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Trip Report Sarawak, Borneo. Trip report from Gill and Tony

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Dear Fodorites, especially Hornbill,

First of all a great big “Thank You” for all your help when planning our trip to Sarawak. We had the most wonderful time and your advice was spot on. Unlike Kathie, we had no delays at Kuching airport as it is now finished (the president officially opened it the day after we returned to the UK). Our luggage must have been sitting on the captain’s lap. It appeared on the conveyer belt so quickly that Tony had to run to catch it. As he had already filled out the double immigration forms on the aircraft, we were out of the airport in about fifteen minutes and into a taxi taking us to the Kuching Hilton.

We spent most of our time based in Kuching, the Cat City. We did most of our excursions from here as all of the sights are not far away. Kuching means cat in the national language. There are several cat statues around the city plus a Cat Museum featuring more statues, posters, stuffed wild cats, cat memorabilia and even a display of cat food. The Cat Museum has a slightly odd feel, bordering on kitsch, but it is well worth a visit and there is no entrance charge. We were interviewed for a leading Japanese newspaper when we were there, so Kim (Japan), if you saw an article on Kuching in the Asahi Shimbun, it was us in the photograph! Tony was a journalist’s dream come true that day as I heard him waxing lyrical about cats in general and how much he missed our own cat, Sophie.

Following Fodorite advice, we had booked a room with a river view on the executive floor of the Hilton and the lure of cocktails, canapés and the fabulous staff (who spoiled us rotten) was very great indeed. On the first night we arrived to find that our pre-booked room was not yet available as the present occupants had asked to stay another night. It was late and quite frankly all we wanted to do, after our long journey from the UK, was sleep. Armed with a generous gin and tonic each from the Club Room, we were shown to a huge suite where the enormous bed looked incredibly tiny. There was room to park a large vehicle in the excess space between the bed and the sofas in the sitting area and you could have parked a small car in the vestibule. In the morning the staff transferred our luggage to our executive room, still big but a little more cosy. The view over the river and fort Margarita was stunning.

We met up with Hornbill who lives in Kuching and who has given us so much help on Fodors. She whizzed us around the city in her SUV and took us to eat breakfast at Chong Choon, famous for its excellent Sarawak laksa. We visited the Sunday market with its colourful and neatly laid out exotic fruit, admired one of Hornbill’s favourite flowers, the Pink Heliconium, whose colourful bracts hang down like a series of crab’s claws. We saw the Chinese graveyards covered in paper money on All Souls Day and walked up to the tall viewing tower, that, had it not been closed for renovation, gives a superb view over the whole of Kuching. Finally, we ended up eating Pau, a Chinese steamed bun with savoury filling, washed down with homemade lemon barley. Delicious! And that was all during our first morning.

The food is wonderful. After our excursion with Hornbill I rested after our long journey from England while Tony did a quick reconnaissance outside. He found “The Junk” which Laurie said is supposed to be a pretty good restaurant and so that evening we set out to find it again. I don’t know how we got lost (because it is just a few roads behind the Hilton) but we did and ended up at Top Spot Food Court on the hill. We ate lobster and grilled grouper fish. A small portion of fried, seafood rice was enormous, far too much for the two of us.

We explored every inch of Kuching and agree with Kathie that you can book so many trips using the capital city as a base. Prices and tour combinations vary considerably, so it is well worth visiting several tour shops and there are many above the traditional shop houses on the Main Bazaar very close to the hotel. It is also worth noting that you can arrange transport to the airport, or to the jetty for Bako National Park or transfers to your next hotel through these tour companies. Our transfers were slightly cheaper, very much more comfortable than the ordinary taxis and included an English speaking driver. The local taxi drivers are a colourful lot and it may just have been our bad luck to get one prone to spitting out of the window, or one that took us around Kuching via the scenic route so that he could earn an extra ringgit or two.

Within Kuching itself, in addition to the Cat Museum situated across the river, we went to the Sarawak Museum, the Pottery Exhibition, the Islamic and the Chinese Museums and the Textile Museum all of which are free. You can also follow the heritage trail around the city. Hornbill’s friends joked that we would soon know more about Kuching than they did.

We also spend the best part of a day just crossing back and forth across the river in the green, yellow or pastel pink sampans. We had seen them from our window and once, in the evening when business was slow, the boatmen formed a circle in order to talk, so that seen from above, their boats formed the petals of a colourful flower. The fare is 30 sen (a few cents) per person per crossing and you leave the money on the boatman’s wooden step at the end of the journey. Our first crossing was to view the Astana, former home of the White Rajahs. Their story is fascinating and I read “My Life In Sarawak” by Margaret Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak, while I was in Kuching. I never cease to wonder at these indomitable Victorian English women, who, plucked from their homeland, seasick and ill, fall completely in love with their new country and the people, just as she did. Sadly, you can only go inside the palace when there is an open day. The new parliament is currently under construction so the orchid gardens, once near this palace, have been moved to a new venue just on the outskirts of Kuching.

After our trip to view the Astana we re-crossed the river and ambled back along the picturesque walk where the flame trees were in full bloom. We caught another sampan, this time to a rather pretty village (kampung). Tony spent most of his time photographing the locals who spent most of their time trying to get into his pictures. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. Later on in the holiday, we also got a good view of the river by taking an evening cruise to watch the sunset.

We did fulfil my ambition to visit the Borneo Highlands Resort after all, but just for a day trip, along with half the women’s Police Force of Kuching on an away day which proved to be hilarious. It is about a twenty-minute drive from the foothills to the Highlands and an enormous truck-like contraption will pick you up at midday, but you have to book in advance, otherwise you will not be allowed admission. We were chauffeured around to various cultivated gardens and nurseries. The climate in the highlands is a bit like England in summer and so we felt at home seeing many of the plants that grow in our garden. We are not vegetarian but the organic,vegetarian lunch was delicious and so plentiful that we really could not do it justice. This was followed by a tour of the spa and then a trip to the border overlooking Kalimantan, Indonesia. The staff begged us to stay overnight. It was all rather bizarre because we had emailed the Highlands Resort from the UK with a view to staying there and had received no reply. I would have liked to experience a night walk to see the porcupines here.

The entrance to the Borneo Highlands Resort is just down the road from the Annah Rais longhouse, built near a river and a hot spring at the foot of the mountains. It makes sense to visit this house and the highlands in the same trip. Unlike Laurie’s visit to Batang Ai, you do not have to take trinkets or any special gifts, just pay your entrance fee at the ticket office. Your entrance fee goes to the Bidayuh community, I believe, and helps to preserve this longhouse, with its split bamboo floors and ironwood structure, one of only two remaining in the area. Generations have lived here for about two hundred years. Our guide took us up the steps and onto what is effectively a village street on stilts. It makes perfectly logical sense to me. Everyone has their own door to their own house, and there are people sitting out talking or smoking, children playing, just like a village street anywhere else. As you walk along you can see mats full of rice or thick sheets of rubber drying in the sun. Cockerels crow and lazy cats sun themselves on the hot tin roofs.

We walked until we came to the “Baruk”. This head house stores several skulls reputed to be over one hundred years old. A small cannon “The Cannon of Peace” stands by the steps. Further along a bridge crosses a fresh water stream. Almost at the end of the longhouse we found a prime brewer of Tuak the local rice wine. In his museum cum bar we sampled the various strengths of Mr. Edward Gunui’s homebrew and bought a bottle of his finest. I had also brought some Scottish shortbread as a sort of cultural exchange gift and that seemed to go down well, although he had been to the UK when he worked for Malaysian airlines. As Laurie noted, many of the Bidayuh and Iban straddle the modern and ancient worlds very capably. I was interested in his house, equipped with quite a lot of mod cons, which also offers home stay visits. Outside his front door was a collection of small pitcher plants from the forest. We got a guided tour of his home and at the end of our visit he presented us with an additional bottle of (still fermenting) Tuak and one for our guide. After our visit to Borneo Highlands we spent much of the return journey trying to keep the corks from popping out of the bottles.

The other longhouse in the area is at Benuk. We combined a visit here with the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre at Semmenggoh and the Wild Orchid and Pitcher Plant Gardens. The Benuk longhouse also has a ceremonial hall, a round shaped Pangah, for displaying skulls. There is also a small privately owned museum belonging to the ceremonial chief En Peka that is very interesting. He has a collection of Chinese rice wine jars which are a sign of wealth, a collection of hunting artefacts and Bidayuh costume and some eclectic memorabilia. Near to the ticket office there are more small exhibitions of model Pangah’s and a large Bidayuh bridge across the river. Our young tour guide and driver, also Bidayuh and originally from a longhouse about four hours from Kuching, showed us how to cross, but it was high up and very narrow and I got an instant attack of vertigo just by looking at it.

The small shop and information centre, at the entrance is run by the very friendly Diyong Siye and his wife. They also sell black peppercorns produced in the village and coins from the days of the White Rajahs. Tony bought one depicting Charles Vyner Brooke as an interesting and unusual memento of our trip to Sarawak. Diyong also gave us a small photograph of the longhouse as a souvenir.

No one should come to Sarawak without seeing the Orang Utans of Semmengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre about thirty minutes drive from Kuching. We went to see them twice. These are not wild Orang Utans but ones that have either been orphaned or rescued from captivity or poachers and carefully rehabilitated into acres of forest. As they are not obliged to come and eat the fruit put out for them, it is potluck as to who is hungry on any one day. It is best to get there well before nine in the morning, and again arrive well before the feeding time in the afternoon. We were lucky and saw five each time from the twenty that have been released here. If you arrive by bus it is along walk up the driveway. If, as we did, you arrive by car, you can drive right up to the car park.

There is a clearing and lawn area within the main complex of the sanctuary. We had arrived early and so were able to see two Orang Utans feed here at quite close range to the visitors, closer than you can get in the jungle.The short trek into the forest is via a plank walk way and then on to a viewing platform.We had brought our binoculars and had an excellent view. The guide had brought a large bucket of bananas, papayas, oranges, sugarcane and banana flowers and he tipped these onto the feeding platform several metres away. For a while nothing happened but as he called their names, the tree canopy about eighty feet above us began to sway and a young Orang Utan moved slowly and gracefully through the branches, finally sliding down ropes to grab as much food as possible in the shortest amount of time. It is amazing how Orang Utans use their “thumbed” feet to grasp and eat the fruit, just as we use our hands. It added to the sense of urgency as George stuffed at least two strange, round fruits into his mouth. Then, with mouth, one hand and one foot absolutely loaded, he re-ascended to eat his spoils in the trees away from the platform. This performance was repeated by Edwin, another Orang Utan of about the same age and size. Everyone was spellbound.

Next we heard an even louder crashing and we learned why the younger ones were so anxious to make off with their gains. An enormous male swung into view. Just as I whispered to Tony that I was surprised that the trees bore his weight there was an ear-splitting crack as the trees proved that they could not. Undaunted, Ritchie continued his descent and then proceeded to take centre stage, and languidly demolished what food was left. All around his feet prettily coloured squirrels made a mad dash for a banana or two. His favourite food seemed to be the halves of orange papaya as he ate these first, stripping the flesh in one go and discarding the skin on the floor. A peeled banana stuffed lengthways into his mouth snapped in half, giving the appearance of fangs. Tony got a great photo. Aware that he was the centre of attention, Ritchie continued to feast unperturbed.

As Hornbill described, the Orang Utans have learned some tricks and we came across an Australian woman who told us how her handbag had been snatched. The female Orang Utan apparently unzipped the bag, threw away the credit cards and rifled through the bag until she found some body lotion. She unscrewed the top and then massaged some onto her arms, smelling it constantly. Finally she poured some onto her baby. We wished that we could have seen it. Genetically, Orang Utans are apparently very close to humans. They seem to have inherited a similar taste for cosmetics !

That evening back in Kuching, Hornbill had a surprise for us. She had gathered together some of her friends and we were lucky enough to meet them all at the Sarawak Club with its long sloping ironwood tiled roofs, located on the outskirts of Kuching. We enjoyed the most delicious dinner imaginable. Her friend BC was in charge of selecting from the vast menu. I am still dreaming of the wonderful seafood soup, butter prawns (my favourite and the Sarawak Club’s signature dish) sweet and sour steamed Tilapia fish, roast duck with yam and stir fried midin jungle fern. Am I making you all hungry? I so wish that you could have been there. The company was excellent and we had a great time. Tony and I think that we could live in Kuching and the first club that we would join would be this one.

We could hardly bear to tear ourselves away from the luxury of the Hilton and on to our next destination, Bako National Park. On our final night before we left Kuching we promised Hornbill a return treat, dinner at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Magenta where she, Kathie and Cheryl had eaten. As Kathie has described before, it is a beautifully decorated old Malay house with colourful silk lamps, soft white muslin curtains spangled with silver stars and a wonderful ambience. Once again Hornbill had chosen exactly the right place and our starter of soft-shelled crab salad was truly delicious. My plate of spaghetti with giant prawns and a Japanese Endiko roe sauce was mouth watering. Hornbill and Tony had steak and oysters on the most enormous plates I have ever seen in my life.

We spent two days in Bako National Park and there are pros and cons of staying overnight. It is not quite the luxury of the Hilton (understatement of the year) but a fantastic experience, nonetheless, despite being half bitten to death by mosquitoes. Not a leech in sight, however (sorry to disappoint you all). The journey to the 2,727 protected hectares of Bako National Park by tiny fibreglass speedboat is thrilling. All along the route your eyes constantly move from the high backdrop of verdant coastal rainforest to tiny fishing boats and distant islands in the South China Sea and amazing, surreal, brown and cream striped rock formations. Many of the rocks have been carved by the waves into fantastical sea stacks and arches. There is a beautiful, almost deserted beach and mangrove swamps with wooden walkways and viewing huts.

I was surprised that at the camp headquarters everything seemed so organized. There is a canteen with a wide veranda serving rather good, cheap meals of rice and spicy noodles with meat or fish. For breakfast one morning we had delicious banana bread in tiny boat shaped containers made from palm leaves. The adjoining shop sells a range of useful goodies from mosquito coils to peanut biscuits and plastic ponchos essential for when the heavens open. There is also a well-designed information centre displaying photographs of local wildlife and plant life.

We had booked a Forest Lodge with shared toilet and shower and it is very basic, rather gloomy accommodation. Ours consisted of three beds squeezed into a musty room with peeling lino on the floor, a noisy ceiling fan and a sort of glow in the dark lamp. I think that our room was the upmarket version, so be warned.At night there is a guided walk. You do need to take a good torch, good walking shoes, jungle formula insect repellent, a waterproof poncho and long sleeved shirts to keep the mosquitoes from having a feast on your arms.

The wildlife, however, is fabulous. By night we saw fireflies, and hermit crabs, phosphorescent fungi and two tiny swiflets sleeping in a cave. By day we saw proboscis monkey’s, the shy silver-leaf monkey with tiny orange babies, daring macaques, mudskippers and a whole variety of bird life. We also saw a lot of very hairy, bearded pigs around the camp headquarters.

Two nights was more than enough, however. I needed some respite from the mosquitoes. We moved on to The Damai Lagoon with its nearby seafood restaurants and the famous Sarawak Cultural Village. The Damai Lagoon is a large hotel and part of the Holiday Inn group. It is close to its sister hotel, the Damai Beach. We booked a Peninsula Chalet Executive Suite and we were amused by its size. It seemed more like a semi-detached house and we certainly did not need four hand basins, two bathrooms, two televisions and a sitting room strangely reminiscent of an English pub. I think Tony had unwittingly overdone it this time. Our huge bed looked as if it should belong in the cabin of a ship. It had a lid at the top. You could open it and peer into the interior. Above it was a framed tribal garment made of tree bark and a display of bronze tribal earrings. The interior of our room looked as if it had recently been re-decorated in a peculiar combination of pale apricot, pink and green but still needed some refurbishing. Every night we received a surprise with the turn down service. One night it was a little gift box of biscuits and the next, a fruit basket. The Peninsular chalets were situated in a small area of park-like gardens with clipped hedges. Colourful birds sang in the trees. Our chalet had a wonderful view of the sea and a panoramic view of the bay from our small balcony. We found the staff to be pleasant and helpful. The food at breakfast was buffet style and ample. There are several shops within the hotel complex including a travel agent (useful for booking those transfers to the airport) and a small supermarket. We really enjoyed our stay in this slightly odd, surreal atmosphere.

Step out of the impressively enormous, hotel Foyer, walk for five minutes and you will reach the Sarawak Cultural Village. Here you can get an insight into the complexities of Sarawak’s tribal diversity. We spent the best part of a day here, even returning to our hotel for a short break as our ticket remained valid all day. There is a spectacular show demonstrating dances from various regions and tribes, displays of skill and balance, plus a rather amusing blowpipe demonstration. We saw the show twice and managed to take lots of photos, as it provided photo opportunities galore. Within the Cultural Village there are representations of the different types of tribal houses once found throughout Sarawak. It is a living museum, and so some of the houses have residents. There are Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Iban Long Houses, a Melanu Tall House, a traditional Malay house, a Chinese farmhouse plus a simple Penan shack, Displays of weaving, blow pipe carving and dancing take place throughout the day. You can also purchase items direct from the craft workers. To be able to take a photograph of your item being made is an added souvenir. This Cultural Village has obviously been designed for tourists but it was definitely worth a visit.

The area is also famed for its fish restaurants and many will send transport to collect you from your hotel. The ones that we tried were “Lim Hock Ann” and “Dolphin” in Buntal, a fishing village. The restaurants were simple in style but served us delicious lobster in pepper sauce, grilled pomfret and of course we had to have more butter prawns and midin fern as a final treat before returning home.

Hornbill made our holiday extra special. As one of her friends said, she deserves a government award for helping out with advice on Sarawak and she certainly deserves a medal for taking us, as complete strangers, around Kuching. It was great to see her lovely home and meet her parents. Kuching is a wonderful city but she made our time even more memorable. Our thanks go to her for her generosity and again to all Fodorites for invaluable help when planning and arranging this holiday.

With best wishes,

Gill and Tony.

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