About a week after I returned from the Gulf, I hopped onto a Silkair flight to Kuching, capital of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. Sarawak, which lies on the northwest coast of the legendary island of Borneo, is Malaysias largest but least densely populated states.
Sarawak is today rich in oil and timber resources and popular among eco-tourists, but was once better known as the land of headhunters. The Dayak tribes of Borneo (also the world's third largest island), which also comprises of the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Indonesian Kalimantan provinces, were notorious for their headhunting expeditions where skulls of slain enemies were kept as war trophies as well as for spiritual purposes.
From Kuching, we flew to the oil city of Miri in northern Sarawak where we switched to an 18-seater Twin Otter plane to Mulu. We took off rather worryingly in the rain, and flew low, not far above the deep Borneo jungle canopy and the many twining rivers snaking through this forbidden greenness that reminded me of my Amazonian adventure in 2002 (http://www.weecheng.com/2002/southam/index.htm ).
We arrived at Mulu airport, and were picked at the airport by Andy, a cute teenager who belongs to the Bisaya tribe, of which there are only 7000 members. We stayed one night at the Royal Mulu Resort, supposedly a 5-star resort set in the middle of the jungle, which runs the only decent place to stay for people wanting to visit the Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site.
This is a strange region of huge limestone caves, tunnels and rock formations, set in deep tropical rainforests. It is very sparsely populated indeed there are only two ways of reaching here by plane or a long journey by boat. What a quick way to burn a hole in one's pocket at the very end of the year.
With Liwang, our Iban jungle guide whose neck and arms hinted of an elaborate blue tattoo possibly of the sort typical of many Iban people, we visited the renowned caves of this national park, and their fabulous rock formations. New caves are being discovered all the time, and even those already discovered have not been fully explored. We did not visit the Sarawak Chamber, the worlds largest natural cave chamber (- not open to visitors anyway) more than 600m long, 400m wide and 100m high, though we did drop by the Clearwater Cave, which has a clear, fast-flowing river which runs underground for 108km.
We also visited the Deer Cave, smaller, but nevertheless large enough to contain five of Londons St Paul Cathedral or forty Boeing 747s. Blind crabs and blind prawns hide in the many small pools and puddles of the cave, while bats and swiftlets inhabit its countless naves and holes. We sat outside the cave at 5pm and witnessed over 3 million bats streaming out of the cave in strange wave-like formations to hunt for food in the jungles beyond a spectacular sight that repeats same time everyday. Like schoolchildren leaving classes at the end of the day, except that there were 3 million of them.
We got onto small motorized boats, and sped upriver to the Wind Cave, while hornbills - the state symbol of Sarawak - fluttered by. Crocodiles were probably nearby though we did not see any. Another National Geographic moment awaited us near the Wind Cave, where we saw a green snake devouring a flying lizard much larger than itself the feast lasted more than an hour. We snapped a few pictures when the snake had barely bitten the lizard and held the struggling lizard by its mouth, hanging in midair from a tree branch. What a greed snake biting more than it could handle, we thought. How could it swallow this creature much larger than itself? We got bored of it within minutes and went on to visit the cave. We emerged from the cave an hour later, and there it was, the two were still there, except that almost the entire lizard was now in the snake, probably totally crushed, leaving only its tail still sticking out of the snakes mouth. Slow but steady, the snake was probably having its two weeks worth of lunch
After Mulu, we returned to Miri, the sleepy oil city - I jokingly called it "Houston of Malaysia". The magnificent airport and clean streets hint at the wealth of this city which is sometimes nicknamed "Millionaire's Town", but it is at best a sleepy oversized village at the far edge of the jungle. Cars cruised by so slowly here that I almost fell asleep standing by the roadside.
We visited Niah Cave almost 100km south of Miri. This is another gigantic cave - it is 10 hectares by surface area and 75 meters high in some parts. The Niah Cave was where the Niah Skull was found - at 40,000 years old, this was the oldest human remain ever found in Southeast Asia. More intriguing to most Asians, Niah is a renowned source of birds nest, more specifically, the nest made by black nest swiftlets using their saliva.
The birds nest are cleaned and made into soup which is considered a great delicacy in the Chinese world and elsewhere in East Asia, with prices fetching more than US$1000 per kg. This is a gourmet dish, renowned supposedly for its ability to rejuvenate, restore youthfulness and maintain a smooth wrinkle-free complexion. For many it is an ideal gift for one's wife or mother-in-law (- yes, birds' spit for mother-in-law!). Alas, pity the poor sparrow which spends three months to build the nest
Chinese traders have been coming to the Niah Cave for more than a thousand years to buy birds nest harvested by Punan tribesmen, and today, one still see remains and foundations of the wooden buildings built by these traders. With Chinese pottery and silk, they exchanged for the birds nest which are shipped to China with the best rushed to Beijing as tribute to the Emperor. Admiral Zhenghe stopped by Borneo in his grand voyages around Asia in the 15th century, and birds nest were among the prime goods collected by his followers.
Today, the Punans still collect birds nest on rickety scaffolding and ropes hanged dozens of storeys above ground. A missed foot and a live would be lost. In some ways, the harvest were as before, although the Punans tend to be dressed in track suits instead of a simple loin cloths like their ancestors did.
We flew back to Kuching where we had good seafood and did our New Year's countdown in this City of Cat (that's what Kuching means in the Malay language). We visited the Sarawak Museum and various sights relating to the Rajah Brooke. James Brooke was a young British officer who intruded into the normally sleepy village of Kuching in 1839, got involved in a local civil war, and then made Rajah, or King of Sarawak.
Through a mixture of force and skillful diplomacy, the Brooke Dynasty expanded their dominions throughout the northwestern coast of Borneo, bringing into their rule, disparate peoples ranging from Malay and Chinese traders, Iban headhunters, Bidayuh pirates, Penan nomads and dozens of other races. The independent state of Sarawak under the Brooke last till the WWII when the Japanese invaded, and was annexed by the British after the end of the war. Today, the Brooke era was but a romantic episode of Sarawak history, remembered mainly by Western tourists and the tourism promotion authorities. Sarawak has moved on, as a member of the Malaysian Federation since 1963.
We dropped by a longhouse of the Bidayuh people in a mountainous area an hour south of Kuching, separated from Indonesia's West Kalimantan province by only a mountain. Also known as the Land Dayaks, the Bidayuhs plant dry padi on the hill slopes and fish in nearby streams. Like many of Borneo's peoples, the Bidayuh have traditionally lived in a longhouse, which is a kind of communal house or a long structure linking different individual family dwellings together. People who live in the same longhouse tend to be related and there can be as many as 100 families living in the same longhouse.
In the old days, the Bidayuhs were bitter enemies of the Iban people, who are today the largest of the "native" ethnic groups of Sarawak. They launch headhunting expeditions against each other, and kept the heads as trophies in their spirit house, which we also visited. A skull rest on a rattan basket hung in the middle of the spirit house we visited. Richard, our Iban guide (the tribes are friends now and intermarriages are common) said that people who stay overnight in these spirit houses - usually young men on initiation ceremonies - would come across strange occurrences such as rocking skulls, jumping skulls, whatever (perhaps even skulls on rock and roll and heavy metal). Whatever it is, the spirit house is not a place one would like to stay overnight.
With that, we returned to Kuching and then Singapore. End of a short but pleasant to this interesting neighbour to our east. It's the start of a new year. Where's next? I will leave it to fate!
Happy New Year and Happy Travels in 2006!