Borneo Adventure 2
March 31, 2018
I began my trip through Sarawak in Kuching. Kuching is a lovely city and I was quite sad to leave it. It’s quiet and clean and safe, and a perfect base from which to explore the highlights of western Sarawak.
A quick aside regarding geography: The island of Borneo is huge and divided between three countries. The northern portion of it, about one third, belongs to Malaysia, with the tiny nation of Brunei embedded within. The remaining 70% or so comprises the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. The Malaysian section is divided into two provinces, Sabah, occupying the eastern third, and Sarawak, making up the western and central thirds (Brunei is nestled between the two provinces). Kuching is at the western end of Sarawak and my trip would take me east, from Kuching to Brunei. I wouldn’t be seeing any of Sabah or Kalimantan this time around.
Anyway, from Kuching I visited Bako National Park to hike and spot proboscis monkeys. Bako featured some spectacular beaches but swimming was prohibited due to an ongoing crocodile problem. Good reason.
I also visited Semenggoh to see semi-wild orang utan (it actually is two words, as orang utan means “people of the jungle” in Malayu).
After Semenggoh, I joined members of the Bidayu tribe (a bunch of young guys who were quite proud of their heritage) on a spectacular kayaking trip up a river between two Bidayu villages.
While in Kuching, I chatted up and befriended a local named Dicky. He’s a freelance videographer with a flexible schedule, so he offered to show me around, first taking me to a favorite spot of his for breakfast, then to the Sarawak Cultural Village, where I learned about the various indigenous tribes, including the Bidayu, the Penan, and the Iban.
After picking up his young son, Adam, we visited his parents (his father is a fascinating man who’d lived in England and now raced model speedboats) and the absolutely hilarious but oddly fascinating cat museum (Kuching means “cat” in Malayu and the city has adopted the theme with gusto).
If anybody ever wanted to get a good taste of Borneo without straining themselves too much, a week in Kuching would be an excellent option. It’s very comfortable and grants access to all of Sarawak via bus, boat, and even a small but well managed airport.
After five days in Kuching, though, it was time to move on and I took a boat to Sibu. The boat actually exits the Sarawak river, heads out to the South China Sea, and then re-enters Borneo through the Rajang River. It takes about six hours but it’s quite comfortable (they even show Jackie Chan movies with subtitles on and the sound off . . . though the subtitles are usually Chinese).
Sibu is not a tourist city but it grows on you. It’s a city fueled by oil and lumber and it’s mostly Chinese (Malaysia is made up of three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, and Indian, with Borneo adding the aforementioned tribes to the mix). There’re amazing markets here, including a great night market. The night market is actually divided into two sections, with the mostly Muslim Malays occupying one section and selling chicken and beef satay, and the Chinese taking up the other half, serving up pork dumplings and steamed bau.
It’s not exactly a beautiful city (though Sibu does sport a truly impressive Chinese Buddhist temple), but its blue collar, working class vibe is oddly refreshing. I was told I might get a few strange looks, and that has definitely happened since I must be one of the only westerners in town, but these are not aggressive looks. In fact, they’re usually accompanied by bemused smiles or outright giggles (especially from the younger people). At one small restaurant they were quite impressed that I was able to order a few traditional dishes, thanks entirely to Dicky, who introduced me to said dishes in Kuching.
I took a boat up the Rajang to a small town called Kapit. The boats are called “flying coffins”, not because of their passengers’ mortality rates but because of their shape, which is quite coffin-like. The boat ride takes three hours and offers great views of the river and surrounding jungle. “Ulu ulu” means back of beyond or middle of nowhere and, though Kapit isn’t quite that, it’s not far from it.
Kapit is a lumber town that dates back to the days of the first White Raja, in the mid 1800s. It’s even more blue collar than Sibu and the people even more intrigued to see a tourist. I was asked no less than four times in an hour to take someone’s picture. They didn’t even ask to see the photo, they just wanted their picture taken by a real tourist, I guess.
While there I was called over by a group of young men and offered a couple beers. I chatted with them for a while and learned they were members of the Iban tribe and had the traditional Iban-style tattoos to prove it. They said I should get some and, man, I was sorely tempted to just abandon my ten dollar boat ticket back to Sibu, book a hotel in Kapit, and follow these guys to their tattoo artist, but after a few more minutes’ chat I headed back to the pier and my ride. I still regret it, to be honest.
Oh, interestingly, two of these young guys spoke pretty good French as they’d worked for a lumber company in Cameroon, in Africa. One of them told me how there was a lot of sickness there, mainly malaria, and that there was continuous violence between Christians and Muslims (I didn’t ask but, as an Iban, he was likely Christian, himself).
Upon returning to Sibu (after another three hour river ride), an old man called me over to his shop and asked if I wanted a beer. I accepted, paid, and sat with my beer, watching as the sun set over the Rajang.
I think that, more than on any other trip, this adventure has netted me the most places to which I hope to return. Kuala Lumpur didn’t leave much of an impression, to be honest, but Dicky’s father told me he has a good friend who has ventured deep into the jungle, where only locals go, and that if I were to return he could get me in touch with this man. Sibu has actually grown on me and I’d like to spend a few days in Kapit, get those tattoos, but maybe also befriend someone who could take me further up the Rajang and to Iban longhouse villages. Anyway, it’s actually not that far and so I absolutely could return . . .
The next day I had plans to meet with a friend of Dicky’s, a Sibu local, who would show me around a bit before I take the bus to Bintulu, yet another working class city on the northern coast of Sarawak.