Kuching to Kapit

First of all, apologies for any mistyping as the keyboard in this cybercafe is driving me nuts. A short post as a result, but I doubt I’ll be posting for another couple of days so wanted you all to know where I am!

I buddied up with Anthony from the hostel, which is saving a few bob on hotels and taxi fares. We got the boat from Kuching to Sibu (5 hours) and from there to Kapit (3 1/2 hours) where it’s tanking down. Tomorrow, we (hopefully) get another boat, this one to Belaga where we will sort out a trek for a couple of days. Obviously, this will mean no blog posts. I reckon there’ll be a cybercafe in Belaga but you never know.

Not much to add unless you’re travelling to Kapit. Don’t go by the town map in Lonely Planet when you arrive. Work is currently ongoing on a new wharf, and it’s due to be completed in mid-2009. If you travel up from Sibu, you’ll land at a temporary wharf. It’s located directly north (or vertically up the page) from the roundabout on the left. This will help you navigate and save you walking 5 minutes away from your hotel when you land, rather than towards it…

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Don’t call them monkeys

Somehow my internal alarm clock woke me at 7:30 after only a handful of hours asleep. When the girls (Christina and Nydia) arrived back the previous evening, we decided to go out for “a drink” at a nearby bar which doesn’t have a name. It’s decorated like a long house and owned by a local celebrity, Peter John.

Peter used to be a pub worker and a DJ before finding himself suddenly a pop star. Not bad for a lad who grew up in the jungle. He used the money he made to buy himself the bar and it had been recommended by our hosts. So, one drink, then back to watch a DVD.

As if.

Peter introduced himself and showed us a load of photos he’d taken at Uncle Chang’s on Mabul Island as he’d just come back. Then more photos of Bako. BY which time I was on my third and the girls on their second beers. More flowed as we were enjoying a good chat, then the girls managed to look pathetic and girly and got free rice wine shots from the bar tender. I’m not complaining as they got me one, too! I should wear a skirt and shave my legs more often.

By 3am, we were well sozzled and were chatting away with a bunch of locals. And got an invite to a party the next night. Thing is, my plan is to depart on the 8:30 boat on Sunday morning, so I’m either going to risk missing it, travel with a hangover, or have to stay an extra night.

I’ll worry about that later.

As I said, I miraculously rose at 7:30 and banged on the girls’ door as they wanted to go to Bako. I think I was hammering for almost a minute before I heard any response! I’d intended to wake at 7:00 so I had no time for breakfast, instead just grabbing everything I needed and running out the door to catch the 8:00 bus to Semenggoh.

This used to be a functioning wildlife rehabilitation centre, but now it’s just a reserve playing host to the animals that were reintroduced to the wild here. The area’s not actually big enough to support the number of orangutan, so they supplement their diet with feedings in the morning and afternoon.

To get there, you hop on a minibus outside the tourist office at 8:00 or 2:00. The journey’s around half an hour and it costs MR25 return, including park entry. All of this is given to the driver when you return to Kuching.

There isn’t really a lot to say about Semenggoh apart from that it’s small, pretty and chances are you will see some orangutan, but they can’t guarantee it. If it’s raining, don’t go as the orangutan don’t like to come out in the wet. The advantage is that if it rains in the morning, then you’ll likely see more of them for the afternoon feed should the weather clear up. The girls did this the day before and saw seven of the animals. I saw five including a baby, so Im not complaining!

They are magnificent animals. Despite their bulk and gangly looks, they move remarkably slowly and gracefully through the trees, traversing up and down the trunks effortlessly. To move around, they sit in one tree and wobble it until it bends close enough to the next for them to grab and swing over.

Contact with the animals is a strict no-no and generally there’s a warden around to make sure nobody gets within 5m when the animals are low down. At the end of the day they are wild animals and the adult males are more than capable of removing puny human limbs from their sockets if they feel in any danger.

There are also other animals loose in the area, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be seen. Three crocodiles are penned up in cages towards the back of one of the feeding areas. I’ve no idea if the plan is to set them free or what. They just sit there looking very annoyed.

I talked to a Dutch guy in the bus both ways and it passed the journey time well. A bonus given that I should still have been asleep. Most people follow the same kind of trail north, so perhaps I’ll bump into him again in Kota Kinabalu.

The sun was baking, so I had a quick look at two of the mosques then walked back to the hostel to do a quick shirt-wash and type this lot up. And to check out the hundred or so photos I took of the apes. Oh, and I did find out where the name comes from. “Orang” simple means “person” and “hutan” means “forest” – so they’re “people of the forest”. Cool, eh?

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A walk around Kuching

Kuching’s not a big place. The main city centre area can be circled in maybe half an hour or forty minutes on foot if you don’t stop to look at things. It’s also worth checking when things are open or accessible as these times vary. In particular, the mosques will have times when they’re in use so unless you’re Muslim you can’t enter.

Before I begin, though, a brief history of Kuching. First bit of trivia is that “Kuching” is Malay for “cat” which explains some of the decor and statues. And the fact that there’s a cat museum a few kilometres from the north side of the river. And the statues. And the drain covers. The city was given the name by an English man – Charles Brooke – who’s uncle settled here in the early19th century after deciding he didn’t want to head home after being injured and sent packing while in Burma by the East India Company. So he decided to travel a bit, thanks to being fairly well off anyway, and also getting a decent pension.

Sir James Brooke landed in Sarawak (as Kuching used to be called – a name it shared with the region of Borneo in which it is situated) and helped the local viceroy quell an uprising. As a reward, the sultan of Brunei declared him raja of Sarawak. This was in 1842. Pretty cool, really.

For three generations, the Brookes ruled the area. From James to Charles (who renamed Kuching in 1872) to Charles Vyner Brooke. And then the Japanese arrived as part of their WWII plans at which point Charles V decided to take a hasty holiday in Sydney. The Japanese surrendered in 1945, but… and here I have heard two different versions of the story. In one, Charles V “decided” to cecede his rule of Sarawak to the British Crown. In the other, he was told in no uncertain terms by the royalty that he (or any of the Brooke’s family) wasn’t allowed anywhere near Sarawak any more, and was given £150,000 as a golden handshake.

Either way, on July 1 1946 Britain had another colony in its grasp. And then Anthony Brooke – next in line for the raja “hat” – jumped in and threw his weight behind an already-growing movemement which wanted to oust the British. Because bizarrely, despite what I gather was a harsh rule by the second Brooke, the Malaysians rather liked the way things were before the war.

Five years later, Anthony Brooke announced that the protests and fighting should end and withdrew his support. In 1957, Britain herself withdrew and Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known) was made an independant nation. In 1963, after a lot of grumbling and political dummy-throwing, the Borneo area was included into Malaya and the Federation of Malaysia was formally recognised. Indonesia and the Philippines weren’t so happy, and Indonesia conducted border raids for some years to try and disrupt the new state. The Philippines just stuck to random acts of piracy which still (rarely) occur today in the far outlying islands.

Nowadays, Sarawak is a hugely diverse region. The population are a mix of people from Chinese, Malay, Indian and probably still some western backgrounds. Kuching is prime example, being like a very small Singapore. The same mix of nationalities with the same architectural styles and the same lack of animosity between them all.

The city has an Anglican cathedral, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese temples. The food is similarly diverse and although there are areas which are more one culture than another, there’s a tremendous mish-mash even if you just walk in one long street. It does make for a very interesting visual experience.

It had rained a lot overnight and it was still torrential in early morning. By around 10:00 it had settled to a steady stream with could be contended with using one of the umbrellas kept handy in the hostel foyer – I loaned my folding umbrella to the two girls as they were heading to one of the parks and would need something smaller.

Passing the Heroes’ Monument I walked up to the Sarawak Museum. This is split into two buildings on either side of the main road and is open from 9:00 to 4:30 (not 5:30 as in Lonely Planet – it’s changed recently and the signs have been hand-altered) all week. Entry is free, though there’s a donation pot just inside the door. I checked out the old wing and it’s OK. A lot of stuffed animals and fish in various glass cases, some interesting information on geology and a Shell-sponsored exhibit about recovering oil and gas. Fact: Shell got its name as the company was originally an export business based here. One of its major exports was polished sea shells. Only later did their founder plunge his money into the new-fangled “oil” stuff.

Upstairs are some displays on various indiginous cultures with a replica set of rooms from a longhouse and miniature longhouses from several of the “tribes”. Pretty good stuff. Overall, it could do with a spring-clean and some morr lighting but it is informative and free.

Over the road, the new wing looked like it was between exhibits. A handful of pictures and a small model boat were all I could see, and the upstairs viewing gallery was closed. The new Natural History and Arts buildings seemed to be closed, but whether this is due to them not being complete yet, I don’t know. Also, for reference, the Islamic and Chinese museums are both closed on Fridays.

As the rain eased off, I walked up to the open market and some of the shopping streets. I picked up possibly the world least healthy chicken-and-beef burger. It was Halal so I have no doubt over the quality of the meat, but the sauces were ladled on and by the time I unwrapped it somewhere out of the rain, grease was oozing from the greaseproof paper it was wrapped in. Still, it was tasty and only RM2.70 (maybe 45p) for a double-burger with everything isn’t bad. A shame there were no napkins in the bag. I washed my face and hands using rainwater pouring from a nearby roof. When in Rome… (or Kuching).

My next stopoff was the tourist office to check boat and bus times for the next couple of days. The Lonely Planet I’m working from is the “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” one and I’ve already found some things out of date in it. It’s the current edition, but published in January 2007 so that’s to be expected. I don’t mind if I get somewhere and a guest house is a pound more than I’d planned, but missing a bus because of a schedule change could be disastrous.

While there I asked about cinemas and was shown two on a map and given the local paper to dig through for the schedules. I’d wanted to see Wall-E, but despite and August 7th release date in Malaysia, it’s not making it to Borneo until the 14th. Ah well, I’ll catch it in Kota Kinabalu.

I had to skip the mosques as they don’t open for non-Muslims until 3pm on a Friday, so I wandered through one of the more Chinese areas (Carpenter Street) and hd a quick look at the beautiful Sang Ti Miao and Hong San temples. The Tua Pek Kong temple a little further over could be the oldest standing building in Kuching, although the Bishop’s residence (now within the cathedral grounds) is “officially” the oldest. The temple is mentioned in texts pre-dating the residence, but the latter has formal paperwork detailing its construction. I’m going for the temple because it’s prettier and I’m not a church-goer.

There’s a bizarrely-painted car park down the street from the Tua Pek Kong temple – each floor is a different garish pastel colour – and this houses the Star City cinema on the 9th floor. The lower ground is meant to be a food court and the upper ground a mall, but they’re both closed. Everything else is parking. I took the lift up to the cinema and thought I’d entered a film as the staff all seemed to be keeled over. The woman collecting the 20s for the toilet, the concession counter worker… Only they weren’t dead, just asleep.

I checked the times and prices (and languages). Sadly, Red Fort is only available in Chinese with no subtitles. In Bangkok it had Thai subtitles so I was hoping here they may have English. Ah well. Shaolin Girl looked entertaining as it’s by the same director as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Chinese with English subtitles, RM8 per ticket… and I couldn’t see it as I was the only customer. They need at least two to show a film. Tempted as I was to pay for two tickets, I decided to wait till later and see if the girls at the hostel fancied it.

Despite checking every other mall in the area, I couldn’t find the other cinema. Never mind.

I managed to locate the bar which is designed like a long house, but it was shut (most bars open at 6pm) so I’ll save that one for later. I hear the food is good and cooked in a traditional manner. A block or two away is Picaddily’s, a bar run by an ex-guest of the hostel I’m staying at.

After a quick email check (OK, an hour online but it was only 50p) I got back to the hostel for some munchies and a shower. The place is deserted and it’s like staying at a friend’s only they’ve given you the key! I hope the girls didn’t get rained on too much and I’ll catch them later.

Tomorrow – orang-utan and mosques. And perhaps I’ll find out where orang-utan get their name from. I’ve seen “orang” in a lot of signs in Malay – I think it means “adult” or “senior” or maybe just “big”. Must remember not to call them “monkeys”.

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Bako National Park

(more pics at the bottom) Today I’d decided to visit the Bako National Park, the oldest in Borneo. It covers 27 square kilometres of mangrove swamp, rain forest and rocks with quite a few species of birds, lizards and monkeys. It’s pretty close to Kuching, being around a 50 minute bus journey from the town centre, plus 20 minutes by boat. The bus you need is the yellow number 6 – there are three bus companies in the city, all use a different coloured bus and all use a number 6 so make sure you get the right one! The fare’s a bargain RM2 (around 30p) and will take you to the park reception.

I caught the 9:20 bus, though there are earlier ones. Should you be staying overnight, aim for this time or later as often they’ll turn you away on the boats and make you wait for a later one if you’re staying on. The earliest boats are prioritised for day-only visitors. On the bus, I got talking to a schoolteacher who looked remarkably sane given that he was in charge of 18 late-teen girls. His job was to just make sure they didn’t die or anything. The trip had to be co-ordinated, budgetted and researched by the girls themselves. They’d worked their way down from the north east where they’d laid part of a wooden walkway for a village in the jungle (the wood ran out so they couldn’t finish).

Well done to him. Had I known I was being shepherded onto a bus going the wrong way (for instance), I’d find it hard to just go along with it – but those were his instructions.

The park fee is MR10 and has to be paid on the mainland. You’ll need some photo ID with you as well. You’re then given a form with your details (or those of your entire party if you’re in a group) with your passes stapled to it. The next step is to jump on a boat. This is where it’s handy if there are a few of you, or you’re good at asking people if you can jump in their’s.

Most boats are MR47 for the journey, split between however many get on. They usually carry 6 people, but I squeezed on as a 7th on the way out (and we were then charged MR9 each – more than splitting 47 in seven directions, but cheaper than splitting it 5 ways as well). The girls arrived a short while later, shoehorning ten onto each of two boats. More than half the people on my boat were staying overnight, so I declined the boat pilot’s offer to arrange a time for pickup as I wanted to be sure I’d not be on a boat by myself on the way back.

Across a wooden walkway is the café and park office where you have to register upon arrival. The staff will give you a map and point out anything you need to know, as well as answer any questions or recommend things according to your preferences. I wasn’t too sure what I wanted, but though I’d just do a wander to one of the beaches and try to spot some animals. Before going on any of the trails, you must tell the wardens which one, and then check in again when you return.

A huge bearded pig snuffles his way around the offices all the time and seems happy to pose for photos. I was after the proboscic monkeys, though. Much harder to spot! They apparently feed at regular intervals by the mangrove swap where the boat drops you off so I walked over that way. It must have been the wrong time, so I kept walking out past the viewing platforms and to where the walking trails began.

It was a very hot day, and ridiculously humid so I was glad I’d packed 3l of water. I guzzled a lot of it as I took the Jalan Telok Paku, the shortest trail. The signs reckon this as being around 45 minutes despite it only being 0.8km in length. It reminded me of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore, though with somewhat less artificial stepping. Partway along, I encountered a couple who were staring into a tree. Only it wasn’t the tree that had their attention, it was the proboscis monkey sat up it, examining the branches.

I managed to get three snaps of him before he bounded off into deeper foliage and was lost from site. Annoyingly, when I checked the photos on my laptop later, the camera had focused on the branches in front of him so they’ve not come out well. At least I saw one!

The rest of the walk to the small beach was uneventful but worthwhile. Only four other people were on the beach when I arrived and they were all being nice and quiet. It’s a lovely spot and I don’t think I’ve ever felt seawater so warm. I had a quick break, drank more water and returned back along the same path. I made it to the café in even less time and I’d taken to get out there, though I was drenched by the time I sat down to lunch.

After my chicken curry and rice, I walked around the accommodation block and almost got bitten by a macaque. Evil little things if you get too close. There must have been 30 or 40 of them crawling along the fence by the camping area, clambering up trees and throwing fruit skins on to the ground (and me) below.

I spent far too long taking photos of them which didn’t leave me with enough time to walk another trail. Instead, I parked my bum in the café again, and plotted out my next moves Borneo-wise. And watched someone’s lunch being stolen by a macaque.

A Dutch family behind me got up to leave and I managed to beg my way onto their boat, so my return fare was a nice small share. Just as we pulled up at the dock, the wind picked up and loud rolled in. Thunder broke and the heavens opened. I’m rather glad I headed back earlier than I had planned as the rain came down very quickly indeed.

I chatted to a local guy for half an hour as I waited for the bus, then snoozed on and off during the journey back. It was still raining in Kuching so I darted into the nearest foodhole… which happened to be a KFC. Just a coincidence, honest.

Still, I’d like to give this one special mention – with the exception of the manager, the rest of the staff are deaf. All of them. If you don’t “speak” sign language, you order by pointing at the menu charts. If I read correctly, a portion of the profits go to various schools in the area. Full marks to whoever owns this franchise. I’m not even sure it’d be legal in the UK if you decided to only hire people with a hearing disability. I’m sure someone would complain that it’s unfair against those with functioning lugholes.

And from there back to the hostel where I’m typing this up after chatting to two German girls who arrived after me last night. Fortunately they’re studying English and French at university so I can communicate with them. After all, my German’s almost non-existant, my French sounds like a primary school child and my English… well, the less said.

Oh, and those plans I was talking about for the next week or so? Well, they involve a couple of buses, some express boats, a bit of 4×4 travel, 2-3 days trecking in the rainforest and another country. I’ll get to the details as and when!

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Landed in Borneo

The flight went smoothly and I actually arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule. On the way into Sarawak (the half of Borneo I landed on), I needed another passport stamp. This one limits me to a one month stay in this half of the island. I got a couple of questions (“Business or pleasure? How long are you staying?”) but in a very pleasant manner which went with the “Service with a smile” badge the officer was wearing. America, please note – you don’t need to intimidate people and give immigration jobs to brain-damaged gorillas. Nice people can make your guests feel far more welcome.

As I landed so late, I needed to catch a taxi into the town as the buses stop running at an annoyingly early time. As it happened, I got to the taxi desk at the same time as an Italian couple who were heading to the Hilton. The centre of Kuching is quite small, so I asked if I could share with them and saved myself around 20 Ringgits on the fare.

The hostel I’d booked was only a five minute walk from where I was dropped off and I strolled via a 7-Eleven to get some much needed milk with chemical additives (strawberry flavouring). The Borneo Seahare Hostel is very close to the Borneo B&B and the Borneo Hotel, but hard to spot without directions. If you find the Borneo Hotel, walk to the next building uphill and you’ll spot the tour shop that it’s above.

My welcome there was one of the warmest I’ve ever had at a hostel outside of Hanoi they even gave me a Borneo Eco Tours and it was magical. Wesley and Teresa who run the place are a local couple (brother/sister? Partners? I’m not sure) who helped me with my bags and got me checked in promptly. Then they sat me down in the kitchen and went through the guidebook map, asking what I was interested in doing while I was here. Their knowledge is very deep, and they’re great to talk to. I felt more like I’d arrived at a couchsurfing host than at a hostel.

After my head was filled with bus numbers, prices, destinations and a brief history of the island I crashed in the lounge area and chatted to an Irish guy (travelling with his girlfriend) and an English guy (who was catching up with his as she’s been working out here for a month). Between the two, I got a lot of ideas and hints on how to proceed up the island. The main thing was “book in advance”. Already it was hopeless trying to get an overnight stay in Bako National Park unless I wanted to wait till the 12th. And the mountain climb in Kota Kinabalu needs a week or more to book (especially as it’s coming up to the annual “Challenge” weekend which I think will coincide with my arrival. D’oh).

I then stayed up till 3:30am finishing then novel I was reading. Very silly as I had an 8am rise.

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