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Malaysia with Eldertreks

Eldertreks (597 Markham St., Toronto, ON M6G 2L7, Canada; phone 800/741-7956 or visit hosted my 20-day trip to BORNEO, Malaysia. It cost $2,195, not including international air; my total airfare from Denver was $1,461.

An Iban elder with a full set of tattoos plus earlobe holes for ear disks or plugs. Photos: Jacobson

I traveled in October ’04, which was in the dry season, so it rained only in the mornings (in monsoon season it rains all day).

Our group of 11 was quite compatible and indefatigable; not one soul missed anything.

The hotels were comfortable and well located, although the Lemanak River Longhouse and the Turtle Island lodgings were somewhat primitive.

Our fast-moving trip included all the “nature” my mind could imagine. We sniffed bat caves where the swiftlets whose nests are made into bird’s-nest soup hang out; marveled at the glorious stalagmites and stalactites in the colossal caves in Mulu National Park; picked leeches off in Sukau Forest Reserve, and snorkeled in the South China Sea.

We saw turtles lay eggs, saw hornbills fly by, chuckled at short- and long-tailed macaques and even were peed on by a troop of proboscis monkeys from trees overhanging the river when we took a trip by longboat.

Our guide, Steve Booth, with a friend.

Our most exciting discovery was a herd of 20 or more pygmy (or forest) elephants. Even the guides were delighted when we approached them to within eight feet. The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary was another highlight.

We spent two nights in an Iban longhouse. (The Iban are one of many indigenous groups who were once headhunters.)

The food on the trip was a delicious and diverse mix that represented the many cultures that populate this friendly, tolerant country. We ate Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Indian and Malaysian dishes. Our guide had a food budget, and as long as we were within it we could eat in any restaurant. He chose well.

For anyone who enjoys absolutely fresh seafood carefully prepared and quickly served, this is the place to dine. Most of the time, our dinner was either swimming or crawling around in tanks as we entered the restaurant. The freshwater prawns, fresh vegetables and definitely the mushrooms were my favorites. Kudos to a clean country where not one person in our group had any intestinal problems.

One exhilarating adventure I’d rather not repeat was a hike up slippery, muddy rocky trails on Mt. Kinabulu, at 13,455 feet the highest point in Southeast Asia. We’d hoped to see a rafflesia, the world’s largest flower (“extremely rare”), orchids (“not blooming”) and pitcher plants (“up higher”). We spent most of a very monsoony four hours watching our feet and trying not to fall down the steep banks.

Handwoven wall hangings, like this one which I purchased at a shop in Kuching, each tell a story.

English is widely spoken in Malaysia, and we found the people friendly, tolerant and gracious.

The entire trip ran like clockwork. Food arrived quickly, Malaysia Air was always on time, and even the turtles and orangutans appeared at the appointed hour!

Our guide, Steve Booth, was a true Renaissance man, interested in everything and everybody. A reader, writer, sailor, cook and herpetologist, he was always patient and innovative as well as a good guy.

All in all, it was a good trip to a rarely visited place.

— ELLEN G. JACOBSON, Littleton, CO