Six a.m. feels like the middle of the night, but husband Rick and I dress, breakfast and are ready for Yusri, our guide, who breezes into our hotel at seven sharp. 'Early to rise' is nature's rule to see the shy proboscis monkeys endemic to Borneo.
At a jetty, a boat with helmsman, Shan, ferries us down river towards the mangroves, domain of the proboscis, named for the long, fleshy nose of the males, designed to amplify calls to impress females and intimidate rivals. Their harem lifestyle involves groups composed of a dominant male, several females and offspring.
Shan slows the boat when passing Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's 1,788-room palace, "Istana Nurul Iman" or Palace of the Light of Faith. It's the largest residential palace ever built, and includes 257 bathrooms, a banquet hall that accommodates 5,000, a mosque for 1500, 5 swimming pools, plus many more extravagances.
Unfortunately, our timing did not coincide with the sultan's open house for the public on the last three days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when we would have been greeted warmly by the sultan or his wife, and treated to a meal and palace tour.
As the river narrows, Yusri announces, "On the right are mangroves where we will see proboscis nibbling leaves."
Cormorants, sea-eagles and lizards that stand erect are sighted along the shore, and just before a small mangrove bay, Shan suddenly cuts the motor and calls out, "crocodile!" We follow his pointed finger to what looks like a huge grayish floating tree trunk with eyes.
Yusri advises us of the monkey's ability to swim, evolved with webbed feet and hands to help them outpace such crocodiles, their main predator when crossing water to source food. We learn that their protruding stomachs are fitted with chambers and bacteria to help digest their diet of leaves, seeds, unripe fruit, and occasionally insects.
In the bay, we quietly wait. Leaves in the tall trees rustle and sway furiously! "a troop of about 5 or 6 proboscis...golden brown colour...see, see?" Yusri whispers. Well, barely - as they are hidden by leafy thickness. We steer into a narrow channel, and on cue, a male appears on thick branches. Quiet cheers erupt!
We leave the mangroves for a stop at Kampong Ayer (Water Village), home to 30,000 inhabitants in wooden stilt-houses along both sides of the river. This traditional mode of living dates back 1300 years, but modern amenities now include electricity, air conditioning, plumbing, satellite television, and, of course, internet access.
Boardwalks and foot-bridges join the houses, schools, shops, restaurants, clinics and mosques. Fishing, river trading, artisans fashioning silver brassware, woodcarving and fabric weaving are some occupations. A steady stream of private water taxies shuttle residents back and forth from the mainland.
We hop out of the boat to visit one of the houses which all look plain and rather shabby from the outside. After introducing us to the owner, Yusri leads us through a well-equipped kitchen and family room with a flat-screen TV. Chairs to receive visitors occupy a spacious and ornately decorated living room at the back. Tea is poured, and we are treated to pastries, which disappear quickly after three hours on the water.
Cruising the mangroves to see the elusive proboscis is a great wind-up for our Brunei Darussalam travels! (Read Irene's related articles in
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