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Kuching, Borneo - General Impressions

MALAYSIA | Tuesday, 6 May 2014 | Views [1552]

 

Kuching – General Impressions     Kuching, Bako Natl. Pk, and Semenggoh (or gok)

 Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the other Malaysian province on the island of Borneo besides Sabah.  The country of Brunei lies between the two on the coast, although the two Malaysian federation states border behind the small nation in the back as well as both bordering on Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  Kuching is the cultural capital of the northern part of the island, and is a delightful city with a lively modern riverwalk and fascinating modern architecture.  It is called the City of Cats and cat sculptures are placed in strategic locations around the downtown area.  While Miri’s waterfront wasn’t developed and Kota Kinabalu’s was a working harbor, Kuching’s is for pure enjoyment.  River taxis and tourist boats ply the waterways taking people from the market area to the park by the multi-leveled round roofed legislative building.  At night the buildings and the river are lit creating a dream-like atmosphere. People come to stroll along the boardwalk to enjoy the local musicians, some singing Elvis Presley songs from the early 60s and others performing on indigenous instruments like the Sabe, to taste some of the dishes from local vendors or to shoot twirly umbrellas up into the star-filled sky and watch the blue spokes float back down to earth.  Kuching is also home to Chinese temples and the Sarawak Museum.  As it lies in a basin very near to a number of national parks, it makes a perfect base for a variety of activities.  Sarawak has 12 National Parks and 32 Wildlife Sanctuaries. Most of the wildlife sanctuaries are closed to the public, but are available to those who want to do research.  While there were far too many activities to undertake in the region, we concentrated on one national park, Bako, and one wildlife center, Semmengoh in addition to the Cultural Village and Museum. 

Kuching has the typical Malaysian cultural mix of ethnic groups with their own sections of town.  The Chinese live in the south of the city, while the Malay are in the north. When one looks at the surface, all seems to be harmonious, as it looked in KL.  The Malaysian government has a massive, and very effective to the uninitiated, P.R. campaign going on promoting the country’s rich religious diversity in the media and on stage. Behind the scenes, however, it is a distinctly Islamic country.  People in the rural communities who do not belong to any official religious institution, as they are animists, are classified as Muslim on their ID cards. Everyone needs to say what religion they are and that is clearly identified on their IDs.  Sometimes the government makes a mistake, such as with our driver who is actually a Christian but his ID said he was Muslim.  He had to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to get it changed.  His father, who still lives in the Iban longhouse near the Kalimantan border, has an ID that mistakenly classifies him as Muslim and has the wrong birth year on it, but as he is a “villager” it supposedly doesn’t matter that the information (& therefore the census) is incorrect.

 We were told there is a distinct advantage to being Muslim, which extends to admission to the university, to obtaining a government (= well-paying) job, to getting loans.

 Malaysia has a National Service that is based on a lottery like basis.  When called up they serve for three months during which time the young men (women are not involved) are required to attend mosque or church services and pray.  Those who have no religion are punished and if they refuse to serve in the army they can be imprisoned or, at the very least, heavily fined.

 An example of the preference for Islam over other religions in this officially tolerant secular state was what happened to a local hero.  Dakat (sp?) was a title given to a famous Malaysian Muslim seafarer by the government to honor his many global expeditions and service to the country.  The story I heard was that when he was caught in a storm he saw a vision of Jesus.  In some of his normal speaking engagements, he spoke about the experience, which did not sit well with the Islamic oriented government in Kuala Lumpur. He was stripped of his title, and eventually had to move to Singapore.  Singapore is an independent city-state which split from the Malaysian Federation two years after its formation.

Federation of Malaysia is a officially a secular government.  Malaysia gained independence from Britain on Sept. 16,1963. Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore agreed to join the Federation based on a promise that their lands and culture would be preserved.  Even today West Malaysians (those from the mainland peninsula) can only stay in Sarawak or Sabah for 30 days and they aren’t allowed to purchase land unless it is in cooperation with a local, which is the same policy as with all non-Malaysians.  At airport security non Borneo-Malaysians are treated like foreigners, and the check points function as if Borneo were a separate nation. The two Borneo provinces joined the Malaysian Federation because otherwise Sabah would have been given to the Philippines (which is the reason behind some of the terrorist activity today in the NE part of the territory), and Sarawak was supposed to join Indonesia. They didn’t want this as at that time Sukarno, the dictator, was in power; going with Malaysia seemed by far the better alternative as they weren’t going to be allowed self-rule.

As part of the agreement was to preserve the tribal lands and cultural ways, the lack of official recognition of native sacred ways on IDs is especially unnerving to the indigenous people of Borneo.  On the other hand, the government supports the concept of diversity; much the way the Chinese support Tibetan Buddhism, as something perhaps quaint, but if it brings in money then let the people believe what they want to.  The Sarawak Cultural Village is a private enterprise, but the Museum is governmentally supported.

 The Sarawak Cultural Village is definitely worth visiting.  I was a little skeptical as I thought it would be Disneyworld like, but it was actually as authentic as it could possibly be.  The people in the houses were all from the ethnic group they represented and were fluent in their particular traditions.  The village is laid out with houses and workshops from the major ethnic groups in Sarawak around a small lake.  There is a theater not far from the entrance where those who provide entertainment in the individual houses/log house come together for a dance performance.  Some of the performers were excellent.  One fellow in particular, was a master comedian and played with the audience with only a slight lift of his eyebrow or the side of his mouth, but his expression could be seen throughout the 500 or so seat house.  His comedy was based on spoofing his own and other’s traditional practices and was a very good way to become acquainted with the different traditions.  I’m attaching an appendix at the end of this blog on some of the notes I took about the different cultural groups represented at the Village.

Borneo landscape lends itself to legends and like in Kota Kinabalu, the Sarawak mountains have their own stories.  One that I heard was about Santupong Mountain.

 In the old days, many people from Brunei came down to the southern regions, but when there was trouble back home, they returned to help, leaving two beautiful princesses, Santupong and Sejinchong, behind.  After awhile the local people started talking about how beautiful the two Brunei girls were. The girls then began to get jealous of each other as each one wanted to catch a husband. Sejinchong was well-versed in black magic and thought that she needed to get rid of her sister, so she cast a spell that changed Santupong into a mountain. The girl remains hardened into the landscape while her sister’s magic turned on itself and destroyed her, making her disappear forever.

The Kuching Museum was a bit of a disappointment after the excellent one in Sabah and the Cultural Village. While we were there, there was a good special exhibit on the New Zealand Maori culture in one of the buildings closest to the main street.  The wood carvings portray imaginary creatures that flow into one another, while the weaponry –knives and spears – have powerful totems in intricately carved designs on their handles and sheaths. Their imagery and carvings are somewhat similar to those of the Canadian North Western First Nations designs.

 The museum also has a small Ethnographic section and a Natural History section.  The Ethnographic section was interesting, but the Sabah Museum was actually better laid out and more comprehensive than the one in Kuching. 

Kuching is close to many national parks, with Bako perhaps the closest. Bako National Park is amazingly beautiful; it is a perfect blend of rainforest and beach/waterfront and comprises "seven complete eco-systems." An excellent introduction to the park is at http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-bako.html. One needs to go through the park with a guide, and this is to protect the park’s inhabitants as well as to protect the tourists.  As we were looking at a wild boar, we overheard another guide reprimanding one of his group who had decided to go off the trail for a few steps. The guy looked fairly upset as it seemed like he didn’t want to be stuck with others and wanted to do his own thing, until the guide pointed out that he wouldn’t be aware of the dangers.  He then pointed to the tree the guy was about to have walked right by and asked if anyone saw what was in it.  It took awhile, but then a couple of us noticed a green snake coiled amid the same color green leaves.  The guide explained it was a green viper and highly toxic; a bite from him is not exactly what one wants to take back as a souvenir.

 As even the indigenous people in the area need to be careful where they tread, they often go out in pairs.  This pattern is continued with the guides, so that tourists have two people with them, one to do the spotting and the other to do the explaining.

As with all good guides, one can learn quite a bit about the place and the people, and when there are two who are knowledgeable it is a pure delight.  We were very lucky to have been shown around by two experienced young men.  Some of the tidbits for a trivia game we learned were that:

 Like the palm tree in Myanmar where every part of the tree is used, in Borneo the Nepong Palm provides tools for many different activities. The tree’s thorns are used for tattooing as well as for sewing needles.  The trunk of the tree is used for poles for fishing nets in the river, and the leaves are used for weaving. Basically nothing goes to waste.

Many of the plants are used for medicinal purposes. For example, some of the wild ferns are edible and if cooked properly are said to alleviate headaches and stomach pains. Some tribes have usages that are not shared by other groups such asthe Iban people cook the Bird’s Nest Fern’s leaves to use as a pulice for wounds, which is not a practice among other groups.  The stem of the leaf, however, is used as ties/ropes by many of the indigenous peoples.

Plants can also be an indication of habitat and if a farmer sees a pitcher plant, he knows not to try to grow anything there. Pitcher plants only grow in poor soil, like on cliffs, and are carnivorous. Crops do not grow in pitcher plant habitats.

Sometimes a plant or insects can be mistaken for other species. Rattan and bamboo, for example, are quite different although on the outside they may look similar. Rattan is solid inside and some species have spikes. The spiked one behaves like a creeper vine with light sensitive shoots that seek out sunlight.  Bako is home to seven different species of rattan.  The larger ones are used for constructing houses and furniture, while the smaller ones are for weaving thatch, bowls, plates and other containers.

 Rattan is also used for caning, which is still practiced on criminals convicted of rape or murder.  The caning, beating a person with a cane,  causes the skin to peel off the person’s back and is said to be excruciatingly painful.

 Small Rattan used to be used to create strings for the sapeh, (also spelled ‘sabe’) a lute like instrument made from a tree trunk and often decorated with intricate designs.  The sapeh traditionally had four strings, but the fellow we saw playing it in the village used a 6-wire string instrument.  The street musician on the boardwalk, however, used the more traditional instrument. Nowadays, even the locals buy synthetic strings from music stores rather than go through the lengthy process of binding the correct number and size of the fibers to create a string for a particular note.

In contrast to rattan bamboo is hollow and in addition to being used for houses, the outsides as well as floors and walls, it is used for a special musical tube zither instrument, called a pagang.  Its strings are actual strips of the tree separated from the core but attached at either end like a bubble. The bubbled strings are held up and supported by bamboo chips, which create frets.

We heard lots of sounds in the rainforest.  It is far from a quiet place.  The crickets, cicadas, frogs, and birds were all vocalizing, which created quite a cacophonous symphony.  I knew that crickets make their sound by rubbing their legs together, but was fascinated to find out that cicadas make it from their stomachs.

 At one point the guide asked us the difference between ants and termites.  I’d never thought of them in the same category before so was surprised to learn that ants and termites have the same size, move at the same speed, and have the same color. They differ in that ants have three sections to their bodies while termites have only a head and body. Both create hills, but the termite hills can be much larger than anthills. (& I’d prefer that both stay away from any house I’m responsible for.)

Among the many animals we saw in the forest, perhaps the most striking is the Proboscis Monkey as it is only found in Borneo and S…..  Contrary to popular belief not all monkey’s can eat bananas.  The Probiscus, the ones with the long hooked nose, have four stomachs that cannot digest the fruit.  They would cramp up and die if they eat bananas. Instead they eat the young leaves of the sea hibiscus plant from the mangrove swamps. They feed during low tide, which is when they can see predators like crocodiles and snakes, although the former are no longer within the confines of Bako National. Park, although they are in all the rivers throughout the entire island. We saw a number of proboscis harem communities with the dominant male and at least two females plus their young offspring.  The male protector stayed within visual contact of the females and we were warned not to get to close.

 In contrast to the probiscus, macaques can eat anything, including bananas.  They are quite clever and can open shut windows and doors; they can even open tin cans with their large canine teeth. They are not active at night, probably completely worn out from their daytime antics as they are very lively swingers, jumpers and sprinters.  There are two types of macaques in Borneo, the coastal and the larger inland species.  There is also a small population of pigtail macaques, but we didn’t see them.

 We saw a number of silver-faced langurs, though, and they are mostly vegetarian preferring young leaves to other forms of nutrition. .

 We didn’t get to see a gibbon, which is not a monkey anyway as it does not have a tail. The gibbon belongs to the ape family, like the orangutan, which we were very lucky to see in Semmengoh.

The viper from the tree that the tourist almost walked into was a Borneo Green Pit Viper and it’s bite would quite toxic; it could kill a person within 15 minutes. This brightly colored serpent can grow to about 3 m. The fangs are full of the venom and from the snake’s usual coiled position it can strike out up to a meter away. They eat lizards and little birds as they like blooded animals.  Their vision isn’t good, which makes them more vicious at night when they can see even less.  The ‘pit’ are the antenna like round spots underneath their eyes that act as motion and heat detectors and this  is how they spot both danger and prey.  These snakes do not lay eggs, but hatch the babies from their stomachs.

The bearded pigs we saw around the cafeteria as well as in the forest, have stripes around their body when young, with maturation the stripes disappear.  The wild boars help scatter seeds along the forest floor providing a richer distribution within the habitat and especially in the lower elevations, one can see ridges from the upturned earth that reminded me of mega-sized groundhog tunnels.

Other animals leaving traces in the dirt/sand include the hermit crabs. The ones we saw were considerably larger than the one my daughter had as a pet awhile ago. Hermit crabs come out in low tide about every six hours to breathe, and then go back under the sand of the mangrove swamp or beachfront.  They use whatever shell they can find and move on to a new house when they have outgrown the shell they are using.  They walk sideways because their shell digs a trench in the sand and they would otherwise have trouble maneuvering through their self-imposed ditch. Male hermit crabs are similar to people in that they can be right or left pinchered, which is like a hand. (I don’t know why this isn’t so in the female hermit crab.)

As we had only a limited amount of time in the Kuching region, we could only get to one wildlife center.  We chose Semmengoh because of the possibility to see orangutans in the wild.  When we were picked up at the hotel, the driver told us not to get our hopes up as over the last two weeks, only two apes had been seen.  They are in the wild and don’t necessarily come down for viewing, although the park rangers do put out food to attract them twice a day.  The park is in a heavily forested area and is over 600 acres so there are no guarantees that anyone will actually see the furry beasts.  We were incredibly lucky, we saw at least eight different characters; and characters they were, all with different attitudes and expressions.  Richie is the 35 year old patriarch who even the rangers give a wide berth when he comes in sight. He is very very large and his red-brown coat looks like it has been freshly brushed. His black saucer framed face showcases eyes that bore into those looking at him. His long powerful arms hang in front as he walks on all four limbs. If he were to hug you, you’d be squished. Among his harem is the grandmother, who is supposed to be over 40 years old, and who has her last young one still with her, and numerous other females of various ages.  In addition to Richie, the grandmother and her child, we saw at least five others playing on the ropes hung up for them as well as on the vines in the trees.  Some were eating the bananas, fruits and leaves the rangers had prepared at feeding stations, but mostly they just played.  We were only allowed to be there for an hour, and that time passed way too quickly as these are truly amazing creatures, with stares that seem so human.

Kuching was the most livable and enjoyable of the four cities in Borneo we visited.  Kuching’s delightful river walk is a hub of activity with vendors, street musicians, river taxis and boat tour agents all showcasing what they have to offer. It is a lively and fun scene and nicely adds to the ambiance of the Sarawak River, with the uniquely shaped Parliament Building on the far side.  Not far from the river walk is the oldest Chinese temple in Kuching the Tua Pek Kong Temple. It looks like the temple was recently repainted as the dragons and flames pop out at those passing by.  Nearby is the central market with shops for tourists as well as locals, and behind that is Little India, with a variety of Indian restaurants and clothing stores. Surrounding the smaller shops are large modern and ultra-modern malls.  Starbucks is in the mall across from the post office nearby the museum. This small city has it all, a delightful mix of cultures, modern conveniences, fascinating history, beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife.  If one had to chose one place in Borneo to visit, this would be my choice. (But not in January or February during the middle of the height of the monsoons.)

Appendix: Tribal Groups represented at the Sarawak Cultural Village

The Bidayah houses have ironwood ceilings and roofs and  use hallow bamboo for bridges.  Ironwood is brown inside, but gets darker with age and is stronger when set in water.  It is only found on Borneo and the wood lasts well up to 100 years.

 The SCV has two baruks – headhouses – an old and a new as the old one still has a head hanging in it and can’t be transplanted without a major ceremony. The headhouse is used for warriors and young men. Married men cannot go in as that way they would be saying they wanted to be warriors rather than householders.  Warriors cannot be married because if they are caught their families would be caught, traded or killed too. Women are also not allowed in the headhouse as that would bring very bad luck. The heads are trophies, but they must also be cared for,  protected, and respected otherwise they could turn on the people of the longhouse. The Bidayah are more defensive than the Iban; they only attack if they have been harmed or threatened, whereas the Iban warriors want glory and go in search of new conquests & heads.  When one captures a head, they are simultaneously getting the territory of the person, which explains why the Iban and Bidayah territories are scattered across Sarawak and into Kalimantan. The Bidayah put the head in the center of the headhouse, while the Iban put them on the verandah where the warriors also sleep.

The Dayak are both coastal and inland. The Iban are inland; Bidaya are coastal.  In 1995 there was a problem in one of the villages/longhouses and it was solved through head-hunting.   Tribal law governs in tribal territories, not Malay law.

 Adat is the traditional spirit of a place, person or animal.

 The Bidayah live on coastal hills so their women where circular rings on their ankles, arms and neck as support for lugging water and materials/rice (up to 25 kg!) up and down the hills a couple of times per day.

 The bark of a Kalong tree is used to make cloth by repeatedly pounding it soft. The bark is mixed with water and then beaten until its soft & cottonlike.

 The Iban have statues and a shrine outside the longhouse to appease the jungle spirits and keep evil away. The statues are replaced annually during the harvest festival.  There is no set number of statues.

 The walls of the Iban longhouse is made from Ironwood bark. The roof of the Bidayah house is made from palm leaves that function like a thatched roof.  The Iban cut the ironwood tree into square and rectangular shingles for their longhouse roof.  They have one room per family with their own kitchen. They have a small mansard attic for more sleeping space, whereas the Bidayah use this space for storage.

 The Iban women make sarongs on looms, each design has a separate meaning, including meanings about relationships among family members, with outsiders etc., Women need to know how to make a sarong as that is the traditional present to her future parents-in-law.  A longhouse can be extended to take 40-50 rooms/families to accommodate all the cousins and their offspring and their offspring etc.

 The Penan used to be entirely nomadic, but now only a small percentage of them are.  They live in small shelter huts that can be packed up and moved with little trouble.  The government has created programs that make it easy for the Penan to change their lifestyle by adding roads, houses and proper water & this is leading to a a shift in the traditions of the people.  The Penan use blowpipes made from ironwood, which are up to 10 ft. long and have a metal hole in the middle that takes up to a year to make. The blowpipe was used for hunting snakes, monkeys, squirrels, etc. – basically anything that would provide a meal.  The toxin on the dart only stuns the animal, the blade at the end of the blow-pipe slits the animal’s throat which is what ultimately kills it. The poison is from the latex of the apok tree. The Penan are known as the Orang Asli. The upriver people are known as the Orang Ulu –long ears - and are known for their design work and bead skills.

The Melanau all live in the same house which can easily be expanded upwards.  The house is built by the sea on large stilts. Each family has their own room, but there is a communal kitchen.  Today most of them are Christian with a very small percentage Muslim.

 The traditional shaman does not call on feminine spirits very often as the male spirits can kill and destroy, whereas the feminine spirits can only cause strife and jealousy, in other words annoy, but they can’t create a life threatening position. The shaman usually wants to use the stronger male energy.

 

 

 

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