We spent so long planning this trip, somehow I still have a hard time believing we’re actually in these exotic locations. Like Borneo! Land of fantastical beasts and plants (and much less interesting palm oil plantations and oil development.) Although we dreamed of going really off road here, the logistics required a little more derring-do than we felt we possessed. We settled on 12 days in Sarawak on the Malaysian side of Borneo, using Kuching as our base for smaller trips.
Kuching felt weathered and grotty compared to Singapore (if I thought Seattle has a tough climate for gunk growing on surfaces, it’s 100 times worse here!) but once we settled in and found a favorite laksa stand, it was all good. Although Christmas decorations and songs are going full tilt in the stores and our guesthouse lobby, Thanksgiving was a non-event (there is a Thanksgiving holiday here at the end of harvest, but that comes in June.) We instead busied ourselves seeing the sights of Kuching, including the Sarawak Museum and the very strange Cat Museum (“kuching” means cat in Malay) which for sheer trippiness blew even the Salvador Dali museum out of the water.
We spent a great three days in a jungle home stay, run by Norwegian born Lars and his Bidayuh wife Liza. In the jungle, twenty minutes by boat from the nearest road, what greeted us when we arrived but their four year old, Freyja, singing “Let it Go” from Frozen. Thank you for that, Disney. Lars and Liza have a beautiful home and garden carved out of Liza’s family’s land, where Liza seems to know every sprout and vine. On a walk with her she harvested bamboo shoots, ginger stalks and ferns and then made the most delicious dish I’ll never have again- we wished we had stayed longer for the food alone. Lars took us on a jungle hike, which included going through a cave with bats, spiders and other creepy crawlies and getting satisfyingly muddy.
Lars also helped us to try famously stinky durian fruit with the kids. We had looked for it in Singapore, where it is prohibited on public transport, but was told it was out of season. We saw/smelled some at the local market here and Lars indulged us (he has a weakness for it.) Coming back to the hot car after a twenty minute stop for more groceries, the smell was enough to knock us over; it permeated everything by the time we got it back to their house. It had been so long since I had durian I couldn’t really remember the flavor. Now I do and no sir, I don’t like it. I don’t like the custardly soft texture or the weird onion flavor. Since I’ve recently overcome my aversion to okra, it stands with raw mushrooms in the “foods I don’t like” column. Not a bad record. The kids gamely tried it, too, but didn’t get past the first bite. Vance persevered but struggled with the texture. One durian will do us the year.
Back in Kuching we celebrated my birthday, then headed out to Bako National Park where our dark, grubby cabin was made bearable by the Bornean bearded pigs, proboscis monkeys and the occasional monitor lizard that paraded by. The proboscis monkeys were a hit, perched in the trees munching leaves, occasionally making soft honking noises through their big schnozzes, then leaping dramatically to the next tree. I could have watched them all day (in contrast to the cheeky macaques who were also present, who give me the creeps.) We did some very sweaty hikes as well as a night walk which yielded sightings of tarantulas, snakes, colugos, frogs and sleeping kingfishers with their beaks tucked in, perched on the very end of branches so they’d have warning if a snake was coming.
Back to Kuching and then back out we went again, this time to Gunung Gading National Park to see the Rafflesia tuan-mudae that was in bloom. Rafflesia, the world’s largest flowers, bloom about 25 times a year in this corner of Borneo, famously smelling of rotting meat to attract the flies who are their pollinators. The one we saw was a petite 58 cm across (as large as 95 cm has been recorded at Gunung Gading) had been in bloom about 4 days and was starting to look a little weathered. We were lucky to time it well.
Where we haven’t been lucky is in our orangutan sightings. We’ve stopped at Semenggoh Wildlife Center twice and patiently waited through the hour long feeding windows, but no one showed. While it is disappointing on one level, on another I am glad. I had read negative things about wildlife rehabilitation centers, Semenggoh included, and their lack of success in actually rehabilitating orangutans. Yet if the orangutans, all 27 of them, are finding enough food in their jungle to skip the easy bananas and pineapples offered at the feeding platforms, something must be working right. More power to them.
A few more days, a cooking class and perhaps another trip to Semenggoh (third time’s a charm?) will finish us out, then we head to easy breezy Bali. Thanks for following along!