Barbara & Stu's Excellent Vacations Great trips we have taken

We stayed right next to the PETRONAS Towers in KL at the Mandarin Oriental and enjoyed lovely views of thetowers. Of the city sights, we most enjoyed the Islamic Arts Museum with its fine selection of artifacts and handsome architecture, as well as a stroll through the butterfly gardens.  In both KL and Kota Kinabalu we attended cultural performances featuring traditional dances and activities such as use of the blowpipe, with which we successfully attacked balloons.  In KK we stayed at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria when we first arrived in Borneo and had our first opportunity to see orangutans in the wildlife sanctuary attached to the hotel.  Young orangs are rescued and rehabilitated back to the wild at this and the more famous Sepilok Rehabilitation Center. Food is set out at specific times of day and visitors are allowed to view them from a wooden walkway and platform.  They come very close, even walking along the walkway banisters. They're adorable with their flaming red fur and soulful eyes and are every bit as agile as you'd expect.  We also visited the Monosopiad Cultural Village, which honors a great cannibal warrior.  After a couple of nights in KK, we flew to Sandakan to visit Sepilok, but not before our guide had stopped at a shop in town to buy us leech socks for our rainforest explorations.  They came in very handy.  The orangutans at Sepilok were not all as young as in Rasa Ria, but still juvenile and very playful.  Macaques also came around to take advantage of the easy meal.

From Sepilok we drove to the river with a young British family and boarded a motor boat bound for the Sukau Rainforest Resort.  The journey takes about 2 - 3 hours, and we had the exceptionally good fortune of spotting a herd of about 18 Borneo Pygmy Elephants including a young calf.  We pulled over to the shore and got a close look at this rare species.  They are smaller than other Asian elephants, but are still impressive animals.   The lodge was basic but comfortable with wooden bungalows on a raised walkway surrounding a lovely garden.  Our guide lead us on boat excursions to see the endemic Proboscis monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, small crocodiles and a rich variety of birds, including many hornbill species.  The male Proboscis Monkey sports a huge pendulous nose, resembling a large pink cucumber, and a prodigious pot belly. The females are sleeker with less prominent noses.  One evening while walking to our room, several small, fleet fruit bats zoomed overhead hunting insects in our garden. The day that we were leaving the lodge, the skilled and very kind chef, Paschal, heard that we were going to visit the bat cave and presented us with 2 pairs of rubber gloves, a thoughtful gift for which we were soon very grateful.

We were driven to the Gomantong Caves, home to thousands of bats, swiftlets, crabs and cockroaches.  Locals use flexible bamboo ladders and poles to collect swift nests which are sold for exorbitant sums to become the key ingredient in Chinese birds nest soup.  The swiftlets nest about 1,000 ft. high on the cave ceiling and the villagers risk life and limb to harvest their nests.  The cave was not as dark as we expected thanks to large openings through which the strong sun streamed.  Visitors traverse the cave on a wooden walkway with railings, both spattered thick with bat and bird guano.  The planks were slippery, so we were extremely grateful to Paschal for the rubber gloves since grabbing the railing was disgustingly messy and there were all sorts of creepy critters crawling on it. It beat slipping and falling in the muck. From the caves, we continued overland for a few hours to the Danum Valley.  We had to dodge dozens of logging trucks hauling huge tree trunks on the long road to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.  We're told that the logging has ceased and that the company was just removing what was already cut before a June deadline.

The ecolodge was beautiful and very comfortable - built high on pylons to survive the rising waters in the rainy season.  We had a lovely chalet with a balcony overlooking the Danum river and old growth rainforest.  There was a handsome restaurant with good food and charming staff. Our guide, Dennysius (Dany), was fabulous.  We hiked the various trails in the sanctuary both day and night and were again incredibly lucky, spotting 7 wild orangutans, including the alpha male, a female with a young baby, another with an older child, as well as a young independent male and female.  We also particularly enjoyed the Red Leaf Monkeys with their ginger hair and sweet dark faces, and their cousins the Silver Leaf Langurs.  Unfortunately the gibbons and clouded leopards were nowhere to be found, but we saw many birds, frogs, lizards, flying squirrels, sambar deer and bearded pigs.  The lodge features canopy walkways as well as the ground trails and we were able to cool off in a lovely waterfall pool after a sweaty hike up to a scenic overlook point. We only experienced rain during the day once and it occurred while we were at the lodge during lunch, so it didn't impact our explorations, and the leeches weren't out in force most of the time.  We were able to flick them off before they attached, often thanks to our light-colored leech socks.

We spent the next 2 weeks scuba diving from the island of Mabul, which is about 15 minutes from Sipadan.  We highly recommend the Mabul Water Bungalows.  The facilities were terrific, talented dive staff and astounding diving.  The MWB house reef is one of the best dives in the area - at that site alone we saw frogfish, cuttlefish, graceful spotted eagle rays, a shimmering school of jacks, a gigantic grouper, leaf fishes, lots of lionfish, eels, octopus, nudibranches, a variety of tropical fish, crocodilefish, coral shrimpfish, pipefish, a long barracuda, scorpionfishes, and much more.  The cuttlefish were large and very sociable, even coming close to check us out.  It was amazing watching them effortlessly change color to camouflage themselves as they moved over the artificial reef.

The first week we joined a small group with our divemaster, May-May, and our wonderful boat crew, Malik and Jeffrey (who assembled our gear and helped us into and out of the water, gave us towels, water and snacks).  The standard program involved 2 dives a day at Sipadan with a surface interval on the island and 1 muck dive at either Mabul or Kapalai.  The best site at Sipadan was Barracuda Point, where we usually saw an enormous school of large barracuda, swirling over, under and around us, as well as whitetip and gray reef sharks (on the small side), tons of green and hawksbill turtles, bumphead parrotfish resembling marine bison, large tuna, shoals of jacks, friendly batfishes, and once a line of squid floating near the surface.  On one dive a pack of baby gray sharks patrolled the reef.  Most of the Sipadan sites were very scenic with  loads of healthy hard and soft coral, sponges, fans, anemones, all sorts of reef fish. Our first night dive, on one of the Mabul reefs with May-May, was jaw-dropping. We saw the tiny rare and beautiful flamboyant cuttlefish, a graceful Spanish Dancer nudibranch, a lethal cone snail, a two-eye lionfish,a baby cuttlefish nestling in a spiny urchin, sleeping turtles, a ball of writhing juvenile catfish, eels, worms, lionfish hunting, lots of shrimp, lobsters (spiny and slipper), crabs of all sizes and shapes, and glorious nudibranches.

After the first week, we realized that we were much more interested in the sites around Mabul and Kapalai and arranged to skip Sipadan.   Luckily, May-May was assigned to us, and the 3 of us did some fantastic muck diving, including night dives.  Another great site, called The Platform, is near an oil rig that was transformed into the Seaventures hotel.  We saw an adorable Pygmy Seahorse there twice, frogfish, crocodilefish, mating octopi who separated and scooted off in opposite directions, enormous schools of small barracuda, big-eye trevally and needlefish, ornate ghost pipefish and lots of nudibranches.  Although they were muck dives, there were often colorful reef fish, clouds of rainbow runners, eels galore including garden eels, tridacna clams, snappers, lots of camera-shy blennies and gobies and the ubiquitous turtles.  May-May seemed to have octopus radar and found them on most dives, and we also saw many more large cuttlefish.  Among the more interesting critters we saw were a flying gurnard, a stargazer,  small blue-spotted fantail rays, banded sea snake, puffer and porcupine fish, and mantis shrimp. A couple of the natural reefs around Mabul are named Paradise I and II, and for good reason.  We saw something new and interesting on every dive, and usually many fascinating discoveries.

There was a relaxing spa to enjoy when not diving and a very good restaurant.  The MWB sister resort - SmartDivers - was a short distance away on the other side of the island (by bike, golf cart or foot) and is a bit livelier if you want to enjoy volleyball, team sports or a rowdier bar crowd during your free time. 

We hated to leave but eventually had to hop a boat, van and plane back to Kota Kinabalu, where we overnighted at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru, which is closer to the airport and a bit posher than the Rasa Ria.  Their Italian restaurant, Peppino, serves excellent food in a refined, but casual, dining room.  We spent one more night in KL, enjoying the spa services at the hotel, before the long flight home.