We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
Last spring we saw our first free roaming orangutan.
We were at Semenggoh Nature Reserve, just south of Kuching in the Sarawak state on Borneo. Semenggoh is also a Wildlife Centre, established in 1975 as a rehabilitation sanctuary. They take in injured, orphaned, or rescued orangutans. The sole goal of the centre is the rehabilitation and gradual return of animals to fend for themselves in the wild.
Orangutans are endangered, rare, marvelous. They’re native to only two places on the entire planet: Borneo or Sumatra. Our chances of running across them in the wild were pretty much zero, but at Semenggoh maybe we could watch them feeding.
Our individually booked, guided visit conjoined with the larger international tourist groups. The centre gives educational lectures. We learned the rarity and habits of these giant primates. Orangutans spend at least 60% of their waking time looking for food. “Their diet consists of 300 different kinds of fruit such as barks, honey, young shoots, insects and occasional bird egg and small vertebrae. Fruits make up 60% of the orangutan’s diet.” Also (this fact surprised me), “a 1-mile square radius of rainforest can only support a low population density of about 2.5 orangutans.” 
The centre maintains a feeding platform. Orangutans are called back for lunch if they want it. But the jungle vegetation fruited a second time last winter, and we were informed that if the orangutans didn’t show, this was a sign that they were fending successfully for themselves in the thick woods. And indeed, none of the creatures responded to the rangers’ calls. 
We waited patiently for the tardy luncheon guests. Then suddenly walkie talkies crackled. The seemingly relaxed park guides sprang into action, urging everyone back towards the entrance. A ranger had spotted an orangutan!
The matriarch was in a tree near the parking lot and ironically closer and easier to observe than if she’d come to the feeding platform. It was Seduku. She’s nicknamed the ‘Grand Old Lady’ and she’s 48 years old, born in 1971.
Seduku could be aggressive towards tourists, our guide said. But the morning we ‘met’ her she was mellow (and almost seemed to be showing off). All I can say is that she had a conscious dignity. Kudos to the great work being done on behalf of orangutans at the Semenggoh Rehab Centre!
NOTES:  Semenggoh Wildlife Centre  Not getting to see the endangered animals at a feeding station means that they’re rehabilitated into their natural habitat. Not seeing them is a good thing. This is an ironic moment for any tourist. To learn more about the rehab center, go to their website at https://semenggoh.my/
Ah, Kubah National Park on Borneo…. froggie paradise. The park is also home to other species. We met these guys.
And these. They were the size of my out-stretched hand!
When we planned what to do and see on Borneo, I made only one request. Okay, I admit it was a demand. I wanted, no, I needed to go on the night tour to see endemic frogs.
Our tour guide picked us up in front of the hotel and drove us out to Kubah National Park, where the park ranger met us. The four of us headed up into the park in the deepening darkness. And I do mean up: we climbed to 1,ooo feet to reach the part of the park where the most frogs hang out. The road was lit only by the beams of our torches and the flashes of fire flies.
Fire flies! I haven’t seen them since my childhood in New England, back when their on-and-off glow was an atmospheric element of every summer evening….
It was glorious.
It was also very, very funny, at times like being in a Monty Python sketch. Overcast, humid as hell and still hot as hell, even in the middle of the night. I dripped sweat and my glasses kept fogging up. Pitch black darkness, except for our flashlights…. which the two guides and I were shining on the frogs so that Uwe could capture them in photos. He didn’t want to use the camera flash, not wanting to startle the wild life and because light from a camera flash is too artificial. So I took his flashlight and held a torch in each hand, aiming them as directed. It was as though he were a mad director with a camera crew. It didn’t bother the critters one bit – they went on singing, and croaking, and hanging out on bole branch and vine…
A highlight in a night of a parade of wonders was the long-nosed horned frog. O.M.G. If folks on safari speak of the ‘Big Five’, froggers go into raptures about this guy:
He lives in the leaf litter on the jungle floor, and remained motionless even as the park ranger cleared away the leaf detritus around him so that we could see him better. The horned frog, mahogany frog, and narrow-mouthed frog found in the pitcher plant are the rarest of the rare, the ‘Big Three’ of Kubah Park’s frog world. I clearly saw the first two, and saw the third jump from a distance.
Ah, Kubah National Park on Borneo…. froggie paradise.
March 2019 Journal entry:
Just returned from an exhilarating 2 and ½ hours night tour with nature guide and tour guide at Kubah National Park. We saw frogs on trees, leaves, vines, boles, the sides of the road…. Two rare horned frogs! Mahogany frogs! A teeny pitcher plant frog – just one – it jumped away before we could look more closely but I did see the tiny thing leap (the narrow-mouth frog first described in 2010). Three different lizards. White-lipped frogs. Cinnamon frogs. Firebelly toads. Harlequin tree frogs. We had to head up to 1,000 feet up a road in the dark, the ranger with a head light. Unreal how he could spot the frogs. Glorious sounds of running water and night sounds of the jungle all around, my glasses fogging over with the heat and humidity, a large frog pond formed by wild pigs’ rutting. The frogs surprisingly calm, not jumping at our presence, just hanging out in their domain. I was in the moment, totally blissed out, just there, present with each frog we spotted. The guide and ranger and I backlighting each critter with our flashlights so Uwe could photograph it. The deep jungle trees and vegetation and clicks and buzzes and calls of frogs all around us. Nature’s Symphony. Glorious. An Australian recorded just this place and won an international competition for the most beautiful sounds in the world. Borneo’s really promoting sustainable growth, they recognize what they have here. The Malaysian part of Borneo, that is. I feel hopeful about a corner of the planet for the first time in a very, very, very long and sad time. Man, I like Borneo.
But with this frog tour tonight: I’m blissed out. It satisfied a deep soul place inside me. I am beyond happy. My heart feels filled.
I was going to tell you about Malaysian Borneo when I got sidetracked by their neighbor Brunei. Moving on quickly (which is what we did as we flew over the sultanate on our way to the state of Sarawak), we landed in Kuching. What a lovely, lovely city. Kuching should get its own post, and likely will. We roamed along the riverfront walk and slurped down laksa noodle dishes with gusto. Kuching is a great spot to head out to various national parks to see wildlife.
Borneo is home of the native Dayak tribes. Remember childhood tales of the wild headhunters of Borneo? The Dayak call this ritual Ngayau. We visited Dayak long houses. Smoked skulls still hang at the hearth in the central long house.
The most important tribal figure is the head chief, closely followed by the shaman. This medicine man, also known as a balian  is responsible for the health of the tribe as well as interceding between the worlds.
During our time in Kuching I’d been glancing in shops without actually entering any of them. Among the streets of tourist trinkets, one store fascinated me. On the last day I made a beeline for that shop. 
And then I made a beeline for a shelf lined with containers topped by human figures.
Jerry Ang, the soft-spoken shop owner, kindly answered all my questions. He told me these were Dayak shaman medicine containers. The figures are hand carved from polished buffalo or cow bone. A shaman had hand-etched the jar with scrimshaw patterns. Dayak shamans used the containers to store herbs, magic powders and betal lime to make medical potions. Some still contained resins – Jerry and I opened each jar and sniffed.
The carved figure indicates the illness the potion was intended to treat. Some of the figures held their heads (aches and pains of the head) or their stomachs. Some figures even depicted a person crouched over… the traveler’s curse of diarrhea for sure.
My piece has a prawn carved on the back: Jerry thought maybe prawns were one of the main ingredients in the medicine. Or perhaps the prawn indicated the woman who made the potion (he said the figure was female), or an ancestor. An on-line source tells me the scrimshaw work represents animals that bring good luck. If anyone can give me more information, I’d be most grateful!
NOTES:  Balian is the term used for traditional healers on Bali, too. Healing arts are passed down through generations. Twenty years ago I did a massage exchange with the son of a balian there; he had been taught by his father. To learn more about the Dayak shamans go to http://factsanddetails.com. The article gives the following information: “Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.” [Source: Library of Congress, 2006] Or see Wikipedia: The Dayak People  See also Unika Borneo, the shop where I found my figure. I receive no commission for mentioning the store. I just think they deserve to be mentioned. More figures can be admired at https://borneoartifact.com and https://www.esotericstuff.com
The island of Borneo is very special. Its territory is divided up between Malaysia (the Borneo part), Indonesia (Kalimantan), and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Brunei is currently in the news as the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as prime minister, insists that Brunei will implement sharia law. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled non-stop for 52 years.
Harsh penalties have been in force since 2014; the second and third stages to the penal code just went into effect a few weeks ago on April 3. People convicted of being gay men or adulterers die by stoning. Thieves lose the right hand for a first offense, and the left foot for the second. Blasphemy or leaving the Muslim faith earns the death penalty. The new laws criminalize ‘exposing’ Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. Cross dressing earns imprisonment. Abortion shall be punished with public flogging. Lesbians get flogged with 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in prison.
These laws mostly effect Muslims, though some aspects apply to non-Muslims. One-third of the country’s population is not Muslim.
Human Rights Watch condemns the new penal code as “barbaric to the core”. In ‘fairness’, it’s not entirely clear whether death by stoning will actually be implemented. A high burden of proof is needed.
We just finished up a trip to that part of the world and had an amazing time on Borneo. It repels me beyond words to think that we might have visited this barbaric regime.
But I digress. I wanted to tell you about our trip. Come back later; I promise I’ll be in a better mood. I’ll have stories about orangutans, rare frogs, and Dayak shaman medicine to share with you.