My Near Death Experience Exploring Borneo

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Taiwan is very busy and chaotic. No shocker there but that is what’s up in any case. They call NYC the city that never sleeps. Give me a break, you must not have been to Asia yet.

It was 2011 and I had been touring Taiwan for a few weeks. One night I became tired of being tired. I was staying at the KDM Hotel in Taipei (a mid-range hotel that wasn’t exactly cheap) and the traffic noise was nuts, like 24 hours a day. I could not sleep even with the windows closed and so I went on youtube to find some white noise vids to help me sleep. Plus I was constipated which is very rare for me. When you travel to a completely different part of the globe such as from America to Asia, it may take your body several weeks to adjust. So I was jet-lagged, constipated and not exactly thrilled with the idea of continuing to hang out with the people I was “kind of” traveling with. (I will get into that funny story in my post on how I got a free round-trip ticket from North Carolina to Asia) So I found some good rain-forest videos and they did help me doze off somewhat, or at least attain a meditative restful state that could substitute for sleep. When I don’t get my sleep I’m no good to anybody and its actually very dangerous with the way I live as a digital nomad. Anyway, after a couple of days of this it occurred to me that there was a massive rain-forest in the neighboring country of Malaysia.

After researching it, I found out that it indeed was old and massive. The rain-forest in Sabah, Maylasia (aka Borneo) is estimated to be 140 million years old and is approximately 165,000 square miles large. For scale, that is slightly larger than the entire state of California! This place is literally where the real Jurassic Park should be located if they ever figure out how to bring dinosaurs back to life. Its a natural wonder of the world, like totally mind-blowing natural tree specimens that are as tall as skyscrapers along with tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, monkeys and birds of all kinds.

Borneo is the real deal. Full on Rain forest Jungle adventure extraordinaire. Its like being at the zoo without the bars caging the animals. You better watch out, you are in their territory. Its one of the oldest rainforests on earth and its the size of California!

After doing some further research I found a program put on by the government of Malaysia to expose westerners like me to village life deep in the jungles of Malaysia. It was like $25 bucks a night so I booked a few nights in the village to get the full on, mother-load rain forest experience. The package included lodging and a Jungle Trek with a local guide so I booked it, along with a cheap flight on Malaysian Airlines. I parted ways with the people I was hanging with in Taipei and took the bullet train going 186 MPH to the south of Taiwan to Kaohsiung City.

In Kaohsiung, while waiting on my morning flight I ate Squid Jerky (which is surprisingly good) and had breakfast with one of my contacts in Taiwan. He and his friends urged me to stay in Taiwan to teach English but I was not having it, I had a hard-on for adventure (and still do). The adventure was already set in my mind by that time and I had to go, I was not going to be derailed by something like a job opportunity in a foreign country. (lol) I didn’t know when or if I would be back in Asia and so I had to get the most out of my trip. Another reason I wanted to bolt was that in Taiwan they use recycled water because it rains so little and there are so many people jammed together in such a tiny geographic area. So when you shower or brush your teeth, the water has been through the toilet, shower & sewer systems countless times before. I was getting these ugly, itchy red skin rashes all over my face and body which is very rare for me and so I chalked it up to the recycled water situation (it has never happened since).

“First Class only Miss Moneypenny”

When I got to the airport I was surprised to get bumped up to first class for free as the morning flight had so few people. That was the first and only time this has happened in all my travels to date, but I enjoyed every millisecond of that flight, feeling every bit like James Bond.

As I arrived at the airport in Kota Kinabulu, the first thing I saw when I got off the plane was a sign that said that anyone caught smuggling drugs would get a death by hanging without a trial.

This is the first thing you see when getting off the plane

As of 2019 it appears the drug laws are just as strict in that part of the world as they were in 2011. Travelers beware, even if you have a prescription for “something” you could really get yourself in a heap of trouble so don’t risk it. Other than this first shock, I remember was how profoundly peaceful and quiet it was. You could hear the gentle sounds of waves hitting the surf from inside the airport. Maybe it was so quiet because if someone steps out of line in that part of the world the consequences are extremely severe. Besides the drug smuggling laws, the other big thing in Malaysia is ‘caning’. This practice is still alive and well today. You look at the front page of the local newspaper and you see stories about such and such person getting caned with 6 lashes for various “crimes”, etc. Its very primitive but it does seem to curtail crime.

The toilet…

The first thing I did was go to the bathroom. The toilets there are just ceramic holes in the ground. You are encouraged to stand and do your business or assume the ‘country squat’. No sitting down on the toilets in Borneo. When I left the airport I started heading towards the hostel. I noticed how “strange” the buildings looked to me. The architectural style is typically different in Muslim countries than what you see in the West. The town center of Kota Kinabalu was small, and nothing much to write home about. I think people are so afraid of stepping out of line there that it has quelled any kind of “partying” spirit that it might otherwise have. However the beaches are wonderful and massive Mount Kinabalu in the background is an impressive sight to behold. The movie “Joe versus the Volcano” came to mind when I first saw it.

Mount Kinabalu is Impressive

The next morning I left for the village in Central Borneo. It was a about a 3.5 hour journey in a taxi cab from K.K. The custom there is to jam as many people in the cab at one time as possible. So I ended up riding with 3 other people in a small Toyota Tercel. The roads were treacherous…we were whipping and winding around the tattered roads at amazing speeds, one mistake by our driver would have sent us over the cliff to our certain death. Brittney Spears was playing on the radio…

When I arrived at the village I was welcomed by the host and checked in. The lodging seemed decent enough, but I had to climb hundreds of steps just to get up to it from the village. She mentioned that I would need some different shoes for my Jungle trek the next day and advised me to go the nearby marketplace to get the proper shoes. Of course they did not have my size 11 shoe, the biggest shoe was like 9.5…It was a simple rubber slipper, something you might see while scuba-diving. The purpose of the shoe was to gain traction in the rain forest. I bought the smaller pair thinking that I would be able manage with that, but this turned out to be a big mistake. That night I ate fried fish in an open air dining hut while being swiped at by enormous bats. They came right at my head but I just ducked a few times and finished my food in a hurry. As the sun was setting I went outside to a nearby field and played soccer with a few local native kids.

This is a shot of the Central Malaysian village I ended up staying in, along with the main cover image above.

The next morning, I met up with my Jungle trek guide who did not speak English. It had rained very heavily the night before and it was raining for most of the Jungle Trek as well. The first big disappointment set in when I realized that we would be climbing up a mountain. I had this idea that we would be slashing our way through the jungle with machetes on level, even ground. Nope, straight up and straight down. Turned out the only level areas of our 6 hour jungle misadventure were at the top of the mountain. I knew immediately that my shoes were completely inadequate for what lied ahead but my guide had already pressed on and I had the arduous task of trying to keep up with him at that point. It was just the two of us, nobody else was on the tour…In fact I think I was the only one staying in the village besides the locals. As we started up the mountain I thought of canceling the tour but I had come all this way to see the rain forest and also I figured this was good income for my tour guide. I paid $65 USD for the jungle tour which goes a long way in a country like that.

My Jungle Trek Guide

The entire way up the mountain I am slipping and sliding in the wet mud, and my feet are cramped and starting to blister…. I was trying to keep up with this little guy who was at least 20 yards ahead of me with the machete. Several times I had to whistle at him to slow down. He was short and fast and it was easy to lose him in the thick jungle foliage. I heard many strange sounds – monkeys, birds and who knows what else but I really could not stop to see where these noises were coming from. I was 100% present, just trying to keep up with him and not dying or breaking any bones. I was grabbing anything I could … vines and trees and thorny bushes, one small misstep and I could easily be sliding down a wet muddy cliff to a likely death. I was extremely winded, sweating profusely, and then came the bugs…

I was extremely winded by this experience, more than anytime in my life perhaps. I was also ill-prepared.

When we came to a stopping point I had the idea of caking myself in wet mud to cut back on the gnat and mosquito attacks. I had seen something like this in the movie “Predator” and I was desperate so I tried it. I did help with the bugs thankfully. My guide and I took a moment to rest at the top of the mountain. He gave me something to smoke – it was not a cigarette and it was not drugs, I gathered that it was something to curtail the bug attacks. There he showed me how to get fresh water in the jungle by cutting a hole in a bamboo tree. Loads of fresh rain water is stored in the hollow bamboo I learned.

Cut a hole in the bamboo, stick a bamboo straw in for fresh rain water

As we started our way down the mountain, I can honestly say that it was more treacherous than the way up because there was nothing to grab on to. You were just dealing with wet mud and rocks at this point. I could think of several ways this would end badly unless I stayed present and extremely cautious. If I did not die on the way down, I could have easily slipped and broken some bones on the rocks. By this time my feet were killing me and the blisters on my heels were starting to peel. So I removed my rubber shoes out of desperation and went barefoot the rest of the way. The shoes were not helping at all in any case…I reasoned that I would rather have some kind of leech or Jungle creature bite my feet versus slipping and breaking bones. At several points on the way down I had to get on my ass and just inch my way down. I could tell my guide was becoming impatient as he has done this many times before but I did not care. My health and safety was more important at that point.

So we get to the bottom of the mountain and its very hot and humid and the sun was brutal. I was so extremely tired and hungry at this point that I could hardly stand up. We still had a ways to walk before reaching the village so I followed the guide back as best I could. He was probably 50 yards ahead of me at this point. He may have thought the gringo can keep up with me now or find his way back on his own. As we walked through a maze of rice fields, I was pursued by a pack of wild dogs. I was so tired I did not run, I just used those crappy rubber shoes as a weapon to shew them away.

We eventually made it back to the village and of course I had a plane to catch that evening back in Kota Kinabalu. I dragged my tired body up hundreds of stairs to the room I was staying in and started preparing to leave as fast as I could. I had to pre-arrange the taxi cab with my host and I knew that I could not miss the cab or I would have missed my flight out of Malaysia.

Still caked with layers of mud and sweat, I was looking forward to a nice hot shower and maybe a 15 minute power-nap. However, while I was in the shower the water turned into pure mud. There had been so much rain the night before it must have messed with the water system. So not only am I not clean at this point, I am now caked with an additional layer of mud and soapy residue. While waiting on the cab, I asked one of the villagers if I could use a hose to get off some of the crud on my body. I hosed myself off as best I could and hopped into the cab back to Kota Kinabalu….tired, sweaty, smelly and sandwiched in with four other people in a beat up Toyota Tercel in the sweltering heat. While waiting for the flight I checked out the beaches and came face to face with a Komodo dragon sunning himself while I was climbing on some rocks…We made eye contact and I slowly backed away. That afternoon I took a flight to the Philippines for a 28 day adventure…

A wild Komodo Dragon. Very dangerous
The beaches are nice in Borneo, but they are a breeding ground for killer sea snakes so travelers beware….

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