Sarawak, Borneo: a land of paradoxes

Borneo – the land of hornbills, head-hunters, orang-utans and ‘where adventure lives’ according to many travel brochures: it could also be called the land of paradoxes.

Lots of cats … Kuching waterfront.

For instance, Kuching, capital of Sarawak, East Malaysia, means cat, but the city was not named after a cat; it has a Sunday market that’s open on Saturday (and other days) and an India Street that has very few Indian shops.

Easy to love, this walkable city has a racial mix of about 23% Malay, 25% Chinese and 49% Dayaks, the collective name for the indigenous tribes, Sarawak epitomises the tourism tagline: Malaysia, truly Asia.

Walking down Bishopgate Street to Carpenter Street I talk to a Chinese man whose family have been ‘special makers of fancy coffins’ for three generations; across the road a man’s making cake tins on the footpath; around the corner Malay women are making their famous Kek Lapis, an intricate, colourful layer cake, and alongside my waterfront accommodation, a heavily, traditionally-tattooed Iban woman, creates delicious vegetarian meals to order.

Sarawak Laksa has local pepper in it!

Like all travellers in this national geographic showpiece, I want to see the endangered orang-utan. Just out of the city, at the Semenggoh Centre, about 70 people attend the twice-daily feeding. Free to range throughout this 300-hectare (740-acre) greenbelt there is no guarantee they will come to the feeding stations. We’re also warned to obey the staff as they have no control over their charges and photos show injured workers as proof!

Sarawak .. music and orang-utans for me next month!

At the feeding station a mother and week-old baby appear: despite being told to keep quiet, it’s hard to ooh and aah quietly! They’re delightful, the mother uses all four limbs interchangeably and sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s her feet or hands she’s hanging from. She eats numerous ‘hotel-bananas’ as the little lady-finger bananas are called by locals as ‘all hotels serve them’, and a ripple of muted laughter spreads through the camera-clicking tourists when the baby tries to take one. A radio message comes for the ranger – Richie, the huge dominant male has made one of his rare appearances at the other feeding station and one by one we return down the track to where he is feeding.

He is huge! This ‘man-of-the-jungle’ has large cheek-flaps showing he is the king of this jungle and apparently he has already dispatched one pretender to the throne. A young male also arrives for a hand-out but keeps well away from Richie. As he crosses the rope that allows them to travel high above us, he stops to stare down at us, hanging mid-air like a kid on a school jungle gym. I have to laugh; he looks as though he is showing off to us, his DNA relatives, who are not so agile. Continuing on he shimmies down a vine and rope beside the small bridge we have just crossed and is given fruit. Richie just continues eating, a solid lump of muscle sitting on his man-made wooden picnic table.


Two young women are warned to come back from the end of the viewing platform ‘until Richie leaves’ – I wouldn’t want to be in his way. He walks upright; with each step, his long hair sways just like a shampoo commercial. He stops and stares, or maybe glares, and I send a message of hope that the heart of Borneo will always be secure for him, and with one more stop and stare he strides off without a backward glance

He knows he’s safe from us physically but most travellers here are well aware of his need of our protection and, despite international concerns, it seems Sarawak is working to secure the orang-utans future, not an easy task.

Like some TV adverts say ‘but wait, there’s more’ in this fabulous area of East Malaysia: add a kayak trip from one Bidayuh village to the next; spend time at an Iban longhouse and of course, eat the delicious local food and explore the many excellent, free, museums. The three-day Rainforest World Music Festival  (10-12 July 2020– set in the Cultural Village at Damai – is a must-attend for great local and international performers. I’ve been a few times and just love it!

Rafly … everyone’s favourite at one Rainforest World Music Festival


Mathew – a virtuoso on the sape

Also unique to this 3rd-largest island in the world, Borneo is the Proboscis monkeys. With a long straight pale tail, they leap clumsily from tree to tree and eating young shoots of indigestible foliage which breaks 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 to eat! Other males, lower in rank, have almost human or Pinocchio shaped noses and hang out in male groups until it grows bigger and they have the chance to challenge the leader and become the head of the harem. They are easy to see at the wonderful Bako National Park.

proboscis monkey – even more endangered than the orangutan!

Borneo conjures up images of exotic adventures, an eccentric history, a White Rajah, wild animals, mystery and romance: my first travels there delivered, and I (the Kiwitravelwriter) soon returned to the land of head-hunters for even more exploring!

No posts for a while – I’m on the road again

strange nose – sort of like the proboscis monkey

I know many bloggers and travel writers do blog while on the road – I rarely do! However, I will be posting a photo a day.

Why? Well, I’m always too busy ‘doing’ ‘observing’ ‘photographing’ – as well as eating and generally ‘experiencing’ rather than writing.

As some of you know I will be at music and cultural festivals, I’ll also be exploring and hiking in national parks, snorkeling in warm waters, and, and and – so lots to follow in my daily photos and then the future blogs on this site.

So, if you want to follow my travels in Malaysia, (Sabah, Sarawak Penang, & KL) and Mongolia) follow me on my Traveling Writer Facebook page, and/or my KiwiTravelWriter Instagram page as I plan on posting a photo a day during my adventures over the five weeks I’m on the road. (I’m leaving NZ 30th June and back on 7th August)

Then, if you want to read my blogs after I have digested all I saw and experienced on these travels (And get notified by email as they are published) make sure you sign up for this blog on the top right of this blog page.

Now I will zip up my bags and head off to  the airport – see you back here in August.

Of course you can read any of the some 1300 blogs I’ve written since 2008 – just use the search box by topic, country, year or word.


20th #RWMF in Malaysian Borneo – music music music


Rafly … everyone’s favourite at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2013
Lots of cats … Kuching waterfront.

The Rainforest World Music Festival is an amazingly eclectic group of international ethnic and folk musicians performing. It lasts 3 days and the musicians, as well as performing on one of the two main stages each evening, they also lead amazing workshops.

Part of the beautiful Cultural Village grounds used for the festival

All this happening in the Sarawak Cultural Village  only a short distance from The City of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

I’ve been to the festival three times, and my fourth magical weekend starts in 51 days – at the 20th Festival (14-16 July 2017) This award-winning festival has, this year, musicians from: USA, Wales, China, Malaysia, Belgium, South Africa, UK/India, Cape Verde, Guinea, Colombia, Tahiti, Finland – to name just a few! As I said, eclectic with a capital E. Check the performers list on the #RWMF website – and follow the hashtags. (and this blog of course – more links to my social media here)

A typical day starts around 2pm with many workshops and interactive activities with the bands and other performers in the wonderful setting. It goes on until midnight, culminating with a live performance from each band on the main stage to a large, and always, enthusiastic crowd.

It’s not fair to try to sort out my favourites to check out, but I will. They are: Two South African bands – Abavuki and Kelele  – who will be performing at the #RWMF) at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

  • Abavuki means ‘Wake up, early birds!’ in the Xhosa language, and it seems they will offer “energetic and multi-instrumental performances which mix traditional rhythms of the South African people as well as more modern styles of kwaito, samba and Jazz.”

Based in Cape Town, it seems Abavuki’s high-energy afro-beat music “reflects their optimistic outlook on life, music-making and the resilience of the South African people.”

  • Kelele –  a minimal-instrument band – use their voices as the focal instrument.

They are keeping traditions alive with melody and harmony, maintaining the age-old African oral tradition of storytelling through song, passing on history, folktales and lessons in life over generations.

Accompanied by tradition instruments like the mbira dzavha dzimu (the finger piano), the uhadi (the traditional bow instrument of the AbeXhosa people), the umrhubhe (another bowed instrument) and the talking drum of the Nigerian Yoruba people.

  • On a very different note – and continent – I’m also looking forward to hearing Pareaso from Korea. These four young musicians will blend “serene spirituality and rhythmic pulse on the daegeum, geomongo, saenghwang,  janggu, gayageum and vocals”.

Of course, with so many to choose my favourites from, I have no doubt that when I next read the bios about more talented musicians, I will add more to my list.

Will I see you there? Who are you looking forward to hearing and, or, dancing to?

Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF




Love music? Meet me in Malaysia!



Rainforest World Music Festival August 2015 – its really good to see the Drumming Circle will be back this year with 1DRUM.Org – so meet me in the circle!

Here are some pics from last year.

IMG_2649 IMG_2658 IMG_2663 IMG_2669



Orangutans need our protection

Sepilok staff, the orang-utan minders, remind us to keep noise to a minimum, to keep our belongings safe from the naughty, inquisitive macaques and, after wiping our feet on a disinfectant-drenched mat – to help reduce contamination of their space with our human bugs – we walk to the platform area.

watermarked-sepilok IMG_7362

This is where the orang-utans, often orphans,  who have graduated from the nursery (learning  essential skills they would usually learn from their mother) to this ‘outdoor nursery’ where these young ‘wild men of Borneo’ are now learning jungle skills and where they’re fed with supplements of  fruit and milk.  The aim of the centre is to help them become independent and integrated into the wild population.

I overhear a group talking. ‘I’d pay much more to come here’ which is fine for our western bank account but not for many locals. I believe it is great locals are coming as it’s these very families who will save the forests the animals need. They cannot be saved only by the western or tourist dollar – even though that is essential.  If tourists such as I heard talking are ‘happy to pay more’ I suggest they make a donation or ‘adopt’ one of the orphans not that the Sepilok increase the price. Open twice daily, this is one of the few places that admission prices are the same for Malays and non-Malay.

I stayed only a few minutes away from Sepilok at the wonderful Sepilok Jungle Resort  where I received some of the best, most efficient service of any accommodation places in the region.  They were hosting me, but I also noticed how solicitous they were with a girl who arrived with infected insect bites, arranging for a car to take her and a parent to the Dr.

A family run business, which started in 1991, they have planted all the trees in the beautiful landscaped gardens and it’s a peaceful place to stay – I also saw my first hornbills there.  With raised walkways connecting accommodation, pool, jacuzzi, reception, and café, it’s good for bird spotting.  Even better, it’s only five minutes from the popular Sepilok rehabilitation centre and I walk there to see the current inhabitants. More about the Jungle Reserve in another blog.

Nice welcome board
Nice welcome board

A night and whisky with the Borneo Headhunters

A frisson of fear runs through me as I step into the canoe on the man-made lake as I leave for a night with the Borneo Headhunters – the Iban tribe in their Nanga Mengka longhouse.

Ironically, it’s a man-made lake, Batang Ai, created for power generation, that I’m travelling on to stay with a displaced tribe whose region was drowned and who now have generator power for about 3 hours each evening.  Dry season means the lake is low with dead trees poking above the water and the banks showing the usual level. Our boat has very little freeway and it feels as if it could easily tip over and I have fears for my camera!

my boat arrives
my boat arrives
drowned trees and farms
drowned trees and farms

The boat is full with supplies and we too have bought many vegetables and meat for our hosts. I also have bought my gifts for the 37 families.  Using a recommendation from my guide I have 37 kilo bags of salt, one of the essential commodities they need to buy, and 80 lollipops, along with some colourful kiwi-pens, from New Zealand, for the children of the 37 homes within this longhouse.

Our boatman nearly slips as he climbs the steep bank to get up to the homes on stilts.  We pass a carved wooden figure that guards the complex and I’m soon introduced to the family I’m staying with. They have turns as being the host family and I’m staying with the 73-year old chief – a role he’s held for 30 years.  Although it’s a hereditary role, if his son does not want it, an election will be held among the men.

we arrive at the longhouse
we arrive at the longhouse
We approach the longhouse
We approach the longhouse




The human heads that this tribe had acquired over many generations of head-hunting were buried within their old longhouse when their valley was flooded: there are none in this new home.  Interestingly they still build canoes for the lake in the same way as they used on the river and I watched as they were adzing a new one that had been ordered, one of their ways of earning cash. It usually takes about 4 weeks working full-time but this time many men and women are occupied with it to get cash for the longhouse.



With our language differences, it’s not easy to communicate with this extended family and I had dreaded the welcome and the accompanying drink. They make a wine and then distil it to make a 20% proof ‘whisky’. As I am allergic to all alcohol I had learnt the word pantang which means forbidden, a term they will respect without me seeming rude in refusing it. I had also told my guide and think he had forewarned them and it was not a problem.

home-made whisky
home-made whisky

The only problem was me trying to emulate the dance they welcomed me with. I felt, and no doubt looked like, a clumsy elephant among the graceful hornbills they were dancing as. Only about half of the families joined in the welcome which finished when the whisky’ bottle was empty.

a celebration meal is prepared with the food we bought
a celebration meal is prepared with the food we bought


My bed, in the long communal corridor room that the ‘doors’ lead off, is a blow-up mattress and I cut my liquids in the hopes I don’t have to go to the toilet in the night – it didn’t work and I hear the roosters at 3, 4, 5, and 6am. I know the time as they have three chiming clocks: one is stuck at 6.29 but the pendulum is still rotating left them right.  The other two are about 30 seconds out of sync with each other so 2am produces 4 chimes and 6am, 12!

My bed in the communal area .. opposite the Chiefs dood
My bed in the communal area .. opposite the Chiefs door

Another noise I heard from 9pm until 5am is a very regular noise, rather like a cicada. It chirped every 60 seconds or so, and in the morning I ask Wayne, my guide, who is also Iban so can translate for me.  The longhouse is in a fuss about it. Seems the same noise had been  heard a few nights earlier and some of the men had gone outside to find and find it. Nothing was found and they were left wondering, was it a ‘bird, a frog, cicada’ or the top choice, ‘a spirit-bird’?

IMG_4296Morning saw me successfully having a lesson with the blow pipe and manage to hit the target each time and then we went for a BBQ picnic lunch of traditional foods  at one of their local farms.

I do hope they get enough money hosting people as it seems some of the families don’t really want to engage with visitors and being the only one made it hard for me too.  On the noticeboard I see this is their peak month for visitors, I’m the only overnight guest, with 38 day-trippers during this July.

Leaving the longhouse, on a Sunday, I’m asked if we can take three children back for their schooling where they stay Sunday to Friday. Of course I willingly agree to that – it means the transport for them and a few mothers is free, the fuel being paid for by my trip and I suspect this may be of most value to them all. Earlier in the morning others had left, leaving behind crying younger siblings and a couple crying themselves.

As I’m dropped off at the Hilton as they go on to main jetty, my guide tells me ‘Heather your trip has helped a lot of people today.’  Maybe, but it feels obscene to be going from poverty to luxury. From the locals tiny global footprint to the guests here, like me, with a huge print on the earth.

This experience reminded me of  the hard work behind survival in remote places and how it depends on a strong sense of community and self-sufficiency  but it’s now a community  quite dependent on tourism – and children who send money back from their city jobs.  As with all traditions worldwide many of these will die out too despite the help to try to keep them alive. We also cannot expect people to stay living in poor conditions while all around them, and the tourists, have hot water, power and a far easier life

Ugly animals, endangered monkeys, and a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia

“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.IMG_3666

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.

The naughty macaque!
The naughty macaque!

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.

the cute babies are red for a few months
the cute lutung babies are red for a few months
cute hairstyle on the silver-leaf monkey
the ‘Beckham’ hairstyle on the silver-leaf monkey say many locals
great swimming spot
great swimming spot

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.

Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey – this one is waiting for his nose to grow!

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.


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