Mabul and Sipadan

The big finale for our trip was three days of diving in Mabul and then Sipadan – widely noted as one of the best diving sites in the world.

We had a one night stop off in Semporna – the base for getting to Mabul – which is easily one of the grottiest places we’ve been (and that’s saying a lot). The streets and the harbour are completely full of litter, piles and piles of it.

Early in the morning we set off with Big John’s Scuba to their accommodation on Mabul island. Big John himself picked us up and instantly made us feel at home – from insisting on carrying my bag to organising a dive master and separate boat just for us to make sure we had time for breakfast before diving (even though breakfast time was over and I don’t even think it was meant to be included in our package for that day).

The accommodation is all built on stilts in the water – the bad side being the constant slight sea sickness from wobbling around day and night, the good side being spotting huge turtles swimming past while we ate our dinner.

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Our first two days of diving were in Mabul and Kapalai where we saw massive turtles (the biggest getting on to two metres long), a pygmy seahorse (so frickin tiny!), ghost pipefish, lion fish, stone fish (eee! So so so very poisonous. I was especially pleased when one swam off the coral towards me), the biggest moray eel you can imagine (I swear it was as big as a dolphin), as well as the usual clown fish, angel fish and parrot fish etc.

Our dive master was amazing – patient and ridiculously observant. I had a little trouble equalizing after my first dive though and spent the following days with water filled ears and getting nose bleeds whenever we surfaced – very lovely while wearing a diving mask!

At the end of each day we sat, exhausted, and watched the sunset before stuffing ourselves silly at the amazing buffet (for some reason I get ridiculously nervous before each and every dive so struggled to eat during the day, but more than made up for it in the evenings!).

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On our third day we went out to Sipadan with another dive company (Big John’s doesn’t get any of the allotted 120 permits allowed each day) where we dived at Barracuda Point, South Point and Turtle Cave. I cannot even begin to describe how mind blowingly amazing it was!

For our first dive we dropped in over a school of more than 500 Jack fish, turned around to see a stunning coral garden and a white tipped reef shark then lowered ourselves to float along a bright and beautiful wall of coral before hovering below a barracuda tornado. By the third dive I was in a constant state of amazement, swimming around hugging myself, wide eyed and laughing (which is a bit tricky underwater). I nearly lost my mind when we swam into the opening of a cave on the third dive – surrounded by huge silver fish and standing in sand by the edge of the cave with a wall of coral as far as I could see above and below me. Had a nice little panic towards the end when I got caught in an upwards current and looked like I was going to surface very quickly,  but was saved by Finn clinging onto my flipper and pulling me down while our dive master clung onto his flipper and pulled him down.

It was an absolutely incredible experience which I hope I never forget.

We then had a recovery day in Mabul, snorkeling (unfortunately not amazing) and lying on a pristine beach.

It all got a bit emotional when we realised we were having our last moments on the beach and our last dip in the sea for the trip.

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Too soon we had to hop on a boat back to Semporna for a night before flying to KL for the last couple of days of the trip.

Sungai Kinabatangan

While in Sepilok we organised a jungle tour along a river in Sungai Kinabatangan – a three day two night package which included all our meals, unlimited coffee (YES!!), four river cruises and two treks.

Our first day consisted of travel to the resort from Sepilok, an afternoon river cruise spotting kingfishers, probiscus monkeys (big nose!), swimming monitor lizards and long tail macaques (boring!) before watching the sunset:

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Then a night trek where we stumbled through undergrowth with our fairly badly powered torches and saw another kingfisher, a fancy frog, a huge spider and hundreds of fireflies. We also found out that leeches love bellies and Finn had a couple somehow get under his shirt – he was rescued by our guide before they could latch on. Ew.

The next morning we were out on the river again by 6am, watching the mist hover over the water:

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Then off for a morning trek to spot Borneo gibbons, an owl and a something something pitti something something bird while fending off the gazillion mosquitos that swarmed around us.

We had the resort to ourselves that morning and were served the most delicious lunch – buffet for two = dream come true – then relaxed for the afternoon (recovering from all the tensions of being in a beautiful place and seeing amazing wildlife obvs).

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That afternoon a few day trippers came along for the afternoon cruise – having had the place to ourselves we acted very spoilt and unimpressed.

Back to the ranch for more food and then our last trip out on the boat – we nabbed the front seats and had a prime view of a teeny tiny baby crocodile, kingfishers and some adorable little bright red birds with turquoise and yellow beaks huddled together for a sleep.

We even got so close to a kingfisher that my photos came out blurred – too close to focus:

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Sepilok

Sepilok is a teeny tiny town, if that, which is home to both an orangutan and a sun bear rehabilitation centre. It’s also full of resorts catering to visitors to the centres.

Our resort was lovely – it had gorgeous huts for the less budget restricted visitors and then a separate building with dorm rooms and cheap doubles for backpackers who can take advantage of the gardens, swimming pool and buffet breakfast.

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Finn got a bit over excited at the buffet and came back to the table each morning with a plate piled high with cakes and crumbs falling out of his mouth.

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I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a very wonderful cat, which marched over and flung itself down on my knee. All in all, a pretty great place to stay.

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On our first day we visited the orangutan centre for both the morning and afternoon feeds. The rangers scatter fruit on a platform and the orangutans, which are being rehabilitated to be released back into the wild, swing down trees and ropes to tuck in. They’re very adorable and amazing to watch swinging around the trees. The rangers do a sterling job of keeping their distance from the animals, so they don’t become attached or dependent, but one particularly soppy orangutan kept creeping over and trying to gift them with leaves or sneakily hold their hand.

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As ever the one complaint was the number of tour groups clammering and pushing around then encircling any nearby orangutans like a pack of paparazzi.

The next day we visited the recently opened sun bear sanctuary to take a look at the really very lovely bears, all rescued from illegal pet ownership.

The centre was quiet and staffed by knowledgeable and helpful staff (in contrast to the ‘just take a picture and leave as soon as you can’ attitude at the orangutan centre). We spent a great couple of hours watching the bears climb trees, roll around and generally look adorable.

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Definitely a must visit for anyone heading to Borneo.

Kota Kinabalu

One of the main draws to KK is a two day climb of Mt Kinabalu. Although we vaguely thought about it, neither of us has walking boots and we tend to be the least equipped people on any walk we go on. We typically turn up in flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt and find that everyone else has fancy zip off trousers, walking boots, poles etc… As you do actually have to be well equipped for this walk and can’t get by on sheer optimism and scrappiness (a tactic that has served us well so far) we decided to give it a miss.

Instead we started with a lazy morning at our hostel meeting some nice backpackers, swapping tips and taking advantage of the drink as much as you like coffee (cue lots of shaking, talking too quickly and an afternoon caffeine crash).

In the early afternoon we got a speedboat over to the tiny Mamutik island to laze on the beach and snorkel. We ordered takeaway noodles from the surprisingly cheap and decent cafe and ate lunch on the white sand looking out to sea, where we were soon joined by some rather large monitor lizards taking a quick dip:

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After lunch we topped up our annoyingly unimpressive tans for about fifteen minutes before we got too hot and threw ourselves in the sea for some snorkeling – which ended fairly abruptly when I was surrounded by jellyfish. We moved round the island to a busier spot with lots of coral and fish. Unfortunately the fish were quite feisty and bit you if you strayed into their territory (basically anywhere in the water) and one drew blood on Finn’s arm. There were also groups of careless tourists clambering over the coral, which was quite depressing. In summary – a beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, warm sea and great food but slightly marred by irresponsible visitors.

The next day we took a two hour bus up to the headquarters of Mt Kinabalu to walk some of the trails.

We hiked through gorgeous forest and alongside a stream:
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Before finding ourselves surrounded by mist:

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This quickly turned to drizzle which then quickly turned to rain. Finn cheerfully declared that it was great practice for moving back to England so we experimented with enjoying walking in the rain (spoiler: I still don’t like rain).

We arrived at the end of the trail and caught a taxi back to KK with another bedraggled hiker who had been waiting for a bus for an hour.

Back in KK we warmed up nicely in the oppressive humidity and went out for a nice cosy pho for dinner.

Taman Negara national park

After four days of near constant travel we arrived in Taman Negara fairly bedraggled and lacking in food. Not the finest form for hiking.

We kept our first day quite low key and hopped across the river (about 30 seconds on a boat across ridiculously fast flowing water):

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And walked to the canopy walkway – a walkway made of covered metal ladders and netting hanging 40 metres in the trees.

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It was actually surprisingly scary and a bit wobbly – also quite overcrowded and staffed by some rather tense folk who were quite keen for everyone to walk as quickly as possible and not look around at all.

However, the stunning views more than made up for minor annoyances and fear:

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After the canopy walkway we carried on up (and up and up) the hill to a view point:
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And met this little bat having a nap:

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Before a rather scrambley scramble down hill and then back home to stretch and recuperate.

Having tired ourselves out with 8 km walk, we obviously decided to try out a 17 km walk the next day.

We trekked through the rainforest – which is meant to be the oldest rainforest in the world – trying not to fall over while looking up at ridiculously tall trees:

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And made friends with this lovely octopus tree:

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We walked on until we reached this sign and then made the decision to ignore it:

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And finally arrived at a river which we clambered through, getting fairly soaked in the process – not a bad thing, turns out trekking in the heat makes you quite disgusting.

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Finn even took the opportunity to wash his clothes in the fresh water, which he’s looking very angry about here:

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We had a quick swim to try and de-disgusting ourselves and ate our picnic lunch on the river bank. We were joined by this lovely butterfly who took a shine to Finn’s sunglasses case:

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Then an influx of tourist boats signaled our time to skidaddle and we set off back through the jungle.

Having not seen much in the way of wildlife (apart from a bright red snake that thankfully had no interest in us and hurried off) we were thoroughly excited to find a tapir had wandered into the grounds at the park headquarters and was trying to get into the restaurant:

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After cleaning as much of the day’s dirt off as we possibly could (not nearly as much as you’d hope) we headed out to grab a burger, decided that wasn’t enough and went out again for rice and veg and other lovely things on a floating restaurant by the river. A lovely evening that unfortunately ended with a huge cicada (they were buzzing around everywhere! And screaming! And bouncing off things!) trying to make a home on my head. Finn gallantly flapped around for a bit screaming that it had touched him before noticing that I was hosting it on my head and then punched it in the face. Eugh.

Koh Tarutao

Koh Tarutao is a beautiful national park island not too far from Koh Lanta. We had a lot of fun trying to convince people we were heading there and not nearby Koh Lipe, and a good round of arguing with a woman who sold us boat tickets then told us she’d lied about the boat…

However, all the frustration was worth it and we arrived at a gorgeous beach hut overlooking the stunning white sand Ao Molae beach. There’s a row of around 15 bungalows and a little restaurant then nothing but beach and park for miles.

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We spent a couple of lazy days by the beach enjoying the sea, the view, some fairly lacklustre snorkeling (visibility was about a metre) and sunsets:

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On our third day we were a bit more active and headed off for a 12km walk to see another of the island’s beaches and a waterfall.

We crossed a rather unstable polystyrene bridge to hop over to the beach:

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Then raced down to the sea to see a turtle Finn had spotted – which turned out to be a rock.

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Then a walk through some forest to look for pythons (we didn’t spot any) and across a very exciting bridge – you stand on a piece of polystyrene and pull yourself along the rope. It was only a couple of metres across and the river was still and about a foot deep, but I felt like Indiana Jones nonetheless.

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Then we clambered through forest alongside small streams:

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To reach a gorgeous little pool and tiny waterfall:

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There was a family of small white butterflies that kept taking off in a line around the pool and then gathering by the pool – felt very much like we had been transported to a Disney film.

The water was the perfect temperature to cool off in, if a little full of nibbley fish.

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Then Finn kindly modelled his wonderfully stylish trekking outfit before we walked back to our bungalow.

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That evening our lovely neighbour took us out swimming in the phosphorescent water. The sea was warm and it was pitch black – but whenever we moved the phosphorescence lit up the water with tiny sparkles. It was pretty magical.

The next day we packed up and caught a truck up to the park head quarters to wait for a boat and start a four day journey to Taman Negara national park in Malaysia.

The bad news was we had to wait three hours for our boat.

The good news was we had to wait three hours for our boat here:

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We stopped for lunch on Koh Lipe – which is now firmly set on the bucket list:
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And had our last pad Thai of the trip *sobs*:
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Another boat to Langkawi island for the night. Not sure that we saw the best of Langkawi but what we did see was pretty grotty.

Then ANOTHER boat to get to Penang, for another night. We arrived later than we expected and had to leave early in the morning but did manage to fit in an amazing curry for dinner at our favourite spot from our previous visit and try out a lovely new spot for a dim sum breakfast:

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We then spent a frustrating day being moved from bus to bus (making a mockery of our ridiculously overpriced direct bus ticket – a lesson for us in trying to take the easy travel option. There is no easy option. Just cheap or expensive) and gritting our teeth as the bus broke down a couple of times.

We arrived in Kota Bharu about 200 hours later than expected and managed a quick dinner at the night market before sleep and a five o clock start.

We spent the next day on the jungle railway watching the scenery and struggling with fairly severe cabin fever. Watching Finn carve up two grapefruits we’d got hold of and trying to eat them with a plastic bag for a plate was a definite highlight.

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Finally, we arrived in Jerantut, gobbled up a pot noodle and jumped on our final bus to take us to Taman Negara.

All in all one of the more painful journeys!

Things that now seem normal

With only two weeks (gaaaahhh!!!) of the trip left I’m going into panic mode about surviving without a constant supply of sun and sea.

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But I’m also going to require a bit of regentrification to settle back in – I suspect I’ll be expected to wash / hold normal conversations (instead of just speaking in half sentences with Finn) / not wear the same outfit seven days in a row etc.

Here are a few things that seem normal right now but I should probably abandon on arrival in London:

- Going for weeks (honestly – weeks) without having a full on conversation with anyone who isn’t Finn or that I’m related to
- Getting washing done and then wearing my unwashed clothes for fear of getting my nice clean clothes dirty again
- Drinking half a beer and feeling really rather tipsy
- Being shocked at how lavish we’re being when we spend $10 on a meal for two
- Getting so dusty after a walk through town / bus ride etc that I make towels mucky when I dry off with them (I am aware that means I’m still mucky after a shower…)
- Waking up when it’s still dark and having no idea where I am, what way I’m facing, what side of the bed I’m on, how to get to the bathroom etc. Cue lots of walking into walls in the dark
- Waking up at 5. Something odd has happened to my sleep since we started travelling and sleeping until 6am is now a huge achievement for me
- Being hungry. I’m one of life’s snack eaters, but tight travel budgets are the ENEMY of snacking. On the plus side, I have a flat tummy. On the down side, my clothes are loose to the point of falling off
- Being asked where I just arrived from and not having a clue. Or really knowing where I’ve arrived either
- Using coconut oil for EVERYTHING – moisturiser, cleanser, hair conditioner
- Getting dressed up and fancy to go out by brushing my hair for the first time in days and maybe, if I’m going all out, putting on some lip balm
- Spitting constantly when washing my face / showering to make sure no tap water gets past my lips. No one wants to repeat Charlotte’s shower disaster from the first Sex and the City film…
- Being in a mode of transport and having zero idea how long it will take, what to expect, where / when we’ll arrive, whether we’ll be asked for more money etc.
- Getting very excited when we find elastic bands / get to keep a good tub from some food we’ve bought. Getting upset when we lose a good plastic bag to the laundry
- Being prepared to walk a fair way with a heavy backpack in the heat to save 20p on a taxi, then spending the rest of the day recovering and rehydrating
- If I’m not sweating I assume I’m cold and put on a jumper – resulting in me wearing a hoody the moment it dips below 30 degrees c