Wednesday, 30 September 2015

BULLET BOATS AND FREAKY FOOD- Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Upon arriving at Miri airport in northern Sarawak, we were surprised to find no public transport from the airport to the town- very unusual for South East Asia (we subsequently discovered all bus routes around town to be intermittent and pretty useless). Luckily a lovely woman drove us into town, showing us the sights along the way, and dropped us at a budget hostel (for anyone interested, a "budget" hostel for us here in Sarawak is anything less than 50 RM/AU$16). We were quite disappointed to find out from the tourist office that the bad public transport extended to the entire region, and the public ferry running on the river we'd hoped to travel on no longer ran, and a village we'd hoped had a main road running to it was only accessible by plane and beyond our budget. So, without much else to hold us in Miri, we left for Batu Niah and the incredible Niah Caves a few hours south.

Satays firing up at the excellent night market, Miri, Sarawak

These caves are without a doubt the largest we've ever seen (the Great Cave being one of the largest in the world), and to experience walking through them for hours, sometimes in complete darkness and silence with only a torchlight and each other was exciting and terrifying! Generations of swift bird nest collectors have lived and worked in the caves for years, and we were amazed to see their extremely high and rickety looking scaffolding and ladders hanging precariously from the roof in various points in the depths of the caves. Although the caves are of great historical significance, with evidence of burials 20,000 years ago having been discovered there, there really isn't much of that to see now, and we focused on the beauty of the place. After a day hiking into the national park, up and down many hills and steps to the cave entrance, into the Great Cave, and various smaller ones, and then back to our simple hotel in Batu Niah town, we were completely shattered, but felt great to have seen such a wonderful and unique natural wonder, almost in complete solitude.

Walking to Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak
Beautiful forest, Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak

Catching up, Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak

Inside the Great Cave, Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak

Sal and the light, Niah Great Cave, Sarawak

Daylight after all the darkness, Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak

After an unexpectedly long day traveling from Batu Niah, we found ourselves that evening with a grilled fish and some cold Chinese beers in a cafe on the riverfront in Sibu, a engaging and bustling city with a very active river port and no tourists (we saw virtually no tourists anywhere in Sarawak, besides Kuching). We were lucky enough to score a budget room nearby, and after a day spent viewing the unusual produce from upriver in the somewhat exotic central  market, and the meat and wonton heavy night market, we sorted out our travel plans for the next few days and set off on a river trip up the Batang Rajang River.

View from our hotel window of Central Market, Sibu

Traditional house, Sibu

Ready to take away! Sibu Central Market

Wontons galore, Sibu night market

Bit and pieces for sale at Sibu market

We were prepared that the Batang Rejang River might be uninteresting, and not as wonderful as other river trips we have had, but the further we traveled up the river, the quaint little huts, modern longhouses, limited industry, exciting rapids and lovely jungle setting kept our attention. Unfortunately, most of the strange bullet shaped boats used along that river are totally enclosed, air conditioned, and with little chance to stand or sit outside to watch the scenery. We felt extremely unsafe inside them, thinking about the struggle to escape the boat should it sink. Nevertheless, they delivered us in one piece.

Rustic scenery, Batang Rejang River

View from the boat, Batang Rejang River

Exciting rapids, Batang Rejang River

Looking down the Batang Rejang River at the rapids

Lovely when the sun came out, Batang Rejang River

Scenic part of the Batang Rejang River

Small boats moored on the Batang Rejang River

Bend in the Batang Rejang River

We had time to stop at two places along the river, and they were the contrasting towns of Kapit and Belaga. Kapit was interesting because although it was a busy town with a large mainly Chinese population, it was actually only accessible by river boat, with no bus or plane service. It had without a doubt the weirdest meat section of a market we have ever seen (see below). Richard amused the locals in the market by smoking a cigar made up of chopped homegrown tobacco wrapped in a banana leaf for 15 cents. He was undecided about the taste, but it sure kept the mozzies away!

Arriving at Kapit

Local cigars, Kapit

Smoking dodgy banana leaf cigar, Kapit

Iban design, Kapit
Loading boats, Kapit

The village of Belaga was another 5 hours up the river and literally in the middle of nowhere. Many longhouse river dwellers, or orang ulu, milled about the town overwhelming the Chinese and Malay population in numbers, and to us the place felt more basic and laid back. This impression was no doubt helped along by half of the males we saw being completely off their heads on a thick black alcoholic liquid supplied to them intermittently in shot form by the cafe underneath our lodgings. There were many older orang ulu women around with intricate Iban style tattoos on their arms and legs, and both sexes had pierced ears with hanging earlobes where they once wore heavy earrings. Handwoven conical straw hats, colourfully designed woven "backpacks" for their shopping, and a huge banana leaf cigar hanging out of the side of their mouths completed the look. Not being much to do after a couple of hours look around the village, we settled in our cafe with a bottle of local brandy and watched the show!

Selection of drinks at our lodgings, Belaga

Enjoying Chinese lunch, brandy and the sights of Belaga

Belaga house

Batang Rejang River, Belaga

As promised, some photos of the weird meat and other food traded by the river people in Sarawak. It's understandable people eat what's available and cheap, including food from the jungle, but it's still upsetting to see endangered creatures such as the pangolin chopped up ready to cook.

Possum type creatures- we never found out the name, Kapit market

The endangered pangolin, Kapit market

Unidentified piece of meat and hair, Kapit market

Jungle ferns, Sibu market

Wild boar head, Kapit market

Pig faces, Sibu night market

Unidentified root, Sibu market

Odd looking river fish with sharp little teeth, Sibu market

Black chickens- that's a first, Sibu mrket

Chopped monitor lizard in a bucket, Sibu market

We weren't really surprised when we disembarked in Sarawak's capital Kuching from the Sibu boat, to discover yet another public town bus no longer running. Luckily, once again, a friendly local dropped right to the door of a hostel in town, saving us becoming soaking wet in the teaming rain. It was also disappointing to discover many of the sights we'd prepared to see were either closed or building sites. It seems the easy going, charming city of Kuching we'd been hearing about for so many years was undergoing an upgrade, and the appeal of the place was frankly lost on us. To cap it off, a morning trip to Semenggoh, a well known orang utan sanctuary was a bit of a disaster. We'd previously seen orangutans in a brilliant setting in Bukit Lawang, and naively were expecting a similar experience. We exited the bus to discover about 200 tourists on tours milling about, making a huge amount of noise. It REALLY was not our thing, and if we hadn't had already paid our entrance fee, we would have turned around then and there and left. We stayed, and unfortunately no ornag utans showed that morning.

The only orang utan we saw on the day! Kuching

Perfectly posing butterflies, Kuching

Pretty cottage in a pretty lane, north bank, Kuching

Practicalities: Sarawak is difficult to explore properly on a budget. To get to the really interesting areas in the central part of Borneo involves hiring a guides and own transport- public transport is nearly or non existent in many remote parts of the country (and pretty bad in the cities, too). Prices for transport are higher than Peninsula Malaysia in general, making even the easy to get to places a bit pricey. We found locals very generous with hitch hiking- if there was no public transport, or only expensive taxis, we only had to wave down the first car to come along and generally they gave us a lift. Food was mostly Chinese, and a bit too much on the bland and greasy side for us- we sorely missed the Indian influence of Western Malaysia! Accommodation was similar in price to Peninsula Malaysia, and ranged between flash rooms with AC and hot water that we didn't want or need in bigger cities, to very basic fan rooms at Chinese lodging houses along the river. With what we were able to see in Sarawak, we have to say although it was an enjoyable experience, it doesn't compare at all to our wonderful experiences in the Indonesian part of Borneo (Kalimantan), which for us was more adventurous, easier to get to remote areas, more authentic and better value for money.

A typical small town Sarawak room for us

A typically fancy city room in Sarawak

A typical kopitan (coffee shop/basic resturant) in Sarawak

River boats on the Batang Rejang River, Sarawak

Saturday, 5 September 2015

MEETING THE SULTAN (AND OTHER STORIES!)- A short blog about Brunei

Back in the days when airlines still gave passengers a free nights accommodation on connecting flights, we briefly stopped at Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital of Brunei) for a night,and 11 years later decided it was time for a more thorough revisit.

Anyone who has lived in or visited Brunei can tell you it's a strange place. The sultan and his family are ludicrously wealthy from the profits of years of oil production, yet traveling through Brunei and upon arriving in the capital, it looks and feels pretty much like any other South East Asian country. There's friendly and curious locals, simple produce markets, ramshackle wooden shacks, rubbish strewn landscapes and bad maintenance on the buildings. It does have some magnificent and rarely used government buildings and mosques, and the old sultan doesn't scrimp when it comes to his own residence, but the money doesn't seem to trickle down to everyone in the community.

Anyway, we were fortunate enough to stay with a wonderful Canadian Couchsurfing host and her adorable little daughters for our time there. It was lovely for us to be in a family atmosphere, and learn about the intricacies of Brunei expat life (our host was a teacher), such as grog runs to Malaysia and wading through constantly changing paperwork for visas etc. The sights are a bit thin on the ground in BSB, but we combined our days with trips to the town center on the very sporadic local bus filled with Gurkha soldiers from the nearby army base, and saw the highlights- the two beautiful mosques Omar Ali Saifuddien and Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah, Kampong Ayer (the entire south bank of the city is a "water village" on stilts, with people living very simple lives) and the Royal Regalia Museum, which was stuffed to the brim with photos of the sultan and his presents from various heads of state around the world. Evenings were spent cooking (and eating) up a storm, playing Uno and being entertained by the two hilarious girls!

 Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Brunei

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

An unexpected sight- a crocodile! Kampung Ayer, Brunei

View of village mosque, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Finished with prayers for the day, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Jetty, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Colourful house, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

The highlight of our visit was the sultan's 69th birthday celebrations which we happened to be in town for. There was a very orderly show with much colourful dancing and praising of Brunei, followed by a long round of personal greetings from the sultan, where Richard was lucky enough to receive a handshake and a quick conversation (while Sal got shoved into the huge, milling crowd and missed the photo opportunity)! Then followed the extremely organized free food, where we scoffed a yummy array of dishes at the sultan's expense.

Waiting to perform for the sultan, Brunei

The scrum around "The Man", Brunei

Entertaining the crowds, Brunei

All dressed up for the occasion, Brunei

Public transport around the capital was infrequent and basic (with only the foreign workers using it, everyone else had a car), but easy to navigate and quite reasonably priced (B$1 for any destination). Food costs were higher than neighboring Malaysia, but certainly cheaper than Singapore and Australia. We mostly shopped in the local supermarkets, where apart from a fantastic array of locally grown herbs, fruit and vegetables, most products were imported- mostly from Malaysia. Bruneian food in general seemed quite similar in style to Malay food, and a few Indian restaurants operated in town also.We were surprised at the casual attitude to clothes- we were expecting a stricter atmosphere with the Sharia law, but plenty of foreign workers, tourists, and Chinese and Indian residents were less covered up than the Muslims.

Overall, an enjoyable week!

Shop display, Brunei

Rich contemplating the mosque decorations, Brunei