● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Friday, 10 October 2008

Malaysian Borneo

27th September – 10th October

Bali to Borneo
We had always intended to fly into Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) and then across to the Malaysian side of the island via one of the overland borders. However, the Indonesian authorities impose silly rules on how travellers must produce evidence of an onward flight before being allowed to enter the country, wit
h no flexibility given to tourists who might wish to leave by sea or land routes. There was also the rather limiting 30 day visa to consider – for a country (or rather a republic) the size of this (Sumatra, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku and Papua!) it becomes impossible to travel extensively without leaving and re-entering the country. After a limited amount of research (and rather too little as we came to later realise!) we instead bought a flight from Java (our link from Lombok) to Kuching, capital of one of the two states of Malaysian Borneo. Kalimantan will have to wait for another time. Besides, the Indonesian state is notoriously difficult to explore; with inadequate public transport and the sheer size of the place we wouldn’t achieve much in the two weeks we had to spare.

As always with first impressions, Kuching rather surprised us! We passed through the airport with startling efficiency, and decided to hop in a cab for the short transfer to the city. There was a small queue but very few taxis and we waited some time before catching one. We later found out that the residents of Sarawak are so
wealthy (largely due to oil and the industries that have grown up around it) that absolutely everybody owns private transport and gets whisked away by awaiting family members. The journey was a little bit of an eye opener and we felt as though we were in somewhere fancy like Hong Kong or Japan, a far cry from the chaos of Bali or Lombok.

We’d reserved a budget room at the Mandarin Hotel, again rather a surprise after some of the dives we’ve stayed in. The location was fab,
in between the old and new city, and a stones throw from the main Chinese and Indian districts. This made for some excellent eating, as you can imagine!

The following day was Sunday, which means only one thing… the Sunday market! Held in a labyrinth of streets to the south of the city, traders compete with one another for your wallet. The array of produce on offer is bewildering and we weren’t sure what all of it was! We ate Laksa soup for breakfast (takes some getting used to!) at a hawker stall, swiftly followed by some delicious pancakes.

The never ending hunt for suncream began, and we whisked around some pharmacies. This was our first real encounter with what we’ll call the “Whitening” phenomenon. On request, shop assistants would all produce bottles of lotion, sometimes well known brands such as Nivea and sometimes dubious local brands. All, without question contained agents to “whiten” the skin! The girls in the shops simply could not comprehend why we wouldn’t want to bleach our skin white the way they seem to be so fond of doing! What… white skin after all the blood, sweat and tears (well, lots of sweat anyway) developing tans on the Gili’s! These girls with their dolly, china white faces who were found in Kuching became more a feature during our stay in Malaysia and their bid for whiteness (umbrella carrying etc.) made us smile several occasions. BTW you can even buy whitening deodorant!

We’d arranged a visit to the nearby Bako National Park for Monday with a guy we met at a backpackers lodge. Sean had been acting as unofficial guide for the park for sometime, taking groups of travellers and showing them around. He was undertaking his final tour that day due to the clampdown on guides without licences. We were a little dubious at first and are used to making arrangements ourselves but he didn’t want money from us – only enough to cover our costs of chartering a boat and admission fee and he seemed keen to have some company.

It turned out to be a good decision and we spent a really enjoyable though hot and steamy day exploring some of the trails in the park, seeing lots of wildlife including the elusive proboscis monkey. One of the trails we walked terminated at a beautiful beach where we spent some time swimming in the bathtub warm water. Due to a small handicap that is Sam’s sprained ankle (getting better though!) we had the highly convenient excuse of staying at the beach while the rest of our group continued on another trail. We were collected by a nice boat man and given a personal tour of some of the other bays in the park – the scenery was stunning and the emerald green waters of the South China sea made you feel like you were in a film set for Bond! The only downside to the day and a lesson we won’t forget was the plague of mossies and sandflies that attacked us on the trails. Having survived the Amazon with so few bites we hadn’t thought to pack any repellent!!

On the return journey Sean took us to a Chinese temple he attends and showed us around. It was really interesting, though we couldn’t pretend to understand even half of what it was all about. The dinner at a Chinese restaurant afterwards was certainly more on our level!

The Longhouse Disaster
The next stage of our tour through Sarawak involved making our way upstream into the interior. Our Lonely Planet guidebook (which later became known to us as the “Lying Planet”) raves about the longhouses (homes to local tribes people) and how a visit to one of them is the highlight of a visit to Sarawak.

At this point Sam must apologise to her cousin Clare who has already heard this story as it was ripped from the email she sent last month!!

We spent a day travelling by boat to a small town called Sibu and a further day travelling up-river to a dead end town called Kapit with hope of being invited to visit a longhouse or two whilst there. Unless you arrange a tour through official channels (and what these are is anyone’s guess), which will cost around £300 for three days and two nights for the both of us, you can usually be "invited" to visit a longhouse by a local person who you would get "chatting" to on the boat ride up! Well, this is the advice from Lonely Planet anyway...needless to say we didn't get talking to any locals at all, which is unusual in itself, and certainly didn't get any such invites! It was also the end of Ramadan and the holiday was still in full swing so maybe this didn't help.

Anyway, not to worry we thought, there was one longhouse that could be visited without an introduction, and this was just 10km away from Kapit. It turns out that we couldn't even catch a bus to this place, we'd have to charter a van for some outrageous amount and that actually, our guide book was well out of date and that you couldn't just turn up without an invitation after all! By this point we'd already bought a huge bag of sweets to give to the children there. Argh!!

So we stayed one night in the grimiest place we'd ever seen and returned downriver the following day. What a waste of time. Plus we'd planned to spend a few days there and even travel upriver to the next town, which you needed a permit for and we couldn't get because the bloody office was shut for the holiday!!

We later met numerous people who’d had similar experiences to ours; infact not one person we spoke to seemed to have “done” the longhouse experience successfully, and not for lack of trying! It also turns out that Lonely Planet have never actually undertaken this journey themselves but simply sought and published the advice directly from the Malaysian tourist board!

And so we arrived in Miri, another oil-rich boom town, three days ahead of schedule. Unfortunately our flight out to Singapore wasn’t for another five days. We tried to change the flight but it was going to cost us, so we resolved to make the most of the rest of our time in Sarawak. There were a few national parks around, plus a number of beaches - always a good way to while away a few hours.

One of the parks we wanted to visit was Lambir Hills, situated just 30km south of Miri. As always, wanting to cut the costs of taking a guided tour (and avoid being shepherded around) we cobbled together our own itinerary using public transport. To cut a long story short, the two buses we used are so infrequent it took half a day to get there, and a little faster for the return, allowing for just 2 hours in the park itself. In the end this was as long as we actually wanted to spend there – right on cue the heavens opened within our ascent of the first hill. Oh, and why we didn’t realise that trekking steep, muddy, tree-rooted, ankle-spraining slopes would be part of the action I don’t know! With Sam walking with the speed of Gran (and definitely not Supergran) we were relieved to find our way back to base and out of the heavy storm, by which time has receded from scary fork lightning and torrential rain to just a bit of drizzle. We didn’t see much wildlife this time either – I think the animals had decided to uproot from shabby Lambir Hills to much nicer Bako park!

Mulu National Park is another of Borneo’s attractions – some say maybe the single most impressive destination in the whole of Borneo. Unfortunately the park could only be reached by air and the cost of this and the compulsory fees to join a guided tour to trek any of the trails was beyond our means on this trip. We heard nothing but good reports from people who had come from Mulu and would definitely include this on a future trip to Borneo.

We whiled away the rest of our time swimming and eating and catching up on gossip from back home – including the disastrous collapse of Landsbanki Icelandic bank where our travel funds are held. In desperation, we filled a morning visiting the petroleum museum and home to the Grand Old Lady – the first oil rig in Miri. It was actually quite interesting but a little like being back in school…lots of memories about oil fractions came flooding back! We also participated in our first Asian karaoke, having been subject to many a sleepless night from the din emanating from these bars in other towns. More often than not the wailing continues until breakfast time. Even more unfortunate is the locals tireless need to sing tragic love ballads. Argh!!!

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