Borneo to...Cambridge

Trip Start Apr 10, 2004
Trip End Jun 09, 2004

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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Well, the trip's over, and I thought i'd better assure those i havn't been in contact with that we did actually survive Borneo, and aren't stranded somewhere wasting away from some strange tropical disease.... Im in Cambridge, having a lazy, summery, Sunday afternoon, and Simon's back in Australia, presumably enjoying his first few days of winter.

Our first reaction on arriving in Kuching, the capital of Sararawk, was dismay. There were heaps of tourists and the city was so clean, so expensive, and so...boring we were close to jumping on a bus and heading south to Kalimantan (the Indonesian half of Borneo) and a return to Indonesian chaos and cheap prices. But the expensive visa and lack of time deterred us and instead we decided to scrap our original plans of heading NE to the famous Niah caves and then on to Gunung Mulu National Park to see more caves and big mountains (guessing that there'd be just as many tourists there and things would be just as expensive), and instead head up the Batung Rajang river to hopefully score ourselves an invite to a longhouse. We'd managed to turn up in Sarawak at the start of Gawai- a huge festival celebrated in all the longhouse communities after the harvest. Made our way part of the way up the river but were halted by the lack of rain and the low level of the river. Coincidentally, as we checked into a hotel in Kapit we met Daniel- a guy from Belaga (further upriver and our destination)who is apparently in Lonely Planet as the 'go-to' man for longhouse visits and day-trips etc etc. He was heading back to Belaga the next day by car (either 2hrs by boat, or 2days by 4WD), so we set off on a road-trip with him and two other guys from Belaga. Not exactly an interesting way to spend two days, but Simon and I did get to spend the last three hours or so lying in the back of the ute, flying along a logging track (the only road access to Belaga) and taking photos of the jungle.

Belaga is spoken off as being a village, and it is quite small, but the fact that there's an indoor badminton court, and they have a proper playground, means the word doesn't seem quite right. After a day or two there, we went with Daniel on a day-trip to a couple of longhouse communities and a nearby waterfall. The longhouse visits, though interestesting, made us feel quite uncomfortable- we were very much the gawking tourists, following Daniels instruction and handing out cigarettes for the adults and lollies for the kids, while everyone just stared at us. The highlight of the day was our visit to the witch-woman, where we sat with her and some of her family, ate wild-boar meat, and all got drunk on the two bottles of arak (lethal 50% stuff made from the fermented sap of palm trees)we'd bought for her. She blessed everyone in the circle- the method involved the blessee drinking a full cup of straight arak while everyone else clapped and cheered and our witch-woman mumbled. Within an hour, two bottles of arak later, we were all quite drunk- she was hugging us, calling us her grandchildren, one man was swaying back and forth and drooling over Daniel, and we were all smoking enormous traditional cigars and discreetly passing any leftover arak to the drooling guy, who was happy to oblige by finishing the lot. One thing we discovered in Sarawak- when alcohol is involved, language barriers just seem to dissappear and no-one has any problem communicating :)

That nite, we ended up at Daniel's drinking beer with him and some visiting friends- after many, many beers to celebrate Gawai, two of them- Lutun and Edmund - who were heading downriver the next day to go to Lutun's family longhouse for Gawai (both worked in a town a day's drive away)invited us to come with them. Next morning, having promised Daniel we'd be back safe the next day- planned to go further upriver for two days with him, staying overnite in a longhouse, and paying a fortune for the privilege- we loaded up our canoe with beer and water and took off.

Ours was a Punan community, in which around three enormous extended families lived, each with their own longhouse, and numerous smaller huts and houses. The buildings were placed in a rectangular shape, all facing in, with a huge grass-space in the centre and a boardwalk surrounding this. We stayed in the two-room house of Lutun's sister- but only slept there. As soon as we woke up, we headed over to the longhouse, where the whole family ate meals, drank, and just hung out. Within fifteen minutes of arriving we newcomers were sitting in the longhouse getting our first taste of tuak (rice-wine), then were herded off by our surrogate grandman to take part in a 'visit and drink' procession. We all grabbed bamboo poles, and took off along the boardwalk, bashing them in time to the beat set by the leader- we visited each major house we passed, even if there was no-one in sight, we'd just bash the poles on the planks until we attracted someones attention and they came out with tuak. They'd head down our line, jug of tuak in hand, and pour us each a cup of the stuff, which everyone was obligated to drink in 'one go' no matter how drunk you already were- Simon and learnt to say 'little, little' in Malay rather quickly- and then it was on to the next house.

Our one night turned into five, and we spent all day, every day, drinking tuak (the beer ran out the second day) and sometimes arak (the sight of which made EVERYONE groan and clutch their stomachs). Think I realised what we were in for when on the second morning it was only 8:30am, and id already had four shots of tuak, and had opened my first beer. All day, we'd move from longhouse to longhouse, visiting, eating, drinking their never-ending supply of tuak, and dancing. The only choices when it came to music were Malay karaoke or traditional music (either way, we had to dance). The traditional music was accompanied by a dance performed by single person- in the men's dance they imitated the hornbill (their national bird) and then the hunter in the jungle, whereas the women's dance was supposed to imitate the graceful movements of the bird. Of course, they thought it was great entertainment to dress us up in the traditional clothes and watch us try out these dances in front of everyone. Many afternoons we'd all be sitting in a big circle at one of the longhouses, drinking of course, and watching all the adults dance one by one, and no matter how drunk, or hungover we were at the time, it'd eventually roll around to our turn.

We'd arrived on the 28th May, and June 1st was the big day of Gawai- everyone got kitted out in their finery (us included) and went to one of our family longhouses for the celebration. There, they sacrificed a piglet and a chicken (through which the medicine man first spoke to god), then the entire family sat on the floor in a group while we were each blessed with an egg by the medicine man and then had pig blood thrown over us.

By our second last day celebrations were winding down- and while there were still people getting blind drunk and dancing around the place, there was quite a few of us to be found mid-afternoon just stretched out on the floor of the longhouse having a nap. The days all blended into one, and i couldnt begin to really explain what it was like. On our last afternoon, when we'd grudgingly decided we actually did have to leave, we sat on the verandah of our longhouse, drinking our last lot of tuak. When we went to pack, a lot of our family squeezed into Lutun's sister's house to say goodbye to us. They gave us gifts, asked us to please come back and then all followed us down to the canoe to say goodbye. Def finished our trip on a high, and both Simon and I are considering visiting next year, if not the year after, just for Gawai :)
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