My first orangutan sighting in Malaysia came Sunday at the Sepilok Rehabiliation Center about a 40-minute drive from Sandakan, where the red-haired apes are free to roam but get fed here twice a day as a spectacle for crowds of tourists who pay US$10 to photograph them. Here a long-tailed macaque monkey joins this lone orang for brunch. While Sepilok was interesting, it was not the orangutan encounter I'm still hoping to experience.
I took a chance on a trip yesterday and wound up with an unexpected adventure.
I was planning to go to the Danum Valley for a few days, continuing my search for Orangutans in the wild.
Danum Valley is in a vast primary growth forest with reportedly good opportunities for sighting wildlife. It's home to the world-renowned Danum Valley Studies Center, where scientists conduct research on animal and plant life in the jungle. It’s not set up for tourism, but accepts visitors willing to stay in less-than-luxurious accommodations.
Backpacker websites describe how you can show up at the office in the nearby town of Lahad Datu (Sabah District of Malaysia) and easily book a space in a 48-bed shared dorm that never fills up.
Lahad Datu is about three hours by bus from where I was staying in an Airbnb in the city of Sandakan.
I would have liked some confirmation of the details of booking this trip before I left but couldn't find the Danum Valley Studies Centre field office online. Turns out their website is down. And a couple of phone numbers I found that appeared to be for the DVSC went to commercial tour companies.
The Danum Valley Field Centre office, Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia.
So Monday morning I boarded a bus to Lahad Datu on a lark, hoping to get a bed in the dorm with no assurances that I could actually do that.
And know what? I couldn't. The lady there said a large group of students was taking up all the available room they had. She said I should have contacted the Centre first to make a reservation.
Huh? Without a website listing, an email address, or phone #s online, I wondered aloud about how was I supposed to do that. She artfully ignored that part of the conversation and simply insisted there was no room there for me. She did suggest a lodge that was an hour-and-a-half from where I wanted to be and way beyond my budget.
When could I make a reservation? She studied her computer for awhile and said I should come back in a week. So I made a tentative, no-obligation reservation for three days and two nights the next Monday, and chalked up this Monday’s trip to just an exploratory venture to lovely Lahad Datu.
Interesting, though, I was thinking as I walked away, the 3-day/2-night trip oddly starts around 7 p.m. on day 1, and whisks you out at 8:30 a.m. on day 3, making it more like a 1-day/2-night trip! And since I was not far from the office, I went back to confirm what I was thinking.
True enough, my new friend sheepishly nodded, then offered brightly, “but you can always extend your stay!” Which then, of course, makes it a 2-day/3-night trip with the extra night costing another US$24.
"Well, yes, of course," I nodded in agreement, though I’m pretty sure she could see my eyes rolling like marbles on a sailing ship.
I wrote most of this piece while killing a few hours in a quiet little park waiting for the afternoon bus back to Sandakan that I'd booked. I figured I'd stay in Sandakan a few more days at the Arts Hostel with Vyonne and Sharif, who rate among the top Airbnb hosts I've had, and take advantage of the good wifi there. All in all, no harm came of this errant little adventure, just the reinforcement of a travel lesson.
The quiet little park in Lahad Datu where I waited a few hours for my bus to arrive, which didn't.
When you take chances with your plans, without solid info and no reservations, things like this can happen. You just make the best of it because, as any experienced traveler knows, even the the best-laid plans can unravel just as quickly when you are on the road.
Like Mike Tyson the prize fighter said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
But hold on, my friends, this ain't over yet.
Things got really interesting when I showed up for my 4 p.m. bus and the greasy character who sold me the ticket said my bus was canceled! He said the only way I'd get to Sandakan any time soon would be with his “friend” in a private car for many more ringits, the Malaysian currency.
I smelled bullshit and made plain my displeasure, drawing an amused crowd and half expecting to get mobbed by locals at any moment. But I walked safely away with my refunded fare, when halfway down the block I saw a bus pull up to where I was expecting to get mine.
So I went back, bypassing several people trying to dissuade me, including a snotty kid about eight years old who kept running up to me repeating, “no bus to Sandakan, no bus to Sandakan.”
Ignoring the rabble, I went straight to the driver, who was outside the bus smoking a cigarette. I told him my story. He hemmed and hawed, and kept telling me he was going to Kota Kinabalu (it was an express bus). But I knew that the route to KK takes the bus take right past, if not straight through, Sandakan, and I kept telling him that he could just drop me off in Sandakan on the way.
The driver pretended to try reaching someone on his phone to whom he said I could discuss this in English. But after fumbling with the phone awhile he started walking away toward his bus. I followed, since I'd never heard a clear "no." So with him in the driver's seat, revving the motor, I stood in the open door of the bus, pleading and gesturing to come aboard, “Yes? Yes?”
The driver motioned ever so slightly and didn't need to do so twice. I hopped on in a flash, found an empty seat, stowed my bag and started wondering what would happen next.
I got in touch by phone with my Airbnb host, Vyonne, who is Malay and would negotiate the drop-off with the driver, telling him to leave me at mile marker 32 where she and her husband Sharif would pick me up.
But moments before that critical detail could be arranged, my internet connection died.
Now without a phone, the game was getting dicier than Vegas.
I tried everything I knew how to do with the damned phone -- multiple times -- which didn't take long for me. Then in desperation I simply restarted it and, Eureka! as they say in California. Just like that I had service again.
Mile marker 32 was a dark, sketchy piece of muddy, littered roadside in the direct, blinding headlight glare of the cars and big trucks whizzing by, nowhere I deemed advantageous to be at night wearing a large backpack. But I dropped some cash on the driver that I would have paid for the bus anyway, which was cheaper than spending the night making a last-minute reservation in Lahad Datu, and gladly got off the bus.
I wasn't about to stand around there by the road, though, and walked to a little restaurant that was open nearby where I ordered coffee and Tom Yam Ayam, a hearty, spicy vegetable soup with chicken, which is actually a Thai dish also popular in Malaysia.
Here’s me and my feiends and Airbnb hosts, Vyonne and Sharif, last week at our favorite place to eat in Sandakan, the Pasar Mala (night market).
There I waited comfortably for Vyonne and Sharif, who arrived as promised about 45 minutes later. All good.
The soup was delicious.
David Hunter Bishop is a retired journalist from Hawaii who quickly tired of retirement life and hit the road as a solo traveler in August 2016. Since then he's traveled through 16 countries on four continents and is currently enjoying life in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For more about David's journey, see published interviews with Nomadic Matt and Expat Focus, and in A Confluence of Adventure Writers, with Sarawak (Kuching, Malaysia) Tribune writer James Ritchie.
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