The boatman shut the engine, allowing us to silently drift toward the river’s edge where a herd of pygmy elephants had gathered to drink and graze. Our guide was talking softly, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he was speaking in Bahasa.
“I’m talking to them,” he explained, gesturing to the creatures at the river. “I say, ‘Good day, Mr Elephant. We would like to be your friend.’”
“Go ahead,” he urged me. “You can talk to them, too. Like you would to anyone.”
We were far up the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah. There were orangutans idling in the treetops, proboscis monkeys hanging out together and macaques darting and screeching through the trees. Back at the lodge one morning, a huge Asian water monitor lizard clambered onto the bank and then quickly dove back into the river. The size of it made my hair stand on end. Meanwhile, a pair of bold storks seemed to want to get into one of the rooms, pecking persistently at a glass window.
It amazed me to think how close we were to my native Philippines. The Kinabatangan River flows out onto the Sulu Sea – from the coast, you could probably paddle all the way to Tawi-Tawi.
Our guide was half-Filipino, though he had never been to the Philippines and spoke none of its languages. But in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s charming capital and the gateway to this animal kingdom, there is a Filipino Market where they sell handicrafts from the Philippines as well as Malaysia.