4 mins

Meeting orang utans in Borneo

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, on the best way to meet the 'old men' of the jungle

Orang utan (Marie Javins)

The world would be a better place, I thought as I read my email from other parts of the world, if we all dropped the Singapore chewing-gum jokes. Singapore caning jokes too. And any sort of dog-eating joke in reference to Asia.

I’d involuntarily heard them all, way too many times, I thought as I headed out of my hostel back to Singapore’s airport for my AirAsia flight to Borneo. Had they even been funny, some time in the distant pass?

But I was in for a treat, as I was about to be overwhelmed by a new theme. Cats!

I was flying to Kuching, a city in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Borneo is the island, and there are parts of three countries on the island – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The Malaysia bit consists of two states, Sarawak and Sabah. I was flying into Kuching and out of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah ten days later as part of this leg of my trip around the world.

Kuching is called “Cat City” because, well... no one’s totally sure. Some say it’s because the Malay word for cat is “kucing.” Others say it’s from a local fruit known as the “Cat’s Eye.” Either way, I was happy to trade in gum jokes for cat jokes.

On arrival in Kuching, a taxi driver was waiting for me with a sign at the airport. I'd booked ahead with the hostel.

He was a cheery man with round glasses and betelnut-stained teeth. He whisked me into town and left me at Lodge 121, where I'd booked a single room with bath down the hall for $16 a night.

I went out in the blisteringly hot sun – with bonus humidity – and walked down to Kuching's waterfront. There you can view the State Assembly Building – which is truly an odd shape, like a cake or a party hat – across the river.

But the real attraction, of course, is the cat sculpture nearby. I headed over to snap a few photos. Why, I wondered, were cats the theme of Kuching? I was here to see orang utans.

The price was right at my lodge, but the down side of staying in a smaller backpacker's lodge was that since they had fewer customers than the larger lodge, they didn't have a morning excursion going to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. No one else had signed up.

No problem, I thought. I'd just wander down the street to the much bigger lodge – Singgahsana – and booked onto their morning tour. And that's how I found myself listening to Curious George Rides A Bike en route to seeing some orang utans. A tourist-mum in the van was reading the book to her daughter.

Curious George barely got anywhere on his bicycle before we were at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and offloaded onto a hiking path. I followed a large group of 50-or-so people into the reserve to see the morning feeding of the reserve's semi-wild orang utans.

"Wow. They are like short wookies," I thought, watching the orang utans sturdily meander onto the feeding platform. I watched for an hour, until the orang utans slipped back into the woods, swinging up into the trees. I heard a noise from the side and turned – it was a shy mother and baby, who’d come down a tree quietly. The ranger had walked over to meet them.

I had really started to enjoy my trip recently, now that many of the tough legs were behind me. And I wasn't sure I wanted to go back home anymore. Home is full of challenges, much harder than problems I encounter on the road.

This IS my comfort zone, I thought as I headed back to Kuching to wander around town and shoot photos the rest of the day. 

"You didn't have to go see orang utans," said the Malaysian grandpa at the hostel breakfast table, there with his extended family. "We're right in front of you!"

He was quite a character.

I was at loose ends here in Borneo. I'd been planning to go see proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park, but yesterday I'd learned that there was a water shortage at the park, so no overnights were allowed, and the monkeys didn't come out in the heat of the day.

Maybe I could try again to see some in Sabah when I reached the far end of Borneo. But what was there to do with my spare day in Kuching?

I went to take a bus to Sarawak Cultural Centre but I missed it by minutes, so I wandered about aimlessly. I tried to get an Ice Blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, only to learn that the local branch had closed. Boo-hoo!

I was extremely early for the next bus.

I met another traveller on the bus, a British woman who had just finished working in Bahrain. She made me laugh with her story of attending a barbecue in the desert during her first two weeks there and ending up under arrest for suspected devil-worship. I didn’t have any stories like that from my time working in Kuwait.

At the cultural centre, we checked out longhouses and dance performances. These were all hokey, sure, but also kind of sweet and genuine. We tried the blow-gun game, and I hit the target on my second try. But alas, no one presented me with a stuffed bear or toy orang utan.

Or even a stuffed cat.

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