Malaysia truly Asia: Sarawak ticks all the boxes

Malaysian Borneo – land of hornbills, head-hunters, orang-utans and ‘where adventure lives’ according to travel brochures:  Sarawak could also be called the land of paradoxes and it ticks all the boxes.

For instance, Kuching, capital of Sarawak, East Malaysia, means cat, but the city was not named after a cat; it has a Sunday market that’s open on Saturday (and other days) and an India Street that has very few Indian shops.

Easy to love, this walkable city has a racial mix of 23% Malay, 25% Chinese and about 49% Dayaks, the collective name for the indigenous ethnic groups, Sarawak epitomises the tourism tagline: Malaysia, truly Asia.

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Walking down Bishopgate Street to Carpenter Street I talk to a Chinese man whose family have been ‘special makers of fancy coffins’ for three generations; across the road a man’s making cake tins on the footpath; around the corner Malay women are making their famous Kek Lapis, an intricate, colourful layer cake, and beside my waterfront accommodation, a heavily, traditionally tattooed Iban woman, creates delicious vegetarian meals to order.

Like all travellers in this national geographic showpiece, I want to see the endangered orang-utan. Just out of the city, at the Semenggoh Centre about 70 people attend the twice daily feeding. Free to range in this 740 acre green belt there is no guarantee they will come to the feeding stations. We’re also warned to obey the staff as they have no control over their charges and photos show injured workers as proof!

At the feeding station a mother and week-old baby appear: despite being told to keep quiet, it’s hard to ooh and aah quietly! They’re delightful, the mother uses all four limbs interchangeably and sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s her feet or hands she’s hanging from. She eats many ‘hotel-bananas’ as the little lady-finger bananas are called by locals as ‘all hotels serve them’, and a ripple of muted laughter spreads through the camera-clicking tourists when the baby tries to take one. A radio message comes for the ranger – Richie, the huge dominate male has made one of his rare appearances at the other feeding station and one by one we return down the track to where he is being fed.

He is huge! This ‘man-of-the-jungle’ has large cheek-flaps showing he is the king of this jungle and apparently he has already dispatched one pretender to the throne. A young male also arrives for a hand-out but keeps well away from Richie. As he crosses the rope that allows them to travel high above us, he stops to stare down at us, hanging mid-air like a kid on a school jungle gym. I have to laugh; he looks as though he is showing off to us, his DNA relatives, who are not so agile. Continuing on he shimmies down a vine and rope beside the small bridge we have just crossed and is given fruit. Richie just continues eating, a solid lump of muscle sitting on his man-made wooden picnic table.

Two young women are warned to come back from the end of the viewing platform ‘until Richie leaves’ – I wouldn’t want to be in his way. He walks upright; with each step his long hair sways just like a shampoo commercial. He stops and stares, or maybe glares, and I send a message of hope that the heart of Borneo will always be secure for him, and with one more stop and stare he strides off without a backward glance

He knows he’s safe from us physically but most travellers here are well aware of his need of our protection and, despite international concerns, it seems Sarawak is working to secure the orang-utans future, not an easy task.

Like adverts say ‘but wait there’s more’ in this fabulous area of East Malaysia: add a kayak trip from one Bidayuh village to the next; spend time at an Iban longhouse and of course, eat the delicious local food and explore the many excellent, free, museums. Travelling in July? The three-day Rainforest World Music Festival – set in the Cultural Village at Damai – is a must-attend for great local and international performers

Also unique to this 3rd-largest island in the world, Borneo is the Proboscis monkeys. With a long straight pale tail they leap clumsily from tree to tree and eating young shoots of indigestible foliage which breaks down in their two stomachs. Male vanity and the need to dominate means their nose can grow to such a pendulous length they have to hold it up to eat! Other males, lower in rank, have almost human or Pinocchio shaped noses and hang out in male groups until it grows bigger and they have the chance to challenge the leader and become the head of the harem. They are easy to see at the wonderful Bako National Park.

Borneo conjures up images of exotic adventures, an eccentric history, a White Rajah, wild animals, mystery and romance: my first travels there delivered, and as you know, if you follow my blog, I soon returned to the land of head-hunters for more exploring!

17th annual Rainforest World Music Festival is bigger than ever

The Rainforest World Music Festival  has begun and this 17th event (#Sarawak, #Borneo) is the biggest so far.
* 22 bands
* 190 performers
* 27 workshops

The tree stage has been enlarged; a 3rd stage has been created as the ‘the theatre stage’ and this indoor, seated, more chamber music style, will have 2 bands performing each afternoon.

Another first is the RWMF Community Drum Circle which will be for an hour each late afternoon: I’ll check it out tomorrow!

Tonight the groups I’m particularly interested in are:

Kalakan – Basque country
Karinthalakoottam – India
Son Yambu – Cuba/UK

Will get back to you about the groups on my return to New Zealand!

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Interviews with some performers about to start

Last showcase at the Borneo World Music Expo

On our last night of the Borneo World Music Expo, the Sarawak Tourism Board introduces us to groups from Indonesia,  Singapore,  and the Malaysian state, Kelantan.

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Geng Wak Long comes from one of my favorite states of Peninsula Malaysia,  Kelantan.  A traditonal area known for its arts and crafts like shadow puppets and kite-making, it’s also a musical region so I’m not surprised that all the drums this group plays were made by the grandfather in this family group. They have won many awards. See here, and find them on Facebook

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Ding Yi Music Company comes from Singapore and these young people form a prestigious Chinese chamber music ensemble.  Their repertoire ranges from traditional Chinese music through to avant-garde contemporary works.

Manjalin Raso, Java, Indonesia, is dedicated to conserving their culture and traditional music. They are also innovative and experimental: last night even had a dideridu in their lineup of many instruments.  I will add a short video of their performance once I have formatted it!

Thanks for the Sarawak Tourism Board, Malaysian Airlines, and the Hilton for assisting with my travel and travel costs.

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Music showcase at Borneo World Music Expo

Last night the display of music continued at the evening ‘Showcase’. The Sarawak Tourism Board is introducing us to not only local Sarawak and Malay music and instruments but also groups form the wider Asian region. Tonight the musicians were from Thailand,  Myanmar,  and a local Sarawak group.

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Preparing for the expo stage

Korphai, Thailand, has been performing since 1980 is also new as it seems this ‘bunch of bamboo’ is constantly changing. Anant Narkkong ,who establised the group to create place where younger musiscians could explore new musical ideas. He met this current group on Facebook!  All are teachers and the four of them come from four diffenrt regions of Thailand.  Collaborating, and practicing line, they actually only had one face to face seesion before coming to Kuching. I wonder which programmer will sign them up for festivals in their country … but being signed up I’m sure they will!

Another ensemble that will be signed up I’m sure features Aue  Su Kyaw (Myanmar) who, in her own country is a star. It seems it’s traditional for harpists to play the instrument only, but Aue Su breaks that mold and sings as she plays.  An attractive instrument it is described in a legend like this: “it is an instrument that is cuddled against the chest, but is not a child; has a crooked tail but is not a monkey; has a beard but is not a  man; is able too procuce sweet sounds, but is not a maiden … ”  .

And finally in this second expo’s 2nd showcase here in the Hilton, was a local group  Tuku Kame a contemporary music band that originated at the Cultural Village, home to the Rainforest World Music Festival which follows this expo. It seems this group has performed in many countries and has released two albums.  see more here

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Kuching, also known as cat city. It seems live and bronze cats hang out together

Cute mother and baby in Malaysian Borneo

I took this photo of a very cute mum and her baby at a wildlife centre close to Kuching, Sarawak. Malaysian Borneo.

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Free museums in Kuching, Sarawak – well worth visiting

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, maintains several museums – all free to visit.

The Sarawak Museum, the oldest of its kind in Borneo, exhibits collections on the natural history of Sarawak: the beautiful building was opened in 1891 by the White Rajah, Charles Brooke. (Note: A film is soon to be made of his life which I’m sure will be fascinating)

Four museums in this area
Four museums in this area

Over the road by an elegant footbridge is the Dewan Tun Abdul Razak otherwise known as ‘the new museum’ and it’s an exhibition venue and has the offices of the Sarawak Museum Department.

Located behind ‘new’ museum is the Sarawak Islamic Museum which I had found hard to find – but well worth going to a few days later.

Other museums in Kuching include the Chinese History Museum, on the waterfront, and which is well worth visiting, the Kuching Cat Museum,( see my blog about it)  and the Sarawak Textile Museum – opposite the Post Office and China Street. I found it a peaceful and informative place so well recommend it.

Chinese History Museum
Chinese History Museum

Another museum I just loved was the Art Gallery (beside the Sarawak Museum). Its beautifully and sympathetically restored – a great background to the local art work: I wish I had returned for a second visit.

See the Sarawak Tourism Board for more.

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Borneo orchids: Orchid Park, Kuching, Sarwak

Sarawak’s State Flower, the Normah Orchid (Phalaenopsis Bellina) is among the wide collection of Borneo Orchids found in these gardens which has a collection of 75,000 plants.

I arrived by bus while on a city tour but you can easily get there by using one of the small wooden taxi boats on the Kuching Waterfront (opposite the Astana and Fort Margherita).

When I was there a group of school pupils were also there so they were happy to have some international visitors to interview and photograph.  As I understand it, all Malay students must attend a club on Saturday with Scouts and the Red Crescent being the most popular.

Since I was there in late June (2013) the garden has had a name change – it’s now the Orchid Park – with new plans for extension including  building a mist-house or cool-house for  orchids from mild climates.

With the impressive State Legislative Assembly (DUN) complex in the background the setting is lovely and is the venue for the annual Kuching Orchid Show.

For more about this lovely city see other blogs I have written or visit their tourism website.

Enjoy these photos from my brief visit.

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Ugly animals, endangered monkeys, and a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia

“That is the ugliest animal I have ever seen’ says Nikki,my traveling mate for a few days.

With its streamlined body, long head and nose, skinny deer-like legs (3 toes front, 2 at rear) and a bristly beard along both sides of their snout, I think the Bornean bearded pig is amazing! Very laid back, ignoring the photographers and travellers in the Bako National Park it seems most efficient at digging for roots and worms in the bush and lawns, however they also hangout on the beach, browsing for food at low tide.

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The pigs, and the naughty macaque, are the first animals we see as we arrive at the Sarawak Forest Dept. HQ to book into our basic accommodation.

We’ve just travelled 20-k from Kuching to Bako Village and then, under a sign warning of crocodiles, took a boat for the final 30 minutes.IMG_3666

During the boat ride we’re told ‘low tide wet landing, high tide dry landing’ and as we arrive at high tide use the jetty, not the beach, to land at this ‘smallest, oldest, and  most visited’ of the states national parks. It spreads 27 sq k between the Sarawak and Bako rivers on the Muara Tebas peninsula with a coastline lined by steep cliffs, small bays and beaches.

Apparently Sarawak has the most number of national parks, totally protected, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves of all Malaysian States  and makes up about 8% of the land. (see more on the Forestry Sarawak website)

Recommended to me by Ian Ord on either my Twitter or Facebook pages it seems the rich variety of wildlife are best seen close to the HQ which is why so many travellers come just for the day. I recommend you stay for at least one night – although my next trip will be for at least two nights: it was wonderfully  peaceful when the ‘day-trippers’ left and we did a night hike with a forestry guide.

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On the evening walk we saw a Culago (flying squirrel) which was great, and despite not having closed shoes, and watching the ground, I was not attacked by the terrible fire ants. We also saw swifts and their prized nests – with young in the nests they hardly fitted in.

All around park are the long-tailed macaques, compulsive thieves so be careful for both you and them – it may seem funny that they steal cans of drinks but its not good for them. It also means they become aggressive and will grab your bag if they think you could have goodies in it. Monkeys, despite looking cute, can be very violent so please don’t feed them.

The naughty macaque!
The naughty macaque!

Another park favourite for me were the silver leaf monkeys (silvery lutung) is sometimes called the David Beckham monkey because of  its hairstyle. The silvery lutung is a medium sized monkey with a long tail, the grey-tips on its dark brown or black fur, giving it a uniform silvery appearance: the young are cute red-heads!  A crest of fur runs along the top of the head, and the hair on the cheeks is long while their hands and feet are hairless, with dark coloured skin, and have opposable thumbs and toes – this means  they can hold things using thumbs and fingers.

the cute babies are red for a few months
the cute lutung babies are red for a few months
cute hairstyle on the silver-leaf monkey
the ‘Beckham’ hairstyle on the silver-leaf monkey say many locals
great swimming spot
great swimming spot

We  walked a few of the many trails and at 34 degrees with 93% humidity it was wonderful to arrive at a beautiful, nearly deserted, beach where Nikki and I plunged into the cooler water. Magic.

Proboscis monkeys of course are the stars here. With their long, straight, pale tail flowing behind them they leap almost clumsily from tree to tree. They eat young shoots of indigestible foliage which is then broken down in their two stomachs. Male vanity and the need to dominate means their nose can grow to such a pendulous length they have to hold it up, or push aside to eat! It also seems the head of the harem is always on duty with his penis erect for much of the time leading to many postcards of him ‘showing his red chilli.’

Other males, lower in rank, hang out in male groups until their noses grow bigger and they have the chance to challenge the leader and so become head of the harem.

Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey – this one is waiting for his nose to grow!

They have few predators in their natural environment – they are preyed on by crocodiles but people are its biggest threat. With the loss of lost vast areas of natural habitats to due to deforestation they appear to have been pushed into smaller, and more isolated, pockets of bush. It is listed by the IUCN as endangered in its natural environment and could face extinction: evidently very few are in captivity as they do not respond well to those conditions.

 

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Cat city … Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Once part of the Sultanate of Brunei some 200 years ago, Kuching then became the capital of the White Rajahs of Sarawak and now this capital city, Kuching, is often called “Cat City” and has many cat statues as public art.

The 'big cat' is dressed according to the season or festival, these are its Gawai clothes - the Iban harvest festival
The ‘big cat’ is dressed according to the season or festival, these are its Gawai clothes – the Iban harvest festival

The meaning of ‘Kuching’ seems to be lost in history. Some say it’s from the Malay word kucing, meaning cat, (Note in Malay the letter c is pronounced as ch as in church) and many locals call it “Cat City”.

The guide on my city tour bus says it could come from the Chinese word for port (cochin) or, “most likely, from the Malay name mata kucing (cat’s-eye) for the longan fruit. He continues “There was a small tributary of the Sarawak river called Sungei Kuching so some others say it was from this stream that Kuching got its name.” So take your pick.

Cat city seems to be the most common usage and the city has not only many cat souvenirs for sale, and  statues of cats,  but also a cat museum. This  is on top of a 60 metre high hill which gives great views over the city. (The museum is on the ground floor of the  Kuching North City Hall.)

The Cat Museum  has four main galleries  and evidently has more than 4,000 cat artifacts including paintings  and the media group I was with were mixed in their reactions to the collection – from bemused, to thrilled, to amused. Its well worth a visit, and like all the museums in Sarawak, it’s free to visit although a small fee is charged for cameras.

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For more about Kuching, see the many other blogs I’ve written, or the Sarawak Tourism Boards’ official website

 

 

“Look Heather, the cat is naked” says one of the drivers who knows I’ve walked often to this statue for photos!

Reducing my carbon footprint: greening the music festival

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Heather with her tree’and Kuching North City Commission’s Deputy Director, Kartina Zamhari

Within twelve hours of arriving in Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak) along with 200 others, I was planting a tree as part of the ‘greening the festival’ programme while also helping reduce our carbon footprint.

Here for the Rainforest World Music Festival for the first time, it seems this tree-planting ceremony is in its 3rd year and “helps make Kuching a livable city” said the CEO of Sarawak Tourism Datuk Rashid Khan.

Although not essential, it seems traders at the festival are “encouraged to use green products and practices so the event is not only successful, but also to leave a lasting eco-effect,” he continued.

No doubt, like most international festivals this will soon become a need to get a licence to be part of the #RWMF which is set in the Sarawak Cultural Village.

The 150 trees we (school children, musicians, journalists, concert promoters, travel writers, along with local officials and politicians) planted – in the Government offices lake compound area, Banguan Baitulmakmur – are the Golden Shower (Acacia Fistula). Evidently, over the past few years, some 2 million trees have been planted across Sarawak in events such as this: ‘We try to plant three trees for every one cut down’ someone said, ‘although it’s not always in the same area.”

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Datuk Gramong Juna digs a hole for his tree, watched by Kuching North City Commission Deputy Director and Datuk Rashid Khan CEO Sarawak Tourism Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malaysia often receives bad press for the destruction of native forests and planting oil palm plantations, so it cannot be easy to convince the often cynical foreigners they want to “take care of our environment.”

Come back and hug your tree” we are encouraged by Assistant Minister of Tourism, Datuk Gramong Juna, who said they are “trying to do good deeds to our mother earth, to take care of our environment. It’s heartening to note that the Sarawak Tourism Board has taken the government’s campaign seriously. ”

The minister continues, “We are proud to have the world’s oldest rain-forest that we have custody over. We are serious at promoting Sarawak as an eco-destination – this beautiful land where adventure lives.”

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A beautiful setting for “my tree” to grow!

Arriving in Kuching a couple of days before the Rainforest World Music Festival I was, for one day, able to join a group of international concert promoters and journalists who were in the city for their first world music business conference and expo. It seems this was successful for many of the artists featured with their diaries filling up with dates to perform in other places.

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The consensus from knowledgeable music people there (and I’m not one of them!) seemed to be that the local, traditional, music scene was creatively rich but needed support to present themselves professionally and that this expo, and the contacts made, will advance that. Good luck to them all!

 

 

 

 

Note, talking culture; the letter K at the end of a

Malaysian word, such as Sarawak, is always silent!