We don’t want to confuse Chinese Calendar followers, this is not the year of the Cat. In fact, February 2006 will see the beginning of the year of the Dog and Chinese communities in Borneo are already arranging the celebrations.
The Cat, symbol of Kuching.
The heading of the journal is a tribute to one of my favourite songs, The year of the Cat by Al Stewart. It says: "in a country where they turn back time” and that’s how I’ve felt in the capital city of Sarawak, Kuching, which means cat in Malay as well.
It takes its name from the fruit cultivated in this area, known as “cat eyes”, and James Brooke, the white rajah, gave it the name “Cochin”, same of the Indian port where he came from. Finally, it led to Kuching, and we must recognize the place makes honour to its name as there are several cat statues scattered around the city. Besides, there is a quite kitch museum with more than 4,000 objects related to felines.
Boat sponsored in the river of Kuching.
As it happens in many places in Malaysia, the contrast between official, modern buildings and day-to-day life is huge. The Malay government is aimed at achieving the official consideration of First Word for its country by 2020 and it invests great amounts of money in technological projects such as the Multimedia Super Corridor, which has an intelligent city and many cyber projects. It also invests a lot of money in colossal buildings which are not really useful for the citizens most of the times.
The new library of Kuching is a good example. It had to be built on the outskirts of the city and this fact makes people lose a lot of time to get there. The result: it’s often empty.
Mosque in Kuching.
Daily life in Kuching is few technological; Chinese, Indian and Malay communities and those native to Sarawak such as the Iban work in small stores and business in which wholesalers and retailers mix up: I have seen how they produce furniture, metal grilles and all kinds of objects which are sold in the same place.
However, I was dissapointed by the Sunday market. Indigenous from Sararaw come to this market to sell their products. It’s not that the market isn’t nice, in fact I enjoyed myself buying fruits, specially some delicious rambutans. But there were thousands of people and none of them were dressed in the traditional custome. It seemed that flip flops, shorts and T-shirt were the battle dress of the market.
Kuching is the perfect place to use as operations base and go visiting Sarawak, as it has an international airport, several long bus routes and the river, point of departure of ships which get where roads can’t due to the impenetrable jungles of Borneo.
Chinese dragons in Kuching.
Kuching offers really good and cheap food and you can change from one country and gastronomy to another without leaving the same street. I’ve been in India, China, Korea and Thailand within the four days I have been in this city.
Welcome Committee in Bako
My only concesion to the occidental world was having a real coffee, which costed me more than a meal. I had it in one of the many places focused on high-standard tourists given that Kuching has several luxury hotels such as the Hilton, the Crowne, the Holiday Inn. It also hosts malls, where you could freeze due to air conditioning and high prices (as high or even more than in Europe).
Travellers can find complete information in tourist points but also in guesthouses and several museums of the city.
I didn’t visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, which is a kind of Sarawakland where you can see the daily life of the different Sarawak ethnic groups. They even live inside the town in traditional longhouses: communal houses which, in the past, measured even a kilometer long. I’d rather familiarize myself with Borneo culture without going through tourist filters.
Macaque in Bako
AOne or two hours from Kuching one can find really interesting places such as the Gunung Gading National Park, where I saw the biggest flower in the world, but not the coolest anyway: the Rafflesia. You can also visit the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and the Bako National Park, where I had my first meeting with the most famous ethnic group in Borneo: primates. They are represented by orangutans, long-nosed monkeys, macaques and gray langurs.
You can reach the Bako National Park by a combined bus and boat trip. When the tide is low, the boat leaves you 500 meters distance from the entrance to the park. The quay gets dry and you have to walk through a weird combination of viscous mud and hard sand which is really slippery.
Even before you can register in the park, the first hosts will come closer to you. We’re talking about the macaques. And though you have not been warned by the guards, they will try to steal you anything they can eat.
They are so clever that they can open tins and bottles and they are always at the back. You must always lock the guesthouse’s bedrooms and kitchen or otherwise, when you come back, you will surely find a monkey’s party as dangerous as that of Peter Sellers’ movie.
Accommodation varies from the 4 € of a bedroom to the luxury of a private bungalow called “long-nosed monkey”, which is undoubtedly the star of the park.
Long-nosed monkey in Bako
It is the strangest monkey I’ve ever seen. Its nose is everything but simian and it can vary from a few centimetres to a real big thing. Unlike the macaques, long-nosed monkeys are really shy and when they see tourists approaching to “get up their noses”, they disappear jumping from tree to tree.
Its body structure is very slender. It has a meter long tail and really long arms and legs. Its fur is light brown and white in the stomach, tail and low part of the extremities.
Insectivorous plants in Bako
Paths in Bako are very well indicated and though you’re given a map when registering you won’t need it as each path has its own colour. Besides, you can find maps in each crossroads.
There are paths of all levels: ones for going for a little walk, ones which leads you to beach viewpoints (where it’s easy to see long-nosed monkeys and macaques) and other ones which will take you two days on the road.
As the monsoon is still battering this area, I took some middle level paths where I faced quagmires full of roots and pools, slippery roads full of white clay… The most difficult paths were those full of yellow slime. It was just impossible to keep the balance there!
The seal rock in Bako
One of the longest paths (5 hours round-trip) took me to a cascade that I couldn’t come across as the river was really high due to the raining. Another path took me to two famous beaches in Bako. At this time of the year, though, it’s not recommended to have a bath there as there are crocodiles.
In the edges of the paths you can see several types of insectivorous plants. They attract insects with their smell to immediately eat them.
Rafflesia in Gunung Gading
The Rafflesia does not eat insects but it also attracts them with its smell. It takes its name from Stamford Raffles, its famous discoverer. It can only be found in Sumatra and Borneo.
The Rafflesia is 1 meter in diameter and weighs 7 kg. Its smell is kind of disgusting, it has a dark red colour and its touch is similar to rubber’s. It hardly ever flowers and having had the chance to see it has been a gift of destiny. I heard by sheer chance about its flowering when somebody told me I could find it in Gunung Gading National Park, 2 hours from Kuching by bus and 30 minutes on foot from Lundu.
With the Rafflesia in Gunung Gading
When arriving to the park, one must hire a guide as, though paths are indicated, Rafflesias are not situated on those roads.
We could see one in its final phase of flowering ten minutes from the park entrance. Nevertheless, to see another two which had just flowered, we had to go uphill for an hour through the jungle. Anyway the effort was worthwhile as these two specimens were in full flowering.
National parks entrance is really striking
We got over in a cascade and came back to the park entrance, where there is a very complete information point. I was talking with the Dutch that came with me to see the Rafflesia about the things one can do travelling but never ever at home. At least, I wouldn’t travel for 4 hours by bus, plus 3 hours on foot to see a flower. People could say: What an idiot!! But, I tell you, it’s worth it.
It’s worth it as well because it’s really hard to see wild orangutans unless you are a scientific devoted to visiting them in the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which is one hour by bus from Kuching.
Founded in 1974, this centre is devoted to animals rehabilitation, specially orangutans which have been confiscated for illegal dealing. After a period of readjustment, they are in a semi-savage state in the area around Semenggok, which is a 640 hectares protected zone. Nowadays there are 22 orangutans there.
Orangutan mother and baby in Semenggok
Twice a day, at 9 a.m. and at 3 p.m., they are fed and Homo Sapiens (which sometimes seem to be few evolved) can visit them. We went to an observation viewpoint walking through a path. There we could see a platform from which an attendant was calling the orangutans with a quite peculiar shout. He was carrying a basket full of bananas, apples and coconuts.
There was a group of third age Dutch people who were really noisy. They didn’t stop making and saying silly things although we were told to keep silence. Anyway, we couldn’t get them to be quiet. And maybe that’s the reason why orangutans didn’t come although we waited there for half an hour.
Disappointed, we came back to the park entrance and we discovered that two orangutan mothers with their babies hanging on their necks were approaching. They jumped from tree to tree and glided along the ropes set to make the show. One of them started to swing, first on her own and afterwards with her baby to those present delight.
Orangutan mother and baby in Semenggok
The orangutan mother was smiling as she knew that a prize was waiting for her at the end of the rope. We are talking about different fruits and a coconut that she broke in a few seconds as if it were a peanut.
I was standing 2 meters away from them and the baby was really fun with his red, unkempt few hairs. His mother’s glance when I approached to take a picture of him clearly said “Be careful with my baby or I’ll give you a slap”. And looking at her long arms, you better pay attention.
The word “orangutan” comes from Orang Utan, which in Malay means man of the forest. And those who doubts about Darwin’s evolution theory, George W. Bush included, should come closer to an orangutan and observe one of them. They only need to talk to look like human beings.
When they ate enough fruits, the orangutan mother went back easily to the tree with the baby on her back and they disappeared.
This is a "highway" in Borneo
Although I would have preferred to see them in a more savage and less prepared ambiance, I left the place with the feeling of having met a distant relative to add up to the mountain gorillas I met in Zaire and the Tanzania chimpanzee of Jane Goodall.
Click here to see the photographs of Kuching
, Gunung Gading
, and Gunung Semenggok
To learn more about Malaysia, visit the official tourism web
, Sarawak tourism
, Sarawak National Park
, the Kuching official guide
, the Rainforest music festival
, Wild Asia
, and Geographia
Now used to the hot, the humidity and the monsoon, I leave this place to visit Sarawak and the rest of Borneo in the best transport available. It goes through the water instead of highways, it changes bends for meanders and service stations for river ports, going up through Sarawak and Rejang rivers. The latter is the longest river (563 km) in Sarawak and both of them flow into the South China See.
I hope I can see in this route the species I haven’t been able to see so far such as the calao bird or the Hornbill, which is also the symbol of Sarawak and it appears in its shield.
See you soon!
From Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia, 21st of January 2006
Translated by Clara Ruiz Abalo, claraisabelruiz(a)yahoo.es, on 18th of May 2006
Published: 03/01/2008 00:00 (CET)
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Honestly I have never been to Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia. The recent beudgt 2013, PM had talking about standardize the goods price between West & East Malaysia. Wonder will it really implement successfully.
RvDjDJWSGCpJEYSISJM, 07/03/2013 09:59