I ended up in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak
, Borneo, after I had to change travel plans at the last minute. I'd just finished researching a guidebook on the Malay Peninsula and my visa to Myanmar, where I'd planned to go next, got denied, so suddenly I had five days of free time and a day to plan it. A flight to Kuching from Penang was around $60 round-trip on Air Asia
and they still had seats, so off I went. I had no clue that I was about to have one of the most tranquil yet exhilarating travel experiences of my life.
The trip started poorly. As the lone patron of my Hostel World-recommended guesthouse, I wasn't meeting a soul in Kuching. Although it was filled with temples and delicious seafood restaurants and cut by a winding river out of a Maugham novel, the town offered little in the way of activities and I was getting dispirited wandering around by myself. My guidebook said that Bako National Park was an hour and a half from Kuching and was packed with wildlife. The sleeping options were reportedly grim ("dank bathrooms" and "torn mozzie nets"), but I had to get out of Kuching or I'd start talking to myself. I wasn't sure I'd meet anyone at Bako, either, but hanging out with monkeys sounded better than feeling like a human loser in Kuching.
After an hour ride to a boat dock in a clunky yellow bus and a wet half-hour in a rusty speedboat, I traipsed from the boat up to Bako's beach through warm waves, pants rolled up to my knees, backpack on my head. The all-local transport made me feel like an intrepid solo adventurer rather than alone and lost, so already I was happy to be there. Bako's park headquarters are in mangrove swamps on a gray stretch of sand littered with rubbish; although beautiful, it's not pristine.
I walked up to the front desk and signed in, then asked the ranger if it was possible to get a hiking guide. She looked at me blankly, as if I was the first person who had ever asked this question.
"Don't need guide," she said flatly. "Sign here when leave. Sign when get back. You don't come back, we go look for you. No one get lost."