on to – seats, railings, and each other. The river widened at the delta, scaffoldings for fishing-nets emerged, mangroves gave way to taller green mountains, and low-altitude hovering clouds made our destination appear like a ghostly beach. Engine went off and the boat cruised to a halt. Everyone strapped their backpacks, took off footwear, and climbed down into the knee-deep South China Sea to wade through to the pristine shores of Bako National Park.
Limestone and sandstone cliffs had fenced the Teluk Assam beach into an amphitheater formation, defining a periphery of the jungle. The receding overnight tide had alerted sand blubber crabs to step out of their burrows in search of food. Their numerous inflated-pellet markings and shells decorated the ground. The walking scenario changed barely 200 meters east. Cliffs flattened out, and palm trees and smaller shrubs hugged a welcome sign posted by park authorities. Few wild boars roamed in the distance.
From the park’s headquarters, trails branched in various directions. Though we did venture inside the dense woods, the best sightings of wildlife were right in the mangroves of Teluk Assam beach. Gangs of reddish-brown proboscis monkeys with their characteristic pendulous nose and pot bellies, bearded wild boars, or large monitor lizards; all these are easier to spot early on in the hikes. You may even come across deadly vipers coiled up in the tree-branches as we did too. On the day, it seemed as if there’s a pecking order: the endemic proboscis monkeys controlled the tree tops, vipers swung somewhere in the middle, with water monitor on tree barks and on the ground. Had it not been for the experienced guide, we might have missed the camouflaged reptiles.
Hiking routes traverse dense forests and this is where Borneo overpowers you, and so effortlessly. Merging tree-tops form canopies to cut off the sunlight, while mangroves, grassland and swamp vegetations aggressively compete for space and nutrients. Tea-colored rivulets flow across, tanning the nearby soil. Armies of red ants, carrying stacks of food, march tirelessly – be careful not to offend them! In the midst of such muddle, the tall, solid muscular Ficus trees extend their buttressed roots deeper and laterally to hold the forest floor together. Its mighty trunks are known to produce musical sounds when hit. Our guide picked up a bamboo and demonstrated the utility – Ficus was once a popular mode of communication for the local tribes!
Of all marked trails (such as Ulu Assam, Teluk Limau, Lintang, etc.), Teluk Pandan Kecil remains one of the most popular. It takes anywhere between 90-minutes to 3 hours, depending on pace and detours, to get to this beach. From here, travelers usually rent a boat to get to the famous Sea Stack, a remarkable rock formation, often compared with a hooded cobra! You are likely to see pictures of this Sea Stack in most of the travel promotions for Bako. So, beware that the usual boat ride (paid for at the Bako Terminal) does not cover this. To be able to click pictures, you either have to rent another boat for a round trip from Teluk Assam, or trek one way to Teluk Pandan Kecil with a return boat ride.
For day hikers, the last boat service to Bako Terminal was at 03:00 pm. This time, there were no life-jackets! Perhaps an oversight. It is easy to overlook such absence after an utterly engaging venture. We only got reminded when the propeller malfunctioned and the boat came to a floating halt in the middle of that crocodile-infested delta. All is well that ends well. Luckily, it roared again and another bumpy ride got us back to the terminal.
Bako National Park, one of the smallest national parks in the region, is a microcosm of Borneo. Almost every vegetation and fauna found on the island can be seen here.
What about Orangutans in the Nat Park, you ask? Well, they are a protected species and a subject of conservation efforts now. To see them, plan another day in your itinerary to go to Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Visitors are allowed to observe them during feeding times at 10:00 am and 03:00 pm. You may want to combine this tour with a visit to Sarawak’s long-houses (with human skull exhibits on display) in Kampung Annah Rais, Padawan. The lush green mountains, slightly cooler climes on a lucky day, and a chance to taste and buy the indigenous home-brew!
Kuching is the base to visit Bako National park. If you love cats or street art, you’ve got another reason to visit this unique city in the Malaysian province of Sarawak. Some say that a miscommunication led to the naming of this city after the Malay word of kucing for a cat. To keep up with the folly, the city administration has since added a few sculptures, murals, and even a museum depicting the felines. Interestingly, we did not come across any real cats!
Kuching offers many hostels with twin privates between RM 60-80, and a dorm for about RM 20-30. The rent typically includes a basic breakfast, linen and towel, and a decent WiFi. We slept in Borneo Seahare Hostel with a nice lobby and a TV-viewing room. If you do not feel up to it to use a toaster or do your own dishes, you can step downstairs for local flavors. The hostel’s location, on Jalan Song Thian Cheok, is a short walk from the waterfront, cafès, and bars. For a night of wilderness inside the Nat Park, it is best to make prior arrangements. Do not forget to dab tons of tiger balm or other mosquito repellent before sleeping.
The equator passes through Borneo. A few travelers even crossover from the Malaysian side to Indonesian Kalimantan with the sole purpose of touching that geographical landmark. The tropical weather brings with it the rains and humidity. January was particularly overcast. If you happen to visit this place during the rainy season, simply buy a disposable raincoat (costs about RM 5) and step out to hike.
If you are adventurous, try Durian, the king of fruits! Beware though, the incredibly popular, strong-smelling Durian is perhaps an acquired taste. As for regular meals, besides the mouth-watering Malaysian food (Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Nasi Kandar, etc.), Kuching seems to have developed an insatiable appetite for burgers. Come evening, and a string of burger stalls are setup – dark-colored charcoal-bun burgers are quite unique to look at. Delicious menu, delivered on the budget. For a sweet tooth, try Sarawak’s famous layered cakes! Food in Bako National Park’s only canteen, as is common with remote places, is relatively expensive. So, if you are watching your travel expense, bring a packed lunch along.
Have you been to Borneo? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
Disclaimers: (1) Maps, wherever used on this site, serve a representational purpose only. Backpacking Series does not endorse or accept the boundaries shown, names, or designations used by Google. (2) This story / article is based on personal opinions of the author. Backpacking Series is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity and it does not assume any responsibility or liability arising out of use of any information provided herein.