Sandakan: Orangutans, elephants and cockroaches, Oh my!

Going to Borneo without seeing an Orangutan or a Pygmy Elephant would be like going to NY and not seeing a show. Fuggedaboudit! So, I booked a trip with S.I.tours and Jonah and I were off to Sandakan. Our first stop… Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Look, it’s amazing to see these “jungle men” up close, but being part of a pack of 100 tourist following 2 apes in love is not my idea of being one with nature. If you’ve been to Semenggoh, cross this stop off the list.

After our brief stop at Sepilok, we (us plus 30 odd tourists) piled into boats to be shuttled to our various river lodges. Jonah and I were dropped off first, and get this, we were the ONLY ones staying at the Abai Jungle lodge.

Mostly because it was new and promoted as “eco”. We planted trees, visited a village and did the wildlife thing. Most tourist JUST do the wildlife thing. So, it was us and the staff. And since no one else was there, why cook? They took us across the river to Abai village and we had a traditional dinner with the locals; homemade Malaysian food, served on a banana leaf and we ate with our hands. Caveman Jonah really dug this style of eating. I dug the whole authentic thing. After 2 nights in Abai, we moved on to the Kinabatangan River Lodge where there were actual tourist and forks.

The Kinabatangan River Lodge is like a summer camp in the Catskills.  The day trips are like a down-sized African safari experience on a river. You go out on an expedition early morning and late afternoon to catch prime time viewing of the animals.

There were no more than 6 of us in a little boat. Seeing magnificent wildlife puts you in a terrific mood and fueled great chatter on the boat and at mealtimes.During our last lunch at the lodge, old couple from London convinced young German newlyweds, that they’d never see a rare sighting of Pygmy elephants on their last boat outing and having seen enough primates, they should go to the stinky Gomantong caves.  Now, I heard from my boatman who has a little network with all the other lodge boatmen on the river, that there was a “rumor” that an elephant herd was heading towards the river waaay up north. There was no way in hell that if this was true, me, Ms. “Obsessed with elephants” was going to miss this event. My NY instincts were right.

Those poor newlyweds honestly thought I was yankin’ their chain when we regrouped at dinner and I said we saw a herd of 70 pygmy elephants coming down to the river! Until I showed them the pics. (I did feel a little bad).

The next day we left the lodge and stopped at the Gomantong Caves on the way back to Sandakan. Now, if you’re a voyeur like me for odd and disgusting things, the caves are once in a lifetime opportunity. And once is ALL you’ll need. Here’s what awaits you: A million pooping swiftlet birds that make a highly valued Asian gourmet delicacy of nests from bird spit. There are also a zillion bats, mountains of bird and bat crap and more cockroaches than can fill an entire NY subway system. The stench is as bad as 5-day-old garbage rotting on the sidewalk waiting for a pickup during a hot August heat wave.

The lesson here?  Be zen with wildlife and have patience for a possible pygmy elephant viewing. It’s well worth the wait. And if I managed pique your morbid curiosity, DO NOT swap it out for a jaunt on the river.

Kota Kinabalu: I’m done on this side

Kota Kinabalu has the personality of a dollar store. Cheap and ugly.The only reason to come here is because there is no other way to get to somewhere else. Which is how we found ourselves there for the night. If you want to imagine what a Vegas hotel felt like in Asia during the 50’s, I’d recommend the Promenade hotel. But funny thing, it wasn’t the experience we were looking for.

So I had a brilliant idea, let’s escape to a spa. Another brilliant idea…let’s go to the one the taxi driver handed us a flyer for.What the hell was I thinking? Like, when would I ever do that in NY? We both decide to get a foot massage as it seemed like a safe place to start. We sit in the lazy-boy-like lounge chairs, get served some tea all the while the masseuse boys are chattin’ us up.

7 bucks for 45 minutes for the 2 of us.  I’m thinkin’, “It don’t get better than this! Seeing how good we’re feelin’, masseuse boys convince us to get this treatment called “cupping”. We both get the “adventure rush”. Meaning….”Yeah, let’s do something we never heard of ’cause we’re in Borneo”. So here’s what cupping is…You lie  face down on a massage table, they light a match or candle into a cup and then place 10 cups on your back. The heat from the candle creates a vacuum-like suction and “supposedly” pulls the “toxins” out of your body. The darker the mark left from this procedure, the more lovely toxins are removed from your body. “tisk, tisk, tisk, toxins”, that’s all we kept on hearing from Jonah’s non-english speaking masseuse. We and couldn’t figure out why he kept repeating this. We found out soon enough.

Those damn embarrassing circles and burns were on our backs for the next 2 weeks. Honestly, I thought I scarred my son for life! My advice, stick with the foot massage and leave the cupping for the next dumb tourist.While we’re on the topic of seared meat… right across from the spa is the best Korean bbq, EVER.

So how to survive a day in KK? Stick to a foot massage, chow down at the bbq then get the hell out of dodge.