Siem Reap’s water world

The terrible floods in Thailand have made the global news. The heavy rains have seen the Mekong river burst its banks and put vast areas underwater. The Mekong also runs through Cambodia and supplies a huge natural lake in the centre of the country. Consequently there has also been flooding here, though not as deep or extensive as Thailand. When we arrived the centre of Siem Reap was flooded, along by the river the water flowed freely down the roads, even outside our hotel well away from the river the street was flooded. This is a clean city by and large but you can imagine what lurks in the brown water, the sewage system must be inundated. For the first couple of days we donned flip flops and went out wading, it was either that or stay sat in the hotel. Life goes on here and people just get on with things. It’s amazing how all the scooters are able to keep going with engines often completely submerged, I haven’t seen one that’s broken down. Below are a few pictures we took along the way.

Me in Seim Reap's main street for restaurants and bars

Have Pizza, will deliver!

Going down a back street in a tuk tuk

The locals keep smiling

The engine and exhaust is under water!

The local children splashing about with bits of polystyrene (this was beside the deep and fast flowing river)

Lastly here is a short clip taken from inside our Tuk-tuk:

In the rural areas a few miles from town it’s more serious, people are cut off and have been for weeks. Disease is a real threat and many rural families are  struggling, have a look at the Facebook page of this local charity for an insight of the plight of many poor local people at the moment.

The rainy season should be coming to an end soon, although there is still rain most days and lighting in the sky every night. Hopefully the waters will soon recede though.

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Arriving in Cambodia

Cambodia

We arrived in Siem Reap, a sizable town and the hopping off point for visiting the vast complex of temples known collectively as Angkor Wat. Air travel brings the huge contrasts between countries sharply into focus. Malaysia was so very different to Indonesia, far more ‘western,’ far more developed, two countries sharing a land border in places and yet oceans apart in so many ways. Arriving in Cambodia from Malaysia the contrast again couldn’t be more stark. The bleak recent history of this country is well known, the Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge, the USA began carpet bombing large swathes of the countryside with half a million tons of bombs in 1969 ‘covertly’, killing an estimated 600,000 people in the process. The place has endured much hardship. It’s estimated that around 2 million people were murdered in Pol Pot’s genocide begun in 1975, the year that calendar was officially set back to “year zero”. This was a time when people would be murdered for merely possessing food.

It is said that more bombs were dropped on Vietnam and Cambodia than were dropped in the whole of World War II. The largely agrarian population of peasants were doused with Agent Orange (courtesy of the derided Monsanto company) and had B-52’s dropping their payloads on their heads for several years. The legacy of this continues today.

So what to expect from a country that has suffered so much? Airport immigration was a show of force from the authorities here. The confusing system had you paraded in front of a semi-circular panel of about 12 officials in military looking uniform. You paid your money at one end, and were called forward to collect your passport at the other. Meanwhile the panel of officials eyed you up and down as you waited. The whole thing seemed designed to let you know who was in charge here, we were the little people, we were left in no doubt of that. It was probably the most officious immigration regime i’ve come across, and i’ve experienced very many.

In arrivals we were met by the smiling tuk-tuk driver sent from our hotel. I love it when you have somebody holding a board with your name on it at airport arrivals. Tuk-tuk is what the Thai’s call their moto rickshaws, the Cambodian namesake is nothing like it, and really quite ingenious. It’s a scooter, usually a Honda Dream 110, with a towing hitch on the seat and a 4 person covered trailer behind. Not very stable at speed I’m sure but speed is not something that happens here. There is little motorised traffic on the roads and petrol is relatively expensive. I’m guessing that’s why the average speed is about 20mph.

A typical tuk-tuk, we hired this guy to ferry us around for a day

Our friendly driver drove us through the rain to our hotel, it’s quite a place have a look here: http://www.angkorpearl.com/hotel/gallery/ all this for about £12 a night. Although it’s not lost on me that this is luxury, while many here live in poverty. But we are helping the local economy wherever possible too, using small local shops and services as much as possible.

This country is on the up though, big progress has been made in alleviating poverty in recent years. About 1 in 3 people officially live in poverty (it was half the population only a few years back), economic growth is high and life expectancy is now about 62 which is an increase. The population is also very young with about half the people being under 16, you see young children everywhere you look. Only about 1 in 3 people have proper sanitation though and water borne disease is one of the biggest killers.  Malaria and dengue fever are still prevalent, mostly in rural areas. About 80% of the population still lives in and farms the countryside, which a really high figure, urbanisation has not yet kicked off here.

A lot of international aid agencies and NGO’s are working here, we’ve already seen numerous big 4WD’s around town from UNICEF and USAID and the like. I’m hoping we can visit one to find out a bit more their work. There are still many major issues resulting from 30 years of civil strife and war. State  institutions here are also rated as one of the worlds most corrupt, according to Transparency International.

First impressions though are that this is a clean country with very friendly and smiley people. Life is hard for most people, but they seem stalwart, they certainly have our admiration and respect.

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Cavernous caves and canopies

CM on the rope bridge at the Mulu park entrance, with full kit.

From Sibu we caught nice comfortable coaches east. Only three seats across and with a reclining seat we travelled on to the midway town of Bintulu. A mid size busy working town with seemingly nothing to recommend it. After walking around for a few hours we discovered that there really was nothing to recommend it. No decent food or bars, or sights, or general ambience. We saw no other tourists in town, but it was a hard drinking town. Near our very pleasant hotel were a few pavement drinking dens where beer was sold in 5 can packs. We brought 5 tins of Orangeboom for £2. With the plentiful beer though also comes the drunks and the dangerous looking gangster dudes with tattoos. We encountered a few and eased our way out before things became too unpleasant. The town did have a menacing undercurrent and I was happy to leave as the attention you received as a westerner was not always positive. We did visit a botanical garden that also housed a horrible zoo with overcrowded and small cages. They even had a tiger but we couldn’t bear to see that in its tiny enclosure so we gave it a miss and didn’t hang around long in the zoo. However, we did discover a distinctive sour vinegary whiff around the boa constrictor enclosure. This was of interest to us as our nightwalk whilst at Bako National Park was paused while the two park rangers leading this tour discussed in Bahasa the possibilty of the presence of a reticulated python being in the immediate vicinity.  We visitors were kept in ignorance of this debate although I did notice them both discreetly sniffing the air and wondered what they were assessing. We ended up chatting to the main guide alone in the canteen after the event and he fessed up that it was the odour of python that had been detected. Apparently they have a particular scent and the python enclosure at this mini zoo certainly exuded a most distinctive odour. Since then we’ve always been on the alert for this smell as people do, albeit rarely, get attacked and even killed by these big snakes.

We travelled on to the town of Miri, a far nicer spot altogether. The place has many shopping malls and good eateries and we spent a few enjoyable days there at a good hostel type place run by a very helpful and friendly Chinese lady. A lot of English people seem to be working here in the oil and gas fields nearby. It has the feel of a boomtown, a lot of expensive cars are floating around. The place is also littered with karoke bars belting out poppy ballads till late into the night. One of them kept us awake till about 3 one night. These places are right in the middle of residential areas and such is the passion for karaoke that nobody seems to complain (except us).

We booked our flight to Mulu National Park, and also our accommodation. Mulu is a must see destination, a UNESCO heritage site on several counts. See more about it here. It’s the biggest open cave system in the world. It’s inside a range of limestone peaks and full of huge stalactites etc. One cave has 2-3 million bats nesting in it and you can watch a spectacular exodus as they all come out to feed on insects at sunset. It really is a marvel of the natural world. We flew in to the national park area as there are no paved roads to the park, although from the air the ground is criss crossed with logging roads. It seemed that all the forest right up until the park border, which was only a few miles from the park HQ, had been depleted. The ubiquitous palm oil plantations with their orderly rows of young stubby trees was visible for pretty much the entire flight, unless we were in cloud. In fact the plantations looked like a nasty rash spreading across the land and the national park was a big green plaster in the middle. Here are a couple of pictures from the plane, they are not that clear but you get the idea.

The light areas are new oil plam plantations.

A very geometric palm oil plantation

As well as the caves the rainforest covering the park is of course protected and we hoped to see plenty of wildlife. There is a very small hamlet that’s sprung up around the park to capitalize on the passing tourists, a couple of cafés and accommodation options. We made the mistake of booking in advance and found our place was a. Not very good, b. not staffed, c. about a mile from the park entrance. It was also the most expensive and worst room of our Malaysian trip. We booked through a travel agent…won’t be doing that again.

But the park itself was great, a real natural spectacle with plenty of trails around and in the caves. You had to pay for everything you did separately, but it wasn’t too much. We went on the cave exploration and they were amazing caves, millions and millions of years in the making. They are the biggest open caves in the world, every now and then a hole in the roof appears from on high and daylight streams in from the mountain top above. There is an all pervasive smell of bat and bird guano as soon as you enter the caves. Many swiftlets live alongside the bats and for generations their nests have been harvested as they are very valuable as birdnest soup, a luxury food for the Chinese. They are delicately cleaned so all that’s left is bird saliva. Nests can sell in China for over US$3,000 a kilo! Today they no longer harvest them in Mulu but we saw locals hanging from cave ceilings in the dark, digging out nests in the nearby Niah caves. Life and limb is risked by shinning up single bamboos tied end to end for over well 100ft, madness! I’d rather a tin of Heinz Tomato soup any day. It’s really impossible to take good pictures in the caves, you can see more about them here though.

The bat cave exodus was something to see, at about 5.30 they began streaming out for about an hour, swirling around the skies feeding on insects. There were literally millions of them in total. It’s not often you can see the only flying mammal in such numbers. Bats are too heavy to glide, unlike birds. So they must flap constantly, that must be hard work. Here’s a couple of pics:

Bats streaming out from the cave

The bats spiralled out the cave for about an hour

Finally the wildlife in the jungle. Although the undergrowth was as dense as you could imagine we didn’t spot that many birds or animals. Hornbills are said to live here but we saw none. In fact we saw far fewer birds than you would find in any public park in Australia, I can only imagine the encroaching logging has something to do with that. Orangutans haven’t lived in this area since the 1940’s. But we did see a few nice snakes, and we went on a treetop canopy walk which was quite rickety, narrow and wobbly. On that we saw a glider lizard jump down onto the leaf cover below, that was impressive.

Below are a few pics from the park.

Up on the canopy walk

A glider lizard that dropped past us

A green tree snake snapped on a nightwalk

a venonmous pit viper

A red tailed racer snake sliding down the boardwalk hand rail – a few inches from my lens and coiling ready to strike!

A different racer snake, also on the board walk hand rail.

One impression I’m left with is that not all natives are friendly.  The Malay and Chinese people we met on Borneo were very friendly and welcoming, but the Iban people who are the majority around Mulu and elsewhere inland usually were not pleased to see us. When passing in the street, or sometimes when you ask them a polite question ‘where is the bus stop please?’ they will pointedly ignore you and look the other way. I’m sure they have good reason historically, it was us Europeans who cut down their habitat and forced them off their land in many cases. I mention this because this frosty reception really made me appreciate how the degree of friendliness shown to travellers by local people really has an impact on your overall impression of a place.  As Indonesia showed, a dirty smoggy busy town with not much to impress can end up being a wonderful travel experience…once you’ve encountered a few welcoming locals. With the Iban at Mulu I was left feeling they would rather we weren’t there, but would happily take our money as long as stayed.

When we left Mulu we made a serious logistical and chronological error. This meant our only flight out would have to be back to Kuching and not where we had planned to go.. That we did, and then bought another flight straight away to take us back to Kuala Lumpur. We had a brief day or so in KL and then boarded our next plane for the next leg of our trip.

More about that to follow soon. The final pictures are taken from the plane as we left Mulu, soon after take off we were back into the cleared forest and oil palm plantations. They are not clear but you get a further view of the rampant deforestation going on at the behest of the government here.

Below is a satellite pic showing the location of Mulu.

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Heading east up the Rajang river

Not many updates recently because we’ve been moving around a fair bit. From Kuching we visited a national park where it was incredibly hot and humid. You could only get there by small boat along the coast. Our boatman decided to leave when the tide was still too low and we kept grounding on the many sand banks. We didn’t fancy having to abandon ship as the sea here is known to have roaming estuarine crocodiles. Still, we got there eventually. We did a couple of walks in the park which took us up and over craggy rocks, grappling with knotted tree roots. The paths are all mossy and slippery due to the humidity. The longest walk we did was a bit of a killer as the sweat poured off us and we didn’t really have enough water with us. The jungle though feels ancient, just the kind of sticky tropical wilderness you might imagine. Rocky outcrops with vines and orchids adding to the dense flora. It had the feel of ‘the land that time forgot’. Jungle like this is becoming a rarity on northern Borneo. Finishing the walk we headed to the canteen and sank a few cold beers – nectar from the heavens. Sadly the food on offer was below par, we ate mainly fruit instead while we were at the park.  We walked about eight miles but it felt like eighty in the heat. There were quite a few monkeys in the park, proboscis monkeys are a big feature of the area, here are a few pictures.

We were lucky to get this close to this proboscis monkey, they normally sit in the top of the canopy.

A macaque family takes a break from terrorising the tourists

The macaque monkeys were very adept at nicking anything and everything. The troupe hung around the accommodation units and snuck in to grab people’s bags whenever they could, the cheeky thieves did look cute though.

The beachfront

The footpath was a clamber up these tree roots!

Going downhill, the trails were a full on jungle trek in the swealtering heat

The six inch scorpion was spotted during a night walk

We went on a night walk with a very knowledgeable park guide, we saw the above as well as a few snakes, spiders, and a flying lemur.  Even at night the sweat was pouring off your  body.

A few days later…

Kuching from above

We booked ourselves on a five hour boat trip in order to head east along the top of Borneo. It was quite exciting to be getting on this local people carrier and head out across the sea and then up the big Rajang river.

A riverside sign

With about 100 people on board the long thin noisy boat got underway. The water here looks muddy, even in the sea. The mud flows out from the rivers and the land is only just above sea level. There is no habitation other than rickety wooden huts, home to the relentless industrial activity that is transforming the landscape, and the island. That industry is of course logging and it’s the defining feature of this landscape. Rich equatorial rainforest, home to 50% of all the planets species, is being systematically torn down and replaced by oil palm plantations. For several hours our boat passed by sawmills and log piles by the dozen, the tall forest trees are all but gone from view now. What now remains are naturally growing indigenous palms and well ordered oil palm plantations, or just scarred log strewn land. This huge island forms part of the lungs of the world, but the lungs are being rapidly torn down. To see it for yourself is quite depressing. The influential Huffington Post has a nice short article about the speed and scale of this deforestation; it’s worth a read here.

Here are some pictures taken from the boat:

One of many logging barges

A bigger logging boat, many of these too.

A sawmill, it will be unique when there are no more trees left.

They also process wood here, the plywood you buy in your local DIY shop may have come from here.

Palms grow where rainforest once stood. Most of the land looks like this.

A local family picnic on the riverside in the middle of nowhere

We eventually arrived at the town of Sibu, a predominantly Chinese town, formerly an outpost of Raja Brook’s empire. He built a fort here to protect the Chinese immigrants, whom he had enticed over from China, to allow them to trade freely and protect them from the local Iban warriors.

Arriving into Sibu town

The port from our hotel room, our blue boat was that on whence we came

We found a room at a great high rise hotel and explored the town for a couple of days. It was full of karaoke bars and outdoor cafés by night, although the cuisine on offer was not really to our liking. People were friendly though, especially the jovial retired Chinese head teacher, who was not accidentally touching my knee as he offered advice about what we should do around town. We’ve noticed there is a scene here in Sarawak, it’s also not too unusual to see tall slender Malay or Indian ladyboys, out shopping or hanging around street corners. They sometimes slip me a coy smile as we pass by, having CM at my side seems no deterrent to their hopefulness.

In the map below the green is mostly not rainforest but oil palm and low palms. Once cleared this land quickly greens up again due to the climate, but in truth it’s degraded land and nothing like the rainforest that went before. The problem is compounded by the chemicals being used to cultivate the oil palms. These chemicals are leeching into the rivers and we heard firsthand from a Penan (one of the local indigenous tribespeople) guide how the polluted water is making his people ill as they rely on river water for drinking in remote areas. What price lofty government aspirations and economic growth?

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Skullduggery

The Ethnology museum in Kuching – very familar architecture

Borneo has made a couple of contributions to myth and legend. One being the ‘Wild man of Borneo’ who it seems was an American sideshow act at a circus in the early 19th century. Not from Borneo and probably not too wild. The other contribution is headhunters. They did exist, at least until about one hundred years ago. The main indigenous ethnic group here are called the Iban. Traditionally they believed human heads could bestow magical powers, especially when slowly smoked over a fire in a rattan basket. The Iban live together in big community groups under one roof, in so called ‘longhouses’ although we’ve visited a couple and they are not always long but are big and often ramshackle. The old traditional houses have a ‘headhouse’ where heads, or rather skulls are hung up and displayed. A rite of passage for young men wanting to attract a wife was to go out and take a head as a sign of virility, usually from one of the other nearby ethnic groups such as the Ulu. The Iban were apparently quite fearsome warriors.

This all sounds like the stuff of legend but we’ve been quite surprised to see evidence of it for ourselves in Sarawak, i.e. human skulls, the decapitated heads of nameless victims. Four times we’ve come across skulls, and I have to admit it feels quite creepy. You also feel sorry for the poor blighter who was no doubt cut off in his prime, even if it was a hundred years ago.

As I was browsing the Iban Longhouse that was ingeniously reconstructed inside the ethnology museum in Kuching I happened upon this hanging from the ceiling:

One of the museum skulls hanging in the longhouse

Then, as we surveyed the turrets of James Brooke’s fort we came upon this:

This sack of skulls had bird's nests in them, and had recently been used as an ashtray it seems.

How they came to be in the ‘White Raja’s’ fort I don’t know.

Then later on we visited an Iban Longhouse out near the Indonesian border, people still live in it. Some were welcoming towards us, some were not. The house still had a headhouse and these specimens were hanging up over a hearth:

On display in the headhouse

All these human remains don’t sit comfortably with me I have to say. Partly because these were people who were probably murdered, and partly because western sensibilities deem human remains macabre.  We hide them out of view once the owner has surrendered them.  That system works well for me I have to say.

So coming unexpectedly face to face with a series of skulls I find mildly off-putting, a bit sad, and a bit creepy.

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