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The Sarawak Parliament BuildingThe Sarawak Parliament Building

Sarawak, Malaysia: Adventures on the Island of Borneo - Page Three

What is Sarawak like?

The streets are crowded with cars, small trucks and motorbikes. The sidewalks are porticos, stuffed with vendors, sellers of all manner of goods. The interiors of the shops are dark, inhabited by Chinese men and young girls, silently waiting there for customers.

You walk beneath the ceilings of the stores around bins of spices, redolent strong curries, fragrant cloves, sacks of drived anchovies in various sizes, hardware, tools and chainsaw parts. Men squat on the floor, working on engines, or fixing tools.

Other men sit in front of open cases, selling mysterious bottles of remedies, unknown things are in those bottles, and little packets of strange elixirs. Most of the shopkeeps are Chinese.

In fact most of the signs above every doorway are in Chinese. Lun Fat Trading Co, Han Chu Manufacture. People gaze at their cellphones in the heat of the afternoon, sending text messages or talking quietly.

You pass by so many different types of stores all packed in close together. Men walk silently looking down at their phones, leaving the Friday prayers, wearing their skullcaps, waiting to light up a cigarette now that prayers are done.

The meats are laid out in big fatty strips, lying on a chest, flies buzzing on and off them, being shooed away by young boys. Chicken legs, yellow bright, are sitting in a container like pencils in a jar, another can contains severed chicken heads.

In a small town to the west of Kuching called Batanbong, we saw adult chickens packed into open crates, there was a little water in a bowl but it would have been hard for the birds to move that far to drink. Then another crate, this one with adolescent chickens, these teenagers were also packed mercilessly tight. And another with mere chicks, peeping, pecking, eating yellow powdery grain, a crate stuffed with chicks in the heat of the day.

A Walk Along the Kuching Waterfront 

This stunning building is almost finished on the banks of the muddy Sarawak River in downtown Kuching. It's the new parliament building, as grand as a palace and something unlike anything you'd see in the US. We prefer our edifi to be blocky, and big, this one is grand, tall and soars toward the sky.

The Kuching waterfrontThe Kuching waterfront

In this lovely city of 500,000, the riverbanks are for walking. I took a stroll there yesterday and approached a noodle vendor. She shooed me away, saying to sit over there and I'll make your noodles. No, I said, i want to watch you. So she taught me how she mixed the cold noodles with the spices, the sugar, the egg, the sprouts, and hotsauce and the chiles and stir fried them up for a glorious bowl of goodness.

I want to sell these noodles in my cafe but I can't imagine old cranky Dick the health inspector going for my big wok out there on Sugarloaf St. as I toss together fresh cooked orders of these delicious noodles. Oh well.

Then I strolled down along the brick walkway and watched long, long boats being rowed by enthusiastic cheering rowers, two by two, grunting and powering these colorful pointy boats through the muddy water. Clouds threatened above, and then, a torrent, and I retreated back to the noodle shop with cover, and a television playing a soap opera in Malay that no one paid attention to. The rowers got drenched, as did the coxswain, still yelling into his megaphone.

In Kuala Lumpur, Protests Over Fuel Prices

In a drenching rain we've arrived in Kuala Lumpur, a city of 4.5 million with a pulsing, oil-fueled heart. What's new since I was last here in 2006? More shopping. The names that rich Asians love, like Hugo Boss, Cartier, and Juicy Couture, all lined up here in the famous Golden Triangle, where the Grand Millenium is our home for the next two nights. In the lobby a woman in a full length chador waited silently while her husband negotiated with the concierge and her kids tumbled in and out of their strollers.

The Kuching MosqueThe Kuching Mosque

On the way in from the airport, Sara our guide told us that there used to be a rainy season here. But now 'with that global change stuff' there is no longer any discernable rainy or dry period. It's more like rain, and the 'moody season' as she describes it, where the sun doesn't shine much and it's dreary.

We had to pass through two checkpoints, manned by friendly police and we asked them why. They didn't answer specifically but we knew these are due to the big protests in the city over, guess what?, fuel prices. The price of gas here is extraordinarily low, about .85 a liter, and it's just been jacked up to $1.50 or so a liter, more like Europe. And the politicians are making a lot of hay by speaking at rallies decrying the hike and demanding that the taxes be lowered. The current prime minister, Abdullah, has decided to cut short his second five-year term in 2010, naming a successor already, even though the people vote their leader into office.

The outskirts of KL are dotted with endless rows of identical subdivisions, dreary modules that all look the same and appear to be located in the absolute middle of nowhere. I asked Sara who would want to live out here, and who is building them. She said they were 'semi-private' which must mean that the government subsidizes them. She said there is an emerging industrial area out here so the workers will live here.

The older apartments here and in Kuching have a coating of mold that shows their age. Many of the buildings have this grim patina, a coating of black mold that makes them look much older than they must really be. As the rain pounds down and the thunder roars, I can see why all of that mold builds up.

Busy workers at the fish spaBusy workers at the fish spa
Letting Little Fish Nibble Your Skin is The Rage in Kuala Lumpur

"Have you been to the fish spa?" asked Sara, our guide. "Oh you've got to try it, I tell everyone." she said brightly. "In fact I am going there after I drop you off at the hotel!"

The fish spa, we learned, is a place called Kenko, on an upper floor of a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. Here, tiny 'doctor fish' nibble at the dead skin on people's feet, and they also offer a full immersion fish spa, where you can have the two-inch fish munch on your body's dead skin from head to toe.

The fish spa trend is huge here with the thousands of Gulf states visitors, who also enjoy gender-segregated swimming pools and airport announcements in Arabic. KL and Malaysia is where Arabs come to have fun, and these spas are quite the hot ticket.

Sony immediately piped up and wanted to try the fish spa. I demurred, since I did have a foot massage at the music festival last night, and how much attention do my feet really need?


Max Hartshorne, editor of

Max Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD. He writes a daily blog called Readuponit, where he chronicles the people he meets and the places he sees in his travels.


A skilled horseman in Hungary Visit our Max Hartshorne Page with links to all his stories


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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: Asia,Borneo,Malaysia,Oceania
author: Max Hartshorne
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