Friday, May 11, 2007

Live your dream - dive on Sipadan

I've booked us in for the SMART Water Bungalow Resort on Mabul Island. It's adviced that you reserve your diving for Sipadan early in advance, as it is probably the most beautiful diving spot in the world. And as the Malaysian government decided in 2005 to prohibit accomodation on the Sipadan Island itself, all the resorts have been closed and rebuilt on the islands right next to it. As the ecological damage to the reefs and it's aqua-life had been increasing every year, they set a Wildlife department right next to the military facilities on Sipadan, controlling that not more then 120 divers per day are allowed to dive there. The park rangers are pretty strict, and each day when the boats arrive to Sipadan from Mabul or Semporna, your guides need to collect your names on the boat (or fictive ones) in a list and announce your dive before you can get down into the water.

The only issue we had for the next 8 days happened in the beginning. I've done the booking through the reselling agency of Save-Money Diving and got a bit nervous before. It's a pile of money, but the contact has been very trustworthy and nice - we confirmed via email, that we won't arrive in Tawau Airport / South Sabah as the usual guests to be picked up by their transport, but already waiting in Semporna. This basically saved us the way from Tawau to Semporna, as the jetty there is anway the place where you got on the boat and brought to Palau Mabul from there. So instead of Tawau, we planned to be picked up in Semporna already and just get on the first boat. The agency confirmed our pickup in the Seafest Hotel Lobby at 9am in the morning.

At 9:10 Ksenia and I observed the jetty and asked around for the speedboat of the SMART Resort - fortunatly, a friendly woman from Uncle Chan pointed me to the right boat, which was about to be loaded with a japanese couple. They haven't had us on their pickup-list for the morning, but by handing over my confirmation voucher, this issue easily got resolved by pointing them to our backpacks and take us on board. After an hour of looking forward that I hopefully haven't messed up our relaxing paradise, the welcome on Mabul was heartfully and way better organised. We arrived at the medium class Sipadan Mabul Resort, and they handed us a key for a half-day stay there, as we've been expected to arrive in the middle of the day, and the water bungalows haven't been free yet. These facilities were only 8 minutes by feet away, so our relocation set for the afternoon wasn't concerning us at all. This area was already pretty wonderful, embedded into palmtrees, white beach, a very clean and comfortable dining hall, Dive-center and helpful and so friendly staff.

These guys took care of our luggage, and we had been introduced to Maya, our PADI Diving Instructor for the first day. It's been adviced to first make 2 orientation dives if your last one was a while ago, and as the Mabul reef is right in front of the island, we rented some gear and made us ready for our first dives. Mabul is pretty famous for it's muck-diving, the macro world, you see lots of nudibranches, frog-fish, crocodile-, stone-fish, jacks and trigger-fish there. The house-reef is right in front of the water-bungalows, and besides the other diving spots around the islands, Maya took us to the artificial house-reef for the first one. It was pretty wonderful already, the water on 20m still had minimum 28°C, and besides the different fish mentioned above, we've also spotted a 1.5m giant gruper.

At our second dive, I planned to take my newly purchased underwater house for the IXUS 450 with me - to test it doesn't leak. Unfortunatly forgot this in our bungalow, so we just enjoyed and had fun on paradise II, also very famous on mabul - you may additionally see the blue-spotted flunder and many many big frog-fishes. The corals are very beautiful here, but visibility stays often below 10-15m.

It became already later afternoon, as a funny golf-club car arrived in front of our bungalow to pick up our luggage and ourself to get over to the Mabul Water Bungalows, the upper class variant, just under the same management and on the other side of the island. Mabul itself is not very big - you can walk around the island in not more then an hour. There is a village with lots of children and local people hanging out, 2 more resorts: the Borneo Divers, pioneers for diving on Sipadan, had been the first on the island in the early 90s, and Water Village Bungalows - not to be mixed up, and with some distance right next to our upcoming accomodation.

The friendly chauffeur drove us the 4 minutes over the long jetty to the Water Bungalows - a pure paradise already by first look. Not to struggle with myself to describe to much of the view and architecture here, just have a look on a couple of the pictures above.

We had been just thrilled - it is so beautiful, you just think you got straight into paradise. The facility has it's own restaurant, diving-center, staff, basically it's almost independent from the other facility. If you rent gear, you get it from the insular resort - the market over there has also a higher variety of stuff, and you have a professional film- and photo-equipment store, where the staff there is very helpful, friendly and gave me good advices on the usage of my camera housing.

So we moved in, the bungalow just had it ALL - and it already got time for the dinner - but this, we are going to tell about tomorrow.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

South-East of Sabah / Borneo - Semporna, stepping stone to Sipadan

In Lahad Datu, the Minibus dropped Lance, Gale, Ksenia and me right next to the next minibus, heading to Semporna.

The picture above spotted the more natural hutts for the inhabitants of Semporna. For tourists, you have the more organised water resort - the Semporna Ocean Tourism Centre (SOTC) - whereby the aussis went to the Dragon Inn, which is part of this, and as Ksenia and I had an appointment to get picked up in the lobby of the seafest hotel right opposite to the jetty next morning, we checked in here. Next time we'll get to the SOTC by ourself as well, it really looked pretty, cheap and we came to that place later again. But also our accomodation had been fine, and Ksenia really desired a warm shower and an A/C after our jungle adventure.

Right after this shower, we went back to the SOTC to meet with our friends and have a good (early) dinner. The restaurant inside promised to have freshly catched seafood, and after I had my mandatory tiger and Ksenia her fresh pressed pineapple / orange juice, their waitress brought a case of flouncing fish to doublecheck the weight and lookalike of our choice. We confirmed and soon had a delicous dish - ye, I agree with you vegetarians and WWF'ers outthere, nothing is more cruel to see your living dish before it get's fried, but thats the asian way, and to be in asia without having good seafood, I rather stay in germany with my schnitzel then at all.

We walked for some more beer to town with Lance and Gale again, checked out the darker corners, but the city seemed very friendly and we had fun with the locals. But all of us have been pretty tired again, so at 10 we aimed back to our hotel to get some hours of sleep, before our paradise heaven of diving adventure on Mabul / Sipadan was supposed to start next morning 9am. The aussis had a diving appointment for 3 days later, but as they decided to stay with us, they had a chat with their agency Uncle Chan, and made a successful rebooking for 2 days earlier. Their resort is right near to our ones, so we scheduled to see us on the 15th and left them with a good bye - may visit them also once in australia. But we'll see us earlier - on Drop Off!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Jungle epilogue and head to the south-east

After we've moved into our new accomodation, the frist trips in the jungle were scheduled already. We were invited to hop into a boat and discover the environment in a more easier way, sitting either sun- or mosquito-protected, holiding tight to our camera and waiting for the guide to spot on something for us.

In the first night, we've been pretty lucky in watching a gigantic phyton approaching a bird we've found sleeping. Seems we interrupted the reptile on it's hunt, so we've just catched it disappearing under water. Several frogs and spiders later, waiting to get hold on some pictures of the proboscis monkey, even though it's another endangered creature, it was pretty common around our camp at uncle tan. But we haven't been lucky for this night - can't say this for our way to sleep. We haven't had much what you can call walls. Our hutts were basically only a fence with a wodden roof with a wodden floor, build on sticks to get rid of most of the insects, snakes etc. The mosquito-net protected our matrasse, and cause of the pretty exhausting and warm days, it took us not more then 4 minutes to sleep in. The sounds around not really bother you at all. And even the 6am wake-up shout by the camp-crew is not bad at all, as it's going to bed pretty early and after six, it's getting to hot to keep sleeping anyway.

On the night trekking thru the jungle, I was a bit scared. Ksenia decided to go for another boat-trip instead, and as prepared as we've been, I stepped thru the bushes - following our 5 head-group without a torch, just my shorts, shirt and some rubber boots. But it was such a fantastic adventure, we' ve seen a huge tarantula, sitting in her trees hole with hundreds of juveniles around her. Obviously again sleeping birds, a damn poisonous centipede chilling in the trees. What we missed have been snakes and scorpions - both been to fast to get caught by our very expirienced guide. But however, it was creepy enough without these already.

On the next day, some trekking trips have been scheduled. On the one hand, we've been desperatly waiting for some rain to cool the day off. But on the other, this trek by feed hasn't been so muddy as for our previous visitors. However, we've seen our fabolous orangutan family again right near to our camp. It was pretty interesting to walk thru the jungle, even with some marks on the trees it was a very natural expirience.

We also got more and more into our group, which I mentioned earlier. The mixture of different countries and cultures usually disappears pretty obvious on backpacking trips, and we had a lot in common anyway. Unfortunatly we've only managed to get contact-details from our australian-couple Lance & Gale (*wink*), best greets to the other guys, wherevery you are right now. On the last day, there hasn't been any trip anymore. We had some pretty cool soccer game with the local staff, interesting with 35°C and 95% humidity. Afterwards it has been the first time I used the shower - putting the muddy water into the pot and wash away the shampoo. What to say, I really enjoyed it. Just check yourself for leeches, one caught me on my leg, but I was able to kick it away before it got stuck to much to my skin - 1:0 for Daniel vs. Jungle.

Then it was time to say good bye - the overall perfectly organised crew got the boat engines starting and we grabbed our stuff for boarding. After the hour on the boat, two minibuses awaited our group to be transported further. Lance, Gale, Ksenia and me needed to go to the south - the rest back to sepilok, and this was all perfectly communicated to the staff by Uncle Tan. Really good coordination here. The bus brought us down to Lahad Datu, a three hour trip without A/C, but more good conversations with the aussis. We really had good fun here, and we convinced them to come down with us to Semporna to check out this small fisher island, primarily used for the travellers to hop down to Sipadan. But before we're there, let me put this down in the next post. Resume for our jungle trip: Really tough, but if you like the real wildlife and not afraid to get dirty, there is no way around Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Borneo / Sabah Day 5th - 8th of may

Our Jungle Trip on Borneo

We departured early 7 am - pretty terrible time, but leaves us with a complete day to make up our mind what we'll do on Malaysia's part of the island. The south belongs to Indonesia. The most interesting area is Sabah - east to Brunai.

Starting from KL, we didn't book the flight to the north of Sabah like most travellers do, but directly near to the Oran-Utan sanctuarity in East Sabah, to Sandakan. The place near the airport is Sepilok, where is a whole area of jungle reserved for the human-like apes.

Airasia did well, and after a 3h flight, we arrived and suprisingly being picked up by a driver from the jungle resort, right next to the sanctuarity. We had email contact, haven't confirmed anything, strangely enough - but we hooked up with him and wanted to give it a chance. Arriving at the place, we didn't like the artificial expirirence we got from this place.

A small phone-call later to our second email contact option, I got someone from the famous uncle-tan organisation confirming to give us a lift right next to the Orag-utang center. Unfortunatly, we didn't make it in time to the sanctuarity, but we should have plenty of chance to see this awesome creatures later in their natural environment.

As malayians are always late, we didn't worry (like the two polish ppl waiting there) and enjoyed to been carried by a truck with our two backpacks to the Uncle Tan HQ. The deal is like that: you pay 160RM (35EUR) per pax for a 2nights / 3days visit to their camp right in the middle of nowwhere in the jungle. Food, accomodation, transport and 5 tours included. Wow! We've read about ppl raving bout Uncle Tan in the net and the LP, but it was also mentioned that it's pretty tough.

The HQ was full of other backpackers, and we started chatting with the guys coming from there and the ones joined our tour - muddy, basic, wet, hot - a jungle tour. The new guys have made up a good mixture with us, a New Zealander, australian couple (still on travel with us), Italian, Brit and the two polands. The guys were ideal, w/o too many details, we had lots of fun, not knowing names, only personal interests, character, country and the places they visited already.

All of us jumped to a minibus, for 1 1/2 hours heading south direction to Sukao. From there, it took us another hour with the boat on the Kinabatangang (the longest river on borneo with > 500km) to the jetty. As it was flood, we didn't drop off here but directly at the camp. The pictures will follow, but by words you can imagine, it was the most basic you may have seen in some of the films with John Rambo.

While there was already a group of 6 ppls from the day before, we weren't quite sure what hapens next, but the guys from Uncle Tan really organised the whole thing trhu. Right before we felt confused, they showed us the accomodation, the briefing for the tours, the box with ice and drinks, the 'lobby' and how to seperate your garbage. Also: watch out your stuff, especially food, as the machaca (long tail monkeys) take any chance to swing by and rip you off :)

While we were checking the shower and the toilets (muddy water and holes in a wodden box), it was still pretty clean and organised - plenty of water around to flush and keep yourself as clean as possible. But as the lucky star is with us, we had the chance to hear and follow the sounds of the most precious creature in the borneo jungle right next to us: the Orang-Utans. The NewZealand found the male first, way up high in the trees, grabbing some food - we took some steps deeper into the jungle, and right 10m above our heads, a small child and her momi did the same. It was such an enjoyment to watch them in the free nature, all of us had the pure excitement in our eyes and gasping for cameras (following).
As it was said, the crew sees them sometimes once in a week, or even a month - and the ppl before us missed them again being on a tour.

On Borneo and whole Malaysia, Palm Oil and it's export eliminated almost all rainforrest by a mono-culture of palm-trees. The area we've been is one of the protected ones, secured by the WWF and the governement. Now, as it's almost too late, a couple of free living Orang-Utangs, Elephants, only very few Rhinos are living in these reservats. Still, the Palm-tree plantage owners (you can drive hours in a mini bus and see only these trees) shot these creatures as they sometimes got irritated and need to get through the palm-tree areas, heading for the next tiny piece of jungle. Last week, a 36 year old Orang-utang male and 2 elephants were found killed, even being protected by the government laws.

Our tour in the afternoon was splendid - we've seen many animals of the wildlife, all to list now would make the first day log too long - and let me also tell you from our first night in the jungle in our next entry.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Last day in KL - let's get down to some downtown

Next day Ksenia and I had planned to visit Little India and Chinatown in KL - so we've done it. Not as early up as planned, but still good in time. Loooks pretty similar to many asian bigger cities, you get loads of stuff to buy, meanwhile the hawkers in Malasia are not as bothering as Indonesia.

Besides fakes, perfect fakes, and maybe even original trademarked items for smallsmall $$$, it is just interesting to walk through the different streets and check out the flair and different cultures co-existing right next to each other in this city. Checked out some mosques, temples, walked by the old trainstation, the KLCC again, some more stuff. In the later evening, Torsten and Brinda had rented a bus to get the 9 travellers of us left to a place 150km north of KL. Supposed to get the best sea-food around, and it really was very tasty. Killed the rest of our enormous tiger beer bottles, we travelled a bit further to the famous fireflies. This cute little creatures rest on the river next to the jungle, and at ~ 9pm, you can rent a boat and get right next to them. This place is to be known the only one on this planet, where you can find the species which illuminates all in synch. 1000s of flies in bushes, they prepare to mate and light up their body in a 3sec interval. This is impossible to picture (on a boat, and with my camera), but you can imagine it like a gigantic christmas tree, laying right next to the shore for several douzen of kilometer up the river. Pretty cool - and no mosquito at all. I guess the boat full of japanese girlies with bare legs got all of them, har.

This has it been for us in KL so far. We left our roller-case with Brinda's (and now Torsten's) family, got our backpacks packed and got ready for departure the next early morning. Resume: KL is a nice and interesting city. The flair of the mixtured cultures, loads of money, controlled government and free capitalism results in a must-see, even though I am pretty disappointed by the prices over there. Transportation is cheap, as long as you bargain hard for cabs, or better go for the public transport / train anyway. Food is cheap, but electronics, clothes are almost as expensive as in Europe. iPods cost the same, the Playstation 3 is not even fully released, the Wii is three times more expensive then in germany (US$690), you may save some money purchasing a camera or computer components. But singapur gives you way more compensation in your shopping cart.

What was extraordinary good was the beloved community of Torsten's friends. Really lovely people, and we had lots of cool conversations. To be continued on the Wies'n at September this year - octoberfest, wir kommen.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday / Monday in KualaLumpur - enjoy the rest of citylife

The rest of the group have been even able to get to paintball gaming at 10am. I didn't feel like paintballing myself, 1am breakfast felt better to be honest. This sunday afternoon Hoffi and Brinda made an appointment for us german visitors with their family for tasting Malayian fruits. This had been so great, we've got all the different fruits prepared and labelled on plates in their house. Gathered all of us around the table, we've been able to test dragon-fruit, mangosteen, jackfruit, starfruit, Rambutan, Papaya - and outside of the living room, Brindas sista stored the famous Durian, the queen of fruits. It smells so bad, and you either love it or hate it.

So we went out to their terrace, and after opening, the first girls already ran away for their life. It smells like 7 days old shit and vomit mixed, opened it looks like brain - but it seems to be tasty afterall. Please be aware that you shouldn't drink alcohol 24h after you enjoyed a big portion of it, otherwise your body will overreact to the heat it produces and you may fall apart after a pint or two already, even if you're british. If you want to check out an index, photos and more information on the fruits we had, pick the first search result I received on google.

In the night we had an appointment in another mall, the Sunway Pyramids - more nearby to Subah - for trying Steam-boat. Honestly, at least for this restaurant or my type of choices, I didn't like it at all. I am more a frying friend, even deep fried is fine - but steamed things where I had no idea of any of the items about it's origin, it all tasted like watery. Maybe I should check another place next time, but maybe follow the link mentioned above to find a good reviewed place by yourself. We still had fun with the friends of Torsten, although it we already missed Thomas and Patricia, they needed to catch their plane back to Switzerland at 11pm *sigh*.

Wedding in Malaysia, or: How to enjoy your marriage

We had a very interesting time in Kuala Lumpur. Hoffi and Brinda had been married, and all were happy and touched. After our nightmare shopping time in the Mega-Mall, both Ksenia and I have been very happy with our outfits. The schedule supposed us to appear at the catholic church at 1pm, and we've been there, all dressed up smart and beautiful. The amount of visitors was huge, there has been around 180 people to see how this beautiful couple says Yes to each other.

Before that, we've enjoyed the met, conducted by a pretty entertaining priest - however, it was catholic and lots of different religions attending. The tolerance and udnerstanding of different believers in the same environment, if it's business, churches next to mosques next to temples, people talking to each other, Malaysia is maybe the best example I know how a peaceful coexistance is possible if just everybody keeps their head and intelligence up and running.

After an hour, the formal church process was done, and everybody was quite sensitive to see how the fresh married couple got gratulated, hundreds time pictured, hugged and kissed and finally was able to get to what a marriage is supposed to be: Enjoy your time together. Torsten told me that Brinda and him may have still lots of stress and a big to-do list afterwards, as her and him are planning to move first to germany, then either the UK or Australia. If I imagine the mountain of paper-work in front of them, I already got scared in advance - hoffi, better reserve some of your fundings for a good lawyer-agency ;-) Don't run your ass off by yourself.

Everybody of us got back by an organised car to the hotel. Whilst the church was supposed to be a little more casual, the evening gala was supposed to expect us smart. We haven't changed a lot, I kept beeing in my suit I bought Zara, and Ksenia changed in a perfect and beautiful dress. This time, we haven't been so lucky with the chauffeur service. The friend of Brinda was not really aware where the Gold & Country Club is, so we drove around in KL for 2 1/2 hours in the evening and missed at least the beginning. However, slightly stressed by the highway adventure, we had some good dancing, live-music, malayian food, litres of schnaps the travellers brought with them from the duty-free (Alcohol in malaysia is so expensive) - and we all ended up in the president suite of our hotel in a smaller group. I had a couple of whisky too much, and at ~ 4:30am I fell down to accompancy sleeping Ksenia in our room at the 8th floor. A two handfull guests kept Torsten and Brinda busy till the later morning - ...