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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Scuba Diving, Semporna, Sipidan, Southeast Asia, Travel

Sipidan – A Diver’s Delight

From Sepilok, I made my way to Semporna – the homebase for diving Sipadan. There is no bus station in Sepilok, so you basically wait in the intersection for the bus you need, hoping that the guesthouse has been accurate with the times they’ve provided you with. Eventually my bus showed up and I made the 4 hour drive, getting to Semporna mid-morning.

I had heard that Semporna was a sh*thole, so I’d prepared myself for a real dump. It wasn’t much to write home about but it also wasn’t as bad as I expected either.

I made my way to Scuba Junkie to see if I had cleared the waitlist for Sipadan. Sipadan is a national marine reserve and well protected, so only 150 diving permits are released each day, which are then divided evenly amongst the dive shops. It’s a great thing that they are taking measures to keep this area protected, but I was still a little concerned I was going to have come all this way and not be able to dive this world-known site.

The other thing is many companies request you do one day diving with them prior to diving Sipadan. Apparently the currents can be quite strong, so they like to evaluate you as a diver. This worked out well for me, as I was #1 on the waitlist for my second day there, and so I signed up to do some other recommended sites (Mabul and Kapilai) for my first day.

I had the afternoon to chill out and ended up running into friends from Mulu, so we caught up and they shared stories of their Sipadan dives. The following morning, I made my way out to Mabul and Kapilai for three dives. The first was a bit of a disappointing dive. The current was really strong, and the corals weren’t that great, but the second dive was one of my best dives ever, simply for the fact that I saw more marine life on this one dive than I have in other dive trips combined.

When we entered the water, there were 2 spotted eagle rays swimming right by us. This was followed by a yellow and black ribbon eel, tons of green turtles, huge sideways swimming Titan trigger fish, moray eels, lionfish, tons of crocodile fish, nudiebranchs, bubble coral, big bright clown fish, and at the end of the dive, a banded sea snake. Absolutely Amazing!
The third dive of the day was at an artificial reef, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I love bright, colorful coral, and I knew this would be completely different. Basically this site was constructed by sinking plank like structures, but it was done so long ago that marine life has taken it over and made it home.

On the way to the reef, we saw two ghost pipe fish, which I had never seen before, and at the actual site, we saw tons of frogfish, lion fish, a school of bat fish, oriental sweetlips (one of my favorite), boxer shrimp and moray eels. On the way back to the boat, we were literally swimming underneath a huge school of jackfish, so we sat and watched them circle above. It was a great day of diving, and I hadn’t even made it to Sipadan yet!
However, when we made it back to the shop, I found out that I had cleared the waitlist for the following day.

So, the following morning, we made our way to Sipadan Island to check in and show our permits to the authorities (it IS that strict). Our first dive was a drop off, literally a coral wall that plummets down to 600 meters deep. We made our way into a small cave called “Turtle Tomb.” You feel like you are swimming into the pitch black, but when you turn around, the entrance to the cave is glowing electric blue.

A couple of swim thrus later, we spotted a leopard shark, white tip reef sharks, so many turtles, just an abundance of fish like I have never seen before. We finished the dive on a shallow coral bommie that was just beautiful. Even a snorkeler would have been content. After the dive, a few of us sat on the top of the boat to warm up and counted the number of turtles coming up for air.

The second dive was at Southpoint and was probably my favorite dive of the day. I counted ten white tip reef sharks in total. At one point in time, three were asleep next to each other in the sand below us, and another one was so curious as to who we were, it swam so closely to us. Not to mention, the coral here looked like a big bowl of fruity pebbles, the colors seriously looked artificial. The number of fish were amazing- wrasse, triggers, sweetlips, and even more turtles.

We stopped for lunch on Sipadan Island, being careful not to disturb the huge Monitor Lizards, and then headed out for our last dive of the day at Barracuda Point, where you guessed it, we followed a school of about 250-300 for almost the entire dive. Sipadan did not disappoint!

I’ve been really fortunate with the diving I’ve been able to do in the last 4 months and to think I haven’t even got to Indonesia yet…

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Orangutan, Sepilok, Southeast Asia, Travel

Sepilok & the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

The first day following the climb should have been a wash. I really shouldn’t have attempted anything. I would have been content to find a table under a fan at the Inn and rest my legs, but instead we were up early on our way to the morning feeding at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. (I suppose this is what you get when you travel with an enthusiastic animal lover.)

Sepilok’s Orangutan Rehabilitation Center has been set up as a conservation effort and a rehab center for wild orangutans. Apparently only 20,000 of these animals exist, and they will easily reach extinction in this lifetime without our help.

Forests and jungles are being torn down so Malaysia can create more palm plantations, which is leaving these animals with little space to live, and even fewer resources for food and survival. The life span of an orangutan is decreasing, leaving many of the young orphaned, so the center rescues these young animals, nurses them back to health and then makes every attempt to release them back into the wild, and encourage breeding.

We watched the morning feeding and then headed to the Rainforest Discovery Center, which was next to our Inn. There were some walking paths, bird watching towers and a canopy walk, but my favorite part was the seriously air-conditioned exhibits inside the visitor’s center. I debated on whether or not I could ask to sleep there!

I headed back to the Inn for some well-needed chill out time and Aaron made his way back to the center for the afternoon feeding. Despite the fact that I only spent a day in Sepilok, it was great to see these playful animals up close and to learn a bit more about what we can do to help protect them. If you want to learn more you can check out the website at

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, Hiking, Kinabalu, long term travel, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Travel

Climbing Mount Kinabalu



From KK, I made my way with Aaron and Monique (my climbing buddies) and Alex to Mount Kinabalu. As we got closer and closer to the mountain, I got more and more excited for the 2 days that lay ahead. (At only one point in time did I wonder what I’d got myself into.)

We checked into a little cabin at the foot of the mountain called Rose Cabin and immediately had to put on warmer clothes, but the temperature difference was welcomed and it was such a nice change from the humidity. We had a huge meal to prep ourselves for the climb and watched as the clouds outside gave way to an amazing view of the mountain at sunset. It was sort of a surreal view, almost like I was looking at a photograph, or a shot from a movie, and to think I was gonna climb that thing??

The following morning, we woke up early with anticipation. Whenever I have something like this planned, I always wake up early, before the alarm. It’s like the morning before a marathon- you’re excited and apprehensive, and you don’t really know what’s in store.

We had breakfast, sorted a taxi to the mountain, checked in, picked up our food vouchers and met up with our (mandatory) guide Deeana. On the first day, we had to climb a total of 6 kilometers and 11,000 feet in elevation to Laban Rata, where we would spend the night. The path was marked every half kilometer, and although it was tough – as in feeling like you are on a stairmaster on the toughest level possible, or climbing steps that were 4 steps rolled into one, the time went by pretty quickly.

After about 1 ½ kilometers, it was like my body began to understand what I was asking it to do, and found its pace. We stopped for about 20 minutes at 3km for a snack/water break, but other than that, we climbed straight for 4 hours that day. After lunch, we literally climbed through the clouds and somewhere between kilometer 4 and 5, we were afforded great upward views of the mountain face and what we would be tackling the next morning.

The hardest part of the first day’s climb was honestly the last 500 meters. To know that you are so close makes the last steps last an eternity. Your legs start to feel like they have lead weights attached to them and you start to ask how far 500 meters really is.

We were happy to arrive at Laban Rata, and immediately sat down on the deck to soak in the views. This was followed by a trip to our bunkbeds and a 90-minute catnap. We tried not to sleep too much though, seeing as we had to go to bed so early for our 2am wake-up call the following morning.

The afternoon was spent in the sun, snacking and waiting for dinner. It was like we couldn’t get food in our systems fast enough. We snagged a table on the outside deck and watched the sun go down and felt as the temperature began to drop. Good thing I rented that beautiful fluorescent green windbreaker from the Inn!

We were all tucked in bed by about 8:00 and willing ourselves to be tired when we heard a knock at the door. We thought we’d lucked out by having a room to ourselves, but our fourth roommate had arrived. He had hiked an alternate path up and therefore arrived later. He introduced himself as Lochman, and apologized in advance that he was a snoorer. We might’ve got some sleep, but he wasn’t kidding- he snored all night!

Still we were up at 2am and on our way to breakfast and on the summit trail by 3am. This was the coolest part of the hike. It took 2 ½ hours to reach the summit (only 2.7 kilometers away), but this was done by the light of the half-moon and the small torches we each carried. When you turned around to look behind, you could see a winding trail of white lights from all the climbers on their way up. To the left and right of us were rock faces and pinnacles that climbed into the sky, and straight ahead was the steep path leading to the summit.

The time went quickly and before we knew it we were sitting on Low’s Peak (an ironic name if you ask me), at 4,095 meters, waiting for the sunrise. It was bone chillingly cold, my hands were almost too numb to be able to handle my camera, and they were swollen from the temperature (and possibly the elevation). However, to watch the sunrise from above the clouds and to see the first glimmer of orange creep above the horizon line made it all worth it, and it offered some relief from the cold too.

We watched as the sun rose and cast the most amazing shadows of the mountain behind us, but after about 30 minutes, it was too cold to stay any longer, so we began our trip back down to Laban Rata. Hiking down took only one hour, compared to the 2 ½ it took to climb up. We were met with another full breakfast and numerous cups of Sabah Tea to try to fully warm up, and after about an hour here, we began the rest of the trip down the mountain.

The descent took about 3 hours, was much easier than the day before, but still tough on the knees. Still, each kilometer went by quicker than the last, and it was a great feeling to reach the bottom. The entire experience felt like it had passed in the blink of an eye, and it was a nice sense of accomplishment to be able to say “I’ve climbed a mountain.”

We were sore, tired and in need of a shower, but we headed over to the resort at the foot of the mountain for our last “included” meal. We horded ourselves on the buffet – it was shocking how much we all ate!

From here, we split ways with Monique, who headed back to KK. I had a few extra days to kill before my diving in Sipadan, so I opted to head to Sepilok’s Orangutan Rehabilitation Center with Aaron. We headed back to Rose Cabin, with hopes of taking a shower before leaving, but we learned the next bus would arrive in 20 minutes. We flagged down the bus outside the Inn and I just hoped that my neighbor wasn’t too offended by the fact that I hadn’t showered in 3 days. Trust you me, as soon as we arrived in Sepilok, I had one of the longest (and only hot) showers I took while in Malaysia (what a treat) and an expensive, but cold Tiger Beer.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Travel

A Break in the City of KK

Kota Kinabalu was a welcomed city break. As much as I prefer remote places when traveling, and would take the beach or the mountains over a city any day, it’s still nice to visit a city, connect with reality, check email, eat some international food, do some laundry and maybe score an air-con room.

I arrived in KK a bit late and split a van into town with a group from Mulu: the Frenchies (Alex and Flo, who I would later see in Sipadan and then travel with for about 3 weeks in Indonesia) and Kate (my British friend who would randomly end up being my dive buddy in Sipadan).

I spent the evening sampling some delicious food at the night market, fresh fish, street meat, grilled vegetables and dessert- this is by far the biggest and most impressive night market I have seen in Southeast Asia.
The following morning, my dorm buddy, Monique, and I headed over to the Kinabalu tourism office to sort our climb. It turned out that we would have to wait 3 days due to availability, but it was a welcomed break, which allowed me to sort my visa at the Indonesian Embassy and hang out in the city with the crew that had been forming since Niah.

Each day, more and more people that we knew kept filtering in, and with little communication between us all, we all somehow ended up at the same hostel. On our last night out, there were a group of 13 of us from Australia, Holland, England, Italy, Croatia and France. It was a splitting off point for a lot of us. Some were returning home, some were headed off to the Philippines and others were headed east to Mount Kinabalu and Sipadan. It was a great night out and not goodbye, for you know that paths will cross with mostly everyone in some other city at some point in time.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Southeast Asia, Travel

Mulu National Park – Sarawak, Malaysia

I would by no means call myself a nature buff. I do appreciate nature, but I’m not one of those people who has the desire to visit every national park. Still, Borneo is known for its national parks, biodiversity, unique animal and plant life, caving, trekking and hiking, and you can’t help but enjoy the wonders this island offers.

The only way to access Mulu is by plane from either Miri or Kota Kinabalu, so I made my way from Niah to Miri in order to catch the 20-minute flight in. I booked into a hostel near park HQ which was basically a cabin with 15 beds and again, I felt like I’d arrived at camp for a few days.

On my first night, I signed up for a nightwalk with a few others from the lodge. This was a 2-hour trek around park HQ, and we saw everything from huge stick insects, tree frogs, tarantulas, snakes, giant geckos and a kingfisher (which was a definite highlight).

The following morning we signed up for the canopy walk. Mulu is home to the largest canopy walk in Southeast Asia. It covers over 400 meters, and it was quite neat to spend the morning in the treetops. We had a lazy afternoon before heading out to Deer Cave and Lang Cave.
Our guide for this trip, Roland, was awesome. He pointed out so many interesting things on the way to the caves. He shook a branch of a specific palm tree and a noise, like rain immediately followed. It sounded like leaves rustling but was actually the sound of the hundreds of ants that live inside reacting to the movement.

He explained how past generations of indigenous people made spears and arrows from the palm bark and then used the sap of the Betang tree to coat the spears in poison, so they could use them to hunt. All this, and we hadn’t even got to the caves yet.

Unfortunately the lights were out at Lang Cave, so we couldn’t really get the full effect of the stalagmites and stalachtites from our torch light alone, but Deer Cave didn’t disappoint. This cave is massive- even bigger than the Great Cave at Niah. It houses the largest cave passage in the world, and we only touched the beginning of it.
After the tour, we sat outside Deer Cave and waited for the bat exodus. Each night between 5:30 and 6:00, millions of bats leave their home in Deer Cave to venture out for dinner. They do this in shifts, but with each shift, a huge black swarm fills the sky.

After completing most of the guided tours offered, a few of us decided to sign up for the adventure caving at Racer Cave. We made our way upriver by longboat to the entrance of the cave. Henry explained that the cave, once called Salmon for the man who discovered it, was renamed “Racer” for the snake species that live inside.

We made our way in for a pretty intense 2-hour trek that consisted of squeezing through rock crevasses, using ropes to climb up cave walls, and repelling down. (It still surprises me that nowhere in Asia are you ever asked to sign any type of liability form- in fact, I’m surprised we even had hard hats).

The climbing and repelling was great, but we also got to check out the racer snakes that live inside the cave, as well as bats, cave crickets and freshwater crabs who make their way in from the river.

Some of the formations in the cave are just awesome, and they make you realize just how old the earth is. One of the first things we saw when we entered were shells and shell-like fossils embedded into the limestone of the cave wall, evidence that at one point in time, Borneo was completely underwater.

Henry put everything into perspective for us when he pointed out a stalagmite formation which was about 20 meters tall (one of the smaller ones) and informed us that these grow about 15 centimeters each year…now, you do the math! Off to the right of this was a flat piece of rock of three layers, each indicating one of the Earth’s time periods. A layer of limestone was separated from a huge layer of sedimentary rock by a layer of ash. It was crazy to see the evolution of the planet right before our eyes, and it makes me realize that in the whole scheme of things, we humans have only been here for about 15 minutes.

After our last rope climb, we were as deep into the cave as we could go, so we all turned off our headlights and just sat for a few minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such darkness. I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me, and seeking light at each corner. It makes you happy to know the guides are carrying spare torches!

On my last day in Mulu, I set out by myself to see one last cave, Moonmilk. It’s a small cave, so no guides are needed. I’d heard there were some pretty intense steps leading to it, but I looked at it as good preparation for climbing Mount Kinabalu (which was coming next). There was no one around, and it felt as if I had the park to myself.

I had time to look back on the 3 days at Mulu. It felt like I had been there much longer. I had met some great people, and also run into some familiar faces from Niah. Most of us were heading on to Kota Kinabalu and were looking forward to a night out in the city, and then…. The Mount Kinabalu Climb.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Niah Caves, Southeast Asia, Travel

Niah Caves

From Belaga, we made our way by 4-wheel drive to Bintulu. The four hour drive was long, but was a scenic highlight. We literally drove through dense forests and watched the clouds lift from below us. We then drove through terraced rice fields and palm plantations before reaching the paved road to Bintulu. Here we were able to catch a bus to Niah.

We checked into Niah’s park lodge, which was a little cabin with 4 rooms, 4 beds to a room. It felt a bit like being at camp. In addition to the cabins were the Park Headquarters and a canteen.

The following morning, we set out to see the Caves. We hiked through the rainforest for about 1 1/2 hours and arrived at the entrance to The Great Cave. It’s difficult to describe really, but this is a mammoth cave and you do feel as if you’re beginning your journey to the center of the earth. The terrain changes completely too, and you feel as if you’re walking on what would be the surface of the moon.

After a while, my neck started to hurt from looking up so much, but you can’t help but take it all in. Dotted all over the cave are flimsy bamboo poles which lead up the the cave ceiling. These are used by harvesters to collect the swiflet’s nests for bird nest soup. These nests, produced by the small birds’ saliva, can earn a harvester upwards of $500- $1000 per nest! Watching a man climb to the cave ceiling is almost as impressive as the cave itself.

We began to work our way into the cave, which entailed climbing up and down thousands of steps. As we got to the back of the Great Cave, the sun was shining through an opening in the cave ceiling and illuminating the rocks below. There was something pretty cool about being in the pitch black one minute and turning the corner to see this source of light just streaming through.

From here, we watched a climber retrieve a nest from the ceiling. It was not easy to keep track of him, as he climbed up 60 meters. He just turned to a speck on the ceiling.

We then made our way to the Painted Cave. Unfortunately due to time and erosion, the tribal art that used to decorate these cave walls has faded to being almost unrecognizeable. Still, it is pretty awe-inspiring to stand in a place where they have traced life back 40,000 years.

Niah was just the beginning of the National Park Circuit I came to find myself on in Borneo, but it was a definite highlight of my time in Sarawak.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Batong River, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Travel

The Batong River Run

I left Kuching feeling pretty rough, but the good thing was that all I had to do for the next couple of days was make my way upriver by boat, sit and enjoy the ride. From Kuching, we headed to Sibu, changed boats and made our way to Kapit. We broke the journey up in Kapit and by the following morning, I was able to eat noodles for breakfast with no disastrous side effects- thankfully. From Kapit, we then made our way to Belaga.


It took quite some time and money to reach Belaga, but the journey became more interesting the further we went, and it seemed like we were getting deeper into what they call the “Amazon of Asia.”


We were interested in doing a homestay at one of the traditional longhouses on the Batong River, and we met a man in town named Daniel who could help us organize this. After chatting to him briefly, we had arranged a one-night stay with a family, followed by a day of trekking, visitng the rice paddies and swimming at the waterfalls. What we got wasn’t quite what we expected, but then again, in situations like this, you need to check all expectations at the door.


We were picked up at Daniel’s Corner by Asnu, a 19-year old guy and his girlfriend Mimik, who is 29. Five of us piled into the smallest wooden boat imaginable, and made our way upriver to their longhouse.


The longhouse is home to an entire community. In this case, about 25 families call it home. It is exactly what it is called, one long home. Each family plays a different role in the community, and each longhouse has its own school and church within. (The people in this part of Borneo are predonminantly Christian, not Muslim as in the rest of Malaysia).


After walking the length of the longhouse and saying hello to the families, we all got the sense that we weren’t that welcome. We headed back and sat down outside our family’s house, and started chatting to one of the community leaders, and we were able to get a sense of what life is like for these people.


Sadly though, I couldn’t help but feel this sense of gloom. I’ve been to similar places throughout Southeast Asia and witnessed the poverty people endure, but in most cases, these people surprise you with the joy they embody. Here, however, it was different. It could be that Malaysia in general is a bit more developed than its neighboring countries. Not far from these communities are small, thriving cities, where life feels like its moving in a forward, more western-influenced direction. Maybe these families are all too familiar with the poverty they experience on a daily basis, maybe it’s because they’ve had a taste, or view of a different way of life, or maybe they want no part of moving forward and are content to continue to live the way they do? I’m not sure, but this definitely lacked the warm welcome most Southeast Asian communities offer.


We made our way inside for dinner and were disappointed not to be invited to eat with the rest of the family, but after dinner, Mimik wanted to watch a movie with us. She likes American movies because she can practice her English, so the five of us, along with about ten to fifteen other men from the community watched “Twelve Rounds.” At this point in time, I was sort of thankful that we hadn’t organized a 2-night stay. After the movie, we rolled out thin matresses on the floor and tried to get some sleep.


The following morning after our noodle breakfast, we made our way upriver to the “rice paddies.” This was a steep hill where there was some rice growing. We made our way to Mimik and Asnu’s little hut and prepared some coffee and Mimik began to prepare lunch. It seemed like they were warming up to us a bit now and Asnu suggested we play a card game with the rice wine that we had presented them with as a gift. This made for an interesting late morning/early afternoon, and when they asked us if we were up for trekking and swimming in the waterfall, we opted to go back to town with them and ended up at the local pool hall in Belaga. I guess you could say it was quite an unauthentic homestay based on what I expected, but it did enable us to see what life is like for a 20-something in a village like Belaga.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Borneo, Bucket List, long term travel, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Travel

The Beginning of Borneo

From the Perhentians, I made my way by bus to Johar Bharu (the southernmost point of Peninsular Malaysia). This took about 16 hours, and I would advise anyone else making the trip to fly. I had a flight to catch to Kuching, which would be the start of my Borneo adventures. Unfortunately, Kuching was a bit of a wash for me, simply because I contracted some sort of stomach bug, which really took it out of me.

I had made friends with Doris and Kat, who were staying at the same hostel, and Doris and I made plans to visit Bako National Park, which everybody raves about. However, the following morning, I woke up with an upset stomach and was not feeling 100%. At this point, I thought it would pass, so I rallied through and got the bus to Bako Park’s HQ, took the boat to the island and began a 5K nature trek. I proceeded to feel worse by the minute.


About 1 kilometer in, I could barely put one foot in front of the other, was doubled over in pain, and Doris was looking at me as if to say, “We should turn around.” I on the other hand was just glad she had toilet paper on her! As much as I didn’t want to, we turned around and began the journey back to Kuching city. This entailed the return hike, a boat ride and then the most bone-rattling bus ride I’ve ever experienced. I had just enough energy when we got back to make it back to the hostel and in to bed. Needless to say, I didn’t see much of Bako, but I did leave a mark.