I had just eaten my last scoop of rice porridge – McDonald’s version of Asian breakfast – while reading the news, when I heard my name – “Jesse!”. After arriving in cities where I knew no one for the last three months, it sure felt good to be greeted at the airport! I was in Kuching, Malaysia, and I was meeting my friend Galvin, whom I’d met at what seemed like eons ago, in Bali. Galvin lives in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the west side of the island of Borneo.
I didn’t know much about Borneo, and I’ll admit, before heading to Asia, I hadn’t ever heard of the island, but when getting familiar with the geography of Indonesia and Malaysia, the massive island just south of the Philippines intrigued me. Separated from the Malaysian Peninsula, and hence the rest of Asia by sea, Borneo is famous for its pristine jungles, tribal heritage, remote island paradises, and the largest mountain in Indochina – Mount Kinabalu. So when I was lucky enough to get to know Galvin during a night out in Kuta Bali, and he suggested I come to Kuching, I jumped at the chance.
Borneo earned the impressions I had of it. It’s a different place than Peninsular Malaysia. Since the island is to the east of the peninsula, the island is relatively insulated compare to the peninsula, which connects to southern Thailand and Myanmar, and as a result, the culture has a feeling that is uniquely Borneo. Most locals I met are from one of the two indigenous tribes of Sarawak – the Bidayuh or Iban. For instance, my friend Galvin is Iban. Iban and Bidayuh today still speak their indigenous language in addition to Malaysian.
Kuching has the look and feel of a modern suburb. I remember driving through and thinking, if someone just dropped me here without telling me where I was, had it not been for cars driving on the left side of the road and the Malaysian language, I would guess I was in an American suburb. There’s one prominent landmark of Kuching that is characteristically not American, however, and that’s the Sarawak Capital Building. The building has a cone-shaped golden dome with ripples in it, and overlooks the Sarawak River, which runs through the city. The first place Galvin took us after the airport was the waterfront to see a regatta, where I saw the exotic building for the first time.
Brief History –
Like many Malaysian and Indonesian states, Sarawak was a sultanate until the mid-1800s. Specifically, Sarawak was part of the Brunei Empire, the ancestor of modern day Brunei. Sarawak gets its first white ruler when British-born James Brook sailed to Borneo in 1838 and encountered an uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brook managed to meet the Sultan’s Uncle and through this relationship, helped the sultan crush the rebellion. As a token of gratification, the Sultan offered Brook the governorship of Sarawak, which he accepted.
Brook proved to be a strong leader for Sarawak. He leveraged British success in the region to suppress piracy while fighting slavery. It is important to note that what is unique about Sarawak under Brook’s rule, is that it was not a British colony, like the Malaysian Peninsula; it was simply a region governed by a British man. This fact enhanced Sarawakians’ self-image as an independent region, an identity that is still vibrant today. Nearly 50 years later in 1888, however, Sarawak became a British protectorate, giving Britain jurisdiction over Sarawak's foreign affairs in return for British protection, while domestic policy was governed by the Brook government.
Brook never got married nor had any legitimate sons, and historians have speculated on his sexual preferences. Consequently, the governorship was handed to his sister’s eldest son, and his descendants ruled Sarawak through 1946. There was economic progress in Sarawak, aided by the discovery of oil - the first oil well began in 1910.
During the onset of the war in 1941, coincidentally the 100th year anniversary of Brook family rule, British forces withdrew their defenses in Sarawak in order to defend Singapore. Sarawak was conquered by the Japanese in the same year, and became a Japanese colony for three years and eight months. During this time, Sarawak was depleted of its natural resources. As a result, when the war was over, Charles Vyner Brooke decided to cede Sarawak as a British Crown Colony. This caused hundreds of Malay civil servants to resign in protest, and sparked an anti-cession movement. These protests were eventually clamped-down and Sarawak federated with the other regions of Malaysia to form the federation of Malaysia in 1963. The spirit of independence still rings strong today. I even saw a bumper sticker that promoted Malaysian Borneo separating from Malaysia and becoming an independent country.
Sites and Experiences –
Sarawak Museum -
Following the regatta, Galvin took me to the Sarawak museum. This is one of the best museums I went to in all of SE Asia. And it's free! There are a lot of artifacts and exhibits about the indigenous tribes of Borneo.
The urns in the below picture are where Borneo tribes traditionally put the corpses of the deceased. They would fold up the corpse and somehow get it in the urn. Then, the urns were placed on top of totem poles, like in the below right picture.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve –
I teamed up with two Norwegian guys I met at the hostel to take a tour for the day. The first stop was Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
Borneo is known for its orangutans! At Semenggoh Nature Reserve, you can see the orangutans during feeding, and there's no obstruction between visitors and the orangutans. This was neat to observe. I'm not sure if I've ever seen orangutans up close - it was awesome to see how they effortlessly hang from branches, vines, and ropes.
They are quasi-wild: they live in the wild, yet are fed twice a day. Some ropes are set up for them.
The big ones look like they are people in big foot costumes! The word "orangutan" comes from the Malaysian words "orang" and "hutan" which literally translates to "person of the forest".
Iban Long House -
Following Semenggoh, we went to a traditional longhouse. Longhouses are the homes indigenous borneo tribes live in - they are large bamboo platforms above the jungle floor, with several residential units for an extended family.
Borneo tribes are famous for a morbid tradition that is now illegal and not practiced – the tradition of headhunting. Headhunting is when one tribe decapitates the head of a member of a rival tribe and brings it back as a prize or offering. For the Iban, headhunting was actually mandatory – when an Iban dies, the spirit can not move on to the next world until a head has been presented as an offering. When a head was obtained from a rival tribe, the rival tribe would inevitably retaliate and take an Iban head, resulting in a perpetual game of head-swapping.
Traditionally, the skulls were placed in an ornamental hanging basket. Despite the grotesque nature of this past tradition, Sarawak celebrates it. There are bars called “Head-Hunters” and one bar I went to had fake skulls in wooden cages hanging from the ceiling.
We discovered this cage below in the traditional Iban house we visited. Yes, they are real. We asked the locals how old these skulls were, and we got a few different answers - "150 years old", "300 years old", "500 years old".
We learned that tribe people would be alerted that an invader was getting close to their village by the sound of feet stepping on dried leaves. Therefore, these longhouses are all elevated above the ground, so members of the tribe only step on bamboo floors.
After walking around, the residents gave us a bottle of homemade rice wine to share. This would be the first of many bottles of rice wine!
Following the longhouse, we went to another local person's house and had a delicious home-cooked meal for lunch.
Bako National Park -
The next day, we all went to Bako National Park, a national park right on the ocean. This was a fun day trip with some easy hiking, beautiful coastal views, and awesome wild life!
We hiked through rocky, jungle paths that overlooked swampy land, and saw a variety of crabs, lizards, and ants.
One of my favorite animals were these bearded pigs. They oink and dig their snouts in the sand hunting for sand crabs. They didn't notice anyone walking around them - they really looked like they were on a mission!
Following the hike, we took a boat ride from this beach. The boat brought us past this rock stack that brochures for the park said looks like the head of a cobra snake, but I think you need to use your imagination a bit to see it.
And the weirdest animals we saw were the proboscis monkeys! The proportions of their bodies look human-like, and their big noses and squinty eyes make them look like grumpy old men.
I was fortunate to have my friend Galvin take me to some off-the-beaten path caves! I don't know what these caves were called or if there is even public transportation to them, but they are neat. The first one we went to did not have any lighting set-up. Consequently, it was really dark and we had to use our smart phones as flashlights.
There were tons of bats!
The next cave we went to had a massive chamber with ceilings that were probably 100 feet high.
Staying at a Modern Longhouse -
Galvin was going to his family's longhouse in a village called Saratok, and invited me along. His grandfather had just passed away, and so he was also giving a ride to two other family members, so they could all spend time with his grandmother. The ride was about four hours north of Kuching. Along the way, we stopped by his grandfather's grave.
Unlike the longhouses built years ago, longhouses today, such as Galvin's, are built with cement instead of bamboo, and look like a modern house. The layout, however, is traditional. Several family units are lined up next to each other, and are all connected by a large room in the front of the house. Immediate families each have a unit, and then mingle in the large room with extended family. Most young people do not live at the house permanently, but visit frequently.
Galvin's family was hospitable and a lot of fun! Even though they couldn't speak English, we managed to joke around. We also all drank a lot of rice wine, which got things pretty loose. Their traditional way of drinking rice wine is by using one shot glass that is passed around the circle. When it gets to you, you have to take a shot, and pass it on. Although I thought this would take a while to drink, the first bottle was finished quickly, and out come a second bottle, then a third, and so on. I'm not sure how many bottles the group polished off, but it was a lot. All this rice wine was homemade too, so it was served in reused soda bottles.
Galvin told me that Iban people eat everything and often hunt for food. There's one thing they do not eat, however, and that's crocodile. Why? Because, like Iban, crocs also eat everything! So, you can call it a bit of respect. When I was there, they brought out a bowl...of...wild monkey!
They also brought out penang (known as betel in other areas of Asia such as Myanmar), which is Malaysia's version of chewing tobacco, though it's quite different. It combines three ingredients: betel nut, which is the seed of an areca palm; betel leaf, which comes from the pan plant; and lime juice. These three ingredients are wrapped-up into a wad, which is then chewed. A guy I met in Myanmar a few months later (who spoke English well) told me its effects include heightened awareness and focus. They made me a wad and I gave it a try. When I chewed it, all I experienced was some strongly flavored plants.
That night, Galvin's family and I all slept on straw mats on the floor in the main room of their family unit. I learned that in Borneo and in other areas of SE Asia, families often sleep together on the floor. Luckily, because of the rice wine, I didn't have much trouble getting to sleep.
For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we had the same meal: fried river prawn (basically shrimp); pork bites; "three layer pork", which Galvin told me is a popular snack in SE Asia and consists of skin, fat, and meat; chicken; some dark greens; and a generous amount of rice.
The following day, Galvin and I went to a local market, which had a variety of local vegetables, meat, and candy for sale. They also sell a type of worm called a sago worm, which lives in a sago palm tree, and which is eaten, often after frying. The worm is eaten all over SE Asia. The worms are sold alive, and so you can see them wiggling around in bowls. For some reason, they can't crawl out.
The Cuisine -
Kuching has some fantastic Malaysian cuisine! Many spicy soups, pork dishes, and noodles.
What's the Damage
Sarawak was one of the least expensive places I visited. Not including the two days of staying with Galvin's family, my average cost per day was less than $30. The most expensive item was the private tour to Semengoh Nature Reserve and the traditional longhouse, which was a package deal, included transportation and lunch, and cost about $20 USD. Entrance to Bako National Park cost about $4.55 USD. You also had to buy a round-trip boat ticket at the national park, which cost $9.09 USD. Public transportation is also really inexpensive. The two hour bus ride to Bako National Park from downtown Kuching cost $0.80! On the way back from the park, we shared a private van that cost $2.27/person. The hostel cost a mere $4.09, and included complimentary bread and coffee. Overall, Kuching, as was the other parts of Malaysia I went to, was a fantastic value. Especially given the modern infrastructure, such as the roads and buses, the clean roads and accommodations, and the fantastic attractions!