I'm João and I just got married to my beautiful wife, Constança. For our honeymoon we decided to go on a really wild adventure—one that would be a true test to our relationship. We embarked on a 3-month trip far way from our home in London to places you've probably never head of before in Asia and Oceania.
Getting Started at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Our journey started in Kuala Lumpur not because we were particularly itching to visit it, but because it’s an excellent springboard for visiting the nearby places we really wanted to go.
KL, for short, is a massive metropolis, a melting pot of cultures, beliefs, and cuisines. For this, we had three things in mind to do here: visit the Batu Caves, see the Petronas Towers, and enjoy the rich and varied flavors of the myriad of Malaysian food.
We started the day at the Batu Caves, a group of caves that are in a limestone hill in Gombak, just 30 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. There are three larger caves and many smaller ones. Inside these caves stand small temples which are important religious landmarks for the Hindu people of Kuala Lumpur.
We headed back into the city for lunch in Chinatown. We have an old friend living in KL, who — very luckily for us — is a chef, meaning he knows the very best places to get the best grub in town. About eight dishes were laid down on the Lazy Susie, all of which were delicious. We had traditional “top hats” with deep fried anchovies, several types of curries and soups, and an extremely aesthetically pleasing indigo-colored Jasmine coconut rice.
Hiking in Borneo's Natural Parks
Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states found on the island of Borneo, east of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s a small, romantic city by river Sarawak, and is home to the many various cultures that have settled here over the years. Kuching actually means “kitten” in Bahasa Malaysia — the official Malaysian language — and something tells me this might not be such a coincidence: there are cats everywhere! And they come in the form of the animals roaming the streets, street art, decorative sculptures in roundabouts galore, and even a Cat Museum.
In contrast to major Malaysian cities, Kuching feels quite relaxed and the locals make you feel at home. It is also the perfect place to set up your base — there are many places nearby to explore the wonderful nature that Malaysia is known for. Plus, with a strong Chinese and Dayak (local tribes) influence in the delicious local cuisine, you’ll easily be properly fed to face the hikes in the surrounding natural parks. We chose Bako National Park for its close location, ease of access, great jungle hikes, and the real possibility of hanging out with the endemic to Borneo, proboscis monkeys.
On the two occasions that we went there, we indeed saw them — and even got a few pictures in. You’ll notice these proboscis monkeys have quite the unique nose, a trait closely associated with their species. We also caught glimpses of long-tailed macaques, bearded pigs and even had a couple of close encounters with snakes.
On a rainy day that limited our outdoor activities, we managed to book a local cooking class to experience another angle of the Sarawakian way of life. The excellent Café Indah offers this along with a trip to the local market. After learning about a number of fruits and vegetables I’d previously never heard of, we headed off to the kitchen with Amma, a local Dayak chef.
We cooked Gula Ampong (chicken marinated in palm sugar caramel and turmeric), Kerabu (a very refreshing summer salad with pineapple, carrot, and cucumber), pumpkin and water spinach Lemak, Nasi Ulam (white rice seasoned with onions, garlic, ginger and coconut meat), and the very famous Sarawak Laksa 😋. Sarawak Laksa is the region’s take on the popular laksa soup, which includes a bespoke mix of spices and a protein (in our case, chicken). The colors and flavors were incredible and it was wonderful to learn about the ingredients, methods, and staples of such a fragrant and delicious cuisine.
Staying at an Eco Lodge
We took a flight to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu, an area Far East in Borneo. This leg of the trip was mainly driven by the possibility of having close encounters with wildlife. Therefore, we decided to partner up with Sukau Eco Lodge by National Geographic for the possibility of spotting the “Big Five” in Borneo: The Orangutan, the Pigmy Elephant, the Hornbill, the Crocodile, and the Proboscis Monkey.
We were picked up at the airport by the team and went to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, which takes care of orphan Orangutans and prepares them to be released into the wild once again when they’re ready. One of the main factors the Orangutan is in need of being rescued is because their natural habitat is being destroyed. Mass palm tree plantations subsidized by the government to maximize profits by selling the ‘golden’ palm oil which is very popular around the world — in turn, tearing these beautiful animals out of their natural habitat.
Monkey mother feeding children during safari ride by João Monteiro
After spotting a few Orangutans in this reserve of over 4000 hectares, we were even more excited to have the opportunity to spot them in the wild. But this wouldn’t come easily.
We took a speed boat and sailed up the river Kinabatangan for 3 hours until we reached the lodge. The Sukau Lodge is incredible, eco-friendly and made of wood. Behind us, we are surrounded by nature and jungle, and out front, the Kinabatangan River. Both swimming pools and villas have daily visits from diverse animals. Orangutans and pig-tail macaques are some of the habitués.
Owl spotted during Wildlife Safari ride over the Kinabatangan River by João Monteiro
Our wake-up call came at 5 am, with a light breakfast and morning safari departure at 6. We jumped on small eco-boats (electric noiseless motors) and headed up the river. The mist was still settled over the water, adding to the ambiance of adventure ahead.
On the many days we spent at Sukau, we saw elephants swimming by our boat whilst crossing the river, saw macaque families freely expressing their family dynamics as if we were not just 9 feet away; spotted crocodiles and sleeping birds (hornbill, kingfisher, owls) inches away during the night safaris, and caught a glimpse of so many orangutans with their babies.
To sum it up, all I can say is: what. an. experience. But it doesn't end here. Stay posted for more travel diary entries from my crazy adventures with Constança. There's still so much more to tell you about. Next stop is in Sabah for our 2-day hike up Mount Kinabalu. Wish us luck!