My first time backpacking in South East Asia made me analyze two standout countries. Part adventure, part relaxation, but mostly just sheer madness, here are some of the best and worst of Malaysia and Vietnam!
A monkey approached me cautiously. While I waited for the boat, I held a plastic bag containing 3 days of jungle-ripe laundry. The scent attracted the attention of a rowdy troupe of macaques. Tiny hands suddenly lashed out, and the monkeys leapt upon the bag with fury, tearing at my laundry until I yelled and shooed them away.
I was waiting for my boat driver on the rickety wharf at Bako national park, Borneo. The sun was hot, the Bornean sky an impossible blue, and the receding tide had revealed long stretches of muddy mangrove, home to a million scurrying crabs, pulling mud from their flooded homes and rolling it into balls.
There was no shortage of monkeys here in the Malaysian jungle. Silver leaf monkeys played and jumped in the sky on a magic carpet of crawling jungle canopy. Proboscis monkeys barreled from tree to tree with clumsy urgency, their huge bulbous noses and swollen bellies making them look like living muppets.
In nearby Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, the great orange apes showed us their climbing skills, descending down trees with the stealth of a dancing clown, taking four handfuls of bananas from the feeding area, and loping up their tree with the fruit grasped by each hand and foot.
When I strode into Kuching, the lovely ‘city of cats’ in the far south of Borneo, my hair was matted with sweat and my clothes clung to me under my huge backpack.
I didn’t know what to expect, a small town maybe, half swallowed by jungle, drums sounding as boat drivers traded snakes, jade figures and precious gems at the dock, jeeps and rickshaws and tribespeople and colonial buildings, a fantasy adventure.
Kuching turned out to be a big place with high rise hotels and shopping centres, a CBD and an expansive airport. Nevertheless, I loved it, and though my expectations were somewhat of a fantasy from the 1920’s, it was halfway there.
With plenty of plant life, the jungle always seemed to lean in close. The charming waterfront collected sleeping locals under the baking hot sun by day and market stalls selling souvenirs and fruit under the floating coloured lights at night.
River taxis spluttered lazily back and forth across the river, eliminating the need for a bridge, and making life slowed-down. An old fort bleached bone-white by the sun on one bank, rows of crocodile-shaped cannons lined the other. I’ll come back one day.
The jungle and the trekking
I never knew I loved trekking until I visited Borneo. Something about getting lost the jungle held some sort of wild appeal. I dirtied my shoes at two national parks.
Sweaty, wild Bako, where I saw most of the monkeys, was accessible only by charter speedboat at the bazaar upriver, and Mulu, with it’s lavishly constructed visitors centre, long, treacherous walks with invisible paths known only to guides, immense cave formations and airstrip access. The element of danger and unpredictability sold it for me.
One night, Bako was being lashed by furious thunderstorms. I was reading a book under the cover of the dorm verandah, safe and dry, feeling sorry for the people still in the jungle. Trees were falling and melting under the terrible jungle monsoon.
This was the night I met Cindy, who materialized out of the rain with her friend Adeline, sopping wet but all smiles, sharing fruit with me, happy to be in this crazy place as much as I.
I was in Kuching, Borneo, staying in a dorm. The owner’s name was Chris, a Bornean, clad head to toe in tribal tattoos and with a cool, welcoming attitude.
The walls were bright red and graffitied with marker; pillows and mats formed a common area to relax in front of the TV. A huge carnivorous snakehead fish patrolled its tank, a reminder of what lay in the jungle. All-day breakfast of toast and mini bananas always seemed to have one or two guests milling around the kitchen.
As I dropped off my bag in the dorm, a half-sleeping person stirred from under a blanket, and rolled over to say hello. He was Anthony, from California, recovering in pain from blistering sunburn on his back.
I asked him how long he’d been in Borneo; comically he replied “too long, man”, with a sly grin. Two months had eluded him in the sticky jungle heat, and he searched for the motivation to catch a bus onward to Indonesia.
A dozen days later I was back from trekking in Mulu National Park and checked back into Nomad Hotel. I walked up the staircase, past the red walls and said g’day to Chris, who welcomed me back with a grin. I helped myself to the free breakfast. It was a hostel, but it felt like home.
Something is in the water in South East Asia, and our six-legged friends have grown to monstrous proportions. Borneo is home to a lot of the big ones, but even in the cities around the subcontinent, the insects pervade. Check out these big guys!
Starvation in the jungle
Mulu national park, and I had planned ahead. There were no ATMs in the jungle, so i brought enough Malaysian Ringgit to last me the 3 nights away from civilization.
Or so I thought. I didn’t anticipate the treks and guides to cost as much as they did, and I was left with just 100 ringgit, 50 of which was tied up in the room key bond. 50 Ringgit (around $16) to last me 4 days and 3 nights.
Cindy and Adeline were in the same boat, but somehow had to find food to fuel them for a mammoth 3 day trek. They packed 2 minute noodles and cookies. Thank god for free breakfast, because for lunch and dinner we were down to rations of one pack of 2-minute noodles per meal, washed down with boiled kettle water. Poor planning!
A speck on the map in Vietnam’s north, mountainous and remote. Motorbikes seemed to whisper through misty streets, a weather phenomenon which shrouded the small town with a soft settling mist.
Young H’mong ladies haggled with the small trickle of tourists, selling tours to visit their tribal villages and rice farms. They wore black dress, with sleeves, collars, leggings and headscarves vibrant in woven pinks and greens.
The older H’mong carried babies in wicker baskets on their backs, and traded fresh produce at the central market. Jeff and I had explored the muddy and potholed roads fanning out of Sapa by motorbike, watching curtains of mist lift to present expansive tiers of rice fields. Ribbons of mountain pass proved to be some thrilling riding.
We explored Cat Cat village by foot, never complaining about the walk up and down the hillside village, once we witnessed the back-breaking labour of the rice farmers, knee-deep in muddy water, planting rice shoots one by one. Amazing.
South East Asia is incredibly kind on the wallet – and it’s certainly no secret. For many people the $1 beer and $3 dorm beds are the reason for visiting.
This is true for most countries in the region, but Vietnam was a shining example of cheap, to the point where a beer costing more than a dollar was considered an outrage. A meal for $2-3, a taxi across town for $3, it’s a wonder anybody makes any money!
Dark as night, rich in flavours of chocolate and malt, and capable of staining a mouthful of teeth a deep brown after just one cup – Vietnamese coffee was just spectacular.
Jeff and I started many a Vietnamese morning swigging a cup of the potent brew, crouched on kid-sized plastic chairs in the tropical heat, watching the motorbikes scuttle past.
A metal filter apparatus placed on top of the cup filled just right – not too much coffee, not too little – heightened excitement for the liquid as drop by drop, the beverage brewed itself.
Jeff and I tracked this delicious meal to every corner of Vietnam. This steaming hot noodle soup, the venerable backbone of the Vietnamese diet, was suitable as an early morning pick-me-up as much as a late night meal to accompany a few Saigon lagers.
Fresh chicken or beef accompanied rice noodles, coriander, basil, chilli, sprouts, lime and mint, most of which were served separately (customize your meal!).
The smell wafted irresistibly from the streets of Hanoi to the alleys of Hoi An, and we might as well have floated through the air, nose first, like cartoon characters when we caught it’s scent.
Jeff and I also noted what we liked to call ‘the pho effect’, where the soup could fill the stomach to gluttonous proportions, but an hour later the liquid would be gone, and we would be starving again. A good excuse to order another pho…
Green valley hotel
Green Valley Hotel in Sapa, northern Vietnam. A fine white mist drifted through the air in slow-motion, kissing the town with a cold dew.
Multi-story hotels with mountain views surely outnumbered the tourists here, making a hotel choice a difficult one. A day earlier, over a cold Bia Hoi (freshly brewed local beer) on a busy Hanoi street corner, a Dutch expat suggested this hotel.
We followed his advice and met the manager Glen, from Sydney. The many balconies gazed into the foggy mountains, a free pool table magnetized the relaxed, tribal-decorated bar, and Glen frequently joined us for dinner and beers to talk motorbikes, H’mong tribes, and home.
‘We have to find Derrick!’, Jeff explained to Glen, later that night. Both were at the height of inebriation, and had teamed up to complete a comedic routine of playing drunken pool, and locking up the hotel just before close. In the meantime, I was missing.
Jeff and I had been bar-hopping, playing pool, enjoying beers and getting to the business end of a tequila bottle with some locals, and Glen had been out partying. Somewhere along the way Jeff and I separated.
It was midnight and as Sapa slept, I staggered back to the hotel through the fog. I reached the hotel, hassle-free, just as the others had started their rescue operation, their own zig-zag walk to find me. Service with a smile!
The motorbikes roared in unison as the red lights flicked to green, a stifling drone that never let up. There must have been a thousand of them waiting at the lights on this night in Hanoi.
The huge ring road around the central lake was swirling with engines like an outrageous swarm of robotic flies. Even from a hotel room, the motorbike noise permeated, an inescapable wall of white noise.
Exhausting. Just exhausting. Walking down the street for five minutes could easily attract about fifty offers for a motorbike, a taxi as you exit a bus ride, a tuk tuk, sunglasses for sale shoved in your face as you sit and eat at a restaurant, books, beads, necklaces, street food, even weed and cocaine.
After a short while saying ‘no, thanks’, my courtesy degraded into flat out ‘NO’, then, just silence.
Those long bus journeys
Vietnam’s elongated country shape is ideal to plot out a no-hassle north-south (or vice versa) travel itinerary, but the downside is the time and money that Jeff and I spent achieving our goal.
Train, bus, train, bus, 7, 8, 9, 10 or even more hours between cities, we used up whole days just getting from place to place. Usually around $20 a pop, the long transit days cancelled out any kind of saving we had done with the cheap food and hotels.