After this four-day trip though, I can tell you a lot more ☺
Borneo is a very big island to the east of the Malaysian peninsula, which belongs to Malaysia, little Brunei and Indonesia. It is reputed to be the oldest rainforest in the world (1.5 million years old) and the second largest by size, second to the Amazon.
In the north you will find the states of Sarawak and Sabah, which are part of Malaysia, and the small country of Brunei. Indonesia’s Kalimantan region is to the south and encompasses the major part of the island.
Our excellent tour guide Matthew, who was a Sarawak local, said that the name Borneo originates from the words ‘buah neo’, which in a local Sarawak dialect means fruit of the coconut. The story goes that when the British settlers came to Borneo a few centuries ago, they wanted to know what was the name of the local fruit they saw, the so called coconut. And since they had a hard time pronouncing ‘buah neo’, it soon became borneo, which is what they ended up calling the island.
Did you know that Borneo is also the home of the Orang Utan? If you knew that, how about the origin of the name?? ‘Orang Utan’ means man of the forest, just like ‘Oran Banda’ means man of the city. Even though, unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to spot them in the wild, there are several centres that rescue them from captivity and rehabilitate them in their natural habitat. You will totally understand our origin when you see how they interact and look at you while eating their breakfast.
We went there for 4 days, which is an excellent long weekend trip to get out of the concrete jungle of Singapore. It is hard to believe that within an hour’s flight away from Singapore, you can be immersed in complete nature, wild and beautiful.
It’s a given that in 4 days you will not see the whole island, but you will be able to get a good idea of what a rainforest feels and sounds like and how the locals live in harmony with their surrounding habitat. Did I also mention all the fresh air that you can breathe?
And last but not least, Sarawak is great value for your money. You won’t be disappointed.
This is what I propose for a 4-day getaway to Sarawak:
HOW TO GET THERE
Paris Hilton would be very proud of us, since we stayed primarily in the Hilton hotels. We were in Sarawak for three nights, and we chose to stay in a different city every night.
This hotel is a typically outfitted Hilton, located in the main city of Sarawak, Kuching. It’s centrally located right on the riverfront, with the bazaar and its many shops right next to it. If you’re going to stay here, ask for the rooms facing the Sarawak river which passes right below, for the view is much prettier that the side facing the city. They have a nice pool which will come in handy for the hot and very humid afternoons.
There was also a Crowne Plaza next door, and supposedly Sheraton is also building a property here.
Unlike the standard looking Kuching Hilton, this one is a very unique property for it’s built on the shores of a dammed lake in the shape of local longhouses and surrounded by jungle. It’s a fair drive from Kuching, taking about 3.5 hours to arrive. Plus you have the 20 min ferry crossing to get there.
The property is very isolated and peaceful, although somehow you don’t really get the sense that you’re in the middle of a jungle. It has a beautiful pool area and great open dining areas. But one night, two max, is all you really need.
Well, if you want an over-the-top property concept, this one has got to be it.
Imagine: after a 60km drive from Kuching you’re dropped off at a gated entrance at the foot of a hill where you have to wait for a transfer. The transfer takes you up a perilously steep 20 km road to reach the resort, perched on a 2071 hectares property 1000m above the ground. The hills surrounding the area are covered with rainforest. It’s incredibly lush and green, with beautiful vistas. At the summit you will find the Borneo Highlands Resort, along with mostly empty properties where one can construct their own villa, an 18 hole golf course, the former prime minister’s summer home, lakes, ponds, tea houses and vegetable gardens all set amidst spectacular scenery.
When you actually see how inaccessible this place is, and when you realize what they have built, and the concept that they’re trying to actualize and market, you will see that the project is a very ambitious one.
So if you do go there what should you do? I’m not a golfer, but I have to say that as we drove around all the 18 holes in a golf cart, I could see that this must be a golfing paradise, each hole being surrounded with lush thick forest. I do hope though, that you don’t loose too many balls, for I would not dare to venture into the thick bush surrounding the course to retrieve them.
The air is very fresh at the summit, a very comfortable 18 – 28 degrees all year round. I also highly recommend the morning jungle walk, where you will walk to a magnificent lookout point onto the Kalimantan region in Indonesia. Mind you, beware of the leeches. When we finally came to the lookout, we noticed that both of us had leeches ‘sucking the blood out of us’. Funny enough, I had always felt uneasy about them, although I have trekked in many places where I knew they reside. But they really were and looked harmless, although the thought of what they were up to is definitely not the most pleasant one. Just make sure you don’t pull them off if they get ‘stuck’ to you. You’re to apply salt onto them so that they release the grip from your skin, and then they will fall off. Where you’re to find salt in the rainforest is another question.
We also had a wonderful massage by two local ladies. They did a scrub, a whole-body massage which included standing on our backs and finished off with a wonderful facial with real cucumbers and grated carrots. All 100% natural ingredients. It was divine!
I don’t know if this project is sustainable in the long-run, for it is very ambitious and must be considerably expensive to build. And I can’t even imagine how one was to get a decent return on investment on such a development. But it is an incredible experience with the locals showing wonderful hospitality and the nature being simply stunning. From the rose-petals that they throw in front of you as you walk from the transfer van into the lobby, to the breakfast under a wooden pergola overlooking the jungled hills of Borneo, the experience was nothing less than exhilarating.
THINGS TO DO
When you see them observe you while they’re eating, you will understand that our lineage has got to be the same!
This centre is only a 45 min drive from Kuching and well worth a visit. The Semenggoh Orang Utan Centre is placed in a 740 hectare forest, where the Orang Utans roam freely while they’re being rehabilitated in their natural environment. The feeding times, which happen twice a day (0900 and1530), is when you will get a chance to see our cousins. I think they said there were 24 Orang Utans located in this centre, and out of those we saw 9. Not bad!
As you’re standing under a canopy of trees in 100% humidity, you will suddenly spot the ruffling of distant leaves on a tree. That precedes the actual viewing of the Orang Utans, as they slowly swing, climb and move closer to the feeding platform. We saw mothers with their babies clinging on, mischevious little ones swinging all over the place and the two dominant males, Ritchie and George. Ritchie being THE one in the clan, at a ripe age of 27. Our guide Matthew told us that unlike dogs, where you multiply their age by 7 to get human years, with Orang Utans, the multiplier is 2. This would make Ritchie about 50.
Besides Orang Utans you also have a chance to see other animals, although they are kept in cages. This includes crocodiles and other little monkeys that are still too young to be released into the wild.
Of course, though, nothing compares to your interaction with the almighty Orang Utan!
If you want to see how the local tribes live in Borneo, then a longboat trip down a river to visit local settlements is what you need to do.
On our drive back from Batang Ai Hilton resort, actually not far from that resort, we stopped at a river where a forest green longboat and its driver were waiting for us. The longboat, as its name suggests, is very long and very narrow, however, surprisingly stable. As we propel down the river under the lush green canopy, all I could think of is of a snake falling down from the branches and into my T-shirt ☺
Slowly you approach a local village where the boat comes to a stop and you get a chance to spy on the locals and to see how they really live.
The longhouse is the typical family house structure in this part of Borneo. We were told that as the family expands through marriage, they keep adding a section to the house in order to accommodate the new family. Thus the name longhouse, which can actually be really long. What we didn’t realize is that this is not just simply adding a house to the side of the previous one, like the western concept of row houses. Let me see if I can explain this. If you’re to cut the house vertically down the line of the roof, what you would find is that the front half is actually an open, communal area running down the length of the longhouse, while the other half is where the individual homes of the families are located side-by-side. Thus each longhouse contains, in addition to the private living space, one big open area where the families socialize, where the kids play, where celebrations are held. I must say that this is an ingenuous use of space and very much conducive to communal living, where kids are raised by the village inhabitants and not just by their parents. This is in stark contrast to western living, where families predominantly try to keep to themselves within a neighbourhood.
Each community has a tribe leader, something like the dominant male in the Orang Utan kingdom, and various other committee members that help run the daily operations of the commune. Both women and men share in running the activities, and the commune seemed to be organized in a very gender balanced manner. Surprisingly, a very democratic structure.
Did I mention that these communes also have head hunters? Well they did, up to 200 years ago. Now you will only see the remnants of these head hunters, namely skulls which were collected as trophies between warring neighbouring tribes.
Besides visiting the longhouses, we also viewed the surrounding gardens, animal sheds, saw a local war dance and tried out tuak, a potent rice wine. We also had a chance to try shooting darts with a blow-pipe, and thankfully today there is no need for that survival skill for already aiming at a papaya from 10 metres was a considerable challenge!
What surprised me during this visit? As we went into the chief’s private home, one of the rooms was covered in posters: Jesus, Indian movie stars and Beckham! No place is ever too isolated for the reach of global popular culture!
We love kayaking. We love water and also the fact that from water level, the surrounding flora and fauna look totally different than from the back seat of a car. Plus it’s great exercise and loads of fun.
We did a 3 hour, 15 km trip down a river which was not physically strenuous. You’re going down stream (thank god), stopping in a local village, as well as for lunch and a swim. Our guide was Francis Ho, a very talkative and entertaining Malaysian guide. To offset his busy week job as an architect, he decided to also do something fun and thus opened a kayaking company on the side. You should definitely have him show you around while kayaking down the rivers of Borneo.
Here are his details:
Tel: 082 253 005
Mobile: 013 811 9669
> Walk through Kuching
I think you only need a good day to see Kuching. The part that we found the most interesting is the walk down the Sarawak river in the city centre. You can get lost in the adjacent bazaar with myriads of shops. If you love Indonesian style furniture, we found several beautiful stores with exemplary pieces and very well priced. As usual, the problem is how to get all the big pieces back home!!
> Pepper garden
If you’re driving around the country side, make sure you ask your driver to stop and show you all the local trees and plants. You will sometimes be surprised to find out how everyday items like cocoa, pepper, palm oil seeds, ginger root and the dozens of fruits that we consume actually grow. No, they do not come from the aisle of your local supermarket but actually grow on trees, under ground and on plants. I certainly didn’t know what the ginger plant looks like and that pineapples do not grow in trees.
There are also many rubber trees in Sarawak, so if you’ve never seen how they collect the white latex milk from the bark that is then transformed into rubber, make sure you stop and take a look.
> Town of Serian
Likewise, there are also many small towns as you drive around the countryside. I had imagined Sarawak to be more sparsely populated. However, at least where we went (along the roads and waterways), there was always signs of civilization, no matter how small the scale. One town that we stopped at on the way to Batang Ai Hilton was called Serian. There they had a daily market where you could find all the farmers from the surrounding towns selling their many fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. Make sure you walk around one of these markets to experience the local culture. And do try the pancakes with nuts inside … yummy!
The first day when we arrived, we decided to go for a walk in Kuching and found ourselves starving. If you want to be a bit on the wild side, you can try one of the many local eateries that are scattered around the many streets in Kuching centre.
However, I was starving and thus not feeling very adventurous, and ended up sitting in a beautiful restaurant right on the Sarawak river, and just minutes away from the Hilton. It was called John Brooks (I think), but you can’t really miss it. It’s got an open design, with lots of local art scattered around, and right across the street from the back entrance to the Hilton. We sat on the terrace under a much needed fan for it was boiling hot. The place had good local food and was very inexpensive.
The one evening we were in Kuching, we went to a great restaurant called the Junk Restaurant. It is located on Wayang Street, again not far from the Hilton. By now you must have figured out that the Hilton hotel is the centre of Kuching! We had a great fried fish platter that was not greasy at all. Beware though, for the servings are huge and we could have easily shared the fish platter with four. Instead we both had to finish one!!! By the end of the dinner we met the owner, who was a young guy and whose name I cannot remember. He told us that he has several restaurants and bars in the vicinity and asked us if we wanted to see them. He was so energetic and exuberant that we simply said yes. The other places he owns and runs are called the Living Room, Bla, Bla, Bla and Havana and they are definitely worth a visit. For one, the design is superb. Very loungy, with water features, fish swimming under your feet and great table designs. But if the food was anything like in the Junk restaurant, you will not be disappointed. A must in Kuching!
Our tour guide’s name was Matthew and he was excellent. He is a local and knows a lot about the jungle, the local community, the history of the place and never runs out of stories. Just ask him what the ‘SLOW’ road sign that you see everywhere actually means! He will impress you with his knowledge on local plants and trees, and with his stories outlining how the communities in Sarawak live hand-in-hand with nature.
You can contact him through Mayflower, which is a Malaysian Tour Operator. Our contact there is:
Bojan Tercon, Date of trip: October 2007