Dolphins, monkeys, and fireflies… and why do we need a life jacket?

Still in Sarawak, Borneo, our first night in the cabin at Permai Rainforest was spent listening to the sounds of the jungle. Mostly insects. Man, those insects were loud! But it was a soothing cacophony. Better than freight-train snoring, anyway. I’ll let you guess who is generally responsible for that.

Come morning, we awoke to the sounds of monkeys in the trees above. Sitting on the cabin’s back deck, we studied the canopy; branches bending here, leaves falling over there, as the group took the high road through the forest. Difficult to spot, the monkeys were streaky dashes of grey in the greenery above, at times easier to sight in dappled sunshine, at other times only the movement of the trees gave away their location. I’m pretty sure they were silver leaf monkeys. It was a beautiful start to the morning.

We bummed around on the beach for most of the day, and in the afternoon we headed out into the local estuaries for a dolphin watching, proboscis monkey spotting, crocodile spotlighting, and firefly gazing boat trip. A three-hour tour, as it were. Without being stranded on a desert island, thankfully.

We did, however, have a rather anxious passenger in little Phoebs, who, despite having revelled in the rolling of the Manly Ferry as it crossed between Sydney Heads on a rough day, quickly developed an aversion (rather logical, when you think about it) to small boats that require the passengers to wear life jackets.

We were oblivious to the impending trouble as we donned our orange jackets. Phoebe and Blake put them on happily. They have worn them before, in row boats. Plus, tiny life jackets are adorable, right? And she looks happy enough.


It was as we approached the boat on the beach that the questions began.

P: Why do we need a life jacket?
Me: For safety.
P: Safety from what?
Me: Just to be safe. It’s a boat thing.
P: Are we going to fall in?
Me: No.
P: So, why do we need a life jacket?
Me: Just for safety, Phoebs.

I didn’t want to mention boats crashing, or sinking, or people falling out – all the reasons why people wear life jackets in boats. It just wasn’t the time. Needless to say she wasn’t impressed with my answers.

Here’s the boat. And the driver. In his speedos. And a beanie.


I think he’d just taken a swim. In speedos and a beanie. A beanie in the tropics? Anyway, the important thing is he got dressed to drive the boat. I didn’t even notice the speedos until just now. Or the beanie, really. Anyway, back to the story.

On board, we set off, and Miss Phoebs was shaking, the poor bub. I felt like we were torturing her. She was worried when anyone moved around, or stood up. Really worried. While Blake was having a blast (I think he filled the role of Gilligan quite well), little chickie was not having a good time.


Suddenly, I remembered how Phoebe had watched some orange-life-jacket-clad Year 7 kids fall out of a canoe when we visited school camp, and how she really wasn’t keen on getting in the canoe herself after that, and felt more pangs of guilt. Oh well, stiff upper lip, facing your fears and all that, hey? But I guess when you see someone fall off a horse, it’s not the best ad for horse riding.

Back in Borneo, we were lucky to spot a few Irrawaddy dolphins in the wide bay fed by the Salak and Santubong Rivers, just south of Permai. A bit like a Beluga in appearance, the dolphins were on the move, with no tricks, and no mucking about. It was impossible to get a picture, as we never knew where they’d surface next. That, and Phoebe screamed every time someone moved in the boat. We were lucky to see the dolphins. We were also lucky there were no other paying passengers in the boat.

A game of I Spy seemed to calm her down as we headed upriver into the mangroves for the next wildlife spotting: proboscis monkeys. Easily identified by their large, red, clown-like nasal appendages, the proboscis monkeys are easiest to spot at dusk, when they come out to feed. We spied a few, but they were shy, and speedy, and didn’t want to keep still.


Did you spot it? How about this one? Just pretend it’s a game of Where’s Wally.


OK, so it was a bit like that. But I did manage to get one clear shot.


Phoebs even let me stand up to take the photo. As long as I didn’t go near the edge. She was actually a lot better by this time.


Blake liked the monkeys. A lot.


Phoebe even changed seats. Oh, those life jackets! Adorable.


We drifted by a Malay fishing village on an island in the river, which only recently hooked up to the grid. It was beautiful in the dying light of the day.


As darkness fell over the river, we looked for crocodiles amongst the mangroves, using torches. Apparently their eyes glow red in the spotlight. We didn’t see any.

Last stop on our three-hour tour was the firefly tree. Many trees in Malaysia’s mangroves glow green in the evening’s darkness, surrounded by ethereal fireflies. I had never seen one before, and they truly were magical. A firefly tree – a sight to behold!

As Cindy, our guide, caught one in her hand, and passed it into Phoebe’s palm, the little fairy light dimming and brightening as its wings beat, the trip suddenly became worthwhile. Phoebs was bowled over by the experience, and we sat under the branches of the api api tree, capturing the slow-moving insects easily in our hands, before releasing them back into the air, giggles and gasps of wonder as the kids reacted to this amazing sight.

I couldn’t get any decent pictures, but to give you an idea, the tree looked like this (I stole it from the Internet):


I’m kinda glad I didn’t use the camera. It means I have to try harder to remember the moment. We’ve been to fairyland!

As we raced back up the coast, enveloped in darkness, cool breeze hard on our faces in the open boat, Phoebe snuggled in close and relaxed for the ride. Despite this, I didn’t think we’d get her in a boat again anytime soon… until yesterday in Langkawi. But that is a post for another day.

Next post – getting tribal.

Read about more of our Malaysian adventures in Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park, KL Chinatown, Batu Caves, and the Santubong Peninsular, Sarawak.

Linking up for Travel Photo Thursday #TPThursday with Nancie from Budget Travelers Sandbox. Pop on over and read some other great posts if you have a spare few minutes.

31 thoughts on “Dolphins, monkeys, and fireflies… and why do we need a life jacket?

  1. You got much better pictures of the proboscis monkeys on this river tour than I did. I’m so glad Phoebe finally had a chance to relax. Hopefully, her memories of this excursion will be of all the cool things you saw instead of her fears. My own daughter has a fear of thunderstorms. It wasn’t a problem back home in Texas which is in the midst of a years long drought, but the storms in Malaysia constantly send her into a tither.

    • Oh, we had a cracker of a storm the night we arrived in Penang. It was awesome!! Thankfully the kids were fast asleep. We went to Sabah a few years back and I think I missed every photo opportunity for a shot of a proboscis monkey, so glad I got a good one this time.

  2. What a fantastic 3 hours even if your daughter was nervous. Who knows how deep those fears go and if she’ll hang onto them for a long time. I know I have with horseback riding despite my mother trying to get me on. I think once she becomes a good swimmer she should be fine – or a better swimmer if she’s good already.
    What an exotic sounding vacation to this Canadian’s ears.

    • Yes, being able to swim would help. Hopefully in the Aussie summer she’ll get a bit more confident in the water. We’re home to winter in Sydney now, so also wishing I was back in the tropics!

  3. I would love to do this trip and the fireflies would be magical. There used to be fireflies in my grandmother’s house in the country when I was young. I used to lay in bed at night and watch them. They did not come every night, but when they did it was magical.

  4. How cool is that to see a firefly tree. I used to love fireflies when I was little in the Philippines. I don’t think my kids have seen one. This tour sounds fantastic and seeing all the diverse wildlife. So glad you Phoebs got better. What a memorable adventure though.

  5. Glad the I Spy game distracted and calmed Pheobe. Those monkeys do move quickly, you were lucky to capture what you did.
    I wonder what about that tree attracts fireflies in those numbers. I don’t remember ever seeing them like that.
    Great post, Lisa!

  6. I think I can understand Phoebes’ concerns. Happy that she was able to relax a bit and enjoy the experience. I loved fireflies when I was a kid in Illinois. I never see them here in California. A firefly tree would be amazing!

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  8. Hi Lisa, I’m writing from Permai Rainforest Resort. Your blog was a heartfelt and very nice. Would it be ok if I posted it on our Facebook page?

      • Choice! I am so glad you enjoyed it. We are working on some new things to do around Permai and the area, a mountain bike track for starters, but will as always keep our footprint small. We do hope to see you and your little explorers again.

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