Borneo is the world’s third-largest island, and is shared between three states; Indonesia, who control the larger southern territory of Kalimantan; Malaysia, who control two states in the north, Sabah and Sarawak; and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei Darussalaam squeezed in between them. Due to our omnipresent time constraint – we are travelling the world in only one year, after all – we had to choose one region. It was a toss between Sabah and Sarawak, but as Sabah requires lots of advance applications for permits to see its greatest sights, we decided on Sarawak.
Sarawak lies in the northwest territory of the island of Borneo, and is one of the most precious pearls in the crown of Malaysia’s multicultural crown. It is Malaysia’s largest state and enjoys semi-autonomy. With a massive density of tropical rainforest and home to numerous indigenous tribes, it promised a lot. We arrived in its capital Kuching on the evening of 23 September for a seven-day visit.Having relaxed in Indonesia for a little too long, we were determined to make the most of our time. So we were up at the crack of dawn the next day to visit the Semenggoh Nature Reserve which is home to an Orang-Utan sanctuary. The goal of the sanctuary is to rehabilitate previously sick or captive orang utans for reintroduction to the wild in one of the protected national parks elsewhere in Sarawak. One of the highlights of our trip so far has been all the wonderful diversity of rare and unfortunately endangered wildlife that we have seen. But the orang-utans were one of the highlights of our highlights. Orang-utan means “jungle man” in the local language, and they are only found in two places on Earth – Borneo and Sumatra, the main island of Indonesia. They’re lots of fun to watch as they swing around the trees like hairy Tarzans, pinching fruit from each other, climbing over each other, and peeling oranges and opening coconuts. You can sense a lot of personality in each of the animals, except perhaps for the brooding alpha-male who preferred to eat on his own with twice the amount of food the others have – no wonder he’s so huge. We visited the centre at around 10am for the morning feeding session – the rangers feed the orang-utans about half their daily diet, ensuring that they also develop their natural skills for living in the wild. The feeding centre is very low-key with a few wooden platforms and some ropes around the borders, so it feels very authentic and not at all like a zoo enclosure. On our walk back through the forest, we were greeted by the sight of one of the orang-utans hanging contentedly from a branch with her baby just above us. We were within a couple of metres of the orang-utan who just swung around and made faces and groomed her baby. We were the last to leave, and could have stayed for longer too. That afternoon we took a stroll around Kuching. Most of the town is centred around the waterfront which is dominated by a modern convention centre on the far bank which looks like some kind of massive crown. Boats constantly criss-cross the river as they ferry locals to and from the (kampungs (villages) on the far side. On the city side, the main bazaar hugs the spacious promenade and is made up mostly of souvenir shops. We strolled further along the promenade to the tourist centre which is housed in a lovely old whitewashed colonial building with carved wooden windows, overshadowed by hanging trees overgrown with orchids. It’s an attraction in itself. Stocked up on the information we needed for the trip, we strolled back to the hotel via one of the old Chinese temples. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot of interest in Kuching, leading us to question the brochure’s claim to be “perhaps Asia’s most beautiful city”, although it is a pleasant place to while away the afternoon hours.
The next day we were off on the trail of more animals, this time the proboscis monkey which is unique to Borneo. We took a public bus to the entrance of the Bako National Forest Park, and then a boat transfer to the park which is located on a headland inaccessible by car. Stepping off onto the muddy beach, we saw loads of small crustaceans, and in the trees around us we could hear the shaking branches and shrill cries of the macaque monkeys. We had brought some fruit for lunch with us, but that didn’t last long – we left it down for a minute to dry our feet and when we turned around, a macaque had made off with the lot before we could say “cheeky monkey”. We set off on our trek through the rainforest – we had chosen one of the shortest and easiest routes, but after a few minutes we were both wet through. The humidity in the rainforest has to be felt to be believed – it could make a steam-room feel cool. The path itself was anything but easy, and at many times we had to grab the long, exposed tree roots to help us up the steep passes. It was rewarding though as we saw all three types of monkey indigenous to the park – the macaque, the gorgeous silvered-leaf monkey, and finally on the way back, the elusive proboscis monkey. The proboscis is instantly identifiable due to its, how do I put it, big nose. And its true, it has a very big nose, and if that’s not an attractive enough feature, it also has a big potbelly – handsome devils.We had toyed with the idea of spending a night on the park as the night-time treks are supposed to be great. But there were so many insects, we were drenched, and the only remaining accommodation was quite basic, so we decided against staying and instead set off on another trekking route. Bako is famous for having seven different unique types of rainforest and even from our untrained eye we could see the landscape change throughout the trek. Overall, Borneo is astonishing in terms of its natural riches, and all this within convenient reach of Kuching.
We got the bus back to Kuching and decided to take a walk through the Sunday market, even though it was only Saturday evening. Every weekend, farmers from the surrounding countryside come to Kuching to sell their produce. I was tired after trekking and not really looking forward to another market – we’ve seen loads on our trip – but this one was up with the best. Lying so near the Equator and covered in rainforest, the fruit and vegetables on sale were like none I’ve ever seen. We also got to sample the local delicacies of colourful marble cake, grilled fish, and deep-fried bits and pieces of who knows what. The people, merchants and locals, were really friendly and extended us a really warm welcome. And that is one of the highlights of Borneo – no touts, no hassle, and people who are generally interested in talking to visitors.
Other than its natural diversity, Borneo is prized for its ethnic diversity, with over 10 distinct ethnic tribes in Sarawak alone. We intended taking an organised tour deeper inland to visit one of the tribes in one of their traditional longhouses which house numerous families in a largely common living area. We soon changed our mind though given that the journey each way would last most of a day, and the prices were very high – over €200 per person for an overnight trip. We contemplated going independently also, but that would have involved extra time, time which we unfortunately didn’t have in Borneo. So we settled on the convenient option of visiting the Sarawak Cultural Village in Damai, an hour’s drive from Kuching.We were a little apprehensive about our selection, fearing a Disney-style experience which would be far from authentic, but Ninfa had heard good reports, so with little other option, we went for it. Although it is quite packaged, we thoroughly enjoyed the visit. The village is made up of several specially constructed traditional longhouses, tallhouses and farmhouses. The main advantage of the village is that you get to see and understand a small part of many different tribes, and can see how culturally diverse they each are. The village is home to several different families who live there full-time, and welcome you into their homes and explain their culture and traditions. Each sell some small souvenirs unique to their tribe or ethnicity, and we found that the information offered is often better if you make a small purchase (everything is reasonably priced). Some families play music, others dance, tattoo or carve sculptures, and a couple display some skulls from the days when the Bornean tribes earned their fierce reputation for headhunting. Twice a day, there is a show where each tribe performs music and dance, and it’s actually very enjoyable. The morning show was standing room only, so we waited until the afternoon when most of the tour groups have left and had a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience. The village is home to families of Orang Ulu (one of our favourites), Malay, Chinese, Bedayuh, Iban and more.
Overall, the village is like a culture-buffet, with small tastes of lots of dishes, but enough to satisfy your appetite. On the other hand, if we had had the time, we would have gone deep into the mainland and seen it for real.
Having spent a full day at the village, we stayed in the Damai Puri resort which is just next door. It’s very resorty but has some beautiful views of the South China Sea, Mount Santubong, and a small beach where both locals and tourists come for a dip in the warm, murky waters. I took the opportunity to play golf in the adjoining golf-course – since we left Ireland, I’ve been dying to play, and at €25 for a championship course, I couldn’t resist. Cut into the rainforest I felt a little guilty, and this perhaps affected my game as it wasn’t a score to remember. That was also possibly due to the scenery, the giant lizards, the monkeys in the trees and the crocodile warnings around the pond.
After our relaxation in Damai Puri, it was back to Kuching for one last night and a feast at a seafood restaurant on the top floor of a carpark. Doesn’t sound appetising, but the mud crab, oyster pancake, sea slugs and other shellfish are all now well and truly sleeping with the fishes. Reflecting on our week in Borneo, we both agreed that Borneo had proven a real surprise package, and with so much to offer in Sabah as well, it would have been great to have spent longer. It’s always a good thing to leave a place while still wanting more, and that’s definitely the case with Borneo. But continue we must, so next stop, a complete change of scenery – Asian metropolis: Bangkok!