I am a huge fan of California and its natural beauty, particularly that of the Southern Region. I consider myself very fortunate to live in this part of the world. However, like most people, I sometimes get swept up with workaday duties, and find that my focus narrows to the immediate, rather than the bigger picture. While this facilitates accomplishing many tasks, it can inhibit creativity and awareness that there is life beyond my tiny little corner!
Several factors created a condition of preoccupation this winter. As Director of Outdoor Education for Los Angeles Audubon, much of my work is done, as the title implies, outdoors. The wonderful rains that we received during the winter of 2018-2019 were great for California. But, as one can imagine, the weather wreaked havoc with the scheduling of our environmental education programs at Kenneth Hahn and the Ballona Wetlands. The teachers’ strike that took place in early 2019 further complicated the situation. By the end of February I was constantly toggling between phone calls to teachers, bus companies, etc. and hoping that the rain would at least hold off till after daily tours were completed. My brain was clogged with minutiae! In a fit of procrastination, while at the computer, I googled flights to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And lo and behold, an extremely reasonable fare popped up for some dates in June-the time when school is no longer in session and things slow down a bit for our program.
Why Malaysia? I had spent two days in Kuala Lumpur on a layover many years ago, and was quite taken by this city. When flying in, one is overwhelmed by the lush greenery of the country below-rain forest abounds in Malaysia. Jungles, orangutans, tropical beaches, coral reefs, and wild rivers are all found in this part of the world. Hitting “purchase” seemed like an obvious choice.
Lonely Planet guide in hand, I began to make plans for the trip. Two nights in Kuala Lumpur allowed a little time to recover from jet lag, and explore the city a bit. The population of 1.6 million people is incredibly diverse, and with it comes ethnic enclaves like Chinatown and Little India, hawker food stands on narrow streets, and a lively street life. Historical buildings left from the British Colonial era are now museums, and best of all for me, a 27 acre park of relatively intact rainforest is located in the middle of the city. The KL Forest Eco Park has hiking trails, an elevated walkway through the tree canopy, and is free to the public. The park is sometimes called “the lungs of Kuala Lumpur”.
After walking off some of the 17 hour flight (!) it was time to take a look at the Klang River, which runs through town. Kuala Lumpur was founded at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers. Chinese prospectors came to this location in search of tin, and Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence”. The Klang River is still muddy, due to sediments washed down from the mountains during almost daily rain storms. But, like Los Angeles, KL is in the midst of revitalizing their urban river, creating public walkways, and installing benches and educational signage along its banks. It has been dubbed “The River of Life”, a brilliant piece of marketing in my mind. Signs with this moniker are found all along the waterway, inspiring people to remember that water is essential to life, and even an urban river is more than muddy matter flowing through a concrete lined course. Efforts are being made to clean up the river itself, and the aim is to bring the Klang from the current Class III and Class IV (not suitable for body contact) to Class IIb (suitable for body contact and recreational usage) by 2020. The industries that drive the economy of Malaysia, like petroleum and palm oil, are definitely not compatible with healthy ecosystems. There is a growing awareness in Malaysia of the health of the natural environment, and new policies and projects are being undertaken by the government for its enhancement. The importance of the country’s natural features to the tourism industry is not lost on the government. This was apparent as my trip continued during my visits to several National Parks and coral reef fringed beaches. And even in the midst of the capitol city, the walk along the Klang is designed to connect people to the idea of nature. Imagine what the LA River would be like if it was cleaned up to the point of being a true recreational option-a river swim downtown would be quite something!
Between the Rain Forest Eco Park and the revitalized river, by Day Two the trip had already accomplished one of my main goals for going. I was reminded that there are other beautiful places in the world, and that good things are happening for the health of the planet on an international level. As I continued my travels, I saw lots more evidence of attempts to change human habits and perceptions for the better of the environment.
The next stop after Kuala Lumpur was the state of Sarawak, located in Borneo. Borneo is a large island; the northern part of the island is Malaysia, the other half is Indonesia. Wedged between the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah is the Sultanate of Brunei. Like the rest of this part of the world, tropical rainforest is the natural habitat, and many rivers transverse the land. One of Borneo’s most famous inhabitants is the endangered Orangutan, a creature that I have always wanted to see in the wild. My destination was Kuching, a city of 600,000 that is the capitol of Sarawak state.
Kuching is a lovely city that features a public promenade along the Kuching River. Several national parks are within a 40 minute drive from the city, which allows ample opportunity to hike by day and dine on a fabulous variety of Malaysian food by night. Evening strolls along the river finish off perfect days of wildlife viewing and immersion in Malaysian culture and nature. In addition, buildings left from its colonial past now house museums, restaurants and cafes, giving the visitor ample opportunity to learn about the history of Borneo.
First stop was Bako National Park, the oldest National Park in Malaysia.
Lots of biodiversity in this park, from mangrove swamps to beaches to dipterocarp and heath forests. What is a dipterocarp forest? Any forest that is dominated by flora of the Dipterocarpaceae family, of which there are over 700 species. Some in this family are huge trees of over 80 feet tall. These are probably the type of trees that come to mind when one envisions a rainforest. Their origin can be traced back to the Supercontinent of Gondwana. When Gondwana broke apart, the dipterocarp forests drifted all over the globe, which is why they can be found in South America, Africa and Asia. While hiking up and over the ridge at Bako there was much stepping over the massive root system of these trees.
Though impressive, lots of interesting things were to be seen at ground level as well, like the carnivorous Pitcher Plant, lizards and fantastical mushrooms in rainbow colors. The National Park System has a very low cost, low impact system of designating trails and guiding hikers. Brochures available at headquarters show the myriad routes in different colors. As you hike there is a dab of paint that corresponds to the color of your chosen trail on the trunks of trees, about every 200 hundred feet. No signs to haul in or to maintain, and regular reassurance that you have not lost your way!
Bako is famous for its Proboscis Monkeys, and one appeared almost immediately upon our arrival. Silver Leafed Monkeys, Bearded Pigs and Macaques also call Bako their home.
My trip to the park was just for the day, but all of the National Parks that I visited had forest lodgings that are available for overnight stays. This would be a wonderful way to spend time in the wilderness, as one would be able to see wildlife that appears in the evenings and early mornings. Next time!
Of course, seeing Orangutans is probably on the list of any visitor to Borneo, and in Sarawak this can be done most easily by visiting semi-wild Orangutans at the Semenggoh Orangutan Reserve.
The Orangutans here are mostly animals that have been rescued from the pet trade or confiscated at Customs. They have an area of around 1700 acres to roam, but there are twice daily feedings by park staff. Some of the Orangutans regularly show up for the feedings, especially after fruiting season is over in the forest. Interestingly though, one in particular, named Renah, only showed up to be fed 8 times in 2018 (detailed records are kept by park staff). Even more interesting is the fact that all of her three offspring also seem to disdain the ready-made meal, which indicates that Renah is teaching her progeny to forage in the wild. During my visit, several Orangutans did appear to be fed, and they are just as charismatic as one would expect-I went a little snap happy with the camera at this spot! Semenggoh is also a Botanical Research Center and has a seed bank-more great stewardship in action!
Nearby is a Kuba, another National Park with a network of trails and overnight accommodations. My impression was that the government policies really encourage visiting, experiencing and learning about the natural world-it is valued. This is a good counterbalance to a history of logging the rainforest and the petroleum industry that sustains much of the economy.
In fact, there seemed to be a sizable awareness amongst the people with whom I spoke about the environmental health of the planet. My hotel in Kuching had a water purifier in the lobby, so I was able to avoid buying bottles of water;I just re-filled my re-usable bottle throughout the day. Bathroom products, like shampoo and lotion, were in beautiful, re-fillable ceramic vessels, available for purchase in the lobby. No tiny plastic bottles! I soon found out that their Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change came into office last year, and has been making some significant changes. Her name is Yeo Bin Yin, and she is 36 years old. She is a young leader who is making a difference! She is intent on getting rid of single use plastic on a national level, and is also the driving force behind Malaysia’s relatively new policy of refusing recyclables from other nations. And to include “Climate Change” as part of the Ministry-obviously we could learn a thing or two from this model in our own country! Yeo Bin Yin is receiving international acclaim for her efforts-she was recently included in a list of “25 Climate Leaders Shaping 2019” by The Ecologist, a British Environmental Journal. She is at the forefront of a new generation attempting to mitigate the mindset and damages done to the environment by those that preceded.
It was difficult to leave Borneo-so much more to see! But it was time to go onward to the final destination: The Perhentian Islands, located off the east coast of mainland Malaysia.
There are two islands, Besar and Kecil; I chose to visit the larger of the two, Besar. Both are only reachable by boat, and there are no roads or cars on these islands. Jungle runs right down to the sand, and huge coral reefs lie just off many of the beaches. While there is development that caters to the tourist trade, it is confined to specific parts of the coastal areas, and the interior of the islands is untouched. There are a few narrow, steep and slippery footpaths that allow one to explore the jungle, but the majority of movement around the island is done by boat. This means that you can be standing on the beach and look up and see monkeys! When visiting coral reefs around the world I always mentally prepare myself for degradation of this very fragile ecosystem. Global warming, pollution and the fishing industry has taken a terrible toll on coral everywhere; I have actually seen this decline with my own eyes in the 30 plus years that I have been snorkeling. Happily, the reefs on Perhentian were in remarkably good shape. There was a high diversity of coral and fish species, and the water was crystal clear, with a visibility of 40 to 50 feet at each location visited. Of course, plastic pollution is a concern, and I encountered scientists during my travels that were doing microplastic surveys, using 10 centimeter transects on the sand. The news was not good-microplastic was found in virtually every transect on the day that I observed the researchers. It is everywhere. I also observed volunteers collecting plastic debris on the beach; I did my own part by gathering and disposing what I came across on my daily beach forays. This does give question to the idea of “disposing”. Sadly, I was under no illusion that I was solving the problem, just transferring it from an ecologically sensitive spot to a landfill (that was probably built upon a spot that was also once “ecologically sensitive”). However, I was encouraged by the fact that once again a water purifier was available in the lobby/restaurant of my lodging, so I was able to keep myself hydrated without contributing to the plastic bottle problem. In addition, the most beautiful beach with the most extensive reef, although a mere 15 minute stroll from the hotel, was not publicized by my guide book nor by the proprietors of the hotel. Most of my fellow tourists chose to stay close to the comfy lounge chairs provided on-site; the beach I visited daily was virtually empty. There was no mention of this beach in my guidebook, either. Leaving it up to the more intrepid traveler to find this spot helps to keep pressure off the reef, which is a passive way to protect this delicate ecosystem.
Malaysia was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen, and I constantly marveled that such a place existed, and that I was able to visit! The trip did volumes to broaden my focus and awareness (which, as I first mentioned, had become pathetically narrow during the rainy winter of 2018-2019), and inspire me! Although the country has a history of exploitation of natural resources (logging, extraction industries, palm oil plantations, destruction of mangrove swamps for aquaculture, etc.) that rivals our own, steps are being taken to mitigate some of the damage and encourage a more “green economy”. For example, I saw lots of solar panels of the roofs of newly constructed homes. And the efforts of Yeo Bin Yin and her Ministry are not to be underestimated. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity and/or wherewithal to visit.
I did not use my cell phone, nor did I look at a computer during the entire two weeks that I was in Malaysia. All information gleaned initially came from the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, and was amplified upon arrival by talking to Malaysians, and visiting museums and Visitors Centers. I made very few plans in advance, other than booking flights to the various destinations I visited. Once on the ground was when I began the actual choosing of activities, and I did not consult Trip Advisor or any similar online resource. The people with whom I did speak were a wealth of information, and eager to share things about their country, and make recommendations about dining, lodging and activities. I find this to be true in all of the places that I have visited throughout the world-locals have pride of place, and want you to see what they love! Choosing to plan and travel on your own, without a tour group, provides much more opportunity to actually engage with the local population. Even getting lost can be a chance to meet residents of the country. More than once this floundering tourist has been guided to her destination by a helpful citizen; it happened on this trip, too, while in Kuala Lumpur.
Internet connectivity notwithstanding, the world is still a huge and hugely interesting place. Making the effort to see at least part of it in person reminded me of that fact, and I hope this little essay might inspire some of you to do a little exploring.