Category Archives: SE Asia

Orang utans, palm oil and roadside breakfasts

Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia: 21.06.04

Sepolok Jungle Resort.

Orang Utans hate palm oil for a reason.

Today I saw the orang-utans at the Sepolok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. Pretty amazing really – i think there was 18 or so, ranging from a mum and her tiny baby clinging tightly to her for dear life to older mature males and lots of younger or teenage animals. I also saw heaps of monkeys (not proboscis) and a snake. The snake was green and yellow and curled up in a tree. It’s amazing how things coloured so brightly can be so camouflaged. We also saw some lizards of varying sizes.

Antics for bananas

Watching the group of adorable apes get up to all types of mischief and playing around like kids (and their grumpy dads who just want to eat all the bananas) I learned and reflected on why these beautiful animals are at this centre and why they are so endangered.  It wasn’t hard to understand as the evidence had been making me angry for days. At first, I couldn’t believe it.

Driving along the country side was depressing and truly shocking!  Our bus ride from Mt Kinabalu to here was bereft of its vitality and beauty. The jungle which was so amazing and rich with mind boggling life has all been chopped down in favour of  squat, ugly palm  oil plantations. Palm oil nuts yield pretty high quantities of oil which is used in cooking and cosmetics. Apparently, Malaysia is the top producer of the stuff. All we could see was vast swathes of destruction and chopped rainforest swapped for rows of palms and wasted nuts for hours on both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see. The ugliness was interrupted every now and again only by sorry looking towns and forlorn banana trees.  

It was totally unbelievable! I can even imagine the environmental impact and how much wildlife and native villagers were displaced during the logging process – it must have been a LOT! Nothing else, no villages, no ecosystems, no wildlife can exist in such a monoculture and I am positive that the locals didn’t receive any benefits either.

Everywhere I travelled in Sabah (Sandakan and Sepolok are exceptions) this became a familiar sight with the villages in between the plantations looking pretty ramshackle,  filthy and depressing. Are they only for the workers? Is there no pride or community heart here?  Homes, shops and restaurants are swept only to the border of the premises and rubbish is left to lie there. The next day it happens again but and then the plastic and wind blown crap goes everywhere, pollutes the community and lines the sides of the roads.  More is added as the country side becomes the landfill.   I still, no matter how often I see the sight, am astounded that people don’t clean up after themselves.  We have know for centuries the importance of sanitation and the diseases carried by rats and rubbish.

No wonder the poor Orang-utans are so close to extinction! Avoid palm oil where you can.

This person has written a blog on their efforts to avoid it in the US

Roadside breakfasts

I’m sitting in the bus waiting for it to depart for Semporna, I’ve just inhaled my breakfast of soto ayam and kopi (6rm, NZ$2.50 for 2 breakfasts – cheap as chips!). The coffee here is strong, and today it came with sweetened condensed milk – too much for some but I liked it. Of course I needn’t have rushed as the bus clearly hasn’t departed on time.

Yesterday I breakfasted at a roadside restaurant before the bus and had an excellent mushroom omelette and the blackest coffee I have ever drunk. It looked really black, but didn’t taste bitter  to me.

The restaurants we ate in were clustered together in the middle of a square tarmac area they call the station. The stalls are tacked together against some sorry looking small trees and while they look pretty makeshift, I am sure they’ve been here for years. The plastic table cloths cover up uneven tables with mismatched planks and benches are shiny with many bums. You have to not think too much about where you are, instead concentrate on the hot steaming food, that’s being turned over fast with the bus passengers coming and going. There is of course, plastic rubbish strewn everywhere and if anything is wiped down, it’s only wiped as far as the ground.

This is where the slinking and ill treated dogs and cats come in – a sorry part of the urban ecosystem. Diseased and depressed, these feral animals are a sorry sight – I saw one dog at a rest stop with a huge bulbous growth under his chin – and all are mangy, undernourished and skittish.  But there are smiles here too. We sat breakfasting with the Tuang Ma express bus ticket boys who were a bit of a laugh.

They don’t see the things we do, there is nothing to contrast it to. This is normal.

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Scaling the greatest wall of all

Beijing, China: 19.8.98

Today we went to the Great Wall of China at Simatai. It was really fantastic! After breakfasting at the bar with the very Chinese meal of  club sandwiches, we got on the bus and of course waited ages for it to depart, which it did half an hour later. Despite being a rickety old thing, it got us there with seemingly little problem. We drove for at least an hour before we got out of the city – it’s so huge.

Shelter in a station

I was tired on the bus from a late night and lots of stories – Stephan from Quebec told us how he climbed Mt Everest!! He wasn’t prepared and had little gear – all unbelievable,  but yet also totally believable. You couldn’t make that shit up!

Anyway… it was such a jiggly and noisy, rickety bus and there was no way I was going to get any sleep. So I was entertained by the Chinese countryside, traffic and villages. Not much forest or forestation and some really old looking houses – it’s amazing what the Chinese live in. You would think that the countryside would have progressed with the kinds of technology you see in the city. But no, only the cities get these things – the country folk remain as poor as the proverbial church mouse. There were so many old ladies on the streets selling dried god-knows-what, all the colour of the dust around us. The roads here are good in parts, I was surprised – we travelled on some beautifully sealed tarmac, some not so.

Finally after three hours on the bus we arrived – wow – it was so amazing! So high, so awesome.  It cost 20Y to get in and then tickets up the cable car. People said that the wall at Simatai was still in it’s original condition, almost no work has been done (not sure I believe this, below pic of me looks as if that part was restored).  It was a really clear day and we could see for miles and it marched over the hills. We were so lucky as the weather hasn’t been great lately.

There were, of course, lots of people up there trying to sell us stuff and it was really really hot.  We decided to take the cable car as the mountain looked so steep. It was so peaceful on the car, smooth and quiet, with stunning views of the wall. The cable car didn’t take us all the way up the hill so we got off to do a whole lot more walking up the hill. By this time it’s about midday, it was a hot walk!

Accompanying us were these two older Chinese ladies, we saw them scrambling up the slope as we glided in our cable car. When we got out they followed us and tried to have a conversation which we couldn’t make head-nor-tail of so we just smiled. They ended up following us around. They kept saying, “go up, come down”. They weren’t sweating or puffing like we were, they were super fit – I bet they climb this hill all day, every day.  They were also wearing the silliest plastic shoes you have ever seen!

At the top, we flipped a coin and went left down the wall. The ladies still pestered us. Finally another tourist told us to tell them to go away – so we bought postcards from them and convinced them we didn’t need a guide. At this point we were on a very steep, very crumbly part of the wall, so we were trying to come to some kind of deal with them in high winds, on the ridge and the most precarious part of the wall at Simatai. Ridiculous! Finally they were gone. That’s what they meant – “go up, come down”, they wanted to guide us. God, I felt completely dense.

We carried on our way and stopped at the stations.  People were living in some of them. In one they had a generator for a TV and fridges and freezers. A man had his young child up there and had built a lean to from canvas and plastic.  Some parts were so narrow you couldn’t walk on them, some was just one narrow step after another. We could see the wall stretch out for miles and miles – amazing.

The story behind the Great Wall stretches through the dynasties and is really interesting. It started as a whole bunch of fortresses way back in BC times. Then in the Qin and Ming Dynasties it was connected together. It was heavily guarded and built with great human cost. It marches over a huge part of northern China and is in all sorts of states today. Most people at the time went to Badaling to see it, where it is fully restored for the visitors. And, it’s a myth that the wall is visible from the moon.  We came all the way down the section of Simatai and had lunch in a small restaurant around the car park.

Me on the Great Wall '98

It was a real buzz for me being on the Great Wall, standing on one of the greatest sites of the world (along with the Pyramids).  I loved it! It made me want to see more of the world and these wonderful places I had only heard about or seen in books. It was the start of many other journeys to see architectural and cultural wonders.

There were very few tourists at Simitai back in 98, although I hear its different now. I went back to a different part of the wall (the Wild Wall) in 2000) and stayed the night. But that’s a different story.

Shocking thoughts and genocide

A monument to mass genocide

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 11.04.00

Just came back from the killing fields. It’s a shocking story. It has happened within my lifetime. It will happen again. It is probably happening somewhere now. Why do we humans do these things to ourselves? Why do we create enemies with our fellow countrymen? Why do these atrocities continue to haunt the world? How can we prevent it from happening?

By moto taxi I travelled through Phnom Penh and was struck by the dichotomy of things here. Poor, and a little bit of rich. There’s some wealth, people with nice cars and cell phones, yet mainly the others are all squashed on to a moto gripping their kids or their precious cargo for dear life, while navigating a death trap. The main boulevards are lovely, wide and paved, lined with magnolias and other trees but every street leading off from it is muddy and dirty. The smell is terrible.

The people here seem to relate to each other with the easiness between strangers and the opposite sex which reminds me of Indonesia. There are smiles everywhere and bantering. The people seem happy enough. Which is weird considering their recent history.

From Phnom Penh we travelled down a pot holed road (what roads aren’t potholed here anyway?) to get to Chong Ek. This is the site of the mass genocide committed by Pol Pot and his clique of devils.

Cows were grazing in the killing fields adding a peace to the otherwise horror housed within. On entry there is a large pagoda containing skulls and bones and a few dusty clothes It was really tall– perhaps 8 or 9 levels high – skulls as far as you can see, shelves and shelves. The fields weren’t as expansive as I had imagined – fields being a euphemism for mass graves. The earth had sunk in, so the hollows and holes of the mass graves were all around. Some had pieces of cloth sticking out and I saw a few bones in one. I thought that the cows in there grazing was funny – but i guess they have to eat too. Are cows holy in Cambodia too? I didn’t think so.

Cows grazing in mass graves

One of the trees has a sign on it that said this tree was used to bash kids heads against to kill them. There were bones around it. Another tree had teeth around it. This gave me really strong images of someone’s head being bashed so hard that the teeth fell out. Shocking thoughts and mental images. As bad as the babies being thrown up and bayoneted from the S 21 museum. I have seen those pictures and I believe the stories to be true. I don’t think my imagination could be so gruesome.

These killing fields were only dug 20 years ago, and the whole thing happened 25 years ago. So recent. It’s hard to believe this happened in my lifetime. This country was stripped of its pride, and its educated people. Just like the heinous crimes of the cultural revolution – and about the same time too. I think i need to know more about what went on here. I’m really interested now I have seen it.

I’m also interested in Cambodia – I’m meeting people who have been all around to all these crazy places and I’m regretting my decision to skip through. I didn’t think there was so much to do – I was wrong. I guess I can come back. It sounds as if there is heaps of illegal logging of the jungle. The wildlife sounds great – no promises for the future with their homes disappearing. But I don’t have anyone yet who’s keen to go and I don’t think I would enjoy doing it by myself. Everything takes a large investment of time due to no public transport and the dangers of bandits.

Last week bandits boarded the boat that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They boarded the boat which takes the tourists up and bound and gagged them, then put a paper bag over everyone’s heads while they robbed their backpacks. What a reminder to be safe. I’m going to take extra precaution on the mini bus tomorrow although I am sure I’ll be fine. I just met two kiwis from Christchurch – I’ll add them to the short list. They didn’t seem the type to be here – but I guess there really is no ‘type’ as such – it’s a personality thing.