For You I Will

Anyone who is planning a trip to Sandakan will most likely read about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (SORC). It is often highlighted as one of the must-sees in this historical city of Sabah Borneo. Although the place now treats more than Orangutans — sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and elephants — the star residents of the Center have always been the Men of the Forest.

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“Am I a great acrobat?” Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

My friend (Jason) and I certainly did not want to miss SORC while we were in this city known as the gateway to Borneo’s wildlife. We timed our visit to coincide with the morning feeding at 10AM. We arrived at the feeding platform slightly earlier and secured good spots that would allow us to have an excellent view of the Orangutans. 10AM arrived. No sight of Orangutans. The clock ticked further away from the appointed hour, still no sight of Orangutans. Perhaps the baboons could tell the plausible absence of the Orangutans for the entire period as several of them started to make an appearance on the feeding platform and unhesitatingly feasted on the buffet that was prepared for the great apes. What was supposed to be an Orangutan show had become a baboon show. The baboons did get polite and perfunctory attention from some curious members of the audience. With hesitation, people started to leave the site. Jason and I left but only to get some ice cream at the cafeteria. We returned to the site and continued to wait, still feeling hopeful that some Orangutans might just show up at the last possible instant. There was another woman who was also not willing to give up yet. As noon was approaching, the ranger finally, regretfully, requested us to leave and suggested that we come back for the afternoon feeding at 3PM. Alas, we were leaving for Kinabatangan River at 1.30PM. I was tremendously disappointed.

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I found myself laughing when I flashed on this baboons-taking-over-the-spotlight moment. I imagined they were saying “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the Orangutans are not coming today. But, much to your delight, we will run the show. Cheers”.

Fast-forward 3 days after our Kinabatangan trip. We were supposed to leave for the airport directly from Sukau. I did not feel at ease about leaving Sandakan without seeing Orangutans. I started to connect details in my head. Besides, we would have about 5 hours at the airport before departure. Feeling unsure about my last-minute plan, I turned to Jason and suggested that we gave SORC another try. He was hesitant but upon persuasion, agreed to go along with my plan. The plan was to have a minor detour. Instead of leaving for the airport, we would get off at SORC. The journey would take about 2 hours. We left Sukau around 8AM so we should be able to get to SORC just in time for the morning feeding. Any unplanned stops or delays could pretty much jeopardize our last hope of laying eyes on the great apes. Unfortunately, the driver did make a couple of brief stops. It was such a nerve-wrecking moment to keep checking the time and calculating the possibility of making it to the morning feeding. We finally arrived at SORC, around 10.45AM. We hurriedly made our way to the ticket counter but, once again, we were hit by disappointment — they were closing the gate as the Orangutans had all left the feeding platform. And once again, we were told to return for the afternoon feeding. And once again, we did not have the luxury of time to do so as we would be flying back home just before the afternoon feeding. We had a few hours to kill prior to leaving for the airport so we decided to walk to the Rainforest Discovery Center (located about 2KM from SORC) and learn about rainforest, and, if we were lucky enough we might just spot some wildlife.

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Ancient, dominant trees of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Still…I was haunted by the disappointment of not seeing any Orangutans. Various thoughts began to race through my mind…the most persistent one being this “since we are already here, we might as well try again at all costs”. Once again, I connected details and made a plan in my head. I looked back on similar situations encountered in some of my prior trips where we tried once again regardless of risk or expense. I silently asked myself if I ever regretted any of it. The answer has always been “it was well worth the risk”. I shared my thoughts with Jason. At first he was quite hesitant, but was once again convinced to go with the new plan which involved forgoing our 2.45PM flights, going back to SORC for the 3PM feeding session, and buying new tickets for a 6PM flight. This plan cost us a great deal of time and money, of course. Even with as much certainty as I could muster, there was this doubtful little voice that kept nagging at my mind, questioning “will it be worth it”?

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“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for our unexplained absence the other day. But all is well now. We are taking the show back from our baboon rivals”. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3PM was coming near. We made our way back to SORC. The day was hot and sunny. We were mostly quiet, entertaining whatever thoughts that were flooding through our minds. We quickly treated ourselves to some much-needed ice cream upon arrival at SORC. This was our third attempt so we knew what to do like the backs of our hands. As we were approaching the final check point to the feeding platform, it was the same guy who greeted us the first time we came. He smiled at us and announced the greatest news of the day “You were here before. You are lucky this time as the Orangutans are already on the platform”. It was not even 3PM yet! We got to the platform, and there they were, two seemingly carefree Orangutans moving about in a manner that hugely wowed their Homo sapiens admirers — upright walking, four-limbed suspension from branches, and tree swaying. Two slightly bigger Orangutans came and joined in the fun. We watched them perform their acrobatic moves in amazement. We watched them feast on their luxurious buffet of bananas, coconuts and leafy greens. Ahhh we could now leave Sandakan feeling happy and content. Answering for myself…was it worth it? OH YES, WITHOUT THE SLIGHTEST BIT OF DOUBT! So, dear Orangutans, now you know that for you I will!

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What comes to your mind when you look at this picture? For me, I see freedom. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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The Journey Counts

My friend and I were heading to the Tip of Borneo. The journey would take approximately three and a half hours. A small part of me did not exactly look forward to the long drive, especially when the day was dark and gloomy. I certainly did not have high hopes of seeing sunset that the Tip is well known for.

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“The sea is a desert of waves, a wilderness of water” (Langston Hughes). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

As the journey continued, the weather condition gradually changed to one that was sunny and breezy. My view of what lay ahead also began to become more positive, and I was able to relax into the beauty and slow pace of my surroundings. At one point of the journey we were greeted by a vast expansion of lush green paddy fields with Mount Kinabalu in the background. The sight was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. I have always found such scenery to have a therapeutic effect on my weary soul and mind. As we hit the little village called Menggaris, we made a brief stop to savor the local delight of smoked corn on the cob, and buy some local fruits (rambutan and manggis). When we finally reached the crossroads between Kudat and Kota Marudu, time was very generous to us so we decided to stop by my hometown where I showed my friend the high school I attended, the market, and my parents’ place where we had some cake and hot tea. We promised ourselves that we would treat us to some delicious crispy fried chicken today. So before leaving Kota Marudu for the Tip of Borneo, we stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant to get our reward of the day.

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Lush green paddy fields and the iconic landmark of Sabah, Mount Kinabalu. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Soon we were at the Tip. It was shortly before sunset. It was a most cherished moment to be sitting side-by-side with my beloved friend as the sky was slowly turning red/orange, with the sound of waves crashing upon the rocks below as the music to our ears. At a moment like this, we naturally understood and appreciated the comfortable silence between us. We then drove to the beach where we spent the rest of our day till darkness fell on us. The vibrant colors of sunset painted the sky allowing my friend to take some of the most beautiful sunset photos I have ever seen, and… creating a romantic atmosphere to enjoy our fingers-licking-good fried chicken!

It was a wonderful day, and a wonderful way to end the year 2017. Perhaps that day taught me that I should slow down and enjoy the journey as much as the destination of whatever that I will be embarking on in the coming year. Also, who could have known with certainty that an ordinary dark and gloomy day could conclude with an amazing sunset? Life is full of unpredictable turns, ups and downs but that’s what makes it a LIFE, yes?

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The sun slowly dipped below the horizon, marking the end of a day in parts of the world, and the start for the other parts. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Amazon of the East

Roger Munns, an Emmy award winning cameraman, refers to Sabah’s longest river — Kinabatangan River — as the Amazon of the East. I recently made my third visit to this ecotourism paradise with my faithful travel companion, Jason.  My first visit took place in 2008 where I stayed in Bilit. I returned for my second trip in the same year where I participated in the Miso Walai Village homestay program. For my third visit, we headed to Sukau. One might ask how I could want to return to the same place time and again. One might also imagine that the experiences I had were pretty much the same (river cruising, wildlife viewing, cultural experience…). But as John Steinbeck said in his riveting novel — Travels with Charley: In Search of America — “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike”. I couldn’t agree more!

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Kinabatangan River as the sun was setting.

The third visit was exceptional in its own ways. It began with a long road trip from Sepilok that was interrupted by a flat tire shortly after we passed the Sukau junction. While this unforeseen episode had interfered with the day’s plan to a certain degree, it had actually amplified the trip’s sense of adventure. It would make an interesting story to tell, a story that I would start with ‘under the scorching heat of Borneo, in the middle of nowhere flanked by palm oil fields that stretched as far as the eyes could see…’.

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An episode of flat tire to add a sense of adventure to the trip. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

We arrived at our destination approximately an hour behind schedule. The first activity planned upon arrival was river cruising. Everything happened so quickly from the guides greeting us to passing out forms for us to complete. As we were picking up our life jackets for the cruise, one of the guides signaled my friend and me to a private boat while the rest of the tour participants were boarding the same boat. I thought that was a little strange but did not say anything thinking that was the arrangement they had made for us. As we cruised along the mighty river, we were fortunate enough to spot some wildlife —- macaques, hornbills, great egrets, snake, monitor lizard, the back of a crocodile, proboscis monkeys (and the “red chili scene” – if you don’t know and are curious, ask me personally and I will tell you what it is), and a few other types of birds whose names I could not recall. While it was quite disappointing that we missed our Borneo Pygmy Elephant friends, perhaps that would call for a future visit.

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Long-tailed macaques. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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My imagination told me this monitor lizard was enjoying her morning sunbath. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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A snake was cruising its way away from us. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Seeing those animals was a wonderful experience given the fact that there are no guarantees in wildlife viewing, and the knowledge that some of them are endangered species. I remember thinking “I am lucky enough to have seen these animals for I will not know if they will still be here years from now”. Learning about these animals from our guide added richness and depth to my experience. For instance, I now know the behavioral differences between long-tailed macaques and their pig-tailed counterparts, and the physical distinctions between male and female proboscis monkeys.

 

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A male proboscis monkey. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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A female proboscis monkey. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I found the learning portion of the experience tremendously enjoyable not just for the acquisition of new and refreshing knowledge, but also for this less ‘technical’ reason: I have been teaching for a number of years. I had missed being in a place where I learned instead of taught, where I was entertained instead of to entertain, where I was not in charge… it was also thought-provoking to see palm oil plantations along certain parts of Kinabatangan River. I remember reading about the conflict threatening the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the place. Staring at the source of the conflict right before my eyes, I got this sinking feeling despite being informed by our guide ‘things are going well today’.

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A Great Egret. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Two Oriental Pied hornbills perched on the forest trees. Oriental Pied is the smallest of Malaysia’s hornbills, and the only one likely to be seen any distance from primary forest. According to HUTAN (a French NGO that studies orang utans in Sabah), there are eight recorded hornbill species in Kinabatangan River. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Dinner was an unexpected delight. Unexpected because instead of dining at the operator’s riverside restaurant (as I remembered in the itinerary), we were taken to a family of the indigenous Orang Sungai and had our dinner with them. The food was traditional and insanely delicious (plus I was starving) that I helped myself to three servings. Our guide jokingly said to me “you’re not a local Sabahan if you don’t eat this much”. I wish I had asked for the recipe of that divine river prawn dish! The interactions with the family were quite minimal, unfortunately. There were only the mother and her little daughter. With the mother, we talked about the food! With her little daughter, we had a ‘selfie’ time together (it was her idea of fun!). Still, I was certain that dining with a local family was more memorable than dining at a restaurant.

 

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Dinner at the home of an Orang Sungai family. Orang Sungai is one of the officially recognized native groups in Sabah. They reside mainly in the rural areas along the Kinabatangan River, Paitan, Labuk and Kudat. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Jason and his newfound little Orang Sungai friend.

Before we headed back to the lodge, our guide announced another surprise – firefly watching. I felt a little strange about all these pleasant surprises — private boat, dinner with local family, and now firefly watching — but still chose to dismiss my feeling, assuring myself that they knew what they were doing. As we were finally cruising back in the penetrating cold of the night, our guide approached us and hesitantly asked me ‘when you requested for the tour, did you specifically ask for firefly?’, to which I answered no and told him what we were supposed to have in our itinerary. Later we discovered that the unexpected surprises were…all a big mistake! There was another guest whose first name was very similar to mine. The guide unintentionally ‘swapped’ our identities. Anyway… all went well eventually. The younger me might probably have complicated the situation but with age and experience I have learned to understand and accept imperfections and come to a compromise. Of course, Jason helped put things into perspective, a quality of his that makes him my perfect travel companion!

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Reflection of rainforest trees on the still waters of the mighty Kinabatangan River.

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Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The second day of the trip was nothing less than amazing, only this time we were no longer in a ‘private tour’. Jason joked that we were “downgraded”! More river cruising and wildlife viewing, jungle trekking, visiting Gomantong Cave (its many creepy crawlies made it one of the most terrifying places I have ever been to) and enjoying the sight of thousands upon thousands of bats flying at dusk swirling in ever-changing patterns as they left the holes high in the cave. It was truly a sight to behold! We also joined in a brief yoga session led by that sweet lady in our tour group. I still remember one particular movement and practice it at times— the movement to soothe stiffness in shoulders and neck.

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Early morning river cruise. A lone Sungai fisherman on his way back from checking his crab traps.

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Morning jungle walk. Our guide told us the possibility of spotting animals in the day was low. We didn’t see any. But it was still interesting to see the marks left by animals (e.g. claw mark of sun bear on a tree trunk, footprints of wild boar, ”wild boar pool”) and learn about the ancient trees of Kinabatangan.

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The evening went quickly. We had a delightful conversation with a couple from Sweden, the couple whose itinerary was mixed up with ours. But the mistake was never brought up in our conversation (we doubted they were even aware of what happened). Our conversation started with Helena’s upcoming horseback riding trip in Iceland and expanded to a variety of topics. I found it particularly interesting to learn about other visitors’ travel motivations and patterns. I also thought this was part of the beauty and joy of travel — the opportunity to cross paths with people from near and far. The chances of meeting again in another place are slim to none but as one tells his/her travel stories, as what I am doing here and now, one may just remember the people met along the way and smile at the memories.

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Kinabatangan River at the peak of sunset. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

This trip to Kinabatangan, and some of my prior trips, have made me realize that as I grow older and travel more, I am no longer interested in just going places and taking photographs. Very often, I search for deeper experiences marked by learning and interactions (with local people, with fellow travelers…). I often tell myself to have some deep interest and genuine curiosity about the world for it will take me far and make me wiser. I dare say the world is the best classroom one can ever have.

 

My Gibbon Experience

One of the highlights of my trip to Laos in 2016 was my participation in an activity called the Gibbon Experience in the Nam Kan National Park. Read about it, and you would know that the activity centers on two things: the world’s highest treehouses and the world’s highest and longest ziplines. I tend to attach romantic connotations to treehouses:  personal space, solitude of the forest, starry night skies, sounds of forest inhabitants, back-to-the-basics… Ziplining was not new to me. Having done Borneo’s biggest zipline a couple of times, I was quite confident about doing the Gibbon ziplines. Looking back on my entire Gibbon zipline experience, I would summarize it this way: I went with confidence, I whizzed through the forest canopies feeling absolutely defeated a lot of times, and I ended it with an elevated sense of capability and accomplishment …and some fun.

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That was me flying through the forest canopies like a gibbon! By ziplining we were able to go deeper into the forest without so much of up-and-down walking/trekking. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

After several hours of trekking into the forest on the first day, we arrived at our first zipline. It was supposed to be one of the short ones. I chose to be the second last person to go. I watched those who went before me ziplined all the way to the other side. I repeated the safety measures again and again in my head. I still had my confidence, but as I was standing on the edge of the platform awaiting Valao (second guide)’s signal to go, fear started to creep in. My hands became cold. My heart raced. A few seconds later I found myself flying through the forest canopies. Honestly, I did not notice much of my surroundings as I was flying way too fast, and of course fear was an uninvited guest who would not go away.

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The vast expanse of Bokeo Forest. According to the Gibbon Experience team, their zipline project is a community-based project that is aimed at ensuring a sustainable future of the Bokeo Forest. In addition to employing more than a hundred local people, they help raise awareness of conservation. I just wonder how much of the money that participants pay actually goes to the employees (e.g. guides) and conservation.

The real bummer occurred when I came to a stop in midair. It was still quite a distance to reach the landing platform. Feeling a moment of sheer panic, I did what I was taught in the event of stopping in midair: crawled my way back to the end. After a while my arms became so exhausted that they hurt and I could not move on. So there I was hanging more than 100 feet in the air holding on for my dear life. Eventually Meng (first guide) had to hook himself to the line and crawl out to get me. Once I was at the landing platform, those who went before me tried to encourage me but I was seriously feeling defeated. This feeling was my faithful company for the rest of first day’s ziplines.

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Jason crawling his way back. 

The first night in the treehouse was rather pleasant – getting to know the other participants, playing some game, enjoying the beauty of nature at night (starry night skies, trees’ silhouettes, sounds of forest inhabitants) – but a large part of me dreaded what would come the following day. I wondered what I did not do right that I stopped before reaching the end. Did I incorrectly position my legs? Was my backpack too heavy? Was I not physically fit enough? Was it the fear?

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The treehouse in which we spent our first night. The only way to get to it (and all the other treehouses) was ziplining.

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One of the treehouses seen from the ground. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Second day arrived. My confidence level had plummeted to the lowest point. Fear got the best of me. I had never been the ‘weakest’ or the ‘last’ in group situations before. It was such a lonely feeling that everybody could make it except me. Still, I did not want to give up thinking ‘maybe it would be better this time’, and, I paid quite a lot of money for the activity so I might as well finish it. More ziplining. More hovering in midair. More crawling my way back. The good news was that the more I did, the closer I got to the end. I remember one participant said to me ‘practice makes perfect’ (I could not agree more!). I began to feel my confidence slowly coming back, and started to enjoy myself a little bit more.

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A small patch of treetops being illuminated by the last glow of sunset.

Darkness fell without much realization. The starry moonlit night was a quiet and peaceful time for me. My friend was just a few inches away from me. But most of the time we were silent. It was a perfect time to do nothing but appreciate being so close to the nature. The beauty of it all was so enchanting that it drew me beyond myself and into rapt fascination with my surroundings. I would want to have a night like this for the rest of my life! The entire scene was precisely a manifestation of my romantic notions of treehouses.

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Magical night scene- skies dotted with millions of stars, and silhouettes of trees near and far. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.
 

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Full moon. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The biggest challenge (for me) was to come on the third day: the longest zipline at the length of more than 500 meters. I reduced the load in my backpack as much as I could. The magical feeling that I had the night before was replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety. I kept thinking it would be a very, very long way to crawl my way back if I stopped in midair. Not convinced with the weight of my backpack, I humbly asked Valao if he could help me carry it. Without any hesitation he agreed. While waiting for my turn to take off, I tried to remember all the do’s and don’ts of successful ziplining. A few minutes later I was up in the air again. It was such a long flight that at some point of it my fear/anxiety subsided and I started to relax and notice, observe and enjoy my surroundings more – the trees, the blue skies, the silence. I saw my shadow moving alongside me and thought it was cute. Finally I came to a stop, but was close enough to the landing platform. Although I did not make it all the way through, it was still a moment of great feat and happiness for me. Some of us went back and repeat the longest zipline. I did too! At one point I even went tandem with Meng.

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Beauty of the place at dawn. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

So does my Gibbon story sound pretty much like a fairy tale that has a happy ending? I guess that is one way to look at it. On a deeper level, I would say the entire experience was rather spiritual for me. The beauty of the place was captivating, dynamic as it was always changing depending on the time of the day, and was able to gratify all of my senses in that I could see, hear, smell, taste and feel it. The wild and vast expanse of the forest environment humbled me as it reminded me of how small I was in comparison to the Universe. Gibbon ziplining was a physically, mentally and emotionally challenge that compelled me to face my own limitations. Coming out of it alive had to some extent elevated my sense of capability and self-worth and endowed me with a great sense of accomplishment. This is my Gibbon experience.

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The group (left to right): me, Maureen, Chad, Valao, Robert, Laura, Jason, Meng, Sarah and Anthony. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

 

My Akha Diary

My friend (Jason) and I recently visited a place where he made a comment ‘this is like the Akha experience we had in Laos’. My thought immediately went back to November 16, 2016 when we started our 3-day trekking trip into the primary and secondary forests of Muang Sing. We decided to do it largely in hopes of gaining a learning experience into the culture and daily life of the Akha hill tribe.

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Oung and Lar Tue making a ‘bridge’ for us to cross the river. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It has been more than a year since the trip, but certain memories of it can never fade. They are timeless treasures of the heart. The first day mainly involved trekking through the forest.

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The dense forest of Muang Sing.

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The valley we were heading to.

There were four of us: our Akha guide named Oung, the head of the family with whom we would be staying Lar Tue (my spelling of his name might be questionable), Jason and I. Since we were far away from the hustle and bustle of modernization, peace was all around us. We had our lunch at beautiful waterfalls named Nam Keo Noi. I still remember how delicious and fulfilling the lunch was!

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Nam Keo Noi waterfalls where we stopped for lunch on our first day of trekking. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Our first day’s lunch- rice, chicken, stir-fried veggies and Mandarin oranges. Absolutely yum!

One of the most beautiful experiences of this part of first day was seeing Lar Tue and Oung catch spiders in the forest (for dinner!). The happiness, joy and contentment that they seemed to exude were contagious. I remember feeling absolutely present in the moment.

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Oung caught a spider with a stick he created with his creativity.

I also learned one valuable technique of warding off bloodsucking leeches: applied tiger balm all over our shoes as the smell was too repulsive for those little monsters. During one of our rest stops, Lar Tue and Oung shared their local delicacy of bamboo rice cake with us. I enjoyed it so much that Lar Tue let me have one of his. What a joyful moment of sharing in the depths of Muang Sing forest far away from daily burdens and stresses, with two happy, generous, and funny Akha tribesmen!

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Bamboo rice cake that Oung and Lar Tue shared with us.

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Lar Tue’s village, that was where we would be spending our first night. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It was already late in the afternoon when we reached Lar Tue’s village. I remember having this so-close-yet-so-far feeling as the appearance of the village and all that was in it was not much different than what one would usually find in a typical village in Sabah – wooden houses, animal barns, vegetable farms…even the faces of the villagers. While most things seemed familiar to me, they were still pretty much foreign to me. I did not speak the language. I did not know how things were supposed to work there. In other words, we were worlds apart when it came to our cultural perspectives. I treasured both the similarities and differences as they both gave me a sense of familiarity and a sense of authenticity in my encounter with the friendly and lovely Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s village.

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Beautiful faces of the Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s home, where we spent our first night of the trek.

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Lar Tue’s wife preparing wild veggies for dinner (and for all the other meals).

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Dinner time – rice, boiled wild veggies, fish, peanuts, and deep-fried spiders.

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We visited the school before starting our second day of trekking. It was interesting to learn about the village’s school system. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Lar Tue and his wife.

Another beautiful memory from the trip that never fails to make me smile every time I look back on my Akha trip is the second day’s trek through various villages, schools, sugar cane, rubber and banana plantations, paddy fields, and bushes. Most villagers whom we walked past were warm and friendly, especially the kids. At one of the villages, we were surrounded by kids. I had fun taking some wefies with them. They giggled and laughed as I showed them the results. It was certainly a heart-warming moment to see such simple gestures could still bring much joy to some of us.

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Showing the outcome of wefies to some kids in one of the villages we were passing through. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I remember being followed by a group of school kids. They were eager to speak to us in English. Jason did most of the work. I think they even talked about football. Our guide had to tell the boys to go home haha!

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Jason was surrounded by some school kids who were eager to practice their English, and ask all kinds of questions from Canada to football.

We were slashing long grass and branches as we walked through the plantations and bushes. In doing all this, Oung occasionally sang what appeared to me as a sad love song (later I discovered that indeed he was singing a sad love song!). Sometimes I tried to whistle in tune with Oung’s singing. More slashing. More singing and whistling. I was happy.

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Slashing the long leaves of sugar canes with a stick. Slashing. Singing. Whistling. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Paddy fields after harvest, and a lone water buffalo. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Another unforgettable moment from the trip is the second evening spent with some Akha kids. We were strolling through the village. I must say the kids seemed to love foreigners! They followed us, and just like all the other kids we had previously encountered, they wanted to practice their English, asked questions, played games…

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Jason drawing a smurf on the dirt for his little Akha fans.

By the time we got back to our ‘homestay’, we had collected quite a number of little guests. I braided some of the kids’ hair. Jason took photos. We asked them questions. They did too. They also performed some dances for us. They kept us company until it was about time for dinner.

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Time for some hair braiding session. Girls were lining up for my free-of-charge service. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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My first two sweet little customers. One of them (on the right) did not have a rubber band so I decided to give her mine.

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The Akha version of Spice Girls (and a little boy). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Just before we departed, some of the kids came to say goodbye. Though the amount of time we spent with them was minimal, it was still sad to part. They were standing on/near the porch of our ‘homestay’ till they were out of our sight. That was the very last image I had of them. I remember having this conversation with Jason about what would happen to these kids in the future. Would we see them again? Would they still be in the same village years later? Perhaps some of them would move to the city? Getting married at a young age seems to be a common practice, so… or perhaps some of them would end up studying or working in another country? Whatever the future held for them, we had our best wishes for the kids who made our Akha experience that much more beautiful and meaningful.

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The last image I had of the kids as we were leaving.

There was so much more to our Akha experience. The encounter with some water buffaloes and what Oung did to scare them away… the same meal of rice, wild veggies and fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner… the taste of deep fried spiders… the Akha traditional massage… the overnight stay at Lar Tue’s home with some of his kids stealing glimpses of the two weird foreigners sleeping under mosquito nets… Oung’s attempt to say 1 to 10 in Japanese… the sum of all these experiences has definitely given me one of the most amazing travel memories, and the realization that interactions with local people can really add depth to the outcome of a trip.

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Our encounter with a couple of huge water buffaloes. Get out of their way! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Jason, Oung and Lar Tue at the back of a Lao version of Tuk Tuk. We were on our way back to the town on the last day.