Into Borneo proper (Batang Rajang River Area, Borneo, Malaysia)

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May 26th 2009
Published: May 27th 2009
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(Day 417 on the road)Here it is, my 100th blog entry: After my extended stay in Kuching, I was ready to hit the road. Or rather: The river. Borneo is criss-crossed by rivers, and one of the mightiest ones is the Batang Rajang river, running for 640km in the northwest of the island. For most of the people living along its shores in small settlements or villages, the river is the only way to move around. There are frequent boats plying the Batang Rejang and its adjacent river-system, carrying goods and people to the most remote corners.

From Kuching Karen and I caught a speedboat to the town of Sibu (five hours), where we got a connecting boat to spend the night in Kapit (three hours), well in the interior of Northern Borneo. The next morning, our Borneo adventure began. We had been told that the boat to our next destination leaves at 1100h in the morning. Turning up at the jetty however we found out that the boat had left at 0900h, but there was a boat going soon to a different place. With no real alternative available (other than to hang around for another day), we caught that boat (four hours), and ended up in the small village of Punan Bah.

There were no guest houses in the village, so we were offered a room and meals in the house of the village chief. We were told that it was free of charge, but from our guidebook we knew that a small payment or some gifts were expected nevertheless, which was a bit awkward really. We spent the rest of the day walking around the village with two of its residents, and later in the company of the two nurses from the brand-new clinic in the village, which looked decidedly out of place compared to some of the wooden shacks that the local people lived in.

The women of the village were particularly interesting: Many of the older ones had their whole arms and upper feet covered in dense traditional tribal tattoos, and some of them had their ear-holes stretched to an incredible size, supposedly by putting a heavy weight in the earlobe after the initial piercing.

Dinner was eaten separately for men and women, with the men eating first and the women last. Karen however was allowed to dine with the men. I didn't agree with that (rules are rules after all), but I didn't want to make a big fuss about it at that time. But I made a mental note that from now on she should always eat after me. I shall tell her of my decision soon.

The next day, we had planned to continue our journey upriver, but soon found out that the last boat for the season had been the one we had arrived on the previous day due to the low river-level. The next boat would run in roughly three week's time, provided there had been enough rain by then. So we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. Pretty cool um? Stuck in the Borneo jungle! There were very few options, all of which included hiring a private boat or a four wheel drive, and all of which were prohibitively expensive. In the end, we got very lucky, as three geologists from Kuching were also stuck in the village and were looking for a way to get back out of the jungle. So we ended up sharing a 4WD to the town of Bintulu, some four hours north via a logging road.

And speaking of logging: Seeing all the rain forest being cut down along the river and in the interior was just heartbreaking. A lot of the logging is done illegally, and reforestation is just not done at all. As a result, there are vast patches of cleared land that just sit there as the logging continues elsewhere. Driving through the cleared land and through some of the massive logging camps was a strange experience to say the least.

And one more thing which makes me very edgy these days: The complete disregard of the environment here in Borneo. It is similar in other parts of Asia (notably Indonesia, where it is also very bad), but Borneo is the worst I have seen it so far: On the boats for instance, when people have finished a drink or a snack, they simply throw the rubbish into the water. The result is a beautiful stretch of nature littered with plastic bottles, cans and plastic bags, which are floating around everywhere in the river. The same is true for the roads and streets, people just drop their rubbish wherever they are (out of the window, onto the pavement), with no thoughts at all given to the effects of their action. This has nothing to do with being poor or a different education system, it is just inconsiderate, stupid and damaging behaviour, and I find it increasingly painful to observe every day.

Next stop: Niah Caves (Borneo, Malaysia).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


27th May 2009

Hey you!
It was great to catch up in Kuching. Re the rubbish in Borneo, I noticed it too, particularly on the beach. I thought that maybe people dropped it as they walked but I begun to realise that the rubbish is actually being washed up. It is very disappointing, and something that pains me to see as well, particularly when Borneo is so beautiful. Say hi to Karen for me - you go girl - you eat with the men and dont let Ben push you around! He's a bully in a sweet guy's body! Great to see you guys and hope our paths cross again soon. K x
30th May 2009

bloody cheek. i suppose i should wash your feet for you too? ps carry your own dragon fruit next time
10th June 2009

haiyaa...does tht kind of rules still exist???same with Karen and Kate i dont wanna eat after u either,wont feel enough for me :p hmm...but at least i know how to feel given u hand feeding after me(dinner in bogor),i just gave u a small one rather than mine,kwkwkwwk...:P
19th November 2012

This is not so true. "Dinner was eaten separately for men and women, with the men eating first and the women last. Karen however was allowed to dine with the men. I didn't agree with that (rules are rules after all), but I didn't want to make a big fuss about it at that time. But I made a mental note that from now on she should always eat after me. I shall tell her of my decision soon." We, the Punan tribe never really had this rule. There's nothing wrong with women eating meals - dinner, lunch - together with men including foreigner. But some women prefer eating meals later - especially if they are hosting guests including foreigners for privacy. Thank for visiting Punan Bah - which is actually one of the oldest longhouses found along Batang Rajang river. Do visit us again in future Ben and don't forget to tag along your friends. You should visit during Gawai Festival (May 31 - June 2). We'll do a lot of "Cheers" over cuppa of "burak" or rice wine.

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