11.09.2007 - 16.09.2007
Although Malaysian Borneo is a part of Malaysia; Sarawak and Saba provinces have autonomy and therefore are kind of independent of their mother country. Currency is the same, but traditions and language can vary drastically. In fact, Malaysian Borneo has over forty eight different dialects and in many ways is more laid back than the Malaysian peninsula.
Sarawak's Kuching (famous for its cats apparently!), after a three hour flight delay, was the first place I visited in Borneo....It was my first experience of hosteling too. I arrived at the Carpenters Guesthouse around 9pm and found it to be a lovely receptive abode that offered an atmosphere aglow with friendliness and warmth. The staff are keen to assist and the place is newly refurbished and extremely clean. My room was the only private double in a three storey building that has room to accommodate around thirty people....although basic, the room was comfortable and clean, it cost around eight pounds per night and included breakfast.
My three hour flight delay gave me time to take stock and reflect on the past several months... it wasn't a problem being delayed, in fact, it was a good experience. I'd travelled thousands of miles and was now waiting to go to a place many people only dream of. How lucky am I... I thought as I sat there munching a packet of crisps and drinking my Bacardi breezer :-) As I sat there I realised that those fears and feelings of anxiety, previously mentioned, had dissipated. I was no longer apprehensive of arriving in a new country and no longer concerned about not knowing anybody there. I guess those horror stories I'd read in so many travel books had not transpired, least not for me, and South East Asia is indeed a pleasurably pleasant part of the world to discover :-)
The hostel is situated in the old part of town and is only a two minute walk to the waterfront and the Sarawak river. Surveying the area felt a little like stepping back in time and walking the narrow streets is a lovely experience. They're dimly lit by street lights and the local eateries, cafes and chophouses are festooned with Chinese lanterns that illuminate the side walks and give a peaceful, almost calming, glow. The Temple situated on the corner of Carpenter street with its slopping green tiled roofs, red brick walls, golden dragons, smells of incense sticks being offered to Buddha, candles that burn so brightly and the sound of Buddhist chanting made it oh so real....I've landed in Borneo! An almost prehistoric land so filled with culture and tradition that it was mindbogglingly overwhelming.
The Sarawak river cruise is a great experience. I cruised the river with fellow tourists as we were entertained with an exhibition of local traditional dances, served snacks and some of the best punch I'd ever tasted. It was on the cruise that I met Shivvy, a local tribesman who left his village early each morning to guide us tourists on the cruise. His spiel was entertaining and his wit uncannily sarcastic for a non-western person. His self taught use of the English language has been developed by watching TV and studying programmes like Porridge, Benny Hill and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em....it seems that British comedy is re-run and re-run on the cable channels in Borneo. Shivvy eventually wants to be a comedian in one of the larger hotels and offered to show me around after the cruise had ended.
How very nice its been to arrive in a different country, town or city; how very nice its been to be fortunate enough to have a local inhabitant take care of me. It appears that everywhere I've been, so far, I've met someone who has taken to me, and I them, and has shown me around their town ensuring my safety and happiness too :-)
Shivvy was no exception and after we finished the cruise he took me to some of the local popular bars and pointed out places of interest along the way. We ended up at the Cottage pub, a copy of an 'Ole English country pub....a Tudorish looking building complete with stained glass windows and a live band who played every night. I told Shivvy where I was staying and the price I was paying and he told me that he could get me a good deal at a hotel his friend owns. Shivvy left me at the Cottage and went to enquire about the Fata hotel for me.
The Fata hotel, not far from the Carpenters Guesthouse, is a 'proper' hotel and for a pound a night more (including a separate bedroom and bathroom); I checked in the following day.
When Shivvy left the pub the band that played had their break and Rez, the pianist, and I got talking. We too got along real well and he introduced me to Sandra Tay and Eileen. Both Sandra and Eileen are what might be described as 'real women' and reminded me of many of the female friends I have in the UK. They certainly knew how to enjoy themselves and danced and flirted the night away like she devils unleashing their inner inhibitions. Eileen, a large buxom person, was a little more reserved than Sandra ( mind you, only slightly!) and we chatted like we had known each other since childhood. Sandra, on the other hand, is a minx that loved the attention of every male in the bar. Sandra's a very rich business woman who made a fortune selling Viagra to tribesmen, she thought she knew what men like and flaunted herself like there's no tomorrow....each time a male entered the bar she'd gyrate and jangle like pole dancer on heat! Both Sandra and Eileen were disappointed when I disclosed my sexuality....I was relieved!...and like sisters we got along sooooo well and ended up good friends too. Shivvy had returned to the bar and we had a lock-in until around 5am. Shivvy did a bit of his comedy routine, Rez played piano and Mike, the singer, sang some tunes. Sandra, Eileen and a few other girls danced and the three barman and I put the world to rights.
5am and we all went our separate ways, but not before arranging to meet again....and we did several time during my weeks stay, fortunately the nights were not so late! Shivvy and I never saw each other again, but each time I went to the Cottage pub the band would introduce me as their favourite Welshman...bless! On my last night there the barmen has made a collection and presented me with a tiger tooth necklace for good luck. Though I didn't like the idea of the poor tiger having no teeth left, the gesture was overwhelmingly lovely. Sandra, Eileen and I remain in contact and apparently they'll be visiting the UK soon....be warned!
It was late afternoon when I checked in the Fata hotel and the rain was pouring like a very wet weekend in Manchester. Although the rain poured slowly at first it soon turned torrential. You may think the day was a washout, but it wasn't. You see, I was in Borneo surrounded by rainforest and the rain here's not miserable, it's exiting and loud. Thunder roared and lightening struck the dark cloudy sky, rain drops didn't just pitter patter on my hotel room windows, they beat the sound of a marching bands drum. I laid on the bed and fell asleep, nursing my hangover, to its soothing sound and when I awoke, day had turned to night and the conditions had changed from wet to a cooling breeze...my brain had recovered sufficiently enough to take a stroll along the waterfront.
The waterfronts a gathering ground for tourists and locals alike, it's peppered with cafes, bars and a myriad of stalls selling locally made handicraft. It comes alive in the early evening and continues to grow until midnight, when, it's like all of a sudden, there's only romancing couples strolling along hand in hand or canoodling on one of the kissing benches that the litter the walkway. I often ate dinner just watching it all unfold. Watching the water taxis ferry people back and forth the adjacent island, seeing cruising ships pass with the decks glowing with a multitude of coloured lights, and the occasional sound of a local buskers music would drift in and out of my ears with a metronomic quality that enhanced a feeling of tranquility and euphoria.
Kutchings Sarawak museum must have employed every taxidermist in Borneo at one time or another, the place is steeped with stuffed animals, birds and sea creatures....the displays of shells and pinned butterflies are outstanding too. With its dusty shelves and aroma like a library; it logs the provinces tribal roots in displays that captivate ones imagination. Like being in Dr Who's tardis; I was taken on an adventure that afforded insight into the growth of Kutchings evolution. Death masks and head hunters paraphernalia are hung like 'beware' signs and traditional dress wear is laid out as if time stood still. Life size replicas of longhouses fill the upper floors showcasing implements and materials that are still used by traditional tribesmen and women today. The skulls and skeletons honestly made me wonder if my safety would be negated in this land where voodooism is still practiced and witch doctor are held in such high esteem.
Across the bridge, from the above, is the Islamic museum where the story of Mohammed is told. It's an ornate structure that provides the story of this religions beginnings utilising pictures, maps, photographs and translated scrolls. The inside is sumptuously decorated and gold leaf drips from the walls therein. Its educational aspect promulgates Islams belief in the five pillars of its community and is a must for anyone who wants, as I do, to explore the complexities of contemporary religious belief systems.
A water taxi ride across the river introduced me to the magnificent Wisma park. A park that sees wildlife, flora and fauna flourish in its grounds. Birds of many colours and sizes swoop and dive in its reservoir to obtain a meal or two and the symphony of flowers provided a visual feast for the onlookers eyes that's back dropped by an ocean of many shades of green on the bushes and trees that blanket the area.
I loved visiting Kutching and after a week that seemed to fly by.....I flew to Kota Kinabalu, Northwest Borneo.