It's True! Size Does Matter

Bako National Park in Malaysia

Size does matter if you’re a Proboscis monkey living in Malaysia’s Bako National Park midst abundant wildlife, waterfalls, secluded beaches and trekking trails.

Bako National Park in Malaysia
A male proboscis monkey checks out the view from high in the trees of Malaysia’s Bako National Park on the island of Borneo.

While size may not matter for human males, if you’re a Proboscis monkey, size is everything. At least as far as your nose is concerned. The male with the biggest schnoz is the one who always seems to get the most attention from the ladies.

If you want to see some well-endowed male proboscis monkeys flaunting their big, nasal money-makers, Malaysia’s Bako National Park, a small park on the island of Borneo, is one of the best places to go.

At least we hoped it would be as we climbed into our boat and zipped out into the ocean waters of the South China Sea surrounding the Muara Tebas peninsula, located in the province of Sarawak.

Flying lemur at Bako National Park in Malaysia
Flying lemur, one of the rare primates that call Bako “home.”

We also hoped the rain would hold off. During the 30-minute drive from the city of Kuching to Bako Market, the sky kept spitting intermittently, prompting us to buy cheap rain ponchos before jumping into the boat for the half-hour ride to the park jetty.

Clouds of mist shrouded the shoreline as we zipped along the water toward the park. The breeze created by the boat’s speed felt refreshing, as the tropical heat was already starting to make us sweat. In 30 short minutes, the four of us — I and two other travelers along with our guide, Bong — arrived at the park jetty, just minutes away from a boardwalk that led to its interior hiking trails.

Established in 1957, Bako is the oldest national park in Sarawak, and at just over 2,700 hectares in size, one of the smaller ones. While it may be small, it is nothing if not diverse. It is home to seven different ecosystems that contain 25 distinct types of vegetation. More than 150 bird species call it home, including two species of hornbills (the official bird of Sarawak). Flying lemurs, various bats, tarsier, and palm civets live there. Reptiles and lizards are abundant, including Wagler’s pit viper, the park’s only poisonous snake. Monitors, green-crested lizards and flying lizards also reside in the park. Primates like long-tailed macaques and silver leaf monkeys thrive in its jungles.

But we were there to see the Proboscis monkey. Nothing else would do.

Telok Paku hike in Bako National Park
Hiking along Telok Paku, hoping to spot a male proboscis monkey.

After disembarking from our boat, we headed along a boardwalk that snakes through a swampy mangrove area to the island proper. We did see some female Proboscis monkeys, perched in trees foraging for seeds, leaves, mangrove shoots and unripe fruit. But that was not why came; we were on a mission — nothing but a big schnoz would do. So we headed into the jungle and along Telok Paku, one of the paths that Bong assured us would provide a good opportunity for seeing some of the males along the trail.

About 45 sweaty minutes later, we come out to a secluded little beach at the end of the trail. Pretty enough, but nary a monkey in sight, neither along the beach or up in the trees along the trail. After taking a short break to enjoy the views of the beach, we headed back to the trail head.

As we came out into the open area of the mangrove, Lady Luck smiled upon us. There, sitting in some trees close to the boardwalk, were the Jimmy Durantes of the monkey world we so fervently wished to see. They were chowing down, climbing from tree to tree in search of food.

Proboscis monkeys are an endangered species; population estimates have the numbers of remaining wild monkeys pegged between 1,000 and 3,000. They live only one place in the world: Borneo. Both the males and females are covered with reddish-brown fur, but of course, the male have that wonderful nose. The males also have large potbellies weighing in excess of 44 pounds. These monkeys are mainly arboreal — they spend most of their time in the trees.

We spent close to an hour taking photos and watching them eat, groom and just hang out. At that point, the power of suggestion led us to go off in search of some food of our own and we headed over to “forage” in the park’s cafeteria for some lunch.

In the early afternoon, we headed out to explore more of the park. We spotted a flying lemur napping in a tree. It’s a rare daytime treat, as they’re nocturnal, mainly active at night and not easily spotted during the day.

Wagler’s pit viper in Borneo
A Wagler’s pit viper is almost invisible as it snoozes in the tree branches of Borneo.

Further along the trail, we got a glimpse of a beautiful but potentially dangerous Wagler’s pit viper, draped among some tree branches, snoozing away in the afternoon heat. We would have walked right by it, except for our guide’s sharp eyes. Its green coloring helps camouflage it perfectly in the leaves of the trees.

long-tailed macaques
Get ready to rumble! Some long-tailed macaques have a minor disagreement.

Shortly after that, we were treated to the primate version of a World Wrestling Entertainment Smackdown main event (without the referees, the hype and the TV coverage, of course). A group of long-tailed macaques were hanging out along the trail, and some of them were in a disputatious mood, fighting and screaming at each other — at least until the dominant male expressed his displeasure and they either quieted down or left the immediate vicinity. Hey, he was busy being groomed by three others, and apparently even monkeys like to have their “spa” treatments without disturbance.

Our guide got a little too close, though, and the male bluffed a charge at him. At least we thought it was a bluff.  Regardless, it got the desired result. We figure it was time to turn around and head back down the trail the way we came and leave the monkeys to their shenanigans.

We spent about 30 minutes in the visitor center, then headed back down the beach to the jetty where our boat was waiting. By this time, the rain and cloudy skies were long gone, the sun was shining in deep azure skies and as we headed back to civilization, we were treated to a beautiful view of the forested cliffs that plunge down into the ocean.

As we zipped along the water, the fresh sea breeze in our faces, I wondered if it would smell stronger or sweeter if I had a schnoz the size of a proboscis monkey …

 

If You Go:

A view of Borneo from the surrounding area
A view of Borneo from the surrounding area

There is something for everyone in Bako National Park, as its extensive trail system includes 16 color-coded jungle trails, offering a range of walking and hiking options. You can opt for full-day jungle hikes or overnight camping expeditions, or, if you prefer, you can choose to take relaxing forest walks.Visitors can camp in tents, stay in hostels, or book a forest lodge.

Want to see more proboscis monkeys? Another good place to spy them is the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, located on the extreme northeast tip of Malaysian Borneo, in the province of Sabah. If you visit that area, you may also want to see orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The Sepilok Jungle Resort is 10 minutes from the centre.

If you don’t feel like going that far, you can also see orang-utans while using Kuching as a base. The Semmenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary is just a 45-minute drive from Kuching.

While in that part of the country, you may also want to arrange for a stay at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, the Hilton’s only jungle lodge in the world. The lodge is accessible only by a 20-minute boat ride across the man-made Lake Batang Ai.

More about Malaysia: The country of Malaysia consists of a mainland portion — a peninsula adjacent to Thailand — and an island portion, Borneo, which it shares with two other countries: Indonesia and Brunei.

Most international flights arrive in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, located on peninsular Malaysia. From there, you can catch flights to Borneo.

English is not the official language, but most Malaysians speak it. There are three main cultures in the country: the indigenous Malay people, Chinese and East Indian.

A good website helpful in planning any visit to Borneo is Tourism Malaysia.

Flights:

Malaysia Airlines offers direct flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. Other options include EVA Air, a Taiwan-based airline that routes you through Taipei to Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore Airlines.

John Geary is an independent travel writer/photographer based in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His favorite assignments involve going to wild places around the globe, to see wildlife in its natural habitat. He’s been dive-bombed by a toucan, hissed at by an alligator, pelted with fruit by gorillas and been hugged by an octopus, all during the course of “story research.”
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