Kuching, Sarawak. Sunday 5th November, 2017.
Kuching is the main city of Sarawak and I arrived there following a very civilised ride from Sarian, along a smooth dual carriageway. I saw very few scooters, although they seemed to have been replaced by very old cars as the typical transport of the less well off. Everything looked well ordered, with neat looking buildings on well laid out roads. The Chinese influence was very obvious, as witnessed by the shop signs and types of business. People looked far better fed (quite a few ‘fatties’ around) and better off than in Indonesia and the whole aura of this part of Borneo spoke of a developed and economically successful country. I stayed in Kuching for five days, spending some of that time sorting out gear I needed for the bike, which involved some heavy duty walking. I eventually managed to get the things I needed, including a new pair of riding gloves, having pretty much worn out the old ones. I found a place where I could get my bike washed too, an essential job after the often muddy roads of Kalimantan. With regard to tourist hotspots, this what I managed to see.
Kuching lies near to Sarawak’s northern coast, as do most of its other towns. The interior is mostly mountain and rain forest although there’s also plenty of rubber and palm tree plantations. The city is slightly up river, straddling the banks of the Sungai Santubong. It has a very nice esplanade on the south bank, with plenty of cafés and stalls. Pedestrian access to the opposite bank is easy, cheap and interesting. There are small boats that ferry people across for the princely sum of one Ringhitt, less than twenty pence. A touch of tradition in a modern city.
On the other side lies the modern and striking state government assembly building. Close by is an old and modest fort, with a story to tell that’s far more fascinating than any of the ramblings the nearby politicians might produce. So here goes.
Have you ever heard of the White Rajah? Me neither. I’ve heard the title used to refer, probably ironically, to Raj officials in India, but not of a specific one. Since the early 17th century the British East India Company had been trading throughout Maritime South East Asia, and had been very successful, eventually controlling most of the Indian Sub-Continent. This encouraged many men to seek their fortune in the area. One such was a man of good family named James Brooke, a young adventurer and explorer. He used an inheritance to buy a schooner and sailed it to the north west coast of Borneo, an area then ruled by the Sultan of Brunei. The Sultan was facing rebellion from the local Malay population and he struck a deal with Brooke to gain his help. He promised the area around Kuching would be his to rule over provided he helped him defeat the rebels. This he did and became known as The White Rajah of Sarawak.
Over the ensuing years he extended the land under his control and took steps to quell the warring tribes that lived in the area. His other fight was against piracy, leading to some accusations of excessive force against the natives. He also encouraged immigration from China and elsewhere, thereby creating a rich trading nation, taking advantage of local resources, such as Antimony. He set up legal systems which incorporated the customs of the various local tribes and immigrant groups, enabling them to ‘buy in’ to his governance. The ruling body was dominated by local representatives, although Brooke would not allow some of the more cruel tribal punishments to continue. Brooke and his descendants always saw their duty as being that of ‘beneficial trustees’, acting on behalf of those they ruled over. Former enemies were encouraged to take part in various sporting competitions as a substitute for killing each other. His nephew succeeded him upon his death and the family continued to rule the area until the Japanese invasion of WW2. Generally speaking, a benign rule across more than one hundred years. After the war Sarawak became a British colony, then a protectorate, finally becoming part of Malaysia when that country won independence.
This story was told inside Margherita Fort which, although having been built for defence against pirates, never had to use its cannons in anger. It was constructed in 1879 and refurbished recently to provide a home for the museum. Spread over three floors, there was plenty to read and enjoy and I thought it was a fascinating story. Much more info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Rajahs
and here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Sarawak
One morning I took a ride out, firstly to another Orang Utan sanctuary and then to Bako National Park. The sanctuary isn’t large but it has a small population of Orang Utans, some of whom came down to feed, to the delight of the coached-in hordes of tourists. With a couple of crocodiles to stare at too, the place is definitely a city dweller’s delight on their ‘day out seeing nature’. Neither the Orang Utans or the crocs seemed to care too much one way or the other.
Bako National Park lies on the coast and can only be reached by a boat which, at low tide, dropped me within wading distance of the shore. I could have done with a whole day there really, or even a couple. There are many small islands that can be explored and trails through the forest of varying length. I arrived around midday and with the last boat back due to leave soon after 3pm, I set off on my eight kilometre hike. It doesn’t sound very far, but I’d forgotten how tough these trails can be. This one climbed up steep, rocky steps; across rocky and treeless escarpments; along wooded paths, where tree roots twisted and wound their way across the ground and seemingly around your feet too. I was puzzled at first by all these above ground roots until I realised that the soil probably isn’t very deep so the roots go wherever they need to in their search for water and stability. And that was one thing that certainly wasn’t in short supply. About two thirds of the way around the sky reminded me why it’s called ‘rain forest’ by dropping huge amounts of it on my head. I could do nothing other than plough on, eventually getting back to base in time for the last group of boats. With regard to wildlife I’d seen a Proboscis Monkey scrambling noisily across a tin roof and a wild boar snuffling around the accommodation blocks, looking for a snack. Not as successful as I’d hoped for in that respect, but I enjoyed the physical challenge anyway.
The hostel in which I stayed was usefully located in an area which specialised in cheap accommodation. This also meant cheap cafés and bars. A Sri Lankan restaurant provided me with a very nice lamb shank and the café next door had a nice ‘campur’ (mixture) arrangement so I could help myself to whatever I fancied, all for not much money. A bar called The Bear Garden intrigued me and it’s so named because 50% of the profits go to support a bear sanctuary. It was here I discovered one of Malaysia’s paradoxes. Although nominally a Muslim country, alcohol is freely available but at a very inflated price. It seems that Malaysia has the third highest alcohol tax in the world, at 15%, meaning that social drinking is very expensive. Fortunately, these days, I’m not all that bothered about drinking, especially the rubbish that masquerades as beer in this part of the world. So once I’d tried a couple I saved my money and didn’t bother any more. It definitely seems wrong to be paying more for the beer than for the meal you drink it with.
I had a look around the Chinese History museum, housed in a building on the waterfront which formerly housed the courthouse, then the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. It focusses on the Chinese families and their commercial activities in this area. It details the immigration routes, early commercial activity and the way in which the White Rajah allowed them to pretty much rule themselves within the general sphere of his governance. What’s certain is that they’re an industrious lot.
My last cultural visit before leaving Kuching was to the Cat Museum. Yes, a museum dedicated to cats – and why not? It’s housed in a very futuristic looking building, reminding me of an interstellar space craft, whose main function seems to be as an administration centre for the local authority. And the museum was as quirky as the building. Followers of feline affairs would definitely find favour with this place. There were some large cat statues by the entrance, just to set the tone to ‘fun’.Then there was a display of various (stuffed) wild cats native to Malaysia, some now extinct. There was a history of the significance of cats through the ages, followed by many examples of cats in films and films with cat references in their titles – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof springs to mind. Lots of posters and cat cartoons. A brief history of Garfield’s development as a cartoon character. Cat based statues and trinkets. And much more besides. A funky and flamboyant feline funhouse, with several thousand exhibits. I enjoyed it very much. But why is it there? Well, ‘Kucing’ (with the ‘c’ pronounced as ‘ch’) is Malaysian for cats, so it’s a very apt location. There are also a couple of large cat statues in the city centre, just to act as a taster.
Time to leave Kuching and head east, towards Brunei. There were some miles to be crunched on the way. I was aiming for Niah Caves, one of those ‘must do’ destinations on the tourist trail. Google Map’s thick blue line showed a route that went along the coast rather than the main road further south. Someone commented that they must have built a new road through there but that line often hides all kinds of additional information, as innocent drivers have sometimes found to their cost. Like, for example, that I had to use ferries to get across three of the area’s many rivers. I spent a total of two hours twenty minutes on, or waiting for, them, one of which took fifty minutes to cross a large estuary. Best of all was that they were entirely free. But to my surprise the eleven hours Google quoted was an accurate estimate to cover the 630kms involved. Those back roads were mostly good, mostly straight and mostly empty of traffic. There were far more bikes than cars to be seen out in the countryside and I was riding through areas heavy in palm oil and banana plantations, as well as other agriculture, type unknown. I was grateful to Google for that route as it was far more interesting than the main road would have been and it was a credit to the Sarawak road engineers that I still made good time.
I did eventually leave the minor roads and join the main route, but that was plagued by roadworks anyway, not only slowing me down but also coating my newly cleaned bike in mud. It was a long day in the saddle and I was seriously missing my recently demised Airhawk seat cushion, it having suffered non-repairable punctures.
The hotel I stayed in near the caves was above a café and they insisted I bring my bike inside overnight. That meant a 6am alarm call as I had to take my bike back out when they opened. But the breakfast was nice and it meant I was away to Niah Caves quite early.These caves are famous for two reasons. The first is that for hundreds of years local people have been going there to collect birds nests. But for what? Fuel? Eggs? Ornaments? None of these. The answer is soup. That very famous soup beloved of the Chinese and named after its main ingredient. I’ve never tried it, not really fancying a mouthful of straw and bird droppings, but at Niah I learned what it’s really all about. The birds that live in these caves are called Swiftlets, tiny birds which build their nests on the underside of the cave roof. They secrete a special ‘glue’ which holds the nest together as well as to the cave roof. It is this secretion which goes into the soup and gives it its flavour. The Chinese reckon it to be very nutritious as well as having special health giving properties. Harvesting is carried out once the breeding season is over. These days government permits are issued and each section of the cave roof is owned by somebody. They have to climb a long ladder, suspended from the cave roof and consisting of just one pole, then scrape the nest off the roof with a special tool. Fortunately the end product is very valuable – around $2,000 per kilo – so the reward is worth the risk. The tens of thousands of birds share the caves with a similar number of bats, so guano is another valuable commodity. The second reason for the caves’ fame is that archaeologists discovered 40,000 year old human remains in there, making them the oldest ever found in these islands. At that time Borneo was joined to the mainland, which explains how they made the journey.
These two aspects made for a fascinating morning’s walk. Initially I had to take a ferry across a narrow river, then walk for about 45 minutes along an often slippery board walk and concrete pathway, through thick rainforest. Plenty of insects around but no sight of the larger animals I could hear among the trees. Some of the trees were very tall and had huge buttress roots. Most of the nutrients in rainforests are close to the surface so the roots don’t go very deep. Pometia pinnata is a species which has developed this method, giving them the support they need for their height and size. There were also Mangrove trees, thriving in the wet and muddy ground.
The first cave is known as Traders’ Cave because the buyers used to meet the nest gatherers there. Further in are the huge caves where the nests can be found. They have roofs at least sixty metres from the ground and the mast-type ladders can be seen hanging down, waiting for the brave? Foolish? Desperate? collectors to climb. I watched one guy making a new scraper but he wouldn’t let me take a photo. Further in, the board walk took me into other caves where my torch was needed to find the way in the pitch black. Caution was essential on the slippery wood and maybe gloves would have been useful as the handrails were stained with droppings. Atmospheric and eerie, for sure, with the sound of flying creatures as company. I could see the occasional light of a nest collector over in the distance as I walked through. Eventually I came out into daylight and the path then led me to another cave where there were some very old rock paintings. Fascinating to see but very difficult to interpret as they were so faded from age. I walked back to the cave entrance by a different route and once I was back in the light I could see the natural beauty of the rock near the cave entrance. A multitude of shades of colours gave these rocks a beauty far greater than any cave painting could possess. What with the eeriness of the inner caves, the ever present Swiftlets flitting about, the bats hanging from the roofs and the beauty of the rock, I came away feeling I had visited somewhere very special. On the way back out I called in at the archaeology museum to learn more about the work surrounding the discovery of the ancient human remains. What a fascinating place, and here’s a couple of links to more info:
https://tinyurl.com/y95lfswp and https://tinyurl.com/zp6xfvc
An overnight stop in the town of Miri was unremarkable apart from falling foul of Malaysia’s ridiculous Foreign Tourist Tax. Hotels are supposed to add MR10 per night (about £2) to the price of all rooms. This can amount to quite a high percentage on a cheap room, often as much as 20%. But they’ve started applying it to hostel beds too. In Miri that made a MR32 bed into a MR42 one, an increase of a third. It might not be so bad if it was a percentage of the cost rather than a fixed amount. The hostels and hotels have no say in the matter and the money goes straight to the government anyway. But it doesn’t get applied everywhere, fortunately, although the booking websites often don’t make it clear which do and which don’t. What do tourists get back for it? I have no idea. I think it’s just easy money for the government.
After a late start, due to early morning rain, I got to the border and entered the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. That word means ‘abode of peace’ and Brunei lived up to it. Another country with European levels of sophistication, this tiny oil-rich state, and former British colony, was a pleasant place to visit for a couple of days. Once I’d stopped in the first town I came to for some local currency, I headed into the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short. It took me a while to find a hostel, thanks to inaccurate Google map information, but I did in the end. ‘Sophistication’ also means no roadside warungs for cheap food so I had to use a convenience store for some pot noodle and tins of fish. I know how to live it up!
My hostel wasn’t too far from the city centre so I spent the next day walking around seeing the sights. There weren’t all that many really. First was the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. Built by the current Sultan to celebrate his twenty five years in power, it is simply massive. Because he is the 29th ruler in his dynasty it has twenty nine golden domes and can hold 4,000 worshippers inside its massive prayer room. I was able to look around inside, once I’d suitably attired in a black robe, and was very impressed by its size and the quality of the materials used. Full of highly varnished hardwood, marble and stained glass, with exquisite chandeliers. Fit for a King without doubt. Its greatest beauty is from the outside though, and the gardens surrounding it are equally stunning.
The second mosque I looked at was the Omar’Ali Saifuddien, built by the current Sultan’s father to celebrate, as much as anything else, the country’s independence from Britain. I didn’t go inside this one, especially as it was prayer time, so I just admired it from outside along with the replica royal barge moored on the adjacent lake. If it’s possible to have a favourite type of religious building then I think mosques fit the bill. A simplicity of design coupled with an appealing degree of external decoration are what does it for me, although I’m no fan of what goes on inside them or any other religious building.
Nearby was a museum dedicated to the Royal Regalia, an exhibition relating to the current Sultan, particularly his Silver Jubilee. Inside is a huge display containing the large platform on which he was wheeled through the streets among admiring crowds, pulled along by about one hundred men. Displays of the many gifts he received through the years occupied the rest of the space. There were plenty of photos of the Sultan and I noticed that he tended to wear cowboy boots a lot. To be fair, he is a bit on the short side and this is probably the reason. But I have to say I quite like a guy who wears cowboy boots to state occasions.
Next door was the Brunei History Centre, covering the country’s early history up to the arrival of the Europeans. Then I walked down to the waterfront and gazed across at Kampong Ayer, a village built on stilts over the river. It may be an interesting place to visit but it’s mostly a tourist trap now so I wasn’t too worried about missing it out. But I did trip over a more fascinating place. An exhibition about Brunei and Singapore’s fifty years of shared currency. I’d never heard of this (I suppose you could say ‘why would I?’) but it seems that two countries, one a secular democracy, the other a Muslim Sultanate, have had their currencies tied together for all that time. It works in the same way as England and Scotland and means you could take your Brunei Dollars and spend them in shops in Singapore, and vice versa. It leads to all sorts of other close relationships too, such as in education, trade and so on. It began in 1967, after independence from Britain, and initially included Malaysia, but they dropped out in 1973. Two such different countries seem to make strange bedfellows but it clearly works. The exhibition also covered Brunei’s post WW2 history, so it was a lucky find.
I’d had it in mind to travel further eastwards and visit the region of Sabah. There are some very good biking roads there, I’d been told, as well as some striking terrain. The problem was that this journey involved crossing back into Malaysia, then into Brunei again (the country is split into two sections) then back to Malaysia. And then repeat the process coming back. Some of that could be avoided by taking a ferry but it was still a huge amount of hassle and anyway, I didn’t really have the time. Another thing that prevented this was that I had to meet a journalist in the town of Miri, back along the route I’d already ridden. Mary, one of the other residents at the hostel in Kuching, had contacts at the Borneo Post, Sarawak’s English language newspaper. She thought my story might interest them and they agreed. So having decided to head back the way I came, I’d agreed to meet their local journalist at a shopping mall in the town.
An early start got me there forty five minutes late. Not early enough, clearly. But Jude didn’t mind and we had a long chat over coffee, with him using his phone to record it. No shorthand notebooks in this day and age it seems. He asked me about the journey; what inspired me to undertake it; why use a motorcycle; what I had learned etc. The end result appeared a couple of weeks later and can be found here, if you fancy a look: http://www.theborneopost.com/2017/12/10/motorbiking-round-the-world/
After that little interlude it was just a case of riding hard to cover distance. It was now Wednesday and I needed to get all the way back to Kumai, in Indonesian Kalamantan, by the weekend in order to stand a chance of getting that elusive ASDP ferry back to Semerang, in Java. I stopped overnight in the town of Sabu, then across the border into Indonesia where I overnighted in a small town whose name I forget. But there was one thing of note, potentially a game changer, that happened on that journey. I pulled up at one point to put on my rain jacket and as I pulled away I heard a strange noise. I thought I’d left the side stand down but when I heard it again later I realised it was the chain jumping over the front sprocket. A close examination showed that it was, ahem, seriously knackered. The chain was very slack but once adjusted, the bike ran alright. I had to adjust it a few more times but I was both pleased and surprised that I got back to the town of Pangkalan Bun with no real drama, checking in to the hotel I’d used last time.
Now I had two tasks to complete. Get myself onto that elusive ghost ferry if I could, and get my chain problems sorted out. You’d think the first would be easy and the second would be a challenge. Not so. Completely the other way round, in fact. Having located the ASDP agent last time I was in Kumai, I went there again with high hopes. I asked him when their ferry to Semerang was due to leave and he told me Sunday. He quoted me around IRP600,000 for myself and the bike, half the price I’d paid to come over. It was looking good until he got on the phone to make the booking. “The next ferry leaves on Sunday the 26th” he told me. Today was Saturday the 18th. Bugger! I’d finally found the ferry but had fallen at the last hurdle. It seemed it simply hadn’t come over that weekend. Cursing my luck I headed down to the agent for DLU ferries and booked myself onto the one that left at 8pm Sunday, at twice the price. It would be a twenty seven hour crossing so I also booked myself into a hostel in Semerang. Hunting for somewhere to sleep at midnight did not appeal.
Sorting out the chain was easy. I went back to the bike shop I’d used before and they helped me get the rear wheel off the ground. I’d already watched a You Tube video of how to change the front sprocket. It looked straight forward and that proved to be the case. On my bike it’s necessary to remove the swinging arm to gain access, but this is easily done and the whole job took about an hour, with a bit of assistance from the owner. How much did all this cost? Nothing. They refused to take any money and said that if I ever needed any help, just call in. Wonderful!
Bike shop owner and his wife, AKA ‘The Boss’. (Note progress of the two month beard.)
I was able to hang around at my hotel most of the next day, killing time by catching up on some writing. I got chatting to the helpful lad who works on reception and asked him about his job. He’s nineteen and is waiting to go to Uni. He works around ten hours every day and gets paid IRP2,000,000 per month. That’s sounds like a tidy sum but actually translates to around £60. Peanuts really, but work comes cheap in this part of the world.
That evening I headed down to the terminal in Kumai, got my bags onboard early so I could claim the same cosy corner I’d had on the way over, then watched the fun as the crew loaded twelve trucks into the hold, followed by some cars and scooters, plus Trixie. I was impressed by how skilfully this was done and generally impressed by the competence of the whole crew. Indonesian ferries don’t have a very good reputation following some disasters at sea, but I felt reassured by these guys. The voyage itself went smoothly. No dramas on the high seas to delay us this time. We docked about an hour late, at midnight, and once I’d got my bike back on dry land I quickly found the hostel, where I settled into my capsule style bed for a decent night’s sleep. I’d really enjoyed my visit to Borneo but regretted its short duration. But having contacted the shipping agent in Penang, I now had a deadline to direct my actions. I needed to be in Kuala Lumpur before Christmas and had to get my bike on a ship from Medan, Sumatra, on the 11th December, the last pre-Christmas sailing date. The journey west would now continue with a purpose.