It wasn’t actually chilly, but I didn’t do much. An early rise to watch some telly, read a few comics and then out into the streets to check out the bus schedule for Brunei. Anthony and I grabbed a McDonald’s for lunch then went to watch Wall-e which was superb. The cinema wasn’t much cop, and they ended the film as the credits rolled so I know I’ve missed something as all the PIXAR releases have “crazy credits”.
I called Daniel, the couchsurfer who couldn’t host me as he’s moving house. Unfortunately, he already had plans for this evening so wasn’t able to meet up but if I do come back this way then I’ll definitely look him up again.
Lucky for Anthony, as we got back to the hostel the French couple were in reception booking a trip to the caves for the next day. This meant it wouldn’t cost him anywhere near as much to go as he’d originally been looking at going by himself. It seems they’ll be a day behind me as I trail through BSB to KK, so I may meet up with them again.
I’m definitely glad I booked ahead for KK as it’s the school holidays as of today. As a result, same as back home, flight prices are up and accommodation is at a premium.
No plans for tonight, now, other than some food and getting online. A shame none of the wifi signals near the hostel are strong enough to connect to! And right now I have small kittens taking it in turns to try and pierce my power cable with sharp little kitten teeth.
A day half-full of travel was ahead of us, and we woke early on. I’m grateful to have a body that can control certain functions and I managed to empty my duodenum rather effectively. After 2 days with nothing but rather scary squat toilets, my bottom came into contact with a proper (western) loo and the bomb bay doors opened. Veritable relief.
Daniel’s deaf relative was outside to collect our hats and ensure we got onto the right 4×4. We shared ours with a couple of locals, an English guy, a Kiwi and an Aussie (the latter a couple).
This is a bumpy ride – more like what you’d expect up in Cambodia. The roads aren’t too bad, and in places smooth and surfaced, but for the majority they’re gravel tracks. The 4x4s provided are pretty new and in very good condition, so pretty safe. Our driver was also good, but his choice of music not so – “Romantic Ballads of the ’80s” seemed to be the theme.
Three or so hours later we reached the road junction and hopped out. The car actually continued on to Bintulu where other passengers hopefully awaited him for the return leg. For our section, the asking price was MR60 per person.
There were plenty of food stalls around the junction so we grabbed some snacks and drinks as we waited for the public bus which arrived in good time. MR15 to the driver got us seats to Miri, except for the English chap who hopped out early on to head elsewhere.
At Miri, we had fun with the taxis. The bus station is a scant 4km from the town centre, but all the taxis refused to use their meter. The first driver was after MR5 per person, but we were told that was too much. By someone who tried to charge is MR4 each.
We waited a whort while for a bus before asking a third taxi driver. One person: MR15. Two people: MR15. Three people: MR15. Four people: MR25. And there were four of us. We’d have been better being screwed by the earlier guy. And I’m sure it’s illegal for them to refuse to use the meter.
Anthony and I checked into the Highland which seemed a pretty good place, though not the cheapest in town. All the double rooms were taken, so our Antipodean friends walked off to find alternative accommodation.
I got talking to a German guy and the Dutch man I’d met on the bus to the orangutan sanctuary who’d flown to Kota Kinabalu and then doubled back. Small world.
We’d hardly eaten all day and I’d found out that a KFC was just round the corner. With free wi-fi. An Anthony-and-I-shaped dust cloud remained in the hostel as we rushed off for “breakfast”. I did manage to catch a few of you online, and got some emails replied to.
The hostel has two cats… and 4 kittens. They’re barely 6 weeks old and they’re playful as can be. Which is great until they sneak into the dorm and it taked two people to get them out again. Cute as kitty-shaped buttons with fur on, the biggest problem is stopping playing with them so that you actually leave the place.
Despite eating half a Chicken Feast earlier, I managed to squash down a beef burger (which was very good) before we walkd round to find a bar for a few bevvies.
The Aussies had an early start the next day, so departed early, while Anthony and I had a few more beers and watched Venus Williams “crash out” of the Wimbledon tennis. Well, important players always crash out, don’t they?
After a breakfast of noodles and biscuits, we waved goodbye to our hosts (after little Cecelia fell down coming out of her back door and had to be consoled by her mother). We’d lost a little sleep as the heavens had opened sometime in the middle of the night, and hammered down on the metal roof. Still, we were looking forward to our jungle trek today.
Once more, we went via Daniel’s Corner to swap stuff over and meet the man himself. We hooked up with our guides, jumped into a boat and crossed the river. This wasn’t to be so long a trek as yesterday, and the weather was cooler. However, still not anywhere near “cold” and certainly humid. The area we walked through was jungle, but some bright spark some years ago had decided to put down a concrete path for sections of the walk.
This may seem like a good idea, but concrete plus time plus water equals vegetation and a ridiculously slippery surface. I can only assume it was sponsored by a local clinic that specialises in wrist fractures, back injuries and scrapes. If you ever do the trek, avoid the concrete where possible – our guide helped us wherever he could.
Roughly two hours later (and with only Chrystelle managing to put bum to ground at any point), we walked into a small village where we met some more locals. I confess I can’t recall the tribe these folk were from – they could have been Kayan again – but the children were definitely more shy. I don’t think they see anywhere near so many tourists.
The French pair had once more brough pencils and books, and a t-shirt for the man of the house. After a suggestion from Daniel, we’d taken about 20 packets of instant noodles. Some of these were served to us as lunch while the kids scribbled in their new books.
One thing that caught my attention there was the size of the family cat. Certainly the healthiest moggy I’ve seen in Malaysia. I swear it must have eaten other cats. It was also one of the friendlist I’ve met, collapsing and writhing with pleasure as soon as you tickled his chin.
After letting our lunch settle, we said our goodbyes and began the walk back to the boat. Jean managed to collapse in a much more impressive fashion than his girlfriend at one stage. Otherwise we made it back relatively unscathed, but dripping sweat and stinking somewhat horribly.
Daniel served us another meal at the Corner as we grabbed more swimwear, then we were driven down to a small lake for another plunge.
Finally, back to Daniel’s where he presented Anthony and I with small carved minature rice mills. I’ll need to get mine into the post home soon as I’m heading to Oz at some point and they won’t let me take it in!
Back at the hotel, my socks (worn for both days) flew bin-wards and I dived into the shower armed with a huge bottle of shower gel. It was soooooo good to feel clean again!
A great two days, with a great group. Challenging without being exhausting. I’d not say it’s spectacular scenery, but the satisfaction of being able to say I trecked through the jungles of Borneo has definitely made it worthwhile. That and drawing spacemen for a bunch of pre-schoolers.
Daniel invited us round to his place later in the evening where he forced us – held us down and put funnels in our mouths* – to drink some very delicious rice wine. He then told us how to make it ourselves. Bad marketing, frankly.
As expected, rain poured down as we were considering heading home. Daniel provided us with a couple of large straw hats to keep some parts of us dry as we sprinted back to the Belaga Hotel.
We didn’t need too early a rise as Daniel said he operated on “elastic time” (flexible) and we should be at his for around 9:30. Ish. So we had a leisurely breakfast then carried our bags to the Corner, after our hoteliers said they would have the same room waiting for us when we got back.
At Daniel’s, we juggled luggage around and filled daybags with waterproofs, bottled water and the like. The day was to involve looping back to Belaga so we didn’t need to worry about nightwear. We’d pick that up afterwards, and before heading to our hosts’ for the evening.
We had two guides – one a bearded guy with a huge grin and big machete, the other an older-looking chap who walked barefoot. The former was our primary guide, the latter our boat captain who would pick us up from the far end of our trek. The path we were taking was over a mountain (not a huge one) and onto a track used by the British to escape the Japanese in WWII.
A short boat ride up the river took us to a small village with several piles of ash. They’d had a serious fire very recently and lost three quarters of their housing. Through the village, the guide took us into the jungle. Then around in circles for ten minutes until he spotted the right trail.
It was a fairly uneventful if enjoyable hike. The canopy blocked a lot of the sun out, but it was still a very hot day and our guide made sure we stopped for water at regular intervals. It seems a lot of other people had done the same judging by the number of plastic bottles scattered around. So here’s a warning:
If you’re on a hike with me – anywhere: the wilds of Borneo or the chilly Lakes in Cumbria – and you chuck a plastic bottle, or a crisp packet wrapper, or whatever onto the ground I will make you eat it. Shove it back in your rucksack – it weighs less than it did when it was full.
It took us around three hours to get to where we met our second guide and lunch was cooked up for us. A healthy mix of rice, chicken (some seasoned, some plain), fish (ick), something “from bull” (very gristly – not sure what part of the bull it was from) and pineapple. We enjoyed the food then walked across a small beach to our boat.
Another small trip took us to a muddly landing site. Ten minutes or so of squelching through sucking muck and trying not to slip into creeks and we arrived at a small but secluded waterfall. Clothes were swapped for swimming togs and in we jumped/slipped/tenderly stepped. There were many small fish in there with us and it’s the first time I think I’ve had my toes munched on by one. Well, several, in fact. Gents, do ensure you’re not swimming au naturale as it could get very uncomfortable.
We cooled off in here for the best part of an hour before packing up and squelching back to the boat and sailing to Belaga. At Daniel’s we met up with some more incoming tourists, changed into slightly less smelly clothing, picked up some gifts and were driven to our accommodation for the night. The longhouse we visited was owned and populated by Kayan people. There are many different “tribes” inhabiting Sarawak of which the Kayan are just one. They have their own language, clothing, customs and so on. The clothing has become more of a tradition, and used for ceremonies and celebrations. Everyone we met was dressed in t-shirts and shorts.
The houses themselves are simple affairs, electricity provided by a generator and generally a whole family lives inside. The houses are like a terraced row back in the UK – many individual houses joined together. Small family units will be in each one, but everyone from end to end will be related by birth or marriage to everyone else. It does make for a very close-knit and friendly community.
Our hostess was Rini (I think I spelled that correctly) who spoke some English, though her sister next door was much more fluent and helped out a lot. She herself was hosting Chrystelle and Jean, though we spent most of the evening as a group of four outside chatting to the children and to the elders.
Ah, the children. Wide-eyed and shy except for one little monster called Cecelia who was constantly the centre of attention. Great fun! They loved the things we’d brought – colouring books, coloured pencils, exercise books and the like. The coloured pencils in particular were greated with huge smiles and a small scramble. I ended up being used as a pencil-holder as we tried to find out how many I could stick into my beard before they fell out. I think we peaked on five.
Dinner was lovely, and enough food for four – but it was only Anthony and I eating as the others were being fed by their host. We ate as much as we could so as not to apear rude (and because it was good!) then rejoined the crowd. The children had gone to bed (except Cecelia who had rules of her own, it seemed) and chewed the cud with the older folk – all of them women. I’d say the men were down the pub, but there aren’t any in Belaga!
Traditional head-dresses were brought out for us to wear; one old lady did a traditional dance to music blaring from a traditional Sony mobile phone/walkman/camera; the French couple decided to try some of the “tobacco” that was produced. One of our hosts mimed that it “makes your head go a little strange” and asked if she could send some to them. She was somewhat puzzled as to why the police on the border may not be too happy about it, but I think Anthony did a decent job of explaining!
Other “local” things were tried out. Chewing leaves, some very hard nut (I think betel, but I’m not sure) and then some men came in with a nest. The bees inside are very dangerous and apparently the sting can be fatal. These adults were plucked out (unconscious – I guess they’d been “smoked”) and held in a flame tail-first to destroy the sting and kill them. Obviously, we were thinking “honey”. Not “larvae”.
It was gone midnight when we retired. Thin mattresses had been put down for us, and sheets provided. Enough for a night’s sleep. Our “room” was cavernous, taking up the entire upper floor, and the aircon consisted of permanently open windows at either end. Bats used it as a short cut. Really rather cool.
We got up around 7:45 to pick up our permit for travel north of Kapit. It’s tight as the permit office is open from 8:00 and the boat to Belaga is at 9:00. It’s even more tight when you find out that the permit office has moved quite some distance out along the airport road.
There are signs posted on the old building, but these are faded from sunlight and actually seem to say “We Are Here” rather than “We Have Moved” so we couldn’t tell when we scouted the place the night before. A nice local informed us in the morning that it’s about a 30 minute walk to the new office, or we could get a van from the market. All fine if you’re planning on it, not so good if you reckon you have an hour to wake up, get your permits and hop on the boat.
So we didn’t bother. Checking a few websites, generally nobody asks for them anyway. And if they do, you tell them you arrived by road from Bintulu where you can’t obtain a permit. They’re only dished out in Kapit. The permits are free, so nobody’s losing out. As far as I can gather they’re more to stop logging protesters from gaining access to the jungle areas, so as long as you don’t look like a hippy or wear a Greenpeace t-shirt you should be fine.
A nice lady at the pier made sure we got on the right boat and we bought some frozen drinks from her. Mine was a vry authentic-tasting banana juice. Green and stored in a re-used water bottle. I have no idea what it’s made from and where the water originated, but I’m not dead yet so it must be OK.
The MR30 journey to Belaga was nearer four hours than three, but comfy enough and it’s a great experience to stand on the side of the boat or sit on the top as it whips through the water at around 60 mph (I don’t do nautical units, sorry). It’s a very different experience to the Mekong trip. The river’s much wider and there are fewer settlements on the riverbanks. Those I did see were impressive in length – they get the name “long house” for a reason.
On the boat we met a French couple and we’ve informally agreed to trek with them. It’s likely we’ll get a better price as a group. They’re also heading to Miri afterwards, so again we’re assured of being able to fill up a 4×4 for the bumpy journey in a couple of days’ time.
After a quick walk around town (and I mean quick – we walked every street in a little over 3 minutes) we located Daniel’s Corner which is recommended as being the best place to sort out a tour. Only it was closed, we assume opening in the later afternoon or evening. Right now, my stomach is wondering why it’s had nothing but banana juice all day so I’m off in search of a Big Mac.
No Big Mac, but egg noodle and… erm… something instead. It was meant to be chicken, but I swear it was fishy. I left those bits at the side of the plate and concentrated on the noodles. Belaga isn’t somewhere you want to be stuck if you’re not a fan of eating the local cuisine.
Anthony and I then took a stroll out of town and into the country for an hour or so, then circled back. There really isn’t a whole lot to do around here, though it’s a pleasant place. Slurping ice lollies we watched one of two football games going on between schoolchildren. A quick email check and we walked around the Daniel’s Corner to catch up with the French couple (Chrystelle and Jean, I think – I’ll correct those if I’ve got them wrong!)
Also there when we arrived was a German girl, Ellie, who speaks very good French and English, and acted as a translator for Chrystelle and Jean. Jean’s English is pretty good, but he had some trouble with Daniel’s accent so it all worked out pretty well.
Daniel tailored a trip to suit all of us, based on requests and ideas he had. While he made some phone calls to guides and houses, we skipped round the corner for dinner. Again, local fare, although Ellie bailed out as it was “too expensive” at MR5 per person. She went to find somewhere charging MR3. In exchange, we got to share a table with the town drunk who kept repeating himself over and over. Harmless enough, but it made conversation harder. We were also joined by Daniel’s deaf/mute (or whatever the politically correct term is this week) daughter. Or niece. I’m not sure which. She’s a giggle anyway – constantly in motion and miming away like a loon.
After our food, we walked all the way back along the street to Daniel’s where he revealed the pricing. Two days, one night for MR260; three days, 2 nights for MR300. Ellie balked and said she’d sort something else out, mainly as she’d already done trecking and needed new shoes before she could step foot in a jungle again. Anthony and I opted for the shorter option while the French contingent settled for the longer one.
Now, Lonely Planet (out of date, though it is) does say that Daniel does trips for MT180 for 3 days. Well, he does. Even accounting for inflation. But you’ll stay in one place for 3 days and take each excursion from there with a long night afterwards. He found that tourists found these boring, so changed plans to allow people to move around and see more things. Of course this means transportation costs, more guides and paying more families for the use of accommodation hence the price rise. It’s around Â£40 for 2 full days, meals, guides, transport. Other than buying gifts for hosts (a quid or so on some exercise books and pencils is very welcome) there’s no more need to put your hand in your pocket.
He also said he’d arrange our transport to the junction on the way to Miri for when we were finished, to save us ringing around. Job sorted, we walked back to the hotel. Ellie was in the room above us, and I spent a good couple of hours nattering to her. An interesting girl – she’s spent 3 years in India and 18 months in Thailand, amongst other things, and hitch-hiked to Belaga earlier today!