I ended up in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Borneo, after I had to change travel plans at the last minute. I’d just finished researching a guidebook on the Malay Peninsula and my visa to Myanmar, where I’d planned to go next, got denied, so suddenly I had five days of free time and a day to plan it. A flight to Kuching from Penang was around $60 round-trip on Air Asia and they still had seats, so off I went. I had no clue that I was about to have one of the most tranquil yet exhilarating travel experiences of my life.
The trip started poorly. As the lone patron of my Hostel World-recommended guesthouse, I wasn’t meeting a soul in Kuching. Although it was filled with temples and delicious seafood restaurants and cut by a winding river out of a Maugham novel, the town offered little in the way of activities and I was getting dispirited wandering around by myself. My guidebook said that Bako National Park was an hour and a half from Kuching and was packed with wildlife. The sleeping options were reportedly grim (“dank bathrooms” and “torn mozzie nets”), but I had to get out of Kuching or I’d start talking to myself. I wasn’t sure I’d meet anyone at Bako, either, but hanging out with monkeys sounded better than feeling like a human loser in Kuching.
After an hour ride to a boat dock in a clunky yellow bus and a wet half-hour in a rusty speedboat, I traipsed from the boat up to Bako’s beach through warm waves, pants rolled up to my knees, backpack on my head. The all-local transport made me feel like an intrepid solo adventurer rather than alone and lost, so already I was happy to be there. Bako’s park headquarters are in mangrove swamps on a gray stretch of sand littered with rubbish; although beautiful, it’s not pristine.
I walked up to the front desk and signed in, then asked the ranger if it was possible to get a hiking guide. She looked at me blankly, as if I was the first person who had ever asked this question.
“Don’t need guide,” she said flatly. “Sign here when leave. Sign when get back. You don’t come back, we go look for you. No one get lost.”
A couple who were signing out at headquarters and about to catch the boat back to Kuching chimed in and told me that they’d been hiking for a few days and the trails were very well-marked. “But what about wild animals and rapists?” I asked. Everyone smiled and said I’d just have to watch out for poisonous snakes, most of which are nocturnal anyway.
With my bags dropped off and no guide or friends to walk with, I decided to trail-test this hike-on-your-own-in-darkest-Borneo theory. After a series of boardwalks over mangroves, the trail went straight up a well-trodden rocky path leading over giant tree roots in the shade of gnarled, vine-covered trees. It was so hot that soon I had saturated my T-shirt with sweat for the first time in my life. I was red-faced, clammy and probably smelling pretty bad, but when you’re alone, who cares?
At the top of the hill was a map with distances to several destinations and each route was color-coded. I took a trail to a beach and soon the terrain changed to treeless and sun-scorched with white powdery soil and low shrubs. I stopped on a bench at a viewpoint and a butterfly landed on my hand. All I could hear were insects and the trickle of a river. Walking again, I started to notice a huge variety of carnivorous pitcher plants and vines in the brush. Without the noise of a chatty companion, I was soaking in every sound, sight and whiff of a breeze. With no one to wait for and no one to keep up with, what became important were the details and sensations of the natural surroundings. It was bliss.
There was a Spanish couple at the beach, so I felt safe enough to put on a swimsuit and go for a swim. The water wasn’t clear but it was warm and soft with little waves that massaged my tired back. Refreshed, I put my sweaty clothes back on and returned to headquarters.
That night in the dorms I met a few other people who had also gone hiking on their own. We ate dinner together and told our stories, but it had been so liberating hiking alone, the next day I decided to go solo even though I’d now met plenty of potential hiking partners. All the other lone travelers had the same thoughts as me and we all went our separate ways, meeting only for meals.
Over the next three days I traversed much of the park, but I saw wildlife exclusively near headquarters. Every morning I’d head down to the boardwalk and sit silently as a family of pendulous-nosed proboscis monkeys foraged for mangrove fruit. Occasionally another person would come and sit with me but we’d just enjoy the close encounter in wordless complicity. One of my dorm-mates showed me where to find pit vipers coiled around branches in the jungle, sleeping off the evening frog hunt. One afternoon I followed a troupe of silver leaf monkeys along the water where they foraged with their babies between the beach trash. One night I joined a guided group hike and saw creepy long-legged, hand-sized poisonous spiders crawling around in a cave. Thieving, mischievous macaques were omnipresent, pillaging the garbage cans and trying to steal food at the restaurant and out of people’s rooms. At night, after the usual torrential downpour, frogs came out to sing.
This was a jungle in Borneo, one of the wildest destinations on Earth, and it felt that way, but somehow, even with the snakes and spiders, it felt safer than a small town and as soothing as an ashram. Perhaps it was the human silence.
Yes, the dorm rooms were in a flimsy wooden barrack-style lodge, but they were clean, fan-cooled and mosquito-free; and yes, the cavernous shared bathrooms with coldwater stalls definitely merited their dank reputation, but they did the job.
All in all, this wasn’t a textbook paradise, but the tranquility and pervasive nature made it live up to that name for me. Thanks to a last-minute switch in plans, I’d found a place I never wanted to leave.
Where to stay
The only place to stay is at Bako National Park headquarters. Reserve by phone, online or in Kuching at the National Parks and Wildlife Centre (in the Sarawak Tourism Complex on Jalan Tuan Hadji Openg). A dorm bed costs RM16 (around US$5) per night and rooms cost from RM50-100 (around US$16-32) per night. The only rooms with attached bathrooms are the RM50 doubles.
Food and drink
There’s a decent buffet-style restaurant at headquarters serving a mix of Western and Malaysian food for around RM7 (US$2.50) per meal. They also sell bottled water, beer, juice and soft drinks.
There are lots of organized tours from Kuching, but it’s easy and much cheaper to get there on your own. Buses leave from Kuching’s open-air market to the boat dock at Kampung Bako hourly from 7am to 6pm; the trip takes around 45 minutes to an hour and costs RM3. From here, you need to charter a boat to park headquarters. Boats cost RM50 (US$16) for up to four people and you can usually find other travelers to share the boat. The boat trip takes 20-30 minutes. Arrange a time for a return pick-up with the boat driver and try to coordinate it with the bus schedule back to Kuching.