Author: Leif Pettersen

Wet, Wet, Wet – Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

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 spent time in a butt-crack and lived to tell the tale.

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 8:00 a.m., 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” adjacent to the Borneo Hotel on Tabuan Road, 10 minutes away. The latter 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 featured on the BootsnAll hostel reservation system.

Fairy Cave
Fairy Cave
Since Kuching hasn’t gone through the trouble of posting 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.

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 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 additional tribes inhabiting Malaysian Borneo, but the Iban tribe is far and away the dominant native group in Sarawak.

Due to having no functioning time piece – the humidity had lain waste to it in Singapore – 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 dampness 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 food center that didn’t look too dodgy and settled in for a dish of noodles with something and something and pork. Ordering food in one of these food centers is pretty straightforward. You just accost one of the guys standing around who speak just enough English to get through the following dialogue:

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

Two minutes later you have a steaming bowl of noodles, meat, something and something in front of you. The “something and something” parts are entirely at the whim of whoever is manning the pots. Menus are nonexistent in these food centers, so if you have any special dietary needs you’re in for a world of uncertainly. The cooks just whip up a dish with whatever ingredients that are on hand that day and usually it’s pretty tasty. 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, intense, bursts, about 13 times a day. More accurately, and this is just my theory, 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 completely dries. 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, with beading moisture on every surface and toe-high standing water on the floor. 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.” Even in the precious few bathrooms that do have toilet paper, you will inevitably find every surface to be hopelessly wet and thus so will you be when you emerge. Frankly, the whole situation was a bit of a challenge to this recovering germophobe, but there’s no way around it and I eventually became accustomed to being perpetually damp all day. Until, of course, I entered one of the igloo-cold, air conditioned rooms which instantly froze the wetness on my body. This is just a fact of life in SE Asia, where one typically makes the transition from sweating bullets to hypothermia a dozen times a day.

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 one of the largest caves in the world – he had gotten the Fairy Cave confused with 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. The drive out to the cave was over an hour, during which time I got my first real taste of rural Sarawak. 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.

Main market
Main market
Despite it’s 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. I realized much later that this sorry flashlight was brought along for my benefit, as Stewart, like most Ibans, was perfectly capable of strolling along in the dark. (This was endlessly fascinating for me, these people couldn’t make sense of a map, but they could confidently negotiate pitch black jungles, caves, etc. Such different worlds…) 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 it’s home just beyond where we were standing. That’s all I needed to hear. We emerged from the cave muddy – even now I tell myself it was mud and not bat shit – and sweating like a container of thawed ice cream.

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 many rice wine benders. Copial Tuak rice wine has a 15% alcohol kick behind it’s 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 hadn’t just spent a night in a plastic chair in Johor Bahru airport.

Other than small doses of random wandering, I hadn’t 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 had 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 section shamelessly devoted to Shell Oil and how their presence and oil drilling had improved everything on Borneo from the local habitat to the indigenous tribal way of life. Something tells me 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 for my upcoming longhouse visit.

From the museum 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 hadn’t determine if they found me curious, gorgeous or repulsive, but there you go. The guys on the other hand either smiled, waved and yelled ‘hello’ or were completely dismissive. I have rarely been in situations where I was without a doubt in the ethnic minority and I wasn’t adjusting to the constant attention very well.

I ventured briefly into the modern part of Kuching, with its Hiltons, Holiday Inns and Pizza Huts. The area was busy, thick with a noxious fug from all the cars and generally off-putting. After two blocks I retreated, 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.

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 in the alcohol consumption arena for weeks, so I dolled myself up (sprayed cologne on my least smelly shirt) and set out at 10:30PM to check out some of the Lonely Planet reviewed night clubs. It was a unmitigated bust. Not only were all of the clubs nine tenths empty, but guys didn’t clamor to make my acquaintance and the women didn’t 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 peak-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.

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 game 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 the huge courtyard, but none of these people came charging at me with bazookas blazing and anyway there was yet another Fort Margherita sign 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, and emerging out the front where I read the welcome sign. The Fort had seen better days. Many of the attractions promised on the 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, but that’s just a guess.

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 palatial 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 was soon re-crossing the river, this time in the company of 10 locals, and thus I paid the original fee of 50 sens. So the lesson here is when you cross the river in Kuching, pile into a boat with a group of locals so the guy can’t get away with charging you whatever he pleases.

Fort Margherita
Fort Margherita
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 a, 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 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 inside of 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. Indeed, this girl did not know her own strength. She also didn’t know the meaning of the words “Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow, mommy!!!” I learned two new Malay words that day; “sokit,” meaning “pain,” which I used frequently and “tolong” meaning “please/help.” The girl giggled at all this carnage, but never let up. She bruised, 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 visit.