Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Tag: nature-based tourism

River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Photo Journal: Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather…

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather different for those of us who are used to flying Boeing airplanes. This nature hideout holds much to discover and I’m glad it’s not flocked by mass tourists.

Located in east Malaysia’s Sarawak state, Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site holds the world’s largest natural cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber. Sprawling an enormous 700 meters in length, it is massive enough to fit an airplane. Another highlight of the park is the Pinnacles, a series of razor-sharp limestone peaks rising from the earth, a view unlike any other. Unfortunately when I visited Mulu a couple of years back, I wasn’t able to do any of the overnight hikes since I was in my first trimester.

Even then, I was able to glimpse at the wonderous beauty that Mulu has to offer in her rich biodiversity tucked in primary rainforest and nearby caves. My photo journal will tell a better story in the images captured this pristine natural wonderland.

Arriving at Mulu in a twin otter airplane. So glad the journey wasn’t long as I was getting antsy!
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Savouring wild bananas and was surprised to find crusty black seeds in them! The park was teeming with all sorts of native plants and some were devoured by insects leaving them hole ridden.

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Traveling upstream to the indigenous Penan community. Here they sold handmade handicraft and told stories of long gone.
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Trekking to Deer Cave and Lang Cave was a lovely stroll, walking on well-maintained boardwalks under a dense canopy of rainforest trees. The trek to these caves would not be complete without bat sightings that take place every evening. Thousands of tiny Wrinkled-Lipped Bats rush out of the cave’s chambers in search for their night-time meals. The sight is nothing short of spectacular as they circle and form snaky-lines in the sky before dispersing into the forest.

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Night hikes are not to be missed! Upon nightfall, creepy critters come out to hunt for food. Within a 100 meter radius of the campsite, a variety of insects can be found. A word of caution, it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you’re afraid of insects and reptiles (like I am), stay in the middle of the group and carry a torchlight to light your path.

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A Closer Look: Yea Or Nay To Elephant Rides

It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along…

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It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along sure footed as ever over the wide open plateau, passing through endless forest covered hills and down incredibly steep slopes. The hilly landscape of Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s eastern province is beautiful yet unforgiving.

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I dodged the occasional menacing branch that came head on as the elephant continued along the path where sounds of the rushing river roared. It was about 45 minutes into the ride and my bottom was starting to get sore from the bumpy ride. My knuckles were a certain white from the mighty grip I kept along the exhilarating journey. The adventure was just beginning, for the elephant, that is. Poun, my elephant was taken into the rushing river for a bath. It looked fun as he splashed around and enjoyed the free scrub by his mahout. All of this sounded rather picture perfect for a wildlife experience. But as curiosity warrants, I gathered some answers to some probing questions that make the Case of The Elephant Ride.

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You see having been involved in the business of sustainability, I have been trained to ask questions. Questions that most tourists would not ask. These questions helped me make informed decisions on whether tourism has leave a positive or negative impact for communities and the environment.

The Elephant and His People

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Poun belongs to Mr. Hong, a native Bunong (Pnong) man. The Bunong tribe are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri. They are animistic in their beliefs and therefore have incredible respect for animals, trees and all living creation. Mr. Hong bought Poun from a shaman when the elephant was 10 years old. There was no money exchanged, instead it was a barter trade – 30 bulls for 1 male elephant. Mr. Hong had to bring together livestock from a few families to ‘purchase’ Poun.

Mr Hong tells me that the shaman is the only person capable of luring the elephant from the deep forest. Poun was a baby elephant when he was taken out. He was intentionally separated from his mother and left to wonder. The shaman conducted some spiritual rituals and was successful in leading the baby elephant out of the forest into the village. Poun then spent many years with the shaman where more spiritual rituals were conducted and the elephant was finally tame enough for a human master. It was then that Mr. Hong ‘bought’ Poun.

Elephants are a big part of the Bunong culture and lifestyle. Mr. Hong considers him more than just an animal, in many ways, Poun is part of the village community.

The Elephant and His Work

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Since the age of 10, Poun has been used as a ‘transporter’ for Mr. Hong and his family. Poun would take them on his back into the deep jungles to forage for food, cross rivers and carry bamboo and logs. Poun did a marvellous job, according to Mr. Hong. The elephant brought them to places where otherwise would take days to get to. Undoubtedly, it was also hard work for the elephant – steep terrains and heavy loads.

Today, Poun is used as a ‘transporter’ for tourists. He works up to 3-4 hours a day with meal breaks in between. The labour is probably not as intense as before but he still gets growled at by the mahout. During my elephant ride, I was quite disturbed at how the elephant was coerced to walk and move. My mahout, a young lad held a hard whip made of bamboo with a hard rubber ball hanging at the end. He was constantly threatening to whip the elephant if the animal did not respond immediately to his loud grunts and growls. There were moments where I thought it absolutely unnecessary for the mahout to be as demanding as he was. I watched carefully to see if the whip did end up on the elephant. Thankfully, I witnessed no whipping, but the rude commands were unsettling. I am no veterinarian to comment on the state of the elephant, but I personally did not see any wounds or bruises.

Poun’s working environment has been such for the last 20 odd years. He is 33 years old now.

The Elephant, Money and Well-being

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Poun helps provide for the family. With every tourist that come and participate in an elephant ride, the family gets about $25. There are now 4 elephants shared among a few families and the money is divided amongst them. Mr. Hong said, “Since I started this ecotourism activity, my children can now go to school and I have motorbike to go around Mondulkiri and we can now buy more meat from the market instead of eating vegetables and rice only.”

It seems like a win-win situation for all. The elephant works and is allowed a fair amount of free time to wander, his master gets fed, his master’s family is happy and tourists are happy. But as I pondered on the situation, I can’t help but realize that all of this is misfitting for the magnificent mammal.

Elephants are made for the wild with the freedom to road, chew on any bamboo branch until his heart’s content. Elephants that are taken from the wild have little chance of reproducing, stunting the elephant population. Elephants are great not just for its size and mighty ears, but its tusks. Tamed elephants have their tusks broken or sawed off to avoid fatal accidents.

In this case, it’s a win-lose situation and the loser is quite apparent.


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After the rugged trip into the jungle sitting on the mighty beast, I have come to an unresolved conclusion. A definite yes or no is unfair and difficult as there are so many factors to consider. It is easy for me as an ‘outsider’ to judge, critique and assess the way Mr. Hong lives and how the mahouts treat the elephants, yet it is more complex to fully understand the heritage, tradition and culture of the Bunong people (or any tribe for that matter). In this case, the elephant is an important part of their livelihood and who are we to criticise when in other cultures horses are trained to show jump, bulls are put to fight and dolphins are trained to jump through hoops.

I was not completely comfortable with the grunts and growls offered by my mahout to Poun, but I also witnessed how these mahouts genuinely cared for the elephants. I cannot fault that the elephants are really part of the village community and I choose to respect the Bunong people’s culture and acknowledge that this (in fact) their way of earning moolah. Would I ride on the elephant again? Perhaps not. But I did enjoy the experience and chance to be so close to such a magnificent mammal.

** Whether you are planning to ride on an elephant in Thailand, Cambodia or India, I would strongly advise tourists to look up the tour operator or organization you are engaging with and read up before making an informed decision to ride or not.  Each elephant case is specific, individual and closely linked to a certain destination and its community.

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