Wednesday 15 February 2012

By Kayak Through Borneo

This week's blog post is about one of my most memorable experiences in Asia

It's also the introduction to a competition in celebration of my Twitter feed passing 1000 followers. 

The prize is a copy of Lonely Planet's brand new 11th edition of its popular Vietnam guidebook. Read on, then learn how to enter below..

Enter Borneo

It’s a Monday, and I’m experiencing an unconventional afternoon at work. I’m at the front of a two-person kayak courtesy of Tourism Malaysia, paddling and sometimes drifting down the Sarawak Kiri River in Borneo, on my first-ever kayaking foray.

The humidity is relatively low, it’s a hot sunny day, and I’m moving past lush green banks that show no sign of human habitation. If only I could get my balance right, I’d be in paradise.

My Borneo interlude had started on dry land the previous day, when I’d touched down at Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the world’s third largest island, and is the least crowded with tourists.

Already today our small group has visited wild orangutans in the forest south of Kuching; now we’re experiencing the aquatic aspect of Borneo’s natural attractions.

Village life

Before taking to the water, we’re shown through a kampung, a traditional village. Here we’re met by Jackson Chan and Ivy Chin of Borneo Trek & Kayak Adventure, a husband and wife team who regularly conduct kayaking trips downriver. As we’re led through the laneways and courtyards that separate the low-rise dwellings, our hosts point out the crops being grown by the locals.

In the sunshine, peppercorns are slowly drying on a mat, and there are trees scattered through the township bearing tropical fruit.

Some, like the soursop, are unknown to me; others, like the cocoa pod, give a new perspective to a familiar item - in this case, chocolate. Outside one building we’re introduced to a palm civet, a cat-sized mammal that vaguely resembles a possum. It’s completely tame, and to our amusement runs up and down members of our group and perches on hats.

Kayak time

But it’s time for the moment I’ve been dreading: getting out on the river. I’m a complete novice on the water, being the kind of traveller who usually hangs around cities investigating art galleries and bars, so there’s tension in the air as we walk down to the sandy shore below the village.

Luckily these are two-person kayaks, and I’ll have the able Ivy behind me as captain of the vessel, to guide us safely over the (admittedly tiny) set of rapids we’ll encounter en route. I’m still concerned about capsizing, but between wobbly moments, as I get the hang of paddling and we cut through the slow-moving water, I’m able to reflect on our surrounds.

They’re very beautiful. Each bank of the river is densely vegetated, and the skyline is punctuated by impressive mountains, the most prominent of which looks like a giant green bell. As the paddling required isn’t that vigorous, there’s time to take the odd shot from my waterproof camera. I’m surprised by just how much water flows in and out of a kayak, and realise why we were advised to not wear shoes.

On the river

Chatting with Ivy, I discover she has grown-up children and is in her fifties, though she looks much younger. Clearly, kayaking every day is good for one’s health. She’s possessed of a great deal of calmness, obviously a good trait to have with a nervous passenger at the front of your boat.

Nearing the end of our hour-long journey, we round a gentle curve and see a large white sandbank with a shade tent set up on it. Beneath it, people are bustling around a table. They’re residents of the next village, putting together a freshly-prepared lunch which is available as an extra on the tour.

At one end they’re laying out barbecued fish wrapped in aluminium foil, next to an extravagant selection of tropical fruit. The soursop, whose bumpy green exterior we’d sighted in the first village, turns out to have a chewy white, sweet interior. More impressive, however, is the dragonfruit, whose soft tasty innards are a lurid violet shade.

Lunch and relief

We lunch while sitting on rocky outcrops located conveniently just above the sand, as if placed there for the purpose.

Gazing out over the water and the greenery above the rocks on the opposite bank, I reflect for a moment on the alternating adrenaline surges and relaxing moments of the day. I didn’t capsize, despite my worse fears, and have to admit that the view from the river’s surface was soothingly attractive.

And most of all, I reflect, it’s not often you spend a Monday afternoon on the water. Or realise that the most important element of the work/life balance is staying afloat.


OK, now it's your turn. Tell me about your most memorable travel experience in Asia and you'll be in the running to win a copy of the newly-published Lonely Planet: Vietnam, edition 11 (valued at $39.99 and kindly donated by Lonely Planet). Your entry can be any word length, and by submitting you give me permission to display it on my website indefinitely.

To enter, email me at by 29 February 2012, with the story of your most memorable Asian experience. I look forward to hearing from you!

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