I went to Malaysian Borneo for Christmas. I realize that it is now nearly May Day, but I never wrote about Malaysia, or posted many photos, or even did my typical mixed media/journal thing with it. I don’t know why, but somehow I was not moved to do it. Now I feel a little guilty about that and so I want to ameliorate the situation by writing about it.
First of all, I would not rank Malaysia very high on my list of favorite places visited. However, having said that, I do always love seeing new places and I enjoyed myself there. Most people tell me that Borneo is not really Malaysia and if I want to see Malaysia I need to go the peninsula and see KL. And then they all fuck off to Penang or the Perhentian Islands, neither of which seem to be a whole lot more Malaysian than Borneo. Regardless, I went to Borneo because I thought I might be able to convince the research outfit studying the rare and beautiful Clouded Leopards to take me out in the field with them. Apparently, I was not convincing enough so I decided to go diving in the Celebes Sea of the east coast of the island at Sipadan and Mabul Islands. This was exciting as well, since I would be ticking off another World Heritage Site on my travel dossier.
Another reason why I believe I have been so remiss in writing about Malaysia is that I was in my own weird head space at the time, totally bogged down with personal drama that I was not letting go of.
And I also thought the food was crap. I have an insane memory (in general) but for food especially. I recall family events and shared experiences most often by what and where we were eating. I am not sure if that is totally weird, totally useful, both or neither. Whichever it is, I was completely unimpressed with Malaysian food.
Then too, the Malaysian ringgit is substantially stronger than the Hong Kong dollar (now nearly 2.5 to 1) and so my money was halved (HK is making some serious noise about ditching the US dollar… might be a bit too late), but I really hate looking at the bank balance and it seems so… small. [Good thing I am staying out of Europe for a while.]
My trip to Malaysia did not begin in the most auspicious of ways. I was leaving 3 days before Christmas and there were some hurt feelings about this; I was more strapped for cash than I like to be because of said individual with hurt feelings; and above all, I arrived at Hong Kong’s amazingly efficient in-town airport check-in with what I thought was an e-ticket, but actually with NO ticket. This is completely bizarre behavior for me, a perpetually organized individual. Then consider this: I live on an island approximately 30 minutes by boat from Hong Kong. The ferries have a decent but not overly frequent schedule. Then one generally allows twenty minutes or so to get from the ferry to the airport check in. This is when the South China Morning Post is not hosting their annual bike race and there are more than 10,000 bikers on the road and the Aberdeen Tunnel is shut. Guess what day the bike race was? In addition, there is only one flight a day to Kota Kinabalu from Hong Kong. I had a flight at 5am the next day to get to Tawau/Mabul/Sipadan.
What all this means is that I had to get from the airport check-in to my house on Lamma and back again in time to still catch my flight that day. Or there would be no trip. I made it, only because I had arrived early enough to go out to breakfast, which obviously did not happen. This whole experience has done wonders for my OCD. You should see me check my tickets when I leave now.
After this experience, I was so relaxed just to be on the plane, I was suddenly, forcibly, in the perfect head space for an adventure.
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu in the early evening and went to my guesthouse, happilly, quite near to a 7-11. My generally good sense of direction is pretty weak when I try to orient in a new place in the dark – and I am noticing a tangible decline without my glasses these days. This being the case, I walked in a couple of pretty big circles, but I found a small night market (and another 7-11) and got to see a bit of one side of KK. I got a decent foot massage and wandered up and down the market stalls. There were lots of clothes and sarongs like the type my step-dad always used to wear around to embarrass me back in the 70s in California after he had lived in Malaysia for a number of years. I had no idea he was so culturally accurate. Sarongs made of plaid prints seem like some strange kind of cultural juxtaposition, but there you have it, the traditional ones are all these plaid designs. What the market had the most of though, were decorative accessories for hijabs. Not too many of the hijabs themselves, but a plethora of amazing accouterments.
I find the Muslim tradition of women’s dress fascinating. I have been told that the purpose behind it is modesty (not just on behalf of the women, but everyone) but I think that it does little to make me avert my eyes or less interested. I actually think that the hijab is insanely flattering. [Bear in mind, I have a very different attitude about the burkha.] The hijab though not always subtle, really, REALLY highlights the woman’s eyes in a way that is totally intriguing. I think they are really pretty. And the variety of colors, designs and additions available belies the idea that the garment is to deter attention. I don’t really care what the purpose is though, because I think they are tasteful and striking and way the hell better than what a lot of other people wear for attention ( or inattention.) The rows and rows of sparkling pins and clips were endless and visually intoxicating. I contemplated how some of my friends’ daughters who are at the height of their princess phase might have thought they had landed in princess heaven.
I didn’t do much else in KK on that first night as I was up at 4:30 am to get transported to the airport to head to Mabul Island via Tawau. Easy flight/had tickets/nice weather/long van ride to the coast/speed boat to Mabul.
It is about 45 minutes via speedboat to get to Mabul Island, where all Sipadan divers stay because Sipadan is now a World Heritage site and so only the army can stay there. I do not know why that makes sense, if it does. Along the way you get a chance to see a lot of boat culture, small islands (Malaysia’s smallest apparently) and beautiful water. Mabul Island is small. You can walk the circumference in less than an hour while stopping to beach comb and take photos. But it is strange. There are a collection of dive ‘resorts’ there, I stayed with Borneo Divers, probably the most expensive, but they all seem about the same aside from price. Well, except the one which is built on an old oil derrick off shore. Seriously. They tried to make it look nice, but at the end of the day it is still an oil derrick. With some potted plants. Bizarre. Among the resorts are local villages. These are some of the most rudimentary settlements I have ever seen. I am not sure how it works, what they do, or for whom, but it seems like there is some kind of business keeping them in tact. I saw boat building, shell selling, naked kids, public outhouses and a lot of laundry being washed. It was very third world. But everyone seemed pleasantly occupied with things, so maybe they really have it sussed out.
The reason I had come to this part of Borneo was for the diving. And I was not disappointed. Mabul is known for muckdiving and micro diving, neither of which really move me as I am not expert enough to get excited about a 0.5 cm seahorse. (Okay, it was cool, but I like the big stuff better.) But Sipadan. Oh my god. The best diving I have ever done. Unreal clarity. Amazing sea life. Mind blowing colors.
And the turtles.
My favorite thing to see diving are turtles. I love them. And there were more turtles, and bigger turtles, and more forthcoming turtles than I have ever seen ANYwhere at Sipadan. One of them was nearly six feet in length (the shell!) They swam with us and floated by looking like they were smiling… always a knowing little grin. And it was fabulous.
Sipadan is designed for expert divers… they pretty much let you go and you are expected to use your own dive computer (which I do not have), monitor yourself (which I am pretty rookie at), and not get lost (one thing I can manage.) If I go back, I will be better prepared. Everyone brings their own gear (what a pain in the ass!) but I kind of get it after having to deal with a crap mask for a day and also wishing that I had a prescription mask with my rapidly deteriorating eyesight. Fortunately, I had a great dive buddy and she totally took care of me.
The dive resort is all inclusive, they feed you and you dive five times a day. So, in the grand scheme of things I guess it is not that expensive. Actually, yes it is, but it is a good place to spend a few days diving. They also provided entertainment. The staff had been working for days on a ‘show’ for the guests. [In a weird way I was reminded of Dirty Dancing… you know how they sort of all commune together at meals, stay in cabin/bungalows and there is a variety show incorporating staff and guests.] On Christmas Eve we got the show. I was seated between two lovely ladies from India and two others from Sweden and the opening number was a group of Malay girls dressed in sexy santa suits, singing Feliz Navidad. No, I am not kidding. I marvelled at the international-ness of the scene. The MC was unintelligible save for his enthusiasm and so I rarely understood what was afoot until it began. There were all sorts of things vaguely reminiscent of high school pep rallies, banana eating contests with the bananas placed in strange places, drinking races – a beer through a straw – and more. Lots of bad Christmas carols, and frequent references to the ‘big event’. The big event turned out to be a beauty/bikini contest. Hmm.
Yes, those are boys. Not ladyboys… boys. There are not really words to explain the strangeness. Oddly, I kept thinking of my grandma and wondering what she would think. I think she would probably had a giggle, but then again I am not sure. Is Christmas really meant to be all that holy and sanctified anymore in this global community?
After my time on Mabul/Sipadan I returned to KK. Most people go there to climb Mt. Kinabalu. I am not most people. I just was not into climbing a mountain. So I went to the hot springs near the mountain in the National Park (yes, another world heritage site…) and I went to the botanical gardens. I explored the city of Kota Kinabalu and tried to find food I liked.
The day I went to Mount Kinabalu the weather was perfect and the views stunning. The flora and fauna in the botanical garden were really amazing and I had a great time messing around with my camera. The young man who was our guide was good fun, about 21 years old and a KK native, he had a great sense of humor and a driving desire to get out of KK. He wanted to talk to us about where we were from… what we did… and my camera. He did a very Asian thing and asked me straight out how much it cost. After all this time I am still surprised when people come out and just straight ask about money. I told him and he said, “Wow! One year working for me!” And I felt like shit. How embarrassing. But he wasn’t embarrassed, so again, I guess it is me.
The city of Kota Kinabalu has some interesting things to see, but mostly people go there to shop and hang out after the mountain I think. I went to the giant city mosque, which was very impressive in it’s huge whiteness. I went up Signal Hill and looked around… I stayed in a very good guesthouse (City Park Hotel) right by, amazingly, the City Park. I took a lot of photos and laughed at some of the signs… I people watched and hoped I was not staring. There is a very interesting mix of people in Malaysia. Lots and lots of Chinese, of course Malay (identifiable because of their Islamic attire or their more Indonesian appearance), and also a lot of Indians. Everyday a huge swell of sunburned Caucasians would flood the town as they piled off their chartered bus which they had ridden five minutes from the pier where their cruise ship was docked.
One day I went to the ‘craft’ market to look around. I actually liked taking pictures of the things more than buying them. They had such neat piles of stuff. As I was walking through I heard the plaintive mewing of a kitten and then saw a tiny, tiny cat stick in a small ditch trying to find it’s siblings. These kittens were such babies they could barely see. After watching for a while I picked it up and put it with the others. The shop girls were watching me and they laughed and harshly kicked the kittens away. Instinctively, I said, “Stop!” and they laughed more. I asked where the mama cat was and they said, “Mama dead!” and laughed some more. I was so upset by their treatment of the cats I left. I couldn’t even bring myself to go back that way and avoided that end of the market for the rest of my stay. But I thought about it the whole time. I looked at those girls and I wanted to tell them they were bad people. I wanted to bring food back for the kittens. But I did not want to bring food back for the infant that one of the girls, who couldn’t have been more than 16 years old, was holding. I wanted to tell them that they should take care of these cats… but why didn’t I care about them? I think there is something wrong with me. I could not shake the bad feelings I had from the experience, both to do with the cats and also my sense of guilt that I felt more for the cats than the girls. I imagined the dialog between us if I could tell them how I felt about the cats and them telling me if I wanted to help, why not help them. It was a very strange day.
I was ready to leave KK when I did. I was thankful for the mountain for showing itself to me the day I went to visit the park. I was thankful that I was not so sunburned as the people getting off the cruise ships. I was thankful to have found a delightful halal restaurant with good, spicy, Malay food. I was thankful for the delicious hot springs. I was thankful for my fun-tastic camera. I was abundantly thankful for the turtles – oh the amazing turtles. And I was really glad to be going back to Hong Kong.