I don't know why, but I think I'm ok with that...

Trip Start Sep 16, 2012
Trip End Mar 03, 2013

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Saturday, November 10, 2012

It's another long one... Borneo was eventful!

Kuching is a great city, it has a more villagey feel to it and just seemed that bit more charming than KK. We were staying in a great little B&B on china street, the street looked very pretty with all the lanterns and old Chinese houses. After our busy week in Sabah we decided to take it easy and spend a couple of days seeing the sights in Kuching.
We walked along the waterfront, visited some of the museums and historic buildings, browsed the grand bazaar and ate in a lot of car parks. Yes, car parks. Hawker food courts seem to be placed on top of multi story car parks in Sarawak. On our first day we had lunch in our nearest food court (on top of the car park) it took us a while to find it as we weren't expecting it to be on the 4th floor of the multi-storey that we'd walked past a few times! Lunch was great and the view from the top was good and helped us get our bearings.
Now, those of you reading this will know that Alasdair's Mum was with us for the Borneo leg our our trip... We weren't being mean taking her to a car park for lunch - she loves that kind of stuff!
Actually our favourite food court/car park, 'Top Spot', highlighted by a giant luminous pink lobster on the 5th floor became our regular dinner spot during our stay in Sarawak. The food was amazing and so so cheap! One night we had razor clams, mango fish, prawns, rice and jungle ferns all for about £4 a head. Including beer! They were probably the best meals we had in Borneo.

We'd discussed what we'd like to do whilst in Sarawak and as we'd been so lucky with the wildlife in Sabah we thought we'd do something a bit more cultural and visit an authentic Sarawak Longhouse in Batang Ai. We booked a guide and set off early on Tuesday morning. As part of our trip we stopped off at the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary. We were a little unlucky as it was the school holidays and there were bus loads of kids turning up when we got there. There were hundreds of people and we thought, if we were orangutans we wouldn't fancy coming down for a few old bananas! Especially with hundreds of pairs of eyes and squawking children staring at you. Our guide told us that there was an Orangutan nearby so we left the viewing area to see if we could find her, only problem was there were so many people doing the same! We had a great view but didn't hang around long as it felt a little like we were chasing her in to the forest. It wasn't a patch on seeing them in the wild or at Sepilok!

On our way to Ukom longhouse, our guide filled us in on the Iban culture, history of head hunting, how they want to move in to the 21st century and also briefed us a little on what it would be like, what we would see and do etc. We stopped for lunch and brought gifts for the 32 families living in the longhouse (a small packet of salt each and some chocolate for the kids). The families have very little income and are pretty self sufficient so practical gifts like salt are always welcomed. Not all longhouse accept visitors but the chief of our longhouse was happy for visitors to come as it was another source of income for them. All the families work very hard, living off the land and selling what they grow, make, forage or catch.

Whilst we'd stopped to have lunch, our guide had heard the sad news that the chief's mother had died in her sleep that morning. We were expecting him to say that we needed to head back to Kuching but he explained that as we were close and the chief and the families still wanted us to visit, we would continue our journey to the longhouse.

An hour or so of driving, passing small villages and paddy fields we arrived at the Batang Ai jetty where two guys from the longhouse had come to pick us up in their longboat. Hilary admitted to expecting something a bit bigger but happily hoped in! We had an hours sail across a large lake (created by a hydro power dam) dodging the tops of trees that were once lush, green and on land! The guy at the back skilfully drove the boat and other crouched at the front using small hand signals to direct the driver around all the stumps, shallows and floating debris. They knew exactly where each tree was under the water level which was pretty impressive! It was previously rainforest before the dam after-all! It had been a very hot day so in perfect timing, about 10 minutes in to our boat ride, the heavens opened, in a big rainforesty way! We got soaked through but at least we were a bit cooler. We passed a few longhouses on the banks of the lake and it was good to see the sheer scale of them. They are true to their name, really long!

We couldn't see the longhouse from the banks of the lake when we pulled up, just a couple of small houses that we later learnt were a continuation of families that couldn't fit in the longhouse. The house had been extended to its limit! After a slippery muddy and wet clamber up a slope that could possibly be a challenge in 'wipe out', we all made it to the entrance of the longhouse pretty unscathed if not a little mud splattered!

We were welcomed in to the house very warmly by the first family we met, we obviously had on our mind that we needed to be respectful, having had a death in the longhouse just that morning. As we glanced down the longhouse, the realisation sunk in... the DEAD CHIEF's MOTHER was still there, laid out in the centre of the longhouse with her family and friends all sat around her body. Now, I think if a situation like this was ever to happen to me back home, I would no-way be ok with it but for reason, and I don't know why, I was ok with it. As were Alasdair and Hilary. It just seemed natural and right.

Our guide was great and told us how the Iban people normally behave in this sort of situation. He said that some will cry a lot ( as you'd expect) and also that they would make a lot of jokes and try and carry on as normal. He said that we should act as normal and that we were free to walk up and down the longhouse as we wish. The only thing he mentioned was to not take photos which we would obviously never have done. We were free to take photos in all the other areas of the longhouse however. After initial introductions with a couple of families, we were shown to our room where we would be sleeping for the night, a basic but clean room with some mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets. Perfectly fine and better than I'd imagined. After we'd dried off we were invited to join a family for a coffee, we also were introduced to the chief of the longhouse and our guide translated our condolences to him for us. He spoke a little English. Surprisingly, he was the same age as me. His father, previously the chief, passed away last year so the chief's responsibility had now been passed on to him. The words 'longhouse chief' conjure up an images of a wrinkley old man, covered in tattoos and smoking. Not a fresh faced 30 year old man with a young family. He was very warm and welcoming but you could see the pain in his face, having lost his mother just a year after his father. It would seem that you don't live a long life living in a longhouse, there were very few in their 60s.

The families sat around the body later beckoned us over to join them, they seemed to be happy to have us there, almost a distraction. We sat cross legged on the floor chatting with them as much as we could with varying language barriers, just yards from the body. It wasn't long before we were offered rice whisky and rice wine and to be honest, I think we needed it! As experiences go, it was pretty surreal! There was one moment when I was walking down the longhouse, I had almost forgotten she was there, what with the hustle and bustle, noise, kids running around... I glanced down and I was walking right between her feet and her coffin...my stomach flipped at that moment. I sat back down with Alasdair and Hilary and our new found friends and had another rice whiskey!

After we'd had dinner with our host family and guide, yet more wine and whiskey was brought out and it was Alasdair's job to go around and pour shots for anyone who wanted it. We sat and chatted with the locals, most of the time not understanding each other! Some that spoke a little english told us about their life and also asked about ours etc. During a normal visit the families would show you a traditional Dayak/Iban dance, however in respect of the chiefs mother we said we did not want them to do it which we think they really appreciated. They would have gone ahead and danced if we'd asked them to so I guess this just shows how important visitors are for them. They were so worried about us complaining about the situation and the lack of dancing! We would never have complained but I guess there's a lot of people out there who would.

They were traditionally staying up all night with the body and welcomed us to join them however we made our excuses as we were absolutely shattered by midnight. At various points throughout the evening family and friends from Kuching and the surrounding longhouses arrived in their dozens (all ages) to pay their respects. Seeing their reactions almost had me in tears at one point but I just blocked it out and tried to concentrate on what the drunk man next to me was trying to say to me.

The next morning we were up early with the noise of the longhouse with chickens clucking, cockerels crowing, kids playing, babies crying, dogs barking... You get the picture! Living in a longhouse must be hard at times, but I guess for a lot of them, it is all they know. After breakfast with our host family we went back out in the main area of the longhouse to look at all their handmade weavings and jewellery. Alasdair and I brought a weaving and so did Hilary, just a little souvenir from our stay there. Before we left we also had a go at hitting a target with a traditional blowpipe (they use guns now) and it turns out we're pretty good at it! Plus they showed us a cock fighting demonstration...Now, when we booked the trip, I'd said that I really didn't want to see the cock fighting. I think it's wrong and cruel. But I really had to muster all my strength not to have a fit of giggles when he said in broken English - "He don let his cock get injured" "He look after his cock well" "he always wan is cock to look the best" I think if I had been facing Alasdair at the time we both would have set each other off but luckily we managed to hold it until later! One day we will grow up...or maybe not! :-)
Getting back to their demo, it wasn't a real cock fight but I still only let them ruffle their feathers once!

We had one last activity before we set off on our journey to Kuching and that was a short trek through very wet marsh, rainforest, paddy fields and pepper corn fields. Along the way our guide pointed out the jungle ferns and palm shoots that we had been eating, rubber trees and various herbs that they forage for cooking etc. At the bottom of a steep decent through a paddy terrace we were pleased to see our little longboat waiting for us in a shallow tributary. In we hopped and off we went back to Kuching for a hot shower and a good nights sleep!

On our last day in Sarawak we decided to take the bus to Bako National Park, just a couple of hours away from Kuching. From the jetty we took a short boat trip (through a crocodile infested waters) around to the park entrance where we were dropped off on the beach. As there were good marked trails around the park we decided not to have a guide this time and just go at our own pace. We did quite well and spotted long tailed macaques, Proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs and pitcher plants. It was a sweltering humid day so it took us nearly 4 hours to go just 5k! We climbed quite high at points but it was the heat that was just stifling.

On the way back to Kuching we jumped off the bus to pop in to an antiques shop that we had been in earlier in the week. We'd spent probably two hours, chatting and drinking rice wine with the owner of the shop, Nelson Tan. Hilary wanted to pop back and buy a couple of snuff bottles she had her eye on so we probably ended up spending another hour or so with him that afternoon. Before we knew it we were sat there eating fruit and sipping a different type of rice wine - must be his sales tactics! :-) He was such a character... mad as a bag of frogs but in a good way...a queen with a very infectious laugh (almost a cackle) and everything was 'oh my gaud'!! He had an amazing treasure trove of a shop and it was very interesting talking to him. He's was the sort of person that you'd love to have a snoop around their house (he actually showed us a picture of him in his house in the Malaysian version of tatler magazine).
He gave Hilary a very good deal the snuff boxes and then started just giving us stuff! He gave Hilary and I a beaded bracelet and some little fabric bags and he also gave Hilary a hand carved bone fan that was beautifully detailed plus the bottle of rice wine to finish off! All in all it was a week of bizarre situations, immensely friendly and kind people and a lot of laughter.

Next stop...Indonesia!

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