Hanging Out in Borneo

Nothing brings a family together more than turtles, orangutans and bats as one clan hops from the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak with eyes wide open.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

When my wife and I thought about bringing our three children closer to nature by taking them deep into the jungles of Borneo, we didn't realize how close we'd actually get.

We were visiting a vast rain forest populated by orangutans, rhinos and other animals when we decided to make a long trek into the sweaty, buggy jungle in search of the magnificent reddish-brown apes. At one point, my 6-year-old daughter, Mara, discovered what appeared to be a small black worm, about an inch long, crawling on her.

"What's that, Daddy?" she asked.

Cindy, my wife, wondered if it was a leech. I examined it closely and confidently announced it seemed to be an inchworm. After all, it moved in cute, inch-long strides as it wandered over Mara's hand.

Two hours later, I looked down to discover that I was bleeding profusely through my shirt and pants. Leeches! Those cute little "inchworms" had crawled under my shirt and into my pants and were swollen with my blood. So much for my expertise with jungle creatures. But in a bit of sweet justice, I was the only member of the family who ever got bitten by leeches. (They actually don't hurt at all, and because of something in their saliva, the blood washed out of my clothes easily.)

That's the joy of taking an exotic vacation with your children: You never know what will happen, making every day an adventure. We had settled on Borneo, the world's third-largest island and home of vast rain forests and many unusual creatures. In addition to our trek through the orangutan forest, we would swim with colorful tropical fish, watch a giant sea turtle lay nearly 100 eggs in 10 minutes and see millions of bats swarm out of a cave for their nightly meal of 15 tons of insects -- all lessons for our children in the force and power of nature.

Our trip to Borneo last summer was our fourth family vacation in the developing world. Most people, truth be told, think we're a little crazy dragging our kids to places that require daily doses of malaria pills and constant reminders not to drink the water. But ask our children, and I think they'd take Hanoi over Paris any day. Besides, have you seen the exchange rate for the euro lately?

Plane tickets to Southeast Asia can be pricey. But clothing, handicrafts and food are incredible bargains, with meals for five sometimes costing less than $20. We tended to pay more for hotels, but even so, we paid far less than we would have for comparable lodgings in Europe or the United States. So even with the cost of the tickets, we figured we came out ahead -- maybe even far ahead -- of an equivalent period in Europe.

Jungles and Islands

Having traveled extensively in the developing world before we had children, my wife and I were pleased to discover one great advantage of traveling with children: It opens doors. Young tourists are such a rarity in these areas that people were especially nice to us. (Mara, our blond-haired daughter, was the subject of especially close attention.)

Borneo is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the small sultanate of Brunei. We first considered visiting the Indonesian part, since my wife and I had made two trips to that island nation before children, but ultimately decided the smaller Malaysian section had better tourist infrastructure and was easier to traverse. Both countries are mostly Muslim, but politically stable Malaysia has had less trouble with terrorism.

However, pirates operating off the east coast of Borneo from time to time have captured tourists. In 2000, dozens of tourists, including Westerners, were kidnapped in two raids on dive resorts by an Islamic militant group operating out of the Philippines and held for nearly a year before large ransoms were reportedly paid to ensure their release.

Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states in Borneo, and we planned to spend nine days in each state. We would fly into Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah, but return from Kuala Lumpur, the gleaming capital of Malaysia, so we could also spend a few additional days on the mainland.

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