Sarawak

SARAWAK 2009

We are exploring the Kuching area and visiting a local cultural centre. Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, Malaysia`s largest state. Kuching is a large city of 600.000 people. It is a cosmopolitan city, and this is reflected on the faces of the people. We picked up our 4WD hire car. Now let`s start with the surprises: Diesel 60 cents a litre, lunch for 2 including 2 wines and 2 beers in a good restaurant $20.00AUD, dinner at a local food stall that night $4.00AUD, taxi ride to the food stall (15-minute drive) $3.00 AUD. The city is full of European visitors exploring the jungle, culture, wildlife and on dive holidays a bit further north up the coast. The Kuching waterfront (river) is a popular meeting place with the locals at night. Across the road we also visited the main bazaar, the oldest street in Kuching which is full of Chinese shop houses. We went to Matok National Park the place to find the Orang Utans. And yes, despite the rain we found 4, including 2 mothers with babies. On the way back, we had to get rid of the leeches as we were slip sliding down the very muddy hills. Walking, I must have lost 5kg in the 2 hours we were in the park, but it was worth every step. The real interesting part was we did not follow tracks but went straight into the jungle with our guide. The guide was hired at a cost of 6 Ringgit (2.00 AUD). Instead of camping/lodging out bush at a cost of $10.00AUD including dinner and breakfast, we decided to drive back to Kuching for the Chinese New Year celebrations. We booked the Grand Margarita Hotel, 5-star luxury for the incredible cost of $65AUD for a river view executive room, including breakfast. At midnight all hell broke loose with the fireworks, which were lit by the Chinese community.

An incredible event and the whole atmosphere was that of the NYE we remember from the days we lived in Holland. Food stalls and entertainment everywhere. After an early wakeup call and breakfast at 6am  we were greeted by the lion dance (Happy Chinese New Year). Off to the jungle near the border with Kalimantan. We visited many villages and somehow, we got lost. We started to get worried that we might already have crossed the border with Indonesia but luckily, we hadn`t. Once we arrived at a remote longhouse we were greeted by the village chief (IBAN Tribe). A long house is basically a terraced street of separate dwellings covered by one roof, under the authority of a Headman. Each family lives in its separate apartment.

All use the communal kitchen and all other communal activities take place on the veranda. This is also where single male visitors spend the night while couples and females are invited inside to stay with a family. We have seen some very old longhouses with up to 70 families living in them. This means 70 front doors! However, don`t be mistaken, the twentieth century has also found its way here. People wear jeans, T-shirts and have mobile phones, even in the remote jungle. ( for a cost of 20 cents per minute I can call Australia). However, during special festivals, traditional costumes and head-dresses are worn.

If you wish to see this, you must go with an organized tour where people will dress up once you arrive. Unfortunately, you don`t get to meet the real tribal people. Traveling deeper into the steaming Jungle of Borneo and followed the mighty Rejang River on and off, while driving within a few kilometres of the border (Indonesia), we saw police/army with machine guns and we were in the middle of nowhere. Panic stations! At first, we thought we may already be in Indonesia and that we may have missed the border guards! When we were stopped we were asked if we had seen someone? “No”, I said, “we haven’t seen anybody for the last five hours”.

It turns out that someone had killed a local village woman two days ago and was now on the loose hiding somewhere in the jungle with a machine gun! We were ordered back, and we were told not to stop, get out of the car or take photos. Not even a photo of the soldiers and police who stopped us. The guns were impressive, so we decided to follow orders. The soldiers and police where all smiles and very friendly and must have wondered why we were driving the logging tracks. Once we returned to the village, everyone was aware of the murder, they even knew who did it. Then we reached the Rajang River, the longest river in Malaysia (640 km); the only access to Kapit is via logging roads or boat. Although the river still serves as the main mode of transportation, it is also possible to reach Belaga further north via logging roads, but we decided to travel to the coast and visit Belaga from the north.

The Rajang River itself is a wide muddy river due to the insatiable logging industry. We had a large lunch including one litre of bottled water and a coke at a cost of just under 4.00 AUD. So far, my stomach is coping reasonable well. Clary had to make some urgent roadside stops to fertilize the jungle. The longhouses gave us a unique opportunity to meet the tribal people. Not like the tourist brochures but the villagers are as they are, most seem to have mobiles and the long houses have satellite dishes (local stations only); no doubt all thanks to logging. Late afternoon we entered the main North South road just north of Sibu, and before we knew it we were on a freeway in the middle of the jungle! But wait there is more: after only 2km we came across a round about! After this I was on a high and pushed the peddle to the metal, OOPS! A speed hump … and yes airborne! 80km per hour was the speed limit. After another 5km the road stopped with no warning, and we were then back to the 50-60km per hour. Late that night we arrived in Bintulu, a town with no tourists but a very good local restaurant and a very good local market. Hotels are cheap at an average cost of $35 AUD, dinner cost us just $20 AUD including beers and a bottle of wine. we followed the logging tracks towards Bakun Dam and Belaga. The Bakun Dam is very controversial, and its construction is almost complete. All surrounding forest (rainforest) is logged and an estimated 11,000 tribal people have been resettled. Belaga is a small town and calls itself the “heart of Borneo”. It has many Kayan and Kenyah longhouses. Unfortunately, we were unable to travel by boat from the Dam to Belaga as the water levels were too low. It was a long day with lots of disturbing sights of extensive clear fell logging. The West is paying top dollar for the timber and because they have very little the locals are easily persuaded to sell their trees. The people continue to live as they have done for centuries but now they have money to educate their children. They are simply following the demands of the West for timber to make the products that surround us in our own comfortable environment. If you could see how these people live, you can`t really blame them. Fortunately, they recognize the need to replant the forest but it will be years before the new seedlings reach maturity. The only way to stop the destruction of the forests is to stop the demand for timber. That is simply not going to happen. Late that night we arrived in Miri and this border town is busy. Brunei is alcohol free, Miri is where the Brunei people go for a drink, hence the town has blossomed, included an Irish Pub run by Chinese and Filipino staff (quite funny). Happy Hour is five beers for the price of three. No responsible service of alcohol here, but all the executives from the oil companies and local councils are having a ball. After five days of cheap meals, we really splashed out tonight. Two pizzas and dessert. Total amount was $35 AUD. An early night as we are leaving for Brunei tomorrow morning and our first border crossing by car for us on our around the world trip. We need to organize a carnet for the hire-car, insurance etc. Exciting and it will be interesting.