It is lunchtime at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary on the eastern coast of Malaysian Borneo, one of only four reserves for the apes in the world. The crowd gathered is camera-ready. A sideshow atmosphere sets in, especially as an employee mounts the feeding platform with a comically large bucket of bananas.
We hear rustling in the foliage; the ropes that hang from tree to tree tremble. In minutes, a half-dozen orangutans are plowing through their meal. A big one jokes with the employee, hugging his knees in an attempt to get more bananas. A mom feeds the baby latched to her shoulders, one small bite at a time. Others are, well, just hanging out.
My girlfriend and I, and the rest of the group, go about the serious, hushed business of taking pictures. That is until one orangutan, clearly at ease with our flashing bulbs, lets loose. And by that, I mean peeing on himself while upside-down – and drinking it. I'm giggling, Sherrie's giggling, and a much-needed laugh ripples through the crowd.
Despite easy-to-spot wildlife and uncrowded beaches, Malaysia is a destination that flies under the radar for most Canadians. While Thailand has become a sleek tourism machine, and Vietnam and Cambodia are exotic if well-trodden, Malaysia falls somewhere in-between. Which is a shame since the country, and its states on the island of Borneo, in particular, is rapidly changing – for visitors, maybe for the worst.
A quick geography lesson: Malaysia divides itself between an island and mainland, much like Newfoundland and Labrador. Western peninsular Malaysia juts off the southern tip of Thailand, and includes the capital of Kuala Lumpur. The country's less urban, more adventurous half is eastern Malaysian Borneo (the states of Sarawak and Sabah), which itself is only a quarter of an island also occupied by Brunei and Indonesia.
Those planning to visit Borneo may want to get a move on before economic prosperity leaves the past behind. A taxi ride to the orangutan sanctuary, 45 minutes west from the east coast city of Sandakan, reveals endless swaths of new construction and housing. Our driver tells us that no one with a decent income lives downtown any more: Everyone wants his or her own slice of spacious suburbia.
It's a surprise then when, off a nondescript road, we make a left turn and rain forest envelops us quickly. Such forest used to cover most of the island, before a profitable tropical timber industry sparked widespread clear-cutting and palm-oil plantations.
One way to avoid the encroachment of industry in Malaysia is to be mostly inaccessible. Bako National Park, home to many of Borneo's native proboscis monkeys, is on a peninsula an hour's drive – and a 30-minute water-taxi ride – north of Kuching, a city in the northwest. On the boat over, we sit back and enjoy the dramatic coastline, waving hello to fishermen at work on their nets. When we arrive at park headquarters just before noon, we're disappointed – not a monkey in sight. A guide informs us they stay out of sight in the heat of day.
We tourists are not as smart. We set out on a long hike on a sweltering, cloudless day anyway. A few hours later, we arrive at our reward: a secluded beach with not another soul in sight. As I'm out for a swim, I notice Sherrie on shore, oddly shuffling our belongings closer and closer to the tide. I swim back and ask her what's up; she points to a large rock close to the cove wall. Seeing nothing, I grab my binoculars and there it is: a proboscis monkey, who would have snatched our backpacks if Sherrie hadn't been watching.
On the hike back to the park office, we spot some more unscheduled guests: Pigs and long-tailed macaques have literally gone wild now that the temperature has cooled. These animals aren't afraid of humans, and they show it by having the run of the grounds surrounding the cafeteria.
Ostensibly, we're visiting Malaysia because of my mother, who is here for a high-school reunion. Lily was born and raised in Malaysia, leaving as a teenager in the 1970s to pursue an education in London, then Toronto. As with many emigrants, quality of life was a factor in the decision to leave. The way my family tells it, Bintangor, the tiny village in the north of the island where they grew up, was all dirt roads, few cars and many steam barges to navigate the island's myriad of rivers.
Since then, Malaysia has become an economic powerhouse in the region, bolstered by strong exports in manufacturing, oil and gas. So for Lily and her reuniting classmates, it's incredible to see the signs of prosperity reaching even Sarawak's outports. Their high school has grown to six buildings from three. And aside from a handful of fishermen, our novelty barge was the only boat making its way along the muddy banks of the Rajang River.
With economic growth beginning to take a toll on the region's rich biodiversity, state governments have rightly (finally) identified eco-tourism as a lucrative industry. So while conservation efforts clearly have some ways to go, a new-found enthusiasm – and new money – for environmental efforts has created a gem in the island of Lankayan, about an 80-kilometre boat ride from the port in Sandakan, in nearby Sabah.
This is as close to a private paradise as one gets without being Brad Pitt. Twenty-three luxury chalets dot the island, which can be circumnavigated in 15 minutes – slowly, I add, while stopping to admire the endless stretches of crystal-clear ocean and untouched driftwood and seashells that have washed ashore.
They'll likely remain untouched, as long as Lankayan is part of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area. (It takes all my effort not to illegally pocket some of those seashells.) A protected region since 2001, SIMCA also comprises two other nearby islands and their surrounding reefs and marine life. The beaches are not the best for sunbathing – they remain charmingly overgrown with ocean debris – but most visitors won't mind as they lounge on the ocean-facing terraces of their chalets.
The most eye-catching part of Lankayan lies at the end of a winding boardwalk. The dining pagoda – built on stilts over the water – looks ethereal at night when bathed in spotlights and makes the walk to dinner quite dramatic, not to mention romantic.
Besides all the relaxing and snorkelling, the most rewarding part of our visit to Lankayan is its turtle hatchery. One evening, after a day of, well, not doing very much, our walk to dinner was interrupted by a conservancy worker: "There are turtles hatching, please come with me to see." We trailed him to the shore, where dozens of palm-sized, newborn green turtles floundered in a bucket, impatiently awaiting the next step in their lives.
We moved back, and the worker gently tipped the bucket over. The tiny turtles hit the sand and instinctively inched toward the ocean. One by one, they disappeared into the tide. Except for one. It struggled to hop its way across the sand. "Go, little guy, go," I urged in my head. Eventually, a worker gave the hatchling a last push, and out it went on the tide.
I learn later that the majority of young turtles, out in the predator-filled ocean, never reach maturity. Few will return to Lankayan (where on another night we unexpectedly witness a mother turtle come ashore to lay eggs).
I'd like to return to Lankayan, too, one day. I just hope that by then, the fortunes of Malaysia haven't spelled the end of its natural beauty.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: There are no direct flights to Malaysia from Canada. Air Canada and Cathay Pacific offer flights from Vancouver or Toronto to Hong Kong, where travellers have more regional options for connections to Kuala Lumpur, including Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com). Malaysia is well serviced by domestic discount carriers. Check airasia.com or maswings.com.my.
What to see:
Bako National Park This island park makes for an exciting but exhausting day trip; it's better to stay overnight. Rooms start at $13 (40 ringgit) and range from four-bed hostel rooms to three-bed chalets. ebooking.com.my
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary Taxis from downtown Sandakan run about $16. Adult admission to see the orangutan feedings is $10; if you want to take pictures, there's an additional $3 fee. Batu 14, Jalan Labuk Sandakan Sabah, sabahtourism.com
Where to stay:
Sepilok Nature Resort The most well-heeled of the many lodgings surrounding the orangutan sanctuary, this resort is also close to the park entrance. The landscaped grounds include private chalets, leafy walkways and a artificial lake, complete with komodo dragon. Queen chalets start at $81. sepilok.com
Lankayan Island Dive Resort Two-night packages for the all-inclusive resort start at $652 for divers, $525 for non-divers. lankayan-island.com