KUALA LUMPUR | MALAYSIA
MIRI | BORNEO
IT FELT STRANGELY REASSURING TO BE BACK ON AN AIRPLANE. FROM LOOPING AROUND FROM BANGKOK TO KATHMANDU ON AN ASSORTMENT OF BUSES, TRAINS, TUK TUKS, BOATS AND THE BACKS OF OLD MEN IT WAS NICE TO FEEL SAFE AGAIN. ALL THAT WAS LEFT WAS TO CRAM INTO THIS LARGE METAL TUBE TO BE HURTLED THROUGH THE AIR AT THREE QUARTERS THE SPEED OF SOUND UNTIL DROPPING FROM THE SKY AT 35,000 FEET INTO THE CITY OF KUALA LUMPUR.
It was 3.30 am when I landed in the Malaysian capital. The buses and trains had stopped hours ago, and so, I called a taxi. KLIA is a sizable distance from the city center and because of the late hour it ended up costing me the guts of €30 in Malaysian Ringgit. Unknown to me I’d gotten an email from the hostel owner giving me the front door code if I arrived in the early hours. I’d hadn’t read it and so found myself apologising to an unimpressed, sleepy property owner as he showed me to my room. I went to sleep that night convinced there had been some mistake. This was a closet, not a room. Sure there was a bed, but nothing else. No space for pretty much anything.
After confirming it was indeed my bedroom I hit the town. Kuala Lumpur is quite a modern city. The best way to get around seemed to be the monorail, it fans out from central station to go most places you’d wanna go – even the airport. Unless you’re traveling at 4 am like I tend to do.
Aside from the sights my main objective here in KL was to apply for my Burmese visa. I had read online that’s its a simple enough process and can be done in one day. I was banking on this being true, if not I was down money on airfares to Yangon. Nowadays the visa process is handled at an agency that shares a building with a hotel. I’d walked past it a few times before seeing the little sign and followed the steps upstairs. Inside it was a surprisingly spacious office, with staff who spoke excellent english. I dropped off my photos and passport, complete with copies of my flights and accommodation and handed over the form. I was given a slip with my reference number and time to pick it up that evening. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, I reminded myself, never celebrate until the visa is securely stamped in the passport. As it turned out I collected my visa as promised that evening. So far Kuala Lumpur was the gift that kept on giving, just like the chronic diarrhea I’d develop next year in India.
On the walk back I passed by the markets on the riverside and the impressive, Indian-style Jamek Mosque. Kuala Lumpur, like Malaysia, is mostly muslim, but wandering around the city you see plenty of evidence of christian and hindu faiths too. It’s also well known locally for it’s China Town. Wandering around the stalls at night with red chinese lanterns strewn overhead kinda feels more like China than China.
The next night I took the monorail / metro down to the Petronas Towers. A symbol of Malaysia’s economic growth they are the largest twin towers in the world at 452 meters high. After exiting the metro it took a while to strain my neck back far enough to take in the side of the first tower. They truly are enormous. I’m not a huge lover of modern architecture, I’d prefer a dusty old temple to a sleek skyscraper any day, but no one could help but be impressed here. Surrounded by a small but beautiful garden they looked like two enormous steel rockets illuminated for lift off. From 1998 until 2004 they were the tallest buildings in the world. At the rate skyscrapers are expanding maybe we won’t need rockets to get into space anymore, just elevators. Imagine taking the stairs.
Speaking of stairs. After climbing up 272 of them you enter the enormous cathedral cave in the Batu cave complex. Situated less than an hour north by train, the Batu caves are dedicated to the hindu Lord Murugan. A gleaming 140 ft high statue of him guards the entrance, along with his many assistants – the macaque monkeys, a species which delight in showing off their balls to you at every opportunity. It’s advisable not to get too close to them. Every year many people here are scratched or bitten by the scrotum monkeys, some requiring medical attention. Like most animal genitalia it’s best to keep a distance.
Inside the caves are richly decorated shrines, many of them celebrating the hindu god’s many victories over demons. The small temples and alcoves are colourful and intricate, and these, together with the towering rock ceilings (some 100 meters high) make it a worthwhile day trip from the city center.
I had a coconut when I came out.
After a few days of work and pleasure , I hopped on a plane to fly to the island of Borneo. I’d be spending a few days in the Malaysian province of Sarawak located in the north western part of the island. Sarawak was previously famous for its head hunting tribes. It was this mystique of fog shrouded jungles, cannibalistic tribes and endlessly dark caves that drew me here. Hoping in reality that none of the head hunting cannibal stuff was actually true.
The morning of my flight I woke to find my alarm hadn’t gone off. Crap! I was over an hour late already. Like a human tornado I whipped around my living-closet frantically stuffing whatever I could see into my bag. It didn’t take long. My sleeping-closet was about two feet wide. Stumbling into the reception I was struggling to pull my boots on when I noticed everyone staring agape at the TV before switching their attention to me.
“Are you going to the airport this morning?”
“Yeah, I’m already late!”
“Flying on Malaysia Airlines?”
“Oh……….you haven’t heard?”
In the early hours of the morning Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been shot down over Ukraine. The media were in a frenzy. I didn’t know what to think, who had done it? And Why? Why won’t these boots go on?!
“You’re never gonna make the airport now. It’s going to be mental with TV, and camera crews….”
Calm down. I could only concentrate on myself right now. One thing at a time. Get to the airport. Get checked in. Get to the gate. Get on the plane. Then digest what had happened. Incredibly after bundling my way onto the last Airport Express train I made it to an eerily deserted Kuala Lumpur International Airport. From what I could see as I rushed through there were no camera crews, there were no people. My blood ran cold. What was going on, would there even be a flight today? Two minutes from panic I crashed into the check-in desk and exhaled. Right now it was business as normal. Life had to go on. I had made the flight with literally no time to spare, and chances were good I’d make my destination too. Unlike the poor souls that were on MH17.
Despite Sarawak province being a part of Malaysia I was surprised to find myself going through immigration again having landed on Borneo. I’m not a lover of collecting passport stamps for the hell of it, but I must admit it was a nice surprise to add the Sarawak stamp into the book. I felt like a headhunter myself and Borneo was quite a prized scalp.
From the city of Miri I eventually found the local bus station which took me close to the entrance of Niah National Park. It was still a few kilometers from the park gates so I haggled with a taxi driver at the small bus stop. Once inside the park you cross the river by boat to the gate where you receive your headlamp. Why do you need a headlamp in a jungle?
Niah’s claim to fame is it’s extensive cave system. The Niah Great Cave was, until recently, the largest in the world before the discovery of Vietnam’s Hang Son Dong. After a short hike through some lush jungle I began to climb upwards towards the cave entrance, passing through some large limestone overhangs. Suddenly, after turning a corner, the main entrance spreads out before you – a huge gaping mouth in the earth the size of two football fields at least. As I looked across I could see that I had actually been walking through a valley and another jungle-clad canyon rose up on the opposite side of the forest. Switching my headlamp on (thankfully it was in working order) I tentatively crept forward into the darkness.
While there are paths and wooden railings to hold on to, the Niah caves aren’t show caves in the sense that they are saturated with garish, coloured lights. They’re simply too big. You are surrounded by pitch black darkness, the only illumination coming from your own light or whatever light filters down through the canopy a few hundred meters above. It’s a completely alien world in here. I switched off my light just to immerse myself in the purest darkness I’d ever “seen”, the only sounds the screeching coming from a remote cluster of bats. After the entrance you descend down some narrow steps and around a corner to the “eyes of the caves”, two large openings in the cave ceiling above that I could swear you could fly a jumbo jet or two through. From here it’s down more steps towards a lower part of the cave populated by hundreds, if not thousands of bats. Once through this section you follow the path to a smaller set of caves known as the “painted caves”. This is Niah’s real claim to fame. Here, etched into the wall some 1,200 years ago, are some of Asia’s oldest cave paintings. The red drawings depict various shapes and designs which can only be the local “death ships” – wooden coffins containing human remains which were also found here. In fact South -East Asia’s oldest human remains were found in this region, including a skull dated to 38,000 BC!
As I gazed at these remarkable paintings I glanced outside into the buzzing tropical heat of the Bornean rainforest. In the world’s oldest jungle suddenly the stories of cannibals and headhunters seemed all too plausible. I just prayed my light wouldn’t go out…….
Back in Miri it was time to reconnect with the modern world, and that meant food. I walked past the roundabout into town, but everywhere seemed to be closed. I chanced upon a bar and got chatting to the young guy working there. As we drank and watched the local guys crushing sugar cane through a press, Elvin ran off excitedly to get some sugar cane juice for me to try. It was cold and sweet, but I think I’ll be sticking to the Tiger beers all the same. “Stick around until later”, he said, “we’ll have some food I think you’ll like”. The food was essentially a DIY barbecue called “Steamboat”. It’s very popular, especially with chinese workers. You get a small cooker at your table and you grab a selection of meats, vegetables and other food from the self service collection. In the hands of a less experienced cook it sounds like a salmonella nightmare. Thankfully I’m a master at burning food, and so after two hours and several fire extinguishers later I had a tasty and crunchy meal. After we had enough to eat Elvin dutifully rolled me to his jeep and dropped me back off at my hotel. The Malaysian friendliness and hospitality continued to be a high point of the trip.
After an enjoyable few days sweating it in Borneo it was time to fly back to Kuala Lumpur, a brief pit stop before flying onward to Yangon, Myanmar. With my Burmese visa in the bag I was excited to tackle a country that only recently re-opened to the outside world, and one that housed a treasure trove of wonders just waiting to be explored.
Next time : Rangoon the City of No Streets, the best bus in the world, battery powered bikes and burnt feet