Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cat City Chronicles

Five minutes. That’s all I had to decide about making a trip to the big B. Of course, I am not talking about Amitabh Bachchan here (And as far as I know, he has not bought an island and named it after himself, at least not yet). The big B stands for Borneo Island for the uninitiated. That’s where Sarawak (and Sabah) is—Malaysia’s largest state.

When I break the news in my office, one of my colleagues quips, “What’s there in Sarawak to see? Pineapples?” Well, not his fault—that’s the general perception about the place but you know what, I’m ready to be surprised.

Next thing I know is that I am on board Malaysian Airlines with a group of travelers from Singapore. The flight time from Singapore to Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, is a little over one hour but you hardly feel the passage of time. By the time you have unclasped your seat belt after take off and enjoyed a hot and delicious meal, you are almost there.

The plane descends through layers of sodden clouds. I look out the window and now and then, get a glimpse of the ground: impenetrable dark jungles and serpentine mud-copper rivers coursing through. Man, what are those trees—a carpet of rainforest! The mere sight of green vegetation makes my city-jaded spirits soar.

At the Kuching airport (which looks quite clean and presentable), we are welcomed by our travel guide, Cik Selina of Masama JS Adventure Tours. We pile into a bus, off to the main city of Kuching—the Cat City—noted for its multi-ethnicity, history, architecture and cuisine.

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak. Despite the rapid economic developments in the last decade, the city still retains quaint touches of the past. Sarawak boasts of a multi ethnic population—more than 30% are Ibans, followed by Chinese (30%), Malays (20%), Melanau (6%) and Bidayuh (8%), among others.

Coming from the lion city, I already feel an affinity for the cat city. Both belong to the same family, right? And even their histories match—the White Rajahs of Kuching had started off inspired by Raffle’s Singapore. They wanted to recreate Raffles success in Sarawak. A part of kingdom of Brunei from early 14th century, the state saw signs of discontent from Malays by the 28th century. In 1839 English adventurer James Brooke sailed into this volatile situation and got a title for himself, the Rajah of Sarawak, for crushing the Malay rebellion. The Brooks ruled over the region until 1941 when the Japanese attacked them and later it fell under British rule. In 1963 the state became part of the Malaysian federation.

When I see the Sarawak river and the boats plying on it, standing from the balcony of a restaurant where I have a late lunch, I feel a keen sense of history. What role this river would have played in shaping the fate of this state?

I spend the night at the beautiful Damai Beach Resort, a 40 minute drive from the Kuching city. The resort is situated at the northwest coast of Borneo, on Teluk Bandung’s sandy beach facing the South China Sea and residing on 90 acres of sea frontage within the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. The property even boasts of an Arnold Palmer designed golf course, the first in Malaysia.

I have been given a single room in a chalet on the sea front. The whole night, like a lullaby, I hear the sea licking the beach. In the morning, when I draw the curtains of the glass wall, I see the picture-postcard beauty of the sea and the sandy beach. Is it some kind of dream, I pinch myself.

Day 2

At 7.30 am, after having a hearty breakfast, I set off for the Semonggoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. The wildlife park is an hour’s drive from the resort. It has a thriving population of semi-wild orang utans, surviving in their natural rainforest habitat.

Coming from Singapore, orang utans are not a novelty for me but what is different here is the experience of seeing orang utangs in their most natural habitat, seeing them having their breakfast at the feeding stations and jumping from tree to tree.

Be careful, we are told. We are constantly reminded that these docile looking creatures may also turn aggressive if exposed to wrong stimuli. Take pictures but make sure you don’t use the flash—it distracts them. Keep quiet—they don’t like noise, etcetera etcetera.

I spend a few hours in the forest—I see a baby orang utan swinging from ropes, eating bananas and posing for photos, as if it were the most natural thing to do (perhaps it was for him). The fellow acted like a film star, considering his jubilant fan base from a good perch. Soon, the crowd of spectators hears branches crushing, leaves rustling violently, all creating a sort of commotion. What’s the deal, mate? Turns out that Ritchie is arriving—the father of junior, the bulkiest of the ornag uans here. In a while, so does Suduku, the oldest of the lot. Ritchie comes down to the ground where we stand. He walks in front of us, leading us to a feeding station, giving us ample photo opportunities.

The park has in all nearly two dozen orang utans, and all have fancy names—George (not Bush), Edwin, Melina and Selinah, et al. There’s even Annuar—he was named after the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim; the day he was born was the day Anwar was put in jail, our guide fills us in with details like these with glee.

After Semonggoh, we go for a city tour in Kuching. The first stop is at a pottery workshop. We see artists at work making beautiful designs on vases big and small. For the adventurous, there is even a potter’s wheel to get your hands dirty with clay. Some of my fellow travelers get down and dirty, trying to shape a piece of clay into something recognizable. Most of them fail in their attempt but it seems to be fun. I stay away from it, mostly shooting artists in action with my camera. In the shop, I get some good bargains and buy some souvenirs for my family and friends.

The next stop is at a well-known bird’s nest factory. The nutritious bird’s nests are a rage among the Chinese Singaporeans for their nutrition value. For the first time, I get to see what the fuss is all about. In the factory, we see the workers clean up a bird’s nest—which is quite a tedious and meticulous process. I do some more shopping here—hats, traditional ladies bags, clothes, sago biscuits, local snacks.

Next we head to the Civic Centre tower. From its third floor (which seems like the 10th floor of a Singapore building), one can get a bird’s eye view of the city. You can see the Sarawak River and the beautiful houses on its banks, set amidst lush greenery. It is a relief not to see skyscrapers in this city. This should be the first stop for anyone visiting Kuching, comments Mr. Singh, one of my fellow travelers. I nod in agreement.

After the Civic Centre, we make a stop at the city museum, educating ourselves about the past of the tribes that lived in Sarawak. There have been over 30 (or 220) indigenous tribes in Sarawak and Sabah, depending on whom you ask. One can spend a full day here but we are short of time, so we leave after an hour or so. We have lunch at a restaurant on the way back to the Damai Beach. We pass by China town and India Street (yes, there’s one there too). Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to explore those streets.

We have a brief spell of rest before we are back again on the road to the city stadium, to witness and take part in the Gawai Dayak festival. But before that, I must mention the dinner. This dinner, held at the serene Treez at Damai Beach Resort, is one of the most memorable dinners of the entire trip. Along with Sup Ekor Lembu and rice served in basket, the menu comprises Ekor Lembu Asam Pedas, Midin Belacan, Ikan Bakar Bersambal, Ayam Masak Hitam, Udang Masak Lemak, Beef Ginger, and topped with a sweet dish, Sago Gula Melaka. Every morsel was so yummy—I still remember the taste of it. For RM 60 per person, this kind of a dinner is a steal.

When we finally reach the stadium around 8 pm, we see it full of people assembled to celebrate the Gawai Dayak festival—the most popular festival among the Dayaks in Sarawak—a kind of a thanksgiving festival, thanking the spirit of rice for giving the peasants a good harvest. The festival is celebrated throughout the state on the 1st and 2nd of June every year. “Gawai” means “a ritual or religious festival” whereas “Dayak” is a collective name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak comprising the Iban, Bidayuh, and the Orang Ulu group (the last group consists of 24 sub-groups). For the next few hours, young boys and girls in colourful costumes from various tribes treat the gathering with traditional dances and opera-like presentations. The event is so important that Malaysia’s PM has also flown in to enjoy the festivities.

By the time the festivities end and we reach the resort, it is past midnight. I go straight to my bed.

Day 3

Today is supposed to be the most adventurous day of the entire trip. We are to travel some 300 kilometers to the deeper end of the Borneo island, close to the Kalimantan region of Indonesia.

We leave Damai Beach Resort around quarter to nine in the morning. On the way, we make a stop over at a pepper garden—pepper being one of the top cash crops of the region. The green ears of pepper look charming in a small plantation area, next to a factory that harvests, dries and packages pepper for commercial distribution. We learn how black pepper is different from white pepper (not much actually—white pepper is the same black pepper sans its skin). We are demonstrated how good black pepper corns are separated from the chaff using a multi-layered machine. Fun stuff!

Throughout the bus ride, I either read from a novel or look out the window. The road is superbly smooth but there is very little traffic—all I see is the occasional truck or a few cars zipping by. Flanking the road are miles and miles of jungles and now and then, the pattern gets interrupted by pepper gardens and small villages—some seemingly abandoned, other populated.

Two hours later, we make another stop over at a Bidayu native market called Serai. It’s a small own with a wet market and a few shops (I see a KFC too). The wet market is packed with vegetables—along with all the usual tropical veggies, I also spot the wild ferns (that we had eaten the night before at Damai) and a kind of twisted beans. Someone is even selling live maggots.

It’s quite hot but the market swarms with Bidayuh people—they all seem to be so personable and relaxed. Breaking away from the group, I stand facing the open air workshop of a cobbler. All his stuff is by the side of a wall and I see the picture of a sexy girl adorning the wall as a backdrop—the picture must have been torn out of a newspaper or a magazine, I guess. Such a scene would be quite common for roadside eateries in Indian small towns but sexy picture for a cobbler’s wall in Sarawak—that seemed a little unusual. A bevy of local girls in tops and pants pass by me, all giggling at the tourist.

We grab our lunch at a local eatery and the bus moves on. On the way, the bus stops for a few minutes and we are led into a field of wild bushes. Selina shows us the pitcher plants (that eats flies and even small mammals) and wild orchids. Everybody takes out his camera and clicks at these wonders of nature.

After nearly two hours, we stop by another small town. I buy a coke and a pack of smokes—the prices are as good as in Kuching. I have been wondering about the bus ride. It seems longer than promised.

I look far into the horizon. It has now started to drizzle a little bit and the sky is getting overcast with menacing clouds. Some of us buy cheap rain coats—paying RM 5 for a rain pouch. Might come handy for the boat ride to the longhouse, Selina tells us.

By the time we reach the ferry terminal to go to the Iban longhouse, it is nearly four in the afternoon. The longboats are ready. We put on the life jackets and start for the hour long journey in the Batang Ai River to reach the Iban longhouse.

And what a journey it is! The long boats are very low, made of wooden planks, running on fuel. A long boat can seat 4-5 passengers only. Our captains are teenage girls and boys from the Iban community. All of us sit in 4 boats.

The river is deep, wide and meandering, flanked by islets of dense forests. The boats run on full speeds. Sitting on it, I can touch the water on both sides. One sudden jerk, one mistake, and it could all end here. It is dangerous yet liberating, and sometimes the view is so beautiful, it becomes difficult to describe. There is a certain kind of mystery to such experiences. The slow drizzle falls on my face. I can feel the chill of fresh air getting into the pores of my facial skin. In such moments, you feel like surrendering to nature. Come what may but this is one of the most unforgettable moments of my life—that’s the thought that runs through my brain.

After an hour long boat ride, we finally reach the Iban long house, which houses nearly 30 families. Most of the ladies, children and men are sitting in the corridor (Ruai), passing a lazy afternoon. We are welcomed by the chief of the house.

There are not many signs of modern life here—but I see a satellite phone, some posters of Caucasian women, along with those of Jesus and Mary, and a poster from an election campaign. Inside the chief’s house, I see a sofa set, a television set, a DVD player, and a freezer. In the kitchen area, there is a proper wash basin. The guide tells me that only the chief, an ex-Malaysian army man, has such modern amenities, sent by their children who live and work in cities.

Outside the house, we are shown a traditional cock fight and some of us get a chance to handle the blow pipe—the Iban’s weapon of warfare. These blow pipes were used to throw poisoned needles at the enemies.

Meanwhile, the community has prepared rice wine for us. We sit in a semi circle and rice wine is served. If you don’t want to drink, no problem, we are told by our guide, but the tradition is to just dip one of your fingers in the wine glass. Soon follows a musical session and we are entertained by the traditional Iban dance. Some of the travelers join in the revelry. On our way to the longhouse, Selina had bought some gifts for all these families. Those gifts are evenly distributed. Then we take our leave for Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse where we will stay for a night.

This time the boat ride is little shorter but still dangerous as we sail in semi-darkness under the moon light. The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse resort is nested in the jungles of Sarawak, spread in nearly 20 acres. This 15 year old property with 100 rooms, managed by Hilton, is smack in the heart of the land of Ibans, the brave headhunters of Borneo. There are only two ways to come here: river and air—that is you either take a boat or a ferry or fly by a chopper. Heck, the place comes with a real helipad.

As I speak to the manager of the resort, he gives me a background of the area. When the “White Rajahs” attempted to put an end to head-hunting, fierce battles resulted. In the hearts of the native Iban folks, this area is regarded as the heart of Iban territory because this was where their ancestors fought for their beliefs. This area is also in close proximity to the traditional Iban longhouses and the Batang Ai National Park which is home to the Orang utan of Borneo.

The resort is built like a traditional longhouse, with a long vacant gallery between the balcony and bedrooms. In a traditional longhouse, this area is called Ruai—the place for a hive of activities for men and women—a place to make hats, mats, baskets and farming apparatus, and also to tell stories and perform songs and dances.

The Ruai area of longhouses provide a commanding view of the river. Rivers are the highways and lifeblood of the country—and it was through a river that we had only a while ago reached the longhouse of the Ibans.

The resort provides many adventure activities such as fishing, sunset cruises, trips to a traditional longhouse, and trips to waterfalls, among others. They also provide guided nature walks and blow pipe demos. There is also a mini theatre (Panggau Libau Lounge) for video presentations and nature movies. If you are looking for inhouse activities, there are plenty of games to choose from—board games, mahjong, darts, table tennis, volley ball, pool volleyball and water polo—all for prices ranging from RM 25 to 200.

Day 4

My mobile phone alarm wakes me up at 6 am. A good night’s sleep in the Batang Ai Longhouse resort has taken care of the fatigue accumulated over the last few days. My body feels relaxed, my mind is calm as I know that I have enough time to complete my morning rituals—a stroll in the green, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, you know the stuff. Then breakfast and then a massage, that’s the plan.

Another fifteen minutes are gone by the time I get out of the bed. I draw the curtains open. It is still semi-dark outside but it’s tranquil—nature’s peace, with the muted notes from insects and birds singing nature’s songs. With a cup of tea in my hand, I get out of the room. The Ruai (long gallery between the balcony and the bedrooms) is vacant and partially lit, the light coming from some of the open windows in the balcony, overlooking the lake. Some of my travel mates are either still sleeping or getting ready for breakfast. I venture out to the balcony. The day is opening its eyelids but I cannot see the sun yet. The sky is partially clouded. All I can see are green trees (Rose wood, mango, lemon, meranti, many more varieties) and shrubbery, and the meandering lake and mountains beyond them. A soft breeze blows but it is not chilling—just light and pleasant.

A little later, I reach the restaurant for breakfast. Some of my travel mates are already there, eating freshly made omelets and sipping black coffee. I join the group. I too have an omelet that the young chef prepares in a small frying pan right in front of me. Sizzling hot, he transfers the egg to my plate. I also savour the beef bacon and vegetable samosas. I gulp down two cups of coffee and gossip with Calvin and Mr Singh, both travel agents. I ask Mr Singh about the kind of tourism that is being promoted here. Is it adventure tourism? It can be called eco-tourism, says the experienced travel agent. Calvin wants to visit Ladakh in India in a year or two. That sounds great, I tell him. Someone is distributing mosquito patches to others in preparation for the visit to the waterfall. Outside I see some couples and families, all Ang Mohs, taking their breakfast.

I have decided I’m not going to the waterfall. I wanted the experience of a Borneo massage to take home with me. After breakfast and some more photography, I walk to the facility’s wellness centre. Constance, the in-charge of the centre welcomes me. I ask her about the massage: how different it is from other therapies? Unlike other massage systems, she says, the Borneo massage techniques are based on the five elements of nature: earth, wind, fire, water and metal. What the heck does it mean? She gives me Tommy, a boy seemingly just out of his teens. Over the next one hour, Tommy does a good job with his expert hands, leaving my body supple and relaxed.

After the massage and a simple but appropriate lunch, we go for a tree canopy walk for about half an hour and then back on the boats. The bus journey resumes to Kuching. By the time we reach Kuching, night has fallen. We have excellent sea food as dinner and then we check into Holiday Inn to rest for the night. Tomorrow morning, we fly back to Singapore to tell my friends how Sarawak is vastly much more than just pineapples.

All photo credits: Zul Photographer/Zafar Anjum

A short version of this piece appeared in India Se, Singapore (December 2008).

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