A Travellerspoint blog


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)

Domes and spires

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

There are very few buildings over two hundred years old in Malaysia, and most of the surviving nineteenth century buildings are commercial premises. So Malaysia has very little indigenous Islamic architectural tradition to speak of. This gives architects a licence to pilfer from a broader tradition while creating a modern Malaysian Islamic architecture for purposes both religious and profane.

Pilfer is what the Masjid Negara does. It is a beautiful building, built in 1965. The architect was Datuk Baharuddin Kassim, who had studied at Manchester University and was an admirer of Le Corbusier, inter alios.

Its plan is along traditional lines, with a central dome of reinforced concrete, 60 metres wide, a huge verhandah, and an independent minaret. The bright blue ‘dome’, though, is not curved; it is a nearly-unfurled umbrella or a generalised Phillips screwdriver with 18 points. (Umbrellas are a symbol of royalty in this part of the world.) The mosque was refurbished in 1987; before that, the roof was pink.


Inside it is decorated with blue Italian glass mosaic thulus khat calligraphy. There are triangular glass windows inscribed with the names of God and Mohammed.


The mihrab has a Moorish horseshoe arch and the surrounding walls are decorated with Moroccan tiles. The inside wall of the mihrab has a muqarnas decoration.


The minaret, 70 metres tall, is white, sharp and shaped like a furled umbrella. There is a lift for the muezzin.


The mosque can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, the prayer hall itself 3,000. The verandah, where the other 12,000 would be, is decorated with blue and grey mosaic from Japan. The rosette of the dome is a copy of the rosette in the Blue Mosque.

The king worships here on state occasions. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, but an unusual one. Most of its states are headed by sultans. One of their number is the ‘king’. Each king is appointed for five years, after which another sultan gets the job.

The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, opposite the national mosque, is another very successful example of modern Islamic architecture. It opened ten years ago. It is well-known for the flat turquoise domes on the roof, copied from the Safavid Shah mosque in Isfahan, but it is also a very successful exhibition space, with 30,000 square metres and virtually no walls, so that light gets everywhere.


The interior, like that of many mosques, is cool, reflective marble.


There is a permanent collection and a temporary exhibition space. There are sections on architecture, ceramics, silverware, textiles, calligraphy. To someone used to the British Museum collections, the collection is probably most notable for its Chinese items (and Malaysian, naturally), although its quality is extensive rather than intensive; the good stuff is at the Met and the British Museum (and probably the Louvre, or did we nick everything oriental after the Battle of the Nile?).


On my second visit an interesting temporary exhibition was entitled ‘Beyond Orientalism: How the West Was Won Over by Islamic Art’. And finally, the museum has an absolutely brilliant shop, stuffed with things I would like to own. This is the inside of one of the domes.



(Incidentally, KL, like so many cities in North America, is hostile to pedestrians. I walked only a short distance from KL Sentral to the museum, but it took me an hour and I had to cross motorways to do it.)


Before the Masjid Negara was built, the state mosque was the Masjid Jamek, built 99 years ago to a design by A B Hubbock. It is on the confluence of the two rivers that gives Kuala Lumpur its unpoetic name: Muddymouth. It is built of white stucco, with granite floors. It is a good place to sleep in the afternoon, if you’re a Muslim; infidels have no licence to enter. It has Mughal domes and a pair of minarets.



Hubbock, who had previously worked in India, was the official architect for Selangor State, so he got all the plum commissions. He designed the central railway station (built in 1910) and the railway company (KLT) headquarters (built in 1917).


All the Hubbock buildings share a penchant for Mughal onion domes and arches, and they work well, particularly the station, which seems more distinguished than the railway headquarters by virtue of its albinism.


The station building is now a hotel. Inside, the station looks like a Victorian station in Britain (think of York or St Pancras).

There are also modern mosques in Kota Kinabalu. To the north of KK is the KK Mosque, and to the south is the Masjid Sabah, built in 1975. Malaysia’s second-biggest mosque, it’s an attractive grey and gold dome - not bad at all, although not a patch on the Masjid Negara.


The two oldest mosques in Malaysia are thought to be 300 years old, although they could well be much older. I visited one, just south of Kota Bharu (the other, Masjid Kampong Kling, is in Melaka, and was built in 1748). It is called the Kampong Laut mosque, because that is where it used to be. It was moved to Nilam Puri in 1968 after a flood of the Kelantan river had caused the verandah of the mosque to be washed away.

Kampong Laut mosque is built without nails, but with wooden dowels. It was greatly expanded in the nineteenth century – the number of pillars rose from four to twenty - so it is difficult to know what might be original.


It’s made of cengal, a hard wood, and built on stilts. The design is said to be similar to the Masjid Jemak in Java, which was built in 1401. The story goes that it was built by Islamic scholars who used to travel between Champa, Pattani in Thailand, and Java. They were shipwrecked at Kampong Laut, and built a mosque to give thanks.

It does not look like a mosque. Nor need it; after all, the first mosque in Yathrib, the model for all others in the Arabian peninsula, was Mohammed’s house. And the first mosques in China were architecturally identical to Buddhist temples, although orientated along an east-west axis.

It looks like a large wooden Malay house. It has a double roof, with a gap for ventilation in the middle. Several of the palaces in KB have the same style; I do not know whether they are following a local style, like the mosque, or directly aping the mosque itself.

  • **

Back to KL, and the Dayabumi Complex is also a pretty building, faced with screens echoing the window-screens of traditional Islamic homes, decorated with eight-pointed stars. (In the foreground is Merdeka Square and the tallest flagpole in the world.)




(Less successful are the minangkabau buffalo horns topping modern blocks all over Sabah. It’s banal; sticking a couple of horns on the top doesn’t change the fact that it’s a modern concrete block.)

The KL tower, a telecommunications tower owned by Telekom Malaysia, is 421 metres tall including the antenna. The observation platform is at 271 metres, and from there you can see the whole city.


The KL Tower charges for entry. Access to Petronas Towers, on the other hand, is free. The twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world when built, until 2003. The roof is at 379 metres, and the spire at 452 metres. Now the tallest building is Taipei 101, which tops out at 509 metres. The Burj Dubai will officially become the tallest building when capable of occupation. (The rules for the ‘tallest’ building allow spires but disallow antennae. The Petronas Towers and Taipei 101 take advantage of those rules; the Sears Tower is still the biggest building when you look at it.)


The top floors are not open to the public, but the double-decker bridge connecting the two towers is. The problem is that access is free, so, inevitably the number of people wanting to go up exceeds the spaces available. This leads to what economists call non-price rationing and others call a queue or line; or in most parts of the world, a scrum. 1,700 permits become available at nine each morning. I arrived at 8.30 to find an entire hall filled with several hundred people queuing. Over an hour later, I had a ticket, timed for 1.30 pm. So I had to return at lunchtime, which severely restricted what I could do with the day. The number of hours wasted is in the thousands every day. Far more efficient would be to charge a price to visit that would allow those willing to pay the price to visit the skybridge immediately.


Before visiting the skybridge, you must endure a tedious 3D propaganda video for Petronas. It contains all the usual corporate claptrap, implying that every employee of Petronas is a hero, and oil is green. It manages to claim that the towers “inspire children to realise their potential and take on the world”. Not likely.

Then you go up in a service lift to the 41st floor, at 170 metres (100m below the observation deck of KL Tower), and have ten minutes at the connecting bridge. You can’t see some interesting areas of Kuala Lumpur because one of the towers is in the way, and I’ve been to the 44th floor even in London of all places. So it’s okay, but nothing special. If you want to go, use the market mechanism properly: pay someone to queue for you and stay in bed.


The Petronas Towers, designed by Cesar Pelli, are worth a visit in any case because they are surely the most distinguished skyscrapers of the modern era. Their elevation is unique and pleasing, avoiding the dull loudspeakerness of most skyscrapers, and I have admired the plan ever since I first saw it when they were built. Take a square; superimpose another of the same size, rotated by 45 degrees; and you get an eight-pointed star (a rub el hizb). In each of the eight involutions, add the arc of a smaller circle as infill. It is a beautiful, recognisably Islamic plan, which also achieves a commercially acceptable ratio of office space to wall.


Another reason to visit the Petronas Towers is the 40-acre shopping centre underneath it, Suria KLCC.


Shopping centres are very important in Malaysia (nearly as important as in Singapore, essentially a large mall where shopping is the state religion); a large part of life is lived there. They are where people go of an evening, not just to shop but to meet, eat, see a film and drink something sugary. Some are very impressive, far better than anything I have seen in England: Suria KLCC, Pavilion, Times Square. It is easy to lose a whole day at any of these, even without actually shopping. At Times Square there is an indoor amusement park with a rollercoaster. You go upside down three times in the space of 800 metres.


Posted by Wardsan 21:31 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Eastern peninsula

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I have been diving and snorkelling off the coast of northeast Malaysia. I stayed for two nights at Flora Bay on Perhentian Besar; there was no alcohol and people went to bed early, but it was a very pleasant spot. This is the sort of thing you see at dawn.


Flora Bay has a reef a few cables off the shore, so that at low tide the inner part of the bay is effectively a lagoon, full of blennies and black sea cucumbers. I also saw an octopus on the way out. It was not pleased to see me and squeezed back into its coral home.

I snorkelled twice at Shark Point, a brilliant place to snorkel. I saw two hawksbill turtles, resting at three metres and five metres. The first had two remoras attached. The site was also notable for its numerous parrotfish. Most are psychedelically coloured, often combining pink, purple and iridescent green. They have mouths like a parrot’s beak, with fused teeth, and they eat by scraping away at rock or coral; when you are snorkelling you can hear every mouthful they take. Every now and then they spit out a mouthful of chewed-up rock. Fish follow them to search through the rejected aggregates. I also saw (perhaps) a bumphead parrotfish – blue, very large and very odd-looking. And on every dive in these Malaysian islands I have seen squirrelfish and checkered seaperch, which look as though they have already been barbequed.

I also saw something you don’t want to see at all: a crown of thorns starfish. Not only are these ugly and extremely venomous, they can eat their way very rapidly through entire reefs. Divers kill them as pests, but they are difficult to kill: you must either carry them back to land and bury them, or inject each leg with the contents of the starfish's stomach. Miss a leg and the animal survives; and they have up to twenty of them.

Best of all, seven black-tipped reef sharks swimming along the reef beds, one at a time. The first time I saw one it was a bit of a shock, but I knew that they are not aggressive unless cornered. One of them circled around me as if on a four-yard rope. These sharks are blue-grey and grow up to about six feet in length.

Diving at the Pinnacle (Tokong Laut), we saw a school of squid, a blue-spotted stingray, a small yellow-margined moray eel (they look fearsome, but they aren’t), a small nurse shark, a million fluted oysters (with zigzag edges like Jack Pumpkinhead’s mouth), triggerfish, a lot of parrotfish and a lot of dendronephthya soft coral.


Relaxing afterwards I noticed for the first time a lot of Christmas tree worms. They are tube worms, and each pair of trees is the respiratory organs of a single individual. They grow in bright primary colours. As soon as anything approaches the ferny spirals are withdrawn at great speed.


We also dived at the Sugar Wreck, where an 80 metre long boat lies on its side. The currents were strong and we spent a lot of time fighting them. I found it difficult to work out what was what on the boat, but the massive propeller and rudder were unmissable. There was less marine life, other than millions of barnacles and molluscs, but we saw a school of juvenile chevron barracuda, each individual only about a foot long; five jackfish in a group; batfish; a big hermit crab; a couple of porcupinefish; and a starry pufferfish, over two feet long, which came right up to me and had a close look. Pufferfish are famously poisonous: the delicacy fugu is prepared from pufferfish. They also have the smallest genomes known among the vertebrates.

In fact almost everything underwater is venomous. Half of the fish carry poisons in their spines or their flesh; anemones, corals and hydroids carry nematocysts, as do jellyfish; and some starfish and octopuses are venomous. I am carrying the marks of a sea nettle, an anemone and a jellyfish, and the marks are not likely to disappear soon. The jellyfish, which stung me today on the neck on the hand, gave me the the most painful sting I've ever had.

Snorkelling again, with fantastic visibility, I saw about fifty longtoms varying from 18 inches to four feet in length. The immature longtoms were schooling, the adults on their own. They very long and thin, silver, with blue tails. They move very slowly, wiggling their hind parts and tails. They have a very long, narrow snout, with visible teeth. This time I saw eight black-tipped reef sharks and three titan triggerfish. They are large fish, two feet long or more, hideous, and they swim by waving their dorsal and anal fins. They are docile most of the time, but the females are known to attack divers when they have young.

I dived at Sea Bell, a coral reef around a lighthouse. This is a shallow dive with plenty to see. I saw a nudibranch (Phyllidia varicosa), several blue-ringed angelfish, a stripy lizardfish, several blue-spotted stingrays and beautiful bug-eyed blue-spotted fantail rays, a couple of razorfish, a big crocodile longtom, a couple of big tomato anemonefish – one guarding an anemone of the same lovely colour – and an attractive black and white sea cucumber with black feeding parts. (If you find these lists boring, skip them. This is primarily a record for me.)


This is a blue-banded angelfish.


I also snorkelled at Long Beach, on Perhentian Kecil, which was nowhere near as interesting as Shark Point, but there were still a lot of parrotfish, lyrefish and wrasse to watch. In the shallows there were also a lot of very curious sergeants and sergeant majors; highly territorial, they tend to swarm all around, coming within a couple of inches of the mask.

This is an anemone curled up in a defensive position.


Another thing worth mentioning is the hundreds of giant clams seen on every dive and snorkel trip. As often as not their shells have been incorporated into the local coral or otherwise encrusted; all that is visible is the colourful mantle. The mantle is colourful because they host symbiotic algae, which donate photosynthesised energy to their hosts. This is why they grow so big. The mantles come in various beautiful hues, always variegated: chocolate, green, bright blue, Native American turquoise. When something approches the mantles withdraws, but the shell seldom actually closes.

Tonight I’m at Redang Kalong Resort, which seems a really nice place. The Olympics are on – I’ve watched as much as I can – but of course, this being Malaysia, it’s tuned to the badminton. The Badminton World Federation is based in Kuala Lumpur, which hosted the world championships earlier this year. Many of the best players, particularly in the women’s game, are from southeast and east Asia. Badminton is an excellent sport but the swimming is on another channel right now…

  • **

I spent too long in Kota Bharu, because I could not get the booking I wanted on Perhentian. Kelantan, the state of which KB is the capital, is known for its crafts: batik, songket, silverware, wooden carving, woven rattan/bamboo/pandang.

There is a cultural centre, which hosts displays of kite-flying, drumming, wayang kulit etc. I was keen to see the shadow puppets, but the centre was closed, except when it opened to host a travel expo. The tourist information office was closed. Everything else was closed on Friday – which in Malaysia is only true of Kelantan and its neighbouring state Terengganu.

I mentioned that Kota Bahru calls itself bandar raya Islam - Islamic City. Even the street decorations bear the name of God or his Messenger.


Other than the Chinese and the tourists, every woman in Kota Bahru weirs a headscarf and a two-piece dress. More often than not the headscarf is plain and pale, on top of a darker dress. The younger women often look like Catholic nuns.



I had an idea of buying some batik or songket. There is a complex opposite the central market which specialises in batik, and there are lots of fine batik silk shirts on sale for £40 or so. Batik is merely a technique, and there is no limit in principle to the variety of design. The problem is that when it comes down to it, I can admire the batik shirt but I cannot imagine wearing it, unless in an attempt (which would unquestionably succeed) to win the lary shirt contest at my cricket club. It’s wildly garish, and works well on women, who dress like birds of paradise, and well enough on Malaysian and Indonesian men, but just makes a pasty-faced westerner look like a prat, I suspect.

KB is on a river – huge, slow, brown, like every other river I have seen in Malaysia - but has turned its back on it. That ought to change when the Pelangi mall opens.


I've included some pictures of nice buildings along the way, which is misleading. Most urban buildings in Malaysia have been built within the last forty years or so, in concrete. Kota Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan basically looked like this.


Both the batik centre and the central market are right by the central mosque, and there are loudspeakers in both locations, and elsewhere in the town, carrying the voice of the imam whenever there are prayers. Including the dawn prayers. The central mosque, built in 1925, is nothing like as interesting as some of the mosques I have seen in Malaysia - more on that another time.


The central market is a wet market: on view, lots of fish that I have seen under water recently (and squid at RM7 a kilo), and the usual fly-ridden carcasses of chicken. At the centre, fruit, vegetable, tuber and legume. The colourful marketers blend in with the colourful fruit.


There is a ‘cultural village’ of traditional Malay wooden buildings, with an exhibition of Kelentan crafts on the upper floor. It’s mildly diverting; there are shops around the village selling said crafts, but they are selling goods of low quality at low prices; far more interesting would be, for example, proper gold-woven kain songket. But I did not see any.


There is also a war museum. The Japanese army, which invaded the Malay peninsula on 8 December 1941, attacked Kota Bharu first. There isn’t really much else to know, except that the four northern states of Malaysia came under Thai military control from 1943 until September 1945. The Japanese gave them, in effect, to the fascist government of Thailand as a favour for letting them invade through Thai territory. This is not as weird as it sounds: although it is a Sultanate, Kelantan was under Siamese influence until the British by gunboat diplomacy forced the Thais to cede it in the nineteenth century. This is one of several reasons why the border between Thailand and Malaysia is culturally fuzzy. There are also lots of Muslims in southern Thailand who would rather be part of Malaysia.

So I got pretty bored. KB is not a lively place. As is usually the way, I became so obsessed with the relative dearth of alcohol that I actually drank more than I have in most of the rest of Malaysia: two large bottles of beer a night, which costs far more than the food.

The best place I found in KB was a kek shop: a good place to try mysterious cakes and sponges and watch the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremony, with a Cantonese commentary, in a Chinese restaurant. There was a lot of excitement. Without David Coleman reading a prepared script, it was easier just to concentrate on the visual aspect of the opening, and I thought it was marvellous in the main, particularly the drumming, the martial arts and the imaginative use of calligraphy. (I did not care for the interludes with unnaturally well-behaved schoolchildren, but you get that kind of Hello-Kitty kitsch everywhere in east and southeast Asia.) I thought the lighting was fantastic.

Posted by Wardsan 20:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Saliva soup

overcast 28 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Near Bilit, on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, is a system of limestone caves known as Gomantong. They are famous for their wildlife and for their commercial importance.

There are thought to be a million swiftlets in the Gomantong Caves. There are also millions of bats. They work in shifts, changing at dawn and dusk.



Like the baldmice, the birds use echolocation to get around the caves, but at frequencies audible to the human ear (3-10 kHz).

Two of the four Bornean species of swiftlet make nests that end up in soup. One makes white nests, the other black. The nests are harvested twice a year, in March or April and then in August or September.


The black nests are full of feathers, which are stripped by hand. The white ones are almost entirely saliva. The white nests fetch five times as much as the black: RM 5,000 a kilo. The nests are about 85% protein.

Malaysia exports ten tons of nests a year to China, Indonesia eighty or a hundred. This trade is old. I saw a piece that suggested the Chinese have been buying birds’ nests since 400 AD but I think that was a typo. There is certainly some evidence that there was trade in the late T’ang dynasty, tenth century, and also in the fourteenth century. Borneo has no documentary history until very recently, and buildings are usually made of organic material, so even recent history is prehistory unless it turns up in the history of another country.

The prices for birds’ nest are such that they are worth risking plenty to obtain. And risky it is: people ascend tens of metres on rickety bamboo ladders to get to the nests. Every now and then someone falls off and receives an instant P45.

The earliest evidence of humans in Borneo comes from caves, although not Gomantong. Caves provide shelter, but Gomantong caves are about as unpleasant a place to live as it is possible to imagine; and some nest-gatherers do still live there. The excrement of the bats and the birds lends an ammoniac tang to the air, although I’ve experienced as bad in Orkney.

One thing Orkney does not have is an seething mass of cockroaches pebbledashing the floor and walls.


If the parents of a baby bat cannot find it among the millions of others within a few hours, it will end up on the floor of the cave, at which point it is a goner.


And there is a constant fine drizzle in the caves, which I took to be bat urine; watch the Planet Earth episode on the caves and find out (as I will). It took a lot of washing to feel clean afterwards.

Posted by Wardsan 22:32 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)


semi-overcast 30 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I'm posting from Kota Bahru, just south of the Thai-Malaysian border. It is the capital of Kelantan, once one of the poorer states in the Federation, now the richest - oil. There are some palaces in the suburbs but the city itself does not display its wealth. In the first few hours here it has been dispiritingly wet and dry: wet, because it has rained all the time; dry, because this is the most Muslim state in Malaysia, and few places sell alcohol. Indeed, it calls itself Kota Bahru Islamic City, if I have got it right, which must make the Chinese feel welcome.

Most restaurants in Malaysia do not serve pork. (The Chinese, who can’t live without it, are an exception.) Where a pork-like substance is necessary, ‘chicken ham’ and ‘beef bacon’ are substituted instead. So Burger King does not serve bacon, and the Bacon Double Cheeseburger is just a BK Double Cheeseburger. And so the greatest invention in the history of fast food is lost to Malaysia.

Similarly, the only place to find beer in KB is in the Chinese restaurants, so I shall be eating Chinese for a while. I crave whisky or brandy, simply because I know I can't find any.

  • ***

The only accommodation in Kinabalu National Park is run by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, who charge monopoly prices. I visited their offices and, upon being told that the accommodation up the mountain was full until 31 August, paid through the nose to obtain a place through my guesthouse. I shopped in a hurry: two jackets, gloves, a hat, long johns. One of the jackets was a steal at £4. None of these is usually necessary in the tropics, but, at 4,095 metres on the most recent geodesic, the summit of Kinabalu is cold. (A reasonable rule of thumb is to subtract ten degrees Celsius for every thousand metres in height.)

The following day, having inadvertently set my alarm clock for 6 pm, I overslept and packed in a panic. Thus my rucksack contained three books, a change of trousers, sandals and a lens cleaning kit, but no Ventolin, hat or socks. It weighed around fifteen kilos, which I regretted for all fifteen hours or so of the climb.


Although the path up the mountain is clear – 30,000 attempt the climb each year, and much of the route is stepped, fenced or roped – a guide is obligatory. At Park HQ I am duly assigned a guide, Azuwan. He is even older than me, and he climbs the mountain but twice a week; some of the guides climb it thrice, with one day off. Some have climbed it 5,000 times, which must be very dull.


I was expecting to be in a group, but actually I’m on my own at first, which is boring. Asuwan is not over-talkative, and nor am I for that matter. But there are a number of covered rest stations on the route, and after the first I ended up in a group with others from the UK or thereabouts: Anne, Helen and Jeremy.

We walk up through low montane (oak-laurel) forest then high montane and then the trees become stunted and rhododendrons and mosses start to take over. By that time we are above the sparse clouds. Kinabalu is home to a huge number of plant species, many of which are endemic. The park is thought to host over 1,000 species of orchid and 600 species of fern.


Kinabalu is also known for its pitcher plants (genus Nepenthes), which eat insects. Unlike Venus fly-traps, say, they are passively carnivorous; that is, they do not move to catch their prey. They merely emit an alluring scent. Their leaf-tips fuse to form a tall cup or ewer. The lip of the ewer is slippery, so that any insect that lands on it falls in, there to be broken down in a pool of digestive fluid. The fluid only analyses the dead; frogs and tadpoles can live in it comfortably.

Each pitcher has a lid to prevent the abundant rainwater from diluting the contents of the pitcher. The largest pitcher plant, N. rajah, is reputed to have a capacity of over three litres.

They are climbers. The pitcher forms on the floor, where it is fat. As the tendrils climb, the pitcher becomes elongated and bottom-heavy, so that it remains vertical.

Above 2,500 metres we saw a few pitchers. The first, N. villosa, is fairly small.


The others were N. kinabaluensis, the second-biggest plant.


There are also a fair number of animals in the park, but the trail is busy, and most keep out of the way. An exception is the mendicant ground squirrels loitering at rest stations.


The walk to Laban Ratah, where climbers spend the night, took four and a half hours. Laban Ratah perches at 3,270 metres above sea level. Above 3,000 or so I started to notice the poverty of the air. I’ve walked to 4,200 before, on the Inca Trail twenty years ago. There I only perceived the thin air above 3,800 metres or so; but then we had acclimatised in Cusco. Here, most people come from Kota Kinabalu, on the sea. Some get altitude sickness. I just got a headache, which is very common. Helen vomited a couple of times.

But overall the climb is not hard, and certainly not technical, and the views are wonderful. We are vastly fortunate with the weather: not a drop of rain over the two days. Annual rainfall in the park averages 4,000 mm.

When we arrive in mid-afternoon the thermometer reads 16 degrees. When I retire – shortly after seven – it reads 9 degrees, but the wind takes it below freezing. The dormitory has no heating, but three layers of clothes and two blankets are enough.


I arrange to meet Azuwan at 2.30 am, after breakfast, but oversleep again. No breakfast, and a rush: not a good start to a climb. It’s dark, of course – that’s the point – but there is a snake of torch-bearing pilgrims to follow. Progress is very slow, which is not inconvenient; there doesn’t seem to be much air around. It’s no big deal, you just have to go slowly. Soon we are above the tree line, and we ascend, bent forward, over slippery granite. The trail is steep. Much of the time it is necessary to hold on to fixed ropes; some of the time you’re on all fours.

It takes much longer than I had expected – 160 minutes – to trudge to the peak. In the dark, there is no view to divert attention from corporeal complaints. As with most climbs, peak fitness is not required, just a modicum of willpower. In the rain, though, the mental demands would be significant.

Eventually, just as dawn breaks, I achieve the summit, where twenty or so climbers already huddle like wintering penguins. Soon there are eighty or a hundred. Most people who attempt the climb make it, the only exceptions those in heels, those hit by altitude sickness and the wobbliest of lardbutts.


Azuwan prudently waits below, in the lee of a strong and icy wind. And soon I realise why: after a couple of fruitless snaps, I lose the use of my gloved fingers. It is perishingly cold, and there is none of the elation usually seen at a summit. Most look glum. Few can stand it for long.

However, fifty metres below the peak and out of the wind, the view is easy to appreciate, and as the sun comes up the view improves. There even seems to be more oxygen around. Just across the way from Low’s Peak is St John’s peak, named after the unfortunate who first ascended the mountain to find himself at a local maximum, a tragic metre lower than the true peak. Between the two peaks, diving near-vertically, is Low’s Gully, inaccessible outside El Niño years.


On the left as we descend, the Abdul Rahman peak, the Ugly Sister and the Donkey’s Ears.


On the right, South Peak, an oddly familiar view. It’s on the one ringgit note. (All the other notes carry proud but ugly pictures of industrial Malaysia, rivalling the euro notes for uninspired ugliness.)


Climbing in the darkness to see the sun rise seems to me a mistake: much better to walk up in warmer daylight and enjoy the scenery all the way. The entire head of the mountain is unearthly: bald granite, scoured long ago by glaciers. I have never been anywhere like it; it’s harshly beautiful.


Unlike any other descent in my experience, going down took as long as going up. We stopped for an hour or so for another breakfast at Laban Ratah, but all in all we were on the move for around eleven hours on the second day.

We have all been warned that the descent is as bad as the climb, but it is much worse. The descent from Laban Ratah covers six km horizontally and 1,900 m vertically, and takes nearly five hours. Well before the end of it, with jelly quads, we are walking like puppets or drunks. That’s when it’s better to be in a group.

And at the end of it, as I mentioned in the last post, I’m not sure what the point of it was. I can feel a mild pride in having climbed it; but I’ve done that sort of thing before and am well acquainted with my mental and physical strengths and weaknesses. You’re not supposed to say this, but, company excepted, I think I might have enjoyed it more if I had stayed on the lower slopes looking at bugs and enjoying the scenery.

Posted by Wardsan 21:47 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 18) Previous « Page 1 [2] 3 4 » Next