Monday, February 27, 2017

Feb 27th – Monkey Business in Sandakan

The island of Borneo is famous around the world for its orang-utans, but for me, its most fascinating creature is the extraordinary-looking Proboscis Monkey. This crazy looking creature has a big pot belly, a bulbous drooping nose (looking like the town drunk), and the males boast a permanent (disconcertingly bright-red) erection. They look like they've had a bad haircut, they appear to have a confused look on their faces, like they're not sure how they got there, and they seem to be permanently grumpy.

In fact, it's impossible not to assign human characteristics to these funky monkeys – you can watch them for hours. On previous occasions, the males have always been insatiably randy, appearing to want to use their permanent state of readiness at every single possibility. But, today they seemed quite subdued in the love-making department – there were quite a lot of us looking on expectantly, so maybe they were camera shy.

Nevertheless, it was just fascinating to watch them interact, squabble, and bound about - these proboscis monkeys may not have been promiscuous monkeys, but they were incredibly entertaining,

Before this, we went to the Sepilok Orang-utan Reserve to see man's closest cousin in the wild – or, semi-wild, as these endangered orang-utans are being rehabilitated for possible reintroduction to the wild (or what's left of it in Borneo). We first got to see some youngsters "working out" in their "gym" – swinging around in a kind of play park, as they picked up the skills and dexterity that they'd require in the wild.

Then we went to the feeding platform, where 3 orang-utans (including a mother with a tiny baby) swung down to feed. If this was fewer orang-utans than I've seen in the past, our guide tried to paint it as a positive – in that the other orang-utans are feeding themselves, rather than relying on handouts. The most entertaining aspect was the attempts of the stealthy macaques to steal the orang-utans' food off the platform, while its intended recipients would lazily swat them away like annoying flies.

Borneo's unique natural habitats are increasingly under threat, so it was fabulous to get some opportunities to view some of their wonderful wildlife monkeying around so close up. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Feb 23rd – Seeing the “Other Bali” from Celukan Bawang

Today we called in at the little-visited cruise port of Celukan Bawang in the north of the island. The contrast with the South coast we'd visited before could hardly have been greater. Here, development was low key, the traffic was manageable, and the shops were mainly aimed at the locals rather than us tourists. In fact, it reminded me of Bali from when we first visited the island nearly 20 years ago.

Of course, there are reasons why development in the north is at such a relatively low level. Firstly, there's a range of steep volcanic hills that protect this side of the coast, and deter all but the most determined of visitors from crossing them – although, they certainly make for an attractive backdrop to the port. Secondly, the beaches here aren't as attractive – they're mainly narrow and consist of dark, volcanic sand; although, the waters are calmer on this side, so they're not bad for snorkelling. Thirdly, there aren't as many sights on this side of the island – there are temples (like the Beji Temple that Tracy visited), but they're not quite as spectacular as those to the South. And, finally, there aren't the same number of upmarket resorts here – most are 3 and 4 star (or below).

But, to be honest, for me, most of those are good reasons to visit the north – away from the tourist crowds and the motorbikes that clog the south and centre of the island.

So, I joined a cookery tour that visited a market in Singaraja (Bali's second biggest town), and then went to a nice beach-side hotel in Lovina (the north's biggest beach resort) to do a cookery class. We got to the market for about 9.30am, and it was already beginning to wind down, but it was great to explore its rows of tropical fruit, veg and spices without the crowds. In fact, this was an utterly untouristy environment where most people didn't speak English – but, they were really friendly, wanting to show us what they were selling, and happy to pose for photos. It was a change from other parts of Bali, where tourists can sometimes be seen as just big dollar signs, and the level of hassle can get annoying.

Then, we went to the resort, where they treated us really well - at times it seemed like there were more people looking after us, than there were guests. It was more of a cookery demonstration than a hands-on class, but in that heat this was probably no bad thing. There were plenty of opportunities to join in, but we were mostly just happy to watch and learn. The cuisine here seems to be dominated by ginger, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots, chilli and shrimp paste, mushed up together to make up a paste/sauce, and then this was added to lovely fresh ingredients to make a really tasty salad, and a delicious fish satay.

Of course, the best thing about a cookery class is getting to taste what you've "created", and it was every bit as good as I was hoping – I managed to plough my way through six satay sticks.

So, today made for a nice contrast with my experience the day before. This was an understated, much more personal experience, in an environment where tourists aren't made to feel that they're a part of "an industry". I wonder how long the northern part of Bali will remain like this?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Feb 22nd – Elephant Riding in Bali

Over the last 20 years, Bali's streets have got increasingly clogged up with traffic – to the point that parts of the South of the island (particularly around the port at Benoa, plus the capital Denpasar, and the main resort town of Kuta) are now at virtual gridlock. In the south, journey times have doubled, and this beguiling island is in danger of losing its magic.

So, seeing as traffic here moves at a snail's pace, I decided to see some of the island at an elephant's pace, by joining the ship's tour to an elephant sanctuary. Of course, this being Bali, the day involved a 2-hour trip to get there, but once we were out of the urbanised areas, we were back in the "Old Bali", with its timeless landscapes of green rice terraces and rural calm.

I've been to a few elephant parks in Thailand, where you're left with a slightly uneasy feeling about the exploitation of these magnificent creatures and about the quality of the conditions that they're kept in; but here in Bali, the park seemed well run and the elephants seemed content. Of course, how am I to know if an elephant feels "fulfilled" here in captivity? But these were mainly elephants rescued from logging operators on Sumatra – so, even carrying round an overweight tourist like me on its back for a 30-minute ride six times a day, has got to be better than being kept in chains, pushing around logs.

First we got to feed the elephants, who weren't shy about giving you a nudge with their trunks to get you to hand them a piece of fruit. Even so, these incredibly powerful beasts were surprisingly gentle in taking things off you. Then we had a lumbering ride through thick vegetation (much better than in Thailand, when sometimes you're just plodding along a concrete path in what's little better than an open field).

Finally, we had a "show", where the elephants showed amazing dexterity and gentle touches in creating a painting, kicking a football, balancing on two legs or playing basketball. Again, these are hardly the natural behaviour that you'd see in the wild, but there was none of the blasting music and embarrassing audience participation that I've seen in other elephant parks, where you get the uneasy feeling that you're just seeing a circus act.

I've been to most of the major temples in this part of Bali, so today was a good chance to see something a little different. The presence of a place like this shows that Bali has well and truly arrived on the mainstream tourist circuit; but at least in this case, it's being done with a certain taste and sensitivity. As development continues, and tourist numbers soar here, it will be interesting to see if this is the exception or the norm.