That’s Phuket, with a hard P

Phuket is the name of Thailand’s largest island (I didn’t know it was an island at first, the separation is small), a province and the town in which I’ve stayed for the last 5 days. Old Town Phuket was first settled by Hokkien Chinese immigrants during the industrial revolution because of a tin mining boom in the region; native Thai were just to the north of current Phuket in a much older rice-farming settlement called Thalong. I’ve been staying at the 99 Oldtown Guesthouse and enjoying the history of the area, like the shophouses built by second-generation Chinese after the mining successes of their immigrant parents allowed for a move from hard labor into merchant lifestyles.

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Home on top, work on the bottom

The day I arrived, I went to a street fair celebrating Por Tor, or the Hungry Ghost Festival- a holiday in the Ghost month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the gates of hell are opened, honoring one’s ancestors and offering gifts of food to wandering spirits. The street fair had everything to offer, from Phad Thai

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Stir fried right there in a huge bowl

and squid satay

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to sweets,

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Like a marshmallow taco with coconut and lime

and even deep fried insects.

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Crispety crunchety grasshoppers, crickets and grubs

Yesterday, a great feast was layed out at the Taoist temple just down the street for the spirits, with four roast pigs, many bottles of drinks and whiskey, all sorts of traditional dishes, and bright red glutinous rice cakes in the shape of turtles for longevity and good fortune.

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I had largely heard of Phuket only as a major tourist destination, and while it is that (the beaches of the west coast are super developed with luxury resorts), it was really fun to get to engage in the culture too, right outside my door.

I was recommended a tour hosted by a Phuket native named Chaya, born and raised in Oldtown. She took a small group of us through a mansion built by the son of Phuket’s first banker, built in classic Sino-Colonial architecture modeled after settlements in Malacca. This house was particularly nice for its open roofed pond in the main room, allowing for good ventilation of the space as well as a balance of air and water important for feng shui.

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Beautiful mother of pearl inlaid furniture too

There were also some really cool trinkets that the family had kept (they still live in the house, and are now 4 & 5th generation): an opium pipe from the den they used to run in town;

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Two pipes and a ceramic ‘pillow’ for the smoker to lay down, but not be comfortable enough to want to STAY

a kerosene powered fan;

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and great photographs of all the generations covered the walls. It was obviously a house that honored those who had come before and the contributions they had made that lead to the continued good fortune of the family.

In stark contrast to the mansion’s finery, we also visited a village of sea gypsies- nomadic fishing peoples who had only built villages on land within the last 100 years as international borders disrupted fishing traditions. Fishing remains THE way of life, using fish traps that look like 6 ft long rabbit hutches made of curved mangrove wood and hand-twisted chain link.

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The mangrove acts to lure small fish, which in turn entice larger fish to swim thru a funneling entrance into the trap. The bait survives, and only the larger fish are harvested for wholesale. The village itself doesn’t look like much- corrugated tin huts, dirt roads, and chickens, stray dogs and kids everywhere. But happiness comes from being out on the ocean, putting in a hard half-day of work and spending the rest of your time with family, teaching young ones to fish and being part of the community.

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On my own, I also explored a bit of what brings international travelers to Phuket’s beautiful coast line. I took a ferry over to the Phi Phi Islands- a group of islands about 2 hours from Phuket in Phang Nga Bay, surrounded by crystal aquamarine waters known for snorkeling and diving. Phi Phi Don, the biggest and only settled island, is a mash of resorts and hostels that populate the isthmus that connects two rocky, cliffed areas; the ferry pier is right smack in the middle of the isthmus.

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Ferry headed for the pier

Once we arrived, I hired myself a long tail boat, which are used as water taxis,

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and went around the island snorkeling- just jump off the boat into reefs of coral with huge purple sea urchins, giant clams with iridescent blue lips, parrotfish audibly munching on the coral, and calm warm water. And that’s just in the places that are easy to reach!

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Headed to snorkeling, the small Phi Phi island in the background

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Phuket- good food, welcoming people, new cultural experiences- all the best things about traveling somewhere new!

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And this, butterfly pea flower drink

The next adventure will be sea kayaking and camping in Phang Nga Bay- tell you all about it in a couple days!

Thai DIY

Hey! Wanna experience a slice of my trip in the comfort of your own home?

Of course you do!

Tonight we’re making the beverage of choice from the Phuket night market festivities near Old Town.

Take 16oz coconut water and in this amount, make up orange Tang.

Freeze til slushy, then drink thru a straw while enjoying the way your cold glass produces most vapors in the steamy, humid night air.

Congrats! You know have your very own

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Welcome to Thailand!

Land of a Thousand Smiles

From Singapore, Keira and I traveled to Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a big, dirty, busy, crowded city- a constant traffic jam exists outside our hotel, with taxis and tuk-tuks and buses and trucks and motorcycles all crazily interweaving. Crossing a street is taking your life in your hands, and the entire populations of Singapore and Hong Kong are joining you there to shop. Food and knick-knack stalls line the streets- our first Tom Kha soup from one of these was excellent and super cheap (50Baht= 1.5USD).
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My suggestion was to go see the Grand Palace and temple complex when arrived- an icon of Bangkok. And it’s certainly worth surging crowds and sweaty weather to see this phenomenal place. The diverse array of temples are covered floor to ceiling with mirror glass mosaics,
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gilt spirits,
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hand painted porcelain flower tiles,
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and fantastic figures.
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The walls of the surrounding monastery have elaborate murals of spiritual battles, like this guy:
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The complex is enormous- these don’t do justice to the scale of the temple, or the accompanying palace built by a Thai prince to honor his mother and father. Sorry, Mom and Dad, I got nothing like this!
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After a weekend of food (Kiera steered us to the supposedly best Phad Thai in town,
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and we stumbled upon what tasted like the best pork green curry with chinese eggplant, and spicy pork with basil), shopping at Bangkok’s new attraction, Asiatique, a tuk-tuk ride (one was enough), riding the train to night markets, and (over)indulging in Bangkok’s nightlife,
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Kiera and I parted ways. While she returned to Singapore to post blackmail pictures on Facebook, I headed to peninsular Thailand, and the resort town of Khao Lak on the Andaman Sea.

Khao Lak is a slow-moving town, definitely in the off season.
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There is a market in Bang Niang, the section of this rather spread out town I’m a staying in, every Monday, Wed, Fri and Sat late afternoon that brings out tourists with offerings of clothing and trinkets,

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but all the locals do their grocery shopping for fresh fish and chicken parts, vegetables and herbs, and fruits.

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Chicken parts stalls

The seafood variety is delicious- many types of cockles and mussels, various sizes of prawn with their corresponding prices, and numerous fish varieties.

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There are also some super food stalls. My favorites have been the fresh mushroom soup- look at all the kinds of mushroom, plus pumpkin and bamboo.

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I don’t enjoy the bamboo out of a can, but this stuff is downright tasty. And then we have the pandan taco.

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It’s a hot fresh pancake-like outside and the sweet filling has the consistency of apple butter…but is bright green. It’s a pretty fantastic and simple dessert.

Walking on the beach here, I can’t stop thinking about the 2004 tsunami that ravaged this town. It was sparked by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on the Andaman-Sumatran fault- an earthquake that lasted 10 minutes and displaced 11m of seafloor. This type of megathrust quake is rare, but has the energy to generate huge waves; this tsunami killed 230,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and others. Over 8000 people died in Thailand and the majority of those here in Khao Lak on the morning of Dec. 26 to a series of waves that maxed out at 13.8 m (45ft) in height. Just thinking of it scares me- looking around, there are very few high buildings that could rise above that kind of water (apparently building permits limit to the height of palm trees). Topography lent to the destruction: there are flat mud seabeds off the coast for kilometers, and the land is also remarkably flat flood plane. This allowed the wave to travel unimpeded 3km inland, and water marks at 2km were up at 10m; Bang Niang was essentially wiped off the map. There are now established evacuation signs pointing out a route to higher ground and an early warning system in place- you know, leave immediately after the earthquake, don’t stand around to watch the “extremely low tide” created as the ocean pulls back before the wave. Nine years later, the tourism and fishing industries have fully recovered, and come December Khao Lak resorts will be packed. But I find being here deeply unsettling. Maybe in part it’s the speed of life coming to a screeching halt after the vibrant hum of Bangkok, maybe it’s part gut reaction to the realization of nature’s power. To get a sense of the tsunami, watch the movie The Impossible- not easy to watch, but gives a gut-wrenchingly visual and emotional sense of that day. I kinda wish I hadn’t seen it before coming here!

I’m leaving Khao Lak today for Phuket- looking forward to a little more activity. Not surprisingly, I am not content with just sitting on a beach- time for a bit more action! No doubt, tho- Khao Lak is a beautiful place.

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Give us more from Singapore!

I have to append my last post a bit, and not leave you all thinking that Singapore is all about food (it has an equal devotion to SHOPPING!!).

One of my days took me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the National Orchid Garden. You haven’t seen orchids til you see them here! They grow naturally in the trees in this climate (they are a type of epiphyte, a plant that grows on another tree with no effect on the host), so cultivating beautiful varieties uses the natural heat and humidity to great effect. I understand perfectly now why an orchid gifted to me is a dead orchid- San Diego was not a humid environment, and I am a terrible tree host 😉 Anyway, this garden has magnificent stands of orchids in every color, arranged in gorgeous displays of color, size and style. I’m sorry I don’t have iPhone photos to share 😦

But even more impressive than the orchids was Gardens by the Bay.

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The Bay South Garden

This garden, out on the outer edge of the marina reservoir with the impressive Marina Bay Sands resort, blew me away!!

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Marina Bay Sands

They have ‘super trees’ as a eye catching lure: 25-50 m metal structures covered in plants, working to not only produce oxygen but to collect rain water for irrigation, supply solar power and serve as air intake and exhaust for the giant bio domes, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

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A super tree forest

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Me on the Skywalk, 22m up in the super trees, with the Cloud Forest Dome behind

The Flower Dome featured buds and trees from 6 of 7 continents (not air conditioned enough to simulate Antarctica)- they do have eucalyptus, Mediterranean olive trees and baobabs. But the shining star for me was the Cloud Forest. Inside this dome was a 7 level mountain with a jutting waterfall and a climate like a tropical cloud rainforest (3300-9800ft elevation) of Costa Rica or Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, including the cool ethereal mists.

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The mountain has aerial walkways at the top and a middle level, offering some crazy views and maybe a little vertigo…

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The mountain itself was an array of bromeliads and rain forest flora, including pitcher plants and Venus fly traps.

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115ft waterfall

It had a geology display in the center about the formation of crystals and stalagmites, and the secret garden on the ground floor featuring New Zealand plants. It was missing the fauna, but still- a cloud forest in a snow globe, in Singapore, is very cool!

Last thing I want to mention so you know the uniqueness of Singapore. They have THIS as a mascot:

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The Merlion!

The post about how I went to Singapore and got really fat

When you’re traveling alone, finding a place to eat is a little like gambling: you can base a choice on the smell of the place, the number of people eating there and whether they are enjoying it (ie eating INTENTLY), the length of the line or the price… But sometimes you’re still going to strike out (my strike out involved a deep fried mealworm in Kota Kinabalu). But Singapore is a whole different ball game! Here, I feel like I’m in a week-long episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, getting the local treatment, but even better. My local guide, Keira Herr, is a former Chun labbie and total foodie with a nose for only the best options, at restaurants and hawker centers alike. Hawker centers are THE places to get the cheap local fare- each hawker center has dozens of stalls several rows deep, with tables sandwiched between.

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Maxwell hawker center

The regulars know which dishes to get from which stalls, and which are reasonable alternatives when the best stall is closed. My first night, Keira and her father deftly navigated Old Airport Road for prawn mee, kueh pie tee and BBQ stingray. I’ve joined her and her husband Deron (another Chun lab friend, he’s the beer expert to Keira’s food knowledge, tho Singapore has limited options on that front) for fish head in garlic sauce and Singapore laksa from the Smith Street hawker center in Chinatown. Earlier that same day, Keira showed off the best chicken rice in town from the Maxwell hawker center (Bourdain actually DID eat there, and the shop flaunts it).

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Tian Tian Chicken Rice

It’s been particularly nice to visit these with folks in the know- there’s so much you could miss, just by virtue of trying everything else!

In restaurants, it’s been a whole different set of delights. We’ve had dim sum: flaky pork buns, eggplant two ways (fried with pork floss on top, or stewed in delicious sauce), shrimp wontons, salted egg yolk buns (which I like very much despite the egg, the yolkiness was like butter), roast pork with a crispy outside layer.

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Buns, eggplant and shrimp dumplings

We’ve had marvelous seafood, from garlic bamboo clams (long and thin, with a light brown color like a bamboo stalk) to whole goby cooked in a soy sauce with crispy fried scallions, to tofu with scallops, sea cucumber and more pork floss (think tiny shavings of pork jerky).

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Bamboo clams

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Whole goby

And crispy fish skin too! More food than I can tell you about here (Japanese hot pot! Fish ball dumplings! Buns with pork floss!), and I have enjoyed it all immensely.

I don’t know as I can have a favorite, but at most given moments (when I’m not consuming some other scrumptious morsel) it’s the soup dumplings I had my second day- Keira took me to the two best places in the city. At the first, we had a beautiful selection of flavors like crab roe, truffle and ginseng, each a different color.

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You bite off the little twist on top and slurp out the broth, then pop the rest into your mouth to savor. How do they make these perfect mouthfuls? They have a team in the kitchen, mixing dough, shaping and weighing out the proper dough balls, flattening them into super thin disks, spreading them with a solidly condensed form of the desired broth and twisting them up- each must have 14 folds.

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Competitors in the Dumpling Olympics

I will not be trying to make these at home. The second dumpling shop also had chili crab dumplings to offer, only available during certain times of year (lucky me!!). Also these shops are busy- we went at funny hours to avoid the crowd and there was still a 15-20min wait.

Tonight is my last meal in Singapore, and Keira and Deron have been saving one of the best things: Sri Lankan butter crabs! They really are going to have to roll me to Thailand- I’m not the least bit sorry!!

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Sepilok Nature Preserve

I have had the most amazing two days in the Sepilok nature preserve just outside of Sandakan.

Sepilok is a major tourist draw for the orangutan rehabilitation center there, where orphaned apes are retrained to survive in the wild. The apes here are considered semi-wild, meaning that they have the 4300 hectare preserve to roam, but the center does set out food for them twice a day to supplement their foraging…and visitors can come watch them eat. My first trip to the viewing platform (about 30ft from the feeding platform, which has ropes leading to it from several directions out of the forest) I got to see 5 young orangutans come to feast.

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A male orangutan will stay with its mother for ~6 years, and a female until she is a teen, learning about child care and helping to raise siblings. This is reported to be the longest childhood in the animal kingdom (after humans, of course). Here are the five orangutans swinging away after the meal- the acrobatics they perform and the positions they hang in are ridiculous!

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Long- and pig-tailed macaques show up afterwards to finish the fruit.

The afternoon feeding was even better: 8 orangutans! Two were the larger males at the the center, and you could tell their dominance by the way some of the other apes fled to wait up a safe and distant rope as soon as these two appeared.

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They were in command of the platform, and got the choice watermelon. At the end of the feeding, the human workers brought out a bucket with what looked like milk, and poured it into a large tray for the apes to share. One lucky ape asked for and received the bucket to drink from, sticking his head in deep with his rump in the air. A jealous buddy took the bucket next, trying to pour the last remaining drops into his mouth. All the apes hung around for an hour in the trees surrounding the viewing platform, and we got to see some playing and wrestling while hanging upside down.

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The next day, I called up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center and asked if I could come visit, mentioning a friend of mine from Lewis and Clark and the Australia trip, Jocelyn Stokes. Jocelyn has been working with the BSBCC and helping their efforts (in fact she’s coming back to Borneo later this month to spend a year researching bears!), and got me interested in the facility. This center isn’t open to the public yet, but are fundraising to get their facilities open ( you can help them out at sunbears.wildlifedirect.org) They were very friendly and kindly offered to give me a view as a friend of a volunteer.

Gloria, a BSBCC member and fellow biologist who did her masters on bird population survival in secondary rainforests before joining the sun bear movement, met me to take me into the private facility. Before she arrived, I saw my first wild rhinocerous hornbill fly through the forest and perch on a tree. They are huge! I knew then it was going to be a great day, and I hadn’t even seen bears yet! Some of the pics I’ll share are from the BSBCC Facebook
page.

The BSBCC currently cares for 28 bears, many of which were rescued from lives as illegally kept pets. They are working with the bears to rehabilitate them back into semi-wild forest living, developing natural behaviors including foraging and digging, climbing and nesting. We walked up to the viewing platform overlooking a portion of the forest in which the sub-adults (2-3 years) start to independently explore. Right there, standing on her back legs looking up at us was a sunbear! These smallest of bears have a distinctive yellow U on their chests- like a fingerprint, these are different for each individual. She showed off her tree climbing skills for us, scrambling nimbly up the trunk to tear off bark with her long curved claws, then sliding down as easily as a fireman down a pole.

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She was soon joined by two other females, snuffling about on the forest floor, and they were provided with a lunch of fruits, thrown and scattered in the forest to encourage foraging. As we stood and watched, no fewer than 6 sub-adults (5 females and 1 male) wandered by! Gloria explained that some of the bears show excellent progress and rerelease potential, but some have been too exposed to human life and are too trusting of people to go back to the wild.

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One subadult we saw had been the pet of a little girl, allowed into bed and cuddled. I can understand why you want to just pick one up and cuddle it (they are so fluffy), but mostly I’m in disbelief that people try to keep wild animals as pets. In the forest next to the sub-adults, a mature male bear also made an appearance.

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Sadly, he is not a candidate for release as he spent too long with humans and doesn’t know how to climb, but it offered a chance to see a full grown bear. After foraging for dinner, all the young bears ascended into trees for a nap. There was play fighting as four youngsters tried to be in the same tree, with the bear in the middle trapped with no place to go, up or down. Eventually, with much growling and barking, they worked out their proper positions.

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It was awesome to get to see these creatures, and learn about the efforts to save them from the dangers of deforestation and human desire to own them. Gloria and the other BSBCC members taught me a lot.

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The efforts of the BSBCC and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Center made me think about the double edged sword of tourism in a place like Malaysia. It provides a great chance for education and lets people see and become interested in an animal that they otherwise wouldn’t get to, and contributes money to the cause of preservation and conservation of biodiversity (money to combat the big money involved in palm oil plantation farming leading to deforestation). But with an influx of tourism comes a rise in animal exploitation for money. Anything that can make a buck. Some places are for profit, not for animal preservation – I felt that way about Jong’s Crocodile Farm in Kuching (I didn’t go to it because of that). And the advertising for these preserves is relentless, parking lots packed with tour buses. Even the Sepilok Orangutan center charges for bringing a camera. What’s the best way to educate but not treat the animals as a cash cow? I think the groups in Sepilok are trying, by limiting exposure of the animals, and using the large natural forest preserve to keep the semi-wild behavior. And the folks I met certainly care about their mission.

But a related challenge is involving the locals in preservation efforts- the money from tourism comes largely from outside Malaysia. Gloria told me that many locals don’t know there are laws prohibiting hunting and keeping of bears and orangutans- a goal of the center is local education on why species should be protected. But looking around, jobs and money are probably pretty scarce and largely in service or industry- tour bus driver or maybe guide, food services and hospitality, small shop owner, mechanic, palm oil farmer. A good crop of palm oil would bring the most money, and with it security and ability to feed your family. Survival of the sun bears is probably far from your mind.

I don’t have an answer. I’m not trying to survive and raise a family in Malaysia, I am privileged to be here on a vacation. For my part, I tried to put my money behind the responsible conservation groups. But other options are cheaper, and that’s a huge deciding factor for many visitors. I cannot just think, “Well, I saw sun bears- cross that off the list and never think about it again. So what if they are fated to extinction- I got my satisfaction.” I want the opportunity to continue to exist for others, or even better, the chance for an encounter in the wild forests of Borneo.

How do you balance preservation and survival in a country where the two major contributors to GDP and the livelihood of the people (tourism and oil) are in such conflict? How do we save the earth we need for the future while so many struggle to survive in the now?

Scuba diving in Borneo (!!!!)

It was a dark and stormy day on the Sulu Sea off the northeast coast of Borneo, and Lankayan Island was being dowsed in wind-driven rain.

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Out at the edge of the reef, the deeper sea was whipped to white caps. I thought maybe it would die down as the day progressed, and there was a hint of lessening in the clouds, but there was no way I was going to pass on this diving! Besides, when you’re going to be UNDER the ocean, water from the sky doesn’t really matter, right?

The rough seas made getting to and from the dive sites pretty miserable- crashing from the top of one wave into the trough of the next, with swells 4-6ft, and wind spraying the saltwater right into your face. As soon as the boat secures to the anchored buoy, everyone scrambles for their gear (quick aircheck! quick bcd inflation!) then falls backward off the boat and grabs the line. Ready? Descend! Faster you can get below the surface, the better. And getting back onto the boat was tough (getting out is easy- just fall!), as the boat pitched on the sea. The diving was still the best I’ve seen…though I know for a fact that the same conditions in San Diego would cancel your dive.

I went on two dives at Lankayan on Sunday (a total of three at the island, including Saturday’s orientation dive), and the volume of fish and creatures as well as the diversity is astounding! I saw numerous lionfishes with their quilled fins displayed, two black tipped reef sharks, a handful of eels, a very large lobster hidden in a coral crevasse, spotted and striped shrimp, stingrays and half a dozen different species of nudibranchs!

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And the fish!!!! The fish were so plentiful and colorful, I really didn’t know where to look. Here, dozens of tiny electric blue fish flitting through a staghorn coral; there, a pair of anemone fish (like Nemo!) guarded their home. Red checkerboard fish with enormous dark eyes were quick to scoot under the protection of an overhang, while boxfish and two pufferfishes bobbed along (they do look pretty vacuous and yet jolly), and wrasse and parrotfish wove their way through the coral forest (and it was a forest- healthy and colorful, with numerous slow-growing varieties like giant brain coral). When I could pull my attention from the reef, schools of bigger fish with bright yellow tails were passing (not tuna, but maybe some amberjack?). Some I recognized from the Birch Aquarium- damselfish, moorish idols, butterflyfish- and some like the batfish or the devil scorpionfish, camouflaged and immobile on a rock, I hadn’t seen before.

I am a huge fan of seaslugs or nudibranchs (nudis for short), thanks to the fantastic array of colors and shapes they come in (there seems to be a nudi craze amongst divers recently- maybe just because they move slowly and are easy and rewarding to photograph). I can see no real reason for the crazy diversity- I don’t believe that these slugs are poisonous, and color does attract predation. Maybe it’s for mate attraction, and maybe they just taste like slimy salt jelly and no one wants to eat them, so they can look as pretty as they’d like? The tumblr wtfevolution is pretty good at speculating why the heck creatures look as they do… Anyway, for this, I’ve scoured Google for pictures to match the memory (turns out nudipixel.net is not a naughty site!)

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My first, probably Chromodoris leopardus

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Phyllidia varicosa

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Chromodoris kuniei

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These two are similar looking, Chelidonura varians and Chromodoris annae

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Phyllidiella nigra

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Phyllidia coelestis

Some of them look very similar, so maybe I only saw half as many species, but there were so many slugs out there!

The nicest thing after the dives was returning to my private chalet for a lovely warm shower 🙂

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Chalet number 7, with a patio to the sea (taken in The sunshine of the day before).

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No beautiful sunset tonight, but this island is a pretty special and magical place to be!

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(Reception and dining hall are straight down the board walk; dive center and jetty to the right)