17 Jan 2000
With two huge black Muslim men I grabbed a share taxi and headed for the border.

I'm not sure quite what the deal with these guys was (African passports maybe?), but every official seemed to want to hassle them and push for a bribe. The guys kept waving yellow fever vaccination cards, but it seemed obvious that the immigration officials on both sides of the border wanted cash. As tempers flared I just sat in the cab, reading my Don Quixote and waiting for it all to settle out. In the end I think they managed to get stamped through without paying any money.

Welcome to Malaysia, now can someone rent me a clue?

This wasn't on my immediate list of places to be, so I haven't researched it, don't have a guidebook, and all I know is what little I can remember from year-old articles in the western press. So, to summarize my knowledge of Malaysia: they have the world's tallest building, drug smuggling is a capital offense, and sodomy amongst government officials is apparently not looked on favorably. Of course, their twin towers are in a different city, I don't have any drugs, and I'm not sure what actual definition of sodomy they are using, so my micro cache of knowledge isn't likely to be of much use.

Knowing I was information challenged (aka clueless), I borrowed a guidebook from a tourist I met on the bus yesterday. From this I memorized the name of a decent hotel and learned that the money is called "ringit" and is worth about 3.7 to the US dollar. The hotel turned out to be fine, and the ATMs quite readily dispensed ringit, so-- settled, and liquid I went for a walk to check things out.

It's an odd thing to wander a city where you don't even know the name of the language, never mind any words in it. Luckily (or maybe disappointingly), for me, whatever the native tongue might be, most of the signage is in English and a fair number of the people speak English. It's a big modern city, traffic, high-rises, cardphones on every corner. But like most Asian cities, it still retains an Old World essence. Rickshaws ply the streets alongside diesel busses and at night food vendors set up shop on concrete slabs laid across the open sewers.

I opt for something a touch more upscale and am delighted to find the food a wonderful blend of Indian, Chinese and Thai. Complex, spicy without really being hot, curries served over rice with roti. Sated, I return to the hotel to avail myself of the modern phone system in an attempt to rescue several meg of pent up E-Mail from the depths of the web.

18 Jan 2000
Well, here I am in Malaysia. It certainly seems like I should do *something*, but then, I'm really not sure what. The only Malaysian item on my big list of "things to do" is diving at Sipadan, a remote little outcrop in the Sulawesi Sea off the coast of Sabah, Eastern Malaysia. The island is really an undersea tower rising 2,000ft from the ocean floor to just break the surface. The draw for me is possibility of seeing schooling hammerhead sharks, the diving equivalent of spotting a tiger in the wild.

Penang, is not on the way, but then, nothing is really on the way to Sipadan, so what the heck. Of course, it's all much more complicated than that. Access is limited and allowed only through package diving tours of the sort that are typically arranged from overseas months in advance. It's not the sort of place you just show up, but other than time and airfare, what do I have to lose?

So, today I booked a ticket from Penang to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinbalu (Sabah), to Tawau, the nearest airport to Sipadan. It might be time to borrow a guidebook again, because I really have no idea what I'll find in Tawau. Hopefully a place to stay and someone who can organize a slot at one of the Sipadan resorts.

19 Jan 2000
Prices here are good, so I spent the day shopping and ended up with a scuba computer (Aladin-Pro), and a flash for my Nikon FE2.

In the evening I learned another important Malaysian fact.

For a week or so now, I've been corresponding with a friend-of-a-friend who happens to live in Penang. It turns out that her birthday is tomorrow, but my flight is early in the morning, so we arrange to go out for dinner tonight. The neighborhood I'm staying in is a traffic nightmare due to an upcoming Indian body piercing festival, so the plan is for me to meet her in the Citibank parking lot at 7 p.m.

I'm fastidious about being on time, so as my final errand of the day I verify that I can find the Citibank and then time the walk back to my hotel. I'm also looking a bit ratty after a few days of travel, so I shave and even dig some nice clothes out from the bottom of my backpack. At 6:40 I leave my hotel and at 7 sharp I'm at the Citibank. No sign of her.

Well, I figure, traffic could be a mess, etc... 7:10, still no sign. Hmm, I could be waiting in the wrong place, but I figure if so, she's the native so it's better to let her figure it out and come find me. 7:20, I hate this! How long do you wait before you give up. To early and you seem petty, to late and you're lame, besides, I didn't get an E-Mail this afternoon confirming so maybe something came up? 7:30, and I feel as if I'm crossing the line into lame, but it's her birthday and that seems sort of important. 7:40, I give up, and hightail it back to my hotel to check my E-Mail. Nothing from her, rats! Oh well, I grab a quick dinner and head for bed, my taxi is supposed to pick me up at 7:30 anyway.

It's not a great night for sleep though, and about 3 a.m. I wake up and decide to do a random E-Mail check. Ahh, she informs me of what happened and I learn my new Malaysian fact:

Malaysia is in a different time zone than Thailand.

Ooops. I feel terrible, but what can be done? I apologize and promise to make amends on my next pass through Peneng. I also reset my watch. As guilty as I feel, at least I won't miss my plane.

20 Jan 2000
Fly to Tawau (for better or worse).

21 Jan 2000
Tawau turns out to be much bigger than I thought. It's very much a local's place with hardly any tourists, but it's a medium sized city, adequately stocked with restaurants and hotels.

I showed up at the door of Borneo Divers and managed to book my trip to Sipadan. They gave me the "Malaysian" price, US$30 a day less than the usual rate, and about half of what I would have paid if I'd booked through an agent.

Tomorrow I take a bus to the port town and then a speedboat to the resort. I'll be there for four days, returning to Tawau on the 25th. I fly to Kuala Lumpur on the 26th and then back to Phuket on the 28th.

22 Jan 2000
An 8 a.m. pickup, two hours in a mini-bus, one in a speedboat and then it was hello Sipadan!

Sipadan Island

After being greeted, signing all the waivers, and settling into my Spartan but clean room I relaxed at the beach-side canteen to watch life go by while waiting for my orientation dive.

Just before lunch, a meter long lizard strolled down the beach. I didn't want to mark myself as the new guy, but that doesn't happen every day where I'm from. I got one of the locals attention and he just yawned. "Monitor lizard," I finally got him to mumble. Hmm, I guess no big deal then?

After lunch, I decided to go for a walk. The island is small, much smaller than I thought it would be, and the walk around it takes only half an hour. As I was splashing barefoot through the waves I noticed a log floating a short ways out. Sort of a funny looking log I thought, and as I took a better look, it stuck it's tongue out. A foot-long forked snake-like tongue. Oh my.

This one was at least two meters nose to tail. Longer than I am tall, and I wasn't really comfortable with that. And hey, since when can lizards swim? I backed off to what I hoped was a safe distance and watched as it came out of water and walked off into the jungle.

Back in my room I booted the laptop and looked up "monitor lizard" in my dictionary.

monitor lizard: Any of a family (Varanidae) of usually very large, flesh-eating lizards of Africa, S Asia, and Australia
Well, that was helpful. I'd worked out the "very large" part on my own, thanks very much. But what I really want to know is, what kind of flesh? In deference to nesting sea turtles we aren't supposed to walk around the island at night, but, I think I'd be giving that a miss anyway.

For the orientation dive we kitted up on the beach and then walked two minutes out in the water to where the reef plunges 600m (2,000 ft) straight down to the bottom of the Sulawesi sea.

As we ducked under the water I looked down and saw a 2.5 meter long reef shark circling below us. After, the shark feed in Australia, I'm not really afraid of sharks, but it's been a day of being surprised by big, threatening looking animals.

I haven't been diving in 3 months so by the time I get my ears and buoyancy sorted out the shark has moved on, and we swim along the wall at about 20m (60 feet) below the surface. This isn't really the season for Sipadan, so the visibility isn't great, only about 10 meters. The wall is rich with corals though and full of life. As we move along, schools of brightly colored tropical fish join us and then swim away on their own business.

Sipadan is known for turtles, and they are all over. Unlike the shark and the lizard, they are the most non-threatening animals you could imagine. Surprisingly graceful, albeit a bit comic, they glide along as if in flight, lethargically pumping their flippers as they bank and soar in pursuit of unknown goals. They are air breathing, but can enter a hibernation-like state underwater and we often find them napping on outcrops. On this dive I saw one at least 2.5m (8 ft) long. They are gentle creatures and highly protected here at Sipadan. They come up on the beach at night to lay their eggs which are then collected by rangers and moved to a compound where they can be monitored and kept from poachers.

Moving up a level for the swim back to the dive center we come across a huge school of trevally. These aren't beautiful fish, just sort of silvery, but they are big, about the size of dog, and there are hundreds of them. It's an odd sensation to swim through the swirling mass of silver, it's how as a child I imagined the inside of a cloud would be.

The resort I'm with, Borneo Divers, offers 3 boat dives a day and unlimited beach dives. Unfortunately you need your own buddy for the beach dives, and being low season there aren't a lot of stragglers around. I was hoping to do a night dive, but settle for chicken curry, fried rice and a night of sound sleep instead.

23 Jan 2000
Divers exiting a boat at Sipadan

Dive 1: I dive with contacts, and in the first 5 minutes of this dive I managed to wash both of them out of my eyes. I could see them there, stuck to the glass of my mask, but that was all I could see. My dive buddy, Christian, said there were lots of reef sharks, but I'll have to take his word for it.

Dive 2: The first half of this dive was filled with turtles and reef sharks, two sights that might be rare other places, but abound here. Near the end of the dive, in shallow water, Christian spotted an octopus. These are fascinating creatures, one of my underwater favorites, and at almost a meter long this was the largest one I'd ever seen.

Octopi have incredible camouflage, they can change into a vibrant array of colors and they do it instantly, with the intermediate patterns flickering across their bodies. Watching them you get a sense that they could play a movie on themselves if they really tried. As Christian moved on, I spotted a second one that appeared to be hunting. Slowly moving across the coral extending tentacles into crevices in search of octopus goodies.

Dive 3: The dive sites here are all on the reef that surrounds the island, the furthest one being about a five minute boat ride away. On this dive, as we were heading for our chosen location when we saw a school of bump-head parrot fish in very shallow water so we stopped the boat and jumped in.

These are prettily colored fish, turquoise, pink and orange, but they have a big ugly bulge on their forehead. These were large ones, about a meter long, but half that high and thick, big heavy fish. They were frolicking just above the reef in about a meter of water, barely enough for them to swim in, and it was a strange sight to peer in at them as they jumped half out of the water to avoid obstacles. The rest of the dive was filled the now familiar antics of the turtles and reef sharks.

This was my first full day of diving on my new Aladin-Pro dive computer, and I was fairly pleased. When you breath compressed air scuba diving, your body absorbs nitrogen which then takes time to "off gas." If you ascend too quickly the nitrogen can form bubbles. This is what causes the bends, and it's not something you want to have. It's said to be incredibly painful and often fatal. If the victim doesn't die there is the possibility paralysis and other complications. A dive computer models the amount of nitrogen in your body and lets you know when you've been down too long, or come up too quickly. When doing days of repetitive diving like this, they are very handy and can provide an extra measure of safety.

24 Jan 2000
Another day of diving in Sipadan. The days highlight was barracuda point where, true to name, we discovered a huge school of barracuda. They are long slender fish, 1 to 1.5 meters and about as thick around as a large loaf of bread. There were several hundred of them in the school, altogether the size of a large house. They swam in formation following some unknown leader, but as the current was strong we could only stay with them a few minutes before being swept on our own way down the reef.

That evening I again looked for a night dive partner, but all the couples had gone out at twilight. Much to my dismay Christian and Lota even saw two hammerhead sharks, the sighting I'd been desperately hoping for.

The Sipadan drum set.

After a tasty dinner we retired to the jetty bar to recount the days adventures and hang out with the locals. The moon has been recently full and the tides seem extreme. As we watched, it creeped higher and higher up the beach until the waves were breaking into the restaurant at the resort next door.

Borneo divers is a bit higher, but even so the pathway to my room got flooded and the water was within a few inches of my floor!

The guys who live here have a guitar, and they've put together a drumset from various tins, pails and plastic jugs. It works surprisingly well and our divemaster serenaded us with Beetles and Elvis songs as the moon rose above the sea, and the water slowly receded.

25 Jan 2000
I decided to get one dive in on my last day, but could just as easily have skipped it. A murky affair with poor visibility and some tricky down currents. Even the turtles seemed to be pouting.

Another nice lunch, before saying my farewells and reversing the speedboat and minibus trip back to Tawau.

26 Jan 2000
Flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. My backpack was the first item off the plane, I don't think that's ever happened before!

Back in the dark ages, when I had a job, I also had an officemate from Malaysia. When I got to Penang I e-mailed him asking for "things to do" suggestions. He insisted I should go to Malacca, his home town, and the oldest city in Malaysia.

The airport is halfway between Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, so I figured what the heck and started asking around for transportation options. The choices ended up being a 150 ringit (US$40) cab ride or an 8 ringit (U$2) bus ride. I opted for the bus and three hours later was in Malacca.

I went through my now familiar Malaysian routine of just telling the cab to take me to a 40 ringit hotel, and, for the first time got taken. I'd been getting decent rooms with bathrooms, hot water, etc... This place was a rat hole with a shared cold-water bath. And surprise, the 2nd night, it was 10 ringit cheaper. Obviously that had been the cabby's commission. Oh well, I'm obviously back in touristville.

27 Jan 2000
Quoting from my Jejak Warisan Heritage Trail brochure:
Malacca was founded in the early 1400s by an exiled Sumatran prince called Parameswara who later embraces Islam and changed his name to Raja Iskandar Shah. Legend has it that Parameswara was resting under the Malacca tree, watching his hunting dog chase a mousedeer, when suddenly the mousedeer stopped and kicked the dog smartly on its nose. According to the legend, Parameswara was so impressed by the mousedeer's courage that he decided to build his new city on that very spot and named it for the tree he was under.

Malacca was a cross roads between East and West in the European colonial age and today it still has a multicultural feel. Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European restaurants all line the streets. I spent today walking the Heritage Trail through old Malacca and doing some gift shopping for upcoming birthdays.

28 Jan 2000
My flight back to Thailand was at 6 p.m., and by rough calculations that meant I should leave Malacca by noon. I was up early to check e-mail and buy a few things that I'd seen yesterday.

E-mail was a bust because the phones were down, and the problem seemed to extend to ATMs, because I couldn't get cash either. So much for gift shopping, but a more urgent issue, I didn't have enough money for the bus to airport.

Luckily I've been through this sort of thing before, so I had a cache of other money. But, a quick tour of banks revealed none was willing to change Thai baht, so I had to go back to my hotel for a travelers check. All this left me at 12:30 and quite nervous about making my flight.

A tense, but lucky series of bus changes got me to the airport in time for the flight and an only 1.5 hours later I was back in Phuket, Thailand.

It took 1/2 hour of haggling with airport touts to convince them that despite the late hour, I really wanted to go to the bus station, and not their brother-in-law's hotel. I made it to the station in time to book a seat on last, 9 p.m., minibus to Krabi.

We left the bus station at 9 sharp, but then spent an hour driving around town hawking for passengers. Finally we made the inevitable gas stop and then left for Krabi.

Just after midnight, as the last Thai passenger got off, the bus dropped me on the side of the road 6km from town. Without a taxi in sight I decided to break out my emergency backup plan-- look pathetic and wait for someone to help me.

I put on my backpack, slung my daypack on my chest, looped the camera bag around my neck and started walking in the direction (I hoped) of town. Pickup after pickup of full of laughing and pointing Thais zoomed by, but I must not have looked pathetic enough, because none stopped. The only attention I could get was from kids on 50 c.c. scooters somehow figuring they were going to be able to give me and all my gear a lift to their cousin's guesthouse. Thailand is rife with tourists baring wounds from scooter crashes received in a (presumably) less encumbered state, so I shooed these guys away and plodded on in my patheticness.

It took me almost an hour to walk half the distance before a truck finally stopped and gave me a ride into town. Now after 1, we circled the strip a few times before spotting a guest house with a light on. They didn't have any rooms available, but for 100 baht (US$2.75) they gave me a reed mat on the kitchen floor and blanket.

Ahh, the joys of traveling...

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