Destinations

These articles focus on specific destinations around the globe

Rafting with the Wild Man of Borneo

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The Rafting Party, Borneo, Malaysia

Often, the term “Wild Man of Borneo” is in reference to the orangutan, which is native to the island of Borneo and whose human-like mannerisms and intelligence beg for such a comparison. In my own context, that term has an entirely different meaning, referring instead to a reckless whitewater rafting guide whose antics potentially jeopardized an otherwise fascinating visit to this amazing island. But before divulging that particular story, let me share a few important details.

Where is Borneo and how do you get there?

The island of Borneo is located approximately midway between Southeast Asia and the Australian continent, and just slightly southwest of the Philippine archipelago. The island is shared by three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small nation of Brunei. Most tourists arrive via the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, situated in the northern reaches of Malaysia’s Bornean real estate. Kota Kinabula – often shortened to just ‘KK’ is serviced by many Asian airlines, though to my knowledge there are no direct flights from either Europe or North America. Alternately, it is a port of call for various cruise itineraries – including my own which brought me to this primordial tropical paradise for just one day of exploration.

What is Borneo like?

Borneo is likely just as wild and exotic as you’ve heard it rumored to be. It is a rugged natural wonderland of ancient jungles and intriguing rock formations, as well as home to the tallest peak in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu, where you can escape the steamy tropical weather via altitude. The city of KK has all the modern conveniences that have blurred the lines of culture, yet just outside the city you can find lovely islands  with turquoise beaches, trek into the jungle to watch the comically-endowed proboscis monkey or seek the humongous (and smelly) Rafflesia bloom – the world’s largest flower. You can also sample exciting whitewater rafting through ancient stands of rain forest, which was the option I chose for my limited sojourn, and which brought me face to face with my own version of the “Wild Man of Borneo”.

What can be expected on a whitewater rafting trip in Borneo?

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Rafting the Kiulu River, Borneo, Malaysia

I had arranged a whitewater rafting tour ahead of time with a reputable operator, who arranged for my party to be picked up at the port (though there was confusion as to where, but that’s another story) and taken about forty-five minutes into the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, clad in rugged swathes of thick rain forest only lightly bearing witness to the presence of man. We were brought to a secondary starting point due to high water levels during that time, at a tiny village on the Kiulu River, which is ominously pronounced similar to the Kill-You River. More on that in a second.

It was at this point that we met our guide, who told us his name was ‘Dude’. Unless his mother was a pot-smoking skateboarder totally taken aback by the act of giving birth to him, I’m inclined to believe that this was a self-appointed moniker. Along with his assistant – a Mr. Kudu (again likely a pseudonym) – we were given equipment and instructions on paddling, emergency procedures, and what to do if you fall out of the boat. Little did I know then that this was more of a preview than a preventative lesson.

We set out into the greenish-brown waters under an overcast sky. The river was rather wide, but the aforementioned water levels meant that it was moving swiftly – a good thing for those not looking to paddle the whole time. Inevitably, with bends in the river, there were moderate rapids, which were fun and sufficiently exciting for most. Apparently Dude and Mr. Kudu didn’t find them stimulating enough, and while the rest of us paddled furiously to avoid crashing the raft into the hefty boulders lining the riverbanks, they guided us with expert skill right into them, time and again.

I was the first one to fall out of the raft when we slipped vertically up the side of a boulder. I spun to face downriver as instructed but still wound up being pummeled by a few submerged rocks. On the next bend, while enjoying the rapids, we again found ourselves inexplicably up against the boulders, where this time it was my mother who was dumped into the frothing water. Fortunately she (and the rest of us) escaped serious injury, but it soon became clear that despite his enthusiastic shouts of where and how hard we should paddle, Dude was steering us right into the spots that would make the trip more ‘interesting’.

Now, let me just say that I am fully aware that rafting has an inherent level of risk, and if it weren’t exciting, no one would want to do it. However, it really annoyed me that we were being subjected to unnecessary risks, ones that would not only would jeopardize the rest of our vacation, but our health as well. So it was at this point, after rowing furiously away from the rocks and looking back at our guides doing just the opposite, that I shouted in no uncertain terms that we didn’t want to crash anymore, and would they please refrain from doing so. Considering that for the rest of the trip we managed to navigate the swirling vortexes of turbulence without any further upsets, this only served to prove that my earlier suspicions were correct.

With the threat of imminent death or dismemberment removed, we were able to more fully enjoy the panoramas that unfolded around every turn; the massive tree limbs being strangled by hefty creepers that overhung the riverbanks; the occasional waterfalls trickling out of the jungle to add to the swollen river; the rickety rope bridges that connect one unseen village with another. At one particularly calm stretch , I was allowed to hop into the river and drift along freestyle, to serenely take in the scenery. And when we eventually arrived at our take-out point, the deafening chorus of insects and pungent smell of the wet jungle left me desperately wishing I had more time to spend in this primeval paradise – with or without a suicidal guide.

Would you recommend such a trip for a first-time visitor?

Yes, I absolutely would, though I would first explain a few caveats:

While you wouldn’t need to be in superb shape (such as would be required for those looking to summit Mount Kinabalu), there is a level of physical exertion inherent in the sport of whitewater rafting, and rafting Borneo is no exception. Be ready to paddle, either for your life or just to move forward more quickly.

If you’re afraid of nature, water, potential danger and/or being out in the sun, then perhaps this activity is not for you. But if you wear waterproof sunscreen, brace yourself for the possibility of a few bumps and bruises and embrace your inner sense of adventure, you’ll not only be just fine, but will have a great bucket-list item to casually boast about back home (“that reminds me of that time I was whitewater rafting back in Borneo…”).

How would you sum up a visit to Borneo?

I would say that a trip to Borneo is likely to be the highlight of one’s travels – provided said traveler has an appreciation for nature in the raw and at least a moderate sense of adventure. Just saying the name Borneo conjures images of untouched jungles and exotic flora and fauna. Visitors who venture into the interior will find all of that and more. I highly recommend putting Borneo on your list of future destinations, and even more highly recommend spending at least a week or more exploring the plethora of natural and soft-adventure options that the island offers.

And in the event that you do come, and run into my friend Dude, for your own sake, just tell him that you’ll be taking your next tour without him.

 

 

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Touring Manila Without Pushing The Envelope

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A quiet corner of Manila, Philippines

Now that I’ve been able to get the whole Manila envelope pun out of the way by means of the title, I invite you to read on about what to see and do in the Philippine capital if you’ve only got limited time.

Overview

Manila is a sprawling metropolis characteristic of many rapidly-growing Asian cities –  filled with chaotic traffic, ramshackle development and increasingly Westernized modernization in the form of glitzy shopping malls that could rival anything back home (I’m talking about you, Mall of Asia). One could rightly argue that such things are reasons why a person wouldn’t want to visit. But at the heart of it all – just a few blocks off of Manila Bay in fact – is a relatively peaceful enclave that lends character to an otherwise indistinct urban conglomeration. It’s called Intramuros, and for those with limited time, it should be at the top of your trip itinerary

Intramuros

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Step inside the walls of the past in the Intramuros, Manila Philippines

Meaning ‘inside the walls’ this is the historic center of Manila – one that was home to its colonial past, and the site of some of the most dreadful devastation the country suffered during World War II (an estimated 100K died during the ‘liberation’ of the city). In fact, most of it was leveled by the intense fighting, and what exists today are mostly reconstructions. Regardless of the exact age, the overall effect is one that gives an appropriate nod to the past and the juxtaposition with the modern development on the outside is a welcome contrast.

What to See

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Exploring the grounds of Fort Santiago, Manila, Philippines

Fort Santiago – overlooking the Pasig River – is the top draw for visitors to Intramuros. This was once the stronghold for the Spanish, Americans and Japanese as they took turns as acting overlords. Today you can admire the mossy bastions of the fort’s walls and crumbling buildings, with intermittent peeks at the darkened dungeons that sit below. It doesn’t have the gravitas of other former fortresses around the world, but is worth at least an hour’s exploration.

Just down the road is another worthy destination – the Casa Manila museum and its surrounding complex. The museum was closed the day I visited, but the network of stone courtyards, flowery passageways, small cafés and shops were right out of colonial times, and if you get the sense that you’re waiting on line on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean you can be forgiven for the comparison.

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A rooftop view around the Casa Manila Museum, Manila, Philippines

Rizal Park

Just south of the Intramuros is Rizal Park – the Philippines’ answer to the National Mall in Washington D.C. – complete with their own obelisk. Around the open expanse of lawns and fountains are small alcoves with themed gardens accessible for nominal fees. For some relaxation amid the noisy chaos of the city, I’d recommend the Japanese gardens. For some tacky but fun photo opportunities in a Jeepney (the ubiquitous highly-artistic stretched-Jeep public transport option) or rickshaw, I’d recommend the Orchidarium, though you won’t find more than a few examples of its namesake.

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Take a ride on a Jeepney, Manila, Philippines

Practical Advice

Bear in mind that being located within the tropics, any visit to Manila is likely to be a hot one. I’d say you’d be baking in the sun, but with the humidity its more likely you’ll feel sauteed. That said, take in lots of liquids (available at one of the many 7-11s) and don’t be afraid to duck into air conditioned shops to cool down and perhaps pump a few pesos into the local economy.

There is a decidedly third-world feel in many places, and while you need not be overly concerned with safety during the day, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of your surroundings and belongings. That said, I found the Filipinos to be a friendly and engaging people and encourage you to find that out for yourself. All in all, one day is sufficient to see what needs to be seen, and if you have more time and care anything about military history, sites such as Corregidor and the military cemeteries will be worth your while.

Conclusion

With so many amazing places to see and visit in Southeast Asia, I would be hard pressed to recommend going out of your way to include Manila. Far more appealing is the resort island of Boracay not far to the south. But if your travels bring you through the Philippine capital, you might as well make the most of it, and a visit to Intramuros and Rizal Park will likely leave you feeling satisfied – without having to push the envelope.

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Mantas Need Showers Too – Diving Nusa Penida

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Me and the Manta, Nusa Penida

It had been over seven years since I had gone scuba diving when I got onto  a speedboat on Bali. I had heard that getting back underwater was like riding a bike, that it would all come back to me – and without all that tiresome pedaling. My destination was the nearby island of Nusa Penida, located about halfway between Bali’s east coast and Lombok. My objective was to see giant manta rays in action.

Getting There

If you’re staying on Bali, a dive trip to Nusa Penida is most easily arranged from the east coast. Many hotels can book you on a tour, and if you’d rather go it alone, just stop in to one of the myriad tour agencies sprinkled around the shopping districts, or even the dive operators’ offices themselves. The aptly-named Manta Point will be one of your options and a two-tank dive should cost you roughly $100-$120 U.S. Chances are, this will be your most expensive tour, so budget accordingly.

My particular operator drove guests to their boat, which was moored at gentle Sanur Beach on the east side of the island. From there it was a choppy 45 minute ride to the hulking silhouette on the horizon.

Nusa Penida

The island of Nusa Penida can also be visited by non-divers as well, but be warned that though there is a nice beach on the southern shore, waves and currents are strong. If you don’t believe me, just look at the towering cliffs being pummeled by spray.

Manta Point is close to the aforementioned spray-pummeled cliffs, and if you made it through the crossing without throwing up, get ready for your breakfast to make a reappearance once your forward motion stops and the boat starts pitching and rolling. I’m quite proud to say I made it to the end of my second dive before my breakfast revisited me.

The Dive

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Soaring together at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

Why are manta rays so consistently found here? It’s because of the existence of what is called a cleaning station. In basic terms, this means that the mantas know that over a certain large dome of coral located here, smaller fish will emerge as they cruise by, ‘cleaning’ them by eating any parasites and dead skin they might be carrying around. This is sort of like a fly-by shower, or drive through cleaning service. It is also a great reason for us to visit, as mantas are usually here in numbers.

Visibility was around 50 feet or so when I splashed down. As promised, my dive training and instincts came back to me as I eagerly peered into the blue. For this I was glad, because when I saw the first of what turned out to be a dozen mantas gracefully swooping around a large coral patch, my only focus was on them.

The site is rather shallow, allowing for long bottom times and plenty of opportunities to see the mantas up close. These particular mantas were at least 12 feet across and the same if not longer from head to tail. It’s quite humbling to be in the presence of animals so much bigger than you. It’s also kind of flattering to know that you’re not the fattest thing in the ocean.

For their part, the mantas are rather undisturbed by the daily presence of divers, and on several occasions I got very close – almost so that I could touch one – though I would heartily recommend that you avoid doing that. They may not eat you, but these are wild animals all the same. Content yourself with a bucket list experience of observing these majestic creatures up close, and for everyone’s sake keep your hands to yourself.

The Sideshow

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Tutrle, Manta Point, Nusa Penida

With a dozen mantas swirling around you, it’s hard to drag your attention away. But if you do, you will not only see swarms of colorful fish darting around various types of coral, but other denizens of the deep like turtles, stingrays, and if you’re truly fortunate, a mola mola, or ocean sunfish (think a fish, dinosaur and dinner plate all fused together).

Good to Know

Besides the potential of seasickness, be aware that currents are often strong. In practical terms, that means that you will be exerting lots of energy as the wave action pulls and pushes you (and the mantas) back and forth. It is not an easy dive by any means. You will come up tired, nauseous, and likely low on air, but if you are dive certified, thinking of becoming dive certified, and are planning a trip to Bali, you will not regret a trip out to Nusa Penida and back. Take comfort in knowing that you can take your own shower at your hotel.

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Mantas everywhere

 

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Hotel Review: The Samata, Bali

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The Samata’s main pool in the public area

At the tail end of my latest whirlwind Southeast Asia tour, what I really wanted more than anything else was to have some privacy and time to relax. If you’re coming to Bali for that, I can enthusiastically say that the Samata is the place for you.

Our positive experience started right from the airport where the driver was waiting for us with a placard (which was even nicer then the cheap print-out of the Four Seasons – just sayin’). He took our bags, gave us cool towels and took us on the approximately 45 minute ride northeast to the hotel.

The public areas are gorgeous, with two long pools and comfortable lounges. We were technically there in the “off” season so it was not at all crowded. Even if it were, once we were ushered into our gorgeous two bedroom villa (2) we would have left them all behind.

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The Master Suite (2 bedroom villa) at the Samata, Bali

The canopy beds with mosquito netting were soft and clean, the outdoor shower and tub were charming and the decor was distinctly Balinese. The enormous, open-air covered living area was a great place to relax (we loved the driftwood couch) in between dips in our private infinity pool – where we spent the majority of our time looking out at the rice paddies in front of us. There was a dining and kitchen area but we had no time for that, and food on Bali was so cheap that it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle.

Breakfast is included and was beyond just a basic meal. You’re offered a juice, coffee or tea (go with the Balinese coffee – it’s a little muddy by the end but delicious) then a selection of fantastic dishes. I highly recommend the vanilla French Toast and berry pancakes.

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The main building, restaurant and reception at the Samata, Bali

Twice we decided to have dinner in the onsite restaurant, and while it was a slightly pricier than the restaurants in nearby Sanur, the food was just as good as the breakfast was, and still very reasonably priced if you’re coming from Europe or the U.S.

They have spa and massage treatments onsite but I just opted to get the standard $5-$6 massage offered about every other 15 feet in town. I wouldn’t be surprised if “massage?” is the most widely known English word on the island.

There are tennis courts, a well-equipped fitness center and yoga studio on the grounds – not that I used them. If you want to work up a sweat in Bali, all you have to do is stand outside.

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Private pool with a view, the Samata, Bali

Depending on the driver’s availability, they offer free shuttle service to Sanur, which is about 10-15 minutes to the south. You’re on your own getting back, but finding a Blue Bird cab (they have meters) isn’t hard and only costs a few bucks. Make sure you take the hotel’s business card as the hotel is tucked away in a backstreet and not all cab drivers know exactly where it is.

Best of all was the staff. They were exceedingly polite and Leni in particular was a most excellent hostess. They arranged a private driver for a tour up to Ubud and the rice paddies that was competitive, though not quite as cheap (but still really cheap) as the operators in town. They even just charged it to our room which made things easier.

Some details worth knowing: Wi-fi is included and refreshingly fast compared to some other places in Asia. Air conditioning works well too, which regardless of when you visit, is something to be grateful for.

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The ample living area in the two bedroom villa, The Samata, Bali

There is a beach not far from the hotel (you can see the water from your balcony) or you can just go down to Sanur. From here, you’re approximately a 45- minute ride from the much more lively Seminyak /Legian/Kuta area. The area immediately around the hotel is not particularly interesting or suited for tourists unless you’re looking to buy a giant stone statue or wood carving from the dealers lining the main road. And if you stay in villa two, there’s a tall window in the master bedroom without a curtain, so if you have friends or relatives staying in the other bedroom, be cautious when prancing around after using your outdoor shower.

We got a spectacular deal – probably since it was the low season – that meant for less than one night in Manhattan our group of four stayed in our private two bedroom villa. If you’re looking to splurge then this is a great spot. I cannot say enough good things about this place, and if you’re looking for the quiet, but not too quiet part of Bali, and don’t feel like partying over in hopping Kuta, The Samata is just right

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