Day 226: Borneo Bound

Wed. 27th March 2013

Multi-coloured car park in KuchingAt times on our trip it feels like we have been revisiting some of my old school lessons – I’m sure that we covered the tribes living on the floating islands in Lake Titicaca in 1st Form Geography; and in History lessons we covered early explorers such as Magellan who gave his name to the straits down by Punta Arenas (Cape Horn). Now I am getting more Geography memories of the headhunters of Sarawak who lived in Longhouses as we are off to Borneo.

Looking down the Sarawak RiverBorneo was one of the very early destinations as we started planning our itinerary. It is particularly noted for the orang-utans – one of the few places in the world where they live – but it also has some spectacular scenery. Where the last couple of months have helped is in plugging some of the gaps in our knowledge of the geography of Borneo, which was sketchy at best before we left home. Borneo is shared between three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and the tiny (but very oil-rich) Brunei. The Malaysian part is split into the two states of Sarawak and Sabah. We’ll be visiting both of these on our trip, flying into Kuching in Sarawak and out of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

Waiting at the airport - valuable blog writing time!We certainly know the routine for our transfer to the airport by now – LRT to KL Sentral; SkyBus to the LCC Terminal; check in and drop the bags off; grab a coffee then go through security and wait by the gate for the flight to be called. It really was as easy and straightforward as that. We’d booked the flight for the middle of the day and so we even had breakfast at a more or less sensible time.

First sight of BorneoEven though we were flying from one Malaysian city to another, we had to re-clear Malaysian immigration on arrival at Kuching. However, after all the queuing on arrival in Havana, we aren’t phased by airport arrival procedures any more. By the time we had cleared immigration, our bags were just arriving on the conveyor so we were ready to go. We also now know to look for the taxi counter in Asian airports to pre-pay for the taxi for the short ride to our hotel.

Decoration on Hindu templeAll very painless and it even left us with a little time to explore the small city of Kuching. We used the ‘follow your nose’ strategy for exploring. Vaguely heading off toward the centre of town and the river. On the way we passed by an ornate Hindu temple – smaller than those we saw in Indonesia but still gaudy and worth having a nose around the outside. In the town centre itself was a new shopping mall which somehow looked out of place – I even managed to resist the charms of the Starbucks there.

Sampan ferry across the riverThe riverfront was much more like what we were expecting with the bank lined with its 19th century colonial buildings and evidence of markets and traders sitting alongside small cafes and restaurants. The 1879 Square Tower (remains of an old fortress) and the clock tower fronting the Old Courthouse complex were evidence of the colonial past of this town. The river itself is crisscrossed not by bridges but by sampans – small ferries – that putter their way back and forth. On the far bank is what we originally took to be a large mosque, but actually turned out to be the legislative assembly building. The local view seems to be that this is an expensive eyesore.

Cooking Fat statuesAs we walked back along the river towards our hotel, we came upon a large statue of a group of cats. Apparently, the name Kuching means cat in Malay. The, possibly apocryphal, story is that when the British explorer James Brooke first discovered the village on the site of the current town (in 1841), he asked the locals what it was called. They thought he was pointing at a passing cat and so said ‘Kucing’. Nice story, but it doesn’t excuse the bad taste cat statues!

1879 Square Tower - all that is left of an old fortressFor the Borneo portion of our trip, we have signed up to do an organised tour with Intrepid (who we think are an Aussie company). There are a number of National Parks in Borneo where you need to be accompanied by a guide so it seemed to make sense to get someone else to organise it all for us. We have been travelling independently since the beginning of November so this will be a pleasant change for us not to have to keep researching how to get from A to B and where we’re going to stay when we get there – all this is going to be sorted out for us!

Clock tower in front of the old courthouseFirst up is the introductory meeting where we get to meet the others on the tour and our group leader. After our G-Adventures trip across South America we know what to expect and we are looking forward to meeting people and making new friends. We also get a run through of our itinerary and (although we sort of knew this when we booked the trip) it looks like this will be our most active trip to date with a fair bit of hiking including a 4-day trek in Mulu National Park that includes a climb to the summit of Gunung Api (Mt Api) and later on a second trek to climb Mount Kinabalu at 4,100m.

Canon ready to blast the State Assembly buildingAfter getting used to the luxury of the G-Tower hotel in KL, we had better get used to more basic accommodation pronto tonto as for much of the time over the next 3 weeks we will be sleeping in dormitories or at homestays. We keep reminding ourselves that we managed the Inca Trail without any real problems and so we will also manage here and enjoy the experiences – some of our best memories are from really basic accommodation (the homestay on Lake Titicaca, for example).

It looks like we are in with a good group of interesting people, roughly 50:50 Aussie:Brit, on a trip that covers many of the ‘must-do’ activities in Borneo. We are really looking forward to it.

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