Exploring Borneo: Serawak Style

We were spending almost 2 weeks in Malaysia on our trip. We started out in  Sarawak which is one of the states of Malaysia and is the largest of the Malaysian states located on the island of Borneo–an island that the country shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

Although Serawac, along with Saba, voluntarily chose to become part of Malaysia, Sarawacians still refer to themselves as Sarawacians, rather than as Malaysians. They are ery proud of their heritage.

Kuching City

We began our exploration of a sliver of Sarawac in Kuching, the capital of the state and its largest city, with about 600,000 people. From what we read, Kuching is the city to which people from Brunei go to party as Brunei has little alcohol and little nightlife. From what we saw, it seems like a nice city in which to raise a family. We’ll leave it to someone else to determine whether or not these are inconsistent.

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In any case, it’s a pleasant city with an esplanade that is lit up and filled with families in the evening, and a nice view across the river to a hilltop fort designed to look like an English castle, the Astana governor’s palace and the gold-domed state assembly building.

The downtown area also has a few “historic” shopping streets. The Main Bazar, located across from the Esplanade, consists largely of tourist shops, many selling T-shirts that extol the virtues of Kuching or Sarawac. Of course, Tom had to buy one that capitalized on the historical headhunting activities (which are no longer practiced). Just behind Main Bazar is Jin Carpenter (the city’s Chinatown, complete with arch) which connects with and continues as Jin India (more of a local open mall specializing in fabrics and clothes).

Besides this, Kuching has a couple of pretty Chinese temples, a Muslim mosque and a museum (the Sarawac Museum) that traces the people and the history of Borneo in general and Sarawac in particular. This history begins 2,000 to 3,000 years ago with rock/cave art, through the region’s growing role as a forest goods trading port in the 7th through 14th centuries and the 15th through 19th century when Sarawac was under the dominion of the Brunei Sultan. The primary historical focus was on the subsequent period, when Sarawac was administered by James Brooke and his Brooks Rajah successors (which were brought in by Brunei) and became an important ally of Great Britain. Like much of eastern Asia, Borneo was crucially occupied by Japan from 1941 through 1945. After the war, it chose to remain with with Britain as it needed Britain’s help to rebuild. It decided in 1963 to become part of Malaysia. The museum also traced the history of regional trade and the interesting and unusual practice of jar burial where people would put the cremated ashes of the deceased in jars.

The museum’s new wing provided provided higher level overviews of the island’s natural history, the species that populate it, the evolution of its homes (especially longhouses) and its watercraft.

Sarawac Nature Excursions

Although Sarawac is a nice destination in itself, it’s also a great staging point for some interesting expeditions. We used it as a base for three day trips from Kuching

Semenggoh Orangutan Nature Reserve. This rainforest sanctuary, in which endangered, young Orangutans (primarily those rescued from captivity) are trained to survive in the wild, houses more than 25 of the apes in a wilderness reserve in which they build their own nest and generally feed themselves, other than for a twice-a-day banana feast intended to lure them to a site in which tourists (who contribute many of the funds for running there serve) can see and learn about them.

We learned about the life expectancy (50-60 years), maximum size (about 160 kg or more than 350 lbs) and the number of years a child is fed by (5-6 years) and stays (9-10 years) with the mother. We were then given warnings as to the distance we had to keep from the apes (5 meters), how to retreat if they get to close, and what we should absolutely not to do (speak loudly, make sudden moves, point at them, use flash cameras and above all–tempt them with food.

We were disappointed when none of the orangutans showed up at the feeding station for visitors. According to our guide, this was the first time in over a month that this happened. But, as we left the park in our vehicle,  just ahead of us, in the trees, there was rustle. We stopped, looked carefully and saw two Orangutans who our guide identified (by name) as a grandmother and baby. As we stood and watched, the pair moved increasingly closer; not to approach us, but doing their normal thing of hanging out in trees and eating. Then, when they got to about 5 meters, and the accumulating crowd was getting incredible photos, one woman–there’s always got to be one person–pulled out a banana. The Orangutans moved quickly to the fruit and the guides rushed everyone away. But not before we got incredible close-up views and pictures of Orangutans in the wild, rather than being called out of their trees for human-provided food.


Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse. These traditional tribal dwellings (this one of the Bidayuh tribe, but many other tribesmen have them as well) are semi-communal living arrangements generally like condominiums. Each family is economically autonomous and is responsible for earning their own living and building and maintaining their own homes. They, however, share common infrastructure, verandas (on which people work, socialize, dry crops and clothes and hold ceremonies and celebrations) and outside cooking areas (in addition to using their own indoor kitchens and bathrooms). Each longhouse even elects a chief (similar to a condo’s board of directors) to set and enforce rules and mediate disputes.

Sizes of longhouses, like condos, can very greatly. Bidayuh longhouses, such as Annah Rais  tend to have between 14 and 20 “doors” (i.e., individual homes), while Iban tribal longhouses are generally larger, often 30 or 40 doors.

The primary differences with condos is that all the families in longhouses know and often help each other. For example, while each family normally owns and tends its own farm land, planting and harvesting are often communal affairs. This cooperation dates back hundreds of years,when living was much more communal and families often came together for the common defense of their lands. This mutual defense, in pagan times (before the British converted most natives to Christianity), helped instill the process of headhunting, where enemies’ heads were severed, taken back to the communal “head house”, soaked and cleaned and used as the centerpiece of sacrifices to seek favor for good harvests. They claim that headhunting is no longer practiced, but they still have old skulls for tourists to see.

Another big difference with condos is that  Individual homes in longhouses are seldom sold. They are typically passed down generation to generation and are often only sold when grown children leave the agricultural work and lifestyle of the longhouse in favor of life in a city.

Although each home is different, they are all built on stilts to a common height, both for ventilation and as a means of keeping animals. Common area floors are typically built of bamboo (which must be replaced yearly) and sometimes covered by rattan mats (which can last 20 or 30 years).

Although individual houses used to also be built of bamboo, most are now moving too longer-lasting materials, like hardwood and corrugated metal. The interiors typically have an open design, with no partitions: family living space is on the main floor and the kitchen above. The only opportunity for privacy is the bathroom.

Although longhouses have played an important role in traditional Serawac culture, this form of living is falling victim to modernity, urbanization and growing education and prosperity. A growing percentage of those residents who can afford, or who are eligible, are increasingly opting for traditional apartments and detached houses.new longhouses that are being built look increasingly like two- or three-story motels,built on the ground with concrete floors and separate rooms.


Learning about Local Edible Plants

Since the longhouse is located in a rural area, and is so dependent on farming and homegrown produce our guide pointed out and explained how dry mountain rice farming (which is used here) differs from the wet farming (in longer growing cycle) used though much of Asia,how the rice differs: typically brown or black, but very similar taste).

We also stopped to number of the plants we saw along the way and learned how they were used. We also saw a number of plants that grow to the region–palms (for Palm oil), tapioca, jackfruit, dragon fruit, durian, papaya, lemongrass and pineapple. We stopped and examined a cocoa tree, saw seeds drying and learned how it is produced and is being generally reduced due to the low price farmers are now receiving. We had an even more thorough discussion of the pepper making process. We stopped at a pepper tree and our guide explained the entire process, from its planting and using ironwood (which termites can’t eat) for support, to when the seeds are picked and the different processes by red, black and white pepper are produced. We also learned about and had a chance to taste locally-made rice wine and sugarcane wine.


A Detour to Miri

Miri was not at the top of our list of places to visit…not even mid-way on the list. The main attraction would have been a side trip snorkeling  off the coast of Saba or in Miri. However we were told they would be closed of the season during our time in the area so we planned to avoid the city. After all, there  was nothing–and I mean nothing–else to see and do in the city unless you are in the oil and gas industry. We did plan to spend a few hours in Miri as we had to fly through it to get from Mulu National Park to Brunei. We figured with a few hours, we could do a quick our and get out of the city quickly. At least that was the plan. Malaysia Air had a different idea.

On our way to Mulu National Park, we had a direct flight on Malaysia Air from Kuching to Mulu. The only problem was when we arrived at Kuching airport, we discovered that Malaysia Air had changed its schedule, cancelling the flight on Wednesday (which was when we were flying) to Friday. The only way they could get us to Mulu was through Miri.OK, that would work except that the flight to Miri was delayed and we couldn’t et to Mulu until the next day. That forces us to spend an afternoon and evening in Miri. Unlike US airlines, however, Malaysia Air covered all expenses…hotel, transportation to/from the hotel and meals for our overnight.  And, since the plane was late, we would miss the connection to Mulu and would have to spend the night in Miri.

After arriving in Miri and settling into our hotel, we walked downtown only to discover that the guidebooks were right. There is absolutely no reason (other diving, snorkeling or oil and gas industry) to visit the town. Although we did find an okay seafood restaurant (Apollo Seafood Center), even that was a disappointment after the wonderful seafood we had in Kuching.

Still, one good thing did come out of our unplanned Miri detour. We had been receiving conflicting accounts on how to get from Miri to Brunei. Since we had the extra time in Miri, we resolved the problem by hiring a car and driver to pick us up when we flew into Miri on the way back from Mulu  for the three-hour journey instead of spending 4 hours on buses. A silver lining from a cloud.

Missed Sarawac Highlights

Although we packed all that we could into six days in Sarawak, we were unable to do all we wanted. We particularly regretted having to miss two stops:

  • Gading National Park, near Kuching, is home to the giant Raflesia flower–a flower whose bloom can be two feet in diameter. There are two problems in planning a trip to see these flowers. First, they bloom only after some particularly heavy rainfalls and one seldom has more than one-day advance notice as to when they might bloom. The second, the bloom lasts only one week, after which it rots with such an odor that no one wants to be anywhere near one.
  • Although the Malaysian state of Saba has some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world, the coast off Sarawak’s Miri Isn’t far behind. It has a wide variety of hard and soft coral, reef fish, nude racha and, in slightly deeper water, pelagic fish. Although we tried mightily to schedule a snorkel at at least one of these sites, our visit came about a few weeks after they were closed for the season (due to rough seas and unpredictable monsoon weather).

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