Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, June 2008

Jungle, wildlife, beach and world music on Borneo

Two of Malaysia’s 13 states – Sarawak and Sabah – are located on the island of Borneo. As it’s a mere 2 hours by plane from the urban jungle of KL, we went to get a taste of Sarawak and timed our visit to coincide with the famed Rainforest Music Festival.

The capital Kuching is very easy-going, friendly and relaxed city with a pretty waterfront. The population mix is quite different from that on mainland Malaysia: over 50% belong to one of the 30+ ethnic (non-Malay) groups (e.g. Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, while 26% are of Chinese origin and only 21% Muslim Malays. The cheerful locals seem to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like strolling on the waterfront or putting on a spontaneous afternoon dance session to the haunting tunes of a local band.

The Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is actually a wild piece of jungle with a small managed part, where there is optional feeding as a stepping stone for orphaned and illegally removed Orangutans to help them readjust to independent life in the wild. It was amazing to see just how hairy, orange, acrobatic and humanoid these huge apes are.

A sidetrip eastwards brought us pretty much as faras you can go on paved roads before hitting the Indonesian border. Here in Sematan life moves in the slow lane – nothing much to do but relax, enjoy the endless stretches of sandy beach and have a te ‘o’ limau in the village nearby. We stopped at this silk factory where they use the freshly harvested silk to produce 100% handmade duvets, featherlike, soft and so nice, we had to buy one as a souvenir.

We spent 3 days in Bako National Park,Malaysia’s oldest and famous for its wildlife and flora. You can only reach it by boat, and when the tide is high, as when we arrived, the boat drops you in hip-high water (which is fine, as the water is warm like a bath) and you walk onto the beach and towards the Park HQ. Accommodation is in very simple, primitive wooden structures, each room with just beds and a ceiling fan. Bako is well-known because of its wildlife, of which there is indeed plenty around. Right outside the buildings, some very ugly bearded pigs were walking around, minding their own business. The cheeky macaque monkeys were the opposite: they were everywhere, ate everything and were just jumping about with their little ones attached to the underside of their bellies.

The real wildlife highlight were the (rather ugly)proboscis monkeys. They do definitely not seek contact with humans but come to feed off the mangrove forests when the tide is low – fascinating to watch, with their dangling noses! Of course the jungle itself was full of all manners of insects (HUGE ants!), plants and noises and the odd snake.

We did a very long 8-hour (in this humid weather, 20 minutes is long and sweat-inducing) hike one day, to a deserted beach on the other side of the peninsula. As the tide was high, we had to ford across a chest-high river,which wasn’t a big deal as it was relatively slow and very warm. However, it was a popular hangout for the mosquitos, who aren’t presented with a walk-in buffet every day, and they were merciless. The payoff at the end of the long track was a lovely deserted beach with views over the edge of Borneo to the horizon.

The final two days we were ar the Rainforest Music Festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village just outside Kuching. The village is a kind of open air museum set in the jungle at the foot of some picture-perfect Borneo mountains. It is quite large and looks very natural, with longhouses of the various tribes (Iban, Bidahyu, etc.) built around a lake among lush greenery. It’s open to visitors all year round, but for the 3 days of the festival it was just for concert goers, performers and crafts people (who did demonstrations and exhibitions).

The concerts (7-8 of them each evening) were held on 2 outdoor stages. There was no seating, but people just brought blankets, mats, squatted or stood. The atmosphere was really relaxed, despite the fact that there were about 8000 people every day. I have never seen such diversity at a concert: there were people from a few weeks old to close to 100, hippies, regular people, travellers, musicians, Asians, black people, Europeans, Muslims, everything and in all age groups! During the day you could visit the longhouses, eat all kinds of food from stalls and tents, walk around, just relax, watch the world go by or go to one of the many workshops. The latter were really small-scale concerts, often just musicians from various groups (e.g. with a theme like drums) doing a jam session, improvising, explaining about their instruments, the music culture of their country/instrument. There were groups from Sarawak, Malaysia, UK, Poland, Ghana, Japan,Crete, Palestine, etc. all playing ‘world music’.Our favourite band turned out to be the Polish one: they actually played Celtic music but with a slavic influence and used everything from classical instruments like violin, traverse flute and accordion to African drums and medival instruments and even spoons! They had so much energy and such skill, it was mind-boggling!

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