07.08.2009 - 27.08.2009
Greetings from the lovely city of Kuching in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, in the town centre there is a fort, a palace, a parliament, 2 mosques, a Hindu temple, 2 Buddhist temples, an Anglican and Catholic cathedral and even a Gurdwara. One street starts off as Chinatown before becoming little Lebanon and finishes as Little India and the areas are connected by two 'harmony arches'; so I think it's fair to say it's a slightly more interesting and pleasanter place than Angeles where I wrote the previous email. It's Ramadan at the moment so every night they have 'eating parties' just after sunset and so have found myself eating around 4 plates of roti a night for about $1, so yeah I like it here!
Which is perhaps a nice summary of Borneo, it's been a cracking few weeks and after some of the difficulties of traveling in The Philippines it's been great being somewhere so relaxed yet with so much to do.
The word Borneo conjures up images of distant plantations from a Somerset Maugham story and miles upon miles of untouched wilderness, but that image has now long since passed. The coastal part is in places heavily populated, there's simply too many resources in the interior to be left alone and it's also surprisingly touristy. But it is touristy for very good reasons, it's got a fantastic array of things to see and do and plenty of traditional culture left too.
Borneo is a somewhat unusual tourism destination in that it has both visitors on a budget but also upper mid range to top end too with the golf courses and spa resorts that come with it, even the Blairs were here on holiday much to the delight of the local tabs. Indeed it's been so successful at marketing itself that at this time of year it has arguably too many visitors. I noticed that in the cities and smaller attractions there were few people around but at the bigger attractions suddenly lots of air conditioned minivans would turn up and you'd be swarmed with middle aged Europeans and Australians on holiday. In conversations with some of them (somewhat amusingly) they often seemed to be quite hacked off as they were promised a 'untouched Borneo experience' with the images that conjures up. In reality they seemed to be paying often hundreds of dollars a day to find they were also seeing the orangutans with about 300 other people. But like somewhere like Venice you've got to look past the crowds and really appreciate quite how great a place it is.
The first major thing I did was to climb Mt Kinabalu which at 4100m is the highest mountain between Papua and the Himalayas. It's either a very easy 2 day climb or a pretty tough 1 day climb. Luckily I was fit enough to make it in 1 day but only 4 out of 8 people that tried made it when I was there, The huge influx of high end tourists (apparently it only really started about 10 yrs ago) has also unfortunately also led to terrible price inflation. the problem is that if you want to stay the night the mountain hut costs $100 for a dormitory bed! My guide said that it used to cost $10 and was very popular with Malaysians, when they realized how much money they could make they put the price up and now locals crazily simply can't afford to do it. Nonetheless it has a great summit shaped like a granite crown of thorns and you can see for miles and miles at the top. But expectations that it would be forest were wrong as it's now mainly palm oil plantations you can see. Borneo is one of the earths great lungs but along with the Mato Grosso in Brazil is perhaps the foremost area in the fight to conserve the world's forests. In Brazil it's been the razing of the forests for grazing land that's done the damage but here it's the hugely profitable palm plantations which are extremely impressive in their size (sometimes hundreds to thousands of acres) but are perhaps a bit dull to look at. The other major issue is deforestation for timber which is an acute problem. Borneo has some of the worlds best hardwoods and the money being generated is quite incredible, in the outskirts of cities like Miri and Sibu at the mouths of the regions rivers there are plenty of unbelievably opulent houses owned (costing $30-50m) by the timber barons and whilst much of it is legal and a vital source of income its going at an estimated 5 times above a sustainable rate so its fair to say the illegal sources are at least as numerous as the legal ones.
And then it was on to wonderful Brunei. I knew as soon as I got there that this tiny absolute monarchy would be my kind of place. Borneo used to be called Brunei and the entire island (as well as bits of The Philippines) used to be under the command of the sultan, over time the British (under the command of the adventurer Rajah James Brooke and his descendents) whittled its size down to less than 1% of Borneos land area that exists now. But in the '30's they discovered oil and it has since become one of the strangest societies in the world. There's no income or corporation tax, healthcare and education are completely free, newly married couples are given interest free loans to build a house and every once in a while the Sultan gives a gift to the nation in the form of something like a washing machine or dishwasher for every household. Who needs Harriet Harman and democracy eh?
Whilst he's lost his title as the worlds richest man in recent years his brother Jefri has managed to keep the family in the international media spotlight. The oil is due to run out in some 20-30yrs and so sensibly the Sultan decided to set up a ministry to look at ways of ensuring the high standard of living currently enjoyed for the future. Jefri 'The Playboy Prince' became the minister in charge and basically he wasn't very good at it. He managed to lose an estimated $30billion in ways which almost defy belief; entire books could be written on it but amongst my favorite anecdotes are: sending his private plane home from the UK to pick up his polo boots so he could play with Prince Charles the next day, losing $30million in one sitting at a casino in Macau and commissioning a megayacht called 'Tits' with the 2 support boats called 'Nipple 1' and 'Nipple 2'. Unsurprisingly when the sultan found out he wasn't too happy but after a long legal case mysteriously decided to drop all charges (probably because the money was irretrievable).
One of the ways he envisaged Brunei could make money in the future was by tourism and the most visible relic of this is the Empire Hotel. It's one of the most amazing hotels in the world and amongst other things has a cinema, a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, 16 swimming pools and a beautiful white and gold interior. The problem was that he demanded that everything be made using 24 carat gold (even rugs and curtains) and the price tag eventually came to $1.1billion. Even at 90% full it would still take 65 yrs to break even and they've been reduced to offering rooms for around $100 a person as maybe a couple of hundred guests are outnumbered by staff in the huge complex. They let you walk around freely however and one of the things we did was to take afternoon tea there.
You may think this doesn't sound like me and you'd be right because Brunei is one of the few countries in the world to be completely 'dry'. When entering the country your bag gets searched for alcohol and it's not even available at the Western hotels like it is in other Muslim countries. There isn't even the hookah pipe and tea drinking culture that exists further West however, so by about 9pm the entire country shuts down and its catchily named capital Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghosttown. It does mean you hardly spend any money and along with the free museums and mosques it turned out to be a really surprisingly cheap place to visit. My best memory however of this brilliantly eccentric place is the water village which makes up half of the population of BSB. You can walk around it on these precarious walkways about 15ft above the water and at sunset all the kids come out and start flying their kites- it's not a bad spot to be.
After Brunei I flew to the awesome Gunung Mulu national park in Sarawak. It's situated in the middle of the jungle and is either a very long boat ride or a 30min flight above the unending canopy to one of the worlds most spectacular national parks. Ignoring the spectacular pinnacles rock formation, and incredible caves (2nd largest chamber, 10th longest and biggest system by air volume) my favourite bit was the bats. About 5pm every night between 2-3m leave in a constant flight for about 30 mins in a strange sort of corkscrew formation. I'd never seen anything quite like it and the sheer volume and noise of the bats flying above you was something I won't forget anytime soon.
The wildlife experiences have been fantastic, from snorkeling in reefs of perfect islands off the coast to seeing the bizarre bearded pigs in the wild there's been a lot to see. Far and away though the biggest attractions are the monkeys. You see the annoyingly naughty macaques a lot and in a couple of places the extremely ugly proboscis monkeys but everyones faves are the Orangutans or jungle men as they're known here. There are a couple of rehabilitation centres for ones that have been rescued from zoos or been kept as pets and they really do let you get surprisingly close. Thought to be amongst the 2 or 3 most intelligent animals they can also be very aggressive and you're given stern warnings about what to do if they attack before you can see them but after seeing them twice there were no Rue Morgue like incidents and I could only see them as kindred as with not having cut my hair or shaved for a while I am starting to look like them.
Malaysia is made up of an interesting mix of ethnicities, whilst the Peninsula is dominated by Malays Borneo is mainly made up of Chinese (who tend to control the resources) and also by its world famous indigenous tribes. They've cashed in on their fame and history as headhunters and masters of the jungle and have set up various tourist friendly longhouses to stay in but in reality they now drive cars, watch satellite TV and have converted to Christianity. I thought I'd try and find a modern community and after taking a boat 3hrs upriver and via some pretty patchy information from local people I walked/hitched to a longhouse community in the jungle that was off the beaten track somewhat. I got there at 9.30am and was pretty shocked to find all the men and any boys above about 14 absolutely smashed, as in falling over themselves drunk. Whenever they start to build a new longhouse (literally a long building with apartments for several families but with a shared common area along its length) they have a big party. They'd been drinking since 6 that morning and were (literally) falling over themselves to get me to down the horrid arak (local rice wine) with them. I couldn't really get all that much out of them but a couple of them were wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts and drunkenly started a singalong when I said I liked them too.
Perhaps not the stereotypical image the tourist board likes to promote but an enjoyably realistic one!
So it has been a great couple of weeks in this fantastic island, it has become so popular with tourists because of the variety of its attractions but that hasn't really diminished anything for me. And now I found myself in the lovely capital of Kuching from where tonight I'll take a fairly scary flight to Jakarta as I arrive at about 11pm for a month in Java and onwards.