Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 2: Lost in a Monsoon

borneo road

I was eating breakfast in the hotel dining room and looking at my map when the hotel manager walked by.

“Where are you going?” He asked.

“Kinabatangan.” I replied.

“You’re driving a car?”

“A motorcycle.”

“Oh.” He replied and looked out the window beside my table. I turned and looked out the window. It was overcast and raining lightly.

“Maybe you should take a bus.” He suggested.


“Rain.” He replied. “It has rained every day for the past two weeks.”

“Is that normal?”

“It is the end of the rainy season.”

When planning to ride a motorcycle across Borneo most people would think it prudent to invest the 25 seconds that it takes to type “Borneo weather” into Google and read the results. Others would go so far as to purchase a guidebook that might contain a sentence like, “It is unadvisable to go on long motorcycle trips during the winter in Borneo because it’s the rainy season.”

I, however, am not what you would call a ‘planner’.

Rain or no rain, I would continue with my trip as planned. I had paid in advance to rent the motorcycle for ten days, and I was already in Kundasang, a village located high on the highway that crosses Mount Kinabalu. I would waste at least a day of my trip, and more than a hundred dollars returning the motorcycle to the capital. Besides, I had been living in Taiwan for seven years and had ridden a motorcycle there all year round, including the rainy season. I had even driven in a few typhoons. How bad could the rain in Borneo be?

A short while later I was driving out of Kundasang and down the mountainside. Soon the rain stopped. A little later the blanket of clouds broke apart and the sun came out. At the base of the mountain I stopped and put on my iPod. The road was lined with lush jungle. It rose and fell over gentle hills and bent in long slow curves. I put on Zepplin IV and zoomed along the jungle highway listening to The Battle of Evermore. It was brilliant!

“Rain?” I thought. “Ha! What did that guy know? This is perfect.”

My naiveté continued for about an hour. Then, the sun suddenly disappeared and was replaced by black clouds. All at once the rain hit me. It was like I had driven into a waterfall. There was so much water running down my visor that I couldn’t see the road clearly enough to continue.

Luckily, a moment later, I saw some blurry lights on the side of the road. I turned off and drove towards them. It was rural roadside store. I got off my bike and hurried under the awning where a teenage Malaysian boy and two young girls were squatting.

Even though I had been wearing a Gore-Tex jacket, I was completely soaked. I pulled the waterproof cover off of my backpack to check on my laptop and camera. They were in a waterproof bag inside my backpack and were still dry.

I took off my dripping jacket and hung it on a nail, and then squatted beside the teenagers and looked out at the rain. They looked at me quizzically.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

They stared at me blankly.

I asked them in Chinese if they could speak Chinese.

They continued to stare.

We squatted in silence for over an hour watching the rain pour from the sky like a river through a sieve, pounding on the aluminum room with a deafening clatter. Eventually it let up enough that I could drive somewhat safely.

I was soaking wet and was probably going to have to drive for at least another four hours in the rain. I wasn’t excited about this state of affairs, but I also wasn’t altogether surprised. I do this sort of thing more often than one would expect. In a way, I kind of try to get myself into these situations.

Like I said before, I’m not what you would call a ‘planner’. I never carry a guidebook and I rarely visit a country already knowing what I want to do. I like to just show up and ask people: “How do I catch a bus to so and so?” or “Where can I find a cheap hostel?”. Because of this, when I arrive in a new city I often end up wandering around for hours, carrying all my gear, drenched in sweat, looking for looking for a hotel or bus, and drawing strange looks from locals. Basically, I like to make things hard on myself.

If the pleasure I derive from an experience is measured by the absurdity of the situation that I get myself into for no good reason, then my third day in Borneo should have been one of the best days of my life.

Before I left the store I bought a plastic rain suit. It included a baby blue plastic jacket and a pair of baby blue plastic pants that reached to the tops of my ankles. I paid for it and put it on over my wet clothes. Then I put on my jacket and backpack and waved goodbye to the teenagers.

The rain continued steadily. I listened to my iPod for an hour before the rain worked its way into pocket where I had hidden it, at which point the headphones crackled and it died. I drove in silence for another hour before stopping at a gas station to fill up and check my map.

It was 3 pm. It had been about four hours since I left the hotel, and I had been driving in the rain for two of those. From here I would drive out to the end of a peninsula to the port city of Sandakan where I would get a room. That, I estimated, would take about another two hours, which, if correct, meant that I would be taking a hot shower at around 5 pm.

That, however, was not what was about to happen. There was one thing that I had not taken into account: my lack of planning.

I can pinpoint the exact spot where my lack of planning turned what should have simply been an uncomfortable drive into a misadventure of absurd proportions.

At about 4 pm I drove past a pair of monkey statues in the middle of a traffic circle. These monkey statues, I would later learn, are very close to the turnoff to the Sepliok Orangutan Reserve.  The Sepilok Orangutan Reserve is a popular tourist destination, and, since it is inconveniently far from Sandakan, there are several clean, well-equipped hotels and hostels nearby. At 4 pm I was a five-minute drive from clean towels, hot showers, and cold beer. If I had purchased a guidebook or done some research into the area I would have known this.

I, however, am not a ‘planner’. I’m an ‘adventurer’. ‘Adventurers’ , as it turns out, are the class of people that ‘planners’ refer to as ‘morons’.

As continued toward Sandakan I began to understand how severe the rainstorm actually was. It had been raining heavily on and off for more than two weeks, and the peninsula on which I was driving was beginning to flood. The highway was raised about eight feet above the surrounding flats. Along the sides of the highway were groups of stilt houses—houses suspended high off the ground by thin poles to protect them from floods. I could see residents of the stilt houses standing on the front porches with grim looks on their faces, staring at the water as it lapped at their feet. If it continued to rain, and the water rose just a few more inches, their houses would begin to flood. In some places small rivers ran across the highway, several inches deep, and I had to lift my feet as I drove through them.

It began to get dark. The rain continued, as hard as ever. I drove for another hour or more. I thought that I should have arrived in Sandakan by that time, so I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. The attendant assured me that I was on the right road, so I continued driving.

Occasionally I would I drive past small clusters of buildings that stretched for several kilometers, but never encountered anything that looked like an actual city. I stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions again, and was again assured that I was on the right road. I became confused. Surely I should have arrived by now.

Actually, I had arrived and just didn’t know it. Sandakan is not a normal town with a city center. It’s spread over a large area with several small sections separated by long stretches of interlocking highway that crisscross the peninsula.  So, these people were telling me the truth. I was on the road to Sandakan. In fact, I had driven through several parts of it already.

I continued driving back and forth across the peninsula for another hour in the dark, on the flooded highway, lost in the monsoon. I was tired, wet, cold, and desperate to find a hotel. Then I suddenly realized that I may have an even bigger problem: I was probably almost out of gas.

I continued to drive until I came to another cluster of buildings. I spotted a clean, attractive-looking restaurant and pulled into the parking lot. It was an upscale restaurant by Malaysian standards. I walked in the door. People who had been talking quietly over their meals turned and watched seven hours of rain create a large puddle on the ground at my feet.

My boots made loud squishing sounds as I carried my backpack to a table where I sat down and created a new puddle. I took out my laptop hoping that the restaurant would have WiFi. It did, so I ordered some french fries and set myself to figuring out where I was and where I could find a hostel nearby.

After forty minutes I concluded that the nearest hostel was a few kilometers further down the road that I was on. I memorized the directions, paid for my fries, and left.

At 9 pm I parked my motorcycle in front of a harbor side hostel.  I had been driving in the rain for eight hours. When I got to my room and unpacked my bag, I found that almost everything was wet. My money was wadded together and my passport was dripping. The only things that were dry were my computer and camera in the waterproof bag.

I took a shower, climbed into bed, and fell asleep thinking grim thoughts. What had I gotten myself into? I had come to Borneo in a monsoon. There would be no jungle treks. I would not see any monkeys, orangutans, or elephants. And worst of all, when it was time to return to the capital I’d have to do that hellish drive all over again.

My predictions, though, could not have been more wrong. Things were about to get better—much better.  I would find monkeys and orangutans. I also would receive an email that would lead to one of the best assignments of my journalism career. And best of all, I would end up staying in a hostel that contained several attractive young European ladies and not one other single male.

If you’d like to hear about it, be sure to check back for my next update: Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 3: Salvation in Sabah.

Continue to follow my adventure in Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 3: Salvation in Sandakan

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7 thoughts on “Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 2: Lost in a Monsoon”

  1. You know what Matt? (you probably do) – the strongest memories and the ones that you love to relive are memories of the things gone wrong! Looks like you’re doing a great job!

    See you soon —————-


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