At last I am resuming my account of our 2014 late winter tour of Malaysia. Two hard drive crashes since then cost some data loss and many hours of restoration time. However we did not lose the approximately 1500 photos we took while in Southeast Asia. If you’ve lost the thread of our story, you can find the first two posts in the blog archives: Introduction to Malaysia and More days in Malaysia, which chronicle our first week on the other world, on the Malay Peninsula.
Larger than peninsular Malasia is its territory in Borneo. Two Malaysian states, with the tiny country of Brunei between them, span the north of Borneo, while the rest of the very large island belongs to Indonesia. Jay and I visited the state of Sabah in northeast Borneo, arriving in Kota Kinabalu, the capital, on March 6 via an evening flight from Kuala Lumpur. We spent Friday exploring central KK (Malaysian cities seem to be called by their initials) on foot. This city is much smaller than KL, George Town, and KB and the walkways are much less uneven. In the other cities we had to constantly watch for pavement level changes from one shop front to the next. Kota Kinabalu was rebuilt in the modern era after being almost totally bombed out in WWII.
Our day began at a kedai kopi, literally a “coffee shop” but more of an open-air Malaysian diner. As we sipped a cold beverage and ate hot bowls of laksa (seafood stew) and Ngau Chop (beef soup), we watched the bustling dishwashers on our end of the kedai, the cooks at the other end, and colorful tables full of locals in between. Malaysians like hearty breakfasts. One guide told us they love to eat and have no small meals. That morning we took our first Atovaquone-Proguanil (anti-malarial) pill with half a protein bar, as recommended by the pharmacist, and were relieved to suffer no nausea. After a few days we realized that a protein bar was unnecessary after a Malaysian breakfast.
On our way back to the hotel I stopped at a Chinese Medicine Hall that looked like a small dried food market. After selecting a mix of dried fruits, roots, seeds, and herbs for chicken soup, a young man helped me list the mostly unfamiliar ingredients. Meanwhile Jay took street photos and got into a conversation with an Australian couple who shared our conviction that the best way to travel is to eat local food and mix with native people.
While I wrote in the room, Jay set off to exchange more of our travelers’ checks for Malaysian currency and didn’t return for an hour. He had to search for the one bank that would accept travelers checks, and stood in several lines before getting cash. Exchanging travelers’ checks for cash was always challenging.
The sun was high by the time we set off for the markets along the waterfront. There fishing boats had already unloaded their catch, larger docked boats waited with coconuts and other produce, while colorful speedboats were ferrying people back and forth to nearby islands. Adjacent markets were open to the hot air but roofed. Central Market housed wet (fresh meats and seafood) and dry (fruits, vegetables, and dried foods) sections. The Filipino or Handicraft Market was mostly souvenir stalls, a disappointment since we were counting on finding handmade gifts. Toward the back we saw many pearl stalls and learned too late that pearls are a good buy there. We were wilted when we got to Wisma Merdeka, an air-conditioned mall of small shops where we found the Borneo Shop selling wonderful books.
In the evening we walked to the Jessleton Pier for the Grand Port View seafood restaurant. After looking through an extensive menu (25 or 30 pages) that confused us, the hostess took us across the room to point out the species instead of describing them. There were bins of shellfish–the local corassium that I’d asked about, oysters, and white clams–as well as the day’s catch of fish, with live fish in tanks beyond. We ordered clams cooked with onion and ginger, corassium, plus rice and noodle seafood dishes. A waitress brought us a plate of pickled papaya and cucumber and a plate with white peanuts, and another waitress kept our tea cups filled all evening. When our entrees arrived the hostess showed us how to pull the corassium out with a small wooden skewer. Dipped into some kind of Chinese bean sauce, they were delicious. Watching other diners eat from common plates, we realized we should have ordered only rice or noodles, not both. When the bill came we were surprised to see charges for every single item, even the appetizers we didn’t order and the packages of wet-naps set in front of us at the end of the meal, but the total was still reasonable.
On Saturday, March 8, we ate in the room–European style bread and pastry with our protein bar and anti-malarial pill–rather than get up any earlier than necessary for our 8 am pick-up. As soon as we were in the car our guide Khairul told us about a Malaysia Airlines flight to Beiging that disappeared during the night. Khairul was open to questions and conversation during the drive and we learned that both he and our shy driver were from the highlands of central Sabah, both Dusun, one of the indigenous tribes of Malaysian Borneo. Khairul explained the difference between Dusun (inhabitants of the highlands) and Kadazan (river delta dwellers) ethnic groups. During the day’s drives we discussed Dusun agriculture, marriage customs, and family housing.
Driving east from KK the van climbed in altitude through rainforest, reaching Kinabalu National Park in about two hours. The highest mountain in southeast Asia, Gunung Kinabalu’s peak was snow covered until about a dozen years ago. The park has trails in the rainforest and we were looking forward to getting a close look at flora and possibly fauna. Khairul asked several times if we were able to stay on our feet for 1½ to 2 hours, and we assured him we walk longer than that in NYC. When we started up the trail, in some places muddy and other places tree root-crossed, I began to wonder. That segment wasn’t long and led to easy walking in a botanical garden for about 90 minutes. We saw many, many kinds of orchids, two kinds of pitcher plants, and other flowers and trees. A blue flycatcher stopped long enough for us to admire it and a yellow warbler busily gathered moss from a tree just above our heads, the only wildlife we caught sight of.
After an open-air lunch of Chinese food and curry with rice, we drove on to Poring (“Bamboo”) Hot Spring. The spring-fed pools were crowded with families so we didn’t relax in them. No, we hiked higher and higher on concrete and dirt steps up to the canopy walkway, a rope-and-plank walkway suspended between huge hardwood trees, high in the rainforest canopy. After walking about four feet on the shaking walkway, I adjusted to the rhythm and began to enjoy the experience. Jay realized that the four segments, each about 30-40 feet in length, became successively higher, and he didn’t look down. I was preoccupied looking for wildlife, which had been scared off by a noisy party ahead of us.
That being enough excitement for one day, we drove on to Sabah Tea Plantation, accessed by a terribly rocky road. There we were shown into a two-room cottage named for Alfred Dent, founder of the British North Borneo Company and designated supreme ruler of British North Borneo from 1881 until it became a British colony. The cottages’ architecture and their gardens are obviously atypical for the area. Dinner at 7 was Hakka Chinese cuisine in the open air as we listened to crickets, locusts, and a coucaul bird sounding in the dark.
Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of birds and caught sight of mountains against a hazy blue sky. The nearest Catholic church was about 30 miles away, too far to walk and too far for the travel company to provide transportation for Mass, so we worshiped privately and thanked God for the beautiful setting. During breakfast on the restaurant platform overlooking bamboo stands and the plantation, we observed tea pickers at work. As soon as we finished eating a Malay breakfast of fried mee hoon and noodle with chicken, a tea factory guide led us off on a tour.
Tea is a 5-step process and we got to observe the final three steps.
1. Picking by a small crew with a machine that looks like a giant hedge trimmer, by manual clipping, or by hand snipping the tips of the branches or high quality tea;
2. Withering, during which about 30 per cent of the moister is removed by fans blowing over the tea leaves over a period of about 18 hr;
3. Rolling to crush the leaves;
4. Fermentation, a natural process during which the leaves turn from green to brown and become aromatic, hence green tea is not fermented;
5. Drying in a series of four “ovens” until the moisture content is reduced to between 1 and 3 per cent so the tea becomes fragrant and keeps for years rather than months.
Tea is sorted into four grades during the process with largest particles used for loose tea requiring 3-5 minutes steeping, middle two grades used in tea bags needing 2-3 minutes, and “Dust 2” the finest grade which requires only 1 minute. The guide also showed us how to determine the quality of tea by sprinkling it on room temperature water. Good tea immediately starts settling to the bottom whereas cheap tea slowly leaches only coloring agents. We had been able to taste the good quality of BOH and Sabah teas provided in our hotel rooms.
Khairul and Walter waited until we put our things back into our suitcases before turning us over to a new guide, Paul, and driver Chong. Paul warned us it would be a “boring” drive of nothing but palm plantations. Since we didn’t need to keep our eyes continually on the scenery, we talked a lot with Paul and learned more about Dusun culture. He lives in a longhouse with his parents but he and other family members who are employed stay at the family’s small house in Sandakan. Our one stop was for lunch (Black bean chicken rice, Singapore hoon mee, with bau to go) at the Checkpoint Restaurant. There bus passengers must show papers (to expose illegal immigrants) and are urine-tested to detect drugs. If a 40-passenger bus is being checked, all other vehicles must wait, sometimes for hours, in a que even though they will not be checked. Heading to Sandakan to catch a plane might be stressful.
In 4¼ hours we reached the Kinabatangan River, where our Borneo wildlife safaris would begin. I’ll write about our safari adventures next.
To see more of our Malaysia travel photos than I’ve posted on our website, visit our Paulukonis Studio Facebook page using the link on our Home page or go directly to photos.