A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Monsk

Scuba Diving in the Philippines

Our final week spent in Puerto Galera

all seasons in one day 34 °C

We made the crossing from Luzon to Mindoro in a boat with bamboo wings, praying for a smooth crossing (it's typically these boats that sink in stormy weather, killing lots of people). An hour later, and after a very peaceful crossing, we arrived in the small town of Sabang. The place was a kind of Filipino Blackpool with sleazy bars and a pier which housed some waltzers, a merry-go-round and various ways of gambling away your pesos. Sabang was a big hit with Korean and Chinese tourists and even boasts an extremely incongruous medieval castle styled hotel.

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Despite the fun we had losing money on various games and giving money to kids to gamble with (ethically dodgy ground) we thought we'd move 300m down the coast on the following day to the more peaceful and cleaner Big La Laguna. We stayed here for the best part of a week, scuba diving on the many top class dive sites that are just off the coast and generally relaxing as we tried to suppress the sinking realisation of our impending return to England. The extent of the coral and fish life was genuinely impressive - I'd been slightly worried that the diving here wouldn't come close to that in Borneo - and we saw turtles, shoals of bat fish and the truly bizarre frogfish. On a night dive we also saw the creepy snake eel, with it's head stuck out of the sand, and the amusing box crab.

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On Sunday the hotel where we were staying hosted a golf competition where ageing western expats from miles around gathered to hit golf balls off the roof into the sea while aiming at a rubber hoop that was manned tirelessly by a Filipino boy in a kayak. He was given a motorbike helmet as means of protection. Naturally this was quite amusing, however the skill level was pretty low and I'm not sure if a single ball landed in the hoop all day.

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The following day saw me and Helen rent a moped and head off into the island. After a fair old drive and many a hopeful question asked to local pedestrians we arrived at Tukaran falls (a.k.a. Hidden Paradise). However before getting to the falls we had to park the 'ped and pay about £8 for the pleasure of the most uncomfortable journey of my life. The track to the falls crossed a river several times, meaning we wouldn't be able to get there with a bike. Instead, the options consisted of walking or getting a water buffalo to pull you in a wooden cart. Keen to add another to our growing list of "modes of transportation used in Asia", we went with the latter option. This was a definite error as the buffalo had no desire to avoid the big stones along the track, and the sack on which we sat provided little protection to my bony arse. The falls, however, were beautiful and we swam for a couple of hours in the pools and rapids between them before the buffalo returned us to our considerably more suspensioned moped.

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Back on the road again we made it up to the alternative beach town in Puerto Galera, White Beach. We had considered staying here instead of Big La Laguna initially and after seeing the place rather resembling a ghost town, we were glad of making the decision we had. We spent our final night eating Chateaubriand at one of the two exceptional steakhouses that somehow had found themselves in this enclave of the Philippines. This luxury was needed as the following day we would set off from the island at 5:45am on a journey home that would take me 45 hours, fitting in a sleep in Kuala Lumpur airport.

In the past 5 weeks we've seen and done about as much as I'd previously fit into two-month-long jaunts and the people in Malaysia and the Philippines were some of the friendliest I've ever encountered. And now back to the PhD...

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Posted by Monsk 00:22 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Onwards to the Philippines

Manila and Lake Taal

sunny 34 °C

Back in Lahad Datu we prepared ourselves for a night bus that would take us west, back to Kota Kinabalu (KK) where this saga started almost a month ago. Preparation consisted of drinking whiskey with lemon tea and eating one of the top burgers that I've ever got my chops around (4 patties, an egg, cheese and four layers of bread combined with an outrageous combination of condiments blew both my and Mike's minds). Unfortunately the bus made excellent time and dropped us at a town somewhere outside KK at about 4am. A local youth with a pimped up Proton raced us into KK with the happy hardcore tunes blaring. After some strong coffee and a walk around a market (once it had opened), where I copped myself a toad that had been turned into a horrific looking purse, we said our (emotional) goodbyes to Mike and headed for the airport.

At 2pm we landed in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. As soon as we left the airport the contrast between where we'd landed and where we were a couple of hours prior was huge. Suddenly we were smack bang in the middle of a stiflingly hot, manic city. Jeepneys (colourfully decorated old Jeeps left by the U.S. Army after WW2 and then converted into a form of public transport) crowded the streets blaring party music and adding to the cacophony with liberal use of their horns. It hadn't taken long to witness the effects of both Spanish and American occupation of the Philippines on the culture of the place. After a month of slow-paced travel, this was exciting.

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We enjoyed the trappings of city life for a while. We dined on pizza and Korean bbq and even went to the Cinema to see a rather poor film about using magic to commit serious robberies (Now You See Me - 5/10 - fell asleep a bit). After a couple of days in Manila, however, we were pretty tired of the place and decided to head south to the Philippines' second most active volcano.

Taal volcano used to be a pretty big deal until it exploded with such vigor that it blew itself apart forming a huge lake with nothing but the top of it's cone remaining in the centre. A bus and a motorcycle-sidecar combo took us to a restaurant in the town of Tagaytay that overlooked the lake. These motorcyle-sidecar things are genuinely the most nerve-wracking of all the modes of transport I've used in my life so far; riding at the same height as all the bull bars of cars around you isn't a view that puts one at ease. Despite this, we enjoyed the stunning view and dined on a classic Filipino dish consisting of beef stewed with marrow bones, which create and extremely rich sauce, known as Bulalo.

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A Jeepney and another, more prolonged, motorcycle-sidecar journey took us to the rather interestingly named 'People's Park in the Sky' (sounds like a euphemism for some kind of communist heaven). It's innocently enough just a hill that gives great views for miles and miles in all directions (we could make out smog-covered Manila 50km to the north), it has, however, seen better days. A huge concrete playground complete with a Japanese-style bridge over nothing in particular and even a small-scale attempt at a Roman theatre were particular favourites of mine. Further sidecar and Jeepneys took us to a hotel on the side of lake Taal where a considerable storm would confine us to our room, forcing us to resort to a tin of tuna and peanut butter for dinner.

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The following morning was much calmer and we made our way around to the other side of the lake where we'd climb Mount Maculot - Google it and you'll be greeted with news stories of someone who died climbing it a couple of months ago. The idea was that it'd provide yet more top-drawer views. It was a short but very steep climb through forest and then dense grasses which sliced us up nicely. While no foreigners were climbing the mountain that day, many a Filipino climber stopped us asking for a photo. We reached the summit at the same time as quite a large group of Filipino climbers who marked the event by whooping and hollering for a solid five minutes. Thankfully, the views did not disappoint.

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We left the mountain and continued south on yet more Jeepneys and sidecars until we reached Batangas, a port town from which we'd cross to the island of Mindoro and the final part of this tale.

Posted by Monsk 06:47 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Jungle Adventures in Danum Valley

Four Days in Pristine Rainforest

sunny 33 °C

Before coming here, when I pictured Borneo in my head it was lush rain forest surrounded by golden beaches and pristine waters. The golden beaches and pristine waters has largely proved accurate. However the Bornean mainland is unfortunately much less untouched than I'd imagined. Vast swathes of rain forest has been cleared over the past couple of decades to be replaced by palm plantations. While it has made a few Malaysians and Indonesians very rich, it has left a pretty vast scar across the country (one that is all too visible from an airplane).

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One of the few truly untouched areas of forest can be found about a two hours' drive from Lahad Datu, and over an hour's drive from any kind of permanent human habitation. This region, named Danum Valley, is a protected region of which is home to the ultra-extensive Boneo Rainforest Lodge, and the Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) - where there area's scientific work is conducted. Here, in the DVFC, is where we'd spend four days getting involved with nature.

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The field centre is very much that, and as such we weren't expecting being looked after. We booked into the hostel they had there and survived off instant noodles and peanut butter - jelly sandwiches for four days. On arrival we were told not to bother going on long sweaty treks into the jungle in search of animals, rather that they would pass through camp from time to time. Sure enough within the first couple of hours we'd seen pigs and samba deer. The animals don't come to the camp for food (excepting the pig) but rather just seem to appreciate the open spaces every now and again (that opinion based on no scientific merit whatsoever). One tree near a pond in the centre was almost overrun with tree frogs. Why a snake didn't make his way there and get stupendously fat, I have no idea.

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Despite the advice not to bother with long, sweaty treks and, more importantly, the strict instructions not to head into the jungle without a guide, we made a few attempts at delving deep into the forest. Unfortunately, it didn't go too well. There were trails but they often petered out for a while or were blocked by fallen trees. This made making the leap of faith to carry on deeper into the jungle to try and find the path again slightly nerve-wracking and so on a couple of occasions we were just forced to return to camp with nothing but many a leech bite. On some of the trails the leeches are so numerous that you can see them marching along the forest floor towards you. While I had boots and thick socks which (along with a handy anti-leech stick) kept them at bay, Mike came with only trainers and sports socks and so after the first trek he came back looking like he'd been snared in a bear trap. While the camp was extremely peaceful and relaxing, after the first couple of days, and with a couple of failed jungle treks behind us we were starting to be slightly disappointed with the amount of wildlife we'd actually seen.

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On the afternoon of the second day we headed down to the river beach, which was my favourite spot in the whole of the area; soft sand (perfect for making a sandcastle - 21st C colonialism), cool water and plenty of sticks to play with. After a few hours relaxing here I was about to head back to the hostel when Helen comes running down to the river shouting that an Orang Utan had rocked up in a tree over-looking the hostel. So we hared it back and sure enough there was a female Orang Utan chilling out in a large tree about 50 metres from the hostel. We watched her for about an hour before she slunk off back into the dense forest, us expecting that that was that. About an hour later, however, she got back up the tree and started making her nest for the night, settling down at about half six.

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The next morning (on advice from other hostel-dwellers who knew a lot more about Orang Utans than us), we were all out, staring at the tree from about six am - some had been out since closer to 5. However this laziest of primates refused to stir until about half seven, and then hid in a huge bromeliad, resting in the tree. The others that were staying in the camp either went off to do their scientific duties or left the camp for good soon after eight, leaving just me, Mike and Helen staring at an inanimate tree. A further two and a half hours of this past (a truly great way to spend a morning) before our ginger friend peeked out of his tree at us. And then, within about 100 seconds, she'd disappeared back into the forest, this time for good.

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On the final day there was a huge troop of macaques hanging out on the edge of camp and Mike, on a solo trip to the tree platform, found himself surrounded by red leaf monkeys. All in all the place is pretty magical and, I imagine, as close as you can come to experiencing the best of the Bornean rain forest without tracking animals for days through the dense foliage and stifling heat. Elephant dung was everywhere along the road in and out of Danum valley, and both the extremely rare clouded leopard and ridiculously rare sumatran rhino make their homes here. As is always the case, there is more that you wish you had been able to see when coming to a place like this, but I suppose it just makes the case for a return visit one day.

Posted by Monsk 23:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Diving Sipadan

The Life Aquatic in Borneo

sunny 33 °C

On our way from the Kinabatangan River down to a coastal town called Semporna we had to pass through Lahad Datu. Lahad Datu is the kind of town that offers nothing to a traveler other than air-conditioned internet cafes and buses away from the place. Unfortunately we had to swing by this way on our way to Mabul Island, where we'd spend the next three days scuba diving, to organise a jungle trip for once we returned to dry land.

This done, we booked a bus onwards which was due to leave hourly from 3pm. So, at ten to three we turned up at the bus station and waited (bus station is a slight overstatement - it was a roadside with a few huts). And waited and waited. At half four a bus turned up (the three o'clock bus had turned up and left at half 2) and we delightedly got on board. Half an hour later we discovered the bus driver had a problem with his arm that he deemed deserving of a trip to the hospital so just left the bus and all its passengers at the side of the road and sneaked off. Another two and a half hours later a final bus turned up which finally took us to Semporna.

Semporna provided us with a bed and fried rice before taking a morning boat to Mabul Island. Mabul Island is a small, sandy atoll off the east coast of Borneo that has hosted a Malaysian fishing community for decades before, more recently, being rather consumed by dive resorts. The photo below shows Mabul from the air and the bungalows over the ocean are the reserve of the more luxury resorts (you can spend a hell of a lot of money to stay in an elaborate shed above the sea in this part of the world). We stayed at the more budget-friendly Uncle Chang's. Uncle Chang is something of a hero around these parts; as a local boy allegedly starting off in the tourism business with 100RM (about £20) he has built up a very successful dive resort. Alas, the only evidence of the legend on the island was the plethora of newspaper cuttings and certificates that were framed around the dining shack.

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Getting involved straight away we dived three times on the first day, twice around Mabul Island and once at another nearby island named Kapalai. Seeing turtles, giant moray eels, 6ft groupers and even a fish that had had its face bitten off, the first set of dives were already pretty spectacular. But this was only the warm-up. On the second day we'd dive Sipadan - the real reason most people come here. Regularly voted one of, if not the, best dive site in the world, the amount of coral and the abundance and variety of fish is stunning. Imagine making your dream aquarium and throwing in hand-fulls of turtles, sharks and thousand-strong schools of jacks and barracuda for good measure and you're beginning to get close. Unfortunately all pictures were taken on a film camera and so these sights are currently locked away on rolls of plastic.

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The evening after diving Sipadan we were to be treated to Uncle Chang's live band performing for the guests. Mike had discovered that members of the infamous four-piece had been living amongst us at the resort and sure enough, shortly after 8pm they kicked the evening off with a stirring rendition of Creep by Radiohead. Many other classics such as Summer of '69, Wonderwall and even (on request) Gangnam Style. Unfortunately, and after many a Tiger beer, me and Mike thought we'd get involved and give our rendition of Mr Brightside, we didn't know the words and even having them in front of us didn't help much. Were we not firmly inebriated it would have been quite embarrassing. That was the last piece of audience participation.

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The next morning, diving again, I was feeling dog-rough. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes of being underwater, the nausea got the better of me. At this moment I had a flashback of my first dive instructor telling me that it's fine to vomit through the regulator; I duly obliged. Somehow Mike and Helen, who were swimming behind me, didn't notice and blindly swam through the remnants of my breakfast. In fairness, it did increase the abundance of fish in that area for a brief period. The following dives were at the same time beautiful yet painful. Later that afternoon we made our way back to the mainland for an extremely disappointing meal at KFC (I'd been saving myself for some time for this KFC you understand) and another night in the town of Semporna, before hitting the depths of the Bornean rainforest.

UPDATE: After finally getting my underwater photos developed, here are a few choice cuts.

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Posted by Monsk 01:48 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Kinabatangan River

Watching monkey from a boat

all seasons in one day 32 °C

After another evening spent eating barbecued squid at the night market in Kota Kinabalu we took an early flight across the country to a town called Sanadakan. Sandakan used to be the capital of Malaysian Borneo until it got so blitzed by the Japanese in World War II that they gave it up as a lost cause and moved the capital to Kota Kinabalu. Despite this, it's now not a bad city and it has several KFCs.

On landing at the tiny airport we met up with Mike, a good friend from university who's been working in Australia for the past couple of years. Following a brief but heart-felt embrace we went to see some Orang Utans. The sanctuary, a forty minute drive from Sandakan town, gives a home to orphaned Orang Utans and tries to prepare them for life in the wild. However, as we turned up in time for feeding we were surprisingly close to the animals and it did have the feeling of a large zoo enclosure. Despite this, the Orang Utans were fascinating to watch; gracefully bouncing about between ropes and trees or simply hanging upside down, taking everything in. After an hour or so of watching the fellows we got the bus back into town, driven by an apparently huge Liverpool fan.

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At around lunch time the following day we boarded a bus that would take us on a two-and-a-half hour journey to probably Borneo's most famous river: the Kinabatangan. Here we'd spend the next two days sailing up and down it while marvelling at the sheer abount of wildlife on the river's banks. The reason for such high density of wildlife is likely due to the vast palm plantations that have replaced rainforest over much of Borneo, confining the jungle's inhabitants to a narrow strip either side of the river.

While we only caught a glimpse of the arse-end of the fabled pygmy elephants that roam the forest and drink from the river, proboscis monkeys, macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, monitor lizards and crocs were all found aplenty.

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Night walks into the jungle were generally a disappointment, however, as more stuff (including large gekos, bats, scorpions and other insects) simply walked (or flew in the case of the bats) into camp.

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On the final river cruise the heavens opened with a vengeance but so determined was our guide to find the pygmy elephants that this wasn't going to stop us. So for 90 minutes we sailed through torrential rain so bad that it was painful to actually look at anything. Our guide wasn't impervious to this either so spent most of the time driving the boat with his eyes closed. Unsurprisingly, this tactic hindered his ability to see elephants somewhat and after an hour and a half of this we returned back to shore soaked to the core. The silver lining to these extremely leaky clouds was that the thunder was even better in real life than on Dolby surround sound.

Posted by Monsk 07:02 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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