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!


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…’.

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.


Long-tailed macaques. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.


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


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.



A male proboscis monkey. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.


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’.


A Great Egret. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.


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.



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.

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!


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


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.


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


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.



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.


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.


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