Men of the forest

From Mulu to Kuching, the city capital of Sarawak, the name given to the other half of Malaysian Borneo. But still essentially an old British colony, just under a different bloke.

Let’s start with a little history lesson. This time, British military sort James Brooke was invited by the Sultan of Brunei – who formerly laid claim to the land – to sort out the mess that the last administrators had left it in. Brooke was a sort of merchant venturer who had tried to take a slice of the Far East trade pie with limited success. When he inherited 30 grand (which must have been an enormous sum then) he bought a big-assed boat and set sail for Borneo, arriving in 1838 just in time to find the Iban and Bidayuh tribes uprising against the Sultan. More on these tribes later.

I’m not sure what particularly recommended him for the job but he was pretty popular when he took over as governor and is lovingly known as the White Rajah to this day. He succeeded in talking the tribes back round and restoring Sarawak to the Sultan. In particular, his knowledge of the seas meant he was good at quelling the rampant piracy but he was an excellent administrator too and managed to ‘civilize’ Borneo by imposing new systems of law and education.  It was technically an independent kingdom for about 40 years, from 1841 until the British placed it under yet another protectorate arrangement in 1888.

His nephew took the reins when he died, and his son when he too kicked the bucket. They were all admired. probably in large part due to the policy of paternalism to protect the indigenous people from exploitation. A Chinese workforce was encouraged to settle but forbidden from living outside of town – ‘leave the tribes alone’, dear James decreed.

A lot of this history is today displayed in the dusty but relatively informative Sarawak museum in Kuching. I visited to admire the slightly wonky taxidermy, scale models of different long houses and learnt that the Borneo tribespeople were into Prince Albert piercings long before the fetishists. They’ve shifted a lot of the tribal museum info to the Cultural Village, which had such mixed views that I gave it a miss, but you can still see some top trinkets and photos of genuine headhunters. I liked some of the lifestyle information. When people got ill in the jungle, a medicine man was summoned to work out which malevolent spirit it was causing the mischief. Once identified, you simply had to carve a likeness, cast a spell to move the spirit into the effigy et voila. Cured with a bonus memento of your tribulation.

There are loads of museums in Kuching so I steadily toured them. The Women’s Museum is shocking – don’t bother. The Natural History is only good if you have a particular interest in fossilized wood. I don’t, although it was quite cool to see a tree that once stood in its prime 15 MILLION years ago. There is a Cat Museum dedicated to all things even remotely linked to cats – Cat Stevens is in there, believe – simply because Kuching is Malay for cat. I bitterly regret not making it to this one; supposed to be hilariously kitsch. The textile museum is well good, if disorganised. Here I learnt that the Iban wedding ceremony involves passing a chicken over the couple’s head and that adoption is commonplace. The reasons? I know not but I like that it’s so readily acceptable. They have a special bamboo pattern for textiles that symbolises the child’s transplantation into its new family.

Kuching itself is centred around the riverfront, a lovely spot for promenading in day or evening though I’m told that the (mostly Muslim) teenagers in the city centre get a bit bored at night so like to sit here taking pills, sniffing glue and saying ‘hello’ to tourists. Better than 10 pints and a fight, in my opinion. The bazaar lines the street in front selling antiques and curios to tourists while the parliament building crowns the opposite shore in all its modern, golden glory. Back from the water are distinct Chinese and Indian districts along with sprawling suburbs where the real people live. It is an altogether pleasant place to pass the time.

Kuching bazaar

Colorful Kuching. Photoshop your own blue sky in.

Waterboat man. These ply passengers from one bank to the other almost all day and night.

Kuching at sunset

Little India

Local Chinese temple

I had settled into the lovely Threehouse B&B, just off Carpenter Street in China town, run by the delectable Bindi and her Malay boyfriend and pals. Really, honestly a home from home. Plus, what’s great about Sarawak is, unlike Sabah, you can go solo. Kuching acts as a hub for a great many trips that can be taken in a tour with one of the many agents found down at the old courthouse and in the bazaar, or you can just take a bus and go yourself. Hoorah!

One day me and my new Dutch friend Pleuni (known to me as ‘the unpronouncable’ for several days) went to check out the weekend market.

Many many hot, sweaty stalls like this, selling fruit, veg, orchids, pancakes, tat and puppies, amongst other things.

Another day we jumped on the 7.15am bus bound for Semenggoh to visit my ginger cousins, the Orangutans. Orangutan means ‘people of the forest’ in the native tongue and since we share hair tone, I think I can call them my people too. It’s absurdly cheap as a day trip. The 1-hour return bus trip costs 5ringitt and entrance to the feeding is 3ringitt. Total – about £1.50. And they are amaze-balls.

Being on the local bus, a small contingent of us arrived before the main tourist hoards, allowing us to see pregnant Saddam nip in for an early feast. Natural fruit season has just finished so the semi-wild ‘rangas are more inclined to pop in for a free feed at this time of year, like Dubai’s journalists at a frooze. Lucky for us, indeed. A couple of families dropped in to pick up sweet potatoes, papayas and coconuts, messing about swinging in the trees and lumbering within a few metres of the crowds as they did so. This is very much their home and if they decide on a path, rangers quickly herd dumb tourists out of the way so they can pass unimpeded.

Rangas and their breakfast

Swingy swing swing

The tourists are in general spectacularly stupid. I forget how many times the rangers asked the group to ‘keep quiet’ – apparently an impossible instruction – and to not use flash. Diks. Although fairly tolerant of humans, the apes have been known to attack people too, especially those too close or brandishing tempting food.

On another trip, we did an overnighter to Bako national park in search of monkeys and jungle treks. This place is most famous for the cock-nosed proboscis monkeys. I decided to check in for an overnighter to make the most of some of the jungle goodness. You get here by taking a bus to the park depot and a boat from the croc-infested estuary (replete with images of people being savaged by crocs and dead limbs being retrieved from crocodile stomachs, lest you become complacent), across thrillingly high, bumpy waves to the national park peninsula. Feels proper intrepid. In the height of monsoon these waves can get 4-5m high, which must be terrifying as I thought we were going to fall out and they were only a maximum of a metre. Particularly loved our boat-man too.

“Thank-you for coming to my country. If it wasn’t for you visitors, I wouldn’t have a job, so thank-you.” What a nice man.

Once on land we set out to explore a few of the tracks which you are refreshingly allowed to roam without a guide. They’re very well marked and all visitors are required to log their intended route and timings in a book before you set out but they’re still pretty rugged jungle paths, with some crossing over scorching rock and grasslands. This is no Cape Cod walk in the park. We headed for a jungle viewpoint loop and then over to a couple of beaches, seeing on the way monitor lizards, bearded pigs, massive colonies of ants, silver langurs, black macaques and – joy! – proboscis monkeys!


Naughty monkeys indeed. They love to sneak inside and steal cookies.

Proboscis monkey! Has a pendulous nose and permanent erection.

Ants, on their way to somewhere very important.


Root 66. Ba dum dum!

The beach.

Nightfall from HQ

On the way to the bus, a man showed us this creature which he was trying to flog for $20 and seemed to motion that, combined with booze, would make you strong. I’m not sure if that was a euphemism but the creature looked like a heavily armoured crab. Just what *is* it??

What in the world?

So yes, in amongst all the monkeys and museums, my time in Kuching was spent merrily drinking bubble tea and eating lahksa. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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