To Tan or Not to Tan

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” – Lin Yutang

Hey everyone,

My stay at Uncle Tan’s Jungle Lodge had me thinking about what it means exactly to be a travel blogger. Is it my responsibility to see and experience everything in a country and report back, advise and suggest things I see and enjoy? Critique and give honest reviews of the things I don’t care for? And, can I only visit and experience what I want, taking and leaving things as I please?

I’m not sure it’s something I can wholeheartedly decide now but I do believe that honest, forthright opinions are my responsibility and wherever possible, showcasing both the pros and cons; letting my readers make their own decisions while also giving them the expertise and an objective outlook assisted by my many, many years of travel experiences.

Borneo is unique from what I’ve seen in other countries in that both Sabah and Sarawak offer breathtaking scenery, jungle/rainforest activities and viewing of animals, plants and birds. Both offer homestays with indigenous people, albeit different tribes, encounters with orangutans and even breathtaking and strenuous climbs. So, does the Borneo traveller do both Sarawak and Sabah or do they choose one and ensure they don’t repeat activities and potentially “waste” their time and money? Uncle Tan’s Jungle Lodge brought all these questions to the forefront of my mind.

If I were to only visit what I thought was the best of Borneo I would have stayed with my choice to visit the orangutans at Semenggoh in Kuching but skip Bako National Park, both in Sarawak. I would have stayed with The Pinnacles and caves in Mulu as well as the grueling Mt. Kinabalu climb in Sabah, however, I would have liked to arrange only one night at Uncle Tan’s Jungle Lodge, arriving in time for their evening boat ride and 6am boat ride.

My 6-hour bus ride from KK to Sandakan was uneventful except that I forgot to take Gravol and was on the verge of throwing up the entire way. This definitely didn’t bode well for my writing which I like to do when travelling, taking advantage of the uninterrupted time. I made it into Sandakan around 10:00pm and went to the Backpacker’s Hostel, one of the best I’ve seen and it is located right next to the ocean. It’s located in central Sandakan and the city is ideal to get money changed, laundry etc before embarking on your jungle excursion, visit to turtle island or Sepilok Orangutan Wildlife Centre. The following morning I made my way to Uncle Tan’s Ops Base and an hour later we were on our way to the jetty, located 40 mins away and then a 45 minute boat ride up river into the jungle to Uncle Tan’s Jungle Lodge. I’m glad I knew what I was in for as the food is very basic, only hot meal is at lunch and the sleeping arrangements are sparse and shared in very close proximity, earplugs did not help and let’s just say I was grumpy each morning and tired all day. 

The evening boat ride was calm and quiet while the guide shone his flashlight quickly along the shore and scanned the treetops looking for animals. Large crocodiles swam in the river and when I first spotted the eyes of one I successfully persuaded the boat to go in its direction but as we got closer I realized that it wasn’t perhaps the best decision, hence the guide’s hesitation. On the approach the crocs quickly disappear underwater and you realize the magnitude of their size and the proximity to the top of the boat a.k.a your arms, as you quickly pull them in, photos no longer being of importance.

During the evening boat ride we ended up seeing quite a lot of animals and birds such as a pair of Buffy fish owls sharing a rat in a tree, a very cute baby crocodile that squeaked at us while next to the boat, seeming as if to search for its mother. A leopard cat, which resembles a baby leopard, flying foxes (huge fruit bats with what looks like the body of a fox), sleeping macaques (known as the cheekiest of monkeys) and finally a couple of civet cats. “Kopi Luwak, also known as caphe cut chon (fox-dung coffee) in Vietnam and kape alamid in the Philippines, is coffee that is prepared using coffee cherries that have been eaten and partially digested by the Asian Palm Civet, then harvested from its fecal matter. The civets digest the flesh of the coffee cherries but pass the beans inside, leaving their stomach enzymes to go to work on the beans, which adds to the coffee’s prized aroma and flavor. Only around 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of civet coffee make it to the market each year, and 1 pound (0.45 kg) can cost up to $600 in some parts of the world and about $100 a cup in others.”

We were also rewarded during the boat ride at dawn with a 2’ baby crocodile laying on the riverbank, macaques that were jumping from tree to tree, bouncing on the tree to create momentum then taking huge leaps to other branches and grabbing onto them like they were trapeze artists. I’m now realizing while it takes a lot to get me excited the payoff is huge; I’m really good at squealing like a young child with excitement, “Hercules, Hercules.” Funny, the last three times I can remember doing so all involve wildlife. This week giggling in my mask while diving (details to come), last week with the macaques, and in 2007 in La Paz, Las Cabos while a pod of about 400 dolphins jumped in and around our boat, trying to beat the boat’s speed. Evidently wildlife does it for me.

I skipped the evening jungle trek due to proximity to spiders in the dark and the afternoon trek learning about plants was informative and interesting but not necessary. I learned some interesting facts and also added some survival techniques to my Survivor repertoire. Such as,

  • There are 21 species of figs, which grow on trees in the jungle and look like little green chestnuts. Eat them when they are bright red and you can also use them for fish bait as the locals do when fishing. They use a deep open bottle or pot, place a bunch of ripe figs in it, tie a string to it and place it in the current collecting it later after the fish are caught.
  • If you want to know if a mushroom is poisonous then cook it with rice. If the rice changes color it is.
  • If you need fresh water I the jungle there is a vine you can get it from. To find the vine peel off the bark. If it is re underneath then you have found the correct one. Cut a piece of the vine, the thicker the better (ex 2’ long) and drain the freshwater from it. We’re talking only drops of water but enough for you to survive on.
  • Proboscis monkeys cannot eat sweet things as it kills them; they have two stomachs and have no gas release.
  • If you see abandoned homes in the jungle it is typically where a tribe used to live but if someone in the tribe falls ill or dies then the tribe moves away leaving the structures behind.
  • There are poisonous vines in the jungle covered in sharp barbs and this is the poison that is used by the Penan tribe in blow darts (mentioned in an earlier post).
  • Orangutans eat mostly figs and build 2-3 nests per day in Sengkuang trees. Yes, orangutans live in nests! It takes 15-20 minutes to build a nest and they’re made out of small twigs, building several throughout the day. Like cats, orangutans do not want to “live” around their own defecation so after doing so in their nest they move and  build a new one. Orangutans never drink water and don’t go to the river so as to avoid crocodiles; their water consumption comes from figs and fruit.
  • 50% of Borneo’s jungles have been cut down and are now palm plantations, used to make palm oil, which is found in many household and beauty products.
  • It turns out that poisonous jungle caterpillars are poisonous because they eat poisonous leaves found in the jungle. After they eat them they don’t die they just become poisonous to predators.
  • The 2nd most common vine in the world is also the strongest vine. It looks like a curly lock of hair and is strong enough to hold several people. It can grow up to 300’ long in the jungle. 

Overall the experience was fun but boy was I ready to head to the beach and dive Borneo – this is what I was here to do!

I was sad to not have seen any pygmy elephants. They were last seen near the camp a few months ago and seeing them occurs less and less since deforestation began four years ago for palm plantations. I did learn that some other friends of mine did seem them at another jungle camp so maybe it’s just the new location of Uncle Tan’s and for those who want a better chance perhaps try another camp? 

I am officially jungled out. Got diving coming up, sun and sand. Brunei for a day, then some cool Unesco World Heritage sites in the Philippines before more sun, sand, diving and hopefully, kite surfing. Home in 20 days!

What Was Spent In This Post: Taxi to KK long distance bus station RM20, bus to Sandakan RM43, drink RM2.50, taxi to Sandakan Backpacker’s Hostel RM20, Accommodations at hostel RM45, lunch RM9.80, taxi to Uncle Tan’s Ops Base RM30, snacks and water RM10.85, bar tab at Uncle Tan’s RM28. Total: RM 209.15 / CAD $68.33 

Xoxo. Julie

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