Thursday 31 October 2019

Malaysia: To Bako or Not to Bako?

I’d been in Kuching for more than a week already when I was lying in my bed thinking what other “touristy” thing I should do the next day, one full free day that I’d left in the capital of Sarawak in Malaysian part of Borneo.

Apart from the first four days of my stay where I’d spent time watching the annual dragon boat race, the air show during Malaysian Air Force Open Day, and going to Sarawak Cultural Village, I’d not done anything much else apart from just walking around the city, taking in the architectural heritage of Kuching. It was my fifth visit to the cat city (in Malay, Kuching means cat, by the way), probably my most favourite city in the whole of Malaysia, so I have previously covered plenty of sights and attractions as listed in my “Top Things to Do and See in Kuching, Sarawak” blog post. There’s one popular place, however, that I still hadn’t been to during any of the previous trips here; and that place is Bako National Park, the oldest and smallest national park in Sarawak.

Truth be told, I’m no longer into trekking and hiking although I used to be during my student days. And while these days I can still spend a whole day exploring a city and walk for kilometres without much problem, I doubt that I could last more than an hour of trekking and hiking in a humid, tropical jungle. So Bako National Park wasn’t exactly anywhere in my list of things to do whilst in Kuching. Besides not being exactly fit for any hiking activity, it was also already late October, which means monsoon season had already arrived in Kuching, when it is not really recommended to visit Bako as you’d have to brave the rough sea and choppy boat ride to the national park. So I had two valid reasons (or rather, excuses, if you prefer, heh!) for not going but still, somehow, Bako kept coming back to my mind as I tossed and turned in my bed.

It’s like my mind was trying to make fun of me, “Five visits to Kuching and you still haven’t been to Bako? Are you kidding me??”

To put my mind to rest, I did what any *coughs* self-respecting millennial *coughs* would’ve done. I went online, opened my Instagram and created a vote on my Instagram Story for my friends and followers to decide for me. To Bako or not to Bako?

Voting on Instagram Story

The result was just like I half-expected. A majority voted for Bako although many of those who voted for have actually never been there. Perhaps, they’d like to see Bako first through the eyes of their favourite *coughs* travel influencer *coughs*. Or maybe they just collectively decided to punish me with something just because I got to spend more than a week in this cool cat city. 😜 But anyway, the decision was soon made. I got up from my bed and went out to a nearby convenience store to buy some snacks and water for the hiking trip.

Then, I went back to bed to sleep, hoping to catch the early morning local bus to Bako Terminal.

TIP #1 (and most probably the most important one):
Don’t waste your time thinking of whether or not you should go to Bako National Park. Just go. You’ll thank me later.

Kuching – Bako Terminal 

By 8 the next morning, I was already in a bus, ready to leave Kuching Bus Station, which is located near the Open Air Market, for Bako Terminal. The first bus out was at 7 but I had missed that one. Earlier, the bus driver cum conductor came over to the back of the bus where I was sitting at to collect the fare. He issued a MYR5 ticket and laughed when I told him I was “orang Malaysia”, a Malaysian. “Ingatkan orang luar tadi” - “I thought you’re a foreigner”. So instead of paying the standard fare of MYR5 for the ticket, I only had to pay the discounted bus fare of MYR3 that is meant for the locals.

TIP #2: First bus out departs at 7 a.m. from Open Air Market station in Kuching. The journey takes about an hour. Bako Terminal is the last stop. If you’re planning just a day trip, it is recommended to take the 7 o’clock bus. It will give you more time in Bako National Park as the last boats would leave Bako National Park at either 3 or 4 p.m.

TIP #3: While a day trip from Kuching is very much doable, it's a bit of a rush still. So do consider staying overnight or two, especially if you enjoy hiking. (They also have a night tour with their park ranger, by the way.) Bako National Park has chalets & hostels for this purpose but you’d have to book online prior to your arrival.

TIP #4: If you're a Malaysian, let the driver/ ticket conductor knows. The fare is MYR3 for Malaysians and MYR5 for foreigners. (The difference is just around USD0.70.)

The bus journey to Bako Terminal took about one hour. I thought of trying to catch a quick nap but the air-conditioner was on a full blast mode. It was a comfortable ride, nevertheless, as comfortable as a local non-express bus service could be.

There were two ticket counters for the boat ride out to the national park located on both sides of the main entrance to Bako Terminal. I went for the one on the right and quickly told the girl at the counter, “orang Malaysia”, before she issued any ticket. She asked for my Malaysian ID and promptly issued a discounted ticket that cost me just MYR30 instead of MYR40, which is for foreign tourists for a day-return boat trip. Next, I queued to pay for the national park fee at a counter located just around the corner from the boat ticket counter.

TIP #5: Return boat fare is MYR30 for Malaysians. MYR40 for foreigners. So again, if you're a Malaysian, tell them. Keep the receipt and arrange for your return time with the boat guy.

TIP #6: Bako National Park fee is MYR10 for Malaysians. It is higher for foreigners. For the latest information on Sarawak National Park fees, check here.

Bako Terminal – Bako National Park

At the jetty, there’s a big signboard that reminds users to beware of crocodiles. How very comforting!

The boat ride took about 30 minutes. As expected, it was quite a choppy one, as the monsoon season was already here. I got on the boat ready with my camera in hand to capture the sceneries during the ride. However, our boat was moving against the waves most of the times there’s no way for anyone on board to stay dry during the journey. So I put my camera back into the bag to keep it safe and dry.

Bako National Park

A lone proboscis monkey was minding its own business on a railing of a pedestrian bridge while our boat slowly travelled along a small river and passed underneath the bridge that connects Bako National Park jetty and the boardwalk across the river. It got everyone in the boat excited. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera out and managed to change the lens to get some close-up photos, the big-nosed monkey already moved away to a nearby tree.

I was so disappointed, more with myself, for not being prepared with the right gear, right away.

TIP #7Wild animals are unpredictable so if you’re planning to take photos of them, be prepared with the right gear or at least have those gears within easy access for some quick shots. Make sure to keep everything close to your body, though!

The frustration didn’t last long, however, when I quickly noticed the picturesque view of the majestic Mount Santubong from the jetty. Suddenly, I wished I had opted to stay at least for a night here in Bako National Park just so that I could enjoy this very same view at sunset and sunrise.

I had read on some blogs about bearded wild boars – or hipster pigs, as I prefer to call them - chilling about on the beach here at Bako National Park but unfortunately, they were nowhere to be seen. There’s no crocodile around either although truth be told, I was rather thankful for this, haha!

For record and safety purposes, all visitors to Bako National Park have to sign in at the park headquarters before embarking on their hiking. On the way to the office, I stopped and took plenty of photos of the lone proboscis monkey sitting atop a tall tree not far from the footpath. A park ranger who was with a couple foreign tourists told me that usually they don’t get to see any proboscis monkey near the jetty as it is not their usual habitat. Instead, these monyet Belanda (literally “Dutch monkeys” in Malay, as the locals would call them – apparently because these monkeys resemble those big-nosed Dutch guys with beer belly!) could only be found along a certain hiking trails, so, in a way, close-up or no close-up photos, it was a lucky day for me.

I registered my name at the office counter whilst a staff looked on. “Oh orang Malaysia!” he commented. I asked, “Why? Don’t Malaysians come here to Bako?” “Ada tapi tak ramai.” There are, but not that many was the reply. I suppose, perhaps, many non-hiking Malaysians have some reservation about coming here, just like I had until that moment, which is rather unfortunate.

In one of the columns on the form, I had to write down the hiking routes that I was going to take. Bako National Park has some 16 trails on offer for hiking enthusiasts, with each one of them offering beautiful, distinct sceneries as an incentive. All of them come with different levels of difficulty, ranging from relatively easy to hard core (well, they sound hard core to me, at least. 😅) A few were closed for maintenance, however.

While I already had a route in mind (following a quick study whilst travelling on the bus earlier), I still asked the guy at the counter for his recommendation on which trails are THE easiest, shortest AND offer the best views for someone who is NOT fit and don’t really hike. Yes, I know, I sounded like so entitled! 😁 He burst into a big laugh but still obligingly answered my question, “Teluk Pandan Kecil trail. And usually, people would combine it with Teluk Pandan Besar trail because they’re both located in the same direction”.

Those two hiking trails were exactly what I had in mind because of the popular sea stacks – beautiful rock formations - that have sort of become Bako National Park’s trademark. Looking at the trail map sheet given at the counter, however, I wondered if the average hiking time of 1.5 hours to Teluk Pandan Kecil, as stated on it, is really normal for an unfit, non-hiker like yours truly. I related my concern to the guy, who in turn said, “Yes, that’s for the average people. Hikers usually can do it quicker.” “How about yourself?” Laughing again, he replied, “I can do it in about 30 minutes”. Needless to say, my eyes rolled. 😁

He added, “Normally, people would go to Teluk Pandan Besar first and only then they head to Teluk Pandan Kecil. And they usually take a boat from the beach at Teluk Pandan Kecil to see the sea stack and to get back here. But since it’s monsoon season, there won’t be any boat waiting at Teluk Pandan Kecil at this time of the year so you’d have to retrace your steps back here instead.”

“Right… so that’s like 3 to 4 hours of hiking, at least, before I’d arrive back here.”

Sensing my doubt, he added, “Boleh punya…” – “I’m sure you can do it.”

You have too much faith in me, brother… too much faith... 😅

TIP #8There are 16 different hiking trails at Bako National Park, all with diverse offerings in terms of sights, floras and faunas for hikers with different levels of stamina, capabilities & even time constraints. So don't hesitate to ask the personnel at their office counter for recommendations based on your own requirements.

National Geographic Moments

I had walked for probably no more than a hundred meters from the headquarters when I saw a park ranger beckoning a couple of visitors towards behind a tall barricade. Curiosity led me to follow their footsteps from several meters behind. Stepping behind the enclosure, I saw a monkey chilling on a rooftop of what I believe are the staff quarters while a couple of tourists and park rangers gather about 15 meters away facing a bush.

I casually walked towards them and asked one of the rangers what’s going on before realising what they were all looking at – a beautiful green snake curling up gracefully on a thin branch in the bush, less than 2 meters away from where I was standing.

Ular kapak Borneo” - Bornean pit viper - was his reply. When I asked if it’s safe to be this close to the viper, he said that it should be okay. The viper hadn’t moved one bit for a few days after having a heavy meal. With that reassurance, I took out my camera and started acting like I was a Nat Geo photographer. The result, however, might not still be up to their standards.

Nevertheless, I'm still happy with the photo.

TIP #9If you want to make the most of your trip exploring & learning about nature & wildlife at Bako National Park (and don’t want to miss out on interesting sights like this Bornean pit viper which was found well off the main pathway), do yourself a favour, hire a park ranger. You can hire one at their office counter. If you, however, plan to just go hiking, then there's no need for any guide as the trails are all well marked & colour-coded.

Let the hiking begins!

I was kind of intrigued by the ular kapak and had wanted to take more photos of it but I’d arranged for my boat to leave for Bako Terminal at 3 p.m. so I started checking and making notes of my time and progress at Bako National Park.

I left the snake at 10.45 a.m. and crossed the pedestrian bridge at the jetty which led me onto a mangrove area. The trek was easy as there is a boardwalk for visitors to walk on. I told myself that I should be fine if they have this boardwalk all the way to Teluk Pandan Besar and Kecil. Of course, that was just some wishful thinking on my part. 😅

Less than 10 minutes later, reality started to set in.

2.6 km to my destination and 2.6 km back to the jetty.

5.2 km of trekking, alone in some Bornean jungle. And in monsoon season no less, when a heavy downpour can come unexpectedly and humidity could easily shoot up.

Doubts started to creep in. Would I be able to make it when I’ve done no preparation at all for this?

I took a deep breath and began my climb.

After walking just 200m along the trail, my breathing started to get heavy. The heat and humidity were beginning to get to me but I kept telling myself that it’s all just in my mind. (Like yeah, right! Who was I trying to kid? I was sweating buckets already by then! 😅😅😅) So I sought to take my mind off by trying to enjoy the surroundings and taking photos. This was when I realised that it’s better to hike in a pair or in a group rather than alone. Other than the safety measures that they could afford you, your hiking partner/s can help motivate and push you further when you feel like giving up. And most importantly, there would be at least someone there who’s going to help take photos of you for your Facebook and Instagram accounts. (You can see how I get my priorities all mixed up there. 😜)

In all seriousness though, I was in awe with the variety of the landscapes along the trail, something which, unfortunately, is not highlighted enough in brochures, travel articles and *coughs* blog posts *coughs* about Bako National Park.

TIP #10Hike at least with a friend or in a pair. It’s more fun (unless if one or both of you are annoying) and more importantly, safer. However, if you’re #teamforeverlone like I am, don’t let it hinder you.

Teluk Pandan Besar

Exactly an hour after I started my hike, I arrived at the junction that splits the trail into two, one heading to Teluk Pandan Besar and the other to Teluk Pandan Kecil. I took the right way (literally & figuratively) to Teluk Pandan Besar and after about 5 minutes of walking, I reached the end of the trail at a cliff that overlooks a cove below.

The view of the lush, green jungle and the sandy beach below as well as the sound of waves were just amazing and somewhat therapeutic. All the tiredness and complaining (believe me, I was complaining and swearing a lot whilst on the way! 😅) went away just like that. There’s a makeshift bench and I sat there enjoying the sight in solitude while munching on some local snacks that I had bought the night before. 

I wish I could have stayed here longer, doing some self-reflection a la Eat, Pray, Love (yeah, right!) or something but I still had Teluk Pandan Kecil to cover. So I left the cliff after about 20 minutes and retraced my steps back to the junction that would lead me to Teluk Pandan Kecil.

The trail from the junction led me to yet a different kind of landscape, again. The change in scenery every 10 minutes or so of walking along the trail helped a lot in preventing me from getting bored of hiking alone.

There’s always a reason to stop, take in the views and maybe take a photo or two.

Teluk Pandan Kecil

About 25 minutes after I left the cliff at Teluk Pandan Besar, I arrived at another one. This rocky cliff with a quite interesting surface overlooks Teluk Pandan Kecil below and the popular sea stack that has sort of become the trademark for Bako National Park. I put down my camera, attached to a Joby gorilla pod, to try to capture the beauty of nature here - the unique surface, the rocky cliff, the bay below, the sea stack, the sea and the mountain beyond - in just one picture. But of course, I had to be in the picture as well. 😜

After a few attempts using the self-timer feature and running back and forth between the camera and the “Do not go beyond this point” reminder, this photo was the best that I got, heh! I should have brought along a proper tripod with me.

Here comes trouble!

After I heard the last click from the camera, I turned around and saw a long-tailed macaque approaching and walking towards my camera that was standing probably 10 meters away from me. There’s no way in hell heaven I was going to let the macaque have the camera so I quickly ran and managed to snatch it just in time before the macaque got to it first. With the camera and gorilla pod in hand, I tried to shoo the macaque away from me. It retreated for a bit, during which time I managed to capture a photo of the sneaky, would-be thief that somehow also highlights the unique surface of the area.

And then, the macaque started to move forward towards me…

I was like, “Holy cr*p! Should I fight it or should I run for my life???”

Of course, I ran for my life! 😂 I sprinted back towards the trail that would lead me to the beach below but just before I dashed down the steep, wooden steps, I turned around and saw the macaque still sitting where I’d first left him, looking somewhat stunned, or rather, in disbelief.

That didn’t stop me from scurrying down to the beach, however. 

My knees hurt big time and the legs went jelly by the time I got to the beach. It’s not fun having to sprint for your life at any time, what more after a 2-hour-long hike. The beautiful, deserted beach, and the fresh, breezy winds that carried the sound of the waves gently crawling to the shore, however, quickly took those pains away.

On normal days, outside the monsoon season, this is the place where one can take a boat to see the sea stack and head back to the jetty. As it was monsoon season, I didn’t have this luxury option. Just the thought of still having some 2.6 km of hiking back to the jetty totally drained me. 😭😭😭

Trying to replenish my energy with some quick snack, I sat on a rock facing the sea with a small bottle of mineral water in hand and my back almost resting on the cliff. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a hairy arm quietly appeared from behind, moving over my right shoulder trying to reach out for the bottle.

That was my second ‘holy cr*p’ moment in less than 30 minutes. Just like before, after the initial shock had dissipated, I jumped and ran for my life. Unfortunately, there’s really nowhere to run. There’s the sea on one side, a jungle on its opposite, and rocky cliffs on the remaining two sides. And a crazy long-tailed macaque was after me. It’s real “Man vs. Animal” time. (I know, sooo over-dramatic! 😅)

Luckily, the beach was big enough for me to keep a safe distance from the wild macaque but the rascal was still blocking my way to the steps on the cliff that would bring me back to the trail and onward to the jetty.

All of a sudden, I realised that it was actually looking for food. While I knew that it’s never a good idea to feed animal in the wild at any time, I thought maybe I could use it to appease the macaque for a few seconds so that I could safely run for the steps. And so, that’s what I did. I threw away my half-full mineral water bottle and it landed probably some 5 meters from the macaque, which, in turn, went straight away for it.

I immediately felt relieved and regret at the same time. Relieved because of that, I managed to run and climb back up to the cliff, safely away from the macaque. Regret because I only had spent 10 minutes at the most, on the beach. And then, there’s also the remorse feeling of having contributed to more plastic wastes on the beach. I should’ve just thrown some snacks (minus the plastic packaging) instead of the water bottle. Oh well, I guess it’s true when people say hindsight is always 20/20. So don’t be like me, guys. Be better. 

TIP #11Just in case you missed TIP #10 above. Hike at least with a friend or in a pair, if possible. It’s safer. And you’d have someone to help you out (or laugh out loud at with you) when things like this happen.

The walk back to the jetty was kind of weird. I was thoroughly exhausted from all the running and scrambling, my legs simply gave up soon after I arrived back at the junction that splits the trail into two. So I sat there for almost 15 minutes just drinking some water and eating some snacks, trying to regain some energy while at the same time hoping there’s a rescue helicopter on the way. 😂 I’d wanted to lie down on the ground but I was afraid that I’d fall asleep and miss my boat back to the terminal.

It was 1.30 p.m. by then and I only had 1.5 hours to make it back to the jetty. That was enough of a push, however, so I got up and started walking. Along the way, I spotted some pitchers’ plants that I hadn’t noticed earlier.

I also started to pick up some plastic bottles that I stumbled upon along the way. Not that there were many. In fact, the trails and the park, in general, seemed to be well maintained and very clean. So kudos to the staff of Bako National Park for the great upkeep.

It had taken me one hour to get to the junction earlier in the morning but on the way back, I took only 50 minutes despite suffering from exhaustion. By 2.20 p.m., I was already at the jetty heading towards the office to check-in and check-out. When I got to the counter, the same guy from the morning asked me, “So how was it?”

I could only shake my head and laugh. 😝

TIP #12Don't forget to sign-in at the office when you're back from the hike. Or else, you might cause an unnecessary alarm.

Bornean Bearded Pig

One of the main attractions at Bako National Park is Bornean bearded pigs. I hadn’t seen any on the beach nor around the office building so I asked the guy what happened to them. He was perplexed that I hadn’t seen any since morning. Then, he said, “Come, follow me, I’ll call them up”. I was like, “Is this guy for real or what?” Nevertheless, I still followed him through to the back of the office building where he promptly made a whistling sound and called out a name.

Not long after, lo and behold, a hipster looking pig came out running from the nearby jungle towards the office building where we were standing at!

By the way, did you know that the official name for Bornean bearded pigs in Malay is actually “babi bodoh”, which literally means “stupid pig”? Unlike the Malay name for proboscis monkey, I really haven’t got a clue why they are identified as such. If it were up to me, obviously they’d be called hipster pig. 😉

Bako National Park – Bako Terminal - Kuching

I left Bako National Park by boat exactly at 3 p.m. Helped by the waves that moved along our direction, we arrived at Bako Terminal in just 15 minutes. There were a few guys offering a ride back to Kuching in a shared car or van for MYR10 per person but I declined their offer, knowing that there’s a cheaper, hourly bus service back to town anyway. (The MYR7 difference could easily cover a meal for me, by the way.) Unfortunately, I had to wait well over one and a half hours before the last bus into town arrived at the terminal. The ticket somehow cost me MYR3.50, instead of MYR3, this time around.

The bus journey back into Kuching took about 50 minutes, by the end of which I’d resolved to go visit Bako National Park again, and stay there longer, during my next trip to Kuching, Sarawak.

I might have had some reservation about going there prior to this trip but now, to answer the question; “To Bako or not to Bako?” I would now answer it in a heartbeat with be a big, fat “YES! Of course, to Bako!”

What do you guys reckon? Would you go for Bako?

TIP #13: This is more for non-hikers like me. Dress comfortably, wear a pair of comfy sports/hiking shoes, bring a hat, a poncho, insect repellent, sunblock and plenty of water (most blogs recommend bringing 1.5l of water but I brought 2l)

TIP #14: Whether you're hiking solo, in a pair or in a group, keep your things on you, at all times. Do not leave things unattended or it could be gone forever.

TIP #15: Don’t forget to enjoy the views, the floras & faunas along the way, and not just at the end of the trail. 

On Pinterest? Use this photo to bookmark/share this blog post.😉

A Thank You and Disclosure Note
All photos shared in this blog post were taken using Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which was given on loan to me by Olympus Malaysia.

For other blog entries on Malaysia, click here.
For other blog entries on Sarawak, click here.

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Comments and feedback are always appreciated. So do leave one or two if you have the time. Thank you!

  1. The national park looks beautiful and a great place. Looks like easy hiking there (I am a hiker) but would go there for the wildlife. Anywhere with mountains, lakes and good nature with hiking and drinks involved and I am there.

    1. Ah-ha! Yes, Danik, I chose the easiest trails, lol, but Bako National Park does have like 16 trails with different levels of difficulty so I'm sure you'd love it here!

  2. I've been on one of those choppy boat rides -- I totally get why you put your camera in the bag during the journey. Better safe and dry than sorry. Love that you saw the monkey on the railing as your boat went under the bridge! The easiest and shortest hike through Bako National Park would be my choice, too. The views are incredible!

    1. Hi Patricia! Yes, even without hiking, one can already enjoy some incredible views, esp of the mountain across the water. I wish I could have at least stayed on until sunset time for the golden and blue hours.

  3. Wow, even though the hike was tough at times, the wildlife and secluded beach is worth it. Stunning pictures of the Bako National Park that I'm not familiar with. Great read!

    1. Thanks! Yes, even if the hike was quite tough for me, at the end of the day, I found it to be worth all the trouble so I wouldn't mind going back there again, lol! Really loved it there!

  4. I've only been to the Malayan peninsula but would love to visit Sarawak. The scenery looks so beautiful and wild! What a cool idea having this poll on instagram - I have to think about something my followers should vote for, too.

    1. Aah you should come to Sarawak if you have the chance! It's easily one of my most favourite destinations in Malaysia despite the fact that I've only been to its state capital, Kuching, so far. It's got so much to offer.

  5. I don’t know. Not a fan of hiking or humidity. And choppy water, snakes, and running for my life doesn’t sound fun! I love that the hipster pig came when called though. Not sure about this

    1. LOL! Don't worry, Sherianne, I know exactly what you mean. I felt totally the same way before I went to Bako but now, I just can't wait to go back there again! LOL!

  6. Bako National Park in Sarawak, Borneo is amazing and love hiking there. I totally agree with your tip that you should hike with someone. It's safer and more fun. And, yes I too never take risk with camera in boats.

    1. Totally! I want to go back and stay there overnight or two just to do it slowly rather than rushing things through like I did.

  7. I think you took a great decision to visit Bako National Park. The view from the edge of the cliffs are breathtaking and the rocky surface of Teluk Pandan Kecil is altogether so different. The Bornean Bearded Pig looks so different. Thanks for sharing and highlighting all the important tips

    1. Honestly, I'm happy that I went and also happy that my friends and followers on Instagram "pushed" me to do it. I just think that they owe me some body massage at a spa or something after that, lol!

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