Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Getting Close to the Wilds of Borneo

Borneo, just the name itself sounds exotic and exciting. Pictures of immense jungles, untamed rivers, wild animals and primitive tribes of headhunters living in longhouses decorated with shrunken human heads flashed through our minds as we left the safety of our quiet suburban house in Melaka, Malaysia and made our way to the bus station to begin our journey to the “wild” part of Malaysia-the island of Borneo.

We said goodbye to the wonderful 67 year old lady who owned the house that we had been living in for the last two weeks. We had spent a good portion of our last 2 days driving around the streets of Melaka with her, eating at her favorite restaurants and enjoying some of the outskirts of town that otherwise would have been out of our reach by foot. She was funny and probably one of the nicest people we had met on our travels throughout the world.

We rented the house from her son, and since he was out of town during our visit she stopped by daily to check on us and make sure we had everything we needed. We generally like to be pretty independent and make our own way, but after walking the sweaty streets of Melaka for a better part of two weeks, it was enjoyable to ride in her air conditioned Prius and visit the quiet Kampungs (villages) and sandy beachside that runs along the Malacca Straits enjoying Coconut shakes from roadside stands and watching families having picnics and flying kites and enjoying the beautiful sunsets over the blue waters.

We enjoyed her stories of her life in Melaka and appreciated her insight into Malaysia from a local point of view that was so much different than how we had imagined it as we walked the streets and visited the museums of the more touristy parts of the downtown area. She had a sense of humor and joy of life that was contagious and made our last couple of days very enjoyable. She was in excellent health and while most of her friends are getting a little older, she spends a good portion of her day driving the streets and giving rides to people who call her on her cell phone. Once while we were driving with her, she was stopped by police for not wearing her seatbelt correctly and with her warm smile and cheery personality she charmed the policeman to the point that he was apologizing for stopping her. She seemed to know everyone we passed on the streets and frequently stopped to chat through the car window or give someone a ride who she saw walking.

We left her at the huge Melaka bus station and caught our bus for the 2 ½ hour ride to the Kuala Lumpur airport. We had plenty of time to catch our 4:30 flight to Kuching and as it turned out we were glad we did. When we bought the express bus ticket to the airport we didn’t realize there were 2 airports in KL, LCCT and KLIA. Naturally we took the bus to the wrong one and after walking around looking for the Malaysia Air counters for 20 minutes were told that they were indeed in another airport. Luckily there was a cheap bus that connected the 2 airports and we easily made the connection with plenty of time to spare.

Our first views of Borneo were quite beautiful. We arrived just before nightfall and enjoyed watching the sun set over the vast jungle laced with countless small rivers. It was quite a spectacular introduction to the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. The Kuching airport is quite small compared to Bangkok or KL and was easy to navigate. We were surprised to have to pass through immigration and get a new visa even though we were still in Malaysia. We caught a taxi to the hostel that will be our home for our 2 week visit to Sarawak.

We spent our first day finding our way around town and getting familiar with our portion of the city. Despite our visions of jungles, Kuching is quite a modern city of 600,000, although it seems much smaller. Many new high rise hotels line the banks of the Sangai Sarawak River that winds its way through the center of town. A new boardwalk follows the riverbank on the more touristy south side of the river where we live. A small Chinatown with older shop houses gives a good reflections of the bygone days of the White Rajah rulers who founded the city long ago.

We visited the Sarawak Museum which had good displays of the wildlife of Sarawak state and told the story of the many tribes that made up the population before the city was founded by the original White Rajah, James Brookes. The town has several old British era buildings surrounded by large trees that give some sense of what things must have been like when Kuching was the trading center for Borneo in the 1800’s.

We have been somewhat happy that the skies have been generally overcast and there have been some scattered thunderstorms during our stay. When the midday sun is at full strength, it is oppressively hot and makes walking aimlessly through the streets quite challenging. Stopping in one of the nice air conditioned restaurants for a leisurely lunch provides a welcomed break from the sun. While we hate to admit it, after living on a diet of almost entirely Malay food in Penang and Melaka, we have enjoyed that Kuching has many fast food outlets and hotels that offer menus that include some western food options. 

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Getting Close to the Wilds of Borneo