Malaysia - Sarawak

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Thursday, February 22, 2007

With the flight slightly delayed we got into a queue ready to hand over our boarding passes and get onto the plane. It was at this point that we discovered that Air Asia flights have two queues for one plane, just to make things confusing. One queue is for families with children under 12, disabled passengers and people over 55 - these people are given priority and let on first. The next queue is then allowed on board and the arrangement is a free-for-all 'sit anywhere' system. Luckily we picked the right queue...other people queued in the wrong queue and weren't told it was the wrong queue until they reached the front and were then told to go to the back of the other queue!
We were flying to Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak, which in addition to Sabah makes up the Malaysian part of Borneo. Arriving into Kuching we disembarked the plane and walked over to the terminal - walking past a queue of locals waiting to board our plane we realised that we were the only non-Malaysian people in the entire place. We started to get looks from everyone as if we were some sort of alien presence. It began to feel a bit strange, until one friendly gentleman smiled and said 'Welcome to Kuching' as we passed him in the line. It was a great surprise and made us feel a bit less out of place.
We made our way quickly through customs and caught a taxi to the Crowne Plaza - we had decided to splash out a bit and stay in a nice hotel (and also earn some reward points on our club card). As we arrived we were told that our room wasn't quite ready, despite it being past 6pm! Upon checking into the room we smelt a fausty, damp smell and spotted a few small cockroaches!!! There was mould on the shower curtain and bath mat and the room was missing pillowcases and towels - we were not impressed!!!
We called for some towels and pillowcases and let the other problems lie, as we were so tired. We complained first thing the next morning and were told that we could change rooms when we returned later that day. After a great buffet breakfast we went for a walk along the waterfront and found the tourist information centre. This centre came highly recommended for its helpful staff and we can certainly second those comments. The staff spoke fluent English and were able to help on every topic we enquired about, what was more they weren't trying to sell us a particular tour or trip so their advice was completely impartial and made our choices much easier.
Leaving the tourist info we strolled along Main Bazaar - the main road running through Kuching town centre and called into a little tour agent that was recommended in our Lonely Planet guide - 'Borneo Interland Travel'. The tour agent was able to adapt their regular tours to accommodate exactly what we wanted to do. Our main objective was to try and see Orang-Utans at the Seminggoh Rehabilitation Centre so we arranged to visit the centre on four separate occasions over the next three days. We also wanted to go to a Longhouse, the Sarawak Cultural Centre, the Pitcher Plant and Orchid Garden and the rather strange sounding Cat Museum (more on these places later). They gave us a reduced rate and managed to fit in everything we wanted to do in just over two days, with our first part of the tour due to leave there and then.
Our driver for the next few days, Christopher, met us outside the tour office and we headed straight for Seminggoh. The Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre at Seminggoh is one of only a few of its kind in the world, with wild Orang-Utans only found in Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, and Sumatra in Indonesia.
Seminggoh is a 635-hectare patch of jungle where orphaned and confiscated illegally kept Orang-Utans are brought to be nursed back to health and released into a semi-wild environment. There are two feeding sessions a day at Seminggoh where the centre puts out food for the Orang-Utans, at these times visitors can wait to see if any Orang-Utans show up to eat. We were able to make the afternoon feeding session at 3pm so paid our 3RM (50p) fee and walked through the jungle to the feeding platform. We found out that it was not the best time of year to see the 'wild man of Borneo' as it was mid-fruiting season and the Orangs had plenty of food available naturally, so they didn't need to visit the feeding platform. This is obviously the desired effect as it suggests the Orangs are fully rehabilitated - but it also means that visitors do not get to see the hairy orange beasts.
On this occasion, after an hour of waiting at the feeding platform with about 40 other people, we didn't see a thing! Undeterred we promised to be back the following day for the 9.00am feeding session.
During the journey back to our hotel, our driver Christopher told us a story of olden time Borneo;
"There used to be head-hunters around these parts who had to kill their enemy and present their decapitated head to win the favour of father-in-law and therefore gain the daughters hand in marriage. In those days it used to be a case of 'no head no honey' ... nowadays its more like ' no money no honey'! ... However, the locals still headhunt the local shops where they are after the governor's head...on the Malaysian banknotes!!"
Back at the hotel we changed rooms. As soon as we had unpacked all of our stuff we discovered that the safe in the room didn't work. 2 hours later and with several staff trying to fix it we were told it was broken. Another series of complaints ensued with Andrew talking to the manager. Eventually we were upgraded to an Executive Club Room and made sure that we got all of the perks that entailed. The Club Room was on the top floor so had the best views out over the river, albeit still obscured by another large building (PICS); we also had a daily laundry allowance and use of the Club lounge with its free drinks, hors d'oeuvres and internet (all of which we took full advantage of!).
We got up early the next day and after a quick breakfast we met with Christopher and headed back to Seminggoh for the 9am feeding. Once again all we saw was an empty feeding platform (PIC) so we opted to get a guide to take us around the nearby jungle trail. The jungle trail is a dirt path through part of the jungle along which some Orangs were spotted in the past few days. The track is meant to be a 45-minute loop, which seemed fine to the five of use who had chosen to walk it... an hour and a half later we were all hot, sweaty, covered in insect bites and still hadn't seen any Orang-Utans! We could see why the Orangs stayed away; the trees and jungle floor were still packed with fruit like the durian-esque Jackfruit (PIC).
Back at our car Christopher had found a snakeskin during his time waiting for us to return (PIC). From Seminggoh we drove to a nearby Longhouse. A longhouse is a native way of living; essentially a room on stilts that houses an entire family and room after room is built onto the side of the previous room for more families, creating a village community in one 'long-house'. They are a highlight of Borneo and many of the most authentic longhouses are a whole days travel away by bus and boat. We didn't have time to go to one of these far-flung ones so went to the nearby Annah Rais longhouse.
The longhouse looks like a series of shacks with bamboo flooring (PIC), with chickens running around everywhere (until they're picked for dinner) and food drying on large sheets out in the sunshine (PICS). In an amusing contrast many of the rooms have TV's, satellite dishes and leather sofas! We crossed over the river to another section of the Longhouse community and spotted a couple of kittens snoozing away in the midday warmth (PIC).
Entering one room, known as a warrior chamber, we came across a skull in the centre of the room - apparently belonging to an executed Japanese Solider during their occupancy of Borneo during the second world war (PIC) - kind of morbid but fascinating nonetheless!
Next Christopher took us to a room that belonged to a friend of his. We met his mate and sat down to try some of his homemade rice whiskey and herbal teas - both of which were fairly rough. He also treated us to some local fruits, including Jackfruit and Rambutan (PIC). The Jackfruit tasted just like Durian (soft, cheesy and stinky) and the Rambutan is similar to Lychee. We were also able to try an ancient blowpipe, shooting darts at a dartboard from a distance (PIC). Verdi was better than Andrew - must be the lung capacity!
From the Longhouse we made our way back to the car, past some wild rambutan growing on nearby trees (PIC) and then through the Sarawak countryside, typical of Borneo and just what we had hoped to see with the thick jungle sprawling in the background (PIC). We headed to the Pitcher Plant & Orchid Garden that had a wide variety of the strange, carnivorous plants and the more elegant and harmless orchids. The pitcher plants come in many shapes and sizes but all have one common feature, a bell-shaped pouch containing a sticky liquid that digests insects once they are fall and get trapped inside the pouch via the slippery hairy walls and the 'lid' that closes down over the top of the pouch (PICS). The stunning, perfectly formed orchids brightened up the gardens and gave the insects something to enjoy before they met an untimely end in the bowels of a pitcher plant! (PIC) A bizarre curly fern and an unexplained longhouse model were also on show at the gardens (PICS).
With yet another attempt to spot the elusive Orang-Utans we returned to Seminggoh for the afternoon feeding session. Once again we saw nothing - this was becoming depressing! We had one more chance, the morning feeding session the following day - we crossed our fingers and got Christopher to take us back to Kuching.
In Kuching there is a weekend market that runs for over 24 straight hours from midday Saturday until Sunday afternoon. The market takes over a few blocks of streets and is absolutely crammed with locals. We asked Christopher to take us around the market and point out a few of the local treats and to try and explain some of the weird and wonderful things that we didn't recognise. The bright colours of the food, stalls and people in the market were a feast for the eyes, although some of the produce was less of a feast and more of a smell to turn-our-stomachs (PICS). We bought a few savoury snacks followed by a few bags of sweet goodies, all local and all very tasty - though we have no idea what any of them were!

We finally headed back to hotel for long awaited shower and to once again raid the free hors d'oeuvres in the Executive Lounge.

Another early start saw us head to Seminggoh for one last attempt. This time there were over 70 people waiting to take the quick trek out to the feeding platform. We couldn't believe how many there were and we knew that this large amount of people would probably deter the Orang-Utans from making an appearance, even if they were anywhere nearby. Our final attempt to see the Orangs was thwarted and we sadly gave up the hope of seeing any 'wild men' in Borneo!
From Seminggoh we headed back towards Kuching and to the obscure attraction that is the Cat museum. The museum, dedicated to the feline species, came about because of the city's fascination with cats - supposedly 'cat' in Malay can be written as 'Kucing'. The museum is housed in the city hall and has hundreds of exhibits from all around the world - all to do with cats. Some are huge, some are cute and some are just a bit weird and scary (PICS).
The main reason we went to the Cat Museum was that they had a special performance of a traditional 'Lion Dance' for the locals and tourists to enjoy. We waited as the performers set up and then, all of a sudden, the drums began. The noise was deafening and the performance full of energy, with two excellent lion costumes that bounded around the area and interacted with the local kids, and (we think) ultimately blessed the Cat Museum to provide a prosperous year ahead. (PICS)
We left the Cat Museum and headed to the Sarawak Cultural Centre - one of the major attractions in the state. The cultural village is basically a collection of Longhouses from each tribe in Sarawak. Each longhouse is designed in a particular style, specific to the individual tribe, and features tools, equipment and entertainment that each tribe uses. Walking past a traditional sugar cane press and a hand-made bridge we came to the Bidayuh Longhouse (PICS) - inhabited by the same tribe that lived in the Annah Rais Longhouse that we had visited the day before. We decided to buy a blow dart set that had been hand made by one of the tribespeople at the longhouse - perhaps Verdi could then go out and catch us some lunch! The Bidayuh area even had a Warrior room, just as we had found at Annah Rais (PIC) - a scary skull statue peered eerily at us as we walked around (PIC).
The next tribal area was the Iban tribe, and their longhouse that was a huge empty space without any walls or dividing sections. The house was decorated with clever bamboo creations giving it an uplifting, festival feel (PICS).
Alongside the Iban longhouse was a games room with several different traditional games, or variations of popular games in a traditional style, such as blowdart darts and coconut ten-pin bowling. Andrew tried his hand at the latter but couldn't quite get the hang of the non-spherical coconut bowling ball - leaving two split pins after his three tries (PIC & VID).
A traditional hut represented the Penan tribe, with a man clad in the customary loincloth outfit (PIC) and blowpipe manufacturing equipment was on hand to demonstrate how the long hollow weapons are accurately made.
The Orang Ulu House was a massive structure, raised high up on stilts and is reached by some precariously crafted steps (PICS). On reaching the top of the steps we almost flattened a sleepy kitten that had decided to place itself right in the way of any visitors trying to get into the house (PIC). Up on the veranda we also came across a tribal man crafting blowdarts amidst the smoke of a small fire he used to harden the tips of the darts (PIC). The 'ground floor' of the house had a swing erected so Andrew couldn't resist and had a quick go (PIC).
The following house was a Melanau Tallhouse and from the pictures you can see why it gets its name (PIC). Not only was it on huge stilts it was also a three-storey structure with a great deal of space in it for many families to live together.
The Malay House was more elegantly decorated than any of the other houses, with pick curtains in each of the windows and intricately crafted fascias along the edges of the rooftop and banisters (PIC). Inside were a few tribespeople doing some weaving and a couple more who then performed a traditional song for us whilst playing the drums and tambourine.
As the rain began to descend over the jungle around us (PIC) we moved onto the final house, a Chinese Farm House. One of the more interesting contents within the house was a sample of bird's nest. A delicacy in Asian countries, the bird's nest is soaked in water and then tiny feathers are painstakingly removed with tweezers leaving what is essentially the birds' mucus. This is then dried and used in 'Birds Nest Soup' (PIC).
The other main attraction at the Cultural Centre is a cultural show. This is performed twice daily and is a key draw for visitors. The show, in keeping with the rest of the centre, featured performances of traditional dance from each of the tribes in Sarawak. Some were magnificent displays of colour and artistry, whereas others were more about the tribal rituals and warrior customs. (PICS) One of the most impressive was one man who dived over bamboo poles and then climbed up one and span around on his stomach - about 10 feet in the air! Another extraordinary display was a man using a blowdart to burst balloons on the ceiling above the audiences' heads. Despite the balloons being well over 50 feet way he still managed to burst every one first time!
On the way back to the hotel our driver Chris asked us if we had tried Sugar Cane juice before. When we said no he pulled over at a roadside stall and we ordered a cup full. It was sweet (obviously) and refreshing and reminded us of something we couldn't quite put our finger on - not bad for about 10p.
Back at the Crowne Plaza the hors d'oeurves sufficed as our dinner once again
We were up late the following morning. As it was our last day in Borneo we had little planned other than to relax and think about our next destination, Kota Bharu. We took a walk around a part of the city we hadn't yet been to and spotted a large statue of cats in the main street, adding further weight to the legend that the city was named after the furry creatures (PIC). We tried some local food at a nearby food hall, leaving most of it as it was all on-the-bone and full of fat and gristle!
We spent the evening in front of the hotel TV watching news from the Oscars and whatever film came on the movie channel - that's just how cultured we are!
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