Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu National Park

Bat S**t Crazy and Sweaty at Gunung Mulu

Gunung Mulu was at the top of our must-see list since we first started planning our trip. This remote National Park in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo is famous for spectacular caves, nightly exodus of three million bats, accessible rainforest hikes, and a vertigo-inducing canopy walkway.

Gunung Mulu is certainly visceral. It will be some time before we forget the ammoniac smell of tons of bat poo, the ever present sheen of greasy sweat, and the ferocity of the midday sun.

We stayed at the grungy Mulu River Lodge for three nights. It is cheap and is located just outside the park entrance. But, convenience aside, there is little to recommend it. The breakfast provided by the hotel restaurant was pretty low quality, so we ate lunch and dinner at the Park’s Mulu Cafe.

There are a huge range of activities on offer at the park. Spelunkers can travel through some of the world’s largest cave systems. Intrepid trekkers can climb the 2700m Mulu Summit or visit Mulu Pinnacles. Lord knows why you would want to trek in the hideous heat and humidity though.

We opted for the less strenuous pursuits. We visited Deer, Clearwater, Wind, and Lang … Read more

Sepilok Orangutan

Sepilok: Orangutans, Sun Bears, and Rainforest

Sepilok is the last chance saloon for tourists who didn’t luck out on orangutan sightings in the wild. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center has been so successful, it has spawned a couple of welcome copycat centers for sun bears and proboscis monkeys. Let’s not forget the trees and plants either: the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) has some terrific jungle canopy walkways, towers, and exhibition centers to give you a gentle but exhilarating introduction to rainforest flora. The patient amateur David Attenborough also has a good chance of seeing cool birdlife. If your luck is really in, then you may even see some of our closest animal cousins.

Surprise Orangutans at the Rainforest Discovery Centre

Canopy walk. Rainforest Discovery Centre

We stayed two nights in Sepilok, and on the first night we opted to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre. If you want to see animals, then visit early morning or late afternoon. We headed straight for the canopy walkway in the afternoon. It gets you up to 15m or so. The jungle is surprisingly pleasant here but we saw no beasties apart from a giant tree squirrel.

We dropped off the canopy and headed for the Hornbill Tower. At 27m, it is the highest viewing platform … Read more

Kinabatangan orangutan

Kinabatangan: Where a Brazilian Wax Has Gone Too Far

The palm oil plantations keep ‘waxing away’ at the Borneo rainforest. This is one area where you wish the inspiration for forest maintenance was more 70’s Playboy rather than Shaven Havens. Ironically, the thin strip of bush on either side of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah is the best place in Borneo to see wild animals. The reason is obvious. The animals have nowhere else to go.

Our Story

We booked into a riverside resort called the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. They run good-value, nature-oriented 2N/3D packages. These include transfers to and from the lodge from nearby Sandakan, Sepilok, or Kota Kinabatangan.

Danum Valley sunrise

Danum Valley Field Centre: How to Visit Independently

Ahh, Borneo! The land of sweltering rainforests, soaring Mount Kinabalu, hairy orangutans, horny rhinos, and priapic proboscis monkeys.

Not quite!

Actually, it is a green sea of ever-expanding palm oil plantations, which threatens the existence of all the above except the high mountains. And, it wouldn’t surprise us if in 15 years Mount Kinabalu is covered in oil palm trees too! Thankfully, small pockets of primary forest still exist. And the well-heeled traveler, or backpacker wishing to bust her budget, can still visit areas of tropical rainforest that have not changed in millions of years.

Once such place is the Danum Valley Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is primarily a research institution, but provides facilities for visitors.

Diving Sipadan: a barracuda vortex

Diving Sipadan: Barracuda Vortex and A Fish Cave

I was aware of Sipadan, the famous dive site off northeast Malaysian Borneo, even before I started my Open Water course. Diving Sipadan is on the bucket list of just about every diver coming to Southeast Asia. A tiny volcanic pinnacle rising 600m from the seafloor, it is home to huge amounts of marine life.

Diving Sipadan wasn’t in my plans. It’s a lot more expensive than diving almost anywhere else in Southeast Asia. A complicated permit system helps keep the sites pristine, but it makes advance bookings a must. I was prepared to skip Sipadan in order to save time and money. At the time we were planning our trip to Borneo, Paul wasn’t yet a diver, and I was hesitant to spend a lot of money on an amazing experience that he couldn’t share. But a well-traveled American diver we met in the Banda Islands emphatically told me that Sipadan was not to be missed. Paul also encouraged me to go for it. And I’m glad I did!

Padar Island, Komodo

Island Hopping in Komodo

There is more to Komodo National Park than dragons, coral, currents, and big fish. There are beautiful hikes, Bajo villages, flying foxes, and gorgeous beaches. It seems odd to me that many backpackers come to one of the world’s most beautiful places then opt for a cheap-ass tour, on a crappy boat, with no safety equipment or English-speaking guide. Yeah, they see the dragons, snorkel at Pink Beach, and have a craic with like-minded cheapskates. But that seemed a bit lame to us.

We had already spent 3 days on the Wicked Diving liveaboard in Komodo, but we wanted to take another trip to see the dragons on Komodo and Rinca, snorkel, and hike. We wanted a good boat and an excellent guide with great language skills and knowledge of the park. Safety was paramount too. We want life vests, radios on board, and a speedboat for evacuation and/or transfers to beaches and snorkel spots.

Not too much to ask. But, unbelievably, there is only one operator in town that offers such a service. That company is Flores XP Adventures. And, thankfully, they had a trip that fitted into our schedule. We joined their 3 day Liveaboard Adventure and it … Read more

Batu Bolong diving. Komodo, Indonesia

A Komodo Dive Liveaboard on a Budget

“I’m glad we’re not scuba divers,” I mused to Paul, flicking through the Lonely Planet Indonesia while lounging on the couch in our Seattle apartment one Sunday afternoon. “It’s so expensive, and if we were divers we would have to add so many places to our itinerary. We don’t have time for that!”

How things change! When we left home, we thought that our trip was going to be focused on mountains, jungles, and culture. Beaches were places where gap year backpackers got drunk, and there was nothing that interesting to see underwater anyway. We never would have guessed that by the time we arrived Labuanbajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park in Indonesia, we would be more excited about the diving than the dragons, I would have Advanced Open Water certification with 28 logged dives, and Paul would be ready to overcome his fear of water and do a dive course.

Learning to Dive in Komodo

Why go to Komodo National Park?

If you want to see the most magnificent underwater world on Earth, you come to Komodo. The park should be on every diver’s bucket list. This is the place to see Manta Rays, Sharks, Turtles, Bumpheads, Octopus, and every imaginable fish big and small. The coral reefs are pristine and, for me, it is hands down the most beautiful place I have ever seen

But is this a good spot for a novice diver?

The park is also (in)famous for its very strong currents. Side currents, down currents, up currents, and whirlpools, Komodo has them all. Worse, the currents are extremely changeable. A placid dive can turn into an air-burning swim against a down current in seconds.

Komodo can be challenging even for experienced divers. Of course, the first thing you learn in your Open Water training is that diving always carries an element of risk. As if I needed reminding further, a Singaporean diver lost her life a few days before we arrived in Komodo.

For sure, this is no place to book your dives and/or dive courses based solely on budget. Choose a dive shop based on reputation. And dig deep into … Read more

Rice terraces near Ruteng, Flores, Indonesia

Ruteng: Hobbits, Spiderwebs, Ugly Sound Systems, and the World’s Best Coffee

Ruteng, in the Manggarai region of inland western Flores, is not the most inviting town in Indonesia. The best hotel is in a convent, 90% of locals think you merely exist for their English practice, and local transport tends to be an ear-splitting sound system on wheels. However, with patience you will find that the surrounding areas are beautiful, hobbits existed locally (albeit 10,000 years ago), and that the best coffee shop in Asia is just around the corner.

Our Story

Our first impressions of Ruteng were not great. We arrived after a gruelling six-hour bemo ride, found our hotel of choice was full, booked into a grubby shithole, and got harangued by an aggressive local youth wanting to know if we were Catholic or not.

After checking in to the hotel, we headed back out on the streets and got pestered at every turn by groups of young guys wanting to practice their English. They also seemed to want us to go on tours and bombarded us with local information. One dude asked us where we were heading so we told him, ‘to Kopi Mane Cafe’. ‘May we accompany you for coffee’, came the reply. We were used to … Read more

Tololela village. Bajawa, Flores

The Ngada Villages of Bajawa

The Bajawa region is a regular stop for travelers crossing Flores. The area is dominated by the picture perfect volcano, Gunung Inerie, and is dotted with delightful traditional Ngada villages. Bajawa seemed like a typically scruffy Indonesian town, so we opted to stay in the fantastic Manulalu Resort, which sits on one of the flanks of Inerie.

Our Story

It is fair to say that most accommodation in Flores is neither pleasant nor good value. There is just not enough competition in most towns and villages for hotel owners to have to up their game. A quick look at TripAdvisor would probably put you off coming! However, we managed to find one decent place in every town we visited. The downside is that lots of other travelers have found the same place so often they can be fully booked.

Our favorite place in Flores was the Manulalu Resort near Bajawa. It is well out of town so your food and drink options will be limited to the in-house cafe. However, the sublime views more than compensate for the limited, but tasty, menu. The rooms weren’t bad value at IDR400,000. We arrived late in the afternoon just as the sun was … Read more