Indonesia’s Borneo and Bourdain

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The Rajang River in Borneo from the shore
The Rajang River in Borneo from the shore.

Honoring My Hero in Borneo: Anthony Bourdain

By Ted Bechtold

 Eating and drinking with locals in Belaga.
Eating and drinking with locals in Belaga.

The crowd erupted as the ball ricocheted off the goalie’s outstretched stick and out of play. They had done it, Kuching’s boy’s field hockey team had bested a tough squad from Bintulu to take home the U18 Sarawak State Championship.

I leaned back on the bleachers and pondered what was next as thunderheads rumbled in the distance.

Kuching first appeared on my radar 3 years earlier while watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Anthony was back in Malaysia after 10 years away and was headed back up the Skrang River to revisit an Iban tribal longhouse, deep in the Bornean jungle.

His visit happened to land on the Gawai Dayak, the Iban rice harvest festival, where he spent 3 days eating, drinking, and dancing with the locals.

Leaving it All Behind

I was enthralled with the idea of leaving civilization behind in the wake of a riverboat and venturing deep into the interior of one of the densest jungles on Earth. I’ve rewatched this episode several times and am still enchanted by the beautiful jungle and the kindness of the Iban people.

Anthony tragically took his own life in June of 2018 while filming in France for a new season of Parts Unknown. When I heard the news I was devastated. Anthony had been a hero of mine for many years and had helped inform and inspire many of my early travels.

It was strange grieving over someone I had never met but felt like I knew so well; having spent countless hours watching him pontificate about the wonders of tubed meat in some far away land or hearing him break down the intricacies of Demi-Glace (Sinister Brown Sauce). 

Venturing Deep into the Jungle in Borneo

Calm section of the Rajang River.
Calm section of the Rajang River.

Nearly a year later, I rediscovered the Parts Unknown: Borneo episode when an idea hatched in my mind.

I was going to venture deep into the Bornean Jungle to an Iban Longhouse, just like Anthony.

What better way to honor the memory of my hero than to take a trip of his very own.

I had already spent more time than I had planned in Kuching; 7 days was more than enough to explore this sleepy, former British trading post, split down the middle by the Sarawak River.

My sole purpose for coming to Kuching was to use it as a jumping-off point for my river trip and after a week I hadn’t tracked down any leads as to how I was going to make this trip happen.

No Easy Way for Bourdain

Anthony wouldn’t have taken the easy way out and paid for a guided tour up the river with one of the many tour companies in Kuching and neither would I. 

I decided that the next morning I was going to wing it and see how far up river I could make it.

I set off around 0500 for the bus terminal with only a vague plan in mind and the phone number of a man who may be able to help me, Daniel Levoh. 

I first heard about Daniel Levoh when reading a blog about Borneo. He was the headmaster at a village school in the interior and he was apparently willing to take travelers to his longhouse.

The blog was written in 2018 and I hoped that Levoh was still around, he was my only hope to make this trip successful. I shot him a text before I left my hostel and prayed for a response when I reached a town with Wifi that night.

 

Bus to Sibu

I boarded the earliest bus I could en route to Sibu, a coastal town at the mouth of the Rajang River.

The trip was less than 200 miles and should have only taken a few hours but due to seemingly every road on the island being under construction it ended up taking over 10 hours to arrive in Sibu.

I spent the night in Sibu and gathered provisions for the journey ahead.

 Fish market in Kapit, Borneo.
Fish market in Kapit, Borneo.

 

I boarded the steel-sided tube-shaped riverboat more affectionately known as floating coffins, (due to their shape and not their safety record) and began what would be a 2 day’s journey upriver.

I settled in to a window seat as a giant barge carrying lumber pushed past us on its way to Sibu to drop off its load.

The view from Daniel’s balcony.
The view from Daniel’s balcony.

As the outskirts of Sibu receded beyond the horizon behind us, the Rajang narrowed and fewer and fewer villages dotted its steep banks.

After 2 hours, the only signs of human life were the occasional fisherman or boats harvesting sand off the bottom of the river. We docked that afternoon in Kapit, a tiny outpost some 150 miles from Sibu. 

I stumbled down the gangway and into town to search for somewhere to stay the night and put my bags down.

After crossing one of the hotels off the list after discovering bed bugs hiding underneath the covers in my bedroom I finally settled on the Star Hill Inn, which was only two blocks from the dock where my boat would be departing from the following morning.

I set out into town following my nose and found a place just beyond the wet market that was serving Laksa. Yes, please!

It All Works Out

That night back at the hotel I reflected on how absurd it was that this trip was actually working out. Just one week ago in Kuching, it seemed like an impossibility.

The distances seemed too great, the language divide too large, and the lack of information online about these places was staggering.

I was proud of myself for just going for it but knew I still had a couple more days of travel before I reached the longhouse. 

Kapit 0500: Up early and headed to the docks to find out which boats were headed for Belaga, my next stop up the river. Turns out the next boat wasn’t until 0900, so I had a few hours to kill before my departure. I settled in for a cup of coffee on a street corner and took in the busy morning at the docks.

It appeared that the whole town moved through the docks. Men loading goods aboard the boats, children playing along the riverside, and women hawking street food to longshoremen and weary travelers like myself. The Rajang River truly is the lifeblood of this remote community. 

I boarded a second flying coffin and geared up for another day-long voyage deeper into the Bornean jungle. Next to me sat a Dutch couple in their 60s, I thought it was strange to see any other foreigners so far from a major city.

Turns out they were also heading to Belaga and were in search of a Mr. Daniel Levoh as well. Up to this point, I had no idea how I was going to locate Levoh when I inevitably reached Belaga so it was a stroke of good fortune to find someone heading in the same direction. 

The rough river in Borneo.
The rough river in Borneo.

Rougher and Narrower

This second leg on the Rajang was far rougher and narrower than the day before but the captain expertly wove his way between minivan-sized boulders and guided the chrome tube swiftly through category 5 rapids.

I left my window seat for a better view in the open doorway of the boat where the old men sat smoking and talking shop.

They viewed me with interest and thought it was funny how mesmerized I was by our surroundings. A few even offered me cigarettes and practiced their English language skills with me. 

Borneo’s Dense, Tree-covered Mountains

Dense tree-covered mountains rose up sharply from the banks on both sides of the river; it was exactly like I had been dreaming about for the past 3 years since seeing Anthony make a similar voyage up the Skrang River in central Borneo.

After 6 hours on the river we finally made it to my last stop on the river, Belaga, it was going to be all overland travel from here on out.

Disembarking from the boat with my new Dutch friends, we noticed that Kapit was a sprawling metropolis compared to tiny Belaga.

Daniel had instructed us to ask the first local we saw where his house was and they would be able to point us in the right direction.

Initially, I was skeptical but now seeing how small the town was I understood Daniel’s simple instructions.

The first person we asked pointed us about 50 yards down the street and sure enough, was a sign saying ‘Daniel’s Place.’ Daniel let us in and showed us to our rooms on the upper level of his home on the edge of the village.

Walking the streets of Belaga next to Daniel Levoh is akin to walking down the Red Carpet with Brad Pitt; everyone takes notice.

Daniel seemingly knows or is related to everyone in town and when we walked down the main drag people stopped what they were doing and came to pay their respects. We posed for pictures, shook hands, and were introduced to half the village in under 10 minutes. 

Dinner that night consisted of Ayam Goreng (fried chicken) with a couple of Carlsberg’s to wash them down at a small food market in the center of town.

Belaga was almost completely dark as I walked the empty streets back to Daniel’s house. The following day was spent waiting for Daniel to be ready to take me to the longhouse. I passed the time by walking around town and taking a short river trip with Daniel’s cousin to a rapids upstream.

Front Seat of a Pickup

Finally, that afternoon; Daniel, his son Rudy, and I clambered into the front seat of an old pickup truck and departed Belaga en route for his ancestral longhouse.

After about 4 hours on bumpy dirt roads, we passed a large cemetery built into the hillside where Daniel said his father was buried, we were getting close.

Karaoke at the bars.
Karaoke at the bars.

We stopped to get gifts for Daniel’s mother and a few offerings for the rest of the longhouse, such as toilet paper and Tuak (rice wine).

Daniel explained that the Governor of the state of Sarawak was in the area for a meeting of the local villages to celebrate Sarawak culture and discuss politics.

About 30 tents, one for each of the villages in the area, surrounded a larger tent filled with chairs and a stage where the Governor would preside from.

Rudy and I went to “the boy’s tent” where young men from their village were sitting in a circle passing around a couple of bottles of liquor.

They quickly took notice of me as an outsider and wanted to see if I could hold my own. They poured me a glass of Vat 69 whiskey and demanded that I down it immediately.

With some trepidation, I choked down the bitter brown liquor, trying my best to seem like I enjoyed it. The boys could see the involuntary disgust on my face and handed me a beer instead of another whiskey. 

Short Speech by the Borneo Governor

After a short speech by the Governor and a traditional dance by some local women, we loaded up the car with some of Daniel’s friends and headed out to some of their local watering holes.

The first “bar” we went to was no more than a small wooden lean-to with a couple of plastic tables scattered about and a small TV with karaoke playing.

The locals all wanted to hear me sing so I serenaded them with my best rendition of Bob Dylan’s  “Blowin’ in the Wind” and later sang a duet of Foreigner’s megahit “I Want to Know What Love is” with one of Daniel’s friends. A couple more bars and several more karaoke songs, we decided to call it a night. 

We headed back down the bumpy dirt track to Daniel’s house. I laid down on my mat and used my rain jacket as a blanket, drifting off to sleep. In the middle of the night, I awoke and wandered out onto the porch to piss. Daniel, his wife, and his mother were all sleeping soundly on the cold tile floor.

For a brief moment, I thought it was weird that they were sleeping outside but quickly realized it was because the tile was cool and since it was 75f at night it was a reasonable solution. I leaned on a pillar petting one of Daniel’s many dogs. I reflected on the journey so far and was proud of what I had accomplished.

This sense of accomplishment from getting out of my comfort zone has been a driving force in my life to continue to push my boundaries for what types of travel are possible. I also thought of Anthony and his life and what he meant to so many and the pain he must have been feeling when he decided to end it. The journey seemed like a fitting homage to one of my heroes who had influenced me so greatly.

Ted Bechtold

The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great that I thought I was in a dream”- Jack Kerouac.

Ted Bechtold is an American  traveler and writer based out of Ukraine. He has been traveling the world for nearly 10 years with a focus in mainly Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. He teaches English to IT professionals in Ukraine remotely as a way of funding his travels.