Beautiful Borneo & Crazy KL

Telok Kruin

Andy and I huddled under a rock as the storm raged. Lightning illuminated the sky and a deep rumbling thunder sounded close by. Our fire, along with our morale was extinguished. We were sleeping rough on Kruin beach in Bako national park on Borneo. Our decision to camp with no tent in a region endemic to crocodiles resulted in a poor night’s sleep. Despite the insomnia and discomfort I revelled in the sense of adventure.

An 8 mile trek through dense rain-forest the previous day allowed us to reach this secluded bay. The broken trail climbed and descended acute terrain, knotted with tree roots and slippery with leaves. Unable to sleep I scanned the horizon for glinting reptilian eyes whilst dreading the thought of the long hike back to park HQ over swollen rivers on a sodden trail.

As day broke and Andy snoozed in a cave, I saw lizards and monkeys wander the beach. It was a privileged to witness this but the return journey still weighed heavy on my mind. The monsoon had dissipated to a steady shower by the time we set off and for eight hours we walked without break. Progress was excruciating, minutes felt like hours but meter by meter we got closer. My only thought was the next step and I focused on every movement determined not to slip.

Arriving back at our hotel that evening we both discovered we had foot rot, caused by more than 24hrs of wet feet. I barely had the strength to get dinner even though I had not eaten all day. I passed out at 7pm and slept comatose for twelve hours.

After 12 months on the road Andy and I were taking a ‘holiday’ from the bikes on the island of Borneo. We visited Semanggoh where you can see orang-utans in their natural environment. It was magical to see these great apes up close and we jostled for position with fifty other tourists to snap photos.

Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, where we based ourselves is a relaxed and surprisingly cosmopolitan city. Malaysia’s largest state retains a strong Chinese influence but lacked the Indian community of the mainland. In contrast to the peninsular Christians outnumber Muslims. A third of the population is tribal and in reference to their penchant for ‘scalping’ in the old days the tourist board used the slogan ‘land of the head-hunters’ before deciding this might deter visitors.

We were thrilled to be invited to celebrate Hari Raya with a friend. The culmination of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting; Hari Raya, more commonly known as Eid in Europe, is Islam’s equivalent to Christmas. Family and friends come together and share feasts over three days.

We took a cab to Kampung Haji Baki, a small well-appointed village. Our driver knew the house and its owner; he told us Captain Gulzar is a good, well respected man. My friend Kam and his son Daniyal met us outside the house and introduced us to the large family of ten brothers and sisters who own and run the successful dredging company, Inai Kiara. We enjoyed a delicious meal which was followed by a spectacular fireworks display.

The next morning whilst swimming in the pool we noticed a vast queue of people outside the gates. The family run an ‘open house’ during Hari Raya. The tradition of inviting family and friends over to celebrate has been taken a step further by Captain Gulzar who invites everyone in the surrounding villages to receive a small gift and a meal. I was told that people had begun queuing since first light and over the three days the family would cater for 9,000 people. Andy and I were charged with handing out envelopes of money. Thrown in at the deep end we managed the crowd as best we could, meeting and greeting the local villagers. Most people queued patiently, smiling and shaking our hands, they seemed very grateful for what they received. It was a surreal but unforgettable experience.

A bus took us south to Pontianak, on the equator in Indonesian Borneo. Across the border the difference was tangible. The roads narrowed and became pot holed. The houses were modest and children played in mounds of rubbish beside the road or swam naked in the rivers. Arriving in the city after dark we were greeted by oppressive traffic and smog. A constant, unending stream of mopeds and cars whistled past. No one walked anywhere and I could understand why. There was no pavement so Andy and I had to weave a path beside the road around parked vehicles and giant drains you could fall into all the time monitoring the road for rogue drivers.

There was little to do and nothing endearing about the place but I enjoyed meeting the locals. There were no other tourists, consequently everyone called out ‘Hello Mr!’ and ‘How are you?’. This seemed to be the limit of most peoples linguistic skills highlighted when I ordered chicken and rice but was given porridge or on another occasion when I was served orange juice laced with chocolate sauce.

One morning after a couple of frustrating hours wandering the humid streets looking for an internet café I inquired in a shop. With a minimum of fuss they gave me a bottle of water, a laptop and let me use their wifi. This type of generosity was not an exception.

Andy and I returned to Kuching then made our way along the northern shore of Sarawak to stay overnight in a longhouse. At Sri Aman we took a longboat upstream through dense jungle. The Lemanak River, which serves as road, source of food and playground to the local tribes, was full of life. A rhinoceros hornbill flew overhead and perched in the trees above us as children swam in the water and their mothers washed clothes on the banks. Our knowledgeable guide Jihey talked at length about Malaysia:  its social make up, politics and religion. Jihey’s parents were Bidahyu but he was able to make the introduction to the Iban because he had married into the latter tribe.

The longhouse is a social and cultural way of life. Though the families live together in modern times they are independent and financially separate. The structure is raised a couple of meters off the ground on ‘stilts’. Life is centered down a long communal corridor where children are schooled and women make arts and crafts to sell. Each extended family however has a private room for eating and sleeping on one side of the corridor and a private garden to grow crops on the other.

After a dinner of roast chicken, fried pork, rice and vegetables with the family designated to look after us we were invited to try Tuak – the local rice wine. It was a strong clear spirit drunk in a shot by each person in turn. The chief made a speech to welcome us and a traditional dance was performed in our honour, to slow melodic music played on metal drums. A few hours later after the booze ran out we slept on a thin mattress in the main corridor under mosquito nets.

With our time on Borneo coming to a close, we continued along the coast to Miri. Arriving at 2am on a Sunday morning we found the city centre busy with late night revellers. The town borders Brunei which is a ‘dry’ country so locals and ex-pats flock over to Miri, on the Malaysian side, to party at weekends. A short bus ride took us to Bandar Seri Begawan, the sleepy capital of Brunei where we passed a couple of days.

On our return to KL we were hosted by Gerard, his brother Stephen and aunty G. We had a great few days sampling the local hawker food: roti Chennai, Taiwanese spicy sausage (which brought tears to Andy’s eyes!), black fungus pork, char kway teow, clay pot chicken and rice, aloo dosa, pork intestines and‘dog food’!

Between eating we found time to meet the Malaysian media. Jireh Consult – a communications and media company – very generously put out a press release and arranged eight interviews for us to promote the cause of War Child. One of the interviews was with BFM, officially Business FM but nicknamed Bieber Free Music. It was great fun to go into the studio with the huge microphones and headphones although it’s really odd to hear your own voice. The results were excellent, Andy was especially pleased when Zuhaila Sedek described him as having ‘rock star looks’ – guess she’s a Stones fan.

Our friends in KL organised a city centre bike ride for us. Just after 9am on a bank holiday morning we set off before the streets were clogged with traffic. It would have been earlier but our friend Mike Bosch was running on ‘Malaysian time’. For a couple of hours we pedalled round taking in the sights and having photos taken by our official photographer for the day Penelope.

Our Asian adventure had been immense but it was time to move on, after twelve months we were ready for a change. Ahead lay another set of challenges: huge deserts, sticking to budget and mullets. It was time for our third continent, time for Australia.

Here are some of the media interviews we did in KL:

The Star
BFM Podcast
NST: Andy and his rock star looks

2 Responses to “Beautiful Borneo & Crazy KL”

  1. Geoff says:

    Hey Guys,

    Just came across your blog while on some forced down time (due to injury) on my own cycling trip. I noticed you cycled through the ‘stans. I may be asking you for some advice on that, as we will be trying to organise visas for that pretty soon…

    Oh and maybe you should buy a tent as the cave doesn’t look very portable!

    All the best,

    Geoff and Monika

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