Sarawak, Malaysia: On the Island of Borneo

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

I usually pack for a one-week trip. But last night I stuffed my biggest suitcase fuller than usual

The hotel staff prepares Iban dances for the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Malaysia - photos by Max Hartshorne
The hotel staff prepares Iban dances for the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Malaysia – photos by Max Hartshorne.

because my trip tonight will take me far, far away on the longest non-stop flight you can take.

A Long Flight to Sarawak

I’ll take off from Newark tonight and go over the pole to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Then another flight to Kuching in the heart of the Sarawak province, on the right side of this sprawling republic of nine distinct regions.

Malaysia Tourism likes their megafams. That means hundreds of journalists and tour operators, from all over the world, but most represented will be fellow Islamic countries. We will assemble in a grand hall and hear speeches and encouragement about Sarawak as a great tourist destination.

I like being able to meet people from places like Iran, and Syria, and Indonesia, all of whom will no doubt be in attendance.

On my long flight I will be joined by Sony Stark, who will be toting dozens of pounds of video equipment with which she will film the Rainforest World Music Festival, which will bring dozens of musicians out of the jungle and from around the world to this remote island city.

Fly with me, and read along. I promise to introduce you to some fascinating people and places and show you as much of this wild place as I possibly can. It’s traveling time again!

Rainy Kuching is a Diverse Combination of Faiths

We didn’t fly over the pole, we headed straight for Stockholm and an hour later were airborne for a tough eleven and a half more hours. Then a little break in Kuala Lumpur and after two more hours, we landed in Kuching.

This city is named for the Malay word for cat. Also for a plant name that sounds like a cat. It’s at the tip of this sprawling, wild island of Borneo, the capital of the Sarawak province.

We asked our guide about the prevalence of Muslims here, and he surprised us by saying that the province is split, about a third Chinese, a quarter Malay, (Muslim) and the rest among 27 different tribes. “I am Iban,” he said. He had dark skin and said that his people used to be animistic but now are mostly Christian. We passed by an Anglican church, and a school just letting out, with uniformed kids pouring out into the street.

A motorcyclist braves the rain in Kuching
A motorcyclist braves the rain in Kuching.

“Muslims here are not fanatic,” he told us, reaching over to pat the driver on the shoulder. “I can have my beer, and he is ok with that, he is Malay.”

So I won’t find that wonderful Islamic music that hypnotized me during my last trip to the northern city of Kota Boru I guess. I remember from last time that every meal on Malaysia’s famous ‘Mega Fams’ are giant buffets. They invite hundreds of journalists and VIPs from all over the world, to assemble in a giant hall and hear the latest on tourism here.

In the hotel buffet, Sony and I dug into a wonderful assortment of noodles, crab dishes, calamari, and curried chicken, with lots of rice, and water. We’ll get used to the water thing since booze isn’t big here.

Why Do They Call The Island Borneo?

We’re just back in the hotel after a tour of this lovely city of about 500,000 on the banks of the Sarawak river. This huge island is called Borneo because way back in the 1800s, a British explorer came up the shore and a man was husking a coconut or a ‘Borneo.’ Where are we?’, he asked, and the man just replied that this was a coconut. Hence the name Borneo, is the name of the entire island, the third biggest after Greenland and Madagascar.

Most of the landmass on the bottom is now Indonesia, but up here on the top, is Sarawak, see the map here. The air is clear and the humidity high, the lawns are manicured and well taken care of. We drove past China town, and the Malay village, and to a museum where we found stuffed snakes, birds and fish.

Max Hartshorne and Sony Stark in Kuching, the City of Cats
Max Hartshorne and Sony Stark in Kuching, the City of Cats.

Upstairs, we toured an exhibit that showed longhouses, the dwellings still favored by the Iban and other tribes in the jungles of Sarawak.

Today they have satellite dishes and flush toilets, but back then it was a little more primitive. On the ceiling human skulls were draped in netting, dozens of them, taken by headhunters who did a 1800s version of ethnic cleansing, killing their enemies and putting their skulls up there to be smoked by the fire.

Our guide Ambrose Nalo told us that though he is an Iban, he has no body art, the famous tattoos of his ancestors. These were etched on people’s knuckles, they crafted little skulls to indicate how many kills each man could claim, and this attracted Iban women.

Today he said you need more like the ‘Three Cs: Credit cards, a car, and a condo.”

Like Australia, this part of the world doesn’t feel like it is suffering from the recession and the pains of bad loans, layoffs and a tough economy. Instead, they are building a massive new parliament building, relocating a grimy fish market away from the riverfront and putting in new walkways, and we see condos and new hotels going up.

“There is very little crime here,” said Ambrose, “we don’t have many problems with illegal immigrants since there is no beachfront where people might enter.”

Our guide Ambrose Nalo
Our guide Ambrose Nalo

Of course part of this low crime might have to do with capital punishment and strict jail time that is meted out for drug smuggling and theft. In today’s Borneo Post, a headline said ‘Castrate Rapists: Dr Ng’ which described a top minister’s view on the solution to cut down on rape crimes. Rape is rising significantly here, and this might be the way to stop it, Dr. Ng suggests.

An Ironwood Mask, Found Amidst the Dried Fish

I walked out into the humidity and bright sunshine of a Sarawak afternoon. Strolling down the street, I turned onto a street that was all Chinese.

Vendors dozed in darkened shops, no lights on, no one asking for sales, but eyeing me over, not friendly, not curious, more like what the hell do you want?

I walked on, wanting to shoot photos but not feeling eager, or willing to anger these sleepy shopkeeps.

The stores were tiny, the sidewalk a portico. It felt good to get out of the sun, my eyes still sensitive to light, sunglasses on. I walked up and down the street and then back toward the waterfront.

Chinese Owned Stores

Here there was a mix, more Chinese owned stores but a friendlier bunch, more people wearing headscarves, more dark-skinned Indians with bad teeth but smiles, and lots of shops selling spices and huge baskets of dried fish. There were so many different sized little fish, each a different price and the customers sifted through the baskets of fish, checking I guess for the ones they liked.

I went into a shop that said antiques, and at the back was a row of carved masks. I found one I liked, and a shopkeep approached me, and told me it was ironwood, and was Iban. I liked this guy’s grin and big round eyes, and it felt substantial. “480 ringets,” he said.

I was curious but at that price, no sale, it was around $150. “For you, I can do a discount. How about $250?” I was interested but walked away. “Well, tell me how much you want to pay,” he said. I came back with $100 and at $150, ($50 US) I had my mask.

A market in Kuching
A market in Kuching.

He will make a great addition to the office, and ward away bad spirits and bad payers. I like that he’s made of ironwood, the same wood they make telephone poles with here, sturdy and built to last for years. He will look great up on the wall of the GoNOMAD office.

Bidayuh Music Is the Beat Behind These Dancers

The last time I visited Malaysia, I remember the music was one of the highlights of the trip. It was in a market, the tunes blared out and just caught me.

On TV early one morning, watching thousands of men circling the Ka’aba at the great mosque in Mecca — a ritual that’s part of the Hajj — the music was mesmerizing. I’ve often tried to find music like this and tonight, some of those magical tunes touched my ears again.

We were watching a show, it was dancing by chambermaids, busboys, front desk clerks and sales agents who work at the hotel. They practice Iban dances to perform at special events like tonight’s gathering of more than 200 journalists from around the world for the Rainforest Music Festival.

We were at a dinner and they entertained us, coming out wearing glittering tiaras, festive headpieces shaped like wedding cakes, or gold cones, or a red doo-rag. The women smiled as they joyously danced in their sparkling costumes, and the men toted long poles, holding them up as the women danced and swayed beneath them. Bidayuh music was the mesmerizing sound that tied it all together.

Vendors in a Kuching market
Vendors in a Kuching market.

After the show, a man in a suit named Bidari came up and said he was the one who puts together the music. He mixes these sounds, some influenced by the Portuguese who traded in Melaka in Western Malaysia, and other songs that are called sea dayak, or land dayak, into a blend that works perfectly for these dancers.

I asked him where I could find them…but the answer wasn’t a website or an iTunes download. “You have to go to Mahua music, at the Sarawak Plaza, a shopping mall a few miles away,” he said.

He asked me how long I had to stay here, and then he said if I could make time he’d take me over to the shop. I asked him if could just burn a CD of the show’s tunes, since he’s mastered the art of mixing and chopping and I just like how it sounds. But indeed a trip to a Sarawak music store might be a lot more fun than just getting a copy on CD.

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 waterfront
The 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 Mosque
The 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.

Letting Little Fish Nibble Your Skin is The Rage in Kuala Lumpur

Busy workers at the fish spa
Busy workers at the fish spa

“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?

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