When my wife and I thought about bringing our three children closer to nature by taking them deep into the jungles of Borneo, we didn't...
When my wife and I thought about bringing our three children closer to nature by taking them deep into the jungles of Borneo, we didn’t realize how close we’d actually get.
We were visiting a vast rain forest populated by orangutans, rhinos and other animals when we decided to make a long trek into the sweaty, buggy jungle in search of the magnificent reddish-brown apes. At one point, my 6-year-old daughter, Mara, discovered what appeared to be a small black worm, about an inch long, crawling on her.
“What’s that, Daddy?” she asked.
Cindy, my wife, wondered if it was a leech. I examined it closely and confidently announced it seemed to be an inchworm. After all, it moved in cute, inch-long strides as it wandered over Mara’s hand.
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Two hours later, I looked down to discover that I was bleeding profusely through my shirt and pants. Leeches! Those cute little “inchworms” had crawled under my shirt and into my pants and were swollen with my blood. So much for my expertise with jungle creatures. But in a bit of sweet justice, I was the only member of the family who ever got bitten by leeches. (They actually don’t hurt at all.)
That’s the joy of taking an exotic vacation with your children: You never know what will happen, making every day an adventure. We had settled on Borneo, the world’s third-largest island and home of vast rain forests and many unusual creatures. In addition to our trek through the orangutan forest, we would swim with colorful tropical fish, watch a giant sea turtle lay nearly 100 eggs in 10 minutes and see millions of bats swarm out of a cave for their nightly meal of 15 tons of insects — all lessons for our children in the force and power of nature.
Our trip to Borneo last summer was our fourth family vacation in the developing world. Most people, truth be told, think we’re a little crazy dragging our kids to places that require daily doses of malaria pills and constant reminders not to drink the water. But ask our children, and I think they’d take Hanoi over Paris any day. Besides, have you seen the exchange rate for the euro lately?
Plane tickets to Southeast Asia can be pricey. But clothing, handicrafts and food are incredible bargains, with meals for five sometimes costing less than $20. We tended to pay more for hotels, but even so, we paid far less than we would have for comparable lodgings in Europe or the United States. So even with the cost of the tickets, we figured we came out ahead — maybe even far ahead — of an equivalent period in Europe.
Having traveled extensively in the developing world before we had children, my wife and I were pleased to discover one great advantage of traveling with children: It opens doors. Young tourists are such a rarity in these areas that people were especially nice to us. (Mara, our blond daughter, was the subject of especially close attention.)
Borneo is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the small sultanate of Brunei. We first considered visiting the Indonesian part, since my wife and I had made two trips to that island nation before children, but ultimately decided the smaller Malaysian section had better tourist infrastructure and was easier to traverse. Both countries are mostly Muslim. Politically stable Malaysia has had less trouble with terrorism.
Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states in Borneo, and we planned to spend nine days in each state.
We would fly into Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah, but return from Kuala Lumpur, the gleaming capital of Malaysia, so we could also spend a few additional days on the mainland.
We arranged an itinerary that had us crisscrossing Borneo, going from jungles to islands to jungles in an effort to build a rhythm of water and forest. Because of the dis-tances, we had to take six plane flights and six boat rides. If we missed one, we were in deep trouble, because in some cases there wouldn’t be another flight for a few days.
The hotels in Borneo run the gamut from super luxury to backpacker hostels. We aimed for something in between — enough creature comforts for our children but enough local color to make it interesting for the adults. In some nature parks, we had no real choice: The rooms can be pretty spare and the air conditioning so weak in the 90-degree heat that we never really felt cool.
Seeing the wild things
The highlight of any wildlife visit to Borneo is seeing the orangutans. At the start of our trip, we flew to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, on the northeast coast, where orphaned orangutans, rhinos and other animals learn to fend for themselves before being reintroduced into the wild. We stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort, a simple but friendly hotel in a spectacularly beautiful setting with a constant hum of insects and frogs and just a five-minute walk from the center.
Genetically, the endangered orangutans are among the closest creatures to humans (“orangutan” is a Malay word for “man of the forest”). They are highly intelligent and incredibly agile, able to effortlessly dangle their 250-pound, 5-foot-long bodies from the slimmest of branches. They have solitary lives, and it is rare for visitors to see them in the wild. But at the Sepilok center, twice a day bananas are placed near a viewing platform, attracting a few orangutans that swing from the sky by hanging on long ropes or vines from the high canopy of trees.
Suddenly, a few feet away from us, one of the orangutans decided he was in a mood to mate. The female seemed rather bored by his amorous activities, nibbling on a banana while the male grunted about. The tourists standing with us started to giggle, and then began laughing loudly. Our 14-year-old son, Andre, understood immediately. It took our 10-year-old, Hugo, a few more minutes.
“What’s so funny?” Mara asked.
Deep in the jungles of Sarawak, the other Malaysian state we visited, there was another lesson — how animals work together to thwart danger.
Gunung Mulu National Park is largely inaccessible except by air or a long river trip and has some of the largest caves in the world. The Sarawak Chamber, for instance, supposedly could hold more than 10 Boeing 747 jets parked nose to tail. Accommodations are limited to simple lodgings in the park or a grand hotel known as Royal Mulu Resort. We chose the resort, which had huge rooms and, to the delight of our children, was built on stilts.
Deer Cave is the home of a few million bats. We walked deep inside, then waited outside for the bats to begin searching for their evening meal. Suddenly, the bats swarmed out in groups of thousands, looking almost like black, swirling clouds, clustered tightly to thwart hawks eagerly looking for their own dinner. The hawks manage to pick off the occasional bat or two, but the rest escape intact, ready to gorge on 15 tons of insects every night.
As interesting as the animals were, we also wanted to experience some of Borneo’s culture, which led to one of the trip’s highlights.
In particular, we wanted to get close to the Borneo ethnic tribes known as the Iban and Orang Ulu, who live in longhouses — essentially a village under one roof — far from the coast. From Mulu, we flew to Sibu, an almost entirely Chinese city that serves as the gateway to the great Rajang River. This is where we would catch a three-hour ferry and then a 45-minute speedboat ride to our hotel, the Regency Pelagus Resort, near the longhouses.
Our stylishly decorated hotel was perched on a ledge high above some wild rapids, the only man-made structure for miles around. As the only guests at the 40-room resort, we had the hotel’s guide, Milang Jawing, all to ourselves, and he took us to the Iban longhouse where he lives with his family. The Ibans were once feared headhunters, but they are rapidly becoming urbanized. Many of the men, in fact, have difficult and dangerous jobs in the timber mills — a job Jawing had until he decided he would only die young if he didn’t quit.
Each family’s longhouse section has a couple of rooms — a living/sleeping area and a kitchen area, plus a shared porch where everyone gathers to eat and gossip. Jawing’s wife served us copious amounts of tasty tuak (rice wine), and his father-in-law joined us to imbibe as well. His children scampered about with our kids, thrilled with the shiny pencils we had given them.
Our guide also took us for walks in the jungle at night and during the day. At night, the stars above were the most brilliant and intense I have ever seen. The insects and frogs chirped and buzzed in a mad cacophony.
The hills around the hotel were at times so steep that we had to hold onto ropes strung through the rain forest. We also had to wade through streams — by now we could easily spot the leeches trying to catch a ride on our bodies — and traverse paths that Jawing created with his machete. But after nearly three weeks, our children were seasoned jungle explorers.
As we boarded the plane home, all three excitedly asked variations of the same question: “Where are we going next year?”