A Travellerspoint blog

September 2008

Jungle chap

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

In Sabah, a short hour from Sandakan, is a large forest reserve, Sepilok, which covers over 4,000 hectares. Most is primary dipterocarp forest, while the section nearest the sea is mangrove forest. The reserve contains 450 species of trees, and ninety species of mammals, including red leaf monkey, honey bear, gibbon, samba, barking and mouse deer.

Agricultural land is not a suitable habitat for orang utans, so their natural habitats – forests and mangrove swamps – are disappearing. (Orang hutan means person or people of the forest; orang sungai river people; orang laut sea people; orang Inggeris an Englishman.) They often end up foraging for food on palm oil plantations and are killed as pests or hunted for sport. Often, too, a mother is killed in order to capture her infant to be sold as a pet, sometimes smuggled abroad. Forest fires can also kill hundreds at a go. So the number of orang utans in the wild, in both Borneo and Sumatra, is diminishing. If they become extinct, we can primarily blame palm oil. And for the glut of palm oil we can partly blame western governments for their lunatic subsidy of biofuel.

There are two species of orang utan, one in Borneo and one in Sumatra. The Bornean is Pongo pygmaeus and the Sumatran Pongo abelii. They were probably separated 1.5 million years ago, when they ranged all over southeast Asia and into southern China. There are now perhaps 45,000 Bornean orang utans in the wild, and 7,500 Sumatran. They are confined to spots in west and east Borneo and to northwestern Sumatra, and were probably so confined in Sumatra in Wallace’s day. Another estimate gives 10,000-30,000 Bornean orang utans. The Sumatran orang utan is listed as critically endangered on the IUN Red List, and the Bornean orang utan endangered, and both are CITES Appendix I species.

Within the grounds of the forest reserve sits the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). It is funded by a UK charity and by entry fees. When someone finds a young orang utan, or sees one kept as a pet, they can call the centre, which, if there is space, will take it to Sepilok for a “rehabilitation” free of the connotations of the gulag.

Outside the centre I bumped into a colony of pig-tailed macaques.



The pig-tailed macaque, Macaca nemestrina, spends more time on the ground than its familiar long-tailed cousin. But they still have to learn to climb trees, and it is not easy, particularly going down.


Its groups are usually led by a dominant male, which is built a built like a baboon (its apparent size is exaggerated by the fur). Some live alone. Smart simians, these: they are not part of the programme, but they free-ride on it.


In the centre there is an exhibition devoted to orang utans and Sumatran rhinoceroses, an audiovisual theatre and some boardwalks leading through the edge of the forest. One of the boardwalks leads to a large platform situated opposite a couple of smaller platforms. These are feeding stations. The smaller platforms have horizontal ropes leading to them from nearby trees, so that the orang utans can reach them without touching the ground. Wallace observed that they never touch the ground if they can help it, unless they really need to find water in the dry season. Wallace thought, reasonably, that they drink water collected in leaves in the canopy. In fact they open up the bark of a particular tree – the tree from which the river people make gongs - and drink the juice.

Orang utans eat a huge variety of fruit, bark, nuts, honey, leaves, flowers, insects, bird eggs and even mineral earth. They even eat durian; in fact Alfred Russel Wallace reports that they are very partial to them. (Dinosaurs probably ate them too. Durians, like mangoes, have been around for 70 million years.) They have very solid jaws, and fearsome canines, which help when peeling fruit. Like us, they have 32 teeth.

Orang utans have the most intense parental relationship of any mammal other than humans. Mothers carry their offspring for five years and may suckle them, off and on, for six or seven years. A mother sleeps with her infant every night in a nest. The Borneo species gives birth on average every eight years. Once a new baby is born, the older child is displaced in its mother’s attentions.

Adult males live alone and can migrate very long distances. Females stick closer to the hearth. Male and female come together in a ‘consortship’ of up to a week. The resulting gestation lasts for 250 to 260 days. Newborn infants usually weigh less than 2 kilos. Their diet is wholly milk for the first six months, and then they are gradually weaned on to pre-chewed food and may be fully weaned from their fourth year. They cling to the mother’s fur as she moves around.

Wallace, who kept a baby orang utan orphan in Borneo for three months until it died (he couldn’t obtain milk), found that orang utan infants are relatively helpless. They display a need for company and attention comparable to human babies and react in a similar way when these desiderata are withdrawn. Wallace’s infant liked to grasp things, with a strong preference for Victorian facial hair. And it soon learnt to enjoy being washed and towelled.

If you plot primates’ gestation periods against their weight, you find that humans are an outlier: our gestation periods should be much longer given our size. One theory is that the human gestation period is limited by the relatively large brain, which could not fit through the birth canal if kept in utero any longer. A human brain is about 2% of adult body volume, an orang utan’s 0.6%. This would help explain why human babies are even more helpless than orang utans. (It also explains why Marilyn Monroe swayed fetchingly: women's hips are bigger than their chimp cousins' so as to accommodate big baby heads.)

Many of the arrivals at the centre are young. Upon arrival the foundling lives in a hammock in quarantine for ninety days (which would make it novantine?), and is bottle-fed every four hours. An identification number is tattooed on to the leg of the sedated ape. Then they go to a clinic, where they are checked for diseases such as TB. The clinic also takes care of rhinos, bears, gibbons, macaques (why?), leopards, pythons, otters, deer, pangolins and birds. The waiting room must look like a Gary Larson cartoon.

New entrants under a year old are bottle-fed, cuddled a lot and given warm baths. They are taken home by centre staff to be given night-time feeds, until they are able to drink from a bottle unaided. They like to cuddle soft toys.

Many of the most important orang utan skills are acquired, not innate. They learn from their mothers. At the rehabilitation centre they have to be taught orang utan culture: how to swing, climb, find food and build nests. Orang utans sleep in nests. They make a new nest every night, which takes about twenty minutes.


The aim of all this is to release each orang utan into the forest to fend for itself. But it is a long process. At first the orang utans are moved into an outdoor nursery and their cages are opened. They cautiously wander out, but stay close to the cages and come back to sleep in them at night. The cages are near the feeding stations. Here fruit and milk are made available at 10 am and 3 pm every day, and crowds of people come to watch, particularly in the morning.


The emotional support is gradually reduced. The inmates are encouraged to learn to find things for themselves. There are in fact four feeding platforms, the farthest being a kilometre into the forest. The orang utans are gradually moved from one to the next. At four they are weaned off all human attachment. It may take six or ten years for them to learn how to live entirely independently; even then, they may visit a feeding platform every now and then.


I visited two of the afternoon feeding sessions. At the first, there were perhaps 15-20 tourists and two orang utans turned up. They munched through extraordinary quantities of bananas before heading off along the ropes. Usually they walk suspended from the ropes, using all four hands; sometimes they brachiate with the upper limbs only.


They have very short legs and very long arms, which are almost all forearm; on Wallace’s figures, the armspan is nearly twice as long as the height from heel to head. Wallace’s adults – he shot about 17 orang utan - were all about four foot one tall. According to the information at the centre, adult males can reach about 1.40 m, which is about four foot seven (I have seen other figures that suggest males can reach 1.75 m). Their wingspan can reach 2.4 m, or nearly eight feet. Adult females can reach 35 to 50 kilos in weight in the wild, although much more in zoos. The two species are strongly sexually dimorphic. Males can reach up to 90 kg (and possibly much more). Indeed, Pongo is the heaviest fully arboreal mammal and the largest fruit eater. In the wild, they live to about 35; longer in zoos.


They have extraordinary hands. Their fingers are thick and very long, the thumbs very short, which keeps them out of the way. However, contrary to received opinion their thumbs are clearly opposable, as can be seen here. The male’s hands are about twice as wide as the female’s, and really are as big as spades. They have very tough palms. Their nails are black and long. The apes are extraordinarily strong: four times stronger than an adult male. (Which adult male? Me, or Lennox Lewis?)


They have very mobile hip joints, which allow them to hang comfortably in positions that appear excruciating.



They have a very wide range of physiognomies and hairstyles, and they display a wonderful and touching diversity of facial expressions on very human faces.



Most zoologists preciously warn against the dangers of anthropomorphism; but we lay people can react as we like. (Not all do: I recommend the fascinating books on chimpanzees by Frans de Waal, starting with Chimpanzee Politics.)


Outside consortship periods, males live very solitary lives. Not all are landowners, but all males with a territory display flanges on the side of the face. A territory is useful because when a female in oestrus wanders on to your land, she is yours. This pulling strategy is called call-and-wait.

On the second morning I went for a walk through the dipterocarp forest and missed the morning feeding session. I saw instead a lot of fat skinks, butterflies and a gorgeous rhinoceros hornbill, Buceros rhinoceros. I only saw it because it flapped from one branch to another, its wings making a loud and disconcerting noise as it did so (any noise in the jungle is disconcerting). Rhinoceros hornbills are the largest hornbills, growing to 1.2 metres in height.


I also saw several impressive ant superhighways. I followed one of them for about ten metres along a path and across several roots and branches before losing it as it headed up a tree. To a small animal the path would be impassable; indeed a far larger ant stood stymied like a tourist in Saigon, unable to cross.



On the second afternoon it was raining and there were about forty human tourists, including an Italian group with a typically atrophied sense of res publica. A small female arrived, one of the pair that had dined the day before, an ugly girl with a squint. She was pregnant. Then a lot of pig-tailed macaques crashed the event. Most roosted like bats under the feeding platform, occasionally hoisting themselves over the parapet to steal a banana.


But they gradually be came more confident and aggressive, and eventually the orang utan was overwhelmed by numbers; so they robbed as well as stole. One individual – far smaller than her – was insanely aggressive and forced her to retreat along the ropes about a hundred metres. Orang utans are well known for being very gentle, except to each other, but her retreat was in any case prudent, as macaques operate like the musketeers in practice and NATO in principle: attack one macaque and they all attack back, scratching and biting. Humans are advised to retreat too, and in Ubud I followed this advice with alacrity.


However, judging by what I saw outside the centre, macaques do seem to be terrified of cats.


Both orang utans swung obliquely around the feeding station and landed on the boardwalk. They then knuckled one behind the other along the railing for several hundred metres, hemi-surrounded by a crowd of excited tourists. I stopped by the railing a couple of times, scattering Italians, and watched the hirsute pensioners shuffle past within inches. I obeyed the injunction against touching them, since a) it is rude, b) they are shy and c) one can catch or give disease.

Then the leader hoisted herself into a tree and waited while the second one lowered his face like a Chinaman eating noodle soup and sucked up insects from the railing. Then he too hoisted himself up and they were gone.


A kilometre down the road from the SORC is the Rainforest Information Centre, where I spent a happy day wandering through dipterocarp forest. There are many species of birds in the forest, including woodpecker, trogon, pigeon, minivet, bee eater, broadbill, malkoha, kingfisher, shama and shrike, and there is a short canopy walkway built of metal.


There is also a botanical garden exhibiting, among other things, plants grown commercially in Borneo, and a number of pitcher plants and orchids.



Not to mention the usual skinks and dragonflies.



Posted by Wardsan 19:47 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Idulfitri bah humbug

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The newspapers are full of stories about overcrowded public transport. Most people in Indonesia try to travel home to their families to celebrate Idul Fitri (Eid), which is at the end of this month. It is difficult to travel at the moment, so my plan of exploring the far eastern islands of Nusa Tenggara is exploded. I have to do a visa run in the middle of next month, which leaves me a fortnight to see anything after Idul Fitri. It’s frustrating: I have seen all I want to of Bali, lovely as it is, and if I had known the people from Alor were never going to reply, I would have headed straight to Flores last weekend.

I have also been paralysed by a fear of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, outstaying the visa and being chucked in jail. I met a chap in Ubud who had spent eight days in prison for visa violations, which did not help. Nevertheless I have come to the conclusion that the extent of my fear is irrational and have managed to find a plane ticket to Flores, flying tomorrow. Flores, predominantly Christian, is nominally less affected by Idulfitri, although transport everywhere in Indonesia is affected by holidaying Javanese. The idea is that I will dive in the west, around Komodo and Rinca, and then head east via yet another volcano. I don't expect to have the means to blog, but will upload a couple of posts now and then drip-feed them over a couple of weeks.

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I've fallen into the arms of the Danish mafia in Bali. In Ubud I spent a lot of time in a cafe owned by Karsten, from Aarhus. He referred me to my current hotel, run by Minnie, and she referred me to my travel agent, run by Nikolai. I trust the Danes, on the whole. If they don't like something they tell you to your face.

They aren't corrupt, anyway. The 2008 Corruption Perception Index has been published by Transparency International. Government attitudes towards corruption are ranked by survey respondents on a scale of 1 to 10. First equal were Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand, on 9.3. Singapore was the top Asian, fourth on 9.2. Malaysia scored 5.1, Thailand 3.5, Vietnam 2.7, Indonesia 126th on 2.6, the Philippines 2.3, Laos 2.0, Cambodia 1.8 and Myanmar came bottom with 1.3. ASEAN members are, as a group, markedly corrupt.

The headline in the Jakarta Post? “Progress”. Last year Indonesia came 143rd with 2.3.

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The military have played a large role in the modern history of many southeast Asian countries. This is particularly true in Indonesia, which has usually been led by a military man. Many of the streets are named after heroes of independence. There is a Yos Sudarso street in every city.

General appears to be Jendral in Indonesian. Other ranks seen on street signs are Brigjend, Mayjend and Letjend.

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In Our Time is back. Thank goodness for that.

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Every now and then the Bintang Kejara flag, or morning star, is hoisted in Papua. It is a flag of independence. Showing the flag is a sedition offence created under government regulation 77/2007. Eighteen people were arrested in Kuramki Dam village this week for hoisting it in the middle of the night. The maximum penalty for the offence is the death penalty. Judging by the label of government regulation, it appears that the government has the power under emergency legislation to create capital offences without reference to parliament, and to execute people for them.

Papua remained under Dutch control in 1945, and became part of Indonesia only after a fictitious ‘Act of Free Choice’ in 1969. Anti-Indonesian feeling is reportedly very strong. The worst running sore is the management of a gold mine, operated under concession by PT Freeport Indonesia, which I understand is a US-owned company. Consideration for the concession is paid to the government in Jakarta, and so Papua is believed throughout Indonesia to receive none of the revenues from its mine. Similarly, I have heard it said that the terms of the concession require indigenous labour to be hired, and Freeport hires Javanese. Whether or not these are true – and I believe that it is the policy of the Indonesian government to return a large majority of the revenues to Papua, so no doubt local politicians have nice cars – the mine is a symbol of Indonesian oppression. There are bombs in the concession area every so often.

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Meanwhile in Malaysia, the blogger arrested this week under the Internal Security Act has been detained for two years, to be reviewed after six months. The Internal Security Act delegates to the Home Minister the power to detain without trial for a period determined by the Minister. The courts can only check whether due process has been followed; they cannot question the length of the detention. At least 60 people have been thus detained under the Act; most are suspected Islamic extremists.

Who passed this draconian legislation? The British, during the Emergency. The Malaysian government, in power continuously for the last 51 years, has never found it convenient to repeal it.

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Time for some pictures, so here, for the edification and improvement of the readership, is a selection of Vietnam’s revolutionary posters.










They have a pleasantly 195os feel about them. I like the ones with atom symbols and scientists in lab coats and glasses.

What are they about? They began as war propaganda; now you don’t see any humiliated foreigners on the posters. They celebrate anniversaries: Ho’s birthday; April 30th; military victories. They advertise the five-year plan. They emphasise Uncle Ho’s continuing Obi-Wan presence among us. They inveigh against the perils of drugs. They encourage people in the countryside to have only one or two babies (people in the cities are already doing so). They warn again using prostitutes (most Vietnamese men ignore this advice). They warn against HIV; ten years ago it was jolly condoms, as it still is in Laos, now it’s Munchesque skeletal figures.


Posted by Wardsan 18:07 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Mỹ Sơn

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My plans, such as they are, are in disarray. I had hoped to be diving in Alor by now, but the people who run the dive shops over there never answer their phones or reply to SMSs, so I ended up staying in Ubud for a while. Ubud is a lovely place, with a rich cultural life and lots of extremely nice shops selling woodwork, silver, art and clothes. Very few of the buildings are abovew two storeys. The main roads form an elongated pi, with padi fields between the two legs, so it is fairly rural even in town.


A lot of tourists end up staying, and it has a slightly hippyish atmosphere. It is the sort of place where the 'mind/body/spirit' section of the bookshop is the bookshop and where small ads in shop windows sell 'spirit channelling' services to the credulous and the intellectually lazy (most people).

I am in the market for none of these and want to dive, so I came to Sanur, on on the southeast coast of Bali, in search of mola mola. The southern part of Bali contains the beach resorts, and a large proportion of the population is Javanese, or so I am told. Sanur is the resort for middle-aged people with bulging stomachs and wallets, and families with children. Seminyak has more twenty- and thirty-somethings but is not a wild place. I have not been to Kuta but I have a Boschian vision of streets full of vomiting Australians.

I dived at Nusa Penida today and failed to see any mola mola, but did encounter a strong downward current, which was unpleasantly stimulating. I also saw some enormous giant trevally and a gigantic starry pufferfish, and at the other end of the scale two pairs of nudibranchs, each one on top of the other. Nudibranchs - I have previously mentioned that they are hermaphrodites - line up head to toe and right hand side to right hand side to mate, and each fertilises the other. So what the slugs were doing on top of each other I am not sure.

One wonderful thing about Ubud, although not restricted to that location, is the suckling pig. After three months in Malaysia and Indonesia, any pigmeat is delightful, but the babi guling is the moistest wonderfullest pig I have ever eaten. Any lunchtime in Ubud not spent pigging out is wasted.


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Bali is predominantly, and eccentrically, Hindu. The three major deities are not typically depicted in Balinese art, and they believe in a kind of chairman god above the three chief executives. But art and design are everywhere: most buildings are decorated with beautiful stonework, and stone and wood carvings are everywhere. A design ethos seems to imbue society, and it certainly imbues Ubud, in which every restaurant is beautifully and individually decorated. The number of temples is staggering. The temples are guarded by gruesome statutes, which scare off evil spirits. Most of these statues are clothed in sarongs.

Spirits also play an even large role in life here than they do in the Buddhist parts of southeast Asia. Each house has its Lararium, as in Vietnam and Thailand, but each premises puts out offerings to the spirits on to the pavement quite frequently - more than once a day it seems. You often see women weaving leaves into an intricate tray on to which rice, sweets and fags may be placed, and each is a lovely thing in itself, until trodden on or attacked by dogs.

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In Malaysia, if you can't be bothered to accuse a political opponent of sodomy, just accuse him of insulting Islam! Then you don't even have to go through the hassle of putting on a trial.

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The last Hindu culture I saw was in Vietnam, and it wasn't breathing. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries AD, central and southern Vietnam was under the control of the Cham Empire. The Chams were Hindu, with close cultural links to Java, and the buildings they left behind are Hindu temples. They are usually built of red brick in boat-shaped towers.



The reliefs and statues that survive depict Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, Indra, Shiva, Uma, Skander, Garuda, Naga, Kala, makara heads and animals such as tigers, lions and elephants. The women wear sampots or sarongs.


There are inscriptions in Sanskrit.


There are also a lot of lingas and yonis. Here I am at Mỹ Sơn by an impressive linga.


There is a good Cham museum in Ðànãng. There is an impressive pedestal from Mỹ Sơn, showing dancers, musicians, and hermits in caves. There is also a game of polo in relief.

It’s easy to approach the remains as those of a dead culture. The empire has disappeared – one of the northern Vietnamese kings eventually drove them out – but, like the Incas, the Chams themselves have not. There are still a million of them, mainly in southern Vietnam. Nowadays they are mostly Muslim but they still use some of the old sites for religious ceremonies.

From Hội An I visited Mỹ Sơn, one of the more extensive Cham ruins, which has structures dating from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. I took an early bus at five in the morning, and a later tour back, thus staying on site for three hours or so. I thought I was being smart but actually the site is not very large, so I ended up looking at lizards and insects.






Once you’ve seen Machu Picchu or the Forums in Rome, it’s not awe-inspiring. I have to admit that the Cham artefacts do not wholly grab me – they are worth a detour, but not a holiday - although I do like the Kala and makara heads.


Mỹ Sơn may be extensive, but most of it is in a sad state. This is not the result of the inevitable depredations of time, but because there was fighting at Mỹ Sơn in the American War, and American helicopters deliberately bombed it to prevent the Viet Cong from using the site. A distinguished French professor of the Extreme Orient wrote to President Nixon to demand him to impeach his forces from deliberately destroying the site, and Nixon complied.



Posted by Wardsan 14:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)


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OK, it's time for a new look.


Thick hair encrusted with sea salt defeated the clippers for half an hour, and it hurt a bit. But now I can catch any breeze on the top of my slightly ogival cranium.

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From Malang we travelled to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park in East Java. The park contains a huge caldera and a number of active volcanoes. We stayed at Cemara Walang, on the rim of the caldera at 2,300m. It was cool after sunset, and hawkers sold hats, scarves and gloves.

From the crater rim it is a gorgeous view, at least in the morning, after the mist has burnt off and before the clouds roll in. The two mountains in front of the hotel, Bromo and Batok, are the same height at 2,392 m. Batok is a steep cone, Bromo a kicked-in sandcastle, constantly smoking.


Fourteen kilometres away is Mt Semeru, at 3,676m the highest in Java, from which a smoky eructation issues every quarter of an hour.


We are up at 3.30 am and jeep to a point on the rim of the caldera at 2,700m, where Bromo and Batok line up with the more distant Semeru. It is chilly, but nothing like as cold or windy as Kinabalu. The view is breathtaking as the sun comes up. Some of the pictures look completely fake: has the sky been pinked and the smoke added? No.



There are thirty or forty people watching the dawn at the viewing point on the rim: the peak season has passed, and it is Ramadhan, so numbers have fallen sharply. In August there would be hundreds of people.


Later we walk from Cemara Walang across the caldera floor, the so-called Sea of Sand. Utterly arid, it is very dusty and difficult to walk on.



We walk past a Hindu temple – this is the last bastion of the original Hinduism on the island, the locals being descended from Hindus who fled the onrush of Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries – and up a couple of hundred steps to the rim of Bromo.


Smoke issues continuously from a vent in the floor. We had planned to walk around the rim, but the wind is blowing the sulphurous emission everywhere and it is too difficult.

In the afternoon we all sleep; I read The Tempest in an open hut on the rim. The clouds roll in, the view disappears, and I am plagued by flies.


This is Dick, retired opthalmologist and avid cameraman.


This is Alexi, tenuously affiliated to our tour group.



Posted by Wardsan 19:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Back in Ubud

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It’s been a long time. Fast internet connections in Lombok are rare - I have just now discovered that Lehman Brothers failed and HBOS has agreed to a bid, and I have missed the most exciting times in financial markets for nearly eighty years - and I have not in any case had the time to blog.

The Java-Bali-Lombok tour is now over. The group waxed and waned in number but never gelled very well.

Most of us started in Yogyakarta, where we took trips to see Borobudur and Prambanan. After Malang we went up several volcanoes, sometimes under our own steam: Bromo in Java, Batur in Bali, Rinjani in Lombok. We saw quite a few temples in Java and in Bali, before climbing to the crater of Gunung Rinjani and spending a few days on the beach in the Gilis, islands west off Lombok. I am now back in Ubud, Bali, wondering what to do next.

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In Yogya, near the Kraton, is the bird market, where birds are sold in small cages. Lovebirds, budgerigars and orioles are popular.


Bird feed in the form of ant larvae and cicadas is also sold. Fighting cocks are on sale. I was shown a cock that had won a few fights but had lost its last one: it had lost its mohican after its defeat. Bats, including flying foxes, are also available, as are geckos, iguanas and monkeys.



Most of the small cages do not bother me too much, although I am not in favour of them, but the monkeys are in a sad way and displaying the repetitive behaviours cased by imprisonment in a tiny place.


Posted by Wardsan 20:25 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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