The World Nomads Podcast: Malaysia

A melting pot of cultures, with stunning beaches, great dive spots, challenging hikes, stories of the feared headhunters of Borneo and food so delicious they’re (almost) prepared to go to war.


Photo © iStock/Cn0ra

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The World Nomads Podcast: Malaysia

In this episode, we explore Malaysia, a melting pot of cultures with Malays making up approximately half of the population, Chinese around a quarter plus a strong Indian community. There are plenty of beaches, great dive spots and challenging hikes, making it a perfect destination for an adventurous traveler.

What’s in the Episode

00:20 We are shining the spotlight on Malaysia

02:08 Sam heads to the Malaiu Basin

04:00 Describing the rainforest

08:15 The importance of travel insurance when you are going off the beaten track

09:41 Isaac joins us to chat about his ancestral links to Borneo's headhunters 

13:11 Don't argue with the Malays when it comes to food!

16:10 Culinary wars

18:49 Travel news

21:13 Recreating an essential travel experience

23:58 What Tom loves about Malaysia

30:06 Tamara tackles the Pinnacles

35:27 Borneo's cave system

38:05 Did you listen to our episode on The Philippines?

38:42 Get in touch

Who is in the Episode

Global-roaming journalist, travel writer and broadcaster Tamara Thiessen calls herself an islophile. Born in Tasmania, and attracted to wild isolated places all over the world, Tamara's Borneo travel guide is published by Bradt, / You can follow her  - Tamara Thiessen Travels - on her website, Facebook page, via Instagram and SoundCloud.

You can read her story for World Nomads here.

Tamara's photo of Clearwater Cave, Asia’s longest, at 66mi (107km) in length. A 2.5mi (4km) nature trail weaves through its depths.

Tom Rogers runs Adventure in You with his partner Anna, a blog with more than half a million readers each month. They offer guidebooks, travel blogging advice, and of course feature the best destinations for adventure travel, including Malaysia.

Sam Bedford, a self-confessed travel addict, is making his way around the world to see the places most travelers don't. When he's not on an adventure, he's writing. Sam has written and published 100s of articles, focusing mainly on Malaysia, Azerbaijan, and living a location-independent lifestyle. Read the article he wrote for World Nomads about the Malaiu Basin here.

Follow Sam's website Itching for Travel, Itching for Travel's Facebook page and for tips on getting noticed Inspiring Travel Content.

Isaac Entry is part of our content team in Sydney but was born and raised in Malaysia and Borneo. He loves talking to strangers and swapping stories over a rice wine or whiskey.

Resources & Links

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.

The 2019 Travel Writing Scholarship to Portugal is now open and applications close on March 13. For all the details and to enter go to

Tamara tackled the Pinnacles climb with pioneering Borneo adventure travel company 

Listen to our episode on The Philippines and hear about village life on the islands.

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About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

The World Nomads Podcast is not your usual travel Podcast. It’s everything for the adventurous, independent traveler. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today.

You can get in touch with us by emailing

Kim: Hey, it's Kim and Phil with this week's episode of the World Nomads podcast, in which Phil, strap yourself in, we're heading to Malaysia.

Phil: Look, I love Malaysia, it's a real melting pot of cultures, which also makes it the perfect foodie destination. My favorite food, Malaysian food. Malays make up approximately half of the population, Chinese people make up around a quarter, and there's also a very substantial Indian community there.

It has a mix of really cool modern architecture alongside the colonial buildings, and just north of Malaysian Borneo is one of the world's best dive spots. Plus, much of Malaysia is undeveloped, allowing wildlife to roam freely. There are plenty of beaches, I can attest to that, I've been on some crackers out there, and challenging heights. All of which makes it a perfect destination for the adventurous traveler who is a World Nomad, Kim.

Kim: Yes. Well as you said, you've been ... I've only been to the island of Langkawi as part of a visit to Thailand, but again Phil, what happens when we do these podcasts?

Phil: Want to go back!

Kim: Goes straight on the list. On this episode, we'll chat with [Tamara 00:01:18], who tracked Borneo's headhunters' trail to the Pinnacles, which she describes as a forest of limestone shards that are around 147 foot tall, or 45 meters.

Fellow World Nomad Isaac Entry joins us. We're going to hear about his ancestral link to those Borneo headhunters. That was a poison dart.

Phil: There you go.

Kim: Don't worry, we'd do it for him. And the food wars between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Plus, Tom from Adventure In You takes us away from Borneo and on to mainland Malaysia.

First up, though, Sam. He went on a guided, tailor-made trek which sounds like, ugh, guided? Nah! Off the beaten track.

Phil: Oh!

Kim: Off the beaten track to the top of Mount Lotung. "Lotung," perhaps? The highest peak of the Maliau Basin in Malaysian Borneo.

Sam: I was in Borneo on a 16-day trek around Malaysian Borneo. I found myself in the rainforest for about maybe 10 days in total. I went to Danum Valley first, which is close to Maliau Basin, but more accessible. Danum Valley's more of a research center where they ... It's more like conservation, research. And I followed scientists around, saw how they mapped the forest there. Got to do lots of fun hikes, canopy walks.

Partway through my time in the jungle, they then told me we'd be going on a trip to Maliau Basin. At the time, I had no idea, because I wasn't really given much of a schedule, and being Malaysia, things always change at the last minute.

If there's a storm the night before and the roads get flooded, then access is a bit more limited. And maybe a tree falls down and they have to physically go there with chainsaws and cut it to move it out the road. And when you're traveling two hours along these logging roads, the last thing you want is to be stranded somewhere. So I think they sort of kept it a bit of a secret just in case the plans fell through.

The first day, we drove along in a 4x4 along these logging roads. I was sat in the back in the open air part. And it really gave you a chance to see the jungle, and actually get to feel it. And you can smell it, you can hear it, you can almost taste it because you're that close to it as you're driving along.

Kim: In the article, you wrote for us, there are some great pictures, and the rainforest looks very dense. Can you describe for somebody that hasn't experienced that, what it smelt like, what it felt like? I would imagine quite humid.

Sam: The best way I can describe it, it's like standing in a steam room. The air's heavy with the humidity. You have a sort of sweet smell all the time from all the plants and the flowers.

There's a constant noise, it's never silent. The best way I can describe the sound, it's a high-pitched sound, it's monotonous, just constantly in the background, which I think is from the cicadas. You have the birds up in the trees, they're making different sounds as well. Some are whistling, some are sort of honking, some make hooting noises.

Whenever you're walking, every step, it's like you're walking on the moon. Every step's a hard one. Because you're constantly fighting the heat, the humidity, everything's thick, and everything's dense. It's just so difficult to move. Walking one kilometer in the jungle is probably like walking 10 kilometers out on a road somewhere.

Kim: With all that you've described, you couldn't be further away from the UK. I mean, you don't have rainforests, you don't have that kind of level of humidity. Was it the first time you'd found yourself in a jungle, feeling that, being exposed to that?

Sam: It was. It was the first time I'd ever been out of Europe when I went to Borneo. And then suddenly I found myself in somewhere where it's 35 degrees in the day, 100% humidity. It was strange to start off with. And I couldn't sleep on the nights, because it was just so hot you're constantly in a pool of sweat. Dehydration became a problem because I wasn't used to drinking liters after liter of water back at home, and then suddenly in this harsh environment that, if you're not careful you run the risk of falling ill quite quickly.

Kim: How would you book a trip, and what would you take?

Sam: If you wanted to visit Maliau Basin, the only way that you can go is by booking a tour. Usually, a trip would consist of a three to a five-day expedition. Either you'd start from the capital Kota Kinabalu, and then you'd drive about six hours or so south and into the heart of Borneo to reach Maliau Basin. Others start from the East coast, which then follows a route in from the east.

Different tours offer different things. Maliau Basin, they've got several waterfalls, they've got Sabah's longest river. So there are quite a few activities going on other than searching for wildlife and canopy walks and jungly things.

But there're a few things to be aware of, though. Certain tour companies require a fitness certificate, and your medical insurance needs to cover helicopter evacuation. Because if something happens out there in the middle of the jungle, you're pretty much screwed.

And what to pack. When I went, I have to admit I was a little bit naïve. First time in the jungle, so I just went there in the normal clothes that I would if I was hiking in the UK. Which was a big mistake.

Kim: Just a little!

Sam: But if I were to do it again, the number one thing I'd bring is quick-drying clothes. At seven o'clock in the morning and you're in the jungle, I was dripping from head to toe in sweat. And you're soaking wet all day long.

Another thing that's essential is a waterproof bag. These are usually quite easy to get in Sabah because when people go island hopping in Kota Kinabalu they take the waterproof bags to keep your stuff in, the cameras, the electronics, the phones. When you're faced with a tropical shower, a downpour or thunderstorm, it seems as if a whole month's worth of rain falls from the sky in the space of five minutes.

Kim: Since you've been to Malaysia you have become a marathon runner. You've gone to Portugal, which is where we're chatting to you from, to take part in a run there. Are you going to use your running, as a lot of people do, as a basis for traveling around the world, Sam?

Sam: I think I've run marathons in about six different countries. Because we work from our laptops, we have the freedom to work wherever we want in the world. And I use the running as a bit of a guideline of where to go.

Kim: Now Phil, I did promise you that it's off the beaten track. Can you expand on the importance of travel insurance when you are hiking in those spots that Sam did, that's inaccessible, if you're injured, other than by chopper to get you out?

Phil: One of the questions we're often asked is, "Will World Nomads send a chopper to get me?" No, we don't, we don't have World Nomads branded choppers. We rely on the normal rescue services and then we'll sort of pick up the cost from that, generally. So if you are stuck in an inaccessible place such as that, and you need rescuing, and it would have to be ... You can't just get a lift out. It would absolutely have to be an emergency.

A rescue service that comes and gets you, the cost of that is very, very likely to be covered by your World Nomads policy. Now, there are lots of ins and outs around that, so don't take that as blanket coverage. But generally, if a mandatory rescue from somewhere like that by chopper, then you're going to be able to put in a claim with World Nomads.

Kim: Well now that we've spoken travel insurance, you know that at the end we will have to play our disclaimer.

Phil: I want to play it during travel news as well, so that will do for two. So tune in, very soon we'll be playing our disclaimer.

Kim: Yeah. And look, don't get bored by it, or be bored by the idea of it. It's a cracker.

Phil: You know, the World Nomads office headquarters here in Sydney, we've got a bit of wide range of people from all over the globe as well. On our team, working with Kim and I, is a fellow from Malaysian background. You're Australian now though, aren't you Isaac Entry?

Isaac: I am a new Australian, but I have to say ... Borneo in the house! I should say, Borneo in the longhouse.

Phil: Yes! Indeed. Well look, we've had conversations about your family background and you come from a pretty fascinating part of Malaysia.

Isaac: Yeah. Look, my dad's people, my people, my people, come from Borneo, and we're from the Iban tribe from the jungles of Borneo.

Phil: And have you been back? You've been back to visit, been over where the family came from originally?

Isaac: Yes. So, I grew up there, sort of from the ages of I think one to maybe four or five. My dad, very different childhood to mine, he grew up in a traditional longhouse. It's essentially a very long house which houses anywhere from 30 up to 150 families, who each have a room, and there's a sort of long common corridor that connects the house. It's a pretty amazing structure.

Kim: 150 families? Did you grow up in this from one to four in that set-up?

Isaac: No, my dad grew up in one of those houses. By the time I was a young boy, those sorts of houses were, you know, people were moving away from those villages.

Kim: You feel comfortable saying as much as you like, but let's talk about your ancestors. There's a pretty interesting history there, isn't there?

Isaac: Yeah. So look, the Ibans were probably the most feared warrior tribe on the island of Borneo. Known for headhunting and a little bit of cannibalism on the side.

Phil: So just remember, people, when you're contacting World Nomads content team, don't mess with Isaac!

Kim: Who, ironically, you are the most placid person that I've met in a long time. That comes ...

Phil: Maybe we haven't been pushing the right buttons yet!

Isaac: Yeah, look, there's probably a case story that maybe taps into the warrior gene in me that I could tell you, Kim, but yeah, I am a pretty laid-back guy.

Phil: Let's move on.

Isaac: Yeah.

Phil: Okay. Because we want to talk about warring of a different type, alright? Now we're talking about food wars. There's a lot of contention in the region about who owns particular dishes.

Isaac: Yeah. So, food is a source of national pride and delight. But you know, as you know, it's never just about food, it's about cultural identity, it's about ... I think particularly for Malaysians when you're talking to someone from the Western world, it's hard for them to place Malaysia until you give them a kind of ... Until you describe it in relation to where something else is. Do you know what I mean?

Phil: Yeah.

Isaac: You can go, "Oh, it's just, you know, it's a peninsula north of Singapore," or "It's just south of Thailand." And I think we have a kind of national identity crisis that manifests itself when it comes to conversations around food.

So we're very protective over what we think are dishes that we came up with, when in essence, as a Malaysian, it doesn't really matter, does it?

Phil: Yes it does!

Isaac: Doesn't! [crosstalk 00:13:26]

Phil: You traitor!

Isaac: I mean, just give me my laksa, I'm happy, you know. Call it Malaysian laksa, Singaporean laksa, happy, I'm happy,

Phil: Oh so, go on. So we've got laksa. What else have we got there?

Isaac: So we've had, I guess these food wars over [Burkam's 00:13:45] chili crab dish. Have you guys ever had chili crabs?

Phil: I have.

Kim: I have, yes.

Isaac: You know, and to my mind, I think it's Singaporean more than Malaysian but a while back I think Malaysia claimed it as a Malaysian dish, which upset the Singaporeans. I know between Indonesia and Singapore there was a similar issue around the origins of nasi goreng, which is fried rice.

If you spoke to a food historian and tried to trace the origins of fried rice, it would probably go back to China. And then more recently Singapore I think tried to get UNESCO listing for street food, claiming that it's uniquely Singaporean and of course, Malaysians got upset. You know, you've got street food in Thailand, you've street food in Indonesia.

The most recent case is a food war over where cendol, which is a shaved ice dessert, comes from.

Phil: Yes. I love cendol.

Isaac: It sounds like you know what I'm talking about.

Phil: Oh, I love cendol. Alright, look, just for the uninitiated, because I've just realized we've been speaking ... You need to describe what a cendol is. And then we better talk about what a laksa is as well, just for people who don't know.

Isaac: So cendol is a bowl of shaved ice. It's topped with like you say Phil, a bit of condensed milk, some syrup, it can have red beans, peanuts, a bit of corn, and this kind of starchy grain things that look like little noodles or boogers.

Phil: Yep.

Isaac: Depending on how old you are. A five-year-old might look at that and go, "Oh that's a bowl full of boogers." And it also can have palm sugar.

Phil: And on a very steamy, humid, tropical day ...

Isaac: It is to die for.

Phil: It is the bee's knees, isn't it?

Isaac: It is to die for, yup.

Kim: So on a steamy, tropical day, would you have a laksa? Explain what that is.

Isaac: So every day is a steamy, tropical day in Malaysia. And every day is a laksa day. So you can chase the laksa with a cendol, that'd be my recommendation.

Kim: How far does this culinary war extend? Like to what lengths do you go to prove that something belongs to Malaysia?

Isaac: I'm not sure to what lengths you can go to prove that you own a dish if a nation can own a dish. I do know that it's resulted in demonstrations outside of embassies. There were reports of feces being thrown at a Malaysian embassy in Indonesia. It gets pretty serious, guys.

Kim: That is taking it seriously.

Isaac: Yeah.

Phil: What do we want? Nasi lemak! When do we want it? Now!

Kim: So what made you become an Australian then, with this fabulous heritage?

Isaac: You know, I think like all good stories, it starts with a woman. I met my Sheila and decided to become Australian. But yeah, really I guess if you wanted to be corny, for love.

Phil: And look, we're a good melting pot here as well, you know, multicultural society. Do you still maintain some of that Malaysian heritage in your everyday life now?

Isaac: Look, it's definitely something I am mindful of, especially with ... I have a five-year-old daughter, and I think it's important to share with her some aspects of my cultural heritage. So I've tried to speak to her in Malay. Through food, I explain things to her, through food, dishes, recipes that my grandmother made. Recipes that my dad makes. We're about to start teaching her to eat with her fingers, which is what we typically do in Borneo.

Kim: Will you, though, touch on the headhunting part of things?

Isaac: Yeah, look, I think a trip back to Borneo is due sometime soon. I still have family members that in a longhouse, that still farm, live off the land, and would have it no other way. They love where they are, they love their slice of the world. So yeah, it's definitely part of my cultural heritage that I'd like to share with Ashley this year.

Kim: Beautiful. And if anyone has spent any time in K.L., they may have come across you on stage.

Isaac: Back in the day.

Kim: You have a beautiful singing voice.

Isaac: Thanks, Kim.

Kim: I would dearly love to put a link to "No Woman, No Cry" in show notes.

Phil: We can't do that to him, though.

Kim: No we can't, but he does have a gorgeous blues voice. And maybe he said one day he might return to it once his daughter's older.

Phil: Well, that would have to be during a live podcast, I think.

Kim: I think so, too. He owes us that.

Phil: Get him to ... He owes us that one.

Kim: Yeah. Now, what's travel news?

Phil: In travel news, Kim we've chatted in previous episodes about the impact of over tourism and what that can do to destinations. Not just the crowding and too many people, and it is a bit obvious, but the environmental damage. So I'm a bit conflicted by these reports that Bali, that's in Indonesia of course, New Zealand, and Japan is all imposing tourist taxes on visitors.

Every dollar's crucial when you're traveling on a tight budget, every dollar you spend on a tax is a dollar you're not spending traveling, but you're going to have to hand over 10 US dollars to enter Bali; 35 New Zealand, which is about 24 US dollars to get into New Zealand; and 1000 yen or about 9 US dollars on departing Japan.

What do you think? Good idea or bad?

Kim: Seriously, nine US dollars on top of what you've paid for the trip? I don't have a problem with it.

Phil: Yeah, I'd like to see it be going into specific projects. I'd like it to be transparent.

Kim: Yeah, there's a point.

Phil: Rather than just going into general revenue. Have you visited the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and did you throw the three coins in the fountain?

Kim: No.

Phil: It's a very popular thing to do amongst visitors, and around about two million dollars worth of coins get tossed into the fountain every year. Two million!

Kim: How much gets stolen?

Phil: Well, you're not allowed in the ... If you jump in, you'll get pulled out by the Carabinieri straight away, if you jump into the fountain. But all this money, it's a bit of a controversy between the Catholic church and the mayor of Rome. Up until now, all of the two million dollars has gone through a church charity to help the homeless people in Rome. But now the mayor wants about a third of it to go into, you guessed it, up-keep and maintenance of cultural projects. Instead of a tourist tax, they're just going to take it out of the fountain.

Kim: All the mayor's done is gone, "Now, where can we get some money from?"

Phil: Yeah!

Kim: "Ah, the fountain!"

Phil: The fountain! We'll have some of that.

Kim: We'll have some of that.

Phil: Your holiness. Thank you very much.

Now, tell me, do you ever have one of those moments where something in your everyday life reminds you of another place that you've traveled, a little flashback? I get it on spring mornings when the air's a certain temperature and the light's a certain color. And it reminds me of Paris.

Kim: Right, nice. There is a particular flower that I do smell that reminds me of Hawaii.

Phil: Oh. And another thing, have you noticed they never remind you of a place like Scunthorpe? It's always Paris or Hawaii. Well here's a way to recreate one of those essential travel experiences.

United Airlines has released a book of recipes for its in-flight meals.

Kim: I love that idea!

Phil: Are you kidding me?

Kim: I do like that idea!

Phil: Ah, look, you know-

Kim: Come on!

Phil: No, I'm not sure I'd want to cook indeterminate gray meat on a bed of soggy mash something.

Kim: Now, come on mate, I know you've traveled first class.

Phil: I have never traveled first class.

Kim: Okay, business class.

Phil: I've done business and that was pretty good.

Kim: I look at it, I think it's part of the treat. I don't mind it.

Phil: One of the things we cover in our insurance policy at World Nomads is lost belongings. There are limits on the value of the things that we cover, so check your policy wording. But I can tell you none of our policies would've covered the one-carat family heirloom diamond engagement ring a Charlotte couple lost in Costa Rica recently.

It's a long story about how it was lost in the sand, but essentially the ring was taken off in December '11 when they were putting on sunscreen, and then it got lost in the sand. Obviously, they searched very hard for it, but to no avail. And there was no chance of making an insurance claim because they hadn't even registered it as an item, and they hadn't even had it valued, so they were totally gone.

But guess what? A local using a metal detector found it a month later, in late January! And he's returned it to them. How lucky is that?

Kim: Well how did he return it to them?

Phil: He lives in Costa Rica, he's an expat, and he was a former Navy SEAL underwater detectives explosives thing.

Kim: So he knew whose ring it was.

Phil: Yes. Because they posted something on Facebook, someone had lost this ring. But like, they'd given up, you know? And the tides had been in and out so many times over a month. But they got it back.

Kim: What a great story!

Phil: Because I've spoken about insurance coverage we now have to play this.

Rapper: (singing)

Phil: And that is travel news for this week, Kim!

Kim: Oh, that was sensational. I love that one. Tom, he runs a travel blog, Adventure In You, and shares with us what he loves about Malaysia.

Tom: I just think it has a mix of different things. If you're in Penang there's obviously the street art which is really unique. And you can try all the different foods and get a real sort of street feel there.

And then what we did is we crossed the country from Penang all the way across to the other side and went to the Perhentian Islands. So just quickly we jumped off the mainland.

But then when we came back on the mainland, we went to the Cameron Highlands and did a bunch of trekking around there. And that trekking experience was amazing, there are some really good hikes around that area. And then again, from there we went down and went down into K.L., and then obviously you've got the cities, and then we ventured to some sort of small villages around there.

So I think the mainland, it just has a bit of everything again. Like a lot of countries in Asia, you've got the mountains where you can do some great hiking and some great trails. And then you have crazy city life as well, you know, a city like Bangkok, and K.L. So just got a bit of everything.

For me, I really liked Penang. It has street art, it has the ... So the street art's in George Town, for those who don't know, and you can walk around there and take photos with it. And the way all the graffiti and the street art is, you can pose inside the photos, so that's pretty cool, that's like a common thing that a lot of people do. And yeah, it has the hills, you can go to Penang Hill. It has street art. It has nice beaches or a few sorts of beaches you can go to. So it has a mix of everything.

And then if you do like hiking, you can just take a bus from Penang into the Cameron Highlands. I'm not sure on the duration of the bus, can't remember off the top of my head. It's a good couple of hours. And then yeah, there are a few trails. You can spend a good two, three days their sort of hiking around the trails, which is quite-

Kim: I don't associate street art and Malaysia together. The two just don't seem to go together.

Tom: Yeah, I had no idea about it when I first went. Because I'm the sort of traveler that I go and then I mix with the locals, and I just find experiences on the move. Ironically, we run a travel blog, my partner does all, you know, she's the main content writer and researcher, I deal with the business side of it. I don't do a lot of research beforehand. I like to venture into places, connect with people, and then ask.

So when I got to Penang, I knew it had a little bit of that scene, but when our local friend walked us around, I was stunned. It's really cool. You can take lots of photos where like I said. There's even ... Off the top of my head, I can't remember but there is like a 3D graffiti museum as well, where you can go in and again, take photos with these cool art prints on the wall. I remember taking a Spiderman photo? So there's this huge wall that's been painted, and if you lie on the wall and take a photo it looks like you're climbing up the side of a house with Spiderman.

So there's like this funny stuff in Penang. But again, the culture of it, it's just really cool, it's really unique.

Phil: I think it's Penang that's kind of like the hipster destination for Malaysians, I think there's a very large sort of artistic community there. I think that's why that's there. And it's a good mix, as well. You know, George Town is all sort of colonial look, and then you've got this new, vibrant culture there.

Tom: Yeah, so I think people are really drawn to it, because if you like islands and you want a beach all day, then that's great because you can go to Perhentian Islands, you can head there and that's just stunning. Like some of the clearest water, I think, to this day that I've ever seen. And the beaches and everything. You can go diving there, snorkeling. I did the best snorkeling in my life in those islands. Even if you're not a great swimmer, you can just go snorkeling and see these giant turtles in the water, you can swim with them. It's incredible.

And you can just have this really nice beach holiday, do diving, all these types of things, and then a quick boat onto the mainland and you could be hiking up in the Cameron Highlands. So it has really diverse ... And it's quite all close together. So one of my favorite countries is Indonesia, but to get to all the different places in Indonesia you have to take big trips, you have to take a quick flight or long buses. But in Malaysia, you can sort of getting on a couple of hours and be in this new location, which I think is really cool.

Phil: Have you ever done the East coast of Malaysia as well?

Tom: I haven't done much of the East coast, no, unfortunately. I do actually want to go back, because like I said we're currently in Thailand, and we're actually planning to go back to Malaysia and experience it. As I said, I did the Perhentian Islands, but I haven't ventured down the whole East.

Phil: Yeah, well I did that a long time ago and it's really different to the West coast. I mean, it's much less developed for tourism, and it really has a genuine authentic feel about it. This was 20 something years ago, I did this. But we were trying to catch a bus out of Johor Bahru and we missed the bus.

And so we thought we'd try and catch up with the bus, and we hired a taxi. There were four of us, and we hired a taxi to take us to the next town. And then we go, "Actually, this is better." And so between the four of us, we managed to cover 300 kilometers with three taxis. You know, one would take us to one town, drop us off with another taxi, he'd take us to another one.

So it was quite an amazing experience doing that as well. There was a turtle colony there, and a turtle rescue operation was going there. And it was really a very laid-back different feel from the West coast. Nothing wrong with the West coast, as you say, it's really fantastic. But it was just this really different feel on the East.

Tom: Yeah, I think there's a lot of places in Malaysia that if you just venture off the beaten path if you go off the normal path, you can quickly get into areas that have zero touristic feels, and very local, which I think is awesome.

Kim: Yep, and totally appeals, Tom, to the adventurous, independent traveler. Now, [Tamara Thiessen 00:29:52] is a freelance journalist and photographer. She's worked around the world for newspapers, magazines, and she's also written guidebooks. She trekked the Headhunter's Trail in Malaysian Borneo and was keen to know ... Well, I was, because she actually knows where she got her sense of adventure from.

Tamara: I used to read my dad's National Geographic magazines, and I'm from Tassie, I'm an islander, so I've got this thing that I call Italophile, although it wasn't really me that coined the expression. It was a writer, Lawrence Durrell, who lived in the Greek Islands. A great writer, Lawrence Durrell, he coined that expression, Italophile.

So I am an Italophile. Being from Tasmania I seem to have this natural magnetism towards other, particularly wild islands. So Borneo had played on my imagination for years, and when I finally got there I loved it. I loved the forests, the amazing flora, and fauna.

So I pitched the book idea as a guidebook to the Bradt Travel Guides in England, and they took me up on that. So I began to write the Bradt Travel Guide to Borneo which took off in about 2007 or 8, was the first edition, and it will go into the fourth edition at the beginning of next year. So that's how I ventured into headhunting territory and keep going back to it in a big way.

Kim: At World Nomads, we're all about off the beaten track, and you've written an article, "Tracking Borneo's Headhunter's Trail Forest". Is it off the beaten track, Tamara?

Tamara: No, off the beaten track these days, even compared to the travel writers of the 80s and 90s, and even Redmond O'Hanlon, the famous English writer who wrote "Into the Heart of Borneo" in the late 80s ... It's never going to be, unfortunately, sadly one can get very nostalgic, and probably with reason, going to be quite as off the beaten track as in those days. It's just a reality of our hyped-up and super age of travel we live in.

But it's still relatively, too many things, off the beaten track. Where the Gunung Mulu National Park, where this climb that I did, the pinnacles climb, is based, is about 180 or 150 kilometers inland from the coast from the South China Sea coast for Sarawak.

So first of all, you have to get a smallish plane, not a completely light plane, but enough to be quite thrilling, inland. And that's quite a quick trip, given that it's only 170 Ks inland, about a 20-minute trip and you're already arriving in this huge valley surrounded by the massive cave system, which is the Gunung Mulu National Park.

Once you're at the park headquarters you pretty much have to spend the night there and head off on an upriver trip, which are thrilling trips in Borneo, they're my absolute favorite means of travel, on a longboat with these expert boatmen from the different tribes of Borneo. So that's a couple of hours upriver.

And then you have to walk in 9 kilometers inland to what's known as Camp Five. And from there you have to walk the famous Pinnacles Climb. So to me, that's fairly off the beaten track.

Kim: The climbing that you did, and how treacherous it looks, you wouldn't want to be doing that sort of stuff without a guide.

Tamara: No, and thankfully the climb's actually the most treacherous thing about the trail these days, and not the actual guys who do it with all the Berawans. And the Kayan people, they were some of the most vicious headhunters in Borneo's history. So the actual trek is definitely treacherous and thrilling enough as it is, but Pinnacles Climb is treacherous because it's basically limestone killers. I compare them to daggers. Everywhere I looked, I seemed to be looking to a thousand sharp daggers waiting to catch me and just spear me through.

But because a lot of the climb is through a mossy, wet subtropical rainforest environment, these bits of limestone turn into something far more dangerous, and they're dangerous enough as it is because they're so incredibly dagger-sharp. But add moisture and humidity and slipperiness to the equation, and you've got quite something else.

So it was a very incredibly high climb. It wasn't quite as hard as one Singaporean woman painted it to be the night before the climb. She had us all there on the edge of our seats, and I actually was going to throw in the towel, quite stupidly, just based on the horror stories told by this Singaporean climber. Who, ironically, didn't get to the end. I have to say I was quite [spitely 00:35:03] satisfied. I thought, "Well that's her just desserts."

Kim: Well you mentioned the cave system, and in your article, there's a fabulous photo of Clearwater Cave. Can you tell us about that? It's Asia's longest?

Tamara: That's about 170 kilometers inland. Absolutely the longest cave in Asia. That's part of an incredible cave system, which was discovered in the 1970s by both a team from the Royal Geographic Society in the UK together with the local tribes, they're called the Berawan tribe. So in the late 70s, they started just exploring that area and discovered a huge network, a hundred kilometers long, of these limestone caves that gradually were explored by the National Geographic Society with the locals.

And they've opened up a certain number of caves, which are absolutely amazing. And one of them is big enough to fit some 20 or 30 Boeing airlines. Others, like the Clearwater, just go forever and ... And since my last visit they had developed a fantastic four-kilometer trail, which weaves its way all through the depths of the cave alongside a riverbed and it's fantastic ... It doesn't take entirely the effort away, you still have to [inaudible 00:36:33] up and down the edges, comb the lengths of this cave and the heights of this cave, but it definitely makes the going a lot easier than for the first explorers. So-

Kim: You're a brave person to take on such a scary challenge, and in your article, you leave us with a lesson, a lesson that you learned. And what was that, Tamara?

Tamara: I learned that to absolutely ignore all of the fear-mongering that that Singaporean lady had done. She had no idea, she was going by YouTube. And just get out there, go out and find for yourself, and then marvel at the sense of achievement that comes with such an accomplishment.

Because it was a little bit against the odds, and I think that intensifies that feeling of, not pride so much, but it was perhaps a little bit of that creeping in. But definitely, given the fact that I was so close, stupidly, to throwing in the towel, I was almost crying at the thought of, "Imagine if I'd done that." And so there was an incredible sense of joy and elation that literally go with getting yourself to such heights.

Kim: And she's a photographer, so some great pics in Tamara's story of the Pinnacles and the caves, in show notes of course.

Phil: Fantastic. Look, if you've been listening to the podcast for a while now, you may have recognized Tom from an earlier episode. We chatted to him in our episode on the Philippines, where fellow blogger J.B., from Will Fly For Food, described one of the local delicacies.

J.B.: The most notorious street food we have is the embryos, the balut. Have you heard of that?

Phil: No, but I'm already gagging. Go on.

J.B.: It's the kind of stuff that you see on Fear Factor. Duck embryos. Not everyone can eat it, not even Filipinos, so you know.

Phil: Is it crunchy, or-

J.B.: So actually it's not crunchy. It's soft. You can see the chick, the duckling that's formed. There're no feathers or anything like that. But yeah, I mean once you put it in your mouth it's soft and it's actually quite good.

Phil: Still not convinced.

Kim: No.

Phil: But if you have eaten balut, or any other strange street foods on your travels, please let us know. Email us at

Kim: A link to that ep on the Philippines in show notes, Phil. You can download the episodes from iTunes or the Google Podcast app, or ask Alexa or Google Home to play the World Nomads podcast.

Phil: Apparently you can ask Siri to play it now. Let's do it, okay. Hey, Siri, play the World Nomads podcast.

Siri: Here's The World Nomads podcast.

Kim: Of the world, exhausted just saying that.

Phil: There we are!

Kim: From Ushuaia, Argentina to Barrow in Alaska. If she completes it, Phil, she'll become the first woman to have done it.

Phil: Thank you, Siri.

Kim: Siri, she's such a good girl, isn't she?

Phil: I love Siri.

Kim: There's a movie about that.

Phil: Oh!

Kim: Next week, we look at festivals around the world. Bye!

Phil: Bye!

Announcer: The World Nomads podcast. Explore your boundaries.

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