Borneo: Terrific Values, Exotic Jungles, No Headhunters

By Cory Scott

Blowpipe in use in Borneo.
Blowpipe in use in Borneo.

Want to ogle orangutans in the wild? Stay in a five-star hotel for fifty bucks a night? Ply your way through virgin rainforest in a motorized dugout canoe? How about spend the night in a traditional Iban longhouse quaffing rice wine with the kindly descendents of headhunters? Sound too exotic to be easy? Too costly to be convenient? Think again. Think Sarawak State in Malaysian Borneo.

Getting to Kuching, Sarawak ‘s capital–and one of the greenest, most user-friendly cities in all of Asia –is a breeze. Malaysian Air, in conjunction with Korean Airlines, offers daily departures from the West Coast to Kuala Lumpur (KL) at a cost of $749. Choose one of ten flights a day from KL to Kuching, and the hour and twenty minute flight will run you fifty dollars each way.

Hilton on the cheap

Hop a cab ($4.60 for the 20-minute ride) and make tracks for what is, quite literally, the cheapest Hilton on earth. The Kuching Hilton (tel. 248-200, fax 428-984, ) boasts every amenity you’d expect from this five-star chain: an elegant lobby; spacious, immaculate rooms; courteous, professional staff; large pool replete with palm island and faux waterfall; and a host of top-notch eateries. Double rooms begin at $54.

One of Sarawak's orangutans smiles for the camera.
One of Sarawak’s orangutans smiles for the camera.

With the money you save on your tariff you could easily afford to order room service, but you’ll find a much better value and selection just across the street at a covered arcade called Ting Café. Vendors serve up local delicacies hot and fresh 24 hours a day. For 80¢ you can gorge yourself on mutabak –cheese and fresh veggies grilled between two pieces of roti, a fried, flat south-Asian bread. Season your sandwich with a spicy lentil sauce. Two cans of Stella Artois, an imported Belgian brew, will set you back another $1.30. Stop by in the morning for a classic Kuching breakfast of Laksa , a tasty coconut-curry soup with chicken and shrimp ($1.30).

Harbor View Hotel

When checking in to the Hilton be sure to ask for a river-view room. Through the nearly floor to ceiling windows you’ll be treated to a stunning view of the Sarawak river below, Fort Margarita (circa 1879) on the opposite bank, and Mount Santubong, a green limestone giant jutting 2,700 feet into the sky thirty miles away on the shores of the South China Sea.

You’ll get the same view from a smaller but well-appointed room at the Harbor View Hotel, located about 100 yards up the street across from the Lorong Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Kuching. (tel. 274-666, fax 274-777, ) Doubles begin at $27.

Kuching is a city steeped in history and culture. Established by Sir James Brooke (a.k.a. the first of the White Rajas) in 1839, Kuching is now a mosaic of Chinese, Malay, and Bornean traditional communities. Everything you might want to do or see–the pristine mile-long waterfront promenade, several museums including the Sarawak State Museum, Fort Margarita–is within ten minutes walking distance from the Hilton, as are dozens of inexpensive open-air restaurants.

Longboats wait their turn to run the rapids of the Sumpah River.
Longboats wait their turn to run the rapids of the Sumpah River.

Semengoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, a wilderness area where up to 19 orangutans descend from the forest canopy for breakfast each morning at 9:00 makes an ideal half-day trip from Kuching. Most of the large apes have either been rescued from illegal captivity or are orphans and are gradually being reintroduced to the wild. Round-trip cab fare should be around 15 bucks.

But let’s face it, you’ve really come to Borneo because you seek romance and adventure. You yearn to run crystal-clear rapids in a dugout canoe, trek through primary-growth rain forest, listen for the hollow call of the Great Hornbill, and sojourn in the stilted longhouses of folks, who until the turn of the last century, whacked the heads off of their worst enemies.Run the rapids

While you might imagine travel arrangements being complicated from this side of the pond, Borneo Adventure Tours (BA) (55 Main Bazaar, tel. 6082-245-175, fax 6082-422-626, ) can handle your needs in a cinch. A three-day, two-night guided excursion to Borneo Adventure’s jungle lodge, a comfortable, tastefully decorated bamboo and hardwood structure, runs $247 per person, all-inclusive.

Once you’ve settled into the lodge, stroll across a bridge and visit the Iban longhouse and people at Nanga Sumpa. It’s important to note that Nanga Sumpa isn’t a living museum or a tourist site but a genuine village. There’s an overwhelming sense of hospitality here, so go ahead and immerse yourself in Iban culture: fish with the men, swim with the children (no piranha in Bornean waters), or prepare meals with the women. In short, go native.

When night falls, join the village elders reclined on the woven mats that line the ruai , or common veranda. Someone will have lit a brass lantern and someone else will have produced a home-brewed bottle of rice wine. The quite gathering can extend long into the night.

The following day you’re welcome to accompany villagers to their farms cleared from the dense bush. You’ll also discover countless jungle treks of varying degrees of difficulty. Hop back in a longboat and make your way farther upriver to a spectacular waterfall (November-June). Borneo Adventure will gladly arrange a traditional Iban barbeque along the pebble-strewn riverbank on your homeward trip to the lodge.

Cory Scott teaches at the American International School /Dhaka. His work has appeared in Frommer’s Budget Travel and the Austin American Statesman. 

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