Thursday 31 August 2017

Adventures in Borneo (1) Kota Kinabalu and The North Borneo Railway

There are two distinct sides to Malaysia. West (Peninsular) Malaysia and East (Borneo) Malaysia and they are separated by the South China Sea.

Trav and have explored most of the Malaysian peninsular including the islands of Penang and Langkawi on the west side and Perhentian Islands on the east but up until now we haven’t ever ventured across to Malaysian Borneo. That all changed when we flew from Kuala Lumpur to the town of Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu or KK is known is the capital of the northern part of Borneo and is the gateway to the Kinabalu National Park. Many people come here to climb Mount Kota Kinabalu – but not us – we were here for a train ride!

Riding on the North Borneo Railway is like stepping back in time and travelling through towns and jungle in the heart of Borneo on one of the very few wood-fuelled engines left in the world today. Originally manufactured by the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows Lancashire UK and part of a fleet that have plied the tracks through Borneo since the late 1800’s.

We had the most amazing day travelling on this fabulous old steam train re-living the by-gone era of old colonial times. We were given travel 'passports' and they were stamped at every town we went through. We had breakfast on the outbound journey and a traditional 'Tiffin Lunch' on the way back as we passed through town and tunnels and jungle and waved at cheering waving people as we chugged along. It felt so romantic and nostalgic - and steamy hot. The carriage windows were open for the whole time and it felt wonderful once we got up some speed to have a breeze coming into the train along with wafts of wood smoke from the engine. You can find out more about the historic North Borneo Railway on their website HERE.

All aboard the North Borneo Express!

Back in Kota Kinabalu, we spend the first few nights in a budget hotel in town, so we could enjoy the waterfront bars and restaurants.

But after a few days in KK, we wanted to get away from the busy crowds and after spotting an out-of-season offer on we moved up the coast a little to stay for a few nights at a fabulous beach resort. It was great to mix up a bit of cheap and basic with a bit of bargain luxury!

After a few days at the beach, we were keen to be back on a plane and to fly a considerable distance across the country to Sandakan in the Sabah region of Borneo.

The reason for this trip was to see Orangutans in the wild at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre – the precious home of the last wild Orangutans of North Borneo. I was SO excited!

Meeting Orangutans in the wild in Borneo is the subject of my next travel blog post – so please pop back soon - until then I’ll leave you with this sweet photo!

Love, Janice xx

Monday 28 August 2017

Fun in the sun – or playing a dangerous game?

Sunshine: It lifts our mood because it boosts serotonin. It provides us with vitamin D. It is essential for absorbing calcium, keeping our bones healthy, and for protecting against serious chronic diseases later in life such as osteoporosis. It gives us more energy and allows for an outdoor lifestyle.

I love to be bathed in sunshine and for the past four years, my husband Trav and I have been following the sun around the world, so that we can live in perpetual sunshine. I love the beach. I love swimming in the sea and the ocean. I love being on a boat. I love running around in shorts and a vest – and even better - a bikini. I love exposing my skin to the sun.

And guess what…. I never use sun screen.

I can hear you gasp. ‘No Sunscreen! Are you crazy?’

I don’t think I’m crazy because I’m careful to limit my time exposed to the sun and then I simply cover up. I tan easily and I never let myself burn - my skin is tanned from long slow exposure to the sun. I always have a hat, a cover up and a sarong.

That said - this year I noticed some strange new moles appear on my body. There were two on my back and two on the top on my leg. I decided that if they changed shape or colour or got much bigger, then I would do something about them - i.e. I would get them checked out. The only thing is, when you are constantly travelling from place to place, it’s difficult to know where to go to get checked out with any medical concerns.

But when I was in the Perhentian Islands at a turtle sanctuary (you can read about this amazing trip HERE) and I met a lovely lady called Sally from Kuala Lumpur while we were out on a boat trip together in our swimsuits, we somehow got chatting about moles. Not the wee rodents that might dig up your garden but the ones that appear on your skin. I showed Sally my new moles, and she suggested that I should get them checked out and that when we both got back to KL she would take me to see a skin specialist.

Thanks to Sally, I got an appointment with Dr Tan at the private Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur straight away. That really is his name - I didn't make it up.

I’d never been to a private hospital before – and this one looked pretty fancy – they even had valet parking at the entrance. I soon discovered that Dr Tan is a Consultant Plastic Surgeon as well as a skin specialist and, after a short wait in his reception area, I got to meet him. I found he was a friendly, delightful, and impressively qualified professional who had trained in London and Edinburgh. Dr Tan told me that the two moles on my back and one at the top of my leg were nothing at all to be concerned about – just normal moles – and that he could remove them straight away BUT that he was concerned about the other one at the top of my leg which would certainly need a biopsy.

Dr Tan asked me how long I was staying in Kuala Lumpur and I replied ‘just a few days’. But, when he looked me kindly in the eye and suggested that I stuck around for a week until he had the biopsy results, I started to feel a bit worried.

I wish I’d taken a photo of the suspicious mole to show you before it was removed for biopsy but I didn’t – but to describe it – it wasn’t a regular shape like the others as it had raggedy edges and was mottled in colour (light and dark brown) and neither was it raised above the skin like the others – this one was flat and under the skin.

So just a short while after consulting with Dr Tan in his surgery I found myself on his operating table with two nurses in attendance and Dr Tan providing local anaesthetics to each mole (that really stung!) and wielding his laser and then carefully cutting out the suspicious one for biopsy.

During the consultation, I also thought to mention the two unsightly rough brown spots that I had on either side of my face. This was purely a vanity thing - but as I was in the hands of a top plastic surgeon - I asked Dr Tan if he could burn them off too and he was happy to oblige!

Trav and I then extended our stay in KL and waited for the results of the biopsy while I healed.

You are probably thinking that seeing a top surgeon in a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur would cost a fortune – and I was rather afraid that it might.

I was initially hoping that my travel/health insurance policy might cover it. 

Imagine what such a bill would be in Europe or the USA or Canada for instance?

But, as my total bill for all the treatment here in Kuala Lumpur came to less than £400 GBP, I didn’t even have to bother putting it through my insurance. 

How amazing is that?

I do know that in the UK I could have seen a specialist for free under the NHS – but how long would it have taken for me to even get an appointment? And, if I did turn out to have skin cancer, surely a timely initial appointment would make a huge difference to a healthy outcome?

The biopsy results took just five days to land in my inbox and to my great relief, it was good news. The mole was not malignant skin cancer. It was a Seborrheic Keratosis - a type of harmless skin growth that bears a resemblance to skin cancer. I was very fortunate indeed.

So what now? A lesson learned?

Life is for living and I love living in sunshine...

Well, I’m now using sunscreen on my face and wearing a hat even more to shade my face and hopefully stop the brown patches reappearing on my now brown-patch-free face. I’m still happy not to use sunscreen on my body to be honest – my moles were not cancerous melanoma - so I’ll continue to get a bit of sun but to then cover up to prevent getting sunburned as I've always done.

Life is for living and I love living in the sun.

What about you? Do you too love sunbathing? Do you use sunscreen?

Love, Janice xx

Saturday 26 August 2017

Turtle sanctuary and reef experience in Perhentian Islands Malaysia...

Swimming with turtles at Rawa Islands off Perhentian. Photo credit: Owen Goulding

Right now I'm back in Kuala Lumpur – our Asian hub/home – after spending a month in Vietnam. I’m so behind on my travel blogging because we’ve not only been travelling lots but I’ve been working really hard on revisions for my next book. I’ve got a bit of breathing space now - until my editor gets back to me - so I’m keen to get this blog up to date at last and tell you all about the fantastic adventures and places we have travelled to since my last travel blog which was on catching up with friends and family in the UK in April/May 2017. You can read all about our month back in the UK HERE.

At the end of May, we flew from London to return to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After a few days in KL we took a one hour flight to Kota Bharu over to the east coast and then a boat over to the Perhentian Islands. On Perhentian Besar, we stayed at Bubbles Turtle and Reef Experience which is a dive centre and a turtle conservation sanctuary. It was a fantastic experience and valuable research for my next book – especially watching all the newly hatched baby turtles running to the sea!

It's a one hour flight from KL to Kota Bharu - gateway to the Perhentian Islands

The moment I set eyes on the Bubbles Resort I was enchanted. The water in the bay was so clear and the white sand beach looked so natural and unspoiled because the resort buildings were behind the natural line of the trees and surrounding jungle. The first thing I saw in the trees surrounding the open air reception area was a black haired monkey with a long tail and big white eyes – it was the size of a small child. Apparently, these type of monkeys, unlike others I have encountered in Malaysia or Indonesia, are very shy and so for the rest of our stay, it remained elusive. I also saw a lima for the first time ever. It was clinging to a tree above me eating leaves while its baby clung on and peeped down at me. The lima looked to me like a cross between a fox and a bat – and it ‘flew’ from one branch to another in the tree using its loose body skin as wings. Amazing. I knew at once that this was my kind of place - basic in accommodation but clean and friendly and with a real focus on the beach and the environment.

Arial view of Bubbles Resort on Perhentian Island
Arriving by boat

Bubbles Resort is set up to give priority to the turtles who use its beach to lay eggs and guests are briefed on how to be ‘turtle friendly’ – no white lights on the beach from 7pm  at night – no walking down the beach past the dive centre on the resort perimeter after 8.30pm. And, after 8.30pm, the common areas of the resort are lit with red light which won’t bother the turtles. This is because man-made white light confuses them as they use the white light of the moon to navigate to the beach to lay their eggs. Nesting turtles are instinctively careful about where they lay their eggs. Some will come ashore and dig several pits before choosing the ‘perfect’ place to lay. Some, dissatisfied with the site, will abandon laying their eggs and try again another night.

Interestingly, a turtle can live to up to around 80 years old and doesn’t reach reproductive maturity until it is around 30 years old and it will come back to the beach it was born to lay its own eggs. It will come to the beach over the season three to five times to lay with a period of several days between lays. Then, as the process takes so much energy, the turtle will rest for a couple of years before going back to the same beach to lay for another season. She will lay over 100 eggs each time. Each one is the size of a pingpong ball. It is soft and it feels papery and quite weighty in the hand.

After finding a spot high up on the beach above the tide line, the turtle will begin to dig with her front flippers, thrashing about until she is in a deep pit. Once she feels she is below the natural line of sand she will lay her eggs in a chamber within the pit. Once she starts to lay she enters into a trance-like state and cannot stop laying until she has finished. She then spends a considerable time burying them until, quite exhausted, she drags her considerable weight across the beach and back into the sea.

At Bubbles, every beach hut has a sign on its door the shape of a turtle with ‘yes’ on one side and ‘no’ on the other. This is for guests to be able to indicate to the beach patrol staff at the sanctuary whether or not they want to be alerted to any turtles coming ashore under the light of the moon. Of course, I had mine set to ‘yes’!

My 'YES' to being alerted to any turtles coming ashore under the light of the moon!

Throughout the week, I was SO lucky to see to see a really huge female green turtle lay her eggs on the beach and to sit and wait quietly with her until she was ready to return to the sea in the early hours of the morning. A truly magical and memorable experience that I'll never ever forget. Also, I got to see not just one but TWO nests hatch at the sanctuary and to watch the 149 baby turtles I saw born run from the beach into the sea. Check out this cute video!

I learned so much about the work involved in running a turtle sanctuary on this tiny island off Malaysia. The staff and the volunteers patrol the beach every night to watch out for and deter egg poachers as turtle eggs are sold as a delicacy here in Malaysia. Sometimes staff will simply monitor and guard the nest and count the days of incubation until it is ready to hatch (around 60 days) or, if they think the nest might be at risk from vermin or from the incoming tides, they will painstakingly remove all the eggs and transfer them very carefully to their hatchery. It was in the hatchery that I saw the two nests hatch.

The turtle egg hatchery area

The empty nest from which the babies climbed out

Turtle sanctuary staff Holly and James very carefully transferring eggs to the hatchery

While I was busy at the turtle sanctuary, Trav was diving, and when I wasn’t monitoring turtles on the beach I was out snorkelling with turtles with my new friend Sally and our island guide, Janet. We took a boat out to explore some small uninhabited islands with the most gorgeous beaches and clear warm waters and coral reefs teeming with fish and turtles. Some of the best snorkelling ever because I got to swim with turtles too!

Off snorkelling with turtles with my new friend Sally

Looking down through clear water at all the fish!
Look at the fish in the water..!

The stunning Perhentian islands - warm clear waters and white sand beaches...
My mermaid pose!

Deserted beaches in paradise...

While I was out snorkelling or at the turtle sanctuary, Trav was happy diving.

Trav at Bubbles Dive Centre

I absolutely loved every minute here on Perhentian Besar. We made lovely new friendships with the sanctuary staff and the dive centre staff – special thanks to Holly, James, and Jorges. I also made a new friendship with another guest, Sally, a lovely Canadian lady living in Kuala Lumpur, with whom I made arrangements to meet up with in KL the following week for a night out and a meal in the city.

In my next post, I’ll be back in KL – where we stayed a week longer than expected because, thanks to a chat and advice from Sally about suddenly appearing moles (the ones that grow on your skin not the little garden rodents) I ended up seeing a skin specialist at a KL hospital and then having minor surgery and a mole biopsy!

All of that very soon here on the blog - as I endeavour to catch up with our travel and adventures over the past few months to date.

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Love, Janice xx