Burnt and Bitten in Borneo: Part Two

Sunset on Turtle Island

“You must pay the full amount in ringgit,” the young woman at the counter insisted for the third time, exhibiting the condescending patience of a seasoned kindergarten teacher breaking up a fight at recess.

“We understand that…” I countered, “but we don’t have enough ringgit.  You don’t have a debit card machine?”

“No, sorry,” said the woman, looking about as sorry as my friend’s cat did after eating my shoe.

“Do you take credit card?”

“No, cash only.”

“Well, is there an ATM machine around here?”

“No, there are no ATM machines.  Only downtown.”

“Well, can we take a taxi to go downtown now?”

“There are no taxis here.  And calling one will take too long.  If you’re not back here at the appointed departure time, we will have to leave without you.”


This exchange went on for another ten minutes.  I was standing with my friend Jill at the docks in Sepilok, Borneo, and we were anxiously trying to figure out how we would pay for the remainder of a two-day trip to Turtle Islands Park.  Jill had made a deposit months ago through an international bank transfer, but we didn’t realize that the rest of the payment had to be made in local currency.  Neither of us had enough cash on us to make the full payment, and we were informed by the almost deliberately unhelpful office worker at the docks that there were no banks in the area, no phones where we could make an international call (to call our banks), no taxis to take us into town where there were other banks, no working computers or Internet (so we could do an e-transfer), and the company would not accept money in any form except for cash in the Malaysian currency, which we didn’t have.  We were screwed.

“There must be something you can do to help us…” I beseeched the bored twenty-year-old standing between us and two days of beach bumming and turtle watching.

“The only thing I can do for you is give you a refund now, and you can do the trip another time when you have the requisite amount of cash on you.”

I won’t lie – I wanted to slap her just a little bit.

It’s real money, I swear!

Just then, two other tourists boarded the anchored boat in front of us.  I had an idea.  Because I have no shame and am perfectly fine embarrassing myself in public, I chased the unsuspecting couple down.   Explaining our current situation to this perplexed German couple, I managed to convince the skeptical pair that the bills I had in hand, despite their absurd assortment of bright colours and their depictions of hockey players and totem poles, were not Monopoly money but the real Canadian version of hard currency.  They finally agreed to accept our Canadian bills for the ringgit we still owed, and we were finally on our merry and totally relieved way.

So what did I learn from this incident?  Always carry thousands of dollars in cash with you when you go on vacation, and stuff it into your pockets, socks, and underwear in the seemingly unlikely event that you encounter the complete absence of technology and have to resort to paper transactions for the duration of your stay.


Turtle Island

Mother turtle laying eggs – photo taken by Jill Swan

After a short hour, we reached Turtle Island, the place where hawksbill and green sea turtles come to lay eggs all year round.  The administrators only allow a small number of people onto the island per day to experience the turtle program, which is comprised of three stages: watching a turtle lay eggs, seeing turtle eggs hatch, and watching new hatchlings run into the sea.  Jill and I spent the day lounging on a white-sand beach, and at night the turtle program began.  The ranger explained to us that while the mother turtle lays eggs, she goes into a trance-like state, which is why she didn’t seem perturbed at our presence.  This was good to know, as I was imagining the traumatic effect upon a mother in labour of a large group of ogling, overly excited giants squawking around her and taking flash photos.

Turtle hatchlings – photo taken by Jill Swan

Turtle hatcheries

We were then taken to the hatcheries, where the turtle eggs are gathered and fenced in to protect them from the terrifyingly large, rapacious lizards that eat them.  A group of newborn hatchlings was taken out for us to see, and we watched these tiny turtle babies run out into the ocean.  Sadly, most of these young turtles won’t survive more than a few months.  I genuinely feared for the lives of these brave new hatchlings, as they engaged in a reptilian Hunger Games, dodging the enormous feet of the over-zealous tourists, ignoring the squealing of small children, and attempting to run in a straight line while flashlights spun around in every direction.

Ranger and proboscis monkey

Jumping proboscis monkey

We left reluctantly from Turtle Island the following morning and spent a day at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.  This place is home to the proboscis monkeys, which are a species endemic to Borneo.  They are the most ridiculous-looking creatures I have ever seen in my life, an evolutionary practical joke.  We were first ushered into an auditorium, where we watched an obscene video about the proboscis monkeys’ mating rituals (there were very uncomfortable and confused-looking children sitting right beside us.  Awwwkward…).  I was disturbed; Jill was asleep.  Then we observed feeding time, which consisted of the park ranger making bizarre noises to call down his primate friends à la the Wicked Witch of the West. After a few moments, the monkeys swung down noisily and gracelessly from the trees to gorge themselves eagerly on the proffered cucumbers and pancakes.

Feeding time


Our last few days in Borneo were spent on the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and Mantanani Island, nursing our sunburns and bug bites.  Mantanani is a refreshingly uncommercialized knife-shaped beach with several coral reefs just off its shores.  Jill and I went snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, and swimming over the day and a half we spent there.  We tried the peanut-y nasi lemak (rice and vegetables steamed in coconut milk) and nasi goreng (fried rice), got even more burnt (I discovered that it is possible to burn on top of a burn), and slept in sturdy hammocks hanging in the shade of palm trees.

Mantanani Island

Mantanani beach houses

On our last night in Borneo, Jill and I planned to watch the sunset from the middle of the ocean.  We rented a kayak and sat in silence as the sky changed from orange to pink to blue.  During the thirty minutes or so that we were at sea, the current had become a lot stronger.  As we tried to row back to shore, we realized we were now fighting the current.  An elderly man who was out strolling along the beach was in hysterics as he watched us from the beach, desperately rowing ourselves in circles trying to reach the shore ten feet away.

Kayaking at sunset


A few days later, when I had returned to Korea, I picked up the supplies needed for my recovery from Borneo.  Aloe vera for my pink, peeling skin.  Anti-itch for the swollen bites inflicted upon me by those silent yet bloodthirsty Malaysian mosquitoes.  And anti-bacterial sanitizer, anti-inflammatory cream, and antibiotic ointment for the wound in my arm, a chunk of which was now being digested in the body of a murderous mutant fly.  Despite my discomfort over the next week, I carried proudly the wounds of this past adventure and showed them frequently to my disgusted friends and co-workers.   The bite on my arm has never completely healed, but every time I look at it now, I am reminded of the place where I witnessed the birth of green sea turtle hatchlings, got lost in a verdant labyrinth of towering banyan trees, and came face to face with the world’s most obscene-looking primate.

Chilling in a hammock

Here are more photos from my trip to Borneo.  Enjoy!


One thought on “Burnt and Bitten in Borneo: Part Two

  1. Ah… Chris – wasn’t your ‘my Korean bank card doesn’t work in Guatemala!?!?!’ experience enough to warn you to bring cash with you everywhere? Sounds like an amazing trip in paradise though! I ❤ the Proboscis Monkeys! They have dicks for noses!

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