19 July 2024

Pay a visit to the Orangutans in Kota Kinabalu
The wild thrills of Borneo
David Rose delights in Malaysia's mixture of jungle adventures and luxury resorts
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he snake is harmless, but don't touch it,' said Veno, our guide, pointing to the 2ft serpent slithering across themcave wall. 'When it's scared, its skin sends out a stinky liquid. You won't be able to wash off the smell for a week.' My 10-year-old son Daniel and I were a mile-and-a-half from daylight in Racer Cave, one of many enormous underground networks in the Gunung Mulu national park in the Malaysian part of Borneo. To reach the cavern, a dark cathedral festooned with stalactites, had taken some doing. The Mulu park covers more than 200 square miles: an enclave of rainforest, clear rivers and craggy mountains.

The only ways to get there are by day-long ride in a riverboat, or on one of the turbo-prop planes that serve its jungle airstrip. That part of the journey, from the coast to the park's headquarters, we'd accomplished two days earlier.
Sparkling waters and verdant coastline of Borneo
Grandeur of the Gardens on the Bay in Singapore
However, our base for these adventures was more than comfortable: the Royal Mulu Resort. We knew we'd be returning to air-conditioned rooms, marble bathrooms, a pool and restaurant with a decent wine list. Besides the cave, there was another Mulu highlight: a walk with Veno through the jungle at night. Using a laser pointer, he picked out creatures we would otherwise have missed, including plump tree frogs.
From there we travelled to the cave's entrance in a motorised canoe. The entrance was a rent at the foot of a cliff, half-hidden behind creepers. We had to squeeze through a narrow gap, climb down several vertical pits aided by a rope, and romp along gigantic tunnels at least 100ft high. We passed hand-sized spiders, eyes sparkling under our headlamps, and giant crickets, their antennae 10in long. When we finally turned back - still miles from the cave's furthest reaches - we felt remote.
"And although almost on the Equator, the weather was never oppressively hot, usually below 30C."
Our three days in Mulu came almost at the end of a family holiday (taking a break from caving that day were my arachnophobe wife, Carolyn, and elder son Jacob, 15). In three weeks, we visited not only Borneo but some of West Malaysia. The verdict: This is a fantastic destination, with diverse natural wonders.

And although almost on the Equator, the weather was never oppressively hot, usually below 30C. We started in Singapore, a futuristic metropolis. We stayed at the original Shangri-La, the base of a hotel chain with 84 branches across Asia and beyond. Around the corner were the designer-label stores of Orchard Road. But there's much more to Singapore than just shopping.
"Langkawi is a sparsely-populated paradise of white-sand beaches and mangroves."
Tanjung Aru resort, on the South China Sea
The mysteries of Racer Cave in the Gunung Mulu National Park
At the Mar on the shores of the Straits, two huge transparent pavilions house the Gardens on the Bay - a little like Cornwall's Eden Project, but more spectacular. In one of the domes, thousands of orchids flourish in an artificial 'cloud forest', sustained by a 100ft waterfall. At the night zoo we picked our way through the moonlight within feet of dozing leopards and frisky young elephants. From Singapore a short flight brought us to Penang, our first stop in Malaysia. Down by the sea at George Town, and on forested hills above, careful conservation has preserved British colonial architectural splendour.

A pulsating island of 1.5million, this is 'rising Asia' exemplified, with gleaming malls and apartment blocks, raucous night markets and incredible food - great restaurants but also high quality 'hawker food', served from roadside trucks and in open air plazas, with thousands of variants on noodles, rice, meat, seafood and spices. Our next destination, Langkawi, is also an island, but very different - a sparsely-populated paradise of white-sand beaches and mangroves. We took a boat deep into its waterways for close-up views of proboscis monkeys and dozens of eagles, diving into the teeming waters for their lunch.

We stayed at the Pelangi Beach, a low-rise complex of dark-wood cabins, pools and restaurants. Next it was Borneo. Before Mulu, we stayed in Kuching, charming capital of the state of Sarawak. We were guests at the home of Philip Yong, proprietor of local travel firm Borneo Adventure, which took us on a kayak trip down a rainforest river and an unsuccessful attempt to see orangutans at a primate reserve.

A few days later, however, at the north-eastern end of the island outside Kota Kinabalu - or KK, as it's usually known - we got our orangutan sighting. Two adolescent males gambolled about for an hour, racing up trees and peeling fruit while hanging by their toes. Our home in KK for six nights was the Tanjung Aru, another Shangri- La outpost, with views across the glassy South China Sea to the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park. A 15-minute speedboat ride from the hotel jetty, the islands offer exquisite reef snorkelling. There's a lot of this alluring and beautiful country we didn't see - with any luck, we'll be back.

Original article published in July 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
The popular beach destination of Langkawi
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