Before we get on too much of a streak here, waxing on about our wonderful experiences in paradise, I thought it might be of interest to plant our feet firmly back on earth for a few moments. I think you may recall some other posts in this same vein a few years back, around the time I was yacking over the lifelines of Tahina on a near nightly basis.
This entry doesn’t involve any yacking, but I aim to round out the pretty pictures and grand adventures we’ve painted with a little perspective from the underbelly, so you can get a glimpse of the angles of traveling life that are, erhm, not quite as rosy.
Things about Malaysia that are not quite so wonderful:
- Squatty potties and their not so squatty soaking wet neighbors. The squatty potties I don’t mind so much, but the hose used as a substitute for toilet paper pretty much soaks everything in sight, leaves puddles in all the stalls, including the western style ones, and generally makes my flip-flop clad feet cringe at the likelihood they are coming into direct contact with diluted human excretions. Also, it would help to refill the soap in the airport and restaurant bathrooms every so often.
- Semporna, in Sabah. If ever there was an armpit of Malaysia, this town is it my friends. The streets reek with the sickly stench of durian (not THAT unusual in this part of the world), complemented by open grey-water sewers and piles of refuse stacked on the street corners (pretty unusual in Malaysia from what we’ve seen so far). The market is rich with fruits, vegetables and a smorgasbord of fish—from tuna to snapper, dried fish and more—and the traffic of townspeople through there in the evening is awesomely disorienting and loud and exciting, but it’s the only city in Malaysia we’ve been to where the young male locals leer threateningly on the street and from their car windows, and we feel distinctly like we shouldn’t stray too far from the streetlights and crowds. It’s not a place I want to spend time at night. It’s dirty as hell; the water and waterfront are littered with plastic; the sidewalks have gaping holes in them leading into mysterious smelly abysses. It’s no wonder people get out of dodge as soon as possible en route to what comparatively must feel like paradise islands until the diving’s done. Tourists are well advised to steer as clear of this town as possible, using it only for transfering in and out of Sipadan / Kapalai / Mabul dive trips on the night before arrival or after departure. It’s a shame Sabah’s Tourism Board doesn’t do more about this port town that serves as a necessary gateway to one of the world’s top two dive destinations.
- An apparent total disregard for suspension/shocks in vehicles. This is a pretty minor annoyance and actually kind of makes me giggle until my aging back starts grumbling. If I had a ringgit for each time we’ve bottomed out, in taxis, on motorbike, buses and vans, the three days diving in Sipadan / Mabul would already be paid for.
- Palm oil plantations in place of jungle as far as the eye can see from a plane. Clay muddied rivers, stripped of the topsoil and vegetation that once maintained their clarity, spewing out into once clear ocean waters, habitats and biodiversity completely destroyed, all for a monocrop that for all its destruction (according to our guide) is still behind tourism in its contribution to Malaysia’s GNP. Imagine what Borneo could do with tourism if it chose to preserve more of those natural treasures like the endangered orangutans, rhinos and elephants, countless rainforest plants, amphibians, etc that have been exterminated by clearing at an alarming rate over the past several decades instead of greeting tourists arriving by plane with yawning expanses of oil palm and zero floral biodiversity. I only hope that light can be shined on this in time for people to recover some of what’s near being lost. I get the drive for industry, but it’s depressing riding down the road and looking at it, knowing what could be lost forever in the near future.
On that note, wish us no bedbugs in our Semporna hotel, rated #1 on TripAdvisor, but unnervingly rough even for my standards, and we’ll talk to you from Mabul. (We shortened our time in Semporna, cut the wildlife watching river cruise, and are attempting to beat feet out of here tomorrow first thing for the islands. Wish us luck!)