En Route to Malaysia
After bouncing around eastern and southern Europe, it was time to head east. Way east. To Malaysia. Believe it or not, Italy actually had me saying things like, "I don't feel like pizza and wine tonight." Before being sent straight to the funny farm in an Armani straightjacket, I quickly recovered after a few of Southeast Asia's 'all seafood, all the time' menus and am now back to my usual self saying, "Maybe if we ask, they have pizza hidden behind that display of 'all things noodley'."
Our flight on Emirates Air flew from Rome, Italy to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia via Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Dhaka, Bangladesh. We arrived in Dubai in the middle of the night and are sorry we didn't have time to explore outside the airport. The airport was extremely modern and luxurious and was incredibly lively at 2 am. We hit the Starbucks there and moved on. Dubai is the hub for Emirates Air and many folks traveling throughout the Middle East and Asia pass through.
Upon our arrival in Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport, we immediately booked a flight to Kuching, Malaysia on Air Asia which is SE Asia's equivalent of Southwest Airlines or Europe's Ryan Air. The big urban cities often aren't as exciting and interesting as the smaller, outlying cities so we elected to skip KL which is on peninsular Malaysia and head straight to Borneo Malaysia. Borneo is a large island east of peninsular Malaysia which is comprised of Malaysia, the tiny country of Brunei, and a portion of Indonesia. We hoped Borneo would bring back some of the natural enchantment we experienced in Africa, and thus far it has delivered in spades. It has urban centers, deep rainforest jungles, and beach resorts. Borneo Malaysia is made up of two provinces with distinct identities, Sarawak to the southwest, and Sabah to the northeast. Brunei is a tiny oil-rich nation tucked between them which we decided to skip after hearing several from other tourists that it is uninteresting to visit. It's a tidy, quiet Islamic state ruled by a sultan which sounds interesting in theory but in practice apparently makes for a sleepy visit.
Kuching in Sarawak province, Borneo, Malaysia
We spent 2 jet lagged days in Kuching mostly planning our next few weeks in Borneo. Malaysia is 6 hours ahead of Europe which made for some brutal jet lag that took us nearly a week to get over. When I'm jet lagged, I somehow develop superhuman senses and everything keeps me awake. Our first hotel had the whiniest a/c unit and the saggiest bed ever created by man. In retrospect, I might have been a bit sensitive, but they still both kept me awake staring at the ceiling for hours on end. I can vouch that ceilings in Kuching look a lot my ceiling at home.
To our delight, Kuching restaurants cooked up some tasty victuals, even if they weren't pizza. We dined at the Seattle Coffee Company (a Starbucks knock-off), and an arty joint called 'The Junk' which served up the best junk I've tasted (and as many of you know, I know my junk). Having just come from Italy where $40 U.S. gets you a basic pasta or pizza dinner, we were thrilled to spend half as much for a generous portion o' tasty lamb shank and rack of lamb. In fact, I'm pausing now to wipe the saliva off my keyboard... We also enjoyed some good Laksa in Kuching which is a prawn-filled, noodle, coconut broth soup.
While in Kuching, we booked two eco trekking tours through Borneo Adventures (http://www.borneoadventure.com). Both of these trips were fabulous with knowledgable local guides. They hit the right mix of authentic jungle adventure while always having tourist-friendly guides and facilities nearby. Cause you always think you want "pure jungle" until you're there and tired, dirty, wet, hungry and need a toilet. Then, a bit more tourist-friendly seems just fine. Similar to the way we traveled through much of Africa, we elected to go with an adventure tour company rather than do it solo. It can be done solo but it likely involves more logistical headaches and requires a bit more time to figure out bus schedules, local customs, guide and room reservation systems.
Batang Ai Reservoir and Longhouse Visit
Our first excursion took us deep into the central, jungle region of Borneo to visit a native longhouse. For this trip, we were accompanied by an Iban tribe guide named Lemon and a Canadian woman in her early 20s named Lindsay. Lindsay was on her final two weeks of a one year trip through New Zealand, Australia and Borneo. We traveled by minibus for ~5 hours out of town on narrow roads, often whipping by slow diesel trucks and dual passenger mopeds, and passing the scenery of palm-oil plantations and processing plants.
After a stop at a local market to buy our food for the 3 day excursion, we headed to Batang Ai reservoir. A giant dam was built here in 1985 which caused a large sprawling shallow lake to form and raised the waterlevels of the many river tributaries leading to the dam. The native tribes in the surrounding jungle traditionally traveled by longboat, an extended canoe, using bamboo poles to navigate. Now that the rivers have raised the water level, the locals travel more quickly by river and have added small outboard motors to their longboats. During our visit, the dam was keeping the waters much lower than usual.
We piled our packs into the longboat and headed across the reservoir and up a winding river towards our jungle lodge adjacent to an Iban tribe traditional longhouse. The scenery was fabulous and it really felt like we were going deep into the heart of Borneo. At one point, because the river was very low, we had to cross a waterfall about a meter high. We left our longboat on one side of the falls, and transferred all our stuff and the outboard motor to another longboat waiting on the other side of the little falls. The locals apparently do this time consuming switch everyday to do up/down river.
We stayed at a simple but very adequate lodge which our tour company had built specifically so their travelers could visit the Iban longhouse next door.
Borneo has several native tribes, each with their own language and traditions. Many of these interior rainforest tribes traditionally live in longhouses which are one long structure on stilts that contains one room for each family living there, and a shared communal front porch which acts as the living room/social area. It's a form of apartment or condo living I suppose.
The Iban tribe longhouse we visited had 25 families living in a single longhouse so essentially had 25 rooms in a row under one roof. In each room lived an entire extended family, often 10 or more people might live in a room. Each family's room had a kitchen and bathroom at the rear and then the "front door" opened to the long communal porch. There's no privacy and at night, after they all return from the fields, they sit around on palm mats rolling their own tobacco smokes, relaxing, drinking the local moonshine 'rice wine' and even watching satellite TV or videotapes. There seemed to be a great deal of sitting quietly by lantern light. I suspect they need this peaceful time after working all day in the fields.
It's an odd juxtaposition of traditional, simple, agricultural living and modern living. The residents have the occasional modern electronic (TV/radio), jewelry, or soccer jersey. Much like a teenagers' room might have miscellaneous posters of pop culture on the walls, the door of each family was often decorated with newspaper and magazine clippings from their favorite music, movie or sports stars. I got a kick out of the "VH-1 Divas Live" newspaper ad glued to the wall next to a door. Many of the local women make traditional baskets and weavings to sell to the visiting tourists and these are displayed throughout to create a "longhouse mall" shopping experience. Sadly, the longhouse way of life is rapidly disappearing as the children go away for school and migrate to the cities to make use of their education.
For the 2 nights that we were there, we enjoyed visiting the longhouse in the evenings and sitting with the locals. Only one man in the longhouse spoke English but he was quite a character telling us all about teenage courting longhouse style. Since the teenage girls share a room with their parents, the boys often sneak into the room late at night by crawling through the ceiling rafters.
During the day, we took a hike to see the Iban farms and visit a waterfall for a picnic lunch. The Iban make their living farming pepper and rice, harvesting rubber from rubber trees, and growing other produce. It was particularly interesting to see how they gather the latex from the rubber tree and then create latex sheets which they can sell to manufacturers. They mix raw latex with a chemical to create a flexible slab of latex which they can then roll. Like so many things on our travels, it was one of those things that I'd never thought much about. Traveling is often about learning about subjects I never before considered.
At one point, we joined a couple of local women in a covered farm hut for a morning break. They chopped down some sugar cane for us which we all sucked on for a little pick me up. They were busy gossiping about an older woman in the longhouse who had a new boyfriend from town who was now visiting the longhouse all the time. There's simply no privacy in their communal way of life. Everybody knows everybody's business.
At the waterfall, our guide and the longboat drivers (one at the rear outboard and one in front with a bamboo pole to guide us around rocks and push us through shallow spots), made a fire and cooked us a traditional lunch. Our chicken and rice were both cooked inside bamboo shafts. The bamboo was stuffed with chicken and then the ends capped with bay leaves and placed across the fire. Once cooked, the chicken was taken out of the bamboo and was yummilicious. The rice was left in the bamboo and was eaten by splitting open the bamboo to have a 'rod' of sticky rice. Also quite tasty.
The longhouse cultural tour was a great way to slowly immerse ourselves into the jungle and local life of central Borneo while still shaking off our jet lag.
Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort
At the conclusion of our longhouse stay, we stayed a few days at a Hilton resort built on the Batang Ai reservoir and constructed to architecturally mimic a traditional longhouse design. It seemed like an odd place for Hilton to have a resort but I bet many higher end tours bring folks there as a starting point for day river trips and hikes. It was filled with Germans, Dutch, Japanese, etc. We were there because we found out we could stay for 90 Malaysian Ringgit a night with breakfast which is about $25 U.S. so we couldn't resist. The room was great, and the pool a pleasant place to read. There were plenty of biting insects to remind us where we were. But it was quite a kick to stay at a Hilton right after staying up river at a longhouse.
We met a nice Dutch family on our ride back to Kuching from Batang Ai. They had two sons that were probably 10-12 years old. Sounded like the father had been quite the global backpacker and was now determined to expose his kids to the remote corners of the world. Really an interesting family.
We flew straight from Kuching to Miri where Dana's tales begin...
Hope everyone's summer has been great.
- this entry was completed at the Kota Kinabalu public library. 2 Malaysian Ringgit/hour (about $.50 U.S./hour). Nice computer with XP, front USB port, etc. And most importantly in ultra humid Malaysia, they had good a/c!