On my final full day in Sarawak, I got out of the dorm room bed at 6am and tiptoed out to the lobby to pack my things, eat a quick breakfast, and head to the bus stop for Bako National Park. The tourism office said the bus would leave at 7am, but in reality it was closer to 8:00.
I watched the sun rise over the domed spires of Kuching's mosques as I waited. Soon, the bright red bus arrived and I paid my 3 ringgit ($1CAD) and sat back as the city changed slowly into rolling hills and verdant forest near the coast.
There were a lot of people on the bus, so I assumed I'd have no problem getting a boat to the park. During the winter season the boats limit their load to 4 passengers, since the sea swells can be unpredictable. However, it turned out that everyone was already part of a group.
The girl at the counter informed me that I could wait for another group and join them, but if I was under a time limit for return the following morning I'd have to arrange my own boat back, covering the full cost myself. It was my last day, and I was finally doing what I really wanted to do, so I splurged a little and paid the 90 ringgit for the return boat.
Every cloud has a silver lining, they say. Not having a group, and forced to wait, I got the opportunity to speak with one of the local boat pilots, an Iban tribesman. He told me about the huge changes he'd seen in his village over the last 30 years.
They lived in longhouses on high bamboo stilts before, he explained, and their life came from the bamboo forest. They used the spikes of one particular species to make the poison darts for their blowguns, and to painstakingly tap out the tattoos that decorate the older men and woman of his tribe.
Now, their houses are low, modern one-storey bungalows, painted in a rainbow of colours, and many more than there were in the past. Many converted to Islam, he said, "But don't worry miss, you're totally safe here!" and no one knew how to tattoo anymore. In spite of all the changes in his life, he was happy.
He said they all made a living harvesting tiny shrimp from the lagoon to make the local fermented shrimp sauce, called belacan, and taking tourists over to the park in their boats before and after harvesting hours.
At about 10am an older Canadian couple arrived at the dock, with space to spare in their boat. "I think you can get in with them, girl," said the boat pilot, as he went to join the other boatmen at their breakfast table.
The Canadian couple had hired a park guide, so on the way to the park I was treated to some free information about the area's red limestone hills (bands of iron in the stone changed the colour). He also pointed out some wildlife even before we entered the park, a large wild boar snuffling his way along the base of the limestone towers.
The pair only had a few hours in the park, while I had the whole day, so I bid them farewell and went to have my breakfast and register at the gate.
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