Borneo, the third largest island in the world, belongs to three countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is a fascinating destination and home to one of the oldest rainforests with some of the most diverse flora in the world. It is one of only two remaining natural habitats for the orangutan.
The island has a large indigenous population and each tribe has its own distinct language and culture. The Penan, for instance, are nomadic people who lived in the dense virgin jungles of Central Borneo; they built shelters to last a few weeks or months. The Iban, once known as ‘sea Dayaks’, built longhouses that would remain standing until the farmland surrounding it was exhausted.
Some of the tribes were headhunters. A specialty of some tribes was the crafting and accurate use of blowpipes. The ammunition used in blowpipes was a softwood plug tipped with a hardwood dart. Poison made from the sap of the Upas Tree was applied to the dart. When Sarawak was ruled by the Englishman James Brooke and his family, the family discouraged headhunting and piracy.
After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II, several thousand British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to camps in Borneo. They, along with several thousand Indonesian slave labourers, were treated very badly by the Japanese army. At one site, only six of 2,500 prisoners survived. Some native tribes became involved in guerilla warfare against the Japanese and even temporarily revived headhunting.
The Brooke family left Borneo just before the Japanese arrived. The Australian troops thankfully liberated Borneo from the Japanese in September 1945. The section of the island now known as Sarawak and Sabah became a British colony until incorporated as part of Malaysia in 1963.
I chose quite arbitrarily to visit the state of Sarawak rather than Sabah. Kuching, its capital, is easy to reach by plane from Malaysia and also from cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Sarawak was shaped by the 100 year rule of the Brooke family, starting in 1838 when James Brooke was given the title Rajah, absolute ruler of Sarawak, as a reward for helping to suppress a rebellion there.
The Brooke family modernized Sarawak and ushered in a period of relative prosperity. They protected the culture of the indigenous population and eventually banned Christian missionaries from trying to convert them. The Brookes also encouraged Chinese immigration and today almost one-third of the state’s population is Chinese.
Much of this history is captured in Sarawak’s museums. One is the Chinese History Museum where you can trace the arrival of Chinese migrants. Some came in the 19th century as contract labourers, mortgaging their freedom to brokers, and often working in gold mines and on plantations. Life was difficult but conditions were even harder in China. Later migrants made their own arrangements and became farmers and traders. Over time they organized themselves economically and dominated commerce.
Kuching is very walkable, particularly along the waterfront. Across the water is a large property bearing the name Astana. It is the house the 2nd ‘White Rajah’ built for his wife as a bridal gift. Today it is the Head of State’s residence.
There is much to see outside Kuching. The Sarawak Cultural Village, 40 minutes away by shuttle van, is situated at the foot of Mount Santubong and just a short walk from the South China Sea. Here you’ll find seven authentic ethnic houses built around a man-made lake. At 4:30 each day there are cultural dances in the auditorium.
The orangutans of Borneo
There were just a few visitors when I was there and when my shuttle van failed to arrive, a park attendant graciously agreed to drive me to a place where I could catch a ride back to Kuching. But first he had to remove an enormous turtle from the front seat of his pickup truck that he sheepishly said was a gift for his brother.
Many visitors come to see the orangutans. I went to the Semonggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which is 20 km from Kuching. The orangutans there are semi-wild and are being rehabilitated for release into the deep jungle. Most of these animals, so the brochure says, have been surrendered by previous owners or confiscated from illegal wildlife markets. Feeding hours are at 9am and 3pm and that is the best time to see them. It is easy to get transportation there via a tourist van.
The apes don’t always appear and that can be a real disappointment. I saw the apes but the world’s largest flower didn’t bloom for me at Gunung Gading National Park, two hours from Kuching. It’s called Rafflesia and it is a bit of mystery for it has no specific flowering season, no roots, leaves or stem. Instead it depends on a host vine. A flower bud takes nine months to mature and the bloom only lasts for 3 to 5 days before it starts to rot. When it’s in bloom it sends out a smell of rotting meat that attracts pollinators. Alas, there were no blooms during my stay.
Sarawak has an extensive network of protected areas with 18 national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, and five nature reserves. Balo National Park, the oldest park in the state, is located on a rocky peninsula about 30km north of Kuching; it is famous for its comical proboscis monkeys. Kubah National Park, 22km from Kuching, is known for its palms; it probably has the richest palm habitat for its size anywhere in the world. Talang Satang National Park is Sarawak’s first marine park, established to conserve the marine turtle population. Mulu Cave has the largest caves in the world.
It’s a spectacular destination with an incredible history. Get beyond Kuching. Go deep.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012