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Made up of four independent regions – Brunei, Indonesian Borneo and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak – the island of Borneo is the largest in Asia and third-largest in the world. And with a rainforest that’s more than 130 million years old, it’s also one of the world’s most unique destinations.
You may remember that I visited the Malaysian state of Sabah on Round the World #6 and also enjoyed a bonus stopover in Brunei on my flight out. This time I was looking forward to exploring Sarawak Borneo, known to be the island’s cultural heart with a thriving indigenous population retaining the ancient traditions of the island.
My base for the next four nights, Kuching, the capital city of Malaysia’s largest state of Sarawak. After a quick flight from Kuala Lumpur, I was back in Borneo.
For the second time in a row, I exited customs expecting an airport pick-up that wasn’t there. I’d re-confirmed with my hotel, the Century Kuching, just hours before arrival so I decided to wait patiently for a bit thinking surely someone would show up. After 20 minutes I found the airport information desk and asked if they would call the hotel.
The front desk told me they had no airport pick-ups scheduled and I gave a frustrated sigh and got in a cab. Luckily the hotel was just a mile or two from the airport.
By the time I arrived at the hotel they had realized the mistake was on their end and were extremely apologetic and quickly reimbursed me for the cab.
After checking in I stopped by the concierge desk to review my options for the next few days. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do but I needed some advice. Though it was already late on Saturday night, the concierge promised to make a few calls for me the next day to try to line up an itinerary.
For my first day in Kuching I wanted to visit the popular Sunday market and then spend some time exploring the downtown waterfront area. After breakfast I returned to the concierge desk to inquire about the cost for a taxi to the market and then to drop me downtown for a couple of hours.
While I was discussing my options, the hotel brought their car around and the manager insisted that the concierge would be happy to drive me to the market and then drop me downtown. (They were obviously still feeling badly about the missed airport pick-up the night before.)
Visiting a local market is one of my favorite things to do in a new city because I think it’s a great way to get to know a place. Kuching’s Sunday market was everything I expected – smelly fish just in from the sea, local veggies and spices and a bustling crowd of Malay and Chinese families.
After the market, the concierge gave me a brief driving tour of downtown Kuching to get me oriented and then dropped me off at the waterfront. Kuching means “cat” in Malay and the cat theme runs rampant throughout the city. There are giant cat monuments in city roundabouts, cat souvenirs, the local radio station (CAT FM) and even a cat museum dedicated to all things feline.
But the jury’s still out on how Kuching actually got its name.
Historians say there were no cats in the city at the time of its founding and it’s more likely that the name came from European traders referring to it as “cochin” meaning port. Regardless, it’s definitely Borneo’s most cosmopolitan city and I preferred it immediately to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Along the south bank of the Sarawak River, Kuching’s waterfront area is a ½-mile-long esplanade lined with cafes, souvenir shops and many restored heritage buildings. I wandered for a few hours and did a little cat souvenir shopping (when in Rome) before catching a cab back to the hotel.
Plan B: Renting a Car
When I returned to the hotel I checked back with the concierge desk to see if he’d made any progress on the trips I wanted to do for the next two days. Unfortunately, he had completely struck out. It seems the local tour companies are all Chinese companies and were all closed for the Chinese New Year holiday. He had managed to find me one Malay driver who was willing to take me everywhere I wanted to go for 450 ringgit (about $134 US).
This seemed pretty high to me so I gave up on the concierge and told him I’d sort it out myself. It just seemed impossible that there was no other way to get around town other than the laborious bus system or a taxi.
After a little research on the ease of driving in Borneo, I decided to look into rental cars. I made a two-day car reservation at the airport for pick-up the next morning and scheduled the hotel’s shuttle to take me back to the airport to pick it up.
Driving in Sarawak – A Lesson in Navigational Patience
Monday morning I arrived at the airport at 8am to pick up my car and headed toward the rush hour traffic of Kuching. Because I couldn’t pick up the car until 8am, I wouldn’t make the Orang Utan rehabilitation facility in time for the morning feeding (the best time to spot them since they’re free to roam).
So I decided to just focus on the Sarawak Cultural Village and the Damai peninsula for the day.
The rental car was functional at best as it groaned each time I changed gears. I also quickly discovered it didn’t have a 4th gear (or, at least, I never found it) so driving was tricky but I eventually got the hang of it. More problematic was the lackluster effort at road signage in Kuching. I had an OK map that was rendered fairly useless by the lack of street signs.
Seriously, there were entire roundabouts that didn’t have a single sign indicating which turn-off went where. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like the driving version of musical chairs – you go round and round until the music stops and then just get off and hope you’ve made the right choice.
Luckily, I had Google maps on my phone which for some reason refused to stay in navigation mode to actually give me turn by turn directions but was agreeable to accurately pinpointing my location as I drove. So, from time to time (and anytime I felt like I was off-track) I could consult the Google map and see if the little dot on the screen was still moving in the correct direction.
Between that and a generally good sense of direction (and despite the best efforts of Kuching’s city planners), I managed to navigate my way out of downtown and across the river to the Damai peninsula.
Sarawak Cultural Village
Normally, I would skip the kind of standard tourist fare offered by most “cultural centers” but I’d heard Sarawak’s was actually well worth a visit. I’d read a little about the fascinating history of Sarawak (including its legendarily-spooky reputation for headhunters) so I figured this would be a good place to start my exploration of the area.
Set on 17 acres at the base of Mount Santubong, the village showcases the diverse cultures of this unique Malaysian state. Seven authentic ethnic houses – from the Iban longhouses to the Melanau tallhouses – surround a lake and visitors can take their time wandering among them and exploring each culture. The traditional Borneo longhouses are basically a row of dwellings and an entire village street under a single roof.
Known throughout history as the “Land of the Headhunters,” this gruesome tradition has been a part of Borneo’s indigenous culture for more than 500 years. The act of taking heads was done both by groups and lone warriors and the resulting head was then taken back to the longhouse, smoked and strung up for the others to revere. Longhouses with many heads were respected and feared by their neighbors.
Surprisingly, the practice mostly flew under the radar until WWII when British troops encouraged the local hunters to widen their target market to include Japanese soldiers. These days, any lingering rumors of headhunting are mostly sensationalized for the sake of creating intrigue and the cranial trophies are no longer on display (though they’re likely still around as disposing of them would be considered bad luck).
Today, it’s even possible to stay in a local longhouse as several have rooms for rent. Who knows, you might even discover their stash of “head” ornaments!
After spending a couple of hours exploring the cultural village, I headed down the road to the Damai Beach Resort to get a look at one of Sarawak’s most popular beaches. It wasn’t all that impressive compared to the beaches I’d seen in Sabah, near Kota Kinabalu. Slightly disappointed, I got back on the road and headed toward town to see a little more of Kuching before returning to the hotel to take care of a few loose ends for Indonesia and Fiji.
Testing the Limits of my CDW
On the way back to the hotel, the traffic was pretty heavy and as I was at a standstill approaching a roundabout I saw several motorbikes coming up quickly behind me dodging cars as if playing a game of Frogger (like they always do). Have I mentioned that I hate driving in countries with a ton of motorbikes? They never think they have to follow the rules of the road.
Stopped traffic, no problem! Just swerve around and in between those silly stopped cars. We are motorbikes, hear us roar!
But I digress…anyway, as I was innocently stopped in traffic, I heard a crunch come from the general direction of the back of my car. One of those obnoxious motorbikes, in an effort to swerve around me, had missed. And then just continued on his merry way quickly disappearing into the traffic ahead. Seriously?? Ugh.
I couldn’t get out of the car to look at the damage until I got back to the hotel and wouldn’t you know it, smashed tail light. I do always purchase the additional insurance anytime I rent overseas and my credit card provides some coverage as well so I hoped I was covered. But it was getting late and I was tired, so I figured I’d review my rental contract again and sort it out the next day.
Bako National Park
The next day it was time to get out of the city and see more of the real Borneo. One of the best things about staying in Kuching is that you don’t have to go far to see some of Sarawak’s best natural wonders. The best evidence of this is Bako National Park, located on a jagged peninsula less than an hour from the city.
Driving was, once again, an adventure but by Day 2 on the roads of Sarawak my confidence had grown along with my local road knowledge and I’d realized that signs were going to be little to no help. Best to just accept that and factor in time for a few reroutes here and there.
I wanted to arrive at Bako early so I could have the full day so I left the hotel at 7:30am and arrived just before 8:30am after a blessedly uneventful drive. Getting to Bako requires taking a boat from the dock at Bako Bazaar to park headquarters. It’s a 30-minute ride and the boats are priced for 5 people (here we go again) so it’s best to wait around and find someone to share with.
This turned out to be only a minor inconvenience and the nice lady who sold tickets for the boat said she’d try to help me out. About 10 minutes later she had a group of three and I joined them as a 4th bringing my price down from 94 ringgit to just 23 (about $7 US).
The boat you take out to the park is also the one that has to bring you back (or, at least it’s the one you’ve paid for) so when the boat man dropped us off we made arrangements for him to come back for all of us at 3:30pm. You can only reach the park when the tide is high otherwise the water is too shallow so most people either go back between 3-5pm or spend the night in one of the cabins.
Once I arrived on the island, I paid the park fee at headquarters and received my map of the trails and information on how long each trail took, etc. Based on that information, I decided to do two of the trails that led to the best beaches – Besar and Kecil – about 3-4 hours roundtrip which would give me some time to relax on the beach. I also wanted to see the Bako Sea Stacks – rock formations that are the postcard image of the park, which were located just off the beach at Kecil.
I consulted my map and hit the trail toward Besar which I was happy to discover was very well marked. For much of the first hour I was on my own on the steep trail through the jungle which is never ideal since God only knows what can happen to you on a trail in the middle of a jungle (sorry Mom!) and the sign at headquarters did say “beware of wild animals attack” and then something about the park not accepting any responsibility for the aforementioned ‘animals’ attack.
But seriously, it’s a national park and tons of people hike these trails every day and I’m pretty sure the vast majority escape serious bodily harm so it must be fine. The main area of concern for me was snakes – mostly because they give me the creeps, not because I have an irrational fear of one jumping out and killing me. So as I walked I tried to make enough noise to scare off any potential slithering creatures but not too much to thwart any monkey sightings.
Borneo is home to lots of interesting animals but probably the most fascinating is the proboscis monkey. Found only on the island of Borneo, proboscis monkeys are not the most attractive creatures with their giant noses and protruding bellies but they are one of those things you just have to see when you come to the island, if only because you won’t find them anywhere else.
I’d seen the proboscis monkeys on both of my previous stops in Borneo – Sabah and Brunei – and they definitely are fun to watch. However, I’d selected trails with the best beaches instead of the one most likely to result in monkey sightings but I figured maybe I’d be lucky and still spot a few.
I made good time on the trail for the first hour and eventually caught up to a few other hikers doing the same two trails as I was. It seemed so remote and peaceful out there but it was nice to have a little company on the trail, even if just for additional snake avoidance.
The Besar trail ended in a stunning overlook of the beach way down below but the trail that descended down to the beach had been closed for years so I’d have to settle for the view from above.
The overlook cliff was clearly marked with what seemed to me a completely unnecessary sign that said “do not go past this point” after which point it was fairly obvious (I thought) that you would likely plummet to your death. My fellow hikers, however, were not deterred and climbed right across the fence to get better photos. Fantastic, I thought, I’ll be hiking alone again!
After taking my photos from the recommended safe distance from the cliff edge, I turned back to retrace my steps and take the other turn-off for the Kecil trail. Perhaps these hikers were not the ones I should be counting on in case of emergency, I decided, and I might be better off hiking on my own. Luckily, this part of the trail was out of the jungle and not scary at all and I was enjoying hiking alone.
Thirty minutes later I arrived at the cliff-side overlook for Kecil Beach and it was just stunning. Another group of hikers arrived right before me and settled down on the rocks to have lunch while enjoying the view. (Lunch? Well now, that would’ve been a good idea.) This group also felt the need to disregard the sign indicating the recommended distance from the sheer drop-off and plopped down between the sign and the edge of the cliff…what is wrong with these people?
I had a bottle of water so I decided to rest for a few minutes and enjoy the view, albeit from a safer distance. Later I found the trail down to the beach and started the steep descent. The beach was just gorgeous and I could see the Sea Stacks in the distance but couldn’t really get a good look at them. I’d read it was possible to hire a boat from the beach at Kecil to get a close-up view of the rock formations and then drop you back at park headquarters negating the need for a 2-hour hike back through the jungle. In the now scorching mid-day heat, this was starting to sound like a genius idea.
I had kind of imagined that there might be several boats hovering around but there was just one lonely boat anchored offshore and I assumed it might belong to the small group of people already on the beach when I got there. But when I saw them head back up the trail later, I waded out into the water to inquire with the boat man about how many arms and how many legs it might cost to take me, just one person, for a tour of the Sea Stacks and back to the headquarters.
Shockingly, it was just 35 ringgit (about $10). At that point I would have paid 5 times that but certainly no need to volunteer such information to Mr. Boat Man!
On my way to grab my shoes from the beach, I passed another woman hiking solo who I’d seen earlier on the trail and asked if she wanted to go halfsies on the boat ride – since it was the only boat I felt a little bad taking it all for myself. She was game and that’s how I met Marsha, an American from Texas who’s been living overseas teaching for nearly 20 years (currently in Vietnam). She was on holiday for Chinese New Year and had spent the previous night in the park lodge.
The boat ride was excellent and extremely preferable to actually making the hike back through the jungle. And as a bonus, the second we got out of the boat back at headquarters the boat man excitedly pointed out proboscis monkeys walking on the beach.
For the record, I would like to point out that if I had done the athletic thing and hiked back I would have missed the monkeys entirely so clearly the lazier boat option was the correct choice.
Proboscis monkeys are always in groups and there were 5 or 6 of them wandering on the trees lining the beach, including a very cute baby. The other two times I’d seen the monkeys in Borneo they were high in the treetops and I didn’t get many good photos, even with my zoom lens.
But this time, there they were, right on the ground with me, galloping between trees on the beach before reaching one and ascending its branches. This time I got lots of good photos before they decided they’d had enough of the paparazzi (about a dozen of us) and headed for higher ground.
After the monkeys left, the bearded pigs I’d also read about made an appearance on the beach and I’d seen pretty much everything I hoped to. Marsha and I sat at the park restaurant overlooking the beach and chatted over a drink and before I knew it my boat arrived and it was time to head back.
Thankfully, the drive back was again uneventful and when I got back to the hotel I asked what they thought I should do about the car. They said I would probably need a police report and to get one I’d have to go to a police station. That didn’t sound appealing but I thought I’d give it a shot and with some basic directions from the hotel headed out to find the station.
It was impossible. With no address to work with my GPS was useless and no one I asked in the town on the other side of the airport where I was told I’d find one seemed to have any idea where it was. Frustrated, I did what I probably should have done in the first place and drove to the airport, walked inside to the rental counter and told them what happened.
The Collision Damage Waiver apparently didn’t cover any damage up to 2,000 ringgit so it looked like I would be on the hook for the repair. They came out and looked at the damage, made a few calls (to repair places, I assume) and came back with a price of 150 ringgit ($45).
I said fine and paid them in cash (with a receipt), figuring I probably got off easy. Another crisis narrowly averted.
The next morning it was time to head back to the airport (for the 4th time if you’re counting at home). Kuching was interesting but I’m not sure I’ll need to visit again. Although I would love to see Mulu National Park someday but that’s a good distance from Kuching.
For now, I’m more than ready to move on to Yogyakarta and get the Indonesia portion of this trip underway.
Next stop, the island of Java!