MALAYSIAN BORNEO






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10.17



Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is situated at the heart of the rugged Malay Archipelago—surrounded by Indonesian Sumatra on its west side, Java to its south and the vast island of Sulawesi to its east. Its north west coastline is home to Sarawak, the larger of Malaysian Borneo’s two jungle clad states, which when flying into Borneo can be seen bursting excitedly from the leafy highlands and reaching out into the wild South China Sea.


Kuching—the capital of Sarawak—cherished by its inhabitants and visitors alike, offers a welcome bout of escape from the heavily urbanised cities of Peninsular Malaysia. Located in the Malay Archipelago, a two hour flight away from Kuala Lumpur, Kuching is notably less travelled than its subcontinental neighbours, mainland Malaysia and Bali, Indonesia. That being said, last year the state opened its doors to more than 2 million travellers, in pursuit of the ultimate jungle adventure. Despite the undoubted commercial development currently being undertaken here in Malaysian Borneo, Sarawak is still home to a thriving tribal culture, no thanks to its rich ethnic heritage and its remarkably biodiverse location.


Located to the south west of the state, Kuching—purportedly derived from the Malay word for cat, “Kucing”—is divided into two distinct halves by the lively Sarawak River, it’s vivacious waters teeming with crocodiles. Today its south bank is occupied by the Chinese, following their influx to the state in the late 19th century; instigated by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of the Sarawak. Meanwhile its northern shore, a jungled riverbank, is home to a multitude of rustic Malay kampongs, such as Kampung Bryan and Kampung Gersik—birthplace of the famous Sarawak layer cake or “Kek lapis”. Both villages can be easily reached by local boat or “Bot penambang,” for a small fee.


Begin your discovery of the city with a journey through Sarawak’s tumultuous past. Positioned beside Padang Merdeka, the Sarawak Museum of Art will teach you all there is to know about the state’s rich cultural history. It’s impressive colonial exhibition space houses a vast collection of textiles, decorative arts, ceramics and jewellery, curated to inspire, intrigue and inform visitors about everything from traditional birth and death rituals to headhunting and local myths and legends. Not to be missed!


It is well documented that the indigenous “Orang Ulu” and “Iban” tribes residing nearby Kuching are a resourceful people. As luck would have it, Sarawak’s agricultural wealth not only lends itself to the cultivation of time honoured delicacies, hunting implements and traditional building materials, but also it provides an abundance of materials with which the local people have established their rich textile and handicraft heritage. It’s humbling to observe their sincere appreciation for the material culture this has afforded them—demonstrated in their powerfully symbolic bamboo shoot motif; denoting life, family, unity, growth and fertility. Head down to the Sarawak Textiles Museum to take a look.


For a real taste of tribal life, I thoroughly recommend you pay a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village, situated at the fringe of the jungle beneath lofty Mount Santubong. Now here is a fine demonstration of Malaysian Borneo’s rich cultural diversity. Built beside a beautiful lake—symbolic of the sea faring and river dwelling state tribes, “Bidayuh,” “Iban,” “Penan,” “Orang Ulu,” “Melanau,” “Malay” and “Chinese”—reside seven unique and authentic tribal houses. In one afternoon you can stroll between the bamboo longhouses and try your hand at blowpipe hunting before tasting a traditional sago sweet and then heading to the village theatre for a dynamic multi-cultural dance performance.


During my week in Kuching, Malaysia celebrated both its National Independence Day—or “Merdeka Day” as it is known locally—and “Hari Raya Haji”, the Muslim celebration of Eid al Adhatwo. Many of the Chinese bazaars, food stalls and local Indian-Malay kitchens therefore closed for the day, whilst the streets filled with thick clouds of burning incense and a flurry of burning joss paper—offerings to the deceased and the higher gods. But when doors are open for business, the local dishes to try are “Kolok mee” (Chinese noodles tossed with garlic oil) and “Sarawak laksa” (a spicy and sour noodle dish). Head to Fig Tree Cafe for delicious Chinese toon fried rice and the warmest welcome in town.


Luckily for us, just a stroll away from Chinatown lies the bustling Kuching waterfront, home of fried “Ais krim” (yes, fried ice cream) and the favourite haunt of many a local, due to its chilled out vibe and great food. Look for a table on the riverside overlooking the iconic Dun Building; in the evening the monumental edifice reflects below like a diamond chandelier. Behind the busy waterfront is the Main Bazaar, dotted with Chinese shophouses, bursting at the seams with local textiles, decoration, clothing, jewellery and delicious food. Not far from Main Bazaar, resting on an ancient foothill lies the historic Chinese Tua Pek Kong Temple, one of the few architectural remnants of the 1884 Great Fire of Kuching, dating back as early as 1843.


Beyond the city, Borneo offers some of the most biodiverse hiking terrain in the world, and with trails suitable for both the inexperienced hiking enthusiast and the well seasoned explorer, it’s the perfect destination for jungle discovery! Avoiding the well trodden trails of Peninsular Malaysia, we headed for Bako National Park, resting majestically on the northern coastline of Sarawak, a 40 km bus journey north east of Kuching. Unlike other such national parks, a visit to Bako is likely to reward you with a tenfold chance of sighting the best wildlife the tropical subcontinent has to offer! By the end of our first day we encountered several rare proboscis monkeys bumbling around in the swampy mangroves, a handful of mischievous long-tailed macaques, one or two wild boar strolling romantically beside the beach fringed forest and a whole host of intriguing plantlife.


Not forgetting the king of the jungle! It goes without saying that the fundamental reason many travellers journey all the way to Borneo, is to visit the humble “Orang utan”. It’s unfortunate that these distinctive bowl faced mammals are rapidly going into decline. Borneo however, is said to be home to just over one hundred thousand of these “Men of the forest”. My friend and I visited Semenggoh Nature & Wildlife Reserveto see them in their natural habitat—feeding on bananas in amongst the trees… what a humbling experience!


No visit to Kuching would truly be complete without first tackling the dusty drive out of town to Siniwan Night Market. My friend and I braved the rickety local bus and arrived at the riverside market just in time for sunset. Dropped seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we ambled sheepishly down the dirt track and stumbled upon a bustling thoroughfare of wooden clad shophouses lined with delicious local delights. My favourites included “Apam balik” (peanut butter roti), “Teh bunga kembang krisan dengan madu” (Chrysanthemum honey tea) and “Kaya” buns (coconut). Be sure to arrange transport back to Kuching… we missed the last bus home, and with no taxis or Grab in the area, we resorted to hitching a ride with a kind old Malay couple. It’s a good thing the Malays are some of the friendliest people in South East Asia!