Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jungle Trekking: I am defeated

I have just come back from my second attempt in jungle trekking and I am not ashamed to confess that I got utterly defeated again!!! This is the hardest hiking I have ever done in my entire life and I have no inner urge whatsoever to try again now. I am just not made for this climate. So what happened?

Pitcher plant
After suffering from bronchitis for over 10 days now I thought I had sufficiently recovered to try some hiking again. I went to Bako National Park which is just outside of Kuching and the major tourist attraction in this area. The park is all jungle, but bordering the sea and is supposed to have some nice beaches. When I arrived I encountered the first bad surprise: Despite low season all accommodation was fully booked. I had my tent with me and could have camped at the official campsite, but the whole place did not look too nice and was more or less completely flooded.

But I remembered reading in my guidebook that there is a nice beach at the other end of the Park where you can camp for free. I enquired about it and was even told that there are even shelters there - great in these torrential downpours that my tent would probably not withstand. It is only 13 km from the park entrance to that beach and it was only 10 am - so no problem. Well, that is what I thought... I would normally hike 13 km in a bit more than 3 hours... here the trip was rated 8 hours!!!

Pitcher plant
I set out and realised that I was just doing 2 km per hour - and I had to take constant breaks. The climate here is very difficult to describe - the combination of heat and humidity is a real killer. As soon as you start the slightest movements you start sweating. Just from walking you will sweat so profusely that the water is constantly dripping down from your face. All your clothes are soaked. But on top of the climate you also have to deal with really difficult terrain - a constant steep up and down. The trail is overgrown and the blow down palm trees all have thorns. And I have a backpack to prove it, as I ripped it more in these 2 days than in the whole 12 months before. If you slip and try to get hold of something it will very likely have thorns. And I have lots of scratches to prove that, too. But worst of all everything is slippery, real slippery. Everything is wet and overgrown. If you step on a rock, you will probably slip.

After 4 hours and only 6 km I thought first of turning back, but I still could not believe that I am not able of hiking 13 km and I pushed on. I got down to 1 km in 45 minutes and got weaker and weaker every minute. I had to take breaks every 500 m. I was physically just not able to hike on - I had to sit down, drink water and recover for 10 minutes before I could attempt the next couple of hundred meters. After 6 hours and 8,2 km I realised that I would not make it. I was so weak that I could hardly walk straight anymore. I was sweating like a pig but was shivering at the same time. Being a hypochondriac I assumed I was either suffering from a Malaria attack or a heart attack was imminent. Neither option sounded good. I could not do another 5 km to get to the beach and the shelter, but turning back was equally bad. I was in the middle of the jungle and everything was completely overgrown and steep. I did not remember seeing any feasible camp site. I almost panicked and started hiking back. I had not even managed one km back when I realised that I was about to collapse. This had never in my entire hiking career happened before. I was just too weak to continue - physically impossible.

Wild bearded pig
To make things worse a thunderstorm was approaching. I had to do something now and quick. This was an emergency and I considered camping on the trail which is a really bad option. First of all animals use the trail as well and I did not want to be overrun by a band of wild pigs. Also when it rains here the whole trail changes into a river bed. I was getting desperate and managed to make it to the top of a small hill. At least here the water would not wash me away. And then I got lucky!!! I saw a tiny little clear and flat spot in the jungle. I tried to clear it as good as possible - I was so weak that I had to hold on to the trees in order not to collapse. The terrain was difficult and it took me forever to set up the tent with thunder rolling above me. When the tent was finally standing I just got inside and collapsed. I was so weak I did not even have the strength to inflate the Thermarest. I was afraid I would be sweating inside the tent, but the temperature was bearable. As long as I did not move I was hot, but at least not sweating. And after one hour of rest I felt recovered enough to force myself to eat something. I then also realised what had caused my collapse: I was still suffering from bronchitis and could not stop coughing. I think my body had not gotten enough oxygen while hiking in this vicious climate.

Pitcher plant
I was lying in my tent thinking that things were not so bad after all: The rain had just turned out to be a drizzle, my campsite was quite good and I felt almost totally recovered. But then I looked out of my tent and could not believe my eyes: My backpack, my shoes and the front of my tent were all covered with giant ants!!!! These ants were huge - over 1 cm long!! I have never seen anything like this. And they were all over my stuff. Luckily my tent is fully enclosed and they could not get in, but they were so big that I was worried they would actually bite through the tent material. And how would I get out of the tent in the morning without being bitten? I watched the horror ants for a while and discovered that they were just after salt. They were all over my sweaty backpack and shoes, but they left my trash bag alone. Eventually I fell asleep from pure exhaustion.

In the morning I was dreading to look outside, but when I did all the ants were all gone!!! I never knew that some ants are night active only. I packed up and faced a long walk back. At least now I had a full day for 8 km. I walked slowly and took a long break every km. Now that I knew how difficult the trail is and how bad my bronchitis I took it easy - and that paid off. It still took me a long time to get back, but I was not nearly as exhausted as the day before. I made it back to the park entrance and finally to my guesthouse in Kuching.

Bottomline: Although my bronchitis greatly contributed to my collapse, I had to realise that I am not made for this climate. My body just does not deal very well with the heat and humidity. This has been my last attempt for jungle trekking - I will not try again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Malaysia: The animals

As I have mentioned before there is not that much to see in Malaysia and therefore I jump to every opportunity to do some half decent sightseeing. The town of Miri does not boast many attractions, but it has a crocodile farm and there I went - not expecting much. But for once I was positively surprised.

Of course, there were crocodiles - and lots of them! They were all comfortably lounging in a wonderful mud pool in the sun. They were even sleeping with their mouths open! Only about every 10 minutes there was some movement. But after closer inspection I realised that the crocs were maybe kept a little bit too close to each other, because a big number of them had missing or invalid limbs. Apparently they had just bitten off each others legs! I was very careful not to throw my camera, wallet or other valuable things into the crocodile enclosure - I guess the staff would not be too willing to retrieve it.

Sun bear
But there was also a mini-zoo with some debatable practices. There was a little monkey and bear on a leash - for snapshots with tourists. The poor animals were frantically running back and forth within their limited little radius - a truly disheartening sight. But at least I learnt that there are bears in Malaysia - something that I had never expected. They are called sun bears and they are truly small, but have an enormously long tongue for licking up insects, termites, ants, whatever. In the zoo you just feed them bananas.

The feeding was the most interesting part of my visit. I bought bananas and set off to find out who would eat them. Result: They all eat bananas in Malaysia - only the way differs. There are of course the monkeys and they just grab their banana, peel it in split seconds and it is gone. Their social behaviour was most interesting: In one cage the alpha male chased every monkey away that tried to get a banana from me. Of course I would not give him any, but he had decided that if he doesn't get anything, nobody else should either. Reminded me a lot of some human behaviour... I spent hours and 2 kilos of bananas with the monkeys.

A week later I visited an Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre. The apes (monkeys have tails and therefore Orang-Utans are apes) are roaming freely in a huge nature reserve but usually come to the feeding area for the twice daily feeding with bananas. Of course there were loads of tourists - but also loads of apes climbing around in the jungle above. I truly regretted not having a better camera then! First the Alpha Male, a huge and very hairy guy called Ritchie had to be fed and then the rest of the group could eat as well. The babies cling to their mothers (one called Hot Mama because she bites at least one tourist per season) and the teenagers are running around catching each other. One was happily showing off his private areas for inspection and scratching his balls - making all the (human) girls giggle... Great photo shot if you have a decent camera - unlike me... The apes even drink milk out of bottles - but litter them after use!!!!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Malaysia: What do I think about it?

Red heron in
I have been in Malaysia for 5 weeks now and so far my experience has been a mixed bag.

Let's start with the bad: I came here to relax after a hard year of hiking. Unfortunately, this has not worked out.

First of all, I am sick all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but I have the second bad cold in 5 weeks now. I never ever have any cold on a long hike despite the fact that I hike in rain, sleet and snow and freeze my ass off at night in my tent. But here, the hot climate in combination with the air-conditioning is killing me. I am either too hot and sweating like a pig or I am freezing to death. Apparently my body cannot deal with these constant drastic temperature changes. Now I have bad bronchitis and cough like a chain smoker of 30 years. I hope this is my last cold in Malaysia - I am leaving in 2 weeks!!!

Second, the climate makes it hard to relax, too. Basically, there is not much activities I can endure outdoors. It is so hot and humid that you start sweating the minute you step outdoors. The leeches make hiking a bloody adventure.... And on top of all that, it is rainy season almost everywhere in Malaysia. I have never seen rain like that before - maybe in Japan, but nowhere else. When it rains here, the rain is like a solid wall. Even with an umbrella you are soaking wet within seconds. I have given up any idea of camping here - I would just float away! Even walking around town is exhausting - and chafing is a real problem!

Traditional longhouse
Third, I had visions of finding a nice guesthouse and staying there doing nothing. Well, this is easier said than done. In order to be able to stay in an enclosed room here you either need a fan or air-conditioning. And that is what lead to may two colds in the first place. Also, sound proofing is non existent here. One hostel I stayed in was directly above a bar. And on Friday I found at that they have live music on weekends. It felt like sleeping in a disco - and the music would not stop before 2 am!! I thought I learnt my lesson and booked myself into a rather expensive family hotel. Unfortunately this place was located next to a Karakoe bar that started blasting music at midnight and would not stop till 3 am. I have also encountered air cons that are as load as airplane engines and all sorts of biting insects - but luckily not bed bugs yet. All that is not really relaxing....

Orchid farm
Another disappointment is that there is not really that much to see in Malaysia! The museums here are mediocre to put it politely. They are also tiny and it is hard to spend more than 1 hour in them. And beside that there is not really much cultural stuff. Of course there are a lot of National Parks but first of all the weather is not really great now and second doing outdoor stuff is outrageously expensive. Most parks will not allow you to hike without a guide - and a guide is expensive. On top of all that most National Parks are not accessible by public transport - you have to join an organized and expensive tour again. Some parks can even only be accessed by plane! And the few accessible Parks have been closed now due to excessive rain...

As you might read out of these lines - I am a bit fed up with Malaysia. In fact, I am already counting the days before I can fly back to Europe. Don't get me wrong: Malaysia is not a total disaster, but it will never be one of my favourite countries.... 

But not everything is bad here and I want to end this post with something positive:

Nobody has tried to cheat me here. I only have to pay what the pricelist/menu etc.says. No rip-offs. When I unknowingly hand over too much money, I always get it back!!!

There is not much hassling - hardly anybody tries to get my into their shop, taxi, hotel, etc. Of course, I am offered taxis and other services all the time, but if you say NO, people just leave you alone. Funny enough I am constantly being called "Sir", probably because of my height - or shabby clothes...

Longhouse floor
The ethnic mix here - and how well everybody is getting along with each other - is truly astonishing. The 3 big groups here are the Muslim Malay, the Chinese and the Indians. Muslim women almost always were headscarves - even kids, but Chinese women run around in skimpy dresses and skirts that qualify more as a belt than a skirt.... - and nobody cares!!! You can buy newspapers in Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English! I still wonder how everybody understands each other. And here in Borneo there are even indigenous people more or less running around naked - no wonder in that climate!

But I had the biggest surprise today in a small corner restaurant. The waitresses there were either Malay Muslim with headscarves - or DRAG QUEENS. I am not joking here and I could not believe my eyes either, but I have lived long enough in Berlin to spot a transvestite. And half of the 'girls' working there were definitely guys in drag - with 5 cm long eyelashes and heave make-up. I mean, this was not a night club or anything, but a normal restaurant during daytime - in a Muslim country.....

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brunei Darussalam

Brunei is a place that sounded so weird that I just had to go and see myself what it is like...

Main Mosque in Brunei
It is rather difficult to reach overland and so I took the ferry. Remembering how sea sick I got on the ferries in Japan I decided to travel as far as possible by bus and then change to ferry. Good thinking, but I forgot that ferry does not equal ferry... When I arrived at the ferry terminal I had the choice between the car ferry and a speed boat, the former taking about 1,5 hours and the later 20 minutes. I thought that it is better to be seasick for only 20 minutes and decided for the speedboat. Wrong decision!!! The speedboat turned out to be a small boat for just 14 passengers - and still it went across open sea at a breathtaking speed. When we hit the big waves the boat was bouncing up and down so badly that I nearly hit my head on the roof. I was clinging to anything I could get hold of in order not to be thrown out of the boat and my only consolation was the hope that the driver would know what he was doing... After 20 incredibly bumpy minutes we arrived on the Malaysian island of Labuan - all in one piece, the boat and I.

I had one day in Labuan to recover from the shock before I had to get onto another speedboat ferry to Brunei. This ferry was much bigger - but the waves were also much higher and I got terribly seasick. Luckily I met a British lady on the boat and she distracted me from my seasickness by talking to me...

Main Mosque in Brunei
Brunei is a sultanate or a Malay Muslim monarchy. The sultan of Brunei was one of the richest men on earth before Bill Gates and the like showed up. But apparently not much of his wealth has trickled down to his subjects. True, Brunei is a bit cleaner than Malaysia and much more expensive, but still it is a rather run down place. That is especially true for the guesthouse I was staying in....For a price that would get you a palace in Malaysia I ended up in a rather decrepit room with dirt on walls, noisy air condition and a bath room that would send any German house wife into a heart attack. I had to change rooms because the Indian family next to me was addicted to watching Indian TV at top volume. The next room had windows facing the street - but hey, there is not much traffic in Brunei, isn't it? Unfortunately, my guest house turned out to be right in the centre of the red light district in Brunei. I did not expect that such a thing existed in a Malay Muslim monarchy... but anyways, the customers apparently had a hard time choosing one of the working girls and kept cruising around the blog for hours on end. Seriously, I watched the same guy in a noisy tuned up Volkswagen cruise around the block every 2 minutes for 1,5 hours...

I had really looked forward to Brunei and had hoped for some decent museums, but my hopes did not come true. There is a Royal Museum, featuring the Sultan, the Sultan and then the Sultan again. In business outfit, traditional garb and mostly in uniform. Judging from the variety of uniforms Brunei must have quite an impressive army.
The Brunei Museum was not that much better. Beside a collection of Muslim art (donated of course, by the Sultan), it featured petrol production in Brunei (partly owned by the Sultan of course) and Brunei's history that was centred around.... the Sultan.

I would have really appreciated it if the Sultan had invested more money into the local bus system because it took me forever to get from one place to another - and I was intrigued to find out why. The reason for the delays in public transport was the German cruise ship AIDA. Whenever the AIDA docks in Brunei (every two months) half of the bus drivers are taken out of the local bus system and drive shuttle buses for German tourists instead. So buses were running only once per hour instead of every half hour. Nice!

I must admit that the biggest highlight of my visit to Brunei was the discovery of a donut shop with really good chocolate donuts. That says a lot about my cravings, but also a lot about Brunei as a tourist attraction. I had planned to stay at least 3 days but was determined to leave after only one.


So today I took the bus to Miri in Malaysia and was happy to escape Brunei. But another disappointment was waiting for me. I had planned to visit two more National Parks that do not require guides and was actually really looking forward to a little bit of jungle trekking again. But when I arrived at the visitor information centre in Miri I was told that BOTH are closed - due to damage by rain. I am getting really fed up with all my bad weather luck now!

Monday, February 7, 2011

About Royal Highnesses and Prime Ministers...

Tower for Regalia
 I had to realise that Malaysia does not really have the most exciting museums. There are a lot of them, yes, but they tend to be rather "provincial", which is a polite way of saying run-down, antiquated, with crumbling walls and fading markings - and totally bored staff.

But on the positive side they have a rather comical effect on me.. Let me explain this:

Malaysia consists of several provinces that all have a sultan. These sultans rotate every five years when they elect one of them to become king for the next 5 years. Therefore Malaysia is one of the very few countries in the world with an elected monarch, who is even rotated every 5 years.

Now every province is very proud of their sultan and therefore there are a lot of small museums dedicated to the respective sultan and his wife. I was truly amazed what sort of stuff you can find there: In Alor Star the museum was not only showing His Highnesses' old golf balls and tennis raquets, no, they even went so far as to display his old cell phones! And the Royal car park not only consisted of 4x4 drives and Rolls Royces, but also of old motor bikes and even Royal bicycles. Of course there is also an official portrait of the Royal couple - and one example resembled a Pop Art Andy Warhol style for beginners version. But on closer inspection I realised that I was just looking at silk embroidery.
Royal Palace

In Kota Bahru, another provincial capital, the Royal museum was much more dedicated to the sultan's hobbies. I learnt that Her Highness likes to broaden her horizon by reading magazines (I wondered what type... Vogue or what), whereas "His Highness can often be seen with a video camera recording the natural beauty of Malaysia." Luckily they did not torture me with the end products of His Highnesses video expeditions...

But even Prime Minsters are not immune to being exposed. Dr. Majathir Mohamad's house in Kota Bahru has also been transformed into a museum were I learnt that he had to take a bath every Friday at 11 am and was not allowed to eat fish because his mother believed fish contains worms.... Wouldn't any Germany die to learn similar things about Angela Merkel?

But this is Malaysia - where you have to remove your shoes even in internet cafes and where all the museums close Friday from 12.30 to 2.30 for Friday prayer....

Tomorrow I will go to Brunei - the place sounded so weird that I decided I have to visit...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Taman Negara: Jungle trekking in Malaysia

Shelter in the jungle
 I still have all my hiking gear with me so I was really keen on doing some hiking in Malaysia. Unfortunately, you are required to hire a guide in almost all National Parks here - except in Taman Negara, the biggest and most popular National Park in Malaysia. And according to my guidebook the rainy season there would also already be over.


Canopy walk
So I took the "jungle train" from Kota Bahru to Jerantut, the portal to the Park. There were also 4 other Westerners in the train planning on hiking in the park. But the closer we came to Jerantut, the heavier it started to rain....Arriving (on time by the way) at the station I could not even muster enough courage to step out and search for buses to the park. I went to a restaurant instead and had lunch hoping for the rain to cease. But no such luck. Eventually I found the bus station totally soaked despite my umbrella - and found the other four Westerners. All of them had already given up on any hiking plans and bought onward tickets to Kuala Lumpur... Very encouraging. I nevertheless decided to stay, checked into a hostel and did some internet research on weather forecast with the devastating result that it was supposed to rain for the whole next week.

But hey, I had come that far and did not want to give up. So next morning I took the bus into Kuala Tahan, a small village just outside the park boundaries where all the guesthouses and restaurants were. Of course it was raining the whole bus trip...but cleared up when I had settled into my guesthouse! So off I went to my first jungle hike!!!!

Well, I always thought that I am an experienced hiker and 35 km per day is nothing for me. I had to realise that jungle hiking belongs to a totally different class of hiking. First of all it is hot, usually around 30 degrees. Second, humidity is about 100% - you are sweating from just standing around. Third, due to the incessant rain and erosion all trails had been transformed into one huge mud pool. Fourth, the terrain is steep up and down all the time, climbing over huge tree roots holding on to ropes and slipping on muddy ground. Given all these premises you are luckily to hike 2 km per hour - and drink 1 liter of water/hour. Afterwards you look like a pig fresh out of a mud bath. I had to wash my clothes every day - but due to the humidity they would not dry, of course.

This is trail!!!
But the most nerve wrecking thing were the leeches. I am used to all sorts of insects and even to leeches - but not to these amounts of leeches. Every half hour I would stop and peel off another 10 leeches. And because of their anti-coagulant the little wound they leave will not stop bleeding. My socks turned bright red and seemed to attract even more leeches. I had always believed that leeches bites are not itchy and heal quickly, but I was totally wrong. Now, almost one week later I still have itchy bumps all over my feet. But the worst moment came when one leech had managed to climb up my inner thigh. I peeled it off, but the wound would not stop bleeding and in the end I looked like I was heavily menstruating and had forgotten the tampons. On my way back to my guesthouse everybody was staring at me...

I managed 3 days of jungle hiking and then I gave up. It has been a very interesting experience and I am glad I did it (even the weather cooperated and it rained only once per day), but this climate is not for me and extended overnight trips.