Tales from Borneo

Trip Start Aug 08, 2001
Trip End Jul 16, 2008

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Where I stayed
Merdeka Palace Hotel, Kuching

Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

MALAYSIA: Rhythms of the Borneo Rainforest  
A rumble in the jungle! At first a soft pounding of drums that soon gained momentum, resonating and throbbing through the leafy foliage. Cheering crowds swayed to the foot tapping music as bands belted out songs in their native tongues. Powerful lights bounced off the gigantic main stage and visitors in their thousands packed the grounds. This was the amazing sight that welcomed me at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, the setting for three fun-filled, rain drenched nights that I will never forget!
City of Cats: Two days earlier I was on a flight, making my way to the stunning city of Kuching on the Malaysian archipelago. Kuching, the City of Cats, sits on the west coast of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo Island. Kuching is the main drop off destination for the much awaited annual Rainforest World Music Festival. Meaning 'Cat' in Malay, to this day there is an argument about the origin of the name Kuching. Some say it had nothing to do with cats at all but originated from 'Gu Chin' meaning harbour in Chinese or maybe from 'Mata Kuching' meaning 'Cat's eye', a fruit similar to the lychee.
As the aircraft emerged from the clouds and prepared to touchdown in Kuching, I looked out of my window and saw silvery waterways etched into deep green landscapes. To me, these rivers and streams seemed like giant curving smiles, curling and slicing their way through a maze of thick forests and mangroves. Somewhere down there, families of proboscis monkeys played and jumped through the trees as crocodiles lay sunbathing on muddy riverbanks. I wished in that moment that I could be down there, cruising along the river amongst the exotic wildlife.
Island Chronicles: Borneo is the third largest island in the world and this emerald green island is shared by three countries, Malaysia, Kalimantan or Indonesia and Brunei. Sarawak forms one of the two Malaysian states in the north of Borneo Island, and has a very enchanting past. A tour of the Sarawak Museum revealed the enthralling account of the three White Rajahs of Sarawak and their 100 year reign in this land.
From the early 19th century, Sarawak was under the rule of the Sultanate of Brunei. When Sarawak tribes rebelled against the Sultanate, a dashing hero arrived, quite by accident, in the form of the handsome James Brooke. He was a young British seaman and explorer who arrived on his ship, the Royalist and saved the day, restoring order to the region. A struggle for power ensued with the Sultan of Brunei who finally gave in and crowned James the First White Rajah of Sarawak. James set up his new administration, seeking to end the evil practice of headhunting among warring tribes.
Local Orientation: 'Yes, we actually have a museum dedicated only to Cats' laughed my tour guide, Nina on my first day in Kuching. The Cat Museum proved that the people of Kuching do take their cats rather seriously. The museum was packed with all things furry and feline. Pictures of famous cat owners adorned two walls while statues of cats in all shapes, sizes and colours filled each nook of the museum floor and wall space. As we continued our city tour, I noticed a signboard with the words 'Snow Wash' painted on the sidewalk of a busy street. 'Oh, that means a foam car wash' Nina chuckled when she saw my perplexed expression. With squeaky clean streets and very tranquil surroundings, Kuching is an impressive city.

For a dose of local orientation that evening, I chose to walk through the markets, a treat for all senses. Delightful aromas filled the air as traditional Malay and Chinese food was being cooked and served at restaurants, big and small. Souvenir shops and grocery stores shared the same busy streets. 'India Street' a wide lane through the market, was crammed with fabric shops and stores selling heaps of flavourful spices. A well-known Chinese delicacy and health food, 'Bird's Nest' packets were available in most shops. Made from swallow nests and harvested from caves, these nests are an acquired taste, usually served in soups. As I made my way down the market square I noticed several tables covered in cakes with intricate designs. 'Kek Lapis' is a Sarawak speciality. Traditionally homemade, this layer cake takes at least five hours to prepare and literally five minutes to devour as it is so delicious.

I crossed the street to stroll down the Kuching Waterfront. That is when I caught a glimpse of the beautiful 'Astana' across the river. It was a glistening white building with lovely, well-kept gardens. In 1870, the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke (nephew of First Rajah, James Brooke) built this beautiful house and gifted it to his bride, Ranee Margaret. It now houses the Governor of Sarawak. As the sun set over the Sarawak river casting a warm glow over the shimmering water, street lamps lit up the waterfront walkway transforming it into something of a pedestrian's delight.

After a hearty breakfast on my second morning in Kuching, Nina decided that I needed some excitement and so we set off for some orangutan action. The orangutan or 'Man of the Forest' is an endangered species in the wild. Located approximately 25kms from Kuching city, the Orangutan Wildlife Rehab Centre aims to rescue injured orangutans and release them back into the wild when they can fend for themselves. We were there at 9am, usual feeding time for the orangutans and probably the best time of the day to see them. As visitors gathered near the small feeding station, the park ranger spoke about the centre for a few minutes. He warned us not to make eye contact with any of the orangutans as it considered a sign of aggression among the species. While the ranger spoke, bunches of bananas and coconuts were placed on the feeding platform drawing several orangutans out from the trees and into the open space in full view.

We walked a few metres into the forest to another large feeding platform. The park rangers asked us to move onto some specially designed viewing benches. A few trees swayed and leaves crackled as Richie came into view. Massively built at 28 years old, he was the dominant male in the group. The ranger asked us all to keep very quiet mentioning that Richie seemed angry this morning. He moved towards the large feeding platform as if he owned the forest, fully aware of the power he wielded here.
Jungle Melodies: That evening I made my way to the opening night of the 11th Rainforest World Music Festival. Several dignitaries were present for the inauguration of the event. With the stunning green hills of Santubong as a backdrop and the Sarawak Culture Village as its neighbour, the festival saw people attending in their thousands. Security checks were stringent as is typical at festivals of this magnitude.
For three days each year, this festival brings together music lovers from all over the world and music from the furthest corners of the globe. Special buses are available to pick visitors from their hotels and drop them off to the festival. Bus tickets and schedules can be purchased from the Tourist Information help desks that are set up at various hotels during the festival.
While the afternoons were crammed with workshop sessions and mini-concerts, main concerts were scheduled for the evenings. Rain that began as light droplets began pouring down in sheets, dripping down leaves of trees and creating chocolate brown puddles on the open ground. Wooden planks formed the walkway to and from the grounds. 'This is our third year at this festival and we love it' exclaimed an excited family of four, having travelled all the way from the UK. World music enthusiasts could be seen carting babies and toddlers in special baby backpacks with windcheaters to protect them from rain.

Food and drinks were available at stalls along the main path. While some chose to dance in the rain and muddy themselves, others settled into comfortable seats for body and foot massages provided under large tents. Music in the rain on a dark cloudy sky with a full moon was a heady mix and the crowds revelled for hours on end.
Final wish: My wish was granted on the final leg of the tour. I got on a boat and set out for a three hour wildlife cruise as a special treat. The boat sliced through water and I peered through the thick mangroves to spot anything that moved. As evening fell and the sky turned bright orange, the buzz of insects filled the air. Long nosed proboscis monkeys dangled long white tails and nimbly jumped in the trees, rustling leaves. Darkness fell and fire flies in their hundreds lit up the trees like a natural Christmas tree of sorts. A crocodile slid into the water as our river guide switched on a torch. We passed tiny fishing villages with houses built on stilts and fishing nets drying on wooden poles. It was too soon that my journey across this watery paradise came to an end. Packed with wildlife and river cruises, art and pottery centres, the Orangutan Centre, several museums, great shopping at the markets and beautiful botanical gardens, Kuching has a lot to offer. It is a progressive city and one that is proud of its heritage and rich legacy. And I were so lucky as to have nine lives like the famous cats of Kuching, I would love nothing more than to be here, nine times out of nine.

Emirates, Malaysian Airlines and Etihad Airlines have direct flights to Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia have flights connecting Kuala Lumpur to Kuching
The Rainforest World Music Festival will be held from 10-12 July, 2009. Please check www.rainforestmusic-borneo.com for more details.
The Tourist Information Office is located near the Kuching Waterfront. Brochures on all tourist activities and events are available here. The office also stocks tickets for the Rainforest World Music Festival.
Luxury Hotels: Hilton Kuching and Crowne Plaza Hotel are situated at the Waterfront.
Merdeka Palace Hotel is conveniently situated a few minutes away from the Waterfront
Budget hotels are also available all over the city
Eco-resort: Permai Rainforest Eco-resort in Santubong sits next door to the Damai Resort and yet it is like being in a different world. A back-to roots place, rustic living is the order of the day here. For a nominal fee, one can use the camping facilities on the premises.  
It is advisable to dress modestly while keeping local sensibilities in mind. Locals are friendly and very hospitable.
Kuching has been voted Malaysia's cleanest city and it helps to keep it that way by not littering.
©Andrea Bailey 2008
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