The next chapter in our life together

Category: Borneo

The wild side of Sabah

Rain forest or jungle, whatever you call it it’s hot and sticky and the place to see the wild animals of Sabah.

We started on the gentle side in Sepilok staying at the Nature Lodge for three nights. We arrived late at the bus stop and were fortunate and grateful that there was one enterprising taxi driver waiting there to see if anyone needed a ride. Our constant good fortune and the kindness of strangers who help us along the way is another thing for which I continue to be grateful.

Over the next three days we visited the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Rainforest Discovery Center.

It has changed a bit at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center since Paul visited 45 years ago.

We now have to keep our distance to avoid passing diseases between species. But it was still great fun to watch this orangutan at the feeding station. We found out later that she is pregnant so all the more important that she has this backup nutrition. She is living on her own in the wild next to the center.

Our time at the Rainforest Discovery Center was early in the morning but although we could hear birds, we were unable to see any of them. We enjoyed the intro in the visitors center and the canopy walk and just spending time in the trees.

We also spent one day in Sandakan following the Heritage Trail to the oldest mosque, Chinese temple and Catholic Church.

We spent some time at the Agnes Keith house.

I had read her book Land Below the Wind before coming here. Now I want to read her other books including Three Came Home about her time (along with her son and husband) in the Japanese prison camp during WWII. I love her personal style of writing and now can better picture the places she describes. We also stumbled upon an exhibit dedicated to adventure movie makers Martin and Osa Johnson.

Something to add to our watch list – the films they made in Borneo. Our final stop was the war memorial park that told the story of the prisoner of war camps and the death marches that left Sandakan for Ranau.

It renews my commitment to building peace when we read about the horrible cost and cruelty of war.

Next stop was the Nature Lodge in Kampung Bilit on the Kinabatagan River. We had many opportunities for viewing wildlife while cruising in a small power boat on the river.

Though some had said the time there was relaxed, we found ourselves almost constantly busy between eating, tea and activities. When we had a little time between things we enjoyed meeting our fellow tourists from many parts of the world. Who has time to rest?

We had a couple more days to fill so we paid a visit to the Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary where we saw more flora than fauna, but also did get a foot soak and an experience of the jungle.

We got one more chance for wildlife viewing when former student, Fong Lim, took us to Semporna for snorkeling. It was a lazy and wonderful way to peak below the surface as if entering a giant fish tank. We didn’t have an underwater camera, so these from the surface will give you some idea.

More quick updates from Facebook

So proud of my former students and teaching colleagues who have created this event in KK (Kota Kinabalu) May 12 hosted…

Posted by Paul Thompson on Friday, May 3, 2019

Roti telor Chinese style with Fong Lin in Tawau b4 leaving for snorkeling in Sempourna

Posted by Paul Thompson on Saturday, May 4, 2019

In Semporna about to snorkel the Sulu Sea
With Vincent Chai and his kid’s classmates

Posted by Paul Thompson on Saturday, May 4, 2019

A couple videos to go with the previous posts

On top of Mount Kinabalu. You can hear the strong wind blowing.

Dawn on top of the mountain.

Making our way back from the summit with guide, Roger, and our friend and climbing partner, Julien.

The canopy walk at Poring Hot Springs with Julien – the day after climbing the mountain together. We are all missing Roger.

Down from the mountain

Climbing Mount Kinabalu was an amazing experience but was very physically challenging. Our first recovery step was the natural hot springs at Poring. Our long decent time meant the pools were closed when we arrived that night.

Luckily the restaurant was still open with good food and beer. And we were delighted to still have the company of Julien, our “partner in climb”. It was a good opportunity to reminisce about the climb and descent experience.

After a good night’s rest our sore bodies were ready for the hot pools. Our timing was perfect and we had the place to ourselves- just after the morning rain and before the crowds arrived.

The smell of sulfur was heavy in the air. Each tiled pool has a hot and cold spigot to blend to your own preference because the water directly from the spring is scalding hot and still uncomfortably hot to the touch after it has been cooled in open pools at the back of the pool area.

With just the right mix the temperature of our pool was perfect to ease our tired and aching muscles.

A quick dip in the rock pool to cool off then…

Time for a good breakfast

and well, we have enough time before our transport leaves- lets do the canopy walk. Oh wait we didn’t think about the fact that getting up to canopy level meant more climbing! And where is Roger? We miss our guide from the mountain! It’s not the same as a threesome. But the swinging bridges were fun- although a bit scary- the views were great and the company was the best. We laughed as we winced our way down the stairs at the end and then had to race to be on time for our pick up.

One quick stop on our way to see the Rafflesia that is in bloom. We pay our 30 Ringgits at the roadside shack and Paul asks the young girl why she is not in school today. The reason soon becomes apparent -she is our guide and is working today. A short drive up the dirt driveway and our guide leads us through the jungle over a bamboo bridge to a small fenced in area where with wondering eyes we viewed one of the world’s largest flowers.

Nearby were spent blossoms as well as buds of various sizes that will open in their own time. An open flower only lasts 5 days. Now that I’ve had a chance to read more I realize how important it is that this family is protecting these flowers. They are endangered partly due to their narrow neiche- only feed on one particular vine and must cross pollinate with another flower of the opposite sex all in less than a week of open time. Add to that the loss of forest habitat.

So I’m struck by the thought that especially where economies are challenged, we need an economic value for the environment. Though many want to do the right thing in terms of caring for the environment, they also may face tough choices in supporting their family. When a family like this one can make money from tourists who want to see this rare flower, it gives another incentive to protect it. We need to support these small scale efforts as best we can, because little efforts add up and might make the difference in a species survival.

Now off we went, stopping in Ranau at the bus stop where Paul and I would wait for the bus to Sandakan. Julien was continuing on to the park headquarters where he would catch a transport back to Kota Kinabalu. It was difficult to say goodbye. We’d been through a lot together in three short days. Julien is a much stronger climber, but he had chosen to stick with us as a team throughout the experience, only going ahead to get a shot of the sunrise (where he then waited for us for pictures on Low’s Peak) and to have breakfast set aside for us when we were too slow coming back from the peak. It said much to me of his character. Julien, I do hope our paths cross again – you make a great travel partner and even better friend. Maybe a cross-country ski marathon at the American Birkebeiner or a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota?

Our climb of the mountain was so much more than the physical challenge – the altitude had quite a negative effect on me as well as being hard on the knees. The mountain permitted us to climb her. We had good weather. My will held out even when I was clinging in terror to the rope to pull myself up the steepest rocks and I really didn’t want to do this anymore. Roger was so kind and gentle giving a hand and careful guidance when needed as well as patiently waiting as I stopped to catch my breath every five steps. The emotions of the experience were many and complex. In addition to terror (very limited) and tired, I was honored to walk in a place where so many had walked before me. It was so beautiful to be there with Paul as he returned to the mountain to revisit this portion of his Sabah experience. Reaching the highest point at Low’s Peak was an important experience, but my favorite part was walking on the top of the mountain below the peak. It is a vast open bare landscape that looks like what I imagine the moon to look like. Here and there are bits of vegetation that has managed to survive these harsh conditions, but mostly it’s swirled and patterned grey rock. It’s awe inspiring in it’s simplicity and majesty. It seemed like another world and then in the same day we were back at the park headquarters at the bottom of the mountain and being whisked away in a van.

With all this swirling in my mind, we took one last picture and gave one final wave to Julien and we settled in to wait at the bus stop.

Paul began making friends with all the others who came to wait – the four Australian young ladies who had just finished their mountain climb and the locals with whom he shared the books in his pack of Mt Kinabalu and Borneo. It was fun to see everyone looking at the books with great interest – so many beautiful pictures.

When the bus arrived there were no seats available but with some pleading on our part and the advocacy of a new Malaysian friend we were able to get two plastic stools wedged in by the bathroom and the Australian women got to sit on the floor. Eventually we all got seats as other passengers got off the bus. Thus began our next adventure to Sepilok and Sandakan.

– Mindy

#5 is in the books and NO MORE

When Mindy looked at Mt Kinabalu from Kota Belud, my home as a teacher in 1971-72, and said “it looks kinda big to me” I didn’t really give it a second thought.  After all I had climbed it 4 times in the 70s and what’s a few decades later got to do with it?

Plenty, that’s what. Now 3 days after the climb and my quads and calfs are finally not screaming as I opt for ramps over steps whenever possible. All the accolades and positive comments about being 70 and “oh, you look so fit and great work climbing” were appreciated so the fact remains. I WILL NEVER CLIMB MT KINABALU AGAIN!!

Feels good to say that and to realize that if needed my body can do what’s needed but I now have a new appreciation for moderation in such things. Last night we met a couple here at the Nature Lodge in Sepilok (famous for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center), rather youthful (30s I imagine) they reached the summit before sunrise (6 am) and were down at Park HQ 3 hours later….6.5 hours that took Mindy and I 15 hours. Without the hiking poles that Mindy urged me to bring along, the downhill steps and drops would have been much more difficult, thanks dear.

Suffice it to say, task accomplished, great photos to share, one grueling story to tell and one great lesson learned.

Witnessing the damage from the 2015 earthquake where 16 climbers and 2 guides were killed by an avalanche was shocking and awe inspiring. The exposed rock broken from the mountain face was bright white under the weathered outer covering and the giant and smaller boulders rolling down the southern face of the summit must have been terrifying at 7 am on June 15, 2015. Our guide Roger Eban (a local Dusan gentleman who has climbed the mountain hundreds of times) will always remember that day even though he was not on the mountain at the time the quake struck.

The boulder below broke off of the mountain face above and rolled down the mountain. Hundreds of these large and small boulders killed 16 Singapore School kids and two guides climbing on fixed ropes near Panar Laban where we spent the night before the summit push. The mountain had a very different feel to it since the last time I climbed in 1973.

By far the best part of the climb was the relationships that were formed with Roger and Julien Derian our new friend from France. When I heard that we had a 27 year old French climber in our group I was concerned that his pace would quickly separate our group and cause problems. Julien not only stayed with us, he was a gentleman, very supportive of our slower pace and we became close friends in a 3 day span which included our post climb dinner and hot springs bath at the Poring Hot Springs 45 minutes around the mountain.

Both he and Roger were very interested in being part of the ceremony to honor my son Chris as the third and final remembrance of leaving his cremains in holy spots during our journey. To me this was the most significant memorial as it was the location I had always wanted to bring Chris to and show him the place where I had so many life altering experiences. He also asked me many questions and enjoyed my stories about my time in Sabah. After reaching the summit (Low’s Peak) about 7:30 am I choose a flat rock not far from the summit where we could have privacy and the view was powerful to the south and the west toward Kota Belud. I shared my piece about Chris’ life and then Mindy, Roger and Julien all added their parts. Roger had also lost a son to a complicated medical problem at age 14 and he powerfully shared his emotions with us. The experience brought us all much closer together for the rest of the slow descent to the National Park HQ.

Julien speaking during the remembrance…he is one year younger than Chris.

The view from our remembrance rock….enjoy the view and remember Chris’ life, struggles and joys. I’ll always be your Dad and love you forever.


Heading down the final 6 km seemed like forever but as we got closer to the park HQ the thought of food, a cold beer and getting to Poring Hot Springs drove us forward. Again, thank you Mindy for having me bring and use my hiking poles. On the way down they were essential for saving my knees.

Before leaving the National Park I received the Kinabalu Park patch

for my collection to sew on my rainbow disc bag and as the clouds cleared and the mountain view opened up there we could clearly see the donkey ears and the route we climbed earlier that morning and it only took 15 hours of body effort. I was so mesmerized by the moment, the camera stayed in my pocket.

And so our journey continues to Sandakan, Sepilok and the Orangutans center, the Kinabatangan River Nature Lodge and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve as we experience more of the magic of this place called Sabah, the Land Below the Wind.

– Paul

Enjoy a few more photos of the mountain beginning with our early morning ascent – most climbers start from the lodge at Panar Laban at 2:30am (day two of climbing) to try to catch the sunrise at the peak.  This means many hours of climbing in the dark by flashlight.

Facebook updates while we try to catch up on the blog…

It’s hard to find the time and enough wifi bandwidth to keep up with our blog.  So, for those of you not on Facebook, here are links to a few of Paul’s posts since we arrived in Sabah (if you click on the date link you should be able to see the whole thing on Facebook even if you don’t have an account).

We are currently in the jungle on the Kinabatangan River, but surprisingly have cell coverage sometimes here!

More soon!

– Mindy

Day 2 in Sabah and the reunion machine is hopping
Many former students and teacher colleagues are organizing a reunion…

Posted by Paul Thompson on Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Got up at 1:30 am, started climbing in the dark at 2:30, reached the summit at 7:30 am and back to the start at Mt…

Posted by Paul Thompson on Sunday, April 28, 2019

Hi FB friends, working hard to fully experience our journey in Sabah and to report on our time here and in New Zealand…

Posted by Paul Thompson on Sunday, April 28, 2019

Welcome Back

Can’t remember exactly the last time I was in Borneo. Think it was with my friends Warren and Jody from Berkeley CA after meeting up with them in Bali at the start of my nearly 2 year post Peace Corps journey thru SE , South and SW Asia in 1973-75. Pretty different this time with my sleepy new wife at 3 am body time

and one more flight to go to arrive in Kota Kinabalu the capital city of Sabah, the eastern most state of Malaysia, and home to Mt Kinabalu the highest peak in SE Asia (13,455ft) which we’ll be climbing next week.

Our day began at 3 am in Auckland to catch our early morning flight to Melbourne Australia for our only significant lay over and hopeful tour in the city for 5-6 hours. However we only learned last week the need to have a transit visa to leave the airport and after 3 hours of filling out forms and sending in documents to the Aussie Govt. we receive a message that we also needed to have a personal visit with an Aussie rep…no can lah!! So the busy American couple got to enjoy the lovely Melbourne airport, playing cribbage, napping and feeling guilty about not blogging and wondering about what it was going to be like in Sabah….next time lah!

From the sky coming in and leaving the local landscape was very dry and brown and the locals we spoke to in the airport clearly pointed to the dramatic temperature increases in Australia…….the heat for us was yet to come.

The flight to Brunei and it’s capital Bandar Seri Bagawan was 6 hours, 3 time zones and one hemisphere away and getting off the plane (even though we were in the protected runway) there was that old familiar feeling of encompassing moist heat followed by the relieving cold of the “where is my sweater” terminal. Don’t get me started on air conditioning. Our 12:30am flight to KK (Kota Kinabalu) was delayed a bit by some passengers coming in from the Philippines so the 25 minute up and down flight arrived in the capital of Sabah at some blearly eyed time after a long and mostly fun day of travel.

The coolest thing about our flights was meeting Brenden from Auckland the liquor salesman who travels a lot.


On his way to Atlanta GA to visit his daughter and then take the bus up to NYC for 5 days, opps he counted and realized that it was only 4 so together with his maps, guide books and Mindy and my “vast experience” (not) of the Big Apple helped to map out his time. Reminded me of Chris and my 5 days in the city in 2001; Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Chinatown and night time atop the World Trade Center outside looking down on fireworks in the harbor. Little did we know that 3 months later those same buildings would come crashing down on 9/11. The next day a game at Yankee stadium and the surprise “Welcome to Christopher and Paul Thompson from Minnesota” in giant letters on the stadium scoreboard. Sweet memories of a dear boy.

Plan made Brenden say he wanted to come to Minnesota to experience winter and I said “you better come soon” as we agreed on the acceleration of our weather patterns. He asked about the best times and we said the end of January, beginning of February…perfect for the City of Lakes Loppet and the World Cup Cross Country Skiing Championships coming to the Twin Cities……welcome Brenden and other travelers we’ve met on this amazing journey across the seas.

Bring on the heat!!


Walking out of the airport at KK with our shuttle driver from the C’haya Hotel near the airport (bagus tempat – good place).

The view from our 9th floor window of LaSalle school and the South China Sea in the background.

We started our month in Sabah by sleeping until we got up at 9 am and headed out to find a new local phone place and SIM card and a safety razor cuz the NZ TSA pointed out that my old school injector blades were potential lethal weapons (my ancient razor handle was saved luckily) how exciting. The highlite here was finding a local kedai makan (food café) at getting Mindy’s first copi susu (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and pisang roti goring (banana fried bread like a crepe) and OMG was that good!!

New phone in hand with the usual cell phone hard to understand plan that sounded way better than it is I called Kok Yin my former student and unbelievable driver, tour guide and today taking us to Kota Belud where another contingent of former students and friends from 48-46 years ago are waiting our arrival. Kok Yin’s family are on a trip to Korea but he said to them “I must stay to be with Mr. Paul and his wife.”

With Kok Yin is Lim Suat Hong my initial friend on Facebook and constant source of energy and encouragement for us to make the journey to Sabah, She is also very involved in KK Basketball and a nurse and midwife.

We are constantly amazed at the kindness and support coming our way from this wonderful community of folks that have been touched not just by me but a lineage of volunteers from Canada, UK, NZ, and the USA. Thanks here goes to our former senator “the happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey who pitched the idea of young Americans making a difference serving overseas to JFK who got all the credit.

As is often the case, the volunteers who serve often receive way more than the people they serve but here the two way street of giving and receiving is clearly evident. Last night at our reunion party of about 30

Mindy shared about her experience of the impact Kota Belud had on my life (and amazement that 3 years of 70 could be so significant) and how it has shaped much of who I have become to what I do. Last night’s gathering was so sweet with hugs, 60 year old men and woman asking if I remembered them and telling me of the things they remember about Mr Paul and our times in Kota Belud 48 years ago.

Mr Eng and Kok Yin asked me to say a few words which often ended in tears and sniffles but I started by apologizing for the long absence in returning to Sabah and giving them a sense of how my experience here shaped my life from my career as a teacher to my interest in policy work and love of travel and adventure. Farida (holding her before photo, our English teacher and local author)

asked me how did my Sabah experience help to shape my life. That really opened up the emotions that sometimes are hard to express but in a loving community of people who clearly loved me it felt very safe and welcome as I shared about my life and the global awareness that living in Sabah had given me.

I joined their “WhatsApp” group, they all showed support for viewing our film “Saving Snow” on May 12 when we return to KK and enough folks said they could help to find a location and invite others (“please bring the youth” was their homework assignment) to make me feel like yes it will happen.

Following our speaking and them presenting Mindy with a “Sabah” necklace and me with a handmade keyholder with miniature native artifacts and personalized name plates then at the end of the evening they handed us a red chinese envelope with way too much RM (Malaysia Ringgit) which is so appreciated given that his trip will perhaps find Mr Paul joining the teacher ranks upon our return to Edina….but worth it…of course–lah!!

Mr Teo presenting the key holder, he was our Geography teacher now retired.

Then my gift to them…… the slide show that I spent 3 months scanning old Kodachrome and Ectochrome slides with the wonderful support and equipment of my friend Jonathan Gross in Morningside (our home). With no large screen available I hand held my laptop for each table as they gathered round to watch, laugh, point out, argue over who that was while the Ken Burns soundtrack continued to provide a strange ambiance to the 8 minute show. It was the least I could do and watching their faces light up with the old memories and seeing the connections being made between old friends that were now re uniting was the best gift I could possibly provide….after all we are in this thing together.

Sharing two of the photos from 1971-72 from the slide show

Mindy’s first Chinese breakfast.

Ally, our contact at River Junkies, the travel org arranging our Mt Kinabalu climb.

Mindy sharing a story with the local dress merchant helping her find a local baju kurung to wear to the party

Street scenes in KK, the capital of Sabah, East Malaysia and formerly Jesselton, North Borneo.

Handcraft magic at an art craft festival in KK, good timing and I had to restrain myself mightily.

Finally some time to relax on the roof of the Chaya Hotel, this is definitely not New Zealand.

Off for KB (Kota Belud) on the old road please, more to come from Borneo.