10.02.2013 - 02.03.2013 35 °C
Borneo conjures up images of an unexplored wilderness teaming with bizarre animals and populated by small tribes of feather clad natives. And in many parts of the island this image is not far from the truth. Borneo truly is home to some very remote areas and an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Upon boarding my flight to Kuching, however, I was unaware of the large and incredibly diverse human population which inhabits the island as well. Borneo has nearly twenty million inhabitants. It's sits in the center of southeast Asia within arms reach of China and thus settlers from several distinct cultures seem to have forged enclaves in various regions of the island. During my three weeks in Borneo, I quickly came to understand that it is not only a place for spotting wildlife, but also a place experiencing interesting and diverse culture.
My first port of call in Borneo was the friendly modern Malaysian city of Kuching, Malay for 'cat'. Kuching is very developed, has many western amenities and is a comfortable place to relax in between trips to the rainforest. Like mainland Malaysia the city is a real cultural mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian. But several local Bornean cultures are present as well such as the Dayaks and Ibans.
The city is spotless, has a beautiful riverside walkway and, at times it almost feels almost too nice. I think a trip to Borneo should involve getting some mud on your boots but with Kuching's proximity to several interesting attractions, one only needs to make day trips returning to the city every night for a hot shower, a cold beer and even some McDonalds if one is so inclined.
I had to wait around in the in Kuching for a few days for my friend Murat, a Turkish traveler I met in mainland Malaysia to arrive from Kota Kinabalu. So I just checked into a homey hostel run by a friendly Iban local who was covered in traditional tattoos and enjoyed the comforts of Kuching. It was Chinese new year so everything was closed but I managed to find a few restaurants and bars to keep myself occupied.
When Murat arrived we finally took our first steps into the Bornean rainforest. First we trekked to a waterfall through kubah national park, a primary growth forest full of imposing trees and clear streams. Next we went to Semenggoh wildlife center to see semi-wild orangutans (semi-wild means the orangutans live in the wild but have their diet supplemented by forest rangers through regular feeding). When we arrived there was a large sign out front the ticket office stating that it was fruiting season and the orangutans were not likely to come out of the forest. We were a bit worried but after waiting about an hour, the orangutans finally appeared. A 45 year old grandma, her daughter and a couple grand kids happily hung out in the branches around us for an hour munching on bananas and sweet potato. It was fun to watch their many human like facial expressions and mannerisms and I was quite amazed at how close we were able to get to them. At times they were less than two meters away and remained calm even when surrounded by several tourists. They were clearly accustomed to the whole feeding drill. After an hour we went back to town where it was pouring rain. Instead of walking through the monsoon to the hostel we just ducked into a nearby theater to see what was playing. I am now ashamed to say that I actually watched the new Die Hard in Borneo and was mildly entertained.
The next morning we waited for an hour in the monsoon rain for a local bus to Bako national park, one or the oldest and most famous in Sarawak. We were royally ripped off by a monopolized boat scheme in order to enter the park but it was worth the money. The dense rainforest of Bako sits on a large peninsula ringed by steep eroding cliffs and pockets of sandy beach. Its a really interesting area with a diverse ecosystem. The trek was beautiful but unfortunately the rain turned the path into a river and, after a few hours of trekking, we were soaked as we made our way back to park HQ. I was a bit disappointed that we hadn't seen any wildlife on the trails but as we approached the HQ we stumble upon a large group of proboscis monkeys. With their human like legs, multi colored fur and large penis like noses, they are quite funny looking creatures. I had to resist the urge to yell 'hey dickface!' at the dominant male. As we continued towards the HQ we were surrounded by little leaf monkeys, one of which tried to rob Murat. Then wild pigs started roaming the beach. It was a bit ironic that we spent all day trudging through the muddy forest only to find that the wildlife prefers to hang out around the park HQ.
Upon returning to Kuching, Murat and I started looking into our trip to west Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo. While Malaysian Borneo is very developed for tourism (if not overdeveloped), I could find very little information on west Kalimantan. The lonely planet doesn't even include a chapter on the region (part of why I chose to go) only stating that it is a difficult place to travel. Even online it was hard to find any confirmed information about attractions. Some told me that there is just nothing there but I thought surely every region on an island like Borneo must have some things to see. Eventually I found a written account from some adventure traveler who raved about a large national park in west Kalimantan so we bought our bus tickets to Pontianak and made Gunung Palung national park our main destination.
As we crossed the border into Indonesia the contrast between the two countries was very apparent. Malaysian Sarawak had a smooth divided highway but, after collecting our shiny new Indonesian visas, we soon found ourselves averaging about 20 km/h down a weather beaten road. The well maintained homes of the Malaysians were replace by worn down albeit colorful road side shacks and when we stopped for a meal we quickly learned that, unlike their neighbors to the north, the Indonesia Borneans do not speak any English.
After a few hours of rumbling through the beautiful jungle landscape we came upon a large center of logging activity. It was a sad sight. The dense forest had been stripped down to barren land, often flash burned to make way for agriculture. The closer we got to Pontianak, the more barren land we saw. While crossing the bridge which leads to the center of the city, I had my first glimpse of the mighty Kapuas river, one of the largest in Borneo. In this city setting, however, it looked far from mighty. The brown water was full of trash and barges packed full of rainforest wood floated by the ramshackle shacks crammed along the riverbank. The closer we got to the center of Pontianak, the more rundown it looked. I was surprised by the horrible traffic congestion. Borneo and traffic were not two things which went together in my mind. The river port city was quite spread out, busy and polluted.
Even it is a little rough around the edges, however, Pontianak is also one of the friendliest cities I have been to. Clearly very few foreigners have ventured into the area and the locals relished in the opportunity to say a few words in English, take a picture or give me a high five. Occasionally we would come across someone who spoke English and they were always very helpful. We actually planned to only spend one night in Pontianak before leaving for the park but Murat came down with some type of infection and needed a couple days rest. During that time we checked out Pontianak's one attraction: the equator monument. Since the city lies directly on the equator, the locals built a monument in 1928 to mark the exact spot. It's cheesy but fun attraction. The night before we left for the park we met two of the most bizarre and interesting people I have ever met in my life. We were at KFC and recognized two guys from our hotel. They were definitely Japanese and gave off the vibe of a couple of Tokyo hipsters. Given the setting, we were immediately curious as to what these guys were doing in Pontianak. We asked to join them and started firing some questions.
It turns out one owns a small magazine company in Tokyo based around reptiles and the other was his one biologist employee who could recall the Latin name of basically every reptile in the animal kingdom. He was a pretty crazy dude. He told us several stories about the multiple times he had been bitten by a poisonous snake or caught a tropical disease and been rushed to a third world hospital only to return to the bush a few days later. He had a passionate love of reptiles. Whenever he spoke of a particular species he would always finish by throwing two thumbs in the air and stating "their super!".
For ten years the odd couple have been searching Borneo for the rarest reptile on the planet. It has not been seen for almost thirty years and most consider it to be extinct. They had been absolutely everywhere on the island, from Sabah to south Kalimantan. They work by hiring a car to take them to a remote area then hike deep into the bush where live for several nights sleeping during the day and hunting at night (since the reptile is nocturnal). This seemed crazy to me considering how hard it is to navigate in the rainforest without a local guide or even a trail. When we asked what they ate the said "cookies! ther vely gooda!". When we asked them what they wore they said "this!" referring to the clothing they had on. One was wearing flared jeans with stars on the ass, a duster and had an amine style haircut. The other was a bit chubby, wore a tuque, a purple wife beater and a pair of short shorts with a red and white striped pattern.
Finally we asked the million dollar question: had they seen the lizard. They exchanged quick glances at each other, then pulled out their camera. "Don't tell anyone" they said and flipped through several shots of three small crocodile like lizards with long tails and snub faces. They claimed these were the only known pictures of the animal in the last 30 years. After ten years of searching, they had finally found their prize lizard seven hours drive from Pontianak. For two guys who had just realized their life's work, they seemed remarkably calm. For a couple hours we grilled them about how the started the magazine and how we could get involved with this type of thing as well. It sounded like a dream job. But eventually we tired them out with our relentless questioning. After a week of forging through the in the rain forest in the dead of night, they had to go get some sleep. Those are the people you remember.
I left the next morning for Gunung Palung with images of the rain forest forest painted from our conversation with the Japanese dudes fresh in my mind. I truly did not know what to expect from the park. I read on a couple websites that it is a great place to spot wild orangutans but I thought perhaps this was expecting too much. We had to take a speed boat down the Kapuas to get to Sukadana, a small town and the park access point. The boat ride was ridiculous. They put thirty of us in an over sized dingy designed to seat at most twenty and strapped two 200hp engines to the back. It was one of the most uncomfortable boat rides I have ever had. We sat next to a friendly Muslim gentlemen named Agus who was a government official in the town. Surprisingly, Agus spoke near fluent English and offered to help us organize a guide. Without him we would have been lost trying to get into the park. He also told me about a large festival in his hometown of Singkawang a few hours from Pontianak called Chap Goh Meh, the Borneo version of the final day of Chinese new year. When I expressed an interest in going, he offered for me to stay with his family. I thanked him for his generosity, told him I would consider the offer and took down his number.
Agus organized a great guide for us as well named Sufianto or 'Sufi'. Sufi was an eternally smiling little guy in his late twenties who was an expert at spotting wildlife. He lived in small village right on the edge of the park and since it is quite expensive to sleep at the park campsites, we ended up staying with his grandmother in a small home-stay. The house was very basic with just a few rooms, a bucket of water fed by the stream as a shower and a cozy little porch. We slept in a small room with nothing more than a hard mattress and a bed net. The grandma was priceless, constantly babbling in the local dialect and shooting us big toothless grins every few minutes.
Sufi's older brother was named Sri Malianto, a tree planter who took a keen interest in learning some English from us and taught me quite a bit of Indonesian as well. Both brothers had wives and kids who they were keen for us to meet. We spent much of our time in the village going house to house to see extended family and friends. Everyone seemed happy to have us. Surprisingly, the village was originally settled by Balinese sailors and, while Sufi's family is Muslim, the majority of the inhabitants are Hindu and practice Balinese rituals. Another example of the immense cultural diversity of Borneo.
After eating a delicious home made dinner we went to bed but at 5am the roosters made it impossible to sleep. Sufi made us tea and took us around the village before we set out into the park. As soon as we left the edge of the village we were in dense bush and after short walk we were in the midst of untouched primary growth rain forest. As we climbed towards the wildlife site the trees got taller, the rivers rushed faster and the jungle sounds got louder. This was the rainforest adventure I was looking for. Soon after entering the park we spotted a couple red haired leaf monkeys keeping a watchful eye on us. We came across a few large alien looking insects and some super sized trees, one which must have been 50 meters high. When we reached the wildlife site Sufi showed us some bat nests (with sleeping bats inside) and made us lunch while we listened to the call of gibbons all around us. After lunch we hiked further up the hill in search of wildlife. Sufi spotted a gibbon but it was too quick for my eyes. There were a few more red haired monkeys and some old orangutan nests way up in the trees but nothing else. I didn't actually expect to see anything spectacular, the rainforest itself was beautiful enough, but Sufi was clearly not satisfied with showing us just a few monkeys. As the afternoon sun was waning he finally found what we all wanted to see. He grabbed my arm, told me to be quiet and pointed through the thick foliage. There sitting in a tree eating fruit was two adult orangutans. They had clearly spotted us but were waiting for us to pass. Sufi dragged us off the path to get a better look which prompted the apes to start moving. They didn't run away but seemed to be cautiously moving into positions to get a better look as too. When we got too close, they made kissing noises. Then they started breaking branches off the trees and dropping them next to us. The sheer size of these branches was a testament to the strength the apes. I don't think were tying to hit us, just warn us. Eventually we got the message and moved on. Still buzzing from the site of our Ginger-haired relatives we took a swim in a pool of clear river water sculpted by a waterfall before heading home.
We returned to the village for another home cooked meal. After dinner I played cards with Sri and his daughter on the porch before I went to bed with a smile on my face. That day was one of the best I had spent traveling in quite a while. The next morning Murat planned to go back to Pontianak to catch a flight to Jakarta while I planned to stay another day in the forest. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with the park fees and I did not have enough money on me for another day. The mix up was nobodies fault, just miscommunication. Clearly these guys did not have enough experience with tourists to be ripping us off and they really went above and beyond the call of duty in showing us a good time. Sufi spent every waking hour with us during the two days making sure we were kept busy. He seemed so genuinely happy to have us in his home and really cared about our experience in Palung. We agreed to split the difference between our bill and Sufis bill but in the end Murat and I just sent the rest with the boat man. It was only a difference of $20 each and they deserved it.
On board an overstuffed speedboat back to Sukadana I was very surprised to see another young white face. It was a Lithuanian girl named Maya who was traveling with a local Pontianak friend named Ellen who had spent the last ten years in the UK. They were traveling around Ellen's old stomping grounds and had come to Sukadana to find some of her long lost relatives. The two girls were just as surprised to see us and we got to chatting about the area. They told me they were also going to Singkawang for the Chap Goh Meh festival and Ellen, who had been several times before, told me that it was really worth the trip. We decided to discuss it further over a dinner in Pontianak that night. As we munched down on some Chinese food, Ellen told some stories about Singkawang and the festival. I was soon convinced. I called up Agus and arranged to stay with his family, said goodbye to Murat who was on his way to Jakarta and hitched a ride to Singkawang with Ellen and Maya the next day.
Singkawang is an exotic town close to the coast and surrounded by jungle mountains. It's known as Indonesia's Chinatown because of the long history of Chinese settlers. Most of the inhabitants look Chinese and speak a variation of Hakka, a language from Fujian province in southern China. Thus, it is the perfect site for the Chap Goh Meh festival, one of the largest in Borneo, which marks the end of Chinese New Year.
We arrived in Singkawang mid afternoon on a beautiful sunny day. We stopped off at the town's most famous noodle spot before Ellen's driver dropped me at Agus' mother's home. As I entered the small wooden house I was greeted by Agus' family. I thought I would just be staying with Agus and his mother but the whole gang had come home for the festival. Agus is the oldest of three brothers. The middle brother's name is Zul, a very friendly guy who seemed to know everyone in town on a first name basis. The little brother is Tri, a kind soul who has several small businesses in Singkawang and takes good care of his widowed mother while his brothers are at home in other towns. The grandmother, a quick and snappy old lady, was often the life of the party. All of the brothers have wives and energetic young kids. Soon after I arrived the kids greeted me by all running up to me and yelling "oh my god!", I guess the only words they new in English. I couldn't contain my laughter. The three brothers were the only ones who could speak a little English but Agus was a good translator. There were so many cousins and friends in the small home as well that I found it nearly impossible to remember everyone's name and who was related to who.
Agus had a fever the night I arrived but Zul was eager to take on a motorbike tour of the town. He took me to many of the major temples and monuments before we sat down for some local noodles and a cup of tea. Over tea and cigarettes he told me I was the first foreigner he had ever met. I told him I was honored. When we finished, Zul insisted on paying the bill as he did with almost every bill. In fact, much to my frustration, I was not hardly able to pay for a single thing while staying with the family. They weren't rich and I felt bad about them buying so many meals, drinks and gifts. But, on this point, they were unmovable.
The following morning I woke up early to the sound of roosters. Everyone was waiting for in the common room with sweet rice porridge. Once we'd had our fill, Zul gave me a helmet, threw me on the back of his bike and took me into town to see the festival. For such a small town the roads were a nightmare. Many people from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan frequent Chap Goh Meh so every year the hotels are all booked months in advance and the roads are full of rental cars and bikes. Every street was jam packed with people and lined with glowing red lanterns. We dodged our way through the crowd until we reached the epicenter of the festival, the oldest Chinese temple in town. This is where the Shamans began their parade.
Given my experience in China I was well aware of the typical CNY celebrations so many facets of the festival were already quite familiar to me. As the parade began, I saw thirty meter long dragons, portable temples and various Chinese costumes paraded through the lantern lined streets to the deafening sound of Chinese percussion. What was special about this festival, however, was the Shamans, something I had never seen before. The Shamans come from all over the countryside of Borneo to parade in the festival and represent a more local grown Bornean animism which has deep roots in the interior of the island. They are who everyone comes to the festival to see. They began the day by adorning themselves in various bright and outrageous traditional costumes. Some wore crowns and green silk jumpsuits, others had vests made completely from monkey skulls. They all had a unique color set and the bands of followers who shuttle them through the streets dressed accordingly as well. At the main temple, they each performed a ritual to become possessed by a holy spirit. Once they are possessed, they claim no harm can come to them. They proved this point by performing various stunts on top of specially made sedan chairs carried by their followers.
As I wrestled my way into a spot close to the close to the parade path, the Shamans began to pass, one by one, performing their miracles. Most had large hooks or barbs pierced through their cheeks sometimes with fruit hanging from them. Their sedan chairs were specially designed with sharp swords pointing out in every which directly. The Shamans would sit directly on the tip of a sword transferring all their weight onto it without piercing their skin (although I did see a couple who were bleeding). Others stood on the swords or on beds of nails while cutting their hands and tongues with knives, once again without injury. By the middle of the morning it was raining quite heavily causing people to scatter under the awnings but the Shamans just continued to parade. Nothing seemed to phase them. Their eyes were glazed, they danced in strange rhythmic movements and they always seemed to be in a state deep concentration.
As interesting as the Shamans were, however, I became as much as a festival attraction as them. I was stopped so often for pictures that at times I found it difficult to keep an eye on the action. One person would stop me for a picture prompting everyone in the vicinity to join in. Sometimes I had one group take as many as ten different pictures with different cameras and different combinations of people. I can only hope I didn't steal some of the Shamans' thunder. After five hours of body defying stunts, the parade started to dissipate and streets slowly began to clear. Zul and I got some lunch then went home.
The festival was the kind of experience that, even if just for a moment, makes one believe in the supernatural. Its hard not to wonder how they perform their tricks. At one point, I got up close and personally with one of the sedans and felt the blades myself. They were certainly sharp enough to cause some serious damage. Yet only a couple out over a hundred Shamans showed any sign of injury. Magic or crafty tricks, supernatural or not, the festival was an incredible experience and something I will not soon forget.
After returning home, Zul and Agus took me to a nearby rainforest park so the kids could swim in the river and Zul could show me his durian and coconut farm. As the sun set, we returned home where the entire family was waiting with another delicious home cooked meal. I was still buzzing from the festival and could not stop talking about it. Zul offered to take me to another similar festival in a smaller town the next day and I graciously accepted. During dinner, somewhat randomly, the subject of religion was broached by Agus. Perhaps more due to stereotypes in the west than anything, I was a little nervous discussing religion with such a devoutly Muslim small town family. I was having such a good time and did not want to create an awkward situation. But I calmly told them I do not adhere to any particular religion. Agus then asked me if I believed in Darwinism to which I replied that I did not have enough education in the subject to make a comment, my best attempt at skirting the question but Agus was clever enough to read between the lines. To my surprise the family was very tolerant and not forceful in the least with their ideals. Agus explained how his family liked to learn from people who were different to better understand cultural diversity around the world. He thought it was important for his children to understand and accept the differences between in people. I was touched when, after commenting on his traditional Muslim hat, Agus left the table to fetch another one from his room and offered it to me as a souvenir. This prompted Zul to leave the table as well and return with a shirt from his drawer to offer. Perhaps a little brotherly competition but very kind nonetheless.
After dinner, since Agus was leaving with his family back to Pontianak, it was picture taking time. I think the family took about twenty different pictures in various combinations of myself and different family members. Each of the brothers wanted a picture with me and their family, then just myself and the kids, then the brothers and me and finally the grandmother made sure she got a shot of just her and myself as well. As Agus left for Pontianak I thanked him profusely for allowing me to stay during the festival and showing me such a good time. I told him it was one of the most special experiences of my life. I wasn't lying. The kids gave me a traditional uncle's goodbye as they left by placing the back of my hand against both of their cheeks and their forehead. Then Agus and his family was off. As I left to go back to my room, grandma gave me a bag full of bananas, rice crackers and water in case I got hungry during the night.
It was a hot muggy night, I had no fan or bed net and the mosquitoes were rampant, but I slept very well. The next morning Zul took me to Pemangkat, about an hours drive from Singkawang to see another festival. The festival was very similar to the Singkawang Chap Goh Meh but since the town was smaller and their was just as many people it felt much more intense. It was also quite clear that the majority of the Pemangkat residents had never seen a white person before. If I thought I was getting a lot of attention in Singkawang, Pemangkat took it to a whole new level. I could not walk more than a few meters without being stopped by screaming girls for a picture. Even the Shamans were taking an interest in me. A few of them stopped the parade procession to step down from their sedan and perform a trick especially for the foreigner. One put a large knife close to my face as he easily sliced through a pear, then he pulled me even closer as he proceeded to drag the blade across his tongue in a rhythmic motion. He removed the blade to show that there was not a single mark on his tongue. I just stood there dumbfounded for a minute before moving on. We heard that one of the Shamans planned to eat a live duck but the parade ended quite quickly and I never saw it. The Pemangkat festival may not be as famous as Singkawang's but I found it more interesting and more exhilarating.
After the festivities subsided, Zul took me to the tiny local port to take a boat across to the island where he lives with his family. Since he works for the transportation authority, he new absolutely everyone at the port. When we arrived at the island we decided to play a little gag on the locals. Zul taught me how to issue tickets for the passenger dingies. He then sat back and chuckled while confused villagers (most of whom had likely never seen a white person before) approached the window and struggled with my limited bahasa Indonesian to buy a ticket. There were some priceless moments for sure.
After Zul raced us back to Singkawang to avoid a rain storm, I got a text from Ellen, the girl I met on the boat from Sukadana, inviting me to join her and her friends on an island called Kabung for a few days. I agreed and met them that night to discuss the details. The next morning, I said a heartfelt goodbye to Zul and Tri who had done so much for me the last few days. Zul gave me one last gift, a tourist t-shirt from the Singkawang festival, before he returned to his village.
Soon Ellen and Maya picked me up and we were off to Kabung Island. There was a good group of people going. The trip was organized by Deni and Venni, a couple who own a small tour company which specializes in the responsible development of remote tourist destinations in western Borneo. There was also an older Australian volunteer named Tony who was working with them to produce a documentary on the Shamans of Chap Goh Meh, a couple of Indonesian girls named Novi and Sandy who worked with the organization and finally a 20 year old Australian giant named Miles who was completely unprepared for this type of remote travel. Ellen and Maya had met Miles in Java a few weeks previous and invited him along. Little did they know that Miles is the prototypical Aussie party traveler with little experience or interest in cultural travel. In fact, I think he was one of the most cultural insensitive people I have ever seen on the road. He wasn't a bad guy but got on everyone nerves pretty fast.
Since the ocean close to Singkawang was full of trash and sediment from the river, I was not expecting much from the island. I was in for one hell of a surprise. As our boat got farther away from the shore and closer to the island the water went from brown to crystal blue and turquoise. The small Island rose out of the water in two jungle covered peaks. Directly off shore was several colorful reefs full of bizarre fish. Upon arrival, Deni and Venni took us to a small village which had never hosted outsiders before. We were kind of like guinea pigs for their development project. The villagers clearly were not prepared. All of us were placed in a old wooden shack which had not been maintained. There was no bed nets or mats and we had to sleep on a splintered wooden floor. The bathroom was fed by stream water which drained into a small well. As usual, we had only a bucket to wash ourselves. Electricity on the island was scarce and only provided for a couple hours after sunset by gasoline powered generators. But the locals were very nice and the atmosphere was super relaxing. It was a true village experience.
The island itself was stunning. The water was crystal clear and the view of the surrounding islands was great. If there had been sandy beach instead of a rocky one, it would be the perfect remote tropical paradise. The village life was also interesting. Everyone's livelihood depended on fishing and clove picking. The young men sat in bagans (wooden fishing platforms) all night long to catch squid and anchovies while the woman went up into the hills during the day to pick and sort cloves. In front of everyone's home was large bamboo mats covered in fish and cloves which were left out to dry. From sunrise to sunset the villagers seemed to be working, albeit at a very relaxed pace. Some were fixing boats or docks, others were building new bagans, but everyone had a chore to do.
On our first island day we took a boat out to the reef to do some snorkeling. The reef was quite colorful and made for a nice day of swimming with the fishes. That night we took a boat to another village to work with the fisherman on a bagan. Bagans are rickety looking platforms which have a large descend able net beneath them. At night, the fisherman place a generator powered lamp close to the water surface to attract squid then lower and lift the net in thirty minute intervals for the entire night. It was interesting to watch them work and we even got to sort the catch when they brought it on board. We selected a few squid and fish and barbequed them right there on the bagan with some sambal sauce for dinner. I never tasted such fresh fish in my life. After dinner, I spent the rest of the evening trying to attract the fish by playing soft melodies on the guitar. Since the shack back in town was so muggy and mosquito infested, we decided just to sleep on the bagan. The generator noise made it difficult but we all managed to catch a few Zs on the bamboo floor before catching the first of several stunning sunrises on the island. Since it was rainy season but the clouds tend to collect over the larger landmass across the water rather than above the island, the sunrises and sunsets on Kabung are some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world. They are part of what makes this place so special.
The next morning we took a boat across to the village to relax on a shaded dock built out into the reef. We spent a few hours watching the sea turtles and bizarre looking fish float by under our feet. I went for a walk around the village and found myself at the small local elementary school. I joined the kids in their morning exercises and they taught me a little bahasa Indonesian for a few hours from the science books in their tiny school library. I was really impressed by one student in particular who, at the age of perhaps nine or ten and with little to no previous contact with native English speakers, was able to communicate with me, albeit in a very basic manner. Eventually the teachers collected the kids to start class and I made my way back to the shack for a nap.
In the evening one of the fisherman showed up in front of our house to show off a small reef shark he had just caught off shore. The villagers quickly started a fire and soon we were chowing down on delicious shark meat which was swimming around in the ocean only a couple hours earlier. We then caught another amazing sunset at the dock. After dark, little green glowing creatures started appearing all around us. Soon the ocean was glowing with what looked like the reflection of green stars. I had never seen anything like it and still have no idea what it was.
We spent one more night fishing on the bagan before it was time to leave the tropical paradise early the next morning. While lack of facilities made living on the island a bit difficult, Kabung is one truly remote and special place. Had I brought a mat to sleep on, I could have stayed there for a while. Upon returning to the coast, we caught a share taxi back to Pontianak where I boarded a plane to Jakarta to conclude my Borneo adventure. As I took off late in the afternoon, I was treated to yet another fantastic sunset, a fitting end to my time on the big beautiful island.
Borneo is a unique and special place. It is constantly under threat by intense logging activities and over-development but it is so big that it is still possible to find beautiful and remote paradises untouched by tourism. These places are not necessarily easy to find as a foreigner but I was lucky to meet the right people to show me the way. I was given two awesome experiences, Singkawang and Kabung, through a couple of simple conversations with locals who happened to speak English.
Most people come to Borneo to see the wildlife but the local life is just as interesting. There are so many friendly people from such a diverse range of cultures and, especially in Kalimantan, hospitality and generosity are never lost on a outsider. As is the case in most remote areas, the locals truly want you to leave their home with a good impression and some good stories to tell you friends and family. I think they succeeded.