. . . “Two weeks later I’m on Penang Island, named after the betel nut so loved by many older men and women: all recognisable by their stained teeth and frequent spitting. It’s early in the morning: very early. Standing in the dawn light, at the colourful temple I’m unsure if I should go in. A few other tourists are also standing around, talking in low whispers, cameras around their necks.
It’s Thaipusam; a day of consecration to the Hindu deity Lord Murugen who is confusingly also called Lord Subramanian. Hindus who have made a vow to him carry frames decorated with coloured paper and flowers, fresh fruit and milk. When these tributes are placed at the feet of the deity, their penance or gratitude is accepted. Some 2000 people will carry the kavadi or silver milk containers, the 12 kilometres to the Natlukotai Temple in Waterfall Road, Penang Island on this annual pilgrimage.
“That is the ugliest animal I have ever seen’ says Nikki,my traveling mate for a few days.
With its streamlined body, long head and nose, skinny deer-like legs (3 toes front, 2 at rear) and a bristly beard along both sides of their snout, I think the Bornean bearded pig is amazing! Very laid back, ignoring the photographers and travellers in the Bako National Park it seems most efficient at digging for roots and worms in the bush and lawns, however they also hangout on the beach, browsing for food at low tide.
The pigs, and the naughty macaque, are the first animals we see as we arrive at the Sarawak Forest Dept. HQ to book into our basic accommodation.
We’ve just travelled 20-k from Kuching to Bako Village and then, under a sign warning of crocodiles, took a boat for the final 30 minutes.
During the boat ride we’re told ‘low tide wet landing, high tide dry landing’ and as we arrive at high tide use the jetty, not the beach, to land at this ‘smallest, oldest, and most visited’ of the states national parks. It spreads 27 sq k between the Sarawak and Bako rivers on the Muara Tebas peninsula with a coastline lined by steep cliffs, small bays and beaches.
Apparently Sarawak has the most number of national parks, totally protected, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves of all Malaysian States and makes up about 8% of the land. (see more on the Forestry Sarawak website)
Recommended to me by Ian Ord on either my Twitter or Facebook pages it seems the rich variety of wildlife are best seen close to the HQ which is why so many travellers come just for the day. I recommend you stay for at least one night – although my next trip will be for at least two nights: it was wonderfully peaceful when the ‘day-trippers’ left and we did a night hike with a forestry guide.
On the evening walk we saw a Culago (flying squirrel) which was great, and despite not having closed shoes, and watching the ground, I was not attacked by the terrible fire ants. We also saw swifts and their prized nests – with young in the nests they hardly fitted in.
All around park are the long-tailed macaques, compulsive thieves so be careful for both you and them – it may seem funny that they steal cans of drinks but its not good for them. It also means they become aggressive and will grab your bag if they think you could have goodies in it. Monkeys, despite looking cute, can be very violent so please don’t feed them.
Another park favourite for me were the silver leaf monkeys (silvery lutung) is sometimes called the David Beckham monkey because of its hairstyle. The silvery lutung is a medium sized monkey with a long tail, the grey-tips on its dark brown or black fur, giving it a uniform silvery appearance: the young are cute red-heads! A crest of fur runs along the top of the head, and the hair on the cheeks is long while their hands and feet are hairless, with dark coloured skin, and have opposable thumbs and toes – this means they can hold things using thumbs and fingers.
We walked a few of the many trails and at 34 degrees with 93% humidity it was wonderful to arrive at a beautiful, nearly deserted, beach where Nikki and I plunged into the cooler water. Magic.
Proboscis monkeys of course are the stars here. With their long, straight, pale tail flowing behind them they leap almost clumsily from tree to tree. They eat young shoots of indigestible foliage which is then broken down in their two stomachs. Male vanity and the need to dominate means their nose can grow to such a pendulous length they have to hold it up, or push aside to eat! It also seems the head of the harem is always on duty with his penis erect for much of the time leading to many postcards of him ‘showing his red chilli.’
Other males, lower in rank, hang out in male groups until their noses grow bigger and they have the chance to challenge the leader and so become head of the harem.
They have few predators in their natural environment – they are preyed on by crocodiles but people are its biggest threat. With the loss of lost vast areas of natural habitats to due to deforestation they appear to have been pushed into smaller, and more isolated, pockets of bush. It is listed by the IUCN as endangered in its natural environment and could face extinction: evidently very few are in captivity as they do not respond well to those conditions.
All Malaysians are foodies. Ask a local where to get the best rojak or Sarawak Laksa and they will tell you. Ask what is the best dish in this resaturant or food stall? Once again they will immediately answer you, or have an animated conversation with others at the table as they try to reach a consensus about ‘the best’.
Sarawak makes if very clear as to the grade each café or restaurant has with large A. B. or C letters on green, orange or red! A bus driver taking a group of media people ( here for the annual Rainforest World Music Festival )around the city suggested we visitors would be better to eat at places with A and B’s – however, I ate at all and had no tummy problems in my 8 weeks in the region.
Returning to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, after staying at an Iban longhouse (on the beautiful Batang Ai lake) on the my driver tells me ‘Go to stall number 25 at Topspot. That’s the one I always go to and I always have the wonderful omelette with oysters.”
A local radio station reporter introduces me to ‘the best laksa in China Street.’ We walk under Harmony Arch on Jalan Carpenter where, directly opposite the Sang Ti Miao temple, is an unpretentious but very busy Chinese hawker food hall. She is right! The laksa served there was wonderful and for the rest of my 8 weeks in East Malaysia it became the standard I used to compare various dishes of Sarawak Laksa.
For recipes about the great dish see these web pages – both here and again here. I will be interested to see what the Facebook group, Kuching food critics, and Malaysian friends, have to say about the recipes.
I have heard Sarawak Laksa being referred to as the “great Borneo breakfast” as that’s when this noddle dish with it’s spicy and sour shrimp paste and coconut gravy, is served – unlike in Singapore or peninsula Malaysia ( or New Zealand!) where it’s usually a lunch or evening meal!
On my last days in Kuching its time for the annual, 3-week, Kuching Festival Fair, where many concerts and exhibitions are held, it seems the food fair -with some 220 food and or drink stalls – is the main attraction. There for the first night, it was good to watch the fireworks as they exploded nosily, and colourfully above us.
With a city of foodies, the Sunday market, Medan Niaga Satok, is a must-visit for locals and travelers alike. Many of the stalls are open every day, so just hop into a taxi and say “Sunday market’ on any day of the week and your driver will take you straight there!
Food is not only vital when travelling, it’s also essential.
Over the past few days I have taken photos of restaurant names, Mummy’s; Wondering; Prosperity Food Centre and, Oh La Oh La Eating House … some entice you in, others leave me wondering. But it’s made me realise I had stopped taking many photos of signs – so more will follow now I’ve reminded myself .
Food is tied up with travel – for many it’s ‘where can I find vegetarian food’, halal food; while for others it’s merely looking for familiar food .. a western burger, beans on toast for breakfast, a salad, or for Chinese in New Zealand, where can I buy authentic Chinese food. It seems many cultures or races are not adventurous with food and like the tried and tested and familiar. For others, like me, trying new foods that are local to where I’m travelling is an essential part of the journey.
One of the disadvantages with solo travel is that sometimes i just want to invite myself to join a table of happy Asians who have a whole round table full of different dishes … traveling alone means I get to choose one or two dishes only for my solitary meal!
Today I’ve been pigging out or fruit: bought mango, banana, papaya, an avocado and some of those red hairy fruit rambuton and with them I had a great picnic lunch on the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu.
I nearly always go for the ‘local food’ and have no problem with Laksa Kuching or roti cani for breakfast – but, each to their own.
Arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah last night I went looking for dinner in the area around my cheap hotel: to my amazement the first place I came across was a Mexican place, the next, Mrranian. For some reason this surprised me which is absurd – I expect to be able to have world wide food in my city and the locals in this very cosmopolitan city deserve the same. However, I will be dinning in the Malay, Chinese, and other ‘ ethnic ‘ food outlets – making the most of local expertise whenever I can.
Scratch a Malay and under the surface is a food expert, critic and guide. As a young woman I shared a table with at the Kuching Fair Sarawak last week said, ‘no, I dont know how to cook … but I do know how to eat.’
Also in the capital of Sarawak (Kuching) one night I had to choose between taste or the benefits of the food. For example betweeen these:
EIght Treasures Homemade Chicken Soup (Efficiancy; Fine Tune Blood System; Loss of Appetite)
Ten Treasures Herbal Chicken Soup (Make skin; Nourish Vitality; Strenghen the Body; Relieve Heat; Neuturalise Poison )
Apart from the poison or lack of appititie I could have used all those benefits I’m sure.
I ended up with Ginger Chicken which always tastes good … and this one had lots of ginger … unfortunatly it didn’t say what it would be good for.
While staying at Diamond Cliff Resort & Spa on Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand I had a cruise cruise by a private speedboat through Phang Nga Bay, a national marine park that has stunning natural scenery.
Firstly, we explored remote sea caves aboard inflatable sea canoes, reassuringly paddled by experienced “captains” .
I also visited James Bond Island (Koh Tapu), one of the many strange and beautiful limestone karsts of Phang Nga bay. This one has achieved fame since being used as the location for Scaramanga’s secret hideaway in the film ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’.
We also cruised through mangrove forests and then on to Koh Panyi, a sea gypsy village built on stilts over the sea – a Muslim gypsy village which is bustling with hordes of tourists at lunchtime, dining and shopping for trinkets. After lunch the island transforms back to a tranquil community of fishing families.