A Proboscis Monkey...
.. for obvious reasons. Click on the picture to open in a larger size.
This blog is dedicated to all the primates, living and dead, who made our trip to Sarawak so memorable!
We arrived in Sarawak on THE most environmentally unfriendly flight. There were only 9 passengers on the entire plane as Air Asia had just started flying the route that day. It did mean our luggage came out quickly though!
We found a great hostel in Kuching after escaping an older man who had latched on to us on the plane and spent the whole trip talking about himself. We should have known he was bad news when his opening line was "I was travelling before you were born" and the conversation continued along the same vein for the next few hours. We use the word "conversation" losely as it was more of a monologue with questions inserted merely so he could talk a bit more about himself!
David was very excited about the prospect of new food in a new country and therefore, disappointed to discover that by the time we went in search of supper almost all the hawker stalls and eateries had closed for the evening. Dinner, it seems, is eaten around 5 or at home and
David Was Not So Keen To Wee In The Bushes
One of two Green Pit Vipers hanging around outside our hostel
the best time of day to eat out is breakfast or lunch.
Kuching is handily close to Bako National Park, home to many Proboscis monkeys plus the usual collection of snakes, spiders, wild pigs and other beasties you'd hope to find in Borneo, a country that always sounds so exotic if you say it in a David Attenborough voice. Our first encounter came almost as soon as we stepped off the boat. As we stared at a wild pig casually wondering through the camp a macaque monkey dashed down, plunged his hand into our goody bag of snacks and made off with a whole bag of peanuts. It then sat just out of reach, ripped into the vacum packed seal and ate them all in front of us! Drama over we went to find our room for the night and were 'delighted' to realise that a green pit viper had taken up residence right next door to the dorm. The discovery lead to a lot of toilet-seat-lifting and under-the-sheet checking before bed, but no other beasties were found.
Bako has lots of wonderful paths through the jungle, all reached by a high boardwalk over mangroves
A Very Cheeky Monkey
A Macaque waits patiently for a chance to steal some food
so off we set in search of monkeys. Lots of rustling trees and wobbling branches later we spotted a lone monkey in the branches and got so caught up in watching it and its crazy wobbly nose that we failed to notice all the mosquitoes happily feasting on our legs. Bugs aside, the path was beautiful and ended at a lovely little beach, surrounded by high cliffs and hanging greenery. We passed on a swim after spotting several dinner-plate sized jelly fish on the tide line and headed back to camp. Dinner was an eat and watch affair, only achieveable in pairs. The minute anyone turned their back on a plate the macaques were there, grabbing what they could, which turned out to be a piece of chicken, some bread and an orange on this occasion, though not from our table.
The following day we had to duck behind a bush when we heard, then spotted the guy from the plane in the park. We then watched a whole family of Proboscis Monkeys come down from the jungle to the mangroves when the tide went out. They have the funniest shape with their dangly nose and pot bellies and
Has Anyone Seen My Comb?
Ritchie takes a quick snack break between angry strops!
really long fingers and toes. Just as we were leaving we bumped in to plane man again. He had not seen the monkeys but he said it didn't matter because (imagine The Simpsons do Arnie voice) "I can see them in any Zooooo".
Monsters Inc in the flesh
Kuching is also handily close to one of only three orang utan rehabilitation centres in the world. The others are in Sumatra and Sabah. We had met several people who said the centre at Semengoh near Kutching was better than Sepilok in Sabah because less people go. After searching in vain for a cheap public bus option we eventually had to conceed to the expensive shuttle put on by the centre. We arrived half an hour ahead of feeding time and had an amazing experience. We instantly saw splotches of auburn hair flying through trees and couldn't believe our luck to see an elderly female orang utan sitting tucking in to a coconut on a bridge we had to walk across. It turned out feeding time had been moved from the regular spot because the rangers were having a hard time keeping an eye on Ritchie, the dominant adult male
Sully From Monsters Inc?
Easy to see where Disney/Pixar got the inspiration from.
of the group. Ritchie it seems was in a strop. He had flown into a rage the day before because one of the females had spent too much time near humans, eyeing up their sparkly jewellery and posing for photos. Ritchie doesn't like getting close to humans and was angry that one of his women wasn't pointing all of her attentions at him, so he ripped up an entire length of fence and threw it at the rapidly retreating spectators.
So for our trip feeding had been moved to suit Ritchie's location... and he was still in a grump. As we stared skyward to watch a baby orang utan swing from one foot and one hand and a mother with a tiny baby make their way to a feeding station we suddenly heard a crash as Ritchie lumbered in to view. He is huge. Adult orang utans are thought to be 4 or 5 times as strong as humans but wardens estimate 27 year-old Ritchie is more like 6 or 7 times stronger. He got down on to the ground and started walking towards us as the wardens quickly moved us backwards, then he veered off towards the female
And Stay Out!!
Ritchie escorts us to the car park and starts ripping up a sign for good measure
and her baby, who had also, unusually come down on to the ground. He followed them around the forest like a bear with a sore head, knuckles dragging along the ground. His hair was incredible. It looked like someone had spent hours putting it through a crimping machine and it swooshed around as he walked like some kind of royal cape. It's easy to see where Disney got its inspiration for Sully in the movie Monsters Inc. Feeding time over Ritchie then decided to make damn sure that every human got out of his park and started following us up the driveway to the car park. At the top he decided against attacking the minivan and settled instead on a dustbin which he lobbed down the stairs we had all just climbed. Then he assumed a sentinel position below the entrance sign and sat, glowering until we pulled away! It was an amazing experience.
An introduction to Gawai
That was pretty much it for Kuching except for a wonder around the markets and a trip across the stinking polluted river in a little boat to see the impressive new parliament building being built. So we set off in
Cruising Up the Katibas
One of 3 boats we took up-river to the longhouse
search of an Iban longhouse.
The Iban are one of several tribes who have lived in longhouses for centuries. They are built on stilts and are a kind of early example of communal living. The building has a veranda which can be walled-in or open and opening off the veranda are anywhere between 20 and 100 doors in a row. Each door represents a family and behind each door there are two rooms, the living area and the kitchen/bathroom. Upstairs is storage for ceremonial items, weavings and other non preishables. The living area serves as a place to relax in the day and an area to sleep at night. There were plenty of companies offering tours to longhouses but the price and several nightmare stories of rip-offs and bad experiences put us off, so we decided to go it alone... and here is where Malaysia really came in to its own.
Having taken a succesion of boats, gradually decreasing in size until we were in a kind of tube with an engine, we arrived in Song in TORRENTIAL rain. While Tracey dashed up to shelter with the camera and small bags, David fetched the backpacks - a tricky
Drinking with locals 5 minutes after arriving in Song.
balancing act along the 20cm wide edge of the boat as sheets of rain hammered down. With both hands full he had nothing to hang on to and only flip flops for grip, but he made it, just! Tracey decided she couldn't really get any wetter so went in search of a hotel and met two lovely 8 year old girls who wanted to hold an umbrella for her as she walked so they could practice their English, but mainly because it was such a novelty to have tourists in town.
As we arrived at our hotel for the night we passed a cafe where we were invited to join a group of people drinking. This sums up Malaysia for us. Everywhere we go people have been so friendly and welcoming and keen to chat to us. So we did join them for drinks and found ourselves partying with a medic, three people doing a census for the government, a forestry worker and a boat driver. They were so generous, refusing to let us buy any of the copious amounts of beer that kept arriving, and telling us all about Gawai. Gawai is Harvest Festival. It is clebrated on
The Silver Slurper
David's prize for second place in a drinking competion at the completely surreal Gawai party
the 31st May by farming communites and tribes like the Iban. One of the woman in the group invited us to join her family at a longhouse on that date, but we had to decline because it was still 2 weeks away. Then we were invited to a pre-Gawai party that night. We went along not knowing what to expect or how two foreign, unexpected guests would be received.
We had a fantastic, albeit totally surreal time.
The party was for government workers who would be away during the real Gawai so we found ourselves drinking with the District Governor for the entire region and goodness only knows who else. We were greeted by the host with a bottle of rice wine and the obligation to down a glass each. Tuah, as it is known, is strong, warm and shocking, but after the first few it goes down fine. It is amost all home brew and as a result often has bits of dead bug and grass floating in the bottle. Here's how the rest of the party went: All take off shoes and sit on the floor. Men congregate together, women stay seperate. Food is brought out... more
No Noisy Neighbours
Our first view of the remote longhouse
food than can be eaten in a week. It includes huge prawns, clams, fish, chicken, sausages, rice, noodles and vegetables... but no alcohol. Okay, we think, this is going to be a very congenial gathering then we'll get home to bed.
Oh how wrong we were.
After the food was finished out came the beer and more tuah and whiskey. After several games for children the adult games began... drinking games. David volunteered Tracey to join some women kneeling on the floor and then realised with horror what was happening. A giant teapot was filled with a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of dark rum then each woman was poured a huge glass and given a straw. Gone were the demure ladies who'd been sitting quietly on the sidelines for the last hour. Out came drinking witches from hell who, on the count of three, began guzzling as fast as possible. Tracey did well until she realised her straw had a hole. The suck went out of her and she actually started tasting the flavour of the drink which slowed her progress. Meanwhile other women were actually sicking up by the side of their glasses and continuing
Location Location Location
Tracey contemplates a real estate investment at door 34
to drink - disgusting!
Next came the men. For them came a whole glass of tuah each and the revelation that in fact ALL the straws have holes - it is part of the game. David did much better than Tracey but you'll realise the calibre of the competition when we say he only came 2nd! Minutes later a sword and head dress came out and men began dancing around a makeshift tree with bottles of booze, cans of beer, packets of nuts and balloons hanging from it. As the surreal evening continued the men took turns to dance round the tree, cut something off it and pass on the sword. Of course David got up for a go and everyone found it highly amusing when he did his own little version of their traditional dancing and lopped off a bottle of rum. Eventually when the forestry man who invited us along had had his fill of booze we left for our hostel not entirely clear which way was up or which continent we were in, but happy!
The next morning David was not so happy, especially when Tracey forced him to get up in
A Tasty Catch
An Iban man knitting a new fishing net inside the shared longhouse balcony
time to catch an even smaller boat further up river to a potential longhouse. But we caught the boat just in time and after negotiating several rapids found ourselves arriving at a junction of the Rejang and Katibas rivers. Again Malaysian hospitality outdid itself here. We stepped off the boat and across a decidedly iffy suspension bridge to arrive at Rumah Tambi - a 50 door longhouse. We found the Head Of The House Sebastian Tambi and he immediately invited us to have lunch with him. Lunch consisted of sitting on the kitchen floor with 5 or 6 bowls of meats and vegetables plus rice, eaten with hands. One meat was almost certainly chicken, another possibly pork. The third looked like a dish of pigeon claws, but actually tasted quite nice once you stopped looking at it!
In Iban tradition they will offer hospitality to any person who is not an enemy. To prove you are not an enemy you give gifts. Question is, what the hell do you take up river to a tribe you have never met, at a place you have never been with people you know nothing about. So, slightly nervously we handed over gifts
Running Out Of Skin Space
A typically tattooed Iban fisherman
of lighters, soap, exercise books, pens, noodles and British badges and were invited to stay the night, which was lucky as the only boat home was long gone!
The longhouse was fascinating. You could not see from one ond of the enclosed veranda to the other and all the way along men were sitting outside their section of home, making and repairing fishing nets. Several women were also sitting on the floor making ikat weavings while others made bead jewellery. All of them were rushing to finish in time for Gawai. We were allowed to wander around as we wished and we did our best to speak Malay and say hello to as many people as possible. They did not speak much, or any English and are not used to seeing too many tourists. This was what we had wanted, to take the chance of branching out on our own without a guided tour, to really experience a community living as it did every other day, rather than putting on a show for paying spectators.
Later, as Tracey was trying to offer to help in the kitchen, Sebastian's wife suddenly asked us if we had seen the monkey.
Fresher Than The Supermarket
An Iban man with tonight's dinner
We said "No" and dashed off after her for a glimpse of whatever kind of monkey it happened to be. It turned out to be a dead monkey, shot an hour earlier by the man whose house we were now standing in. It seems the wife of the chief is in charge of keeping things fair. Her set of scales is the ONLY set of scales and all foods are chopped, weighed and sold on its terms.
Shortly afterwards we settled down to another meal. We're pretty sure we didn't get any of the monkey but as we asked Sebastian what one of the dishes was and his reply was '"Meat"... "What kind of meat?"... "Don't know, just meat" it could have been anything! The evening was spent at another party where more food and drink was passed around and again we were welcomed as friends. Back at the longhouse everyone was settling down for bed and we realised we would all be sleeping on matresses in the same room. The TV stayed on loud and late but we eventually got off to sleep. Several hours later we had to sneak out to get the only boat back to
Open Wide And Say Ahhhhh
The mouth of The Great Cave at Niah. Find David on the stairs to appreciate the scale
Song at 5.30am.
Old Caves and New Friends
Next up were the Niah Caves, home to the swiftlets that make the nests that go into birds' nest soup. It's almost impossible to express how big these caves are and how terrifyingly precarious the ladders are that the nest collectors climb to harvest their saliva gold. We were happy to hear that there are restrictions on harvesting and it is only allowed to happen once the eggs have hatched and the birds have flown off.
Walking through the caves it was hard to decide which sense was most assaulted. The smell of guano was overpowering, the dark was absolute, the echoes were endless and the cold dripping from the ceiling was totally shudder inducing. The only disappointing part of the cave system was the final section, the famous 'Painted Cave' where early inhabitants had left coffins and burial items along with rock art. Unfortunately the rock art has all but faded away and is roped off behind an ugly fence and all the artifacts have also been removed.
Back at the camp we bumped in to a Canadian couple we met in Kuching and sat up for
Out with our new Canadian friends Connie and Rod after surviving the snake/spider/scorpion path at Niah
hours talking and vowing to go on a mission for beer the next day. First there was the small matter of another walk in the jungle. Again, imagine your best David Attenborough voice. "Deep in the Borneo rainforests sits a cave system so ancient and mysterious that much of its history is still unknown...". That is how this path felt. It was basically a swamp with a rough kind of route to get through and we made very slow, sloppy progress. By the end of the day we were both covered in mud and relevieved to see Connie and Rod were in the same kind of state! After a scary walk in the dark in flip flops we made it snake, scorpion and spider free to the nearest town, where we were so relived to be alive that the overpriced beer tasted like nectar. We blame the thunder storm for the fact we stayed there a few too many hours. After that the walk home didn't seem nearly as scary and we're guessing we made quite enough noise to scare off any potential killer beasties from our path anyway!
And that is the end of Sarawak. We are now
Amazing Trees in Niah National Park
David is 191cm tall and standing on tippy toes to see over
travelling on to Brunei with Connie and Rod so you'll be hearing from us again soon.
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