Malaysian Borneo was a wonderful sidetrack from our original itinerary. We had always given it strong consideration, largely on the advice of a handful of people who had been and raved. Prior to departing Canada, however, we had decided we didn’t have time in our plan. We reversed that decision after spending some fine holiday time with Carolyn’s brother, who convinced us of the immense merits of visiting the island. Some time ago Peter had traveled through all three of the island’s main areas, Malaysian Sarawak, the kingdom of Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan and he argued that if we were in the region it would be a huge shame not to include a jaunt into a few of Malaysia’s stunning national parks. How right he was! The place teems with wildlife, giant vegetation, vast cave networks and is punctuated by pleasant, easily navigated cities and towns.
We started our time in Borneo in Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak. With a population of about 300 000 people it is an exceedingly clean, safe, and well developed city functioning as the prosperous administrative centre of an economically advancing region of the world that embraces multiculturalism and diversity like few places we had been to so far on our journey. The population is split evenly between a generally well off business class from multi-generational Chinese heritage and a middle class Malay populace who dominate the public service and governance sector. The remaining 10% of the population is a rich mix of indigenous groups, South Asians of multiple origins, and a tiny faction of European extraction.
Kuching has a fascinating history, having been ruled by a line of so called “white Rajahs” from the middle of the nineteenth century right up to invasion/liberation by the Japanese during the Second World War. We found it amazing that an adventure seeking Brit could be gifted a small kingdom by a Sultan who no longer wanted the hassle of the place, and that this bloke was able to pass down the massive region to his dodgy relatives through several generations! Nepotism and politically bizarre circumstances have of course become vogue again, given our newly elected leader of the free world, but I had always read from history that this type of “Big Man” authoritarianism was more often associated with Belgian or Russian monarchs rather than with the supposedly democratically disposed British. Travel always serves up wonderful surprises, insights and reminders to check assumptions at the door.
The state capital was a great place to spend a few days to get our bearings and from which to make preparations to launch into the wilder parts of the island. The city was compact and pleasantly walkable, featuring luxuries such as pedestrian light signals and painted lanes that vehicular traffic more or less conformed to. These seemingly mundane bits of infrastructure were often terrifyingly absent in Indonesia and were warmly embraced by this foursome of carefully trained Canadians for whom obeying traffic signals falls somewhere close to a patriotic duty. We also thoroughly enjoyed several scenic, albeit steamy, river walks and short cruises. Being equatorial, Borneo is punishingly hot at midday but with the upshot that evenings seem downright cool when the temps drop to a mere 30 degrees. The Sarawak river transects the old colonial city and provides handy transport up and down town and has been nicely developed with walking paths and a ribbon of parkland along its banks. The old section of the city starts at the river and features some handsome buildings, a smart museum and several great open markets; all of the usual downtown amenities one could hope for. In our case, that also included easy walking distance to a modern cinema where we enjoyed our first hollywood offering since consuming Fantastic Beasts in Christchurch. The kids were overjoyed at this splurge of cultural familiarity and thoroughly enjoyed a viewing of a scifi who-done-it.
While in Kuching we bunked in at the Singgahsana Lodge, a funky hostel featuring basic but comfy rooms and a hip rooftop breakfast room / bar. Our offspring contributed signatures and messages to the thoroughly graffitied walls of the room, taking a worrying degree of delight in being allowed to scrawl on walls with a sharpie. After a few days stocking up on great meals, popular culture and attractive local sites, we set off to see the wilderness the island is known for.