Monday, January 06, 2014

Christmas with Orangutans

After starting my holiday vacation out with a few days in Melbourne (see "The Great Ocean Road" for background), I fly to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) to meet up with Nimarta, who is already there and has been there for a few days now. We are staying with one of her friends from college, Alex, who happens to live right by the airport so it's quite convenient. They meet me at the airport and I hop in his truck, because everyone in Malaysia drives a pickup truck.

It's about 10:00 at night, so it's late, but not to worry. Restaurants in Malaysia are open all night. We roll into a little seafood joint and it's packed with people eating dinner, or whatever you call a 10:00 meal. Nimarta had caught a fish on Alex's fish farm earlier in the day so the restaurant takes it to cook. BYOF. Bring your own fish. Other than that, we let Alex do all the ordering since everything is in Malaysian and he knows what to do.

At about 10:30 a big family comes in to the restaurant, which is basically just a covered patio with some plastic lawn furniture. 10:30 and people are still going out to dinner! I learn that there's not really a set breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Malaysia for most people. People just eat whenever they feel like it. Guess these folks were hungry for some 4th meal. Our food comes and I have no idea what to expect.

Looks like we got some beef, squid, veggies, and of course the fish. After chowing down on those some steamed crabs land on the table. Two big trays of them. Now I remember Alex pointing at the bucket of live crabs while talking to the server. Talk about fresh. It's been quite an experience for my first meal in Asia, but I'm exhausted and we have a 7 AM flight tomorrow so it's time to go to bed.

Alex and his wife Daphne live on the water and we sit out in the back yard and watch a few planes land after dinner. They only have one room in the house with air conditioning and they've let us stay in it, which is good because humidity and me do not get along and I can't sleep when I'm sweating. Luckily the room cools off during the night and I'm able to sleep pleasantly without overheating (I know, first world problems...). Alex drops us off at the airport just after 5:30 in the morning and we say goodbye. We have a 7:00 flight to Sandakan, a small coastal city that serves as the gateway to the Borneo rain forests.

We have a booked a two day tour with the Borneo Nature Lodge and our guide picks us up at the airport right on time. We would have liked to go on a longer adventure but due to my limited time in Malaysia before heading to Indonesia this is the best we can do. Our guide is Kurt (short for something Malaysian), born and raised in Sandakan. We also have a driver chauffeuring us around in a sweet white van. Kurt and the driver will be our personalized guides for the next two days. Not bad!

Our first stop is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center ( The sanctuary was set up by a British woman and 1964 and now is the most important orangutan rehabilitation center in the world. The goal of Sepilok is to nurse injured orangutans back to health and slowly prepare them for life in the wild.

It takes a few years for the process to complete but eventually, if the orangutan is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Technically there are no fences for the sanctuary. The animals can leave whenever they want. But why would they leave when they get fed delicious fruit twice a day?

We are here a bit early so we get some breakfast at the cafe. I get a traditional Malaysian breakfast, which means noodles and egg. It's not what I think of when I think of breakfast food but it's not bad. The first orangutan feeding is at 10:00. It's only about 9:15 but Kurt recommends we head into the sanctuary to get a good viewing point for the feeding.

It's not a very big place, but very dense. Who knows how many orangutans are in these trees. We are parked on the boardwalk when we hear something in the trees right above us. We look up to see our first orangutan, breaking branches and dropping leaves all over us.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Christmas with Orangutans