Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


I apologize in advance for the debilitating length of this entry (almost 11,000 words), but this was an action-packed week. To help you break it up and take it in bite-size sections, I have split the entry into three parts. Your welcome.

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia (Borneo)

Posted on February 28th, 2005

The main market

I’ve always said that it doesn’t get any more butt-crack hot and humid than a jungle island on the equator. Actually, I have never said anything remotely like that, but from here on out I intend to say this with the unconditional authority of a man who has been to a butt-crack and back.

I arrived in Kuching after 12 fun-filled, sleepless hours in Senai Airport Café, outside Johor Bahru after making my escape from Singapore on the Tuesday evening air-con express bus. My Kuching hostel, the Borneo B & B, was suppose to pick me up at the airport, but they were nowhere to be seen, so I took a taxi into town. Even at 8:00AM, I could feel that the humidity levels on Borneo were inconceivably worse than they were in Singapore. The morning air was still cool, but nevertheless, when I exited the air conditioned environment of the airport, my glasses fogged up instantly. I had slept about 30 minutes on the plane, otherwise I had gotten zero sleep in over 24 hours and less than six hours sleep the night before in Singapore due to a brainless hostel employee shutting down the air conditioning at midnight. In short, I was a mess.

Despite my repeated statements, once even in recently memorized, halted Malay, that I wanted to go to the Borneo B & B at Number 3 Greenhill Road, the taxi driver was on auto-pilot and dropped me off at the older and more established hostel simply called “B & B” next to the Borneo Hotel on Tabuan Road, 10 minutes away. This place was actually in my Lonely Planet, with an unusually stern warning of bed bugs, so I had passed on it, instead reserving a spot at the four month old Borneo B & B on the BootsNAll hostel reservation system.

Since Kuching hasn’t gone through the trouble to post any street signs, I had no idea I was at the wrong place until the clerk at the hostel told me that they were full and couldn’t take me despite the reservation and deposit I had made two days prior on the Internet. We finally worked out that I was at the wrong place and he gave me terrible directions and a map that had absolutely no bearing on the actual street configuration, that was essentially useless anyway due to the aforementioned lack of street signs. I wandered around in circles for 20 minutes, getting wrong directions from three different people, before finding my hostel. They put me in an air conditioned room that I adored even though the air con only had two settings; “arctic” and “off.” I had to wear jeans and a long shirt to take my nap.

Chinene temple

Chinese cemetary

Urban Kuching is intriguingly made up of a majority of Chinese. Malays are a moderate minority. Borneo island in its entirety is split between three countries; about 1/3 belongs to Malaysia, the two-part, tiny country of Brunei is squashed into the north-central coast, while the rest, about 2/3 of the island, belongs to Indonesia. Malaysian Borneo is split into two semi-autonomous regions on the northern coast, Sarawak and Sabah, each with their own little immigration controls apart from peninsular Malaysia. So to visit all three sections of Malaysia you need to fill out and keep track of three sets of entry/exit forms. Meanwhile to visit anyplace in the interior of Sarawak or Sabah you’ll need an additional permit. The permits are free and easy to obtain, (and never asked for once you’ve acquired them), but you should get them nonetheless. There are approximately 26 smaller tribes inhabiting the Malay part of Borneo, with the Iban tribe being far and away the all-around, dominant ethnic group in Sarawak.

My Timeport, A.K.A. “the nerd device,” had been slowly fading on me for two days and it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even turn it on to see what time it was. My eventual theory was that it was not taking well to the humidity and this was eventually proved after I left it in my air con room for two days and it suddenly came back to life. Due to having no functioning time piece, I slept well past my intended two hour nap until 4:00 in the afternoon. Emerging from my meat locker room into the mid-afternoon heat and humidity was enough to make my knees go wobbly. I removed my fogged up glasses, stuck in my contact lens and headed out to find “breakfast.” I ended up wandering aimlessly after giving up on the horribly deficient directions supplied by the hostel owner’s wife. “Go this way, then this way, then this way and then you see big market” she said gesturing in arbitrary directions. This was the first of many, many encounters that steeled the concept that directions and indeed, simple map-reading are not inherent gifts of the Iban people. Every time I pulled out my city map for clarification on directions, despite being lifelong residents in Kuching, people were invariably baffled, unable to locate even the most prominent landmarks like the waterfront market.

I walked the length of the waterfront, then headed back toward the hostel by cutting down one of the city’s pedestrian shopping malls. I finally found a small hawker center that didn’t look too dodgy and settled in for a dish of noodles with something and something and pork. When you go to order in one of these hawker markets, you just accost one of the guys standing around who invariably don’t speak much English and when you ask what food selection they have to offer, a dialogue much like the following occurs;

Hawker: “You want rice or noodles?”
Me: “Noodles.”
Hawker: “With meat?”
Me: “Yes.”
Hawker: “OK, you sit down.”

And two minutes later you have a steaming bowl of noodles and meat and something in front of you. Obviously, any attempt to chose from a list of items or (gasp!) look at a menu is out of the question. They just whip a dish together with whatever ingredients that are on hand and usually it’s pretty good. In the end, the whole thing costs less than a dollar anyway, so you can’t really complain.

I used to think that the “wet season” meant that it rained all of the time. In truth, it only rains a few days a week, in short bursts, about 13 times a day. More accurately, my theory is that the term “wet season” refers to the fact that everything is wet all of the time, no matter what. The humidity is so high that nothing ever dries completely. Even after days without rain, the streets are wet, the grass is wet, the floors are wet and your clothes are wet. The bathrooms are the worst. In many parts of Asia, toilet paper is flouted in favor of a hose, not only for washing your backside, but for hosing down your deposit and giving the entire area a once over, walls and all for good measure, in consideration for the next visitor. This is particularly true when you frequent a hole-in-the-floor, crouch “toilet.” So when you walk into one of these bathrooms, even those precious few that do have toilet paper, you inevitably find that there is standing water and every other surface area is hopelessly wet. And thus so will you be when you emerge. It is, indeed, a challenge to the hygienically inclined, but there’s no way around it so you just get used to being perpetually damp all day. Unless, that is, you are in one of the igloo-cold, air conditioned rooms which will freeze the wetness on your body and you will go from sweating bullets to hypothermia in an instant.

On my second day in Kuching, I had intended to go to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to bond with some orangutans and other rescued jungle creatures, but I was sidetracked by an offer to go to Fairy Cave, which a misguided hostel mate told me was supposed to be one of the largest caves in the world (he was thinking of the Niah Caves National Park which is about 250 miles up the coast). I was offered a free tour, as the cave visit was part of the longhouse tour package I had resolved to take (see below). The drive out to the cave was over an hour, during which time I got my first real taste of the rural Sarawak scene. It was, of course, Tarzan’s jungle all the way, with a few volcano looking mountains way off in the backdrop. Every few kilometers you’d see a house on stilts built in the trenches on the side of the road. I later learned that it doesn’t take much of a downpour for the roads to flood, meaning, even on eight foot stilts, the houses were probably temporary lake-front property a few times a year.

Cave entrance

Despite its size shortcoming, Fairy Cave was still an eye-opener. The mouth of the cave is at the top of a three-story staircase. Stewart, my Iban guide, took me into the cave with the assistance of a colonial-era flashlight that had batteries on the verge of death. We clamored up the slick steps and slimy inclines into the largest cavern in Fairy Cave where, although they were not visible, it sounded as if about a million bats were having a cocktail party up on the roof. That insight was quickly followed by the realization that every surface in the cave was slicked in a carpet of guano. We stumbled around, venturing into the deep recesses of the cave before Stewart said we should turn around. Not only was the pathetic light of his flashlight becoming more and more useless in the utter, inky darkness, but he reported that a snake with personal space issues made its home just beyond where we were standing. That’s all the excuse I needed. We emerged from the cave muddy and sweating like a container of thawed ice cream. The extreme humidity in the cave had me slightly worried about my camera. I was now on my third Canon Powershot and being all too aware of how enormously delicate this particular series was, I feared that the humidity in the air was probably more than enough reason for the thing to croak on me. Thankfully, it lived to fight another day.

Stewart and the Fairy Cave fairy.

The cave took all of 30 minutes to explore. Having exhausted that, Stewart and I went 50 meters down the road to visit the Australian couple who had driven out with us, who were in the midst of conquering what was supposed to be a world-class rock climb next to the cave. They were just getting started when we showed up and boy did it ever look tough. Before they could even start the vertical climb, they had to crawl horizontally, upside-down for several meters, rigging rope and carabineers all the way. They were going to be at it for hours. Stewart suggested that we take a joyride to the coast.

This ambitious plan was foiled by a severely limited and popular ferry service that we needed to cross a small river. The ferry ride was only about a minute, but waiting to get on the ferry took almost an hour. Once on the other side, taking note of the similarly long line to board the ferry to re-cross the river, Stewart informed me that we would not be able to get to the coast and back in time to pick up the rock climbers. Instead we stopped in a tiny, backwater town, ate a giant feast of a lunch which Stewart insisted on paying for (I think he felt bad about the failed trip to the coast) before we turned around and got back into line to re-cross the river. The wait was over an hour and we were 30 minutes late in picking up the climbers, who had been waiting for us in a localized, but powerful rain storm that had forced them to cut the climb short.

After yet another US$1 noodle feast for dinner, I arrived back at the hostel just as Stewart, Bidas (the hostel owner) and a gaggle of Stewart’s longhouse relatives, who were in Kuching doing renovation work on the hostel, were settling down for the post-work day drink-a-thon. Stewart insisted I join them and thus began the first of no doubt many untold rice wine benders. Copial Tuak rice wine has an 15% alcohol kick behind its pungent apple-like taste. It’s served cold (preferably) in beer-sized bottles. These guys were feeding me wine like their sperm count relied on my level of inebriation. I had three bottles in two hours, then I was badgered into sharing a fourth bottle. When someone tried to force a fifth into my hand, I fled for bed. As drunk as I was, I was still probably the most sober guy there. So how these guys were up and at work by 8:00AM the next morning when I had to sleep until 11:00AM just to feel human I will never understand. Though in my defense, they had not just recently spent a night in a plastic chair in Johor Bahru airport.

Other than small doses of random wandering, I had not had a chance to really see Kuching up until that point. Once I had re-hydrated and kick-started myself with a bowl of fire-breathing, spicy laksa (a Chinese creation with noodles, shredded chicken, pork or shrimp or all three, tofu and some veggies in a soupy concoction that usually has a coconut milk base to balance out the chili sauce, but this particular bowl was undiluted brown sauce all the way), I set out and covered most of Kuching proper. I made a stop at the Sarawak Museum which has two sections. An old section built in 1891 and a newer one that was closed for renovation at the time of my visit. The bottom floor of the old wing was split between an endlessly dreary display of amateur taxidermy of the native animals of Borneo and a shameless section devoted to Shell Oil and how their presence and oil drilling has improved everything on Borneo from the local habitat to the indigenous tribal way of life. I have a hunch that Shell is the primary benefactor of the Sarawak Museum. The second floor was much better. It was a collection on Iban tribal culture. There were pictures, tools, weapons, art, longhouse models and a full-sized walk-in longhouse display. It succeeded in getting me very amped up for my upcoming longhouse stay-over.

From there I wandered the waterfront, buying fruit and socks from various vendors and being stared at pretty much constantly. Although Kuching has a moderate amount of tourism, a Pinkie walking down the street is enough to illicit mild to intense, sustained gawking. Especially the girls. I have yet to determine if they find me curious, gorgeous or repulsive, but there you go. Some guys smile and wave and yell ‘hello’ and others are completely dismissive. I have rarely been in situations where I am without a doubt in the minority, so the constant attention was going to take some getting used to.

I ventured briefly into the modern part of Kuching, with its Hiltons, Holiday Inns and Pizza Huts. This part was busy, thick with a fug from all the cars and surprisingly off-putting. After two blocks I turned around, taking note that a large Chicken Supreme at Pizza Hut was a trifling US$5.78. Good to know for when I hit my limit for bowls of $1 noodles.

I got a line on a place that would shave my head for seven ringgit (RM), about US$1.85. I usually do this chore myself, but if you haven’t had the pleasure, getting a good, clean shave on the top and back of your head, using only one mirror, is a trial. Plus, I was promised that a lengthy head massage comes standard with a Malaysian haircut. A clean shave and a head massage for $1.85? Sold.

I was guided to a decent place by one of the guys renovating the hostel and boy was it a disaster. The barber shop was on the top floor of a shopping mall that clearly never gets western patrons. Every step I took precipitated about a dozen astounded heads whipping in my direction. I found my way to the equally stunned barber shop and indicated that I wanted to be shaved to the skin. The bravest of the bunch went to work on me. I hadn’t thought about it until I was in the chair, but suddenly it dawned on me that full-on, skin-smooth head shaving is not in vogue in Malaysia and perhaps my guy had never done it before. He and another barber conferred briefly on how to proceed before he got started. He got it right immediately, getting out his clippers and buzzing my hair down to stubble. I relaxed, figuring that it had been sorted out, but then out came the straight razor. He shaved and shaved and shaved. The contours of my head were giving him a run for his money. He went over the same spots repeatedly in an effort to get everything smooth. As you can imagine, this kind of intense going over with a razor starts to irritate the skin after about the 12th pass-over. Then, the coup de grâce, his concentration dropped for a split second and he sliced my ear open. The poor guy was mortified. He carefully dabbed at it forever with a cotton ball soaked in antiseptic and then hurriedly finished up, collected my money with a dozen accompanying ‘sorrys’ and I was gone with no head massage. My ear bled all of the way back to the hostel and cursory exploration revealed that there were still a half dozen sizable patches of neglected stubble around my head. I’ve done a better job on myself with one 30 watt light bulb, a dirty mirror and my contacts lens out.

Since I was scoring points as a minor celebrity on the street, I decided to test my popularity in a more festive, alcohol fueled atmosphere. It was a Friday night and other than the wine bender, I had been very well behaved since long before Singapore, so I dolled myself up (sprayed cologne on my least smelly shirt) and set out at 10:30 to check out some of the Lonely Planet reviewed night clubs. It was a unmitigated bust. Not only were all of the clubs 9/10 empty, but guys didn’t clamor to make my acquaintance and women didn’t all want to take turns sitting on my lap like I had envisioned. I wondered if perhaps I was just out too early, but I had been assured that all clubs in Kuching close promptly at 1:00AM and that 11:00, was definitely high-time. After touring and tentatively peering into all of the LP reviewed clubs, I doubled back to a club called Earthquake for a drink sometime after 11:00 where I asked the bartender where the hell everyone was. Despite there only being about nine people in the place, Earthquake had the music turned up to 1,285 decibels, so I wasn’t able to absorb the entirely of the bartender’s response, but I was able to make out the words “dubbu-bubba,” “blah-shmoo,” and “Saturday night.” I took this to mean that people in Kuching save themselves for Saturday night antics. Well, why the dubba-bubba didn’t anyone say that before? I downed my drink while everyone ignored me to watch a pool game going on in the corner, by far the most engaging thing happening anywhere in the Kuching, before taking my leave, walking through a gauntlet of prostitutes back to the hostel and retiring for the night.

Water taxis

The following day was probably the hottest day since I arrived in Asia, which is really saying something. I wandered aimlessly for a bit before crossing the Sungai Sarawak River in a water taxi for 50 sens (13 cents). I shared the taxi with about 12 locals, none of whom would meet my eye. From a safe distance the locals stare at you like you have two butts, however in an intimate setting they look everywhere but directly at you. If you wanna have some good clean fun, you can pretend to look at something else and when you’re certain that they’re looking at you, you whip around to look at them and they almost break their necks trying to look somewhere else. This provided non-stop delight during my stay.

On the other side of the river I found a dilapidated neighborhood with the occasional sign leading me to my goal, Fort Margherita. The Fort, completed in 1879, was formerly the first defense that Kuching had against pirates, but now it’s a police museum. I followed the signs, which directed me into a semi-abandoned fortified compound that had a sign posted directly next to the helpful Fort Margherita arrow sign warning that I was not to enter unless I had special, important, hush-hush business. The gate was wide open, the guard post was unmanned and the barbed wire was falling off the fence, so I decided to risk it. The compound actually showed signs of life on the other side of a huge courtyard, but none of these people came charging at me with bazookas and anyway there was yet another Fort Margherita telling me to follow the perimeter of the courtyard. After a few more questionable twists and turns I found myself at the back door of Fort Margherita. I cut through the building, passing a half asleep guard, emerging out the front where I read the welcome sign. The Fort had seen better days. Many of the attractions promised on welcome sign, including, oddly, a replica of an opium den, were nowhere to be found. They might have been on the second and third floors, which were sealed off, so it’s anyone’s guess.

Fort Margherita

Fort Margherita took about six minutes to soak in and I left through the front. I quickly discovered that the reason I hadn’t managed to arrive via the front was that there was only one approach from that direction and it was by means of a derelict and rotting water taxi berth. I stood on shore for a few moments, trying to plan my next move when a water taxi guy spotted me from across the river, waved at me to wait for him and then puttered across to pick me up using a nearby concrete boat launch. I pointed to the driver to take me down the same side of the river to a palace-like estate that was on my map, but not labeled. He did this and when I disembarked he demanded two ringgit (53 cents). I tried to explain that my last ride had only cost 50 sens (100 sens = one ringgit), but he was firm about the ride costing two ringgit. I gave up and paid. The palace turned out to be the Sarawak governor’s residence. Tourists are not welcomed on the governor’s property I learn quickly, but kindly, at the entrance gate. It was too bad because the grounds were golf course immaculate and I imagined it would be a nice walk. With nothing else but the tiny Kuching Gardens to keep me busy, I re-crossed the river, this time with another 10 locals for the original fee of 50 sens. So the lesson here is when you cross the river in Kuching, do it in the company of natives so the guy can’t go and charge you whatever he pleases.

By this point, I could feel that I was teetering on sun burning my newly shaved head and decided to get out of the sun at the first opportunity. This ended up being at a nameless reflexology/massage joint across from the market. I knew that in many parts of SE Asia that the girls at even the most respectably looking massage places might end the massage with a bit of an, um, “flourish” when they invite you “upstairs” to make the massage-with-two-backs if you catch my drift. This place looked safe though. As if to stress their wholesomeness they had posted several pictures at their door showing many happy westerners having their heads, hands and feet massaged, with everyone in sight being fully clothed. A one hour, full body massage was 40RM (US$10.50). You can’t get your left earlobe rubbed by a trained professional in the US for that kind of money, so as far as I was concerned this was the deal of the century and I sure wasn’t going to pass it up.

My entry interrupted the family’s viewing of some kind of Malay music awards show. There was the 50 year old mom, the 60 year old dad, the 98 year old granddad, the four year old girl and the 20-something woman. Thankfully, the 20-something girl popped up immediately to help the hesitant Pinkie. If it had been granddad I would have run for it.

It was just like a regular massage place in the States. I was led to a low lit room with those leather tables with the face holes at one end and instructed to remove my shirt and “short pants.” I went through the usual internal debate; keep the boxers or lose the boxers? On the very, very off chance that this was the “Me So Horny Reflexology Centre” I opted to keep the boxers, so as not to encourage anything. I’m glad I did. After the massage, as I was preparing leave, I saw a small sign posted on the door saying “Please do not remove your underwear you pervert!” Well, not exactly. Drop the ‘you pervert’ part and there you have it, but that’s what it was insinuating anyway.

It turned out that the unassuming, round, sweet 20-something girl was very, very strong. Tough. Powerful. This girl did not know her own strength and she did not know the meaning of the words “Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow, mommy!” I learned new Malay words that day. “Sokit.” Pain, which I used it frequently. And “tolong.” Please/Help. The girl giggled at all this carnage, but never let up. She bruise, cracked, pummeled, snapped, whacked, crushed and pulverized the living snot out of me. She especially loved to kneed my freshly shaved head and watch the skin response. This would have been alright if the suspected sunburn hadn’t set in during the massage. By the time she got to my head, the slightest touch felt like it was triggering spontaneous combustion. I came out of the room limping, sore and dazed. Mom asked how I felt. I said ‘different’ and left it at that. I sat and drank some water while we watched more of the Malay Music Awards before gathering the strength to hobble back to the hostel to pack for my longhouse trip.

Go to Kuching Part Two

Back to the travelogue index


©Leif Pettersen 2012