I can’t help but clear up the air in my previous post about Singapore being a shotgun 48 hours before I left for the states. In truth I had planned to be there for an entire week before my flight, but as soon as I landed my reservations began. Singapore is a beautiful city don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t get over the fact that something was missing, something I’ve come to know so well during my time abroad. What I needed was one last drink of nature in all of her glory before I could definitively say my trip was a wrap.
The mountains are calling and I must go.John Muir
While facing this dilemma I was in conversations with Lou, someone I met while traveling through Java Island who’s now in Sabah, about what to do in this pickle. After a few text exchanges I hatched up the wild idea of meeting up with her in Borneo, but this time Sarawak. With neither of us needing much convincing I booked the very next flight to Kuching and we decided to rendezvous at Singgahsana Lodge. This would split my weeklong stay in Singapore with a much needed retreat back into the bosom of mother nature. I was ready and psyched for my last adventure, but filled with joy to see a familiar face again in Lou.
SIDEBAR: one of the reasons I love traveling is meeting unsuspecting people whom you end up becoming great friends with. No matter where you come from in the world when you’re out here you have one thing in mind: experience as much as possible. That experience is made sweeter when you can randomly contact the other person, ask where they are, and if they want to meet up at so and so location. Friends made during your travels are friends you keep forever.
Sarawak is a Malaysian state located on Borneo Island where it shares borders with Brunei, Sabah (also a Malaysian state), and Indonesia to its south. The state is known for its dense forest, most of it protected parkland and very sublime, while Kuching, its capital, is bustling city nestled on the Sarawak River, a perfect jump off place. Our list of things we wanted to do was short with an even shorter time to do it in because I only had three full days on the island before jetting back to Singapore. After deliberation on our first night we decided to explore:
We figured that having a duo experience of culture and nature will make us both extremely happy. With the next few days plan under wraps we decided to hit the hay and get ample rest for a banzai blitz that awaits.
After a hearty breakfast at one of the local cafes we set off to find a scooter to rent for the next few days. These aren’t hard to come by as there was a shop around the corner with a couple of good steeds for hire. From our hostel to Sarawak Cultural Village was only 40KM, not entirely daring, but straight forward. Without further delays I set off with Lou on the back acting as navigator.
What was supposed to be a 45 minute ride took almost twice as long as communications on turns were broken down. I forgot when you drive on the left side of the road you have to pay more attention than usual, entirely my fault. Small detours out of the way we made it to the village which boast itself as Sarawak’s only living museum. The day was already stifling once disembarked from our scoot and rolled into its parking spot. First thing you’ll notice is the faint scent of sea air followed by waves of nothingness. It was serenely quiet even for a mid morning, but that changed all too well once the tourist bus rolls in. We quickly made haste for the ticketing office.
Sprawling over seventeen acres of land you can find a plethora of replica houses that represent every major ethnic group in Sarawak. From the Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, Penan, Melanau, Malay and Chinese, all was represented well. Each house is accompanied by staff that have origins within each ethnic group, carrying out traditional activities. They’re both for demonstrative and more importantly educational purposes. Because this center is after all a place where you can learn about all the tribes that live in Sarawak. The ticket booth also gives you a mini passport book in which you can collect stamps from each of the houses. Think of it as a scavenger hunt for those with wanderlust!
Lou had wanted to visit all of the longhouses before the last cultural show, of which there are two shows daily at 11:30AM and 4PM. It was already lunchtime by the time we got into the grounds because you can already see people from the first show being let out into the world. Behind them was the last flutter or air-con, even a little breeze of condensed cool air gave me something to look forward to that afternoon.
We took a leisurely counter clockwise route, away from the crowds and taking our time in each longhouse to explore. From the get-go you can already tell how different the groups lived from one another by just the way they built their homes. Some lower to the ground and in a yurt fashion while others took to the skies, high above the lush jungle. If Goldilocks came here she would’ve a very difficult time finding the one just right for her.
My two favorite house has to be the Iban Longhouse for its openness and the heavy sound of its drums and gongs. The other, Orang Ulu Longhouse, boasts styling reminiscent of Polynesian origins, and their string instrument like the Sape and Jatung Utang produced quite the melodic tune. You can really get lost in checking out how, with minimal tools at hand, these groups of ethnic people were able to fashion homes that met not only their needs of survival, but also defend against one another. Fortunately everyone gets along just right here!
While I was busy collecting stamps in my mini passport Lou was taking up the opportunity to converse with the staff in each of the longhouse. Having a living museum makes learning about the local culture not only easier, but fun! Each house had their own distinct activities, whether it be creating instruments for entertainment, bows and arrows for hunting, prep and cooking, or making traditional jewelry. Having someone like Lou with you is vital because her mind never stops wanting to learn. Her curiosity becomes intoxicatingly contagious and soon you find yourself joining in on all the activities.
Before long the day was winding down and my mini passport was filled with all seven seals we made our way back to the starting point. With the last cultural show almost underway we made haste to get the best seats in the house. Plus the air-con was on full blast, need I say more? As the theater seats were getting filled up, us in the second row, I soaked in all the cold air coming off from the vents like a sponge. Take it from me that Borneo is by far the hottest place I have traveled to in my short time on this earth.
Eventually the lights started to dim, music ramping up through the overhead speakers and the audience went into hushing. On stage a warrior appeared in traditional garbs with a wooden shield and spear almost twice his size. His stature commanded attention as he slowly crept along the stage, sometimes making eye contact with anyone who dared look him in the face. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a show like this where cultural people were on display, showcasing their lives past, present and where it can go in the future.
Each longhouse was represented on stage one by one performing their hearts out to the masses that came to watch. It was yet another glimpse into the lives of the people whom have lived on this island since time immemorial. From the traditional instruments strumming along, dancers showcasing their best moves, and even a makeshift hunt for a balloon with a blowgun and willing crowd participant, it was a show I thoroughly enjoyed. There was even a big dance number at the end, but no spoilers from me though!
The show ended to thunderous applause while the cast all took their bows to a standing ovation. I turned to Lou who was still brimming with a smile and just knew that experiences like these are hard to come by often in our normal lives. Soaked it up proper we did. As the lights all came back on we gathered our things and moseyed on out of there. Our day had been a long and hot one and the ride back even longer. We walked by the beach to soak up some restful moments before throwing a leg back over the steed. I was properly beat by the time we arrived back in Kuching, signs showing you it was a good day.
I was the first to wake the next morning, eager to get going in my excitement of heading to Bako National Park. A friend I made in Thailand months before told me I needed to visit this place if I ever find myself in Borneo. I want to let you know I made it, Nickle! Established in 1957, it is the oldest national park in Sarawak. It covers an area of 27.27 square kilometers at the tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula at the mouth of the Bako and Kuching Rivers. Our daypacks ready, bellies full of toast and coffee, our scooter awaiting to rock we started the 24km journey to the carpark and boat jetty. Yes, part of today’s journey will have us riding a boat!
Once at the jetty you’ll find the ticket office, sort of. You can park your scooter for the day and purchase both your entrance ticket and fare for the boat over. This trip can be a day trip, which for us it was, or you can spend a night in the park, but plan accommodations ahead for this one! After conversing back and forth with the ticket lady she informed us the last ferry boat back to the carpark leaves around 2PM so we best be done and back by then.
The ride over on the boat, and I am being generous when I say boat, built up the anticipation that awaited us. From the bustling Sungai Tabo river it led into the vast emptiness of the South China Sea, you couldn’t help but feel secluded. Once we got closer to the park the views from our boat was of lush, green vegetation and cliffs stretching hundreds of meters up. Think of the opening scene from Jurassic Park 3 minus the super angry pterodactyl coming to scoop you up.
We headed towards base camp where there was a cafeteria, information desk, but most importantly bathrooms. Lou went ahead and grabbed a couple of trail maps, super handy when you’re on the island with little service, while I stocked up on water, very important to keep hydrated. We convened in the cafe to go over how much time we had plus the trails we wanted to do. Most are easy out and back, but don’t let that fool you on the distance, some are short and filled with steep terrain. Our time constraint was the biggest factor in the trail decision but we decided on the following:
- Telok Pandan Kecil (2.6KM and part of the Tajor Trail)
- Tanjung Rhu (4.2KM and part of the Tajor Trail)
- Tanjung Sapi (700M)
Tajor Trail would be our longest hike of the day, about 12KM out and back, making it the first trek the smart thing to do. Both of us were excited to see Bornean bearded pigs, proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and any other critters we might happen to run into. The first thing I noticed was how excruciatingly hot it was. We were doing this hike with the sun at its peak with little to no shade on the trails. Temperatures that day was a steady 95 degrees with no end in sight. Oppressing was the only way to describe it, this was place was HOT. Pack a TON of water.
With the sun beating down on us we headed to the lookout point at Telok Pandan Kecil. I took this opportunity to dive deeper into everything that made Lou, Lou. I enjoy these moments to create genuine conversations with the people I am traveling with. We can share our lives past and present and things that got us to where we are. She was a great sport about the whole thing, considering when we first met we pretty much disliked each other! Our conversations past the time and the terrain we were trekking through seemed a breeze in comparison to the unrelenting heat. By the time we reached the lookout, which is breathtaking, I’ve grown to enjoy Lou’s company more, though I can’t say she felt the same, ha!
I would highly recommend this trail to anyone coming to Bako to hike. The views at the end were downright worth it! Do be careful of the cliffs as one slip and it’s seriously ALL OVER. When I was there some park rangers were putting up a fence to block off the more sketchy areas, but I still dangled at the edge. In front of you was the vast South China Sea and below was a quaint little beach with a couple of people resembling ants. The mix of lush green trees against the emerald sea was sublime. We even saw our boat captain pulling up to the beach below us. Our hellos were unrequited from that high of a distance.
From here we ventured over to Tanjung Rhu as it was on the same Tajor Trail. During this stint I noticed our water supply running low, had half left, and I started to fret. After 45 minutes from the juncture we had arrived to an empty spot. The view compared to Pandan Kecil wasn’t as epic due to the sun now hidden behind the clouds, providing shade, and the barriers keeping you back a safe distance were in place. Knowing me I hopped over the barriers, carefully of course, and took a seat to notice all the rock formations across the small headland. It was later when I was sending images to Nickle about Bako that we realized we’d been in the exact same spot, taking the exact same photo!
One of the draws of coming to Bako was to see as much wild animals as possible, mainly the proboscis monkeys, but up until now we hadn’t see any! Until Lou started hearing the trees rustle well beyond our walking path. She signaled to stop dead in our tracks as if under some militant operation in the dark of night. When everything calmed down you can start to hear faint howls coming from the tree line. A quick flash of something swinging through the tree caught our eyes. Soon after this we were a witness to two proboscis monkeys playing about on the branches high above. We all stood in silence just enjoying the sight of wild animals in their natural habitat. It warmed my heart knowing these animals, native to only Borneo, still have a home among all of man’s modernization.
After our little animal sight seeing we finally made it to Tanjung Sapi trail. At 700M it is the shortest trail in the park but by no means an easy one. This was littered with steep elevation rises and drops over some really jagged rocks you don’t want to find yourself falling over on. You’ll be climbing up and over massive tree roots so best to pay attention to your footing.
After you’ve mastered this path it opens up to a seemingly remote beach with vast views of the ocean. Lou and I found ourselves to be the only souls within any shouting distance, a little bit of paradise. I really wish I had thought to bring my bathing shorts as the water seemed too inviting for the hot day we were having to endure. We hung out a bit, watching the waves crash against a few of the rock formations on the beach, all the while debating on just swimming in our birthday suits. In hindsight the dip would have brought immense relief!
Our time was ticking down ever so quickly that if we were to make the 2PM ferry back it meant we had to leave pronto. Getting back to headquarters provided no headaches and neither did the clan of long-tailed macaques that kept us company on the path. Do remember these are wild animals so take caution when they are around, they will take your stuff! We made it back with ample time to spare thanks to our entourage that we settled in for a quick bite in their cafe and loaded up on more water!
Before leaving Bako National Park I saw a monkey digging through trash and literally eating plastic bags and all things inedible. This was quite a sad sight to see as there was just trash littered everywhere. I am not saying that the monkeys didn’t go into the cans themselves or that people carelessly tossed their rubbish out, but seeing that image made it quite hard to forget. Your friendly reminder to bring out what you brought in, be weary of local floral and fauna and treat the earth with the same respect you’d treat your grandparents!
The ferry was actually on time unlike most things running in Asia that caught me by surprised. We loaded up our group from the morning’s ride, threw a smile at our captain and we were heading back towards the carpark. Zipping away from Bako with the tiny little engine humming along I was happy that we made the decision to visit this park. It’s equal parts lovely as it’s still wild. If you do get to come here I would suggest taking the 2D1N option because simply the park has so much to offer and having a few hours is simply not enough.
Kuching is more than just a cultural and national park stop, the city, its people and the food are in equal parts worth the detour. The waterfront is a huge draw at any time during the year for its picturesque views, and streets lined with shops and eateries, it’s hard to beat. I spent my last full day just meandering around, eating to my heart’s content and soaking up the vibes knowing full well I would be home soon. If you caught yourself out here then definitely check out some of these places.
What and Where to Eat
You cannot leave Kuching without trying the Sarawak Laksa! With stiff competition from the likes of Penang’s asam laksa, the Sarawak laksa hold its own ground despite being less known. This laksa features a shrimp-based broth that is less tangy than its counterpart. Toss in a mixture of sambal belacan, sour tamarind, lemongrass (yum) and a host of other herbs and spices you have a meal ready to be eaten for lunch of dinner!
If sweets are your thing, and they definitely are for Lou, then walk down the waterfront and have your try at kek lapis (Sarawak layer cake.) Found all over Malaysia what sets Sarawak’s layer cake apart is their intricate design and colors. One look at a stand and you will understand, all I needed was one bite to grasp it! Cake lovers beware these things are addicting!
Other notable mentions you should visit are:
- Kyushigai (yakitori lovers you got to go here)
- Borneo Delight (good old fashioned homestyle eats)
- Ceylonese Restaurant Sdn Bhd (excellent Indian food!)
- Wind Meal Cafe (breakfast in a jiff)
- Topspot Food Court (Hawker center with ample options)
- Bear Garden (unassuming little bar, great options, cheap!)
- Pinggai Cafe (great lunch spot with amazing drinks)
Barter Until You Drop
In need of picking up some souvenirs or practice more of that bartering skill of yours? Head over to Jalan Main Bazaar and barter away! This street is lined with shop after shop with all kinds of things you can’t even think of. From clothes, to mugs, shot glasses, miniature carvings of animals all the way to medicinal medicine, it seriously has it all. Be weary though, the shop patrons here drive a mean bargain and they don’t back down so easily!
Soak in the Waterfront
While your here make sure to spend time enjoying the waterfront. Head to a café, order a beer and soak up the setting sun while the day winds down. Other options include visiting the Square Tower or heading over to Darul Hana Bridge for the best sunset views in my humble opinion of course. While on the bridge you’ll have excellent vantage points of the Dural Hana Musical Fountain and the Masjid Terapung Kuching (Kuching Floating Mosque.)
My second visit to Borneo, on much of a whim as my first one, gave me more than what I could have asked for. I contemplated a lot on my decision to book a flight home while I was still in Indonesia. I thought at the time it was a good moment to come home, see friends and family, have a proper sleep, eat a proper meal. But the weeks after the purchase I felt something telling me “ya you fucked up.” So I did what any sensible young lad would do in his desperate attempt to delay heading back to the real world: I flew to Borneo. My second time here, on as much of a whim as my first introduction, was nothing short of special.
I wanted to soak up nature and drink her in as much as I could one final time. I wanted to take a boat to a remote mountain, hike in the excruciating midday heat for views like this. I wanted to get away from my decisions, from life, from the inevitable of coming home.
I wanted to soak up nature and drink her in as much as I could
My biggest thanks has to go out to Lou for just hopping on a plane and meeting me on a random Tuesday because I didn’t want to be stuck in the big city anymore. But also for indulging my sense of adventure and being on board with all my crazy antics during those few days away from the outside world. This short getaway made me realized my trip wasn’t coming to end, rather this was just the intermission before the next act. There’s always a next act 😎