Beautiful Bali

My travels have now taken me to sprawling, equator-clinging Indonesia. Stretching from northern Sumatra to eastern Papua, Indonesia boasts 17,000 island of which about 8,000 are populated by a whopping 250m people of every religion, speaking countless local dialects but thankfully also unifying Bahasa.

With a 60 day visa to explore such diverse riches where does one start? I decided to ease myself in gently by making my first stop proven, tried and tested Bali. It is a beautiful island but it is also overrun with tourist touts, party goers and drug pushers which makes finding authentic experiences a challenge. I’m sure many of my globe-trotting friends will have visited Bali so I’ll concentrate on a couple of special experiences and tell the rest of the story through photos.

My favourite beach was the 4km stretch in Sanur with a lovely beachside promenade, brightly coloured grasshopper boats and a huge tide allowing fisherman to wade out at sunset to catch dinner. I ate well, Gado Gado being a favourite (vegetables and prawn crackers smothered in peanut sauce) and slept well once the terrible renditions of Lady in Red and the like packed up. I spent an enjoyable few hours in the well preserved home of French artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur and his Balinese wife Ni Polok. Painting in oils, often on grass canvas Le Mayeur concentrated on portraits of Ni and places they visited and then bequeathed the house – a beautiful example of Balinese architecture with heavy carved wood windows and bas relief excerpts from the Ramayana and its contents to Sanur.

Having spent all my time taking public transport I felt like having some freedom so hired a small car for a week to tour the island. The locals drive at about 30km an hour and the roads are well maintained so I reckoned I managed just fine. Apart from being pulled over by the police once and having to pay a fine which came down from £50 to £10 (lunch money), it was a doddle. I enjoyed lakes and mountains, towns and temples, hot springs and dive sites. I climbed a mountain at dawn, ate eggs cooked in its volcanic heat, dived a WWII US wreck, watched traditional Balinese dancing to the accompaniment of mesmeric gamelan music, learned how to prepared stuffed pitcher plant, walked in rice fields and soaked my weary limbs in hot springs.

I stopped at cottage-industry villages with welcoming silversmiths, carpenters and gardeners who took pains to explain their professions locals and I also met inspirational doctor who has managed to build a children’s hospital from the profits of his small volunteer-run restaurant. He passionate about saving the lives of children from what are easily curable deceases if treated in time and wears a T-shirt which reads ‘if you think you’re too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito.’

The cherry on the Bali cake was attending the funeral of the last king of Ubud’s 94 year old sister. It’s difficult to put into words what an exciting experience it was. I was told it was the biggest, most lavish funeral Peliantan had seen for years. Bali is predominantly Hindu so this ceremony followed Hindu traditions. Dignitaries and friends from far and wide gathered at the Royal Palace and I was fortunate to be invited to sit with some of the women to watch the various rituals and to partake of special cakes and coffee. I think perhaps I was invited in because, on the advice of my homestay family, I had bought a traditional sarong and sash for the occasion, which meant I fitted in. I even met the great, great nephew of the King who, thanks to a past girlfriend, spoke impeccable.

Food eaten, gifts offered it was time to take the coffin up a huge staircase to the top of an immense tower. In front of the tower was an enormous Nandi Bull and between the two were musicians banging gongs and drums VERY loudly. Once the coffin was in place and religious blessings bestowed the daughter of the deceased was given a long rope, which was attached to the tower. Flanked by other female members of the family, she had to pull it at a running pace all the way to the temple about 2km away. Of course she wasn’t pulling the tower single handedly! There was an army of local men in traditional funeral dress who heaved up the tower, and the Nandi Bull (both erected on huge bamboo palettes) and ran with them about 100 metres before collapsing in the heat, a new group taking over. It was brilliant to watch them geeing each other up but make no mistake, they were concentrating really hard because one slip and the whole shooting match would have come crashing down. The street was lined with onlookers and at the half way point a fire engine appeared and started spraying everyone. I thought this would make the tower/bull carriers slip but they remained steady until we arrived at the temple.

There was then an incredibly elaborate procedure to manoeuvre the Nandi Bull into position and to cut a big hole in its back. Women circled the bull three times before offering various gifts up to be placed in the cavity (I couldn’t see what). Next the coffin had to be lifted off the tower, down another big staircase and the shroud placed inside the bull. More circling of the bull, more placing of ritual good and cloths and then finally the deafening music stopped and the body was cremated to much chanting and praying.

The ceremony lasted more than four utterly fascinating hours and is indelibly imprinted on my mind.

Most people head to the tiny Gili Islands and thence on to Lombok. I didn’t fancy either, instead taking a short boat ride south to the Balinese island of Lembongan. My destination was World Diving where I had decided to do an Advanced Open Water Dive (AOWD) course, which would give me the requisite skills to dive some of the challenging sites in Komodo National Park where I was headed next. Lembongan is a lovely little island with a laid back vibe, fabulous waves for surfers, long stretches of white sand for swimmers and sunbathers and lots of interesting marine life. The course involved 5 specific dives; orientation (not easy underwater) deep water dive (30m), drift dive i.e. being pulled along by a fast moving current, buoyancy, night dive. Thankfully I passed! The scariest but best dive was the drift because a strong current swept us into a coral conservation area with the brightest most dramatic corals I’ve ever seen.

My last night in Lembongan I went to a beach BBQ with my AOWD instructor. Towards the end of the revelries, two blokes who had just completed their Dive Master course were subjected to an ‘initiation’. Wearing female fancy dress they had to act out things like air sharing and changing tanks in strong current. The initiation culminated in a race to drink a litre of beer poured slowly down a snorkel and then run fully clothed into the sea.

Hilarious entertainment and a fitting end to my happy days in Bali.

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The Kingdon of Brunei

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The tiny Kingdom of Brunei is a bite out if Borneo sandwiched between Sabah to the north, Sawarak to the south and Kalimantan to the east – west is the sea.

The country which has a population if 400,000 is ruled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien. Imagine sewing his school name tags! More simply referred to as ‘His Majesty’ he’s now ruled for 59 years and with a cool $25billion in the piggy bank everyone’s expecting a huge party for his diamond jubilee. Schooled in Kuala Lumpur, university in Switzerland and then army training at Sandhurst he works hard to ensure his subjects enjoy a good quality of life making him very popular and he is also held in high regard amongst his peers internationally. The Sultan’s consort (3rd wife), when not looking after his 12 children, does lots of charity work and is also well liked.

Brunei is strict Muslim; no drugs (penalty for possession – death), no alcohol and a midnight curfew. Until last year the curfew was 10pm, which made it impossible for the large community of ex pats – mainly teaching in the international schools or working for the big oil and gas companies, to hop over into Borneo to let their hair down. Midnight now makes this possible.

Muslim women marry very young and have loads of children (no prizes for guessing why that is)11,12,13 children is not unusual. Men may take more than one wife, those who chose to do so tend to have two but some have three. The women told me that they have no problem with this arrangement and in fact they like having another woman to share the wifely duties. Some of the younger women are starting to wear western clothes and a few have even dropped the hijab but they are quite some way off being like the football-mad women I met in Malaysia.

My reason for stopping off in this bizarre state was to get a 60 day visa at the Indonesian Embassy. In Kuala Lumpur the embassy wasn’t issuing 60 days, making visitor purchase 30 days and then have to find an immigration office during their travels to apply for an extension. I called the Embassy in Brunei and they told me a 60 day visa was no problem so off I set. The crossing from Sawarak was a doddle and in the blink of an eye I was bombing down pristine motorways with herbaceous borders through the Shell HQ town of Kuala Belait with an hilarious ‘teapot’ roundabout, heading for the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). After months of traffic chaos it was somewhat surreal.

BSB boasts the worlds largest village built on stilts over the Sungai river where I had been recommended a traditional homestay. Kampung Ayer is in fact 28 continuous villages, each originally represented by a different craft or trade and quite fascinating to explore. The river is buzzing with water taxis darting from one side to the other, the journey to and from my homestay taking just 30 seconds, which wasn’t long enough for the boatmen to break into O sole mio!

My landlady Keminah had used traditional fabrics for the soft furnishings and hung locally made arts and crafts on the walls, making the homestay very comfortable and I had open access to the kitchen to make my own food. There were 3 big french doors opening onto a terrace looking across to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which I enjoyed looking at as I ate my dinner and lay reading a book on the sofa.

Kem was an interesting character. Related to the Sultan’s family on both her maternal and paternal sides, she is a well known figure in the water village, organising community events, giving guided tours and liaising with the media and film crews that regularly turn up to discover more about the 900 year old former capital. She took me on a fascinating tour, pointing out the different structures – some made of long lasting iron wood, some of crumbling concrete pillars and some of rotting tree trunks patched up a pretty unstable way. All the houses constantly need jacking up but unfortunately some have left it too late and collapsed and some wooden structures have gone up in smoke. Over time village life has naturally changed. Originally there were no boardwalks so everyone’s home was an open thoroughfare. Now with boardwalks people have become more insular and also modern condos are being built to house commuters who enjoy the water village atmosphere but work on the mainland, which alters the feel of the village. At the height of its power there were 280,000 residents now there are only 13,000……and about as many cats! Sadly there are mountains of trash in the inner areas of the village, mainly washed up from the river and as often as it gets cleared away, a few days later a new tidal wave appears.

Everyone jn BSB was super friendly and helpful, offering me lifts to and from the Embassy and invitations to eat with them. The women in particular were interesting to talk to and fascinated / bemused by this old women travelling the world alone.

Apart from my two trips to the Indonesian Embassy I visited the Royal Regalia Museum which houses the eclectic range of gifts given to the Sultan by visiting heads of state, predominantly from Asian and Muslim countries. I was told that Lizzie once gave a massive big beer mug or was it a teacup and saucer. Either way there was nothing from Blighty on display. I also checked out the Brunei History Museum but it had way too much text and not enough pictures so I sped through and headed to the only shopping mall, which was no great shakes either.

The main attractions in BSB are the two mosques. The one opposite my homestay was built by the current Sultan’s father. It’s very simple with a lovely old boat on a reflective lagoon in front of the main steps. The other, on the outskirts of the city was built by the ruling Sultan. It’s incredibly ostentatious (marble from Italy, stained glass from England and gold from I can’t remember where), but nonetheless serene and beautiful during the day and wonderfully bling when illuminated at night.

Istana Nurul Iman (Palace of the Light of the Faith), is the 200,00 sq m residence of the Sultan. With a mere 1790 rooms (255 bathrooms) it’s more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and three times larger than Buckingham Palace. Well if you’ve got $25b why not???

One afternoon I met up with an Aussie expat who has lived in Brunei for 14 years and who, as well as being known as ‘turtle lady’ because of her passion for collecting exotic species, is a legendary teacher – the only foreigner to receive the prestigious His Majesty’s Teacher of the Year Award. She took me to the 7-star Empire Country Club for afternoon tea which was very decadent and completely out of keeping with the prudent traveller lifestyle I’ve adopted but the rich chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea with a slice of lemon went down a treat.

And that my friends is the sum total of things to do in BSB!

I’m now in Indonesia so next up tales from Bali.

Malaysian Peninsula

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The descent over the South China Sea into Kuala Lumpur airport was breath taking, with the runway dramatically carving through palm olive plantations as far as the eye could see. I didn’t realise then how controversial deforestation in favour of lucrative palm oil production was. I do now.

I was very much looking forward to spending time with some of my son-in-law Simon’s extensive family and visiting the country with them. First up cousin LayHock welcomed me to KL. We spent a couple of days together visiting the sprawling city with the most complicated road system imaginable. Actually, there isn’t a massive amount of cultural stuff to do in KL, which is dominated by one enormous shopping mall after another. However, there is the main mosque and the main Chinese and Indian temples to see and of course the landmark Petronas Towers. The most enjoyable place I visited was the Museum of Islamic Art, which had an incredible collection of Indian, Chinese and Malay manuscripts, jewellery, weaponry, fabrics, pottery and furniture. The building was ultra modern and spacious but strangely, apart from some school children, we were the only people there.

Chinese and Indian street food are a must in KL and I tried everything, including quails eggs in black aspic i.e.horse urine, which is surprisingly tasty! You have no idea what bliss it was to slouch on the sofa watching crap TV (something called ‘Warrior’ being popular), with LayHock’s children and to have a family meal round the kitchen table.

LayHock handed me over to Johnny (one of Simon’s uncles) and his wife Akim in a motorway service station – just like in the movies, and I spent a wonderful four days with then in Ayer Tawar, a town 4 hours north west of KL, the nearest big city being Ipoh. Ayer Tawar has a large Chinese population and a cool Taoist temple called Tua Pek Kong. The Chinese live quite separately from the Muslim Malays; that is each live in their own communities, have their own schools, universities, markets, shops, restaurants, hotels, beaches and so on. It was interesting to learn about the seemingly unsolvable differences between the two cultures, compounded by the fact that the Malays have preferential rights over land and jobs, which naturally aggrieves the Chinese.

After doing a huge amount of sleeping, eating delicious Chinese take away and watching films and football with the family (I was just in the nick of time to get caught up in the frenzy surrounding Leicester City), I felt very much at home.

We tootled around the area and also spent a wonderful day in the Cameron Highlands. I’ve seen tea plantations in India and imagined these wouldn’t be a match for them but they absolutely are. The scenery is beautiful with an abundance of plantations and also masses of fruit & veg being grown under huge tunnels, plus pick-your-own strawberry farms, bee farms, lavender farms and butterfly farms. Driving up and down the mountain we passed through several Orang Asli villages. The Orang Asli are a very poor minority indigenous people living on government subsidies in small communities. They are instantly recognisable by their dark curly hair.

The average traveller won’t have heard of Pulau Pangkor. It’s a tiny island accessed by ferry from Lemut, close to Ayer Tawar. I thought I should give the rellies a break so I took myself there for 48 hours. The island was really quiet and I found a gorgeous spot called Coral Bay with a beach restaurant called Nipah Steamboat Deli where the top notch Chinese owner/chef, cooked up an incredible sunset feast which he invited me to join him and a friend in eating foc! I swam, walked, read, conversed with a very tame hornbill (emblem of the island) and found some lovely batik clothes.

Back on the mainland, we set off for Penang, reached by diving over a 26 kilometre bridge. That’s one long bridge. I wasn’t mad about the island. The Malay occupied south is undergoing massive development, which means roadworks and construction sites. The Chinese north has some nice spots and a beautiful pagoda but nothing outstanding.

What Penang does have, is George Town – named after George III. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. The city’s architecture is an eclectic mix of crumbling shophouses, elegant colonial colonial buildings and soaring skyscrapers whilst dotted throughout the city is quirky street art. The hotel I stayed in (best ever duvet and pillows) gave me a map with all the 3D steel cartoons and wall paintings marked out. Over the course of two days I wandered round the town seeking out the artworks, stopping regularly to soak up the cafe culture and browse the speciality shops. Well known for its food, the most unusual concoction I tried was called ABC and consisted of coconut ice cream, sweet corn, blue rice, peanuts and lime jelly. It sounds gross but it goes down a treat on a searingly hot day. I sat eating it in a cafe with a wall painting of the proprietor who came and stood beside. I’ve posted the photo I took of him and also some other street art but there is masses more which I’m sure you can find online.

Like the rest of South East Asia, Malaysia was in the grips of El Nino with temperatures regularly climbing to 38-39 degrees. In George Town the Dragon Boat Race to accompany the dumpling festival (don’t you love the image) was cancelled; a lack of fresh flowers for Mother’s Day was reported countrywide and at the Sungai Golok high security river crossing into Thailand, the river completely dried up enabling people to walk across the border unchecked.

Having said a sad goodbye to my wonderful hosts I took a flight to Kota Bharu on the east coast. I went for my usual wander and stumbled upon a football stadium where a needle match between Kelantan (local state) and Terengganu (neighbouring state) was about to start. A young guy offered me a ticket and with nothing else to do I accepted. I chatted with groups girls screaming at their idols, and young men keen to talk about the English premiere league. Lots of them, like Simon, follow Liverpool. I must ask him why. Both teams had brought drums into the stadium and took it in turns to chant their ritual songs to an increasingly frenzied beat. There was a party atmosphere with food and drink (no alcohol in this predominantly Muslim town) being shared around at half time. Thankfully the home team won 3-1 so we all went home happy.

It’s impromptu experiences like this which make my travels so enjoyable. Carpe Diem.

My one full day in Kota Bharu was pleasantly spent visiting several excellent museums, the palace, an arts and crafts centre and the colourful market. I also finally managed to locate a post office to send a parcel of unwanted stuff back home (much more difficult than you would imagine), git my second haircut, shared shisha with an Egyptian guy and spicy fish soup with a local policeman who wanted to marry me. What more can a girl ask for!

Dawn the next morning I went to the bus station to travel south to Kuala Besut from where the boat leaves for the Perhentian islands. 45mins later I concluded the bus was a ‘no show’ – apparently phantom buses are not unusual here – so shared a taxi with a couple bound for the same destination. Thus began my week volunteering with turtles about which I’ve written a separate blog.

Fast forward to 1 May and I was back on the peninsula boarding a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Being Labour Day the roads were packed so it took 9 interminable hours. KL was in full party mode; fire eaters, jugglers, loud music, dancing etc. Despite the revelry I slept for almost 12 hours! I fell in love with the shiny new shopping mall near my B&B mainly because it had a food court with about 50 different concessions each selling mouth watering food from a different country making it a round the world gastronomic experience under one roof.

Luckily I managed to get my prescription medication in the mall, but for a whopping £80, which blew a pretty big hole in my budget and made me appreciate our wonderful NHS. The other thing I managed to acquire was a new bra. In previous blogs I was moaning about the lack of white cotton knickers which it took me about 3 countries to find. Buying a bra took 5 countries. Thankfully, being a cosmopolitan city KL caters for more well endowed women as well as tiny Asian women!

So with drugs and underwear sorted and loads of terrific experiences in the memory bank I was ready to leave Malaysia. And I left ensuring I allowed plenty of time to hang out in the One World ‘Golden Lounge’. After 4 months travelling round SE Asia (13 flights, countless buses and boats but onky one train), I thought I deserved to exit in style.

Reflecting back, it struct me that the route I took, starting in Myanmar then on to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam finishing up in Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, had quite by chance started with the poorest, least developed country and end with the richest, most developed one, with the countries in-between becoming increasingly developed in the same order in which I visited them.

What also struck me was that the poorer the country the more devout the people were and also the more welcoming. Of course everyone wants to enjoy a better standard of living and a more secure future but I really hope that despite increasing international investment these fascinating countries don’t loose their unique charm.

Before the next leg of my travels takes me to the sprawling islands of Indonesia I’ll be sharing with you my 3-day stop over in the incongruously wealthy Kingdom of Brunei.

Borneo – Part 2 Traditional Longhouse

Kuching means cat.  I started my Borneo travels in this mid-size city with a lovely riverside promenade (are promenades always by water?) and very friendly people. It has several interesting buildings from the 1870s when Charles Brooke was Rajah of Sawarak, including a castle, fort, courthouse, a jail and the Bishop’s house, all in the same black and white style. It also has interesting museums, one in particular tracing the history of the three distinct waves if Chinese immigrants, a growing cafe culture with speciality coffees and Kec Lapis – a delicious multi-layered cake with different fillings and the not-to-be-missed Laksa noodle soup; my lovely Chinese landlady made a superb one. It also has a large orchid garden, which quite by chance I went round with a Spanish horticulturalist who had worked at Kew Gardens and now lives in Australia.

Whilst I was there Sawarak was having its state elections. I have never seen so many posters and flags along every street, highway, shop front etc. It was easy to tell who had exercised their democratic right because their index finger was ink-stained and there were funny articles in the Borneo Post with suggestions as to how to remove the dye which can take up to 3 weeks if left to fade naturally – a look many young women donut much like. The ruling Barisan Nasional party was victorious, and whilst it was openly know that they used heavy stick and carrot tactics to ensure re-election, it was seemingly a popular result because they have promised to work with the parties promoting Sawarak’s independence from the rest of Malaysia.

A little way outside Kuching is Sawarak Cultural Village. Set around a lake are the traditional houses of Sawarak’s indigenous tribes. For example, the Penan who are semi-nomadic and still track animals using blow pipes, the Orang Ulu who receive substantial government grants to maintain their rural life – much to the envy of other tribes, the Pindaya who live in the north and the Iban who make up the largest percentage of indigenous people. Each house is distinctive but the one that I particularly liked was the Iban longhouse. Made entirely of wood, each village has a longhouse in which the whole community lives. This means the structure runs to several hundred metres with an external platform for the laundry, produce drying etc, an internal central corridor for communal living and doors all along the corridor behind which are the private rooms of each family, varying in size depending on the number of children. The size of Longhouse is described by the number of doors e.g. 30 doors, 50 doors.

I decided this was something I had to see and experience for myself but there are very few traditional wooden longhouses left as they are increasingly replaced by brick and concrete structures with proper drainage, electricity and satellite dishes However, I discovered that there was one longhouse accessible by two boat journeys, where the Iban community still lived traditional lifestyle. There was no way of knowing if I could stay because that was up to the village Chief, who I could only ask when I arrived, and that was assuming anyone knew him and could locate him. Lots of ‘ifs’

I know I’m adventurous by nature but I even impressed myself with this one. I took a noisy 5 hour boat ride in lashing rain across the South China Sea to a port called Sibu with no redeeming features. Having been kept awake all night by the nightclub next door I found an early morning boat to take me to my intended destination. Needless to say I was the only foreigner and I felt just a little nervous as our small boat wove its was up the Rejang river, negotiating rapids whilst dodging huge stray logs from upstream logging stations.

Arriving at Kapit jetty, with no clue where I was heading, I decided my best bet was to go into a cafe to ask how I should go about finding my intended longhouse chief. First up a drunkard assured me he could help me. Luckily I was rescued by two guys sitting next to me in the cafe. It turned out one was a village chief himself (in Kapit for the elections), though from a modernised longhouse. He offered to drive me to the village I sought. As it was only 15km away i thought it not too much out of his way, but because the road was tortuously twisty it took an hour. When I thanked him he said it was his duty to look after visitors and make sure they were safe.

We located the Chief on the building site for the new longhouse his community was building. After a conversation which I didn’t understand and a donation was agreed (I understood that bit), I got the thumbs up to stay. I was allocated a family and off I went to meet my hosts – a husband and wife and his elderly mother on a road which quite simply stopped by the longhouse and then there was forest!

Rumah Jandok Longhouse was extraordinary. It had 21 doors (i.e.21 families), so a comparatively small community. There were skulls hanging in the middle of the corridor, leftover from head-hunting days but also, whilst they are non-practising Christians most doors had a cross on them. A strange juxtaposition.

The timbers were rotting and the home I stayed in was extremely basic (outside loo and bucket to wash) but it has had electricity since 2014 and it was such a privilege to be welcomed there. Most of the men were heavily tattooed, the older women were bare breasted and the little ones (of which there were many) were largely naked. My hostess, Sawary was very sweet and we laughed as we communicated by drawing pictures because she could neither read nor write. I watched her mother weaving cloth for sarongs while Sawary and other young women weaved brightly coloured shopping baskets to sell in local markets. In the stifling heat and humidity everyone laughed and chatted as the children ran around – a typical communal scene . Sawary and I picked vegetables, which seem to grow in the wild by the roadside, and then I helped prepare a supper of chicken, whitebait and veggies.

At 5:30 several mums and me walked to the village school about 20 minutes away – I assumed to bring the children home. But no, it was to bring drinks and snacks and a change of clothes and to say goodnight. From 7-11 years old the children stay at school Monday to Friday, sleeping on mattresses in single sex dorms. I was told the girls need no supervision – not so the boys. What a surprise! 12-15 year olds go to school in Kapit. After 16 they go to Kuching or Miri.

I played the usual alphabet and counting games with some of the boys and gave my hist family’s two boys colouring books, crayons and stickers which I’d bought in advance. I had more in my bag which I intended to share out but it was clear Sawary wanted to keep them for her boys. I later discovered that families take it in turn to host visitors and get to keep the donation and any gifts. I guess that makes sense though I did feel what I’d brought was a bit much for one family.

Back at the longhouse we served dinner and were joined by neighbours who brought food to share. A pair of 13 year old twin girls showed me their English homework books. They seemed to be being taught well and enjoyed talking to me. They told me they got up at 5:30 every day to get to school by 7:30 not getting home until 7pm but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact they had it easy because before the road was constructed two years previously transport was by boat which meant a 4:30 start.

After dinner we shared family photos and watched the news then bedded down in a row on the floor under mosquito nets and I had the family cat as bedfellow. Thankfully nobody snored and I actually slept very well.

We were up at 6am for tea and biscuits then once all the men had gone off to work we rolled up the bedding and set off to work at the new longhouse. Most of the families are building their section of the longhouse and it was clear to see who was wealthier than who by the fixtures and fittings. Some had expensive tiled floors, western bathroom fittings and fitted kitchens whilst others had plane floors and modest bathrooms and free-standing kitchens. Bizarrely everyone seemed to love cornicing which they painted bright colours.

What was cool to see was that the women were equally involved, holding ladders, shifting rubble and, having learned some basic skill in Cambodia, I was able to join in cement mixing. Who would have thought!

I was curious as to how the men could afford to build their homes i.e. not be earning a wage. When the chief explained to me that he had negotiated with the local government to donate the concrete, roofing and windows and that there were subsidies/loans for the rest of the building materials repayable once the house was built and normal work resumed. A good way to ensure re-election me thinks.

The new longhouse was due to be finished by 1 June – just three weeks after my visit. The chief was expecting around 800 people to celebrate the opening including children who had moved away, dignitaries etc. I was honoured to be invited to join them but unfortunately makingbthe epic journey 3 weeks later wasn’t an option.

Whilst Sawary was helping her husband with some tricky window installation I popped back to the school, was given a tour by the head teacher and sat in on a class. Some of the children are very slow and find it difficult to learn and, with illiterate parents, they are not encouraged at home thus compounding the problem. That said, some I met were very bright and engaged and sang ‘rain, rain go away, come again another day’, complete with umbrella for me. So sweet.

Sawary and I went back home and joined two other women in one of the women’s large kitchen to prepare lunch. 6 different vegetables including bamboo, aubergine, a sort of wild spinach and dandelion, all of which I learnt how to prepare and cook; a huge hunk of meat which we boiled then roasted on a big open fire, and of course a gigantic pot of rice. Enter 8 bare-chested, sweaty, hungry men who wolfed down the food as we sat to one side watching them. Job done they belched and went off to have a smoke! We were then able to sit at the table and consume what was left before clearing it all up.

The Chief arrived later that afternoon and said that as he was heading into town later, he could give me a lift. I had planned to stay another night but he didn’t know if he would be available the following day and to be honest the basic facilities were challenging, so I took up the offer.

I loved meeting all the villagers and being part of the community, albeit for such a short time and I’m really pleased to have had such an authentic experience. By now the old longhouse will be standing empty. The plan is to smarten it up and re-open as a fee paying ‘attraction’ with a local to show people round. There are a good few modern longhouses offering an overnight but the experience simply isn’t the same.

I do wonder who will be living in these places in 50 years time. The communal way of life is enjoyed by old and young generations but most 18+ year olds move away to live and work in big cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, with their shopping malls, cinemas, cafes etc and where everyone doesn’t knows everyone else’s business. Parents don’t seem to mind being separated from their children at this relatively young age but if they don’t return to raise their own families how can the longhouse village survive.

imageThe boat back to Sibu was with the current so we raced along, shaving an hour off the hairy journey. I wasn’t relishing another night in Sibu but I enjoyed trying lots of different food in the night market; things like shredded beef inside a mini bun, fried giant banana, pork stuffed pau, peanut stuffed coconut jelly, warm soya milk and local chocolate cake, naughty but nice.

Next morning I took a bus to Miri in the north of Sawarak, an hour from the border with Brunei. I stayed in a nice hostel  and amazingly managed to get a pair of prescription glasses made up in 48 hours.  In the evening I went to the Jazz Festival. I had been invited by the festival director Chu Lin who I’d been e-introduced to by a mutual jazz musician friend she met when studying at the Royal College of Music. She now lives in Borneo with her charming husband and two grown up kids and organises music festivals including the world famous Rainforest Festival held in September.

There were lots of really good bands – from New York, Germany (playing Cuban music which sounds odd but they rocked), Singapore and local. I had a great time drinking, dancing and chatting to people dancing next to me, some of whom were expats working for oil and gas companies like Shell and Total in Brunei. I flopped into bed at 1:30 – the latest I’ve been out since I left home in January.

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So that was it for me in the state of Sawarak. I left the next day with a bit of a sore head and aching legs but no regrets!

Next up I’ll be summarising my brilliant time in peninsular Malaysia.

 

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Borneo -Part 1, Wildlife

 

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I was going to write a single blog about Malaysia where I spent 6 brilliant weeks, but it was getting so long I thought you might switch off half way through, and that wouldn’t do at all! I have therefore divided it into three parts. Part 1 focuses on Borneo’s national parks which are teaming with wildlife. Part 2 details a one-off experience as a guest of an Iban chief and other Borneo experiences and Part 3 is all about the Malaysian Peninsular, minus my week with Ecoteer Turtle Conservation, which I posted a while back.

Borneo was top of my list of must visit places. It conjured up images of secluded beaches, pristine jungle, vast caves, soaring mountains and a network of rivers snaking the length and breath of the country. It is all of this and so much more.

The majority shareholder of the island (over 70% of the landmass and population) is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan but I decided to spend my time in the states of Sawarak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, which are separated along the west coast by the bite-size Kingdom of Brunei.

What a fantastic country. Take a look at the photo I took from the plane. Those caramel-coloured rivers define the landscape and are the lifeblood of the country. I became an expert in navigating them as I travelled both up country and deep into the interior.

Most tourists visit Sabah to climb the mighty Mount Kinabalu (no way in this heat), swing by the Orangutang sanctuary in Sepilok (too crowded for me) then head to Semporna for world class diving (foreign office advise not to go ‘cos of pirate kidnappings followed by beheading if the ransom isn’t paid). I therefore chose to start my travels right at the opposite end of the island in Sawarak’s capital city, Kuching – of which more in Part 2.

Malaysia has a mere 27 national parks, 23 of which are in Borneo and several are within easy reach of Kuching making it the perfect home base. Don’t think your average park, think hundreds of hectares of forest, mangroves, mountains, rivers, even beaches with INCREDIBLE wildlife.

The king if the jungle (to quote Baloo) is the Orangutang. Native to Borneo and Sumatra there are depressingly few remaining in either country. I was therefore thrilled to see six of these massive primates in the semi-wild i.e. they roam freely within the confines of Semenggoh Conservation Park. Watching a mother and baby swinging through the trees then descending to the forest floor to be joined by big daddy for a group nit pick was amazing. The park ranger had a magical call which echoed round the forest and brought the biggest Orangutang they have, crashing through the undergrowth to a feeding platform a few metres from us. There are no ropes or netting so we needed to be ready to move quickly should he have decided to take a closer look at us. Thankfully he wasn’t interested!

Bako National Park is reached by small boat and offers numerous hikes. A group of us who met on the early morning bus to the jetty decided to self-guide on a hike through dense jungle on the look out for the bulbous nosed, pot bellied proboscis monkey (check) before descending to the beach for a swim with sea lizards and giant jelly fish (check), with wild pigs strolling about (check), then hiking back a different route looking for insect-eating pitcher plants (check) and green vipers (no show), finally returning to base camp drenched in sweat for a well-earned beer (double, double check). I loved this place.

The last trip out of Kuching took four of us on a sunset boat ride, firstly across open water with the potential of seeing endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, then through mangroves looking for elusive crocodiles and not so elusive long-tailed macaques. We hit the jackpot, seeing at least 10 dolphins diving around us, followed by trees full of macaques and then two crocodiles floating menacingly past us. Once the sun set, our guide used a flashlight to pick out the eyes of a good few more crocs, some yellow, some red and some blue as our boat floated silently under trees aglow with millions of fire flys. Even the guide was impressed with what we saw. He was less impressed when, on heading back to the mooring slightly later than planned, we ran aground and had to wade through knee-high mud in the pitch dark. We thought it part and parcel of a truly memorable evening, and we got a free mud-wrap exfoliation!

As well as abundant wildlife, Sawarak is famed for its caves. Mulu National Park, reachable by a 30 minute flight in a single prop aircraft, which often as not doesn’t take off or land when it’s supposed to because of mist encircling the mountains (my flight out was delayed 5 hours), boasts the longest cave system in the world. Spelunking has never really been my thing but I must say that having a knowledgeable guide explain how they were formed, dissecting the layers of rock, explaining the difference between stalactites and helictites, pointing out the critters living on the cave floor that mainly live off bat guano and the transparent fish in the subterranean rivers, these constantly evolving caves came to life for me. However, Im not quite ready for ‘adventure caving’.

I also experienced my first night walk in Mulu and was treated to all manner of weird and wonderful creatures from centipedes – so big and hairy that they in fact only manage 50 legs, giant stick insects and elongated caterpillars, big toads and tiny frogs, shoestring worms, fire ants, crazy big spiders and a scorpion but again no snakes. It was Friday 13th so perhaps something was in the air because a huge number of these creatures were mating. Two frogs no bigger than my thumb nail were going at it hammer and tongs and making a real racket!

Mulu boasts the longest forest canopy walk in the world, and elevated at 35 meters, perhaps the highest too. Walking with a guide I learnt about the 5 layers of the forest and how they support each other. I also learnt about trees that are hosts to parasites and how they too work in harmony. As we walked high amongst the trees we were treated to beautiful birdsong and black butterflies with fluorescent blue, red or green markings and iridescent dragonflies flying all around us.

Just so you know, Gunung Mulu is the tallest mountain in Sawarak and The Pinnacles its most arduous climb. In 36+ degrees and 90% humidity I resisted the temptation to scale either and judging by the comments from those who did the climb, it was a wise decision.

The highlight of Sabah for me was the three days I spent in a simple homestay on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. My host, Osman was recommended to me by some guys I met in Vietnam. He is a bit of a celebrity because he guided David Attenborough a couple of years ago, featuring in his documentary on Borneo and also Freddie Flintoff, though not simultaneously!

My journey to Osman’s home was an adventure in itself. It required a spectacular bus ride climbing through Kinabalu National Park, with incredible views of the volcano which erupted not so long ago, a huge bit breaking off the top, and winding down into the verdant valleys. After 7 rather nauseous hours I was dropped off at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Miraculously the ‘drop’ worked as a man waved at me and I jumped in his pick-up for a further 45km ride to a mooring where Osman’s wife Yunti was waiting with a small boat to take me to her home.

Also staying was a German couple, he commissioned by Nikon to take photos using its latest supersonic cameras (talk about lense envy) and my Aussie roommate who had a mass of amazing tattoos, various piercings, those big holes people have in their ears, a shaved head and was fervently into protecting our planet. She was terrific.

Osman and his son Tom took us on 3 incredible trips; one at dawn, one at dusk and one full afternoon. All the animals we saw were 100% in the wild which made it unpredictable and that much more thrilling.

Our first dusk trip we were lucky enough to see a huge male orangutang, albeit just the one and quite high up in the trees, but it doesn’t get more wild than that. We also saw lots of proboscis monkeys – without even breaking sweat (!), scores of long tailed macaques; cute pig tailed macaques, which I hadn’t seen before, and several silver leaf monkeys with their distinctive mohicans. Lots of the monkeys had babies, which was encouraging, not to mention really aaaahh, and most of them were within a few feet of our boat. On the branches were lizards and kingfishers whilst down on the ground were mid-size monitor lizards. This was a magical first exposure to an abundance of creatures as we coursed down Kinabatangan’s jungly tributaries.

Our dawn trip was all about birds. The mist was swirling off the river as we drifted along in silence, not another boat in sight. Up above I saw three, or was it four, varieties of hornbill, sitting in pairs in the trees making their distinctive call before flying off (flap, flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, flap, glide), a pair of purple storks, a gigantic storm stork, a sleepy eagle and loads of egrets standing gracefully in the river. It was so peaceful with not much happening when jn a split second a solitary crocodile, which we’d spotted in the undergrowth, like grease lightening leapt into the air, mouth open to catch a bird before splashing into the river right in front of the boat. I tell you, it was a real Attenborough moment but frustratingly without the film crew to capture it for me!

The most amazing experience of all happened on our afternoon trip. Our hope was to find the endangered Pygmy elephant (so called because of its diminutive size), which meant quite a long journey up river. I didn’t mind at all because it was such a beautiful, remote setting but if course I hoped we’d find some elephants. Seems it was our lucky day. Coming round a bend in the river, we saw three or four elephants going about their business and were able to get the boat within 10 feet of them. As we approach they shied away a little but as we sat quietly they grew in confidence and suddenly there was a herd of about 20 of them. At one point some of them got into the water for a swim and passed right by us, others wallowed in the mud or munched on the lush vegetation. In amongst the herd were three babies, one Osman reckoned was about 4 weeks old and suckling. It’s difficult to put into words how special the experience was.

The big downer to all of these experiences is that rampant deforestation, to plant lucrative palm oil, is forcing the wildlife ever closer to the riverbank. Soon they will have no land left to inhabit and, as commerce wins over nature, people like Osman are fearful for their future. This situation isn’t unique to Kinabatangan; great swathes of Malaysia’s forests are being converted into palm oil plantations. And it’s not just big corporations. Anyone with even the smallest amount of land can convert it to palm oil (with an easily accessible bank loan) and make a nice little income.

But I mustn’t end on a negative note. My last morning with Osman and Yunti, I sat in a bench enjoying birds flying across a cloudless azure blue sky as I watched the mesmerising flow of the caramel river. I was joined by one of the sweet children who I taught to play the penny whistle – to much family amusement. I felt sad to be leaving such a remarkable place but I felt truly blessed to have experienced three such magical days……..

……….and I still had 8 hours of stomach churning twisting and turning up and down the mountain to get back to Kota Kinabalu, so my enjoyment of the beauty of Borneo wasn’t quite over.

I didn’t get photos of everything I saw because the experience is better not constantly being viewed from behind a lense, but I hope you enjoy the animals I did manage to capture.

Part 2 is all about my amazing 48 hours as the guest of a Longhouse chief in a remote village in central Sawarak. Another epic journey.