Travel in Malaysia - Kuching // Rajahs, Pirates and Chill People

A colonial city with a history of British White Rajahs befriending Sultans to fight pirates, Kuching has a bunch of epic stories to tell and a number of very friendly locals  to tell them. Located as it is on the North West Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, at the bottom reaches of the South China Sea, the region has a long history of homing immigrants from an array of Asian countries. This means that native Malays from diverse tribes mingle with Chinese and Indian immigrants, mixing culture, language and cuisine. Curried Laksa is served next to Dim Sum at Hawker stands around the corner from western style bars selling everything from local Tuak rice wine to Korean soju.

Eavesdrop on any conversation and you’ll hear first-hand the intertwining of cultures, as locals change seamlessly from Malay to Chinese to English in single sentences. A faux-annoyed ‘laa’ serves as a cheeky reminder of the way locals appropriate and connect through humour in their shared languages.

Kuching is a place where everyone and no one belongs and it’s this unique identity that shapes the local’s cheery attitudes towards tourists. So although you might come for the food and the wildlife, you’ll stay for the charm of the local people and their easy-going attitudes. Many come here expecting Orangutans but they leave having discovered that Borneo offers so much more.

Source: BTA

Sarawak’s Monkey-filled National Parks 

While, sadly, large portions of Borneo’s rainforests have been sold off to make way for sleazy palm oil plantations, the rainforest still seems as abundant as ever thanks to numerous conservation projects and wildlife rehabilitation centres in the region, with as many as nine national parks within a day trip from the city, the most notable being Kubah, Santubong and Bako National Parks.

If you like primates, you’ll love what these parks have to offer; in addition to the proliferation of those cheeky, thieving long-tailed Macaques you’ll have long learnt to avoid if you’ve ever spent any time in South East Asia, there are a number of other more benign species. Various types and shades of langur monkey are also out and about across the region, including in Batang Ai National Park, a wildlife-lover’s paradise so big that it spreads its reach across the Indonesian border. While slightly further afield, Batang Ai is truly worthy of an overnight trip, being one of the few places in the world you might spot wild Orangutans.

In Bako meanwhile, a short bus and boat ride from Kuching, alongside the langurs, you’ll also find the indigenous proboscis monkey, famed for its 7-inch nose and domed belly. What the proboscis monkey lacks in accepted standards of beauty, it rather makes up for in charm and intrigue. Thankfully, they are also shy and wouldn’t dream of stealing your GoPro (unlike those infamous macaques). Some estimates say there may only be 1,000 proboscis monkeys left in the wild but in Bako, stealthy hikers can catch sight of tens of them during dusk outings, noses quivering in the breeze.

It’s not all monkey business either. Borneo bursts with life of all kinds, including myriad species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Some harmless; some best kept at a distance. Expect to lock eyes with bearded pigs, catch glimpses of mouse deer, gaze up at hornbills and curse the existence of the mosquito.

Breakfast with Orangutans at Semenggoh National Reserve

While wild orangutans still wander the vast forests solitarily, in Batang Ai mainly, for a more sure sighting, your best bet is to head to Semenggoh National Reserve, an easy Grab ride from the center, where ‘semi-wild’ orangutans appear almost daily expecting to be served up their regular smorgasbord of fruits and veg by the friendly rangers who howl hopefully into the forest at breakfast and dinner each day.

For the tiny entrance fee and the heady anticipation, the visit is more than worth it. Make sure to arrive early and expect to be kept waiting, listening to the alien, unknowable noises from deep inside the forest, before maybe being honoured with the sight of a peckish orangutan descend into the clearing, scoop up freebies and clamber off without ceremony. While short, the experience is a humbling one, allowing you to step into the world of these beautiful, intelligent creatures on the brink of extinction.

Source: Bamboo Travel

Iban and proud: Sarawak’s largest ethic group 

The Iban tribe are the largest ethnic group in Sarawak. They travel widely and while most now live modern lifestyles, many still live without much technology in longhouses under the same roof as up to twenty other families. While Christianity and other Abrahamic religions have filtered in to the culture, Ibans come from an animist background. Animism being the belief that places, objects and all creature possess a distinct essential spirit. This connection to the world around them allowed them to traverse the rainforest, sense danger from afar and hunt with skill. In more modern environments it allows them to connect with each other with deep emotion and understanding.

Judging from their sunny, welcoming demeanour you might never guess that the Ibans were historically a head-hunting tribe, with the bloody tradition of chopping off their enemy’s heads. Happily, the tribes have modernized and are now not much different than the rest of Kuching’s misfit society. The tribe’s warrior heritage is still noticeable however, most obviously on the skin of the men who are covered in various tattoos with distinct meaning. For the Iban tribe,  tattooing is a way for men not only to convey status and experience but also as a way to be seen and protected by the gods.

When an Iban male comes of age he will receive the ‘Bungai Terung’ tattoo, one on each shoulder, made using the traditional hand-tapping method. Known as ‘bejalai’, this tattoo is given before the young man makes his coming-of-age journey into the woods and symbolises strength to carry, protection and transformation into adulthood.


Header img source: Flashpack at 40

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