Friday, March 22, 2013

Thinking About Borneo

The weather is bad. Really, really, bad. And sometimes in this deep dark damp Exmoor valley you get to thinking about other places when the skies are black and the rain is coming down in sheets.

Today, I have been mainly thinking about Borneo. And I’ve been recalling this trip I took out there a while ago.

When I was a boy there was sometimes talk of an elusive and frightening person known as The Wild Man of Borneo. Now I’ve been to Borneo and can report he has vanished like jungle mist – in his place are friendly and charming people.

They weren’t always friendly or charming. The Iban used to be head-hunters – indeed they’d murder one another and shrink the resultant heads without even the slightest excuse.

If they were the original wild men of Borneo, then they’ve changed. I’ve met them and even stayed with them in a tribal longhouse high in a remote rain-forested corner of Sarawak, which is a Malaysian province in Borneo – and, as I say, a more affable bunch you could hardly wish to meet.

Visiting the Iban was the highlight of a journey that took me to Sarawak as part of a trip designed by the Malaysian government to show how eco-tourism in this most far-flung of regions is now a relatively easy for Westerners, and how it benefits local people who only recently were living in very primitive conditions indeed.

They still are, from a European perspective – but when a tribal chief who lives deep in a jungle hours from the nearest road offers to give you his email address, you realise just how much things must have changed.

Not that there were any computers or mains electricity in this particular chief’s communal long-house – he later told me his son collects emails for him from college and brings them home at weekends.

But let’s begin at the beginning – which in Sarawak means Kuching, the capital with its international airport. It’s a bustling, sprawling city – not overly endowed with charm – but I liked it nevertheless.

Right at the heart of Kuching is an enclave of international hotels and from the window of my comfortable suite in the Grand Margherita I could look directly down upon the square that is the city’s equivalent of Piccadilly Circus.

From here we were able to explore the newly revamped riverside esplanade that took us half a mile along the wide curving waterway to the city’s fascinating, pulsating China-town, where you can buy everything and anything from weird jungle remedies to silks and “genuine fake” watches.

The thing about being on a government run press trip is that you have minders who operate under some mysterious itinerary – and while normally I wouldn’t mention this in a travel article I do so now because it was a journey of constant surprises.

No sooner had my journalist companion and I explored Kuching, we were being whisked off in a minibus deep into the rain-forested countryside. Why?

“We’re going to a rock festival,” beamed our excellent and thoroughly entertaining local guide, Henry.

“A rock festival!” I retorted with some wrath. “We have rock festivals at home – big ones – I haven’t come halfway around the globe to gawp at young men with big egos.”

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Thinking About Borneo