We head to the outskirts of Kuching on foot. The city is called “The city of cats”. At almost every roundabout we see figures and statues of cats, but we couldn’t understand why they are so honored here and we didn’t see much cats on the streets.
One comes to Borneo in order to see natural wonders, endemits, rare animals and plants. Historical landmarks and architectural buildings are not the strong sides of the island.
Our next destination is Gunung Gading National Park. We want to visit it in order to see the parasitic giant flower Rafflesia. Here grows a rare kind of Rafflesia that blossoms only at the territory of this park.
Biological note: Rafflesia Arnoldii is the biggest flower on earth reaching a diameter of 1 meter. Its leaf bud grows for 9 months before blossoming and is as big as a human embryonic. The huge flower stays open for just six to eight days and before it fades it emanates a strong smell of decomposing corpse. Because of its short and impossible to predict period of flowering one has to be very lucky to see one but we will try anyway. There are said to be many Rafflesia flowers at this park so, who knows, we might see an open one.
Corssing one of he many rivers that cut the roads in Borneo
We walk for an hour and a half under the hot sun till we reach the fork to Lundu Town where the entrance to the park is. We start hitchhiking and no more than 15 minutes later a luxury jeeps stops by. It is driven by an elegantly dressed driver. He is going to a nearby place just 10 km away, but insists to take us to Lundu as he says he is not occupied with anything in particular at the moment. We refuse as the distance to Lundu is 100 km. but he keeps insisting. Soon we fly direction Lundu and enjoy an air-conditioner for the first time.
Before we entered the car the outside temperature was 40 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) and we started feeling dizzy waiting on the road. Our driver turns out to be a rum bird – he is a professor at the university though he looks like a businessman. He belongs to the ethnic group Bidayuh, one that we have never heard of till now, but this is normal as there are so many ethnic groups in Borneo. He told us that most of the Bidayuh are Christian Evangelists and go to church every Sunday. His name is Joshua and has five brothers and four sisters. He speaks in a low, flat tone and doesn’t seem very interested in us. He doesn’t ask us where we come from or what we do. We drive in silence most of the time and at the end he leaves us at the center of the town with an air of someone who did his duty.
A pavilion at the park Guning Gading
We reach the fork to the park and sit to eat in a pavilion. It is 6 p.m. now, the park closes and we decide to try and enter through the main entrance. There is still light from the sun and we know that the path with the Rafflesia flowers is no more than 30-40 minutes walking distance.
The Rafflesia flower and its magical intent
The guard at the door spends some time wondering who these two strange guys coming on foot at this time of the day are. We tell him we want to walk for 20 minutes inside the park. Obviously the improbability of the situation is too much for him as all tourists come with organized transport and guides and he receives a brain freeze and lets us in without requesting us to pay any entrance fee. We start running but we don’t see even a bud of the Rafflesia flower. We read some information signs where they say that the best chance to see the blossoming flower is during the rain season, which is September-December. Nevertheless the forest is amazing. We see giant liana vines hanging everywhere and the trees are enormous. We feel like we are in a fairy tale.
The most amazing facts that we read on the information signs could be summarized in few words: statistically the Rafflesia cannot and does not exist 🙂 It is a special kind of flower that lives parasitically on liana (vines), genus Tetrastigma. In this genus there are more than 90 species of vines, but the ones that can support the parasitic flower are just 5 or 6. To put it in perspective: from the tens of thousands kinds of vines and liana in the jungle, the Rafflesia depends only on just a few of them in order to survive. It doesn’t have a stem, leaves or roots and depends 100% on its host. So far so good, but this is the easy part.
The Rfflesia bud is growing for 9 months and during that time termites and all other kinds of insects and animals can destroy it, not to mention the human beings who search for Rafflesia and take the buds because it is a part of several Chinese medicine remedies. So at the end just 10-18 % of all the buds survive and blossom. Here comes the next problem. The flower is open for just 6-7 days and during that time it needs flies and insects to land first on the male plant and then on the female, but they often blossom in different periods.
In addition the flowers are far from one another and so in order for the fruit to form the fly must find male and female flowers that blossom close to one another and to land on both ot them. Then the squirrels are the animals that are most likely to eat the fruit and spread the seeds with their excrement. And here comes the biggest mystery of all. How exactly the excrement of the squirrel will land on the vine Tetrastigma, which is the only plant they can grow on? There are millions of plants in the jungle and this kind of vine is not so wide spread.
To understand this you need to know that on the area of 10 square kilometers inside the equatorial jungle in Borneo there are more kinds of plants than in Europe and north America put together. Nowadays the Rafflesia is in the black list of IUCN as critically endangered mostly due to the mass tree cutting and its specific life cycle.
This whole information makes us think. There is an old Hindu text written thousands of years ago that talks about the wise-man and hermit Dattatreya who had 24 instead of 1 guru. He could find sources of knowledge even among the lowest of creatures. Some of his teachers were a pigeon, a black bee, a fish, the ocean, a child, an arrow sharpener, a prostitute, an elephant, etc.
We see a teacher in this flower too. Although that according to all mathematical and statistical laws it is very unlikely or even not possible to exist, its big flowers emanate stinky smell deep into the jungle and make all calculations and numbers irrelevant. From this flower we learn that every form of existence has a huge potential and is not always dependent on corroborated and established laws. This shows us that no matter how improbable an event is it might happen anyway. We know that there is an intent for life and personal intent, but Rafflesia shows us that sometimes there is a force that alters the laws of nature itself. Even if everything seems established and easy to predict our intent is more than enough to change the direction of our life and achieve anything we want.
Every time something seem impossible or unattainable to you remember that there is one living being on earth that depends only on the chance that a squirrel will take a shit exactly on one rare kind of liana.
After the walk we go back to the pavilion and it starts raining cats and dogs. Some local boys, who have come here to play traditional ball games, also come under the shelter. It is dark already and the boys ask us where we will sleep in this rain. We tell them we will go to a beach that is 10-15 km away. Suddenly one of the boys hops on his bike and drives away. In 5 minutes he comes with a car driven by his father. They have come to take us to the beach. We try to tell them that there is no need for this but they insist. Today people help us greatly for the second time. They leave us at Siar Beach, but as it is still raining so we hide in the pavilion of a near-by hotel. Later we pitch our tent on the beach hoping that the high tide won’t reach us.
All night long coconuts keep falling next to our tent, we have seen the palms and pitched the tent under the sky between two trees. Next to us there was a group of Iban people who had a very crazy party till late. They listened to electronic music and western retro hits, shouted, drank, made barbecue and so on. We have seen so crazy parties only in Bulgaria. The people told us they are Christians too. Obviously James Brook “The white raja” had managed to spread widely Christianity during the British colonialism.
In the morning we wake up a little bit dizzy. The beach is very nice and has just a few small hotels and several bungalows, so we decide to stay one more day and rest. Here, as well as in Malaysia and Thailand, one can pitch their tent almost anywhere and people behave as if this is the most normal thing to do and don’t even notice it, even if it is on the beach right in front of a hotel.
It is Saturday so there are many people taking a holiday, most of them Chinese from Kuching. It looks like people in Borneo live a calm and nice life. Almost everyone goes somewhere in the nature during the weekend. In one of the hotels there is even a Christian group of some kind who play different instruments, shout the name Jesus and hug each other.
Our tenacious attempts to decipher the dynamic of the tides failed epically on this beach. Here we witnessed a high tide that continued for a whole day and the low tide was in the afternoon, for just two hours.
In the evening the boys from the Iban ethnic group come again bringing their guitars. We couldn’t imagine that we will see such wild parties on the beaches of Asia. We passed through so many countries and this is the first place we see fires, guitars and local people throwing it big. It is a little bit hard to fall asleep because of the shouting but it is fun.
The next “must-see” thing in Borneo after the long-nosed monkeys and the Rafflesia flower are the orangutan. Orangutan live only on Borneo and Sumatra and their population is small and they are endangered. Good that here they have implemented special programs for protecting them. We want to visit Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where 26 adult orangutan live. The population is semi-wild, they live freely into the jungle, but in the morning and in the afternoon they are left food near the main office.
Visitors are allowed to enter only during meal time when the chance to see an orangutan is quite big. It will be very difficult to see orangutan into the wild and that is why we chose this center where we will see them in their natural environment.
We start hitchhiking and the first car to stop is with a boy and a girl inside who are Chinese, Catholics and speak in English to each other. They leave us at Bau town and head to some lake for a picnic. We sit under a tree at the exit of the town in order to eat and a lady comes. She asks us where we are going somewhat worriedly. At the end she says she is going to a place close to the Wildlife Center and offers to take us there. She and here sister are from the Iban ethnic group and are really nice. They tell us that Sarawak State is mainly Christian, something we have already witnessed ourselves. The mosques and the people from the Malay ethnic group are a very small number. In the cities live mainly Chinese and in the villages are Iban and Bidayuh.
The two Iban women
They leave us at the entrance of the center at 3 p.m. – exactly when the orangutan are being given food. We pay the entrance fee of 10 ringgit (2,30 Euro) happy to know that the money goes for protecting the orangutan and not for building resorts. We rush to the place where tourists gather. Still there is not one orangutan. There are three different areas where fruits are put and one can never be sure if the orangutan will come. Several guards walk around with walkie-talkies and tell the tourists if any orangutan shows up.
Shortly a male and a female with her baby come. It is amazing to watch them swing on the branches and perform acrobatic tricks. Their face expressions are just like those of a human. The male is huge, weighing over 100 kilograms. If it hits you it will knock you down or kill you. The orangutan here are so used to people that they don’t pay them any attention. We know that into the wild if you enter their territory it could be very dangerous.
Even here they have taken some security measures as there is no fence between the people and the orangutan. Tourists are not allowed to carry tripods or umbrellas because the orangutan might see them as weapons. One is also not allowed to bring in water or food. We watch them for an hour and then the guards tell us it is time to leave.
It is still relatively early so we decide to hitchhike. Two local boys take us to the main road and we start to wait. Though this is the so called highway connecting the two parts of the Malaysian part of Borneo, and there are a lot of cars passing by, no one stops. In 30-40 minutes fate smiles at us. A luxury jeeps stops and from inside peeks a big guy who looks a little bit scary, with the typical Muslim beard, a big gold chain-let and with Indian looks. If his wife and two girls weren’t on the front seat we would have considered whether to get in.
But as often happens the looks are deceiving and the guy turns out to be really sweet and even helps us to find a place for our tent later. He is from Bangladesh, but lived his whole life in Borneo. We drive at 150 km/h and listen loud Indian house music. He leaves us 3 km. after the town of Serian inside the Ranchan Recreational Forest. We find a place next to a waterfall and start cooking. It is Sunday today so there are many people from the Iban ethnic group. They are all in tattoos and already quite drunk. When it gets dark all people leave.
Before we go to bed an ant stings me and at night the already familiar to us micro ants attack us again. They are so small that one can barely see them. You don’t feel when they bite you but then it itches the same like if a mosquito has bitten you. We even wake up at 2-3 a.m. to seek for the mysterious mosquito and it takes us half an hour to find out that the ants are to blame. They have come inside in order to eat the coco-nut we’ve left inside.
I feel really tired and don’t get better till 1 p.m. We drink some coca-cola at a local restaurant and head to the main road. It is again 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit). We wait for quite some time but console ourselves that we are waiting for OUR car. In an hour it comes 🙂 Inside it are two rich Chinese who have just come back from their vacation in Japan and take us to our next destination Sri Aman, which is 130 km away. On the road we stop at a restaurant and they buy us bao zi (steamed, stuffed Chinese bread) and give us a tropical, local fruit called soursop, which we have never eaten before. They leave is in the center of Sri Aman and invite us to visit them later at their place in the town they live in.
Danger of crocodiles!
We wanted to come in Sri Aman in order to see the special wave that raises here during high tide. The tide is so huge that this phenomenon occurs at this town, which is 30 km upstream, far from the sea. When the moon and the sun conjure in a certain way the wave is so big that one can ride surf and the locals organize a festival.
This year this is supposed to happen on May 5. We are two week early, but we hope to see some wave even if it is a small one. When we arrive it is high tide time and the river is flowing backwards – quite and impressive view. We have to wait for the wave to come tomorrow.
Sri Aman is a small town but we have plenty to see and do while we are waiting for the wave. As all towns in Malaysia that have a strategic location, here live mainly Chinese people. At the coastal alley there is a big Chinese temple, we also see the tomb of one of the first Chinese settlers who died in the 1800s. We visit a market for fruits, vegetables and many kinds of strange foods – the place is very interesting to see. Climate here is so specific that even tomatoes can’t grow. While looking at the vegetables at the market we recognize just the egg-plants and the cucumbers and even they are some unknown to us variation. Here they sell some huge wild larva called sago worms, snails and many kinds of fish and lobsters.
People in Borneo also grow high quality white and black pepper. The price is 6 Euro per kilo, ten times cheaper than in Europe. Some of the fruits are: delicious papayas, wild durians gathered in the jungle, tasty bananas and some unknown to us other kinds.
Fort Alice (all British forts in Borneo have female names)
We head to the historical fort and hope to see some hidden glade where we can stay for the night. We’ve just pitched our tent when a group of young people gather at the alley next to us. Again nobody seems to care about the tent. An eccentric Chinese stops to talk to us about his favorite Spanish movies. All smile at us and greet us.
We spend the whole day waiting for the high tide. Nobody knows when it will occur and if there is going to be a wave. We move on the other side of the fort but a bunch of alcoholics come to talk to us. After a while we move again. Before this we launder our clothes in the public laundromats. It costs 1 Euro per laundry which is quite a good price and we manage to wash our sleeping bags. We visit fort Alice built by the white rajas. There is no entrance fee and the toilet has showers inside so we get 2 in 1 – a shower and a museum 🙂
In the afternoon the tide is supposed to happen. We install ourselves next to the river. Mr. Shushtari goes to the laundromat and I write some sentence in the notepad. When I raise my head I see the river already flowing backwards – no wave. We are somewhat disappointed, but obviously the this is not the time. Anyway we are don’t regret it we came to Sri Aman. In two hours the water level raises more than two meters, which is quite impressive as we are so far from the ocean.
The river start flowing backwards
In the evning we move to another spot, far from the alcoholics and the young peoples’ gatherings.
We pack our bags and get ready to leave when it starts raining, so we go to visit the market again and to look for an Internet cafe where to stay till the rain stops. The market is one of the biggest and cheapest in Sarawak State. The vendors are mainly from the Iban ethnic group and offer their own production of vegetables or herbs and roots gathered in the jungle. We see many unknown to us vegetables and spices that could be seen only in Borneo.
Sour local fruit
We look for an Internet cafe which turns out to be not so easy endeavor. Finally we find one next to the fort, on the second floor with no signs outside. Usually we sit in front of a computer once a week and we stayed for 6 hours. There is 1 hour left till dusk but we don’t want to spend another night in Sri Aman so we set out. We have noticed that leaving late almost always brings surprises and improbable events 🙂
The night of the teacher-bodybuilder
We start walking towards the outskirts. Then next to us stops a brand new jeep and inside it is a smiling Chinese with athletic body. He offers to help us and though he doesn’t go anywhere in particular he decides to take us to the main road, which is 10 km away. He is an English teacher and his hobby is bodybuilding. We ask him if there are many tourists coming to Sri Aman and he says that we are the first one he sees 🙂
We arrive at the main road and start hitchhiking. There are not many cars passing by. Soon a luxury jeep stops. The man driving it goes to the close-by town Engkilili, 30 km away. What is the chance this guy to be Chinese, English teacher, with his hobby being bodybuilding? Around 0%. But he is exactly this. There is obviously some restructuring of the 3D time-space continuum 🙂 This evening is of the Chinese English teachers driving luxury jeeps and being bodybuilders.
The entrance to Engkilili
We decide to sleep at Engkilili as it is long passed dusk time. The teacher named Raymond says we can pitch our tent anywhere in the town, but then invites us at his place. He proudly states: “I’m a Roman Catholic”. He tell us he was born in the capital Kuching and then was sent to teach at some small school next to the border with Indonesia. The school could be reached only by boat back then. Now he lives in a huge rented house on the other side of the river that is full of crocodiles.
The bridge to the teacher’s house
The house of Raymond is haunted by ghosts, according to the locals, because some time ago an old man died and his body stayed for a few days before it was discovered. Raymond told us he had never seen ghosts up to now.
The haunted house
Before Raymond rented the house he had lived in an old Chinese shop at the main street. To summarize: he is a teacher in a school, which is deep into the jungle, he lives in a haunted house, drives a luxury jeep, his salary is 750 Euro (3000 ringgit), his father is a politician and lives in another town and Raymond is very into bodybuilding. The table in the kitchen is covered in protein shake boxes that cost 50 Euro each, small mice run around hiding in the corners and there is a small tarantula living in the bathroom.
The bodybuilding gymnasium built by Raymond for the kids at the school
Weight tow-bars for children
He accommodates us in one bedroom and goes to play video games. At some point we manage to talk to him. He tells us why the Engkilili Chinese Temple is so big: every year there is a big Chinese festival here and all gods are invited to come to earth. In this town people invite 9 instead of 1 deity and that’s why they need more space. He explains that the gods possess someones body during the festival procession and that the person starts waving his hands and move in a way that really seems supernatural.
We get up a 5:30 a.m. in order to go visit Raymond’s school. There are several typical for the region long houses where Ibans live. They are no old but anyway are interesting to see.
We eat noodles at a local Chinese eatery and head to the school. They have build recently a dirt road and we travel on it. The area is very beautiful, all is green and morning mists crawl over the town. The school is 15 km away and the village it is in doesn’t have Internet or even mobile network coverage.
We arrive at the school, which is well maintained, with colorful walls with many drawings and joyous atmosphere. The interesting thing is that children come illegally from Indonesia to study here. They walk 4 hours through the jungle and pass the border freely as there are no check points. The parents “smuggle” their kids and talk to people from the long houses to enlist them as Malaysians and to study at the school that offers free accommodation and food. Sometimes kids come back to their homes for the holidays. We have never heard about such kind of illegal pupils up to now.
A classroom at the school
Raymond starts working and we go around the village. Someone is building new brick house next to the school. The long houses are made of wood and are on piles. Every family has their own rooms but all share a big porch. The new house that looks like storage hall now is still unfinished. To our surprise people here speak some English and in addition are very friendly.
The building site of the new long house
People point us to the old part of the village where most inhabitants have built separate houses and the old long house has almost fallen apart and just two families live there. An old woman peeks from the porch and invites us to tea. People put a carpet next to the pepper drying on the porch and we sit to drink tea and eat cookies. The husband of the woman is Chinese and we speak about crocodiles, spices, durians and the like.
The old house
Visiting the Iban people
Ibans don’t like doing business or working, but prefer to gather things from the jungle and plant their own vegetables. They love alcohol, dances and tattoos. They are very out going. Most of them are Christians and our hosts belong to the Anglican Church. They are peaceful now but in the past things were different. They have been vicious warriors and just 50-60 years ago practiced head hunting. We will explain this in details further. Now we will explore the long houses and learn more about their culture.
A local guy hunting for “something”
Life in the village is slow and calm – as in all villages around the world. We head to the river. A man pops from the jungle carrying a bag of some twigs that he explains he uses to prepare some special sauce. He crosses the river and disappears. While we walk in the jungle across the river we find out that what we thought were bushes were actually plants and fruit trees grown by the locals. We see papayas, durians, mangosteens (the most delicious tropical fruit according to me). the bushes are actually tapioca, edible ferns, etc.
Raymond finishes school at 1 p.m. We go back to Engkilili, eat together at a Chinese restaurant and at 3 p.m. we are back on the road.
Lunch with Raymond
Boiled fern leaves from the jungle
A local takes us to the main road. I don’t need to tell you what he does for living, right? 🙂 Of course he is a teacher, this time not a bodybuilder at least. Then a boy drives us to Batang Ai Dam. We have heard this is a beautiful place worth visiting, but the long house there turns out to be some expensive resort and one can enter only by boat.
So we decide to continue to Saratok – the town where the two Chinese guy we met earlier, who came back from Japan live. A very friendly Bidayuh takes to the fork for Saratok. We call our friends and one of them named Zhong comes to take us right away.
He accommodates us at a house where the workers from his swallow nest factory live. We have our own room and our neighbors are sweet. In the evening we go around the town. Zhong is very friendly and all the time treats us to some strange local specialties: fern, water spinach and more.
Traditional Borneo meal