Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Kuching: An Intriguing Sample of Malaysian Borneo



A River Taxi on the Sarawak River, with Kuching's Waterfront Promenade in the Background


Back in 2007, my daughter and I still had some time to occupy in Singapore before we were scheduled to meet up with my wife in Bangkok for the flight back to The States, and decided that we would make a quick trip to one of the neighboring countries. While we were in Ubud, Bali with our son-in-law, my daughter and I talked about where we would go after returning to Singapore, figuring that we would spend one full day there doing some laundry and making some quick travel arrangements. I suggested Cambodia because I really wanted to visit Angkor Wat and the numerous temples and monuments of Angkor Thom, but as our daughter was already scheduled to make her first trip to Siem Reap with her in-laws in the coming months, we decided against that. She really wanted to visit Borneo so that she could see orang-utans in one of the rehabilitation centers, of which there was one each in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. We were leaning towards a visit to the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center, located in the Kabili-Sepilok rainforest reserve about 25km outside of Sandakan, Sabah, which would involve a flight from Singapore to the capital city of Kota Kinabalu on the west coast of Sabah and a region flight into Sandakan on the east coast. We decided to book our flights as soon as we arrived back in Singapore the following evening, but my daughter later learned from a friend that she was able to see orang-utans at Sarawak’s Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is located outside of the city of Kuching, which is the capital of Sarawak. Based on Kuching being a shorter flight from Singapore, and on the stellar recommendation from the friend on all there is to see and do in and around Kuching and how enjoyable her stay was, we decided that Kuching, Sarawak was just the ticket (so to speak).

The Great Cat of Kuching Statue in South Kuching City



Sarawak’s path to becoming the most multicultural state in Malaysia is rich in history: from evidence of early man 40,000 years ago, to the arrival of Eastern traders in the 7th century, then coming under control of Indonesian factions from the 11th century and the sultanate of Brunei from the 15th to the early 19th century, to governance under the first of the three ‘White Rajas’ (Sir James Brooke) in 1842, followed by Japanese occupation in WWII, to being made a British Crown colony in 1946, and finally becoming part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Situated in western Sarawak on the banks of the Sungai Sarawak (River), with most of the city residing along the southern bank, historic Kuching is predominantly the tourist’s gateway to the natural and cultural richness that is Sarawak. Kuching International (KCH) is serviced by regular flights from Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bharu) and Singapore (note that as Sarawak is semi-autonomous, one has to clear Immigration at KCH even if flying in from Peninsular Malaysia). ‘Kuching’ means ‘cat’ in the Bahasa Melayu language, hence is known as the ‘Cat City’ (as the numerous cat statues around the city will no doubt remind you). Given its demographic distribution, Kuching’s personality is more Chinese south of the Sungai Sarawak, with riverfront high-rise hotels and shopping centers exuding a vibrant cosmopolitan feeling, and more Malaysian north of the river, where the Malay-styled houses, some of which perched on low stilts, convey a laid back ‘kampung’ (village) feeling. Kuching was lucky in that it escaped the damaged incurred by other cities in Malaysian Borneo during WWII, thus allowing the visitor to enjoy its numerous renovated historic buildings. In as little as a 30-minute drive from your downtown hotel, you can take in the natural beauty of Sarawak’s scenic countryside of picturesque limestone hills & secondary jungle.

The Cat Statue in front of Our Hotel





Our Silk Air flight from Singapore touched down at Kuching International Airport beneath a ceiling of gray clouds and overcast which suggested that our first day in-country might involve a bit of rain. We exited the terminal and stake our place in line at the cab stand, learning that the set fare from the airport to the hotels downtown was 17.50 Ringgit and worked on a coupon system. We checked into the Holiday Inn Kuching, which was conveniently located near the east end of the Sarawak River waterfront promenade on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman Road, in front of one of the city’s cat statues, with a 7-Eleven market, a 24-hour McDonalds, the Tun Jugah shopping mall, a Chinese/Malaysian hawker center and the Crowne Plaza Riverside & Cineplex all nearby. One drawback was learning that the less-than-stellar breakfast buffet (which unfortunately did not offer the Halal hickory-smoked turkey bacon that the Hotel Equatorial in Malacca did) was not included in the Malaysian Ringgit 205 (approx. US $62) cost of the double occupancy room; enjoying our breakfast in-house or on the patio at the river’s edge (weather permitting) sets us back an additional RM 28 each.
The View of the Sarawak River from Our Hotel Patio
Another convenience of the Holiday Inn Kuching was that it contained a Matahari Tours office in the lobby; this was the agency that our daughter’s friend had used during her stay in Kuching, and we were able to use her well-worn and hand-annotated Matahari Tours brochure during our flight from Singapore to flesh out a viable itinerary to book once we checked into the hotel. We would spend the afternoon of our arrival at the Sarawak Cultural Village to learn about the cultures of the various ethnic tribes that inhabit Sarawak. The morning of our first full day in Kuching, we would drive south for a visit to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to view the reserve’s semi-wild orang-utans as the come in for their morning meal at the jungle feeding station; afterwards, we would continue further south to visit Kampung Annah Rais, where we would tour a traditional Bidayuh ethnic tribal longhouse. The following full day would be spent north of Kuching touring Bako National Park, where we would hopefully be able to see some rare proboscis monkeys. Our final day in Kuching would start with a 1/2-day guided city tour, after which would explore the city on our own before our evening return flight to Singapore.
 
The Entrance to the Sarawak Cultural Village After the Sky Finally Cleared Up

After settling into our room, we went down to the lobby to book and prepay the planned excursions for our stay with Matahari Tours, and with about 30 minutes met our driver out front and began the 45-minute drive north of Kuching to the Sarawak Cultural Village. This award-winning ‘living museum’ is a must for visitors interested in the cultures of the various ethnic groups that make up Sarawak. Situated on 15 acres amid natural jungle in the foothills of scenic Mount Santubong, and not far from the premiere Damai beach resort on the South China Sea, the 17½-acre cultural park showcases the traditional dwellings of the various ethnic tribes of the state, in addition to examples of a tradition Malaysian house and Chinese farm house, all of which are laid out around a picturesque man-made lake. The 7 authentic houses are assembled using tradition materials and techniques and contain the household accouterments specific to each culture, with handcraft-making demonstrations by skilled crafts people, and traditional chores, games, rituals and ceremonies performed both inside and outside of the ethnic houses. An impressive ethnic music and dance performance is held twice daily in a modern theater. 

The View from the Three-Storied Chinese Pagoda
The New Orang Ulu Longhouse Exhibit in the Distance
As we entered the park, we were given our green cultural village ‘Passport’, which contained a map of the park and information on each of the tribal cultures and their traditional houses, with two pages provided for ‘Village Stamps’, which you would receive after having visited each of the tribal houses. We first climbed the steps to the top of the three-story pagoda that is located to the right of the park entrance to take in a birds-eye view of the park grounds and some of the ethnic show houses amid the backdrop of Mount Santubong’s lush foothills, the upper reaches of which were enshrouded by a bank of low clouds drifting in from the South China Sea. We had a late lunch at the park’s restaurant, whose menu offered a variety of Malaysian, Chinese and Western dishes, prior to beginning our tour of the park’s cultural exhibits.  

The Whitewashed Walls and Thatched Leaf roof of a Traditional Chinese Farm House
Chinese Farm Implements of the Early 1900's
An Example of a Malay House
Traditional Snacks Being Made in the Malay House

An Example of a Melanau Tall House




Inside the Melanau Tall House
The Walkway Running Beneath the Melanau Tall House to the Sago Hut
We opted to walk the circuit around the lake in a counter-clockwise direction, which was the reverse of our passport’s intended exhibit viewing and description sequence, and made our first stop on our self-guided tour an example of a traditional Chinese farm house. The Chinese farm house’s ground level design, with its compacted earthen floor and thatched leaf attap roof, contrasted that of the traditional Malay house, which is stilted with a wooden roof and, in the case of this particular specimen, had a Malaysian women seated on a thatched mat before a bed of hot coals demonstrating how some traditional waffle-styled cakes were made. As we continued in reverse-order on the circuit, the Melanau tall house was the first example of one of Borneo’s indigenous tribal dwellings that we encountered. The Melanau people make up about 5.8% of Sarawak’s population, and traditionally lived along the sea and within the reach of pirates, which would explain why they would build their houses as high as 40 feet off the ground. The Melanau distinguish themselves from most of the other native peoples of Borneo as they prefer to eat sago instead of rice as their staple food.   

An Example of a New Orang Ulu Longhouse

The Notched Log Stairway into the New Orang Ulu Longhouse
Human Skulls Hanging from the Rafters of the New Orang Ulu Longhouse
Woodworking Exhibition at the New Orang Ulu Longhouse




Trying My Hand at Playing the Sape
A New Orang Ulu Tribesman Playing an Electrified Six-String Sape
Perhaps the most interesting and memorable of the ethnic dwellings visited was that of the New Orang Ulu tribe. Their longhouse was distinguished from the other longhouse examples seen in that it was built atop tall stilts that were decorated with intertwining vine-like patterns painted in white, red and yellow. The New Orang Ulu share the tradition of the Iban and Bidayuh tribes, where human skulls which were taken as war trophies are displayed in the dwelling or entombed within the dwelling’s stilted foundation. What intrigued me most was that one of the traditional craft being demonstrated was the fabrication of wooden musical instruments, particularly the sape, which is a four-stringed, lute-like instrument carved from tree trunk, with the end of the headstock carved and painted to look like the head of a hornbill. As I was kneeling to examining a wooden xylophone near where the instruments were being fabricated, one of the tribal craftsmen who was of about middle-age and sporting a ‘Three Stooges’ Moe Howard-styled bowl haircut came over to me; with a smile, he picked up a pair of mallets and began playing a Melanau melody. As I later turned my attention to one of the sapes, I was invited to have a seat on one of the wooden benches and try my hand at playing it. For the benefit of the visitors, one of the sapes was outfitted with six steel strings, modern tuning machines and a single bridge pickup, which enabled the sape to be played through a Peavey amplifier by a younger tribal gentleman wearing a loin cloth and what could be described to as a ‘New Orang Ulu mullet’.

A Penan Tribesman with a Traditional Blowpipe at the Penan Hut Exhibit

We next visited the Penan Hut, which is an example of the relatively simple temporary dwellings used by the nomadic Penan tribe, perhaps the last of Borneo's hunter-gatherer tribes, which was located in the vicinity of a small man-made waterfall. The huts are quickly assembled in the central jungles near stands of sago trees as, like the Melanau, sago is the staple of the Penan tribe, and are used for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. When the supply of sago in the vicinity of the huts has been depleted, the families move on to locate another suitable stand of sago trees. The Penan are well-known for their skill in manufacturing and using blowpipes to hunt prey, hence the Penan exhibit highlighted the blowpipe by both demonstrating its fabrication and offering the visitors the chance to fire three blowpipe darts at some empty soda cans suspended in front of a wooden backstop. The blowpipes are carved from thin wooden planks, with the smooth bores first roughly drilled then reamed and smoothed to the final diameter by drawing lengths of rattan through it; the cylindrical blowpipe is then tipped with a steel blade that extends forward of the muzzle and is attached along the tangent of the blowpipe with wraps of chord, which also allows the blowpipe to be used as a spear if required. The blowpipe fires a soft wooden plug tipped with a hardwood dart that is dipped in a poison made from the sap of the Upas tree. After three decidedly-sorry attempts to connect with the soda cans placed at a distance of about ten yards, I came to the realization that the marksmanship skills that I had developed through countless hours spent on the firing line and tens of thousands of rounds sent downrange with rifles and handguns was of no use to me when it came to shooting darts with a blowpipe at a nearby target.

An Example of an Iban Longhouse as seen from Across the Lake
An Example of a Bidayuh Longhouse
Adjoining Structural Elements of a Bidayuh Longhouse
Adjoining Structural Elements of a Bidayuh Longhouse
The Communal Veranda of a Bidayuh Longhouse

Gongs on Display Inside the Bidayuh Longhouse


Continuing along the circuit in reverse-order, we walked through examples of the traditional longhouses of the Iban and the Bidayuh tribes. Though both tribes formally practiced head-hunting, the Iban were considered to be the most fierce and war-like of the two. The Iban were once known as the ‘Sea Dayaks’ as they built their longhouses along the coast or near the banks of navigable rivers, and currently represent approximately one-third of the population of Sarawak; the Bidayuh were formally referred to by early European travelers as ‘Land Dayaks’ as they built their longhouses along the steep limestone hillsides. The tour of the Bidayuh longhouse exhibit gave us a good preview of what we would be seeing during the following day’s visit to the Kampung Annah Rais longhouse, which lies a convenient one-hour drive from Kuching; I would have preferred to get a bit more adventurous and go much further a field to visit the Iban longhouse on the Lemanak River (which I believe is the one that Anthony Bourdain visited during his ‘No Reservations: Malaysia’ episode), but the trip requires a 4-hour drive and a one-hour boat ride each way. (The Lemanak River Iban longhouse can be visited as an overnight home stay from Kuching, and can also be combined with a visit to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for the morning orang-utan feeding prior to the outbound excursion to the longhouse.)

The Orang Ulu Tribe Kanjet Ngeleput Dance
The Orang Ulu Warrior Stalks His Prey
The Iban Tribe Ngajat Lesong Dance, Complete with 20 kg Mortar
The Bidayuh Tribe Rajang Be'uh Dance
The timing of our completion of the ethnic house exhibits circuit worked out just about right, as it allowed us to recline and relax in the padded seats of the center’s air-conditioned theater for about fifteen minutes before the start of the ethnic cultural show. The well-produced presentation showcased the traditional dances performed by the various indigenous tribes, and also some dances particular to the Malay and Chinese immigrants, with a modern creation thrown in as a hat tip to the Malaysian Tourism Board. There were a number of ‘welcome dances’ in the set list, in addition to dances performed at the times of harvest, funerals, the election of a new village chief, the return of warriors from a victorious battle, and to exhibit feats of strength, agility and endurance of the warrior. As for the later and more physically-demanding dance exhibitions, the Melanau Alu-Alu funeral dance, in which a male dancer performs aerobatic maneuvers while balanced atop an eight-foot pole supported vertically by three of his brethren, and the Iban Ngajat Lesong dance, in which a kneeling male performer executes a graceful dance routine while holding a 20 kg mortar suspended solely by the strength of his teeth and mouth, were by far the most impressive parts of the show.


After the finale of the presentation, a sort of cultural diversity on parade-styled procession set to ‘Malaysia: Truly Asia’, the official song of the Malaysian Tourism Board, we made our way out to the park’s entrance where, after a brief wait, our driver pulled up to take us back to Kuching. Once back at the hotel, we did a bit of wandering around the neighborhood to do some exploring and find a place for dinner; during our reconnoitering, we discovered what would be our guilty pleasure during our stay in Kuching, which was a stall in the nearby Sarawak Plaza basement food court that sells waffle sandwiches with a variety of interesting filling spreads that can be paired (i.e., chocolate & blueberry, pandan & kaya).


The Sign at the Entrance to the Semenggoh Wildlife Center

The Roster of the Center's Resident Orang-Utans


A Crocodile on Display Near the Center's Headquarters

The Trail to the Jungle Feeding Station Observation Deck
The following morning after breakfast, we met with our guide and driver for the day, a personable Malay-Chinese man named Alex, for our orang-utan encounter at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center followed by a visit to the Kampung Annah Rais Bidayuh longhouse. We drove south along the main road out of Kuching, bypassing the turnoff to the airport and diverting onto a two-lane road that threaded through stands of secondary jungle for a ways before we reach the center’s parking lot, that is located some distance away from the actual entrance to the center, which is approached on foot so as to not disturb the animals that live in the protected forest reserve. There were already a number of parked cars and tour buses as we left our vehicle for the short hike in, and as we neared the center’s headquarters we can hear the distant murmur of myriad conversations; the murmur was sporadically punctuated by the higher-pitched voices of young children conveyed shouts, giggles and squeals, which presumably went un-admonished by inattentive parents despite the signage requesting that voices be kept low within the center. There was still some time before the visitors would be led to the jungle feeding station to watch the morning feeding, so Alex took us over to some enclosures where a number of crocodiles were on display to occupy our time. As the feeding time neared, we rejoined the assembled crowd near the closed gate at the head of the access trail. One of the center’s rangers then called everyone to attention and explained the rules of conduct while observing the orang-utans, particularly the ones about speaking only in whispers, not straying off the marked trail or beyond the observation deck, and especially the one about parent controlling their children and making sure that they followed all of the rules. As the gate was opened and we began our mass migration along the 200-meter trail that led to the deck, the rule about speaking in whispers was already being bent, if not outright broken. 


Orang-Utans Descending from the Trees
Adult Orang-Utan and Her Offspring on the Feeding Platform
A View of the Feeding Platform from the Observation Deck



As we arrived at the observation deck, the sounds of not-so-quiet conversations actually began to diminish, thanks in part to the anonymous annoyed and insistent-sounding shushes in response to some continued child chatter (to the visible dismay and embarrassment of the parents of the said offenders). The assembled visitors began to stake out their viewing spots, tweak the settings of their cameras as series of test shots were reviewed on LCD screens, and gaze up into the tree canopy in anticipation of the arrival of the orang-utans as the last of the morning fruit offerings were being placed on the elevated wooden feeding platform at the edge of a jungle clearing, roughly 30 meters in front of the observation deck. The platform is stair stepped to form three levels and is flanked by moss and lichen-covered tree trunks, some of which are braided with hanging vines that the orang-utans use, together with the lower branches of the trees and the trunks themselves, to descend from the jungle canopy onto the platform; to provide the orang-utans with additional means of access to the platform, a number of draped and hanging ropes and cables have been installed.

We intently scanned the trees overhead and tried to finely scrutinize the background sounds of the jungle (the hiss and faint rattle of tree leaves being caressed by a light breeze, the intermittent shimmering tones of cicadas and sporadic calls of tropical birds) for any hint that an orang-utan might be approaching, as the anticipation continued to mount. After a moment, the hiss of leaves bushing together began to grown above the baseline background level from somewhere in the distant canopy, which put raised heads into motion as people tried to locate any signs of tree movement. There was an increase in the level of whispering on the observation deck as one of the distant trees began to tremble and sway slightly, and the loud snap of a dry branch being snapped (under the weight of a passing orang-utan?!) and falling to the ground somewhere in the jungle was met with a collective gasp of surprise from the crowd. At that point, a number of trees began swaying back and forth, and patches of reddish brown fur started materialized amid the shifting tapestries of branches and leaves. As the orang-utans approached the feeding platform, their complete forms could be seen as they reached from branch to branch, slowly advancing hand over hand, foot over foot, with well-coordinated (almost human-like) movements. As I raised my compact digital camera to frame my first shot of the orang-utans up in the trees through the LCD screen and thumbed the optical zoom to its maximum 3X power, I saw that I was woefully under-equipped to capture any decent images of the orang-utans due to the distance and the difficulties that the camera’s auto-focus had in picking out the orang-utan as the subject of focus given the tree branches in the immediate foreground and background; I would also later realize that I had forgotten to change the video resolution from Normal to HQ 640x480, hence my orang-utan video clips (included in the video link below) came out looking much like the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film footage of 1967. 


A couple of the orang-utans making their way towards the feeding station were seen to have a baby or young adolescent orang-utan clinging to their body as they slowly descended from the upper reaches of the tree trunks, or moved between adjacent trees using the canopy's network of inter-meshed branches. At times, observing the orang-utans' approach to, and later departure from, the feeding platform was like watching an exhibition of aerial acrobatics, as orang-utans hanging from branches or suspended cables by their hands would occasionally swing their legs above the level of their head (in some cases, even with a young orang-utan clinging to their back) in order grasp an adjacent draped cable with their feet or trap it beneath their knees so that they could transition over to it, much the same that a trapeze artist would. As the end of the feeding session neared, and with most of the satiated orang-utans having already climbed back up into the jungle canopy, the bulk of the assembled crowd began to make their way noisily back to the center’s entrance, thankfully talking the voices of the bored children and their consoling parents, and those of others who prefer to carry on conversations in voices louder than the requested whisper level while they view wildlife, with them. We lagged behind with a number of other visitors to watch the last of the feeding in a somewhat quieter setting where the natural sounds of the jungle prevailed, until the ranger announced that it was time from the rest of us to leave the observation deck.

Our First Glimpse of Ritchie in the Trees
The Alpha Male Ritchie Makes His Appearance

Ritchie Approaching the Feeding Station near the Center's Headquarters


Ritchie Swinging into Action
We were among the last ones to make it back to the trail head, with the ranger closing and locking the trail access gate behind us as we walked in the direction of the headquarters building to locate our guide Alex. The majority of the people that had attended the feeding session with us had either already left or could be seen walking back to the parking lot, though there were still a fair number of people either walking around, or standing idly and chatting among themselves, in a region of tended open ground that was semi-encircled by the headquarters and souvenir shop, the crocodile enclosures, and some other staff and facility buildings. We found Alex talking with some staff members who were seat at a bench beneath a tree near the souvenir shop, and noticed that they were all looking with apparent great interest across the open grounds and into the jungle that flanked a portion of paved walking trail. Alex noticed the quizzical expressions on our faces and told us in a low voice that one of the staff members had seen Ritchie, the center’s 27-year old alpha male, just beyond the edge of the jungle, and now that the crowd had left and things had quieted down, there was a good chance that Ritchie would come in to feed at the small roped-off platform near the headquarters. He then told us to follow him over to a paved trail which ran parallel to a pair of vertically-aligned overhead cables that had been strung in lengthy segments between the spans of distant trees to allow Ritchie, or any other orang-utan, easy assess from the jungle to the small feeding platform. The trail followed the edge of the jungle for a ways before diverting into the jungle. At a point where the pair of overhead cables diverged from the paved trail and went deeper into the jungle, Alex motioned for us to stop and, as he extended his hand to point out a particular spot in the jungle, told us in a whisper to follow the line of the hanging cables with our eye through the branches and just to the left of the tall tree trunk speckled with patches of lichen. As our eye tracked along the prescribed bearing our attention is caught by reddish-brown mass framed by a hazy whitish patch of late morning sky through a break in the canopy; as it first came into peripheral view, it looked to be a clump of dried leaves hanging beneath the gnarled junction of some spindly dark branches, though its sheen and texture led to the quick realization that we were seeing the shaggy coat of a large orang-utan. As we waited quietly, we began to hear the now-familiar swishing of leaves and the rattling of branches that telegraphs an orang-utan’s movement through the trees, and soon the full form of his body could be distinguished amid the patchwork of leaves and branches.

He advanced towards the feeding station using the suspended cables, which sagged under his weight to form a pair of vertically-stacked shallow V-shapes, the lower of which was perhaps ten feet off the ground. He progressed along the cables in an evenly-paced and seemingly human-like hand over hand / foot over foot manner. We made our way back down the trail towards the feeding station, pacing ourselves so that we could follow Ritchie while maintaining a trailing distance of a few meters so as not to spook or otherwise distract him. Other visitors soon appeared on the trail ahead of us, who closed the distance with Ritchie at a fast walk and began taking photos while talking quietly, yet excitedly, among themselves. Ritchie occasionally left the suspended cables to use the network of interlaced branches to move between the trunks of adjacent trees, at times supporting the full weight of his body with one hand as he hung from a branch while reaching out with his long arm to snag a slender tree trunk that would bend and sway as he drew it inwards. Whereas his aerial maneuverings through the jungle en route to the feeding station had been performed with slow and gracefully-executed movements, his final transition to one of the two trees adjacent to the feeding platform was in the form of an abrupt swinging leap that generated a few gasps from the captive audience.

Ritchie at the Feeding Station


As Ritchie paused before climbing down onto the platform, one of the center’s rangers instructed the visitors to move behind a section of barrier rope perhaps 20 meters away from the platform, as a female staff member carrying a basket of fruit walked out to the feeding station and placed a green coconut on the corner of the platform. After briefly gazing down at the assembled visitors, Ritchie slowly climbed down and seated himself on the wooden platform, though he still kept an outstretched right hand resting on the base of a branch as he looked warily at the line of people photographing him from behind the barrier rope. With the female staffer standing nearby, Ritchie reached down with his left hand and picked up the young coconut, which looked to have had half of its light green outer coat and a portion of its exposed coir, the whitish fibrous middle coat that covers the coconut’s hard shell, cut away. As the female staffer proceeded to place some bananas and papayas on the platform, Ritchie took hold of the coconut with both hands and bit into the coir layer and through to the coconut’s hard shell, which yielded with an audible crack. He took some sips of coconut juice before setting it down and, after returning his right hand to the base of the tree branch, picking up a bunch of bananas to eat with his left hand. It was entertaining to watch the way he ate the bananas, as he would first peel the bananas with his teeth before plucking the banana off the bunch and into his mouth sideways.

My Photo with Ritchie
Ritchie with Papaya in Hand, and in Foot
Hanging Around After Breakfast
As Ritchie ate, I had my daughter pose for some photo with Ritchie in the background, after which she took some photos of me with Ritchie; it was during my posing that Ritchie decided to take his leave and head back up the tree, making his visit to the feeding station a roughly 5-minute cameo appearance. I took the camera back from my daughter so as to take some photos of Ritchie’s departure, and was surprised to see that he was carrying one of the papayas from the feeding platform in his right foot and another in his right hand as he climbed back up the tree. He stopped at one of the branches just below the suspended cables and hung from it by his left hand and foot as the opposing hand and foot held on to the papayas. After eating the papayas, Ritchie rested briefly in a fork between two branches just below the cables, and then slowly made his way along the cables back into the jungle. He stopped on a section of cabling that spanned the trail, hanging with his left hand grasping the upper cable and his left foot grasping the lower cable, so that he could pick some young leaves from a low-hanging tree branch to nibble on; all in all, we were able to spend about 25 minutes in somewhat close proximity to the alpha male Ritchie, which I consider the highlight of our visit to Semenggoh.
 

The Entrance to the Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
Our Bidayuh Welcoming Committee and Rice Wine Stewards



The Common Veranda of a Bidayuh Longhouse
Rice Drying in the Sun
A Local 'Kuching' Taking a Cat Nap
A Section of the Longhouse's Stilted Split-Bamboo Boulevard










The Annah Rais Bidayuh longhouse is home to more than 80 families and has a written history going back 175 years, with its unwritten history said to extend back some 500 years and cover nearly eight generations. In general, longhouses are apartment-like communal dwellings with the individual family quarters (which includes living and sleeping spaces, and a detached kitchen set back from the quarters and accessed by a small bridge to minimize the chance of cooking fires spreading throughout the longhouse) separated by walls but sharing one long roof and a common veranda which runs the full length of the longhouse. Each family is provided with one door off of the common veranda, hence the number of families that a longhouse can provide for is expressed in its number of ‘doors’; the Annah Rais longhouse is quite large, containing over 100 doors. Unlike the longhouses of the Iban tribe, the traditional Bidayuh longhouse consists of a collection of smaller longhouses containing as little as a few doors, or even a number of single-family dwellings, placed close together and connected by stilted bamboo platforms. As the Bidayuh longhouses are built in mountainous terrain, they are constructed to follow the contour of the land, and thus deviate from the notion of a longhouse being built straight and level.

As we exited the car and made our way up the ramp and onto the longhouse’s split-bamboo platform, I was not surprised to see hanging power lines, corrugated tin roofs and a satellite dish, as this is a function village longhouse and not merely a show house to attract tourists; despite this, the prevalence of bamboo hand railing and the large woven mats laid on the longhouse platform that were covered with grains of rice placed out along with lengths of split bamboo to dry in the morning sun seemed to lend an air of ethnic authenticity. Walking past a number of somewhat modern-looking dwellings and taking two steps up onto the next level of the longhouse platform, Alex led us to what appeared to be an older and much more traditional section of the longhouse. We were met under the veranda by a Bidayuh boy and girl dressed in tribal clothing who welcomed us bearing a wood and wicker tray containing shot glasses of the local Bidayuh tuak (rice wine). It was a bit on the cloudy side, with its initial sweetness soon washed over by a sour finish that is not normally found in your lower-grade Japanese sakes; though I appreciated their generosity, I wasn’t overly-wild about their tuak. After a photo with the two kids, we walked the length of the common veranda past stacked building materials, drying laundry and hanging household items, and some of the resident Bidayuhs going about their daily activities as Alex filled us in on the background of the Annah Rais longhouse and the culture of the Bidayuh tribe.
 
The Stairway to the Village 'Head House'
An Old Cannon on the Head House Stairs
The Interior of the Head House
Trophy Skulls, Assumed to Belong to Former Iban Warriors


Our next stop on the longhouse tour was a visit to the ‘Head House’. The Bidayuh tribe formerly practiced the tradition of headhunting, as did their historical enemy, the Iban tribe. It is said that the Iban were considered the fiercest headhunters on the island of Borneo, whereas the Bidayuh were considered to be a more peace-loving people, yet still renowned for the audacity of their warriors. As battles were waged between the two tribes, warriors on both sides were killed, and their heads subsequently taken by the respective victors as enemy trophies. The skulls of the heads claimed in battle conferring social status to the warrior; they were also felt to possess supernatural power, and thus were passed on to the tribal shamans to be used in rituals. We walked up the two flights of steps leading to the head house, passing an old bronze cannon that I presumed to be a relic of the British colonial period lying a wooden stand and pointed in the general direction of the approaching visitors (perhaps it was placed there by the Bidayuh as an implicit warning to outsiders that they should not attempt to ‘mess with their heads’?) The rustic head house consisted of a single room with walls of unfinished wood planks, and a frame-like central structure built around four of the foundation stilts that extended up from the floor; the longhouse's collection of skulls were kept in a steel cage that was suspended from the rafters of the structure. As Alex explained the significance of the possession of enemy skulls in Bidayuh culture, he pointed out that when Bidayuh longhouses are being built, the skull of a defeated enemy is often interned within one of the foundation stilts, as it is believed to make the foundation stronger, and give the structure upon it more meaning. The skull internment was accomplished by cutting the log that would be used as the stilt in half, and creating a mortise and tenon joint with a hollow cavity created within the joint region to contain the skull.

Rubber, Rice and Produce Drying in the Sun
The Stream that Divides the Longhouse into Two Sections
The Back Section of the Annah Rais Longhouse
Leaving the head house, we continued to stroll along the village's split-bamboo boulevard, which often creaked and flexed beneath my feet as l walked, stepping past a number of woven mats, wicker baskets, and makeshift drop cloths salvaged from synthetic resin feed bags, upon which grains of rice, peeled ears of corn or some unidentifiable type of root vegetable had been laid out to dry in the diffused light of the mid-morning tropical sun. Also drying on the weathered bamboo decking, and attracting the attention of numerous small black flies, were rectangular sheets of raw rubber that had been tapped by the villagers from local rubber trees and processed using traditional techniques and old-school equipment. Alex led us into one of the village’s closely-spaced wood and tin roof dwellings, the rustic interior of which was sort of a cross between a minimally-stocked general store, an eatery, and a de facto museum of Bidayuh culture given the array of tribal items, both utilitarian and decorative in nature, on display. Some of the exotic bric-a-brac had been hung along the back walls with some apparent thought given to placement, while other pieces appeared to have been simply deposited haphazardly atop any shelf or cabinet that had the available space, or simply leaned against any convenient vertical surface; whatever logic may have been involved in the layout, the resulting clutter combined with the inherent character of the old structure’s interior imbued the place with a certain charm.  We were introduced to John, the friendly middle-aged proprietor of the establishment. Alex mentioned that John is quite knowledgeable about the various medicinal plants that grow in the surrounding jungle and their use in the traditional Bidayuh remedies, and also make a very good medicinal rice wine. John invited us to have a seat at one of the few tables near the back corner, and shortly returned with three shot glasses and a bottle of wine that was deep amber in color. As he poured us a sample of his rice wine, he told us that his wine is infused with the bark of a tree that grows in the jungle which has the effect of lowering blood pressure and treating both arthritis and diabetes, and it is the bark that gives the rice wine its distinctive color; he added that he formerly suffered from diabetes, but after a regimen of the medicinal bark, his blood sugar is now well within the normal range. The rice wine was stronger that what we were first given upon our arrived at the longhouse, but was also smoother and had a much better taste.

As we sat and chatted while sipping our medicinal rice wine, I sat back and let my eyes wander among the impressive collection of Bidayuh tribal articles which included an eclectic mix of household and farming items, traditional weapons and handicrafts, and some decorative pieces that possibly had some ceremonial uses. John noticed that my gaze lingered a bit longer on a spearhead-tipped blowpipe resting in the corner formed the back wall and a hanging shelf, and asked if I cared to try it out. Wanting to redeem myself for yesterday’s exhibition of terrible marksmanship at the cultural park’s Penan Hut, I jumped at the chance. He handed me the blowpipe and three sharpened bamboo and cork darts and had me stand about 7 meters back from my target, which was a roughly letter-sized piece of yellowed Styrofoam hanging on the wall. I loaded the first dart hand, holding the end of the pipe to my mouth with my left hand and supporting the bottom of the top-heavy pipe with my extended right hand, gave a huff into the pipe; the dart exited the muzzle rather weakly and fell short of the target, bouncing off the wall on the way to the floor and evoking a chuckle from John and Alex. The next shot just barely skimmed the bottom of the target, suggesting the force of my huffing was almost sufficient, but that my elevation needed some adjustment. My third shot was the charm, with my dart striking center-of-mass and producing a satisfying ‘whack’ as the dart burrowed into the Styrofoam. Feeling pleased, I handed the blowpipe back to John, and after a bit more chatting we thanked John and continued on our way.

The Back Section of the Annah Rais Longhouse
The Detached Cooking Area of a Family Living Quarters
The Interior of a Family Living Quarters

















The Common Veranda of the Back Section of the Longhouse

Strolling the Back Section's  'Bamboo Boulevard'





A Colorful Lizard on the Bridge

A Rustic Piece of Equipment for Processing the Village's Rubber Harvest














Near the end of the bamboo decking, we crossed a footbridge over a small stream that divides the village of Annah Rais to tour what appeared to be an older section of longhouse. We entered one of the longhouse’s ‘doors’ to see a typical family’s living quarters and detached cooking area, and then walked along the longhouse’s common veranda, where we encountered more of the Bidayuh residents going about their daily tasks than we did in the earlier section of longhouse visited. We then strolled down the remaining length of the communal bamboo decking, which had several detached, stilted wood and corrugated tin structures connected to it by bridges comprised of a log and a single bamboo hand railing, before reversing course to head back to the car.



On the drive back to Kuching, Alex asked what our plans were for the rest of the day, to which we replied that we would some exploring of the city on foot after have lunch, and asked him if he had any recommendations for a good place to eat near our hotel. He mention that there was a particular stall in a hawker center not far our hotel that he often went to because it had really good Hokkien char mee noodles, and that he could take us there if we liked. We decided to treat him to lunch, and on his recommendation went with the Hokkien char mee, which did turn out to be really good indeed. Our late-afternoon and early evening was spent doing some wandering along the Kuching River waterfront, with our pick for dinner being a restaurant called the James Brooke Bistro Café; the place served up some good food in a fairly stylish setting, apparently owing to the owner, Rahanah Jais, being both a restaurateur and also an interior designer.
 

On the Bako River En Route to Bako National Park












A Fish Trap at the Mouth of the Bako River

A View of the South China Sea and Our Boat Anchored Offshore

The Entrance to Bako National Park



The following morning we headed down to the lobby and met up with Paul, who was to be our guide, driver and outboard motorboat pilot for the day’s excursion to Bako National Park. Occupying 27 square kilometers of an unspoiled promontory bracketed by the mouths of the Bako and Sarawak Rivers and extending into the South China Sea, it is the oldest of Sarawak’s national parks, and offers the visitor a chance to see the rare proboscis monkey, in additional to silver leaf monkeys, wild boar and six varieties of pitcher plants. Needless to say, the visitor would also encounter more of the ubiquitous macaques monkeys than they could shake a stick at, and chances are that they would want to shake a stick at them given that their nominally mischievous and thieving behavior can quickly turn aggressive (we would later see a sign warning visitors to beware of the ‘naughty monkeys’.  The first leg of the trip was by car to the village of Bako, which is located northeast of Kuching; after crossing the bridge over the Sarawak River, the drive took in views of the countryside and oil palm plantations. Upon our arrival in Bako, we boarded a small outboard motor boat, piloted by Paul, and made our way to the mouth of the Bako River, passing stilted homes along the shore and a number of large bridge-like long and bamboo structures used to anchor fishing nets, and into the South China Sea where we cruised up the west coast of the promontory to the park’s ranger station. The 20-minute cruise was quite scenic, providing good views of the cloud-capped Mount Santubong in the distance to the west, and seas thankfully quite smooth. Given the tide and the long stretch of shallow water leading up to the beach, we had to anchor the boat perhaps 200 meters offshore and, with knapsacks shouldered and shoes and socks in hand, trudged through balmy mid-calf deep waters along the soft sand bottom to reach the beach. We maintained a bearing on the distant park headquarters and visitor facilities buildings that were partially visible along the base of the tree line beneath the glare of the morning sun. Once on the beach, we headed to the park headquarters to check in and learn the details of the days’ itinerary; we would do a one-way 90-minute morning jungle trek with some leisure time at the beach that was our destination, followed by a boat ride back to the park entrance for a buffet lunch, and then do a hike along a boardwalk trail through a stretch of jungle marshland, followed by the boat and car ride back to Kuching.

My Only Decent Picture of a Silver Leaf Monkey
The 'Not So Wild' Boar of Bako National Park
A Wild Boar next to the Footpath








A Venomous Wagler's Pit Viper
The Beach Where There Should Have Been Rare Proboscis Monkeys





Supposed Proboscis Monkey Habitat

Our morning jungle trek combined a portion of the park’s Jalan Lintang loop trail with the Jalan Telok Paku trail, with the route starting at the park headquarters and passing by a particular section of beach and mangroves that is favored by the park’s proboscis monkeys, before heading into the jungle and ultimately ending at a stretch of beach overlooking Telok Paku (Paku Bay). The trail conditions ranged from straight and level paving stone walkways and boardwalks, to winding and inclined jungle footpaths studded with large rocks and covered in tangles of exposed tree roots. Early in the trek, we veered off the main trail a few times and towards some of the bungalows that served as the staff’s quarters, as some of those areas tended to attract wildlife. The first such diversion was to visit a particular stand of trees where silver leaf monkeys tended to congregate. As we approached the area, we saw a number of long tail macaques scavenging for food near the base of the trees, and a couple more perched on the one of the tree's lower branches; Paul briefly scanned the leafy canopy of the tree and was soon able to locate one of the silver leaf monkeys, whose coloration made it immediately distinguishable from the macaques. Paul was then able to point out a couple more in an adjacent tree, though at times all that could be seen was a furry silver-gray tail draped over a branch. As with the previous morning's orang-untan viewing, my digital camera was not quite up to the task of capturing decent images of the silver leaf monkeys, particularly when the glare of the morning sun's rays that penetrated the canopy made it hard to center the intended silver-gray subject and confirm that it's being focused upon though an over-saturated LCD screen. Some of the monkeys executed impressive tree-to-tree leaps up near the top of the canopy, though with the back-lighting of the morning sky and the speed with which they sailed by high overhead, it was hard to tell what kind of monkey they were.  The next diversion from the trail was to get a closer look at a couple of the park's rather docile wild boar that Paul had spotted in the vicinity of another group of staff bungalows; it was during the course of the detour that he also spotted a Wagler's pit viper coiled around a branch in a small ditch near our path. Some half-dozen snapped photos later, we were back on our way and approaching the stretch of the Jalan Lintang trail that would hopefully allow us to view the rare and endangered proboscis monkeys; much to our guide’s surprise and our great disappointment, there were unfortunately none to be seen.

A Pink Veiled Lady, or Long Net Stinkhorn, Fungus
Trekking Through the Jungle on the Jalan Telok Paku Trail
View of the South China Sea from Telok Paku Beach







The 'Sea Stack', Near Telok Pandan Kecil Beach
The 'Sea Stack' from Another Angle
Telok Pandan Kecil Beach, Where Our '15-Minute Wait' Took One Hour

We branched off of the Jalan Lintang Trail loop and onto the Jalan Telok Paku Trail, which passed through the jungle en route to our beach destination. The trekking had mainly been along level ground, but once leaving the Lintang loop the trail soon became narrow and winding, rising and falling as it followed the lay of the land. Beneath the filtered sunlight of the tree canopy, the jungle floor retained enough moisture that thin deposits of moss along the trail, particularly on sections of rocky outcroppings, exposed tree roots or log footbridges that had to be walked across, occasionally made the footing a bit tricky. Whereas the encounters with the local fauna were the highlight of the first leg of the trek, it was the exotic flora and fungi that highlighted the trek’s second leg. Perhaps most intriguing was the pink veiled lady, or long net stinkhorn, fungus that was seen on the trail. The name comes from the greenish-brown spore-containing slime that covers the fungus’ cap, which gives off an odor which attracts flies and other insects that eat the spores and disperse them (I can’t vouch for the odor, as I did not get close enough to it to be able to smell it.) The veiled lady is edible and contains various bio-active compounds which give it antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Paul was also able to point out one of the park’s four species of pitcher plants.



Further down the trail, the jungle opened up to reveal a beach that featured an interesting array of sandstone boulders, outcroppings and cliffs that have been sculpted by wind and water erosion. As we walked out to the water’s edge, Paul mentioned that we would spend about 30 minutes at the beach before returning to the park entrance by boat for a buffet lunch; he added that the park has a famous sandstone sea stack situated at the edge of Telok Pandan Kecil (Bay) which resembles a cobra coming out of the water, and that if we wanted to see it, we could hire the motor boat that was loitering off shore for 15 Malaysian Ringgits. We agreed to the sea stack side-trip  and I fished the MYR 15 out of my pocket while Paul brought the boat in to pick us up with a quick cell phone call. We waded out a short distance off the beach and got into the boat, with Paul helping to counter-balance and steady it during the process, and were shortly on our way. The ride along the park’s western coastline to the sea stack took in views of scenic sculpted sandstone cliffs framed by verdant jungle hills. As we rounded a rocky point and took an easterly heading, we got our first glimpse of the iconic Bako sea stack; unlike the famous limestone karsts of southern Thailand and northern Vietnam, the sea stacks are generally formed when wave action causes a crack to form in the headland, which widens and collapses to leave a freestanding monolith surrounded by water. As we neared the sea stack, our pilot throttled back to nearly an idle so that we could take some photos before being dropped off at the beach; as we got out of the boat to wade into the beach, he told us that he had some other visitors that he had to ferry back to the park headquarters, and that he would return in about fifteen minutes’ time to pick us up. Our fifteen minutes of waiting on the beach would stretch out beyond 30 minutes, leading us to wonder if perhaps he had developed trouble with his outboard as we sat on the beach and glanced at our watches and admired the eroded sandstone formations around us; after one hour, we finally heard the distant whine of a motor over the hiss of receding waves, and finally saw our inbound guide and pilot coming to take us to lunch.
Back to the Beach
A Sign Warning of 'Naughty Monkeys'

An Interesting Tree on the Ulu Assam Trail
The Return Trip to Kuching



For the second time that morning, our boat glided to a stop some distance from the now-familiar beach, where our boatman offered a hand to steady us as we stepped over the side of the boat and onto the soft sandy bottom and walked ashore. At the park's cafeteria near the headquarters building, we enjoyed a buffet-style lunch that included stir fried noodles, fish, vegetables and a chicken curry. The final activity before our return to Kuching was a hike along a portion of the Ulu Assam trail, which featured a ground-level boardwalk that runs though a region of heavily-wooded swamp that would provide us with our final opportunity to see the thus far elusive proboscis monkey. On our way to the trail, we passed a sign warning visitors of the 'naughty monkeys' in the vicinity of some cabins used for overnight accommodations; the monkeys did not seem to be nearly as naughty or bold (nor as numerous) as those encountered earlier at the Monkey Forrest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali, who had become accustomed to instant gratification from the endless stream of bananas from the numerous tourists. By that point in the afternoon the skies had become overcast, with a scattering of darker clouds which suggested that we just might yet end up using those vinyl rain ponchos that we picked up in the mall near the hotel after all. As we walked, we scanned the trees around and above us for proboscis monkeys, and listened intently to the sounds of the jungle for any indication (a rustling of leaves, a rattling of branches or a sudden grunt) that they might be nearby. At one point, Paul abruptly stopped and held up a hand to signal that he saw something. He pointed up into a cluster of branches and said that it looked like the drooping tail of a proboscis monkey perched in a tree, and then raised his compact 10x binoculars to his eyes and confirmed the sighting. Try as he might to explain exactly where to look, it took us quite a while to finally see the long grayish-tan tail, particularly given the exceedingly-small field of view afforded by Paul’s binoculars when he passed them to us; that wasn't exactly the kind of proboscis monkey encounter we had hoped for, but at least we could say that we kind of, sort of saw one. We hike a bit further up the boardwalk trail before retracing our steps back to the headquarters, and then sloshing our way back out to the waiting boat to start the journey back to Kuching.


Kuching's Waterfront Promenade

An Unique Sculpture on the Watefront

Kuching's Istana

Kuching's Wet Market

Not-So-Fresh Fish at This Time of the Day


The Waterfront Promenade at Sunset

Despite the dark clouds seen rolling in as we left Bako, there was still sun back in Kuching, which made for some enjoyable strolling along the city's Sarawak River waterfront promenade and a picturesque view of the colonial-styled Istana on the river's northern bank. Visiting tourists and locals alike were making the most of the pleasant late-afternoon; the assorted food and trinket vendor stalls that dotted the quaint riverside walkway managed to do some business from the former, who were more likely interested in souvenirs than something to eat; some of the later casually leaned, much like their fishing poles, with their forearms resting on the hand railing, alternately watching the water taxis ferrying passengers across the river, and their rod tips for signs that a shrimp had decided to go for their bait. Walking westward, past some examples of colonial architecture and a unique bronze statue of an open-mouthed dragon head facing towards the far bank, I arrived at the Kuching's general wet market. It was still busy and, given the time of day, also a bit smelly in the fish section of the market. I walked a short distance along Jalan Gambier amid the storefronts and shop houses, and then retraced my steps along the promenade in the direction of the hotel as the sun slipped ingloriously beneath a bank of clouds on the horizon, and headlights and streetlights began to come on. The sun’s afterglow washed the clouds of the eastern sky in pastel hues of pink, old rose, aquamarine and indigo, and the serpentine reflection of the line of white bulbs strung between the promenade’s light posts danced on the river’s rippling waters. Our dinner that evening was at the nearby Khatulistiwa Café, which is housed in a building shaped like a traditional Bidayuh skull house on the waterfront next to the Riverbank Suites; we sat at the ground floor open-air tables so that we could enjoy the view of the river, and never went upstairs to check out the bar and dance floor.

Kuching South City Hall
Kuching North City Hall

The View From Kuching North City Hall




The Kuching Cat Museum
The Dayang Salhah Kek Lapis Bakery
Setting Up the Layers in the Kek Lapis Sarawak
Kek Lapis Sarawak, the Local Specialty of Kuching
The Sarawak Ethnology Museum

The next morning began with our half-day city tour of Kuching, some of which took the form of ‘drive-by tourism’, whereby historic building or monuments were pointed out and briefly describe in passing as the car slowed or briefly stopped as traffic flow and/or available curb space allowed. We did briefly get out of the car to take photos of the Great Cat of Kuching statute with an ornate Chinese gate as a backdrop, and of Kuching’s futuristic South City Hall. A longer stop was made at Kuching’s North City Hall, the eye-catching design of which was reminiscent of a flying saucer from some low-budget science fiction movie from the early 1960’s, and hilltop location of which provided a nice panoramic view of the city with Mount Santubong and the Bako headland in the distance. The main reason for our extended stop at the North City Hall was to check out the especially-cheesy Cat Museum contained within the building. Our guide gave us 30 minutes to walk around inside the museum, which was about 15 minutes longer than we really needed in my opinion, and left me regretting afterwards that I paid the 2 Ringget camera fee that the free-admission museum charges. The most enjoyable stop on our half-day city tour was at the Dayang Salhah Kek Lapis bakery, located on the north bank of the Kuching River in Kampung Gersik. The bakery is famous for its multi-color/multi-flavored/multi-patterned ‘kek lapis Sarawak’ (Sarawak layer cake), which is very popular throughout Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. We first toured the kitchen to witness the steps involved in making a kek lapis Sarawak, then moved on to the front of the bakery where we browsed among the shelves of freshly-baked product and sampled their most popular version of the kek lapis Sarawak. We then drove upriver and made a stop near the grounds of the Istana, which we were not allowed to enter, to take in some views across the river before heading back to the south side of Kuching to visit the Sarawak Ethnology Museum, which was the final stop on our city tour. Ethology refers to a branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the characteristics of different peoples and the relationship between them, though the museum took a somewhat broader and open-ended interpretation of the term; it combined a fascinating mix of regional wildlife taxidermy and exhibits on natural history with the cultural aspects and characteristics of the ethnic peoples of Borneo, and made for a very enjoyable and intriguing visit.

'Tambang' Water Taxis on the Sarawak River

North Kuching (Foreground) Vs. South Kuching (Background)
Wandering Chickens in North Kuching
Tua Pek Kong Temple

Final photos of the Kuching Waterfront 
The Night Market in Kampung Boyen, North Kuching




















Later in the afternoon I did a bit of solo exploring on foot around the north bank of the river. It was a fairly short walk from the Holiday Inn to the jetty that is serviced by the city’s numerous water taxis (referred to as sampans or ‘tambangs’ by the locals), which charged 0.30 Ringgit per person from a one-way trip across the river. The trip across to the jetty at Jalan Brooke Road near the west end of Kampung Boyen took about five minutes, but the change in the local vibe and ambiance was disproportionate to the short distance traveled. My boarding for the trip across the river to Kampung Boyen proved to be a bit of an interesting experience. As I walked down the stairs to the small floating jetty, there were already some passengers lined up and waiting to board the inbound water taxi. The tarp-covered wooden boats accommodate about a dozen or so passengers in addition to the boatman, with seating provided by two low benches that spanned most of the length of the boat's interior. As the passengers enter the boat via the bow in a single-line fashion, the loading order would have been an elderly Muslim Malay couple (the wife wearing modest clothing and the traditional head covering), followed by three similarly-attired younger Muslim Malay women, and finally myself. As we waited for the boat to dock, some additional passengers, five women similarly in Muslim attire and ranging in age from about late teens to middle-aged, and an older Chinese man, made their way down the stairs and lined up behind me. As the water taxi eased up along side the jetty and the first of the passengers ahead of me prepared to board, I fished a 10 and a 20 sen (the Malaysian equivalent of a cent) coin out of my pocket for the fare and inched my way forward until it was my turn to board. As I held out my 30 sen to the boat man and prepared to step onto the water taxi's short fore-deck  the boat man glanced up at me and held up his hand, gesturing to me to not broad yet; with his hand still held in the air as a universally signal for me to wait, he leaned his head down to briefly survey the seated passengers beneath the boat's canopy, then looked over my left shoulder at the headscarf-ed Muslim women and Chinese gentleman waiting behind me. With a slight side-ward wave of his hand he motioned for me to step to my right, and then with a rearward wave of his fingers motioned for the passengers behind me to go ahead and board first. The mood became decidedly awkward as each of the women in turn cast what look to be quick uncomfortable side glances at me as they boarded. When everyone else was finally seated, he motioned for me to come aboard and, taking my 30 sen, directed me to take a seat in the very front on the starboard bench next to the Chinese gentleman. Most of the eyes of my fellow passengers were on me as I took my spot on the bench, after which the boatman pushed us away from the dock and the motor shortly sputtered to life; I met their curious with a somewhat embarrassed smile, and manage to get a few smiles in return, which seemed to lighten the mood. I'm not sure if my seating arrangement was borne of the boatman's desire to provide the lone foreign tourist aboard with the best spot on the bench for taking on the scenery on the ride across the river, or to perhaps to help protect the modesty of the women by sparing them the embarrassment of having a strange Western male sandwiched between them on the tightly-packed bench seat.

I was the first one off the boat when we arrived at the jetty on the northern bank, which was adjacent to a covered pavilion and a public park that occupied a stretch of the river's bank to the east. The mood of the north bank was decidedly laid back, definitely befitting of its 'kampung' (village) namesake. Along the road that ran parallel to the river were a couple of mosques and small business establishments interspersed among the row of homes; some of the more rustic ones sat upon short wooden stilts and reminded me of the rural homes that we had seen earlier on the outskirts of Malacca, on the Malay peninsula. Figuring that a bit of elevation would afford me a better view of the surroundings, I strolled up Jalan Brooke Road, which from the vicinity of the jetty ascends a low hill of residential housing that combines tightly-spaced contemporary homes of stucco, wood trim and titled roofs with old-school, Malay-styled houses of painted wood plank walls, stilted verandas and corrugated tin roofs in varying states of oxidation, beneath which hung draped lines laden with drying laundry. As I approached a point where Jalan Brooke made a sharp right turn, a narrow paved footpath between two houses that looked to lead a bit further uphill caught my eye. The path meandered eastward to the crest of a small rise which, while not quite giving me the vantage point that I was seeking on my excursion, gave me a nice juxtaposition of the personalities of North and South Kuching.

We where able to get a late-afternoon checkout from the hotel and leave our luggage at the front counter so that we wouldn't have to lug it around before leaving to catch our evening flight back to Singapore. We decided that we would relax and take in a movie ('I Am Legend' seemed to be the best choice) at the nearby Cineplex before taking a taxi to the airport. Our timing allowed us to take one last stroll along the Sarawak River promenade to take a few more photos in the early evening; near the end of our stroll, I noticed that a night market seemed to be on near the Kampung Boyen, and later regretted that we spent some two hour in a movie theater instead of at the night market. All in all, we had a very enjoyable stay in Kuching, Sarawak, and a wonderful introduction to the natural and cultural diversity that is Malaysian Borneo.


A collection of my video clips taken in and around Kuching can be seen here:



My video clips of the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center can be seen here:



Update - 11/25/17:

The Sarawak Museum of Ethnology will be temporarily closed from Oct 23 onwards for a period of two and a half years to allow the completion of Phase II of the Sarawak Museum campus and heritage trail project. More information can be found here.





1 comment:

  1. Great write up about Kuching! I think the whole thing about the boat ride and you being seated at the front had more to do with weight balancing instead of preserving the women's modesty or being given the best seat in the house.

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