One of the best things about backpacking is that you come into contact with some incredibly passionate people that inspire you to set your own goals a notch higher. Malaysian-born Donald and Marina Tan are those kind of people. Overflowing with enthusiasm and tales of adventure from their beloved native-land of Borneo, an evening chatting with them in their cozy backpacker guesthouse, Singgahsana Lodge, (currently one of our ‘Best Hostels’) in Sarawak’s capital Kuching can easily continue into the early hours as they entertain you with their extensive knowledge and amazing experiences.
Singgahsana Lodge – their awesome hostel in Kuching where we’ve stayed before!
After realizing their first dream of opening a hostel in 2005 with the award winning, Singgahsana Lodge, the ‘travel-junkie’ couple went on to build the luxury retreat, the Village House in 2007 in Mount Santubong National Park, followed by the opening of the quirky Sarawak Museum Merchandise Shop & Café in Kuching’s excellent museum in 2010.
Their passion for travel, arts and culture didn’t stop there however.
Two years later, they founded their own travel company, Borneo Experiences, designed to guide backpackers in the right direction to explore the world’s third largest island in an adventurous, yet sustainable way.
By chance, (it’s a small world) we met the lovely Donald and Marina, earlier this in South America, where they are currently traveling and finally had chance to ask them all the questions we’ve pondered over the years and get some awesome tips for you guys on visiting the backpacker heaven of Borneo!
1. First of all, how did you two meet?
We knew each other from school days as Marina was in the all girls St. Teresa’s and I was at the all boys school of St. Joseph’s. We never got to know each other and did not start going out together until we both finished University.
One of the key elements of our relationship is our mutual love for travel.
Marina had by then traveled most of Europe and also the United States and I was saving for a big trip to Europe. Our first ‘date’ was on a jungle trek up Gunung Gading where the Rafflesia (world’s biggest flower) blooms. (What an awesome first date!) After that we continued exploring our national parks, islands and also started traveling overseas… and the rest as they say is history.
We were together as a couple with loads of travels and adventures for over eight years before we got married 15 years ago now.
Not a bad place for a first date!
Up Gunung Gading mountain, the Rafflesia (theworld’s biggest flower) blooms.
2. What is it about Borneo that is so special?
Borneo is the world’s third largest island and is home to one of the oldest rainforests on earth, dating back to over 140 million years! The Borneo jungle contains one of the most complex and least studied eco-systems in the world, with ancient plant and animal species like nowhere on earth.
With over 30 different ethnic groups living harmoniously, the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak is also a wonderfully unique experience. The hospitality and the cultural diversity is an experience like no other. From the minute you step visitors step off the plane, you can feel the magic of Borneo right away…
Borneo – probably the best place on earth to see wild orangutans in pristine habitat
3. And what about Kuching? How does it compare to other cities in Asia?
We truly love our quaint little city of Kuching where we run Singgahsana Lodge and there are so many reasons why! I will have to list them for you!
1. The friendly, walkable city:
Divided into the old and new quarters, downtown is a travelers delight as everywhere is walkable. The romance of the Brooke era resonates from the old streets with typically colonial architecture and street names. The stretches of old shophouses around old Kuching are where tradesmen from tinsmiths to carpenters and tailors still go about their works. Gambier Street is where the spice traders operate in full force and some parts will leave you wondering if you were in some other exotic spice nation.
Kuching’s beautiful waterfront
Kuching’s quaint and friendly streets
2. The amazing access to the great outdoors and indigenous cultures:
Within a two hour road journey from the city centre, you have access to no less than seven National Parks and Wildlife Reserves serving up some of the best flora and fauna of Borneo.
In the same travel time, you can visit some of the indigenous peoples in their longhouses and typical village homes. If you do not have the required time to explore further, The Sarawak Cultural Village sited on the coast just 45 minutes away from the city will give you an excellent glimpse of the traditional abodes and lifestyles of our people.
Hanging out with the Iban people of Borneo
The only place in the world where traditional ‘long house’ living is still strong
3. The food!
Touted as a foodie’s haven, Kuching’s street food is second to none. Through our travel experiences, as our pipe water is potable, you can be assured that street food will be safe to enjoy.
Breakfast is a big deal in Kuching and early morning will see Kuchingites, out in droves enjoying our famous Sarawak Laksa (vermicelli in spicy broth with Chicken, Omelette and Prawns), Kolo Mee (thin noodle with pork), Mee Jawa (egg noodles smothered in thick spicy sauce with beef), Roti Canai (the famous Malaysian version of the Indian roti) and for the more adventurous Kueh Chap (flat triangular noodles in pork soup with everything porcine). Lunch is all about Chicken Rice, Bak Kut Teh (pork spare ribs soup with rice), Nasi Bryani (tumeric spice rice with chicken or mutton), Roast and BBQ Pork with Rice, etc.
Delicious Sarawak Laksa!
As is true with travelers, every now and again we crave for familiarity and Kuching serves up very high quality western cuisine from great pastas to quality air flown New Zealand steaks in a bistro or fine dining setting of your choice.
With nightlife Kuching offers a range of great sports and music bars and dance clubs with every theme imaginable ensuring you will be adequately entertained after sun down.
If there is one thing, Marina and I appreciate most is that Kuching is still as it is from way back when. Having grown up here and seen the changes that comes with progress, we are very pleased that our city still retains its ‘soul’. We could go on and on… but this is a snippet of our wonderful little city.
4. In your opinion, what are the ‘must do’ adventures / experiences in Borneo?
We would recommend the following short experiences for travelers coming into Sarawak and Borneo. These trips are easily booked from a guest house like Singgahsana Lodge in Kuching…
1. Bako National Park:
- This is easily accessible on your own via the public bus to the village terminal and a park boat to the park. The trails here offer different tropical forest experiences with its rich flora and fauna. You can also take a two day / one night trip with Borneo Experiences which costs 650 RM per person, where you’ll spend an amazing night in a jungle lodge hearing the sounds of the forest. You’ll spot the funny looking (long nosed) proboscis monkeys, the long-tailed macaque, silvered langur, Bornean bearded pig and cute otters. The park is the oldest and smallest National Park in Borneo and is well worth a visit from Kuching! You can book trips from your guesthouse when you arrive.
The beautiful and very accessible Bako National Park
2. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre:
Only 45 minutes drive away from Kuching, every traveler must visit our cousins the Orang Utan in their natural surroundings. Feeding times are at 9.00 am and 3.00 pm daily and depending on your luck and whether its fruit season in the forest, you may see them clambering in from the wilds beyond.
Seeing our relatives in the wild is a not-to-be-missed experience!
3. ‘The Village in the Clouds’:
Several years ago Marina and I researched and started a village experience up to the hills in Bidayuh (Land Dayak) country. The distance and extreme topography surrounding this area has ensured that it has remained isolated and is reputed as the most remote villages in the area. Villagers here live the traditional agrarian life growing mainly hill padi.
This two nights three days experience will see travelers being hosted by a local resident and getting a glimpse of true rural village life. This is where the last remaining ‘ladies of the rings’, elders wearing brass coils around their lower legs contorting their calf muscles. The journey to the village involves a strenous 5-hour trek through beautiful country with exciting bamboo suspension bridges. The cost for the entire 3-day, 2-night trip is 780 RM.
Making your way to the ‘village in the clouds’.
4. Pedal Power City Tours:
Marina and I with a friend cycled from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu a few years ago covering a total of 1355 kilometres over 18 days and vowed to at least start offering visitors this great way of exploring our backyard! Recently we commenced a series of city rides which is a great way to spend half a day exploring!
Cycling is a big passion of Donald and Marina’s!
The biggies if you have time includes the following of course:
- Experience the World Heritage Caves at Mulu National Park in Miri
- The Kelabit Highlands Experience, Bario, Sarawak
- Summiting Mount Kinabalu Peak, Sabah
- Wildlife experience on the Kinabatangan River, Sabah
- Diving Sipadan and Mabul Islands, Sabah
Climb the challenging Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, one of the highest mountains in South East Asia
Being the third largest island in the world, discovering Borneo comprehensively will take some time. We started ‘Borneo Experiences’ to provide our guests with important travel advisory and services from our own travel experiences.
5. How do you make sure that your company is run in a responsible, eco-friendly way?
We continually try to ensure that Borneo Experiences is run in a responsible and eco-friendly way by employing mostly Sarawakians in our setup and engaging local indigenous partners in our activities. We believe that sustainability means transparency and we adhere to this in all of our products so that all stakeholders are willing partners and enjoy fair returns at all times. We also try to minimise our impact on the environment and constantly attempt to instill green tenets to our partners in the field.
As a new player in the industry, we are learning and striving towards becoming a full fledge responsible eco-tourism operator.