I (TP) am back now in KL, while JM continues her work in KK and tomorrow moves on to Kuching for a couple more days. Our trip to Sabah was awesome. The most striking part of our trip was that Kota Kinabalu, at least, was a very modern city with plenty of taxis, loads of restaurants, safe streets, and nice hotels. Aside from the fact that it was fiercely hot out, hotter than we’ve experienced so far with the possible exception of Prambanan in Central Java, it could have been just like a New Jersey seaside town.
As we mentioned in our last post, we spent flew Sunday to the town of Sandakan, on the eastern coast of Sabah. It’s a little town, but has one of the oldest Chinese settlements in Borneo. (Which reminds us, another surprise was how many Chinese Malaysian there were in Sabah, and not just in the cities. Even more than in Peninsular Malaysia, from what we could tell. We hear that Indonesian Borneo is the same way, with the major Indonesian city of Pontianak almost 60% Chinese.) Since the colonial era it has emerged as a major center for two of Sabah’s three economic engines: tourism and palm oil. The third major Sabahan industry is petroleum, but that is all mined offshore north of Sabah. Our flight to Sandakan was 45 minutes on a fully packed 737, and was probably 90% Westerners and 9% Japanese. Of the Westerners, we figured that no more than a handful could have been Americans, while there were loads of Brits, Aussies, some Canadians, and assorted continental Europeans. We find it interesting that we have yet to meet any travelling Americans in Malaysia; the Malaysians we talk to find this perplexing as well.
From Sandakan we went to an orangutan rehabilitation center in the town of Sepilok. Orangutans (the correct plural is actually orang-orang utan, but whatever) have found themselves one of the big losers in the explosion of logging and rain forest destruction in Borneo. Almost daily, a baby orangutan whose mother has been killed or who has been found living as some family’s pet winds up at the center, where the staff spend four to five years raising it and slowly acclimating it to jungle life. After this period, the orangutans are released into the wild, with the option of coming back to the center twice a day for a meal of bananas and milk. That’s where the tourists come in–you can watch as adolescent orangutans who have only recently been released and need a supplementary meal make there ways back to the center for a snack. It’s one of the most amazing sites ever. Wild orangutans aren’t fat and lazy like zoo orangutans, but rather are slender and active. Although the handlers keep their meals deliberately mundane to encourage them to forage for leaves, there’s nothing like a playful but hungry little orangutan dipping his face into a bucket of milk, or intently squeezing the flesh out of a banana and perhaps using the skin as a hat.
Of course, all of this food attracted several other species of primate. Both pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques managed to show up in time for bananas, and created quite a scene dodging the threats of the two larger great apes (the orangutans and their handlers) who were there. Those macaques had no fear, confidently walking right past us tourists and making daring raids to secure half-eaten bananas.
After that, we headed out of town towards a little village called Bilit, about two and a half hours ride, for 88 km on a paved road, and then for 60 km more on a dirt track. This was a sobering trip. For that entire trip until the last five minutes when we entered old growth jungle, we saw nothing but palm planations. Great big palm trees in neat rows right up to the side of the road; from the crests of hills, we could see palm trees stretching way out to the horizon. At intervals of about 10 km, we would see signs marking the end of one farm and the beginning of another…from Kean Hoong Trading (Sabah) Sdn Bhd to Syarikat Fung Ning Min Prosperous Yield Sdn Bhd to Lup Cheong Enterprise Sdn Bhd, one after another. Although they were few and far between, most of the folks we saw were local people, probably mostly from the dominant Kadazandusun ethnic group but certainly other bumiputras and some illegal Indonesians thrown in. Fifty years ago, orangutans on Borneo could have swung from tree to tree from one end of Borneo to the other. Today, their habitat is shrinking by about half the size of Switzerland every year in both the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of the island due to illegal logging. Let us be clear. We favor the sensible exploitation of natural resources, including forests and timber, for economic benefits. But forest resources aren’t like petroleum. There’s no chance that we’ll discover new forests in Borneo after the current ones are all cut down. Nor is there any chance that the economically important ecosystems that old growth jungles house can survive without the forests while we wait for new ones to grow. What we see is what we get.
I will write more tomorrow about our exciting boat trips along the Kinabatangan River, as well as our rustic jungle accommodations and our amazing non-encounter with local police officials searching for illegal Indonesian immigrants on the road back to Sandakan.