Going Back to My Roots
Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
114Trip End Oct 22, 2012
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Where I stayed
We flew into Kuching on our first budget Air Asia flight (Malaysia's answer to Easyjet/Ryan Air) very excited to not only be heading into pastures new and what felt like stage 2 of our trip but also exciting for me as it’s in Borneo, where I was born and lived all those years ago now! So I was born in Brunei and lived there for 2 and half years. I have been back to Brunei since and so it’s not on our itinerary, but I have always wanted to explore Sabah and Sarawak having grown up hearing about them and surrounded by various bits of furniture and pictures that my parents picked up during the five years that they lived in Borneo. Also high on my agenda, to learn more about the Iban tribes as I was looked after by Tumon (pronounced Tumoon), an Iban lady for those years that I lived in Borneo
We checked into Threehouse in Kuching’s Chinatown, just off the riverfront. A perfect location and the best place we have stayed so far mainly due to the owner Bindi (from Sweden) and Ricky (a Chinese Iban) who went out of their way to make us feel like we were in a home from home, lovely decor and ambience, nice people, a kitchen we could use to do our own cooking!! (an absolute luxury) and awesome advice on what to do, where to go and how to go about it. Bindi’s husband Ernestol is also an Iban and runs the world famous Borneo Head-hunter Tattoo studio, the first and the best for Iban tribal tattoos and is the place that anthropologists go to gather information about the history of such tribal markings (don’t worry Mum I didn’t get one..... yet! ;-)). If anyone ever finds themselves in Kuching then staying at Threehouse is a must!
Unlike Thailand, Laos etc and that typical backpacker circuit Kuching is a city that has a few tourists rather than being a place set up for tourists which made a refreshing change
Sarawak Museum and Sunday Market
We spent the first couple of days in Kuching relaxing in the cosy lounge at Threehouse and planning our trip around Borneo as things are quite pricy and get booked up early and so we needed to work out what our priorities were and book flights and accommodation. In between planning we ventured out to the Sarawak Museum, which like most museums in Kuching is free entry, we learnt about all the different tribes around Borneo and its history with the struggles for borders with Philippines and Brunei. We didn’t realise that Malaysia was only formed in 1963 after an agreement for independence from the British which united Peninsular Malaysia with the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo and gave freedom rights including freedom of religion and speech to its people. Malaysia is massively multicultural with a mix of Muslim, Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribal people including Orang Ulu (literally meaning 'river people’) and the Ibans ‘Sea Dyaks’
Semenggoh and the Orang-utans
On Monday we got up early and took a local bus to Semenggoh Wildlife Reserve which is 32km south of Kuching, which was set up in 1975 to house orphaned and injured orang-utans, including those rescued from members of the public that were keeping them as pets. Although orang-utans do not naturally occur here, they are effectively in the wild as they have 1613 acres of forest to roam freely and fend for themselves. During fruiting season the orang-utans may not visit the feeding platforms at all as they are able to completely fend for themselves as they would in the wild. There are 20 living at the reserve. We watched them from a distance for nearly 2 hours totally captivated by them and their almost human mannerisms. There is a massive dominant male called Richie and we were warned that if he is around everyone must stay very quiet as he doesn’t like noise. We were lucky enough to see Ritchie who did look over his shoulder in disgust a few times when some kids were making a little too much noise for his liking but others soon told the parents to shut their kids up for fear of Ritchie’s rath
Kuching Wetlands National Park
On Tuesday evening we went on a trip to the wetlands region 15km north of Kuching. Like many things in Borneo the only way to do this was via an overpriced tour. You take a boat trip through mangroves and through wide river ways wildlife spotting. In retrospect it probably wasn’t worth the money but we did see crocodiles basking in the sun, more Irrawaddy dolphins, fireflies, proboscis monkeys and an Indonesian fishing village. The sunset was the highlight of the trip.
Lemanak River Iban Longhouse home stay
On Wednesday morning we set off for the 4 hour journey to the Lemanak River with our guide Amin and his wife Bass to go and stay in one of the few remaining traditional style Longhouses, home to the Ibans. Ibans originated from Kalimantan which is the Indonesian part of Borneo but migrated over the border once they outgrew their lands. Great battles were waged with the local Kayan tribes which is I assume where some of the skulls that traditionally hang in the Iban longhouses come from, Ibans having a reputation as ‘head hunters’ they keep the skulls as a mark of the power of the warriors that live in the longhouse, the more skulls there are the more powerful the tribe
Traditionally male Ibans are warriors or hunters, using animal traps and hunting animals such s monkeys and wild boar with poisoned darts and blow pipes. We got to have a go at a blow pipe which was ace, especially as I managed the nearest hit on the leaf target J. The blow pipes are all made out of ironwood which is very strong as although our blowpipe was only a couple of metres, they can reach up to 50 feet! The women Ibans are traditionally weavers. I asked one lady how long it takes her to weave a basket and she chuckled saying that it would take a young lady a few days but she is an old lady and has other jobs to do and so it would probably take her a few weeks to finish it.
The Longhouse itself was just how I always imagined. I grew up with a book called Anak of the Longhouse when I was little, a story of an Iban boy who goes hunting in the woods with his father. The book as well as photos I have seen from my parent’s visit to longhouses depicted the traditional steps leading up to the longhouse veranda with the long internal corridor known as the Ruai which is where all the communal activities take place
Amin took us for a walk through the woods to show us some of the trees and plants that are traditionally used by the Ibans, including the Nibong tree and also a demonstration of how they build animal traps for both large and small animals. He also showed us the Engkabang tree which was used as a fuel like wax before candles were available. We walked through the crops which are grown purely to sell and include, rubber trees and cocoa beans. They also grow pokok ubi, a kind of root potato. He also showed us the graves of the elders who still followed the spiritual beliefs and so were buried with items that they used in their lifetime to take to the afterlife, including things like radios and booze. He showed us other plants that they eat to improve blood pressure, rub together with water to use as shampoo, rattan which they use to make mats, baskets and furniture and a tree whose bark is used as twine to bind rugs together.
In the evening we sat in the kitchen with some of the village folk and a Dutch couple who had also come to stay at the longhouse with their own guide as part of their honeymoon. The ‘fire water’ (Arak rice whiskey) flowed freely and the locals were joking among themselves and occasionally tried to include us but it was a bit lost in translation but still highly amusing. Even though you didn’t know what they were saying you got the gist, Ekon was very drunk and in trouble with his wife and the other ladies were winding him up and taking the piss
The following morning we woke early to the sound of cockerels with a slightly heavy head from the arak, maaan the Iban’s love to drink! We then were shown a demonstration of cock fighting. The practice itself is now illegal and they are only allowed to do it properly once a year at the harvest festival. I’m glad we didn’t have to watch the real deal as it sounds quite brutal, they strap knives onto their feet and the like. We then bid our farewell and headed off on the river back to the minivan for our journey back to Kuching. The river journey was on a traditional long wooden boat through the jungle and was a real highlight.
On Friday after a chilled day watching films we stepped outside Threehouse to find that Chinatown had come alive with the arrival of the annual Mooncake Festival, which is like the Chinese harvest festival. Mooncakes are a weird thing that look like a pork pie with a decorative pattern on the top and can’t really work out it its sweet or savoury. I’m not sure I am a fan but Will enjoyed eating it
Loads of stalls set up selling all sorts of food, deep fried prawns, durian fritters, roasted bird, yummy pancakes with peanut filling, angry bird cakes (they love angry birds in Asia), fresh fruit juice, and the list goes on. There were musicians, martial arts displays and Chinese dragon dances, it was awesome.
Bako National Park
On Saturday we went to Bako National park, a 45 min bus ride and 30 min boat ride from Kuching. Arriving in Bako you land on one of its pristine sandy beaches surrounded by mangroves and rocky rainforest. You really feel like you have arrived at Jurassic Park or some other forgotten land. It’s cheap and should be a must for any trip to Kuching. Although it is possible to do it in a day trip we decided to stay overnight at one of the park headquarters dorm hostels. This enabled us to do 2 of the trails at the park which take you through a variety of vegetation and often end up at a secluded bay where you can cool off in the sea. The trails can be quite hard going especially in the scorching heat and humidity and involve quite a bit of climbing over tree roots and made us realise we are not uber fit or hardcore trekkers and so settled for the shorter easier routes. Although we did spot proboscis monkeys on one trail you can see a lot of the wildlife back at park headquarters where they have worked out that they can rummage in bins for leftovers or steal food from unsuspecting visitors. We saw bearded pigs (Will’s favourite), macaques, proboscis monkeys and a snake.
We checked back into our dorm at Threehouse for one last night on Sunday before heading back to the airport on Monday to fly to Sabah, really sad to be leaving Kuching and Threehouse behind.