Don’t call them monkeys

Somehow my internal alarm clock woke me at 7:30 after only a handful of hours asleep. When the girls (Christina and Nydia) arrived back the previous evening, we decided to go out for “a drink” at a nearby bar which doesn’t have a name. It’s decorated like a long house and owned by a local celebrity, Peter John.

Peter used to be a pub worker and a DJ before finding himself suddenly a pop star. Not bad for a lad who grew up in the jungle. He used the money he made to buy himself the bar and it had been recommended by our hosts. So, one drink, then back to watch a DVD.

As if.

Peter introduced himself and showed us a load of photos he’d taken at Uncle Chang’s on Mabul Island as he’d just come back. Then more photos of Bako. BY which time I was on my third and the girls on their second beers. More flowed as we were enjoying a good chat, then the girls managed to look pathetic and girly and got free rice wine shots from the bar tender. I’m not complaining as they got me one, too! I should wear a skirt and shave my legs more often.

By 3am, we were well sozzled and were chatting away with a bunch of locals. And got an invite to a party the next night. Thing is, my plan is to depart on the 8:30 boat on Sunday morning, so I’m either going to risk missing it, travel with a hangover, or have to stay an extra night.

I’ll worry about that later.

As I said, I miraculously rose at 7:30 and banged on the girls’ door as they wanted to go to Bako. I think I was hammering for almost a minute before I heard any response! I’d intended to wake at 7:00 so I had no time for breakfast, instead just grabbing everything I needed and running out the door to catch the 8:00 bus to Semenggoh.

This used to be a functioning wildlife rehabilitation centre, but now it’s just a reserve playing host to the animals that were reintroduced to the wild here. The area’s not actually big enough to support the number of orangutan, so they supplement their diet with feedings in the morning and afternoon.

To get there, you hop on a minibus outside the tourist office at 8:00 or 2:00. The journey’s around half an hour and it costs MR25 return, including park entry. All of this is given to the driver when you return to Kuching.

There isn’t really a lot to say about Semenggoh apart from that it’s small, pretty and chances are you will see some orangutan, but they can’t guarantee it. If it’s raining, don’t go as the orangutan don’t like to come out in the wet. The advantage is that if it rains in the morning, then you’ll likely see more of them for the afternoon feed should the weather clear up. The girls did this the day before and saw seven of the animals. I saw five including a baby, so Im not complaining!

They are magnificent animals. Despite their bulk and gangly looks, they move remarkably slowly and gracefully through the trees, traversing up and down the trunks effortlessly. To move around, they sit in one tree and wobble it until it bends close enough to the next for them to grab and swing over.

Contact with the animals is a strict no-no and generally there’s a warden around to make sure nobody gets within 5m when the animals are low down. At the end of the day they are wild animals and the adult males are more than capable of removing puny human limbs from their sockets if they feel in any danger.

There are also other animals loose in the area, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be seen. Three crocodiles are penned up in cages towards the back of one of the feeding areas. I’ve no idea if the plan is to set them free or what. They just sit there looking very annoyed.

I talked to a Dutch guy in the bus both ways and it passed the journey time well. A bonus given that I should still have been asleep. Most people follow the same kind of trail north, so perhaps I’ll bump into him again in Kota Kinabalu.

The sun was baking, so I had a quick look at two of the mosques then walked back to the hostel to do a quick shirt-wash and type this lot up. And to check out the hundred or so photos I took of the apes. Oh, and I did find out where the name comes from. “Orang” simple means “person” and “hutan” means “forest” – so they’re “people of the forest”. Cool, eh?

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Bako National Park

(more pics at the bottom) Today I’d decided to visit the Bako National Park, the oldest in Borneo. It covers 27 square kilometres of mangrove swamp, rain forest and rocks with quite a few species of birds, lizards and monkeys. It’s pretty close to Kuching, being around a 50 minute bus journey from the town centre, plus 20 minutes by boat. The bus you need is the yellow number 6 – there are three bus companies in the city, all use a different coloured bus and all use a number 6 so make sure you get the right one! The fare’s a bargain RM2 (around 30p) and will take you to the park reception.

I caught the 9:20 bus, though there are earlier ones. Should you be staying overnight, aim for this time or later as often they’ll turn you away on the boats and make you wait for a later one if you’re staying on. The earliest boats are prioritised for day-only visitors. On the bus, I got talking to a schoolteacher who looked remarkably sane given that he was in charge of 18 late-teen girls. His job was to just make sure they didn’t die or anything. The trip had to be co-ordinated, budgetted and researched by the girls themselves. They’d worked their way down from the north east where they’d laid part of a wooden walkway for a village in the jungle (the wood ran out so they couldn’t finish).

Well done to him. Had I known I was being shepherded onto a bus going the wrong way (for instance), I’d find it hard to just go along with it – but those were his instructions.

The park fee is MR10 and has to be paid on the mainland. You’ll need some photo ID with you as well. You’re then given a form with your details (or those of your entire party if you’re in a group) with your passes stapled to it. The next step is to jump on a boat. This is where it’s handy if there are a few of you, or you’re good at asking people if you can jump in their’s.

Most boats are MR47 for the journey, split between however many get on. They usually carry 6 people, but I squeezed on as a 7th on the way out (and we were then charged MR9 each – more than splitting 47 in seven directions, but cheaper than splitting it 5 ways as well). The girls arrived a short while later, shoehorning ten onto each of two boats. More than half the people on my boat were staying overnight, so I declined the boat pilot’s offer to arrange a time for pickup as I wanted to be sure I’d not be on a boat by myself on the way back.

Across a wooden walkway is the café and park office where you have to register upon arrival. The staff will give you a map and point out anything you need to know, as well as answer any questions or recommend things according to your preferences. I wasn’t too sure what I wanted, but though I’d just do a wander to one of the beaches and try to spot some animals. Before going on any of the trails, you must tell the wardens which one, and then check in again when you return.

A huge bearded pig snuffles his way around the offices all the time and seems happy to pose for photos. I was after the proboscic monkeys, though. Much harder to spot! They apparently feed at regular intervals by the mangrove swap where the boat drops you off so I walked over that way. It must have been the wrong time, so I kept walking out past the viewing platforms and to where the walking trails began.

It was a very hot day, and ridiculously humid so I was glad I’d packed 3l of water. I guzzled a lot of it as I took the Jalan Telok Paku, the shortest trail. The signs reckon this as being around 45 minutes despite it only being 0.8km in length. It reminded me of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore, though with somewhat less artificial stepping. Partway along, I encountered a couple who were staring into a tree. Only it wasn’t the tree that had their attention, it was the proboscis monkey sat up it, examining the branches.

I managed to get three snaps of him before he bounded off into deeper foliage and was lost from site. Annoyingly, when I checked the photos on my laptop later, the camera had focused on the branches in front of him so they’ve not come out well. At least I saw one!

The rest of the walk to the small beach was uneventful but worthwhile. Only four other people were on the beach when I arrived and they were all being nice and quiet. It’s a lovely spot and I don’t think I’ve ever felt seawater so warm. I had a quick break, drank more water and returned back along the same path. I made it to the café in even less time and I’d taken to get out there, though I was drenched by the time I sat down to lunch.

After my chicken curry and rice, I walked around the accommodation block and almost got bitten by a macaque. Evil little things if you get too close. There must have been 30 or 40 of them crawling along the fence by the camping area, clambering up trees and throwing fruit skins on to the ground (and me) below.

I spent far too long taking photos of them which didn’t leave me with enough time to walk another trail. Instead, I parked my bum in the café again, and plotted out my next moves Borneo-wise. And watched someone’s lunch being stolen by a macaque.

A Dutch family behind me got up to leave and I managed to beg my way onto their boat, so my return fare was a nice small share. Just as we pulled up at the dock, the wind picked up and loud rolled in. Thunder broke and the heavens opened. I’m rather glad I headed back earlier than I had planned as the rain came down very quickly indeed.

I chatted to a local guy for half an hour as I waited for the bus, then snoozed on and off during the journey back. It was still raining in Kuching so I darted into the nearest foodhole… which happened to be a KFC. Just a coincidence, honest.

Still, I’d like to give this one special mention – with the exception of the manager, the rest of the staff are deaf. All of them. If you don’t “speak” sign language, you order by pointing at the menu charts. If I read correctly, a portion of the profits go to various schools in the area. Full marks to whoever owns this franchise. I’m not even sure it’d be legal in the UK if you decided to only hire people with a hearing disability. I’m sure someone would complain that it’s unfair against those with functioning lugholes.

And from there back to the hostel where I’m typing this up after chatting to two German girls who arrived after me last night. Fortunately they’re studying English and French at university so I can communicate with them. After all, my German’s almost non-existant, my French sounds like a primary school child and my English… well, the less said.

Oh, and those plans I was talking about for the next week or so? Well, they involve a couple of buses, some express boats, a bit of 4×4 travel, 2-3 days trecking in the rainforest and another country. I’ll get to the details as and when!

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Third time tigers

Today would be my third visit to the Tiger Temple after one touristy excursion and then a week working there in 2006. And things have changed. A lot.

Again, there may be repetition in this post compared to the earlier ones, but I will try to highlight the differences. First of all, a few points to note about anyone visiting – get there early. Virtually every trip from Kanchanaburi runs from 2pm to 4pm. If you do this, you will miss out on a lot. Get up there for 11am if you can. This may mean hiring your own transport or getting the public bus up, but it is worth it.

The public bus runs frequently from the main bus station and costs pennies, but drops you on the main road – a couple of kilometres walk away. Making your own way by moped is certainly an option if you have access to one. Cycling is a long way so bear in mind the distance and the heat.

The most common way is to get a converted flatbed with seats in the back and fill it. Drivers usually charge for the trip, not per passenger so the more you get (maybe a capacity of 10) the cheaper it is. These are the vehicles used for the organised tours.

After breakfast, we met Sam himself – the owner of the Rafthouse and two other places in the area. He’s Thai, fluent in English, and an incredibly nice and helpful chap. And a qualified pilot. With his own airfield out near the Tiger Temple. Cool. He called the taxi driver we’d used yesterday  and he gave us a good price for a return trip to the Temple. A few minutes later he was sat outside waiting for us and we hopped in with all our luggage.

The trip up was fun, watching the usual sights. The first thing I noticed that was different was the road running from the main “highway” to the Temple itself. Two years ago it was unpaved dusty gravel. Now it’s tarmac, with walls in some spots as well. Money is definitely being spent. At the Temple itself, parking is more organised, a couple more buildings are in place and the price had risen to 300 Baht for entry. You still have to sign a “these are tigers and might rip my throat out and I realise I can’t sue monks” declaration before entering.

Entering the Temple itself, the pathway up to the cages has changed a little. What used to be the female accommodation for volunteer staff now seems to be administration offices. To the left is the start of (I guess) the “wild” area where future tigers will play without human interaction. This wasn’t there last time I was here. Neither were the larger cages for the cubs with play areas. Or the waterfall. Or half of the tigers, come to it – they’ve had quite a few births since I was here in 2006.

One of the things you’ll miss if you go up late is being introduced to the smallest of the cubs. Leah got to cuddle one of these little beasts while I took photos. The largertigers were introduced and the tourists taken down in small groups to the Tiger Canyon area. The opportunity was given to “walk with the tigers” and have photos taken with your hand on the tiger’s back as it is led down by one of the monks.

More changes were visible at the Tiger Canyon. Guests are spoken to more frequently, there’s more organisation and more rules. Basically it seems more “touristy”, but this also means more organised. The tiger “teeth” on sale for 30 Baht last time are now 100 Baht and you can buy belts as well. Also, to have a photo with a tiger’s head in your lap is now 1000 Baht. Previously, this was done on spec – you got one if you wated long enough and were lucky. Still, there was a huge queue for these photos – the only ones where you can get more than one person in a picture. The other photos are still free, so don’t worry if you can’t afford to fork out £15. Water is still ice cold and free!

Fancy doing what I did for a morning? Mucking out, feeding the cubs and having breakfast with the monks? 4000 Thai Baht to you, guv’nor.

So, yes, it’s more regimented. It’s more of a “tourist attraction” than it was. But costs rise and there is definitely money being spent on the place. I can only assume that someone upstairs has started to look seriously at the money situation and these decisions have been based on getting the work done that has been the aim of the project since the start.

Oh, and no – they’re not drugged. As ever, I heard this… crap being whispered by various tourists. Here’s hoping this makes it onto Google: The tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, are not – and I repeat in big letters with italics NOT drugged, doped up, tripping or otherwise maltreated in any way. The only drugs they get are for medicinal purposes (vitamin supplements, antibiotics) aas and when required.

Yes, they look dozy when you visit. They’re used to people. They’ve just been fed. It’s the hottest time of the day when tigers, by their very nature, will sleep. Watch one of them being walked down to the canyon when it’s not in a good mood. Or how fast the staff move when one of them rolls over and could – just could – be about to “play” with a tourist.

They. Are. Not. Drugged.

Soapbox now goes away.

Our driver dropped us off at the bus station in good time to jump on one of the aircon buses for Bangkok. We had one transfer partway along the route where I panicked when I didn’t see my luggage being shifted between buses – all was fine, though, and we got to Bangkok South bus terminal in good time. There’s a new shopping mall at the terminal that we walked through (and had doughnuts in). The information staff were very helpful indeed, giving us various options for getting into the city.

We chickened out and opted for the taxi. Bus is cheap but would have taken ages.

In the evening we popped back to the cinema (so cheap!) and watched the surprisingly good Hancock. Will Smith does it again. I had my fears with the stories of reshoots weeks before it was released, but this is a great bit of cinema. No classic, but good fun.

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A day at the zoo

Louise and I at Blair Drummond Safari ParkWell, technically a safari park but I’m the pedantic one here so don’t go giving me any gyp. As past blog posts will show, I love zoos. Well, I love a good one – Hanoi was a little decrepit but on the whole I’ve been impressed with the animal welfare in them. Anything which encourages children to see and appreciate animals in a safe environment is fine by me. Yes, I do believe that an animal’s place is in the wild. On the other hand, it’s incredibly important that today’s younger generations get to see what they’ll be missing if we keep screwing the planet up. This handful of animals is doing a job in – hopefully – saving their species for lifetimes to come.

My view, anyway. Feel free to debate this in the comments. It’s always good to hear other viewpoints, even if they’re wrong 😉

Lions at Blair Drummond Safari ParkThe day started moderately early. Given that we’d kept my little cousin up well past her bedtime the night before, she had a little lie in. On Saturday evening she’d sat next to me as I went through pictures of the Tiger Temple (“Why is that man wearing those clothes? Is it to show he’s special?” That was the abbot in his safron robes) and Auckland Zoo before she started snoozing on the sofa.

The lovely Leah came with us as well. I’ve never taken a little kid out before on my own and Leah’s a certified teacher with experience of nippers, sprogs, kids, children and so forth. Lots of them at once. I was sure she’d be able to cope with one little cousin.

We bundled her (the cousin, Louise – not Leah) into her safety seat in the back of the car and set off. Of course, we wouldn’t tell her where we were going. That’s half the fun! She kept guessing, actually asking if we were going to the shops at Braehead as we drove past because she’d like that. She loves wandering round looking at everything and spending money. Takes after her mum…

Not once did we get an “are we there yet?”. Instead, we got “are we lost?” which we played along with. Until I looked over my shoulder and my heart broke to see her sitting there with tears coming down her face. In a quiet little voice she said “I want to go home”.

Enter Miss Leah, teacher extraordinary, and a bundle of enthusiasm about where we were going and all the great things we’d see and that she could do. By the time we stopped at some services for a little toilet break there was a bounce in Louise’s step and a smile on her face. I knew I’d brought Leah along for a reason.

MeerkatWe got to Blair Drummond Safari Park around 11-ish, and coughed up the entry fee of £10.50 per adult and £7.50 for the little one. There are a few ways you can tackle the park, and we opted to do the “drive around” part first, then park up and enjoy the lovely hot weather. I’d already removed the aerial from the car roof. It’s a staple of home video TV shows to watch monkeys unscrew them and run off into the trees.

Fortunately / unfortunately, simians were not to be seen in the drive-through segments. We did see plenty of other animals though. A handful of very impressive-looking rhino were first up. Some ostriches, gazelle, bison, camels, giraffe and the obligatory lions.

We were particularly lucky with the lions as we got stuck in a small queue of traffic just as a couple got up and walked towards the car. This gave us a great opportunity to snap some close-up pictures. As the last adult walked past the back of the car (my mum’s, incidentally), its tail rose up, thumped the back window and with an almighty *SQUIRT* that we could hear inside, sprayed gooey scent all over the side-panels. Whoops. At least it’ll keep the neighbourhood dogs from peeing on the wheels.

We parked up and had a wander round one of the central areas. The weather was gorgeous so a lot of the animals were out and basking or pacing. Meerkats, as always, drew quite a crowd. Cute little things. Louise liked the penguins and the llamas managed to abstain from spitting on us. Which was good.

There’s a regular sealion show which we attended. Just the two of them, but doing some pretty neat tricks and impressing the crowd. At least the adults, anyway. I overheard one obnoxious little brat later on saying “Well, I almost fell asleep. That’s how boring they were.” Well, sod off home and play on your X-Box then. Grr.

Sealion jumpingOne of the few extras we paid for was to have Louise’s face painted. She opted for the “bunny” design which was cool and all glittery. We didn’t see many bunnies around, so it made her even more special (you can tell I dote on my little cousin, can’t you?). Her balloon vanished during the afternoon – the string tied round the balloon end gave way – but the staff kindly gave her another one to replace it.

Lunch wasn’t too expensive given the potential captive market. Burgers were £3 and you could whack on as much salad as you wanted. My aunt had packed us drinks, crisps and yogurt so we didn’t need to buy anything else.

We had a good wander around to see the elephants and up to the river, but Louise didn’t want to go in the boat because she was scared she’d fall off! Instead, we walked across the bridge onto the new Lemur Island, home to some Brown and Ring-Tailed Lemurs. The Browns were skulking around the back of their shelter so we could barely see them but a family of Ring Tails were out enjoying the sun. I think we spent around ten or fifteen minutes watching them dash around and play-fight. The baby was particularly cute as it practiced the jumps that the older animals managed with ease.

Louise decided that she still wanted to wander around the shops – those X-chromosomes have a lot of power – even though there are only two in the park. And they both sell the same stuff. She’s quite subtle, not asking for anything. Just picking it up and carrying it around the shop on the off-chance you notice and buy it for her.

Baby Ring-Tailed LemurShe’d spotted a cuddly penguin which she liked, but I set down the law – penguin or ice cream. The scales were tipped when I mentioned that her new teddy bear I’d given her the day before might get jealous of a penguin. She nodded, agreed and decided on a Ribena ice lolly instead. Quids in!

The last event of the day was a play on the big wavy slide thing. I remember these from when I was her age. The raggy old rope mats, the bump on your tailbone as you go over the last hump at speed. The friction burns if you run your arm down the side. Ow.

After an agreed-on half-dozen run down the slide, we headed back to the car. Louise “rested here eyes” on the way back home, and we dropped her off in good time for tea. Via Asda where I bought her sweets. I am a bad influence.

I had a great time and I think she did as well. Leah seemed to enjoy herself, too, but I confess I was just reveling in spending a whole day with my little cousin. I’ve missed her a lot while I’ve been traveling. As you can probably tell!

Oh, and I’ve still not told my mum about the car.

Clocking up the miles (Leeds to Cardiff to Stoke)

This evening I was supposed to meet up with Anni, SFG, Mat and Andy in Stoke. Sadly, Anni couldn’t manage it. This was a little awkward as I desparately needed to get my laptop back from her, but she had the best of excuses – Ed is ill.

Ed’s one of the cats she adopted off me before I left and once again, Anni’s proven that I couldn’t have picked a better home for them. He’s had a problem with his tail and is going to have a section of it amputated on Monday. In the meantime, he has one of those collar baffles on and it very miserable. As a result, he’s clingy which means that KK is sulking as she’s not getting any attention.

So, I took a long trip round. Leeds to Cardiff and then up to Stoke. In Cardiff, I chatted to Anni’s neighbour who’s been considering travelling for some time. I may have attempted to talk her into it… Well, she’s not happy at work and has always wanted to do it so why not? I know I’ve enjoyed it.

Up in Stoke, I was hosted by Mike and his lovely wife. Andy (known under a gazillion aliases online) turned up as well – great to be meeting up with so many people after so long. We played with Borris the insane dog for some time before taxi-ing in to Stoke and meeting Mat, who I’ve known since my first year at uni. Or second. Something like that.

We just “did” the two pubs – a Wetherspoons where we watched the rugby and drank beer, then a smaller bar round the corner where we listened to very bad karaoke and drank beer. Somehow I made it “home” where I collapsed in a very comfortable bed and slept for far too long.