Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ulu Temburong- Brunei Darussalam

The third largest island in the world, Borneo is a steamy hot, remote and far-off extension of the Asian mainland separated only through shallow seas from the Malay Peninsula. Sitting immediately adjacent to Sumatra and Java and barely above the Equator, the tropical archipelago is surrounded by warm, milky, silt-ridden waters of the South China, Sulu, Java, and Celebes Seas slopping gently against island shores. Hot and humid, temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year at 90 degrees with annual rainfall averaging from 100 to 160 inches that typically arrive in heavy afternoon cloud bursts.

Three nations share this land, parsed out between Indonesia, Malaysia and the small, extremely wealthy nation of Brunei Darussalam. Only three hundred miles east of Singapore, this tiny nation is only 2,226 square miles in size with a total population of 333,000 people. It's pretty quiet here- no, wait.. it's really quiet here. Flipping through the Borneo Bulletin headlines, it's a who's who of local gossip and non-news: "4x4 Adventure to K'Lapangan Cancelled", "RBPF Sacrifice cattle in Aidiladha." Good in a way, I suspect.. much better than the other way around. But it does go to show that this place- even the thousand year old capital of 75,000 people making up the largest city in this Sultinate is an extremely quiet and well-managed place.

Under Muslim law, it is extremely strict. I'd put it on par with Malaysia and Singapore, all of whom have "DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS" on their immigration entry cards. While formed in 1984 as an independent entity when it broke free from British rule, understandably it is fundamentally and ideologically more aligned with it's Malay and Indonesian neighbors. All of this is clear when walking around the quiet streets of the capital. Well paved, sparkly clean and highly efficient, the absence of any sort of traffic makes this place almost uncomfortable during what should be Rush Hour.

Mosques dot the Bandar Seri Begawan skyline and afternoon prayers ring out across the heavy air as brightly colored birds zing by and distant lightening illuminates far-off thunderheads, silhouetted by orange sunsets. The most prominent of all structures here is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, built in 1958 but so well maintained that it appears to have been erected yesterday. Rising 171 feet from the surrounding plain that forms the origin of this nation, the main dome is covered in pure gold and can be seen from virtually everywhere in the capital city. Named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, it is considered amongst the Bruneian people to be their major landmark and is also amongst the most spectacular examples of architecture in Southeast Asia. As a non-Muslim, you can even walk inside during daily visitor hours (or.. visitor hours actually = more like 30 minutes) and take in the mosaic stained glass and imported Italian marble. If any structure in this nation speaks to it's fantastic oil wealth, this one clearly does.

If you look at the island of Borneo, Brunei Darussalam is situated at the northern edge, and is actually cut into two distinct pieces. Bandar Seri Begawan is in the western, and much larger section of the country, while the Ulu Temburong National Park is situated in the rugged and much more remote eastern prefecture. Only a small number of jeep trails exist in the park, mainly connecting interior Indian villages. To get there is quite literally an expedition in itself. Located south of Temburong District, the park covers 550 square miles of pristine forest that is almost exclusively accessible by boat. As the only way to get there, that's how I went. How often is one on Borneo, after all?

One hot, muggy and stale-aired morning, I grabbed a taxi and rode the 10 minutes down to the central watertaxi jetty, straight across from the Water Village. In the Seventh Century, the first settlers of Brunei Darussalam set up shop here by erecting houses on stilts in communities along the Kampong Ayer in a tradition much similar to their way of life today. I could have walked, but I decided that if I was soon going to be stacked like cord wood into a decaying boat, I didn't want the spectacle of a white guy that towered over everyone to be even more entertaining by being covered in sweat. Me just standing still in that oppressive heat is usually more than adequate to start sweating profusely, and this was no different. So I didn't need any help in that category, but a short relief of air conditioning is always well received.

After ten minutes, a high speed boat came along and off I headed toward Bangar. Ringing the island of Borneo, the coast maintains a low, marshy belt between 10 and 50 miles wide. Most of this area is composed of mangrove swamp and it is precisely through this that the boat drivers quickly snake their way along over the next half an hour. The water taxi service is known as "penambang and is primarily used for transporting people and light cargo between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kamping Ayer. Our driver was so adept at navigating these tight passages that at times Mangrove branches would scrape the side of the boat as he cranked by. I just threw in my MP3 and resigned myself to a much different experience as we passed into a shared bay-like area situated along our area between Brunei and Malaysia.

Along the way, it is possible to see the reddish brown, medium sized Proboscis Monkey. Endangered, it is found only on Borneo, and we saw ours swinging around in clusters of 20 monkeys- essentially a Proboscis Monkey community of sorts almost across from the Sultan's palace. Not too shabby an existence. I wonder if they tell all the other monkey species on Borneo about how great they have it- show offs and all proud until they catch the other monkeys staring at their nose. Then they get all self-conscious I bet.

Males have a large and protruding Jimmy Durante nose that apparently attracts "da laidiezz" in the Proboscis Monkey world. Besides working to attract women, the nose assists as a resonating chamber to amplify warning calls. Or, to snore louder than my buddy Chris does after 5 weisbiers in Munich.

Finally, after an hour ride, the high speed water taxi arrives in lovely Temburong District. It took all of 5 seconds after the boat stopped for me to question this plan. It is so, so, so hot here! It makes me convinced that someone around here is going to spontaneously combust. This town is extremely small- perhaps three blocks total, not much in the way of tourist chotchkie shopping, and more of a stepping off point for Temburong National Park than anything.

It is also here that our group met Asman- a tour guide that was sent out by the Ulu Ulu Resort to collect us up and get us the last two phases and 2 hours of the trip. Asman, it turns out, is from a tribe of former cannibals and head hunters. He states that back in the early 80's one of the Sultan's mandates to independence that all the Borneo headhunters stop playing their Reindeer Games. No more cannibalism, says Asman- and then proceeds to go on telling us about an "unexplained" event against some cluster of local politicians that seemed to fall victim to a crime that seemed at first glance to be an old and familiar crime. He didn't say anything about anyone getting convicted, which made me chuckle thinking about how you can be put to death here for bringing in drugs, but local crimes by headhunter clans can go unpunished.

Before heading off in a park Land Rover across some well-paved and several poorly maintained roads, we meandered through a local food market. Not very big, but loaded heavy with regional fruits and vegetables. One of my personal favorites- more for the reaction it gets out of people who have never had it- is the Durian. Highly pungent, it is banned from airplanes and most hotels because people either love the sticky, almost rotting sweet smell, or they hate it with the passion of a thousand burning white hot suns. This pesky fruit has so many spikes on it that it can be dangerous. Once in Vietnam a few years back I was driving a motor bike and had one suspended from a plastic bag from my handle bar. The bag pendulum'ed forward, then the weight of the 10lb fruit pulled the bag backward and straight into my knee where it drew blood. Ya gotta watch out for these fruits all sorts of ways.

Driving overland, Asman regales us with stories. Someone honestly needs to tell these guys about what sort of stories are appropriate, and what aren't. Brunei is working feverishly to develop it's eco-tourism industry in Temburong, seeing the biodiversity of Borneo working in it's favor and looking to draw in the ever elusive tourist trade. So here's Asman, chirping away. "So, Asman- what did you do last night?" "Oh, Doug. two friends of mine and I went out with blow guns into the jungle and shot three Silver Leaf Monkey. We then cooked them and ate them in a BIG feast. We were very happy."

After a while, we arrived at the Temburong River, where a flat-bottomed boat was prepared to take the final leg up river to Ulu Ulu Resort. Barely held together yet somehow durable, these boats slip through the shallow river waters with the aid of only a severely chipped up propeller. This was definitely my favorite part of the trip to Ulu Ulu. Weaving in and out of rapids, water so shallow you could reach out of the boat and touch the riverbed below. Bumping, bouncing, lurching and getting wet the whole way, there is no other way of getting to Ulu Ulu. And it is one unique ride.

After another 45 minutes, the Ulu Ulu Resort filters into view. A highly ambitious private project to bring eco tourism to the region, I honestly had mixed feelings. It is modern, they are building like crazy, it is almost 1,000 meters from end-to-end along the riverfront, and.. we were the only guests. Literally.. the only guests. I get the need to make a really great place to draw in the tourists. But this place is so remote, Brunei is already so quiet, and the challenges of getting here to this spot, nestled almost in the exact center of the vast Ulu Temburong National Park.. it just doesn't seem possible. The extremely friendly staff talk about the near future where the hotel will be at 70% occupancy, but then I walk the quiet halls, these extensive structures completely abandoned- I'm immediately struck with what I felt the whole time I was there. Like I was watching an episode of the TV show "Lost".

The hotel winds up several hundred meters into the surrounding hillsides. Step after agonizing step continue up endless walkways to the tops of hills. It's not rarefied air here that makes you want to stop- it's the oppressive humidity that gives you a headache, has you burst out into fits of uncontrolled sweating, and mosquitoes giddy with excitement. Asman insists on no fewer than two "nature" walks before lights out, followed by two more tomorrow. After one, I'm ready for a nap and wondering aloud where I'm going to be able to wring out my sopping clothes in the middle of a rain forest.

Wildlife is everywhere. After all, it is Borneo- one of the most nature-rich habitats on the planet. And it is truly cool. We saw civet cats, tarantula, 8 inch long gecko, crazy moths the size of a dinner plate, bats feasting by dive bombing the cloud of mosquitoes that hovered around our heads and some crazy colored birds. Monkey were surprisingly absent, although given Asman's penchant for eating them, he probably cleaned out the local talent from the hotel area years ago.

At one point on a "nature" hike that to me was more of a forced march to make me sweat, we were stumbling about in the pitch black. All of a sudden, there are these mossy steps, followed by some stressed metal from the corrosive tropic air. Behind a mung-covered control panel, soft reddish and orangish bulbs glowed, and a creepy bridge appeared out of nowhere. Before I was reminded of the TV show "Lost". Only now I felt like I was actually living it. A strange, creepy feeling washes over me as the only sound outside of an occasional gecko is the noise we make in the pure blackness of only faint starlight penetrating the triple canopy jungle. Trudging along as sweat beads regularly and drips in a constant stream off my nose, I learn that the grounds of Ulu Ulu are littered with these things built for a much, much larger audience that won't ever come. So, maybe in a way the silence made these structures more "Lost"-like. But they were definitely brought up in conversation several times. "Hey Asman! Where's the countdown doomsday clock?" So weird..

One great highlight did come in the form of another painful jungle hike- this one initiated before the sun came up. With a knock on my hotel room door, I stumbled through a dehydration headache to compete with a cornucopia of insects over a watered down coffee breakfast. Then, movement to the start of what was billed as "a leisurely 271 meters to the jungle walk". 271 meters in my mind is 271 meters. To the Ulu Ulu team, 271 meters is actually closer to 450 meters up an almost purely vertical mud slope awash in army ants, spiders and other Borneo friends. Again, I arrive out of breath at the top of a very step hill, covered in grime and bathed in sweat. After one day, everything I own is wet.

But, I soon learn that it was worth every bit of it. Ascending to the top of the hill, we find a Erector Set ladder contraption that allows you to snake your way to the top very top of the jungle canopy. Twelve mini ladders wind their way 70meters up past vivid orchids clinging to tree trunks and finally to the tree tops themselves, where you can look out across slow mists blanketing the valley below. No noise other than macaws and howler monkeys calling out warnings. Gentle hues of oranges and purples extend out across the horizon. It was truly beautiful.

Above the trees, the canopy jungle walk extends for another 150 meters or so. En route, you can peer down into the rain forest to take a bird's eye view of the numerous vines, flowering plants and dense undergrowth that covers most of Borneo. From what I hear, occasionally you can see small leopards, rhino, orangutans and gibbons walk below, and even a possible python or cobra if you are lucky.

Finally, wobbling along on your canopy walk, you arrive at a sign pointing the way to Bandar Seri Bagawan and Mount Kinabalu. The island's highest peak at 13,455' and located in the extreme north, I guess you could say that I have had my eye on this peak for several years. But it's not easy to get to, and takes a level of effort that I am still debating to this day as to whether or not it's worth what goes into it.

Looking to the return to civilization, covered in bug bites and completely dehydrated, Asman chimes on and on about how much he is looking forward to that night's activities. No head hunting or cannibalism, unfortunately. No, that night, he and his friends we going out hunting again. "Maybe a few pythons! Those are tasty," he claims. "Want to have some?" If not those, then he'd go back after the monkeys. Eco tourism in Borneo.. long, long way to go.

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1 comment:

bathmate said...

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