Category Archives: Malaysia

Swimming with turtles in Sipadan

6am

Mornings on Mabul island are a definition for calm. No waves on the sea, no human made sounds in the chalets, just a light breeze slowly teasing the palm trees. On the opposite, I was anything but calm. This was The Day, when all my efforts, my 30+ emails seasoned with a good dose of persuasion skills will bring me to one of the world’s top diving sites: Sipadan. “An untouched piece of art”, as once called by Jacques Cousteau, the famous explorer and pioneer of sea conservation, now a Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. One slight detail worth mentioning: I’m not a diver, yet. I snorkel.

How did I find out about Sipadan? Googling. For the best places in the world to do diving. Sipadan was no 1 in many worth considering tops. Since I was going to Malaysia, I thought I could also fly to Sabah province, in Borneo, from Tawau drive to Semporna, take a boat for 45 min to Mabul…. which is 30 minutes away from the famous Sipadan. Simple, right? All I was missing was one diving permit for Sipadan, one of the 120 offered daily for divers only. It’s a highly protected area and this is due to help preserve it. And I got that one too. Dangers to be considered? Some nasty trigger fish that might bite a piece of you, literally,  and the pirates from Abu Sayyaf, the terrorists group form southwestern Philippines, that pledged loyalty to ISIS and have kidnapped some tourists a few years ago around Sahah. Details… All I had in mind was that Sipadan was one of the few left places left on Earth right now with a very high bio diversity. While the Red Sea, which for me is a paradise, has around 1000 species of fish, around Sipadan are 3000…

Heading Sipadan

At 7 o’clock everybody was out, getting ready. I left the room feeling quite proud of my gear: a new UV protection t-shirt, snorkelling glasses and tube, my new water sports camera, recently bought in Singapore and… that was all. I felt like running and hiding under the bed when I meet the other people in the group for that day, all Malaysians, all certificated divers: great wetsuits, professional masks, fins and dive boots, gloves, watches, dive lights, they had Everything… I don’t even know stores back home where I can find all that. That’s the difference between what Europe has to offer in the underwater world compared to SE Asia. Incomparable.

I stuff it down and had rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu for breakfast, which seemed the best option out of a very limited offer. The abundance of breakfast was my last concern at that point anyway. The diving instructors checked one more time the air tanks. Andrew and his cousin, my new Malaysian friends from the day before, and I were waiting now on the pontoon. Two kids came paddling in what seemed to be a small boat carved in a single piece of wood.

Bajau Laut people in Mabul island, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo, sea gypsies, bajau laut, Asia

– I wanna take a photo, Andrew says. The youngest must have been 3 years old, the oldest maybe 5. I couldn’t stop thinking how any parent in Europe would freak out only thinking of letting a 3 years old in a boat, on a see. Here, for the Bajau Laut, the sea gypsies that live more on water then on land, is natural. They were begging for money. Then a woman came, in a boat so small it could barely hold her and her 1 year old son. Naked, with eyes like the sea and sun kissed skin, he already was belonging to the sea. She was selling clams and payed so little attention to the boy sitting in front of her in that very small boat. What a way of living…

We were heading to Sipadan, two diving instructors, (I presume one for me), about 8 divers, myself and the boat captain. Everybody was curious how come I wasn’t a diver and still going to Sipadan. I used the excuse that back home there is not much to see underwater. They understand but still I was still like the only kid in the yard who couldn’t ride the bike. Later in the day, as we became friends and they realised I can take a good joke, we even made fun on my situation…and my tones of bad luck that followed.

A bad day in paradise

After a short ride, the boat stopped. We’ve already reached the 1st diving site. Everybody was ready and in a few minutes they were all gone in the depths of the sea as if they were never there. So no dive instructor for me that day… I like being alone in the water, maybe not so much in a place with such a high biodiversity. I remembered I had signed at arrival a paper where all responsibility for the trip to Sipadan was on me only.

– Do you know how to swim? The captain teases me, seeing I was looking so indecisive, staring to that deep blue around the boat. I was still processing the information offered in a hurry by one of the dive instructors: some trigger fish nests there, some very strong currents over there. I couldn’t read the map he was seeing around, it all looked… just sea.

Minutes were passing. I realised what I was feeling was fear. After all it took to get there, the emails, the bookings, the flights, the money, I was now afraid to jump off the boat. I started to get angry for feeling so silly. I grabbed my snorkelling kit and the camera, checked if the water was deep enough and I wasn’t risking to hit some sharp coral and hearing the fast beats of my heart, I jumped in. Was probably the worst jump of my life, I took so much water.

– Are you ok, I heard the captain. I was still coughing, trying to get back my breath. I looked around calming my breath, prepared my mask and then I froze. My tube was nowhere. This was the last level of being stupid, I must have jumped without having it attached to the mask and it has sinked. I just imagined how my next hours will be, sitting in the boat, without a tube or holding my breath until I get dizzy. I approached the boat hopeless and ashamed for littering the place.

– I’m soo stupid, I think I lost my tube. I litter the place…. I’m so sorry, don’t know how it happened. The captain smiles and hands me a new tube saying not to worry so much.

And finally, I was underwater, enjoying what was left of the 30 minutes we had in that place. I was so stressed and kept looking for any tail of triggerfish. I did the stupid think of watching before some YouTube videos about attacks of this fish that looks as if he was born to bite, with a big funny head and big teeth. I knew from one of the instructors that if you see one, the one that attacks you is actually its partner, who’s already behind you. They only do this to protect their nest from human invasion. Having all these crossing your mind while in the water is no fun. About the promised paradise around, I was disappointed. E few small corals, very few fish, nothing spectacular or even getting closer to the Red Sea I was so impressed by in Eilat, Israel, the only place I saw it by that moment.

I was happy when I saw the sign to swim back to the boat. The others didn’t seem to be so impressed either so far. We had 3 more spots. Next was the world famous Barracuda Point, where, if lucky, you can find yourself in a tornado of Barracudas, thousands of them swimming in one immense vortex, like a whole living creatures that splits into pieces and then forms back again and again.

In the boat I had a huge surprise: one of the guys have found my tube. It was at the bottom of the sea, at 10m deep. I was incredibly happy. My day was getting better, too bad my bad luck was still with me and I was soon going to find out.

The Barracuda Point started to show what Sipadan was promising. We didn’t got to see the barracudas, unfortunately, but we were swimming in a sea of jacks. I have never seen in my life so many fish, of this seize, swimming all together. They act differently, they don’t move in circles as the barracudas, instead they form a massive silver structure that moves all together, in round shapes, constantly changing. It was amazing to just stay still and have them getting very close to me, then move and have that immense living structure change its shape in fantastic forms, different each time. I thought I saw for a moment a reef shark at the bottom but was just too much fish around to se well. Unbelievable!

This time I got back to the boat happy. I had my mask and tube, my camera, even took a few photos, very bad though.

Sipadan island, diving, scuba, Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, beautiful places, adventure

We then headed straight to the island, on the only point you can access Sipadan. Walking on the island, though very small or using another point to stop the boat is strictly forbidden. A few species of turtles, among them the green turtle, now listed as endangered, lay eggs here so the whole place is like a sanctuary for them. As we approached, a deep green circle of trees surrounded by a white sand line broke the blue horizon. It was such a small island, formed on the top of a volcano by the corals grown there in millions and millions of years. Closer to the shore, it looks truly like a pristine paradise: white sand, huge trees, turquoise waters and a few meters away, the deep blue. It’s where the edge is and from that point below it goes deep 600m. I could also confirm what it is said about the currents around Sipadan, indeed they are so strong, you can’t stay still and every time I saw something and went out for a breath, the next second I was underwater again I was already moved by the currents in another place. When you try to swim is when you actually feel the force of the currents, holding you still.

We had photos on the island and lunch (once again rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu but I was too starved to care) and change impressions. Other groups were there too, on the small terrace made of wood where divers were allowed to stay on the island between 6am-4pm only. Outside these hours I was told you can get shut, the army boats only are patrolling to make sure the pirates don’t come closer again. Two women were sitting on two wooden sun beds, under a palm tree, didn’t seem too interested in what Sipadan had to offer.

Sipadan island, Borneo, Malaysia, Sabah province, diving, top diving places, scuba, snorkeling

After an hour on the island, we left for the Turtle Tomb Cave spot, where the divers were going inside a dark cave, to see nothing but rocks, sand and a few turtles skeletons, that if you ask me. They were excited but caves and mostly underwater caves are not my thing. So I enjoyed the surface around the island, the corals, the small colourful fish that live in the reefs and finally… the turtles. I did saw one which was huge, a green one, maybe larger then 1m, eating algae. Then another one… I saw parrotfish, porcupine fish, needlefish, angelfish, butterflyfish. I was literally in a tank of fish. It was perfect. At one point, being so fascinated by the fish and corals, I realised I was getting too close to the island, in very shallow water, probably dragged there by the currents. I panicked and tried to get out as quick as possible. The worst you can do when surrounded by sharp corals, I am sorry I had to lear this by myself. I started to swim fast and I felt a sharp pain at one foot. I must have touched a coral and got myself with a nice scratch, painful but not so bad. My concern was actually the coral and that it was ok, I don’t think I did any damage to it by the seise of my wound. These beauties of the oceans and seas grow 1cm in a year. So breaking one can be as ruining a few years of its growing.

I was now in deeper waters, safe when I looked around for the boat. It was no where around. I started having all those creepy scenarios where they forgot me there and I will be stranded on the island, surrounded by terrorists pirates, fighting strange insects and God knows what else. For sure my imagination didn’t helped me much that day. I was all alone, no boat closer then maybe 200m. Then, looking for solutions, I thought I might ask some other boat to take me to Mabul, if they don’t come back for me. I was so relief when I finally saw our captain. He saw me acting so worried and thought something happened.   The whole group was in the boat and I started to swim very fast to them. And somehow this is how it happened again. I lost the tube for the second time. I had it for a few years and it has never fall off the mask belt. Well that day it did twice. I felt so miserable when I realised, in the boat, I lost it again. I was littering that beautiful pristine place with another piece of our plastic.

The last time we went on the island for a stop I was too upset to eat anything or to talk. My food has bleeding and hurting, I had a sore throat from the cold I brought with me from Sri Lanka, that got even worse after using the tube to breathe for so long, I wasn’t used with my new camera, bought especially for this trip, and I barely managed to take any videos, my phone battery was off and the photos I got so far were very bad… Could I get more bad luck in one day, a very long awaited day, with so high expectations?

We went back on the boat and left for one last dive. The captain gave me again his tube, one of the instructors fixed it on the mask belt with a piece of plastic to make sure I won’t lose this one too. I decided to fight my bad luck that day so I used my teeth to untangle the white rope I had around my wrist, the one that Deesa gave me in Sri Lanka. He got it from a monk in a Buddhist temple, during a special ceremony performed for him. That was the only thing I could use. I managed to take it off my wrist and used it to tie all together the mask and the tube. I then hold by breath, jumped in the water, swim around without all the nonsense fears before, observe all the breathtaking beauty that Sipadan had to offer. I followed a green turtle until the edge of the reef and further, as the steep wall was ending, leaving nothing but dark deep blue above me. I had no camera with me and I just lived the moment, without thinking about triggerfish, pirates or taking a good shot. And maybe this is what was meant to happen. I had to get through all those episodes of bad luck, have my food injured, for one lesson: some moments we meet in life are meant to be just lived and then kept in the heart.

When I got back again to the boat, I saw the tube was floating around me, hold only by the white piece of rope I had from Sri Lanka. I would have lost that one too…

How was Sipadan?

In the end, in spite of a crazy day, Sipadan stays unique among my beautiful places. Maybe I expected more at first because I didn’t know then what to expect, my only previous underwater experience was in Eilat, in Israel. I didn’t know what to look for or what amazing looks like in this fabulous new world for me, that is is hidden in the seas and oceans. Sipadan happened last year on September the 1st, after that I had a few more episodes, in Indonesia, in the Red Sea again, in Egypt, then Thailand and last month in Kenya. So now I have just a little more to compare with and I can say my first impression didn’t do much justice to Sipadan. I never saw in any other places after so many fish and so different in a small area as I saw in Sipadan, never met again a school that big of jackfish, nor huge green turtles. Maybe it was meant to bring back the memories of Sipadan now, a year later, after living more and seeing more. And maybe, as Andrew did, I will go back one day to the island for a dive and see what I couldn’t see from the surface. Maybe I’ll get in the middle of a barracuda vortex, thinking I must be dreaming.

PS I hope someone found my lost tube and got it out of the sea. This guilt still hurts

Next: Good bye Malaysia and hello Bali

 

 

Malaysia, Mabul, the island of sea gypsies

I wasn’t born with a strong desire to go see far away places. I somehow developed this “condition”, in time, trip by trip. Something that keeps you up, makes you wander and doesn’t allow you to feel fine while staying in one place for long, can be, I guess, categorised as such: a “condition”. So there I was again, on another continent, another country and another beautiful place I have never even dreamt of seeing. And I had more butterflies rushing through my stomach then the Celebes Sea had fish in that morning. Then I heard:

– You can jump here, swim around this area. Watch out, there are some triggerfish nests there… If you see one, you know, the one who attacks it’s actually its mate, and will be probably behind you already. And avoid going over there also, might be some strong currents…. The guy was telling me all these in a hurry, while pointing those places with his finger, as if it was on Google Maps. But was just blue, deep blue sea.

I was listening to the diving instructor’s advices, given briefly and without any sign of concern, while he was in the same time arranging some oxygen tubes on the boat. He had that air that people living by the water gain in time, that confidence. On the opposite, I had no wish to leave that boat and jump in that water. I was the only one left on the boat, all the divers in the group were already down there, in the depths of the sea.

I couldn’t believe it! After all it took me to get there that day, in the most awaited moment I was just getting such cold feet…

This hesitation, sister to fear and brother to panic, made me angry against myself. With a beating heart and a rushed breath I wasted no other second, I climbed the upper edge of the vessel side and I jumped! I had too see with my own eyes if all was said was true: if Sipadan island is indeed one of the last underwater paradises on Earth.

Malaysia, Borneo. Living wild 

After the green paradise of Sri Lanka, I was heading to a blue paradise, in Borneo. I landed in Sabah, province of Malaysia, on Borneo island, in the small town Tawau.

– Hello, so you are going to Sipadan, nice! a guy said to me as he passed by, in the airport. I smiled back, wondering how come he knew…

Outside the airport, I finally found, after a few desperate attempts, the driver who was sent for the new guests of Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge, myself included. I first searched the crowd waiting in front, among tens of people holding sheets of paper with all kind of names, most of them Asian. All except mine. A few people came closer, asking if I was Chang or Young. I was only Desperate. In this chaos, with my phone dead since I had no wifi, completely disoriented, would have been a pain in the… and the wallet to find my way, all alone, to Semporna’s jetty and catch, at 2PM, the last boat that day for Mabul island. Second option was to rent a boat and pay 10 times the price. Happily miracles happen: I saw at last a guy with my name, spelled wrong. The driver was making one last attempt to find me among the few left in front of the airport. He had 2 other people in the van already and two more on the list to pick up. He looked behind again, mumbled something and then he makes us a sign we leave, without much bother. And so, in the van, I met Andrew and his cousin, two Malaysians form Penang, going to Sipadan also and staying, like me, in Mabul.

On our way to Semporna, about an hour drive, we talked about Europe, the countries Andrew visited and how they loved diving. He first got his diving certificate in Mabul, 10 years before. After completing it, he had the one dive permit for Sipadan. He assured me the place is a paradise. He was so excited to be back and fulfil an old promise now that his young cousin has obtain her PADI. They were, of course, surprised I wasn’t a diver, but still going to Sipadan, this Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. As in Europe is not so much to see underwater, definitely not like in Asia, I didn’t had a certificate. But I could see why in Malaysia diving is as natural as riding a bike.

Sabah province, Semporna

The vegetation in Borneo, as far as I could see by the road, was as I expected: dense and wild. After all, Borneo is a green paradise and home of many amazing native creatures  like the slow lorises and the clouded leopards. Semporna, on the other hand, was also a wild place, only this time because of the humans living there. With a majority of muslims, the small town looked chaotic, dirty…. a prelude for what was next in Mabul. That exotic island, mostly known only for being the starting point for Sipadan, is still holding its wonders: the sea gypsies living there, those people I was so excited to finally see.

When the van finally stopped close to the jetty, in Semporna, all I could see were long lines of wooden chalets build on pillars, above the water, housing the offices of too many tours agencies. We entered inside one, built just like the others, with a small porch in the front. About other 10 chalets were built right behind it, going far into the bay, on the sea. I looked down as I walked the bridge and the water beneath was terribly dirty and polluted with all you can imagine made of plastic. Very soon I was going to find out it was even more dirty… A lady inside the chalet, wearing a black hijab, sitting in front of an old and messy desk, full of papers, was yelling to a man, in their language. When she finished that show, she welcomed me smiling and helped me complete the form for my staying in Mabul.

– You have Sipadan too, yes? I confirmed, relieved that my reservation was confirmed.

Next, I was truly introduced to the wild spirit of Sabah: I went to the toilet. Was right next to the office. Inside the very small room: a toilet, a tiny sink and a blue plastic bucket. The bucket served for 2 purposes: for flushing the toilet and to shower in a bucket. I could see the water from the sea beneath, through the small spaces left between the old wooden floorboards. When I got closer the toilet, an unexpected light came from inside it. My eyes just got bigger. Was also the sea beneath, which obviously meant that what goes in the toilet, gets straight into the sea. Directly, no other redirection. I knew about the basic conditions in the area but I didn’t expect this basic.

After coming to peace with this new discovery, I went to the market near by, close to the jetty. All I got tempted by was some durian from a girl who was selling it under a tree, next to that nice sea water. The fruits were smaller then the ones in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It was the wild type, from the high forests, the one I heard was the best but quite rare. Indeed, was delicious: sweeter and with a stronger flavour of vanilla and caramel.

The Bajau Laut people (sea gypsies)

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

The boat from Uncle Chang’s finally arrived for us, Andrew, his cousin, a few other people and I, we all left for Mabul, a 45 minutes speed boat trip. As we left Semporna, we passed by wide areas with chalets built on water, made of wood and rags or plastics. This is where the sea gipsies, the Bajau, in Semporna, were living. It looked like a big slum, one built on the sea. These people are fascinating to me! They live mostly on water, in chalets or boats, as nomadic divers, using only spears to collect fish and seafood. Some even get land sick when they rarely touch, once in many months, the land. As the sea is their food source, they have wonderfully adapted and became able to do free dives for up to 13 minutes, at depths over 60m. Their spleens got larger to permit this and so turning them into a different new specie then the rest of us. One more fabulous proof that nature’s ways are simply miraculous.

Mabul island

As the boat approaching the island, heading slowly to Uncle Chang’s place, I looked down, at the water. Was crystal clear, in a tempting light blue shade, with plenty of pink star fish on the white sand beneath. Mabul looked like paradise, an inhabited one: white beaches, luxury resorts with beautiful wooden chalets built far from the shore, on the sea, connected to the island by long bridges. The high coconut trees, with huge green coconuts, with their silhouettes turned into shadows on the bright white sand.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

We surrounded the island by boat, none of the resorts we passed by was new to me. I knew them all, already, by heart, from the internet, the research and the tens of emails sent and received while trying to obtain a permit for Sipadan. Uncle Chang’s was the only place to stay that has finally accepted to give me one.

So what makes Sipadan so hard to get to? This tiny island is considered one of the best diving places in the world, like in a top 3. It’s one of the few places left where the underwater bio diversity is still at its highest. It is now a reserve where only 120 passes are offered each day, in advance, for experimented divers only. All these 120 permits are split daily between the diving resorts on the island, the only ones entitled to offer them to customers. The expensive resorts get, of course, more permits. In total are about 8-10 resorts in Mabul. There is no other chance to get to Sipadan unless you are a guest of one of these resorts, for a minimum number of nights, from 3 to 5. The access on the island is allowed only between 6am-4pm

We passed by all those fancy places and expensive resorts and finally arrive in front of, let’s say, the modest area. Uncle Chang’s place was on the poor side of this small island, where the locals, the sea gipsies, were also living. Those on Mabul, I heard after, that day, were actually migrants from the Philippines, who were promised access in Malaysia, years before, an access that never came. So they have built communities on the island they first found uninhabited. Mabul became so their country, where they are living from what the sea offers every day. They are not registered and have no papers. So basically, for the system, they do not exist. They exist only in Mabul and for a few days were my neighbours there.

Mabul, the dangerous paradise

As I looked around, the place, the whole island seemed a peaceful heaven. Nothing like the type of place where western governments advise their citizens not to go to, for life threatening concerns. Still, Mabul is that kind of place, present on every black list. Why? Because years ago, pirates from the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf, active around the Philippines waters, have kidnapped tourists in the area of Mabul, demanding money in exchange of their release. The last kidnappings were in 2016, some of the victims being still captive. Therefore the area is still considered unsafe and authorities in western countries are strongly advising against any sort of trips there. Malaysia Government is fighting back, turning the area in a strictly militarised one. I was told that trying to get to Sipadan without an organised group might get you shot.

But in spite all these, once you are there, all the fears are forgotten. And there I was, finally stepping on the pontoon at Uncle Chang’s Lodge, in Mabul. I was actually more concerned about something else: the rats, not the terrorists, after reading some reviews about the place I was going to live for the next days, which people were calling a dump  full of rats in the chalets during the night. The fear of rats but also the care for my budget made me consider, for the 1st time ever, booking a bed in a dorm room. At least, I thought, I won’t be alone to fight the rats in the middle of the night. Besides this, I always wanted to try this: sleeping in a dorm room. I needed this in my life so there it was, the chance to try it, in Mabul.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I made my check in and so I finally met the young woman who was the very person that helped me with the reservation and everything. After all the emails, about 20 of them, we were already friends and I couldn’t have thank her enough for understanding and helping me. The room was more then ok, with 6 beds, no other furniture, a small balcony facing the sea and a bathroom just like the one in Semporna: one bucket, one sink and one toilet. And again, all went straight down, into the sea, with the noise depending on… you know.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

A Chinese girl has joined me to the room also. She didn’t speak much but also didn’t seem the bothering type. In the room we found another girl, so we were 3 in total in a 6 beds room. So I met Louise, an American from California, traveling alone through SE Asia for more then 9 months already. I told her on the spot I hated her for that time luxury. Instead she even offered me her power bank. There is no electricity there during the day.

She was there for a week already and I wanted to hear from her about Mabul. Louise in-firmed all the information I have read online before arriving on the island, about the locals representing a threat for tourists. She assured me the island is 100% safe and people very nice. I was soo excited to get outside. I found my way out of the lodge, among the labyrinth of chalets where the locals lived. No glass windows, just 4 walls made of wood-boards, barely any pieces of basic furniture could be spotted inside. Was easy to see inside every home. Some were cooking, other talking, kids were playing, as in any other home.

A few steps more on the wooden long bridge and I was, at las, touching the white sand of the shore. As I tried to decide which turn to make, two monster lizards came right in front of me. The bigger one was maybe 1,3m long, with a huge tongue, fixing me. I stopped suddenly, thinking what to do next, to run back to lodge or just try to pass by since the island inhabitant didn’t seem to move away any soon. What if it will bite? Are those dangerous? Do they attack? I didn’t remember having read anything about these crawling locals…

While I was busy with all those nonsense, a local man just came, passes by the beasts as if they didn’t existed and sends me the kindest smile, saying: Hello, it’s ok.

I stepped over the biggest lizard’s tail as he did, the animal didn’t bother at all and I continued my way. This was the moment when all my concerns about the locals in Mabul were vanished. Thanks to this man and the warmth and kindness he sent in 2 words and a look.

It took me an hour only to surround the entire island, Mabul was this small. For sure, before people started to move there, it was a pure paradise. Now it still has its charm but garbage too. A few men were burning huge amounts of trash on a beach. I hurried since the air there was unbreathable and dark smoke from the plastic burned was rising high.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I walked through the village where many locals have started small businesses, selling raw seafood, cooked fish, boiled corn or sweets on improvised stalls in front of their modest chalets. In each of those I could again see inside, see those people’s lives. I  tried not to stare and be intrusive, but was impossible to resist to steal a glimpse of true life in Mabul. Tens of kids, the most cute girls and boys you can imagine, were running all around the place, dressed in colourful clothes, some having their faces painted in yello, a Bajau Laut people thing. It’s actually a pounded rice powder paint to protect their skin from sun damage caused by the water’s reflection. Walking among them I have received tens of Hellos, of smiles and seen only friendly faces.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I passed by an area where green turtles nests were surrounded by a gate, to protect them. Some of the stuff from a few diving resorts are very involved into conservation activities and this is one of them. Locals used to get the eggs to eat them. And you can’t blame them the moment you see life in Mabul. So the people from the resorts are paying them 5 times the price they normally get for the eggs. After saving them from becoming an omelette, the eggs are put back in the sand, this time in man made nests where they wait for the miracle of life to happen and release the baby turtles into the sea.

I bought a huge green coconut from a man who has just got them down from the tree. I will never forget the price: 3 Malaysian Ringgit, meaning 0.6 euro. I was in heaven!

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I then got to the rich side of the island. Not more then a few meters were separating the luxury resorts from the slum of chalets where the locals lived so modestly. I was now so happy with my choice of staying, in the perfect spot of the island.

As the sun was going to reach soon the horizon line, I went back to my chalet, enjoyed my basic toilet and had a bit of a salty water shower, in a bucket. I “survived” this and felt great leaving somewhere far behind what we call comfort zone.

Louise was on the long pontoon, sitting on the stairs very close to the water, watching the sunset next to a huge green coconut. Plenty of colourful fish were wandering chaotically  right next to the steps, chewing on the algae grown on the wooden pillars. The last drops of sunset were spreading an orange-blue shade over that flawless crystal Celebes Sea.

– What a paradise! I exclaimed from a few meters distance, as I came close to her.  I took a sit on a step 2 meters away. She looks back to me and sends that kind of smile that says “now you know it too”.

– Your name is on the board for tomorrow, she said. You can only be sure you will get to Sipadan once you see your name written there. Some people had the permit but changes were made and they were postponed.

1 million pinches could not have made me realised this was true. But it was. In a few hours I was going to Sipadan, one of the top diving sites in the world, for many, the best. All I could feel was that I was blessed, right there, in the pontoon in Mabul island.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

Next: Sipadan, a wonder day with a bit of bad luck

 

 

 

 

Malaysia: meeting the Orang Asli, the tribe

After a few hours of trekking in Taman Negara jungle, through lush greenery and sweating like never before in my life, due to that 90% killer humidity, we finally reached the Kuala Tahan Tembeling River. It was like I imagined, dreamy: the dense tropical rainforest, with high trees spreading their branches like tentacles and twisted lianas vines hanging down like green curtains, was split in two by the waters of the large river, of milk and chocolate colour. A man was waiting for us right there, on a few meters wide beach of white sand. We continued by boat, on the river who’s waters were warm like a soup, crossing tumultuous rapids, gazing at beautiful birds flying from one side to another or huge lizards on the shores, sending us curious looks. We arrived in an area where the river was running quiet, just like a lake. The trees brunches looked here like hands, each trying to reach the other side.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

– You can take a swim if you want, says Abdullah, my guide and already my friend.

– To see what gets me first: a crocodile or some piranha? He laughs as we touch the shore on a small secluded beach with yellow sand, carried out there by that mighty river. For a second I thought I saw a naked boy disappearing behind the dense vegetation. Or maybe I did saw him. We were now on the territory of the Orang Asli tribe, heading straight to their village.

In Taman Negara there are two ethnics of Orang Asli – Batek and Semokberi. The life of these aborigines is very basic, nomadic style, but what amazes me the most is how knowledgeable they are about the jungle, their home, basically.

I look around on the river bank and smiled, thinking it looked just like a photo of the Amazon, wild and mysterious.

Abdullah continued his lessons about the fantastic plants growing in the jungle, he showed me one that closes its leaves every time it gets touched. I had fun for minutes teasing it, for his amusement. His love for nature is a mix of respect, humbleness and gratitude and the fact that got us close was exactly that he saw I share the same feelings.

We then follow a narrow path going up the hill, almost hidden behind large fern leaves. A few cottages covered with rags and dry palm tree leaves are raising out of the dense green. Were build, apparently, to offer shade. I can see now three old women sitting under. No walls, only the roof and I can barely see them from the distance. I noticed they are dressed very colourful, with sarongs tied around their slim bodies.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

A few more steps further and we are now surrounded by more cottages, some of them having all 4 walls, all covered with palm tree dry leaves. The entire village is formed of not more than 10 homes. The Orang Asli, the original people, the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia live like this for thousands of years, in small isolated communities, just a few families in the heart of the jungle. They hunt in the old ways, with poisonous arrows blown through bamboo long pipes, making fire from dry pieces of woods, following their own rules and customs. They are protected, fed and educated by mother jungle and she is providing them with all they need. They fish, pick up fruits and hunt, and sometimes they plant corn or a few trees for fruits. Their impact on environment is almost 0. This way of living, away of all the benefits and madness of what we call the modern life, is so fascinating. From the Arctic and the Sami population to Asia and its aboriginal inhabitants, people still live like this. I can’t stop myself wonder: How come we got so far from this? Polluting all, over fishing the oceans, destroying and rubbing the nature of all its gifts, heading with fast speed to a future that looks grim and even incompatible with life.

Here time has stopped for good. A young woman wearing an orange sarong tight up from her solder to her knees takes a naked 3 years old boy and starts bathing him in a bucket, behind a bunch of fern bushes. She uses water only. Her dark skin looks so beautiful, like velvet, contrasting the light orange of her sarong. I see other two, very young, who are carrying their offsprings in baby k’tans.

Abdullah says they all merry very young and because they merry inside the community only, sometimes the children are born with health problems or major handicaps. If a woman marries a man from another community, she moves away, following her husband.

The modern world got them too in some ways. Now women are taken to hospitals to give birth, the Government is trying to keep the children in schools and to provide the tribe with clothes or food. And so, with plastic and precessed foods. In change, they accept visitors. It’s a compromise, having strangers to observe them and take photos of them in change of material advantages. Less hunting, less risks taken, easier life. I did restrain from taking photos and I tried to be as little invasive as I could. The only few images I took with me were taken without anyone’s notice.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We are soon greeted by a skinny man in shorts. He smiles with all his face. He’s got no teeth left but he’s proud to be a great hunter. He is ready to teach me to blow the pipe and I’m ready to learn. The arrow is like a 20cm needle made of bamboo with a round end polished with a dry leave that stands as sand paper. He starts by showing me how he makes the arrows, the technique is fantastic! Once the arrow is ready, the sharp end gets covered with poison. The wild target has no chance once it gets hit by this.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We use a Hello Kitty toy, pinned on a fence, as a target. I never like this character anyway so I enjoy it even more.

The pipe is more then 2m long, made of bamboo also. He does it 3 times and hits the target each time in the head.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

My turn now: 1st time I suck, second I get closer and 3rd I hit the Hello Kitty straight to the heart. But only after I got extra indications from the master. I hear applauses and we all laugh.

– Now you are a true jungle surviver! Abdullah said

– I should move here!

Fire lesson is next. A young boy takes a piece of dry wood and a rope. he starts rubbing the two parts and seconds after we see smoke. He continues with fast moves for a few more seconds, then puts the resulted ash in a bunch of dry grass. He blows and the smoke gets even more dense. Right after he has fire in his hands. My turn to applause now. 1min 20 seconds was all he needed to light the fire.

We head then to the last cottages of the village. A few children are playing outside and I am amazed how independent they are from such an early age. We sit there, among the people, on a bench improvised from two trees. The chief of the tribe comes, Abdullah salutes him and they start a long conversation while sharing cigarettes brought in by Abdullah. He also bought candies for children and he passes them to me so I can give them. They surround me smiling, with curious looks, grab the candies and run away. I saw them after heading to the river. They reach the small beach we came from and the next second they are all jumping in the water, naked, laughing and speaking loud. What a peaceful life and what a fantastic scene was developing right in front of my eyes.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We got carried out and instead of spending here, with the tribe, one hour, we spent the whole afternoon, almost 4 hours. Indeed, time has different values here.

We went back to the jetty where Sun, the driver, was waiting for me. I said Abdullah good bye promising to come back one day to the green paradise of Taman Negara. We then drove back to Kuala Lumpur.

On the way back Sun made a few stops in small local markets to buy all sort of exotic fruits, like rambutan and langsat and different desserts, just to have me taste the delices of Malaysia. All was fantastic. He refused any money from me, his reward was seeing me getting in love head over hills with his country.

The day ended with a visit at Batu Caves where a hindu festival was under way. The steps going up to the caves were just painted in the rainbow colours on this occasion. A hindu ceremony was happening in the middle and huge colourful hindu gods were placed in front of a shrine decorated with thousands of flowers. Tens of men dressed in white sarongs were attending, singing, praying. Sun explained to me a little of the significance as he was a Hindu, original from India.

We got right in time at my hotel for a last swim in the fabulous infinity pool, on top of KL. What a city, what a country, what a day!

PS: I do kept in touch with Abdullah, send him photos from Europe or the places I’ve been after. Seeing the photos with winter in Finland, he said he would die there, in that cold. Every time he asks when I’m going back.

Next: Sri Lanka

Malaysia: Jungle trekking

– Shhh…listen! Abdullah understood me and stood quiet. The music of the jungle was so loud in reality, all the insects, birds and animals had something to say. I couldn’t recognise any but Abdullah, my tracking guide that day in Taman Negara jungle, he could. He understood that wild language and started to whisper their names to me. I was thinking how forests in Europe are so quiet compared to the jungles of Asia.

Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

I left Singapore shortly, no matter how amazing a city is, for me the real wonders are further, away from the glass and iron and concrete. I landed in Kuala Lumpur an noon, I took a bus and then a taxi to arrive in front of the 57 floors tall building where my accommodation for the next nights was. I was proud of myself, I managed to find my way through the city. KL was not as posh as Singapore but seemed to me more alive. The traffic jam was crazy and il started to look like that Asia I was imagining before. We ran on the large streets and suspended passages, by sky scrapers, among hundreds of bikers wearing jackets with the back side in the front, as a shield, meant to protect them.

The infinity pool in KL

– Wow! I couldn’t help exclaiming when the guy who accompanied me form the reception opened the door to my studio. It feels so good to have a bit of spoil when traveling and, c’mon, a 5 stars accommodation for a few nights never hurt any adventure spirit. The place was huge and the interior design so luxurious. But the view won on me: through the glass walls of the living and bedroom, the sight was breathtaking: ski scrapers, busy roads, a mad city revealing itself down there.

But the actual reason I have chosen this fancy place, besides the fact that in Europe I could no way afford that, was this:

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Who needs Marina Bay Sands, 350$ a night, when you can get this in KL for 50$. The Petronas Towers view was spectacular, seen from the edge of the infinity pool, was a moment to remember. I wished I could live there! My thought, while watching the city turning on its millions of lights as the sunset shades turned the twin towers into golden shapes, like two gods of the city. Amazing KL!

Street food adventure in KL

Was about time to get back to what I love the most: discovering a city by foot. After about 2h wandering the streets in central KL, I arrived in…… I took it personal when fireworks started to set the sky on fire, I felt welcomed. The therms “busy street” here were become too little said. It was an ant nest. Restaurants with opened kitchens and plastic tables and chairs in front, huge hot pans were shaken above tall flames, an effervescence of tourists mixing the uproar of locals, merchandise on stalls, fruits, meat, seafood. Make a choice if you can! I had some coconut water from a stall and found a free chair in the corner of a table. Luck gets sometimes strange shapes, mostly when we are hungry. And I was. I was now part of this crowd, for my wok.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

The desert was a long expected one: durian. Finally! I got a better price easily at one stall and I found myself in front of two big pieces of the stinkiest of fruits, wrapped in plastic. I knew it’s better to taste it quickly before smelling. But I did’t. And the 1st thought was: At least I did’t buy a bigger piece… But then I taste. And for the first time in my life, was something I couldn’t decide if it was either love or hate. One thing is sure: the reactions I’ve seen on the web are just drama queen type. It is not so bad, even if 1st time is a bit strange. The smell is very strong, it’s why it is forbidden in hotels and airports. But it’s a must try.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, durian

Still pinching myself to make sure I really was in KL, I went back to my Platinum building, on streets flooded with so much light that a butterfly was still up, at midnight.

I was getting high on Asia. I fell asleep staring with eyes wide opened, from by bed, to the city skyline in front. A wall of lights, impossible to resist to.

Taman Negara jungle

In 2h I was up again. Was still dark when I went out of the hotel, the driver was already waiting for me, in a jeep in front. I was the only client that day, so a VIP tour.

Sun was his name, he was an Indian living for 3 generations already in Malaysia. We talked nonstop all the 4h as the ride to the jungle lasted. I was only muted in the end, when the road through the jungle was getting deep into the heart of Taman Negara, the 130 million years old jungle, home to tigers, wild elephants, birds and insects. I was speechless in front of this green wild wonder, with huge trees raising above the mist of the morning. We made a short stop and so I felt for the first time what 80-90% humidity feels like. But I was living a dream: to see the jungle.

Abdullah, my guide, was waiting for us at the tourist information point. We were introduced and minutes after I was following him as we went deeper and deeper in the woods. The further we went, the thicker the vegetation became. And humidity! Soon I was completely drenched, my clothes all wet and I felt as I was walking through water. Only there it was just air.

Abdullah was unbelievably knowledgeable, like a living encyclopaedia of Taman Negara. I saw ants of 2cm big that Abdullah said when they bite, are taking a pice of flesh and it hurts like crazy. He showed me all sorts of plants, used by the old tribes, the indigenous people, as food or poison, to built shelter or made glue and even sand paper. He told me how to figure out which fruits are good and which are not following the monkeys tracks. How to find the North and a few ways to stay safe if you get lost in the jungle. I always knew nature is providing us with everything and still, before Taman Negara, I was so far away of the true magnitude of this. Mother nature truly offers us EVERYTHING.

The sounds of the jungle were incredibly loud and my new friend recognised many of them. I have never imagined the jungle so noisy. Sometimes a bird was flying as we approached or a bush of fern was moving. Abdullah was indeed a man of the jungle and with every step we became more connected, united by this deep love we both shared: love for love.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

– You see this place in the back, on the path? he said at one point

– Many years ago, while guiding a group of English people through the jungle, a tiger came out of the bushes, looked at us for a few seconds and then crossed the trail and disappeared behind the leaves.

– What did you do? came my silly question.

– Nothing. We were all frozen. Now the tigers are far, they have learned to avoid humans and stay deep in the forest. But maybe we get to see one today, he winks at me.

The forest was indeed deep. To reach its top point I hear one needs a whole week. Every end of day you have to arrive in one specific point in order to find the shelter build there and be protected over night. Abdullah shares with me a recent story of one guy who somehow got lost in the woods for 2 weeks. He was a guide there all his life. After missing for a few days, he was believed dead. Miraculously he was found after 2 weeks. In a perfect condition, which was unexplainable. Only one thing was strange about him: he was convinced we was lost in the woods for one night only. No signs of mental problems and no explanation for his story. Abdullah revealed that he was believing in which craft, practices not so unheard in Malaysia and mostly among the Orang Asli tribes. These people, called the original people, that are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia, are perfectly adapted to the jungle which is their home, their source of living, their whole life.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

The adventure in the jungle continued with a long expected experience: 600m journey through a canopy walk, at 30m high, above the trees. Instead, I hated it. I was so petrified that my whole body was shaking and I thank to all the saints in heavens when finally got my feed back on the ground, in one piece.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia, canopy walk

– How was it? Abdullah, who was waiting for me down, close to the river, asked.

– I thought I’ll love it but I hate it.

A wise saying says Be careful what you wish for.

We both jumped in the boat that was waiting for us at the shore. The river was like coffee and milk. We headed straight to the middle of the jungle, where the Orang Asli tribe was living. We were suppose to spent there one hour but when we left we realised we have stayed almost 4. Maybe that guide’s story was after all real: in Taman Negara time stops.

Next: meeting  the Orang Asli tribe in Taman Negara