The One Where Emily and Doug Go to Borneo

Author’s Note: We started putting together this post, but realized there was just too much content for a single blog. So, this is now Part 1 of 2. Please check back in a few days for Part 2, as we have so much more.

What images does the name “Borneo” conjure up for you? Maybe jungles, wild animals, and head hunters? Its an exotic sort of name, somewhere Indiana Jones might head down a river on a raft looking for some long-lost gemstone. Or maybe it sounds like some made up place from a TV show – didn’t Chandler go there in an episode of Friends? Oh right, that was Yemen.

Maybe its because Borneo is just so far away from Canada that neither of us really knew much about it. Sure, we knew there’s exotic jungle and wildlife there, but that’s about it. But we knew virtually nothing about the people, culture, food, money, etc. Doug isn’t even sure he knew what country it belongs to. After all, its not on the Risk board, so is it even a real place? So let’s go through a few quick basics to get us all oriented. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea (Apparently Emily is the only person who doesn;t understand why Australia doesn’t count as an island?). Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. There are two Malaysian states on the island, called Sarawak and Sabah. Sarawak was originally an independant state goverened by “The White Rajah”. It’s a fascinating and unique history, definitely worth the read on Wikipedia. In 1963, Sarawak and Sabah joined together with other states from the Malay peninsula to form the country of Malaysia. Shortly thereafter, Malaysia applied to become the 51st US state, only to be rejected after a last minute veto from Rhode Island. In a fit of rage and jealously, Malaysia decided to copy the US flag, but replace the 50 stars with a crescent moon. Ok that last bit was just a little test to see if anyone was still reading or if you all gave up during the boring history lesson and skipped down to the pictures. Still with us? Now on to the good stuff. Seriously though, take a look at the Malaysian flag. It bears a striking resemblance to the familiar stars and stripes.

Malaysian Flag
The flag of Malaysia.

We flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s modern capital city, to Kuching in western Sarawak. Our time in Malaysia was running short, leaving only 8 days to explore in and around Kuching. Its not enough to explore all of Sarawak and Sabah, but it seemed plenty of time for Kuching and western Sarawak.

Like most places we go, we didn’t do a huge amount of research before coming. Its been our experience that we can find interesting things to do, see, and experience no matter where we end up. We typically check only the basics like the cost of food and accommodation to make sure we can afford to live there for a short while on our restricted budget. In this case, we also had to check flights, given that there is no possibility of ferry service from mainland Malaysia, as air flights are so cheap. Thankfully, Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching for as little as $25 a person (plus baggage), which is so cheap we don’t even understand how they do it. As a quick aside, Air Asia has seriuosly revolutionized travel in this part of the world. It is so, so cheap and the flights are still comfortable, on decent planes. If only we had $25 flights in Canada, we could maybe see more of our own country. $25 ($35 or $40, including baggage) for an hour and forty five minute flight? That’s less than the cost of a Russian-English dictionary at the White House gift shop.

First, a quick tour around town.

Kuching is a modern, if quiet, city. This is the waterfront area, along the banks of the river.  Tall hotels are sprouting up all over, but its currently the low season for tourism and is really quiet.


Like elsewhere in Malaysia, there is a strong Chinese influence in Kuching.
And also a strong Indian influence. This is the Indian Street market.
This is the market area in downtown Kuching, towered over by the spectacular mosque. Ramadan started May 26th, so we have found more shops and restaurants closed than would normally be.
Kuching means “cat” in Malay.  So there are cat statues all over town.  Also, note the McDonald’s in the background.   Malaysia must have the cheapest McDonald’s on earth, with a Big Mac meal running around $4 CAD.  They Malaysians love their fast food – there are probably more KFCs per capita here than anywhere in the world.
Old colonial buildings from the British era are common around town.  This one has been converted into restaurants, coffee shops, art spaces, and a wine bar.
Chinese Buddhist temple beside a bar selling craft beer.  
The Sarawak Legislature.
The Masjid Bandaraya mosque in downtown Kuching.

If you’re at all familiar with Borneo, we are finally getting to what you’re waiting for.  This is one of the few places on earth to see orangutans in the wild. Borneo has the largest orangutan population in the world, with over 20,000 wild orangutans (thanks Wikipedia!). For this, we went to the Semenggogh Nature Reserve, an hour south of Kuching.


At Semenggogh, park staff work to reintroduce orangutans to the wild. These orangutans may have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from a zoo or some other inappropriate ownership. But once at Semmenggogh they don’t live in cages. They freely roam the jungle and only interact with staff if they chose to do so. The program has been very successful, and they now have 27 orangutans living in the reserve – many of which were born there to be rehabilitated and reintroduced orangutans. Though they live freely in the jungle, the orangutans are considered “semi-wild” due to their frequent interactions with humans. The public is allowed to visit the reserve during morning and afternoon feeding times, but there is no guarantee any of the orangutans will show up to eat. There are morning and afternoon feedings. After paying the surprisingly low entry fee of 10 RM (RM= Malaysian ringgits, 10RM is a little more than $3 CAD) and listening to a quick orientation from the park staff, visitors can go to a number of viewing areas in the hopes of seeing orangutans emerge from the jungle. We went to a morning session and got lucky, seeing 4 separate orangutans. Warning: many orangutan photos to follow. We took approximately 1.7 million photos of them, but how can you not. They’re amazing and seeing them without a cage was a special experience.

Enjoying one of the ropes installed between the trees around the feeding areas.
On the left is the oldest orangutan in the park, at 46 years old. She is actually a grandmother as well.  On the right is her 9 year old son.  The son still spends his time all day with his mother, and we got to see them feed together.
Striking a pose.
She isn’t the cleanest eater.
They really do like bananas.


Our incredible cousins.
This orangutan gets two thumbs up.

There are several national parks within a short drive from Kuching.  We went to Kubah National Park, and Bako National Park.  Bako NP will be the topic of the next Borneo post, coming shortly.  We went took the public bus to Kubah for a chance to hike into the primary rainforest.

Not the best photo, but this is a trail through the primary rainforest in Kubah NP.  “Primary” means the forest is in its original condition, free from logging or other human activities.  “Secondary” forest would mean it has been re-planted and is in the process of growing back to a natural state.  The primary rainforest is incredibly dense, and really, really hot and humid. Given how much of a problem logging and clear cutting is in Borneo, its getting harder and harder to find accessible primary rainforest to enjoy. 

We know some of you are interested in seeing the various flora and fauna in Borneo….maybe you can help us to identify a few of them? There will be many, many more in our next post.

We would have walked right past this guy, if someone ahead of us on the trail hadn’t pointed it out.
Borneo Giant Millipede – we looked this name up, we promise.  Check out the video at the end of this post.
Rainforest insects look crazy.
Halfway through a 5 hour hike, we found a welcome break at a waterfall.  
This was at Semenggogh, not Kubah. But they’re pretty close to each other, so we’re counting it.
More flowers at Semenggogh.

Now back to that millipede.  When it moved, the colours on its legs shimmer – check out this video.  Millipedes are harmless, unlike their mean centipede cousins.

For more animals, and generally more spectacular nature than we know what to do with, check out our next post about Bako National Park.  The amount of wildlife there is truly amazing.

  • Doug and Emily / May 27, 2016 at 9:22pm / Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo @ Big Bottle bar

3 thoughts on “The One Where Emily and Doug Go to Borneo

  1. All your posts are amazing, but this one is spectacular! Biruté Galdikas was my idol growing up so I’m so excited that you got to see orangutans in the wild!

    💜 Julie


  2. The best part of this post for me was finally finding out how much a Russian-English dictionary costs at the White House gift shop. Much appreciated.


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