Day 230: Local Treats

Sun. 31st March 2013

Dragons over the Chinese pagoda in SibuWhen we first discovered that we would be staying in a traditional Iban Longhouse, I had visions of something built with timber and straw and mud. The reality wasn’t really like my mental picture even though it is constructed predominantly of Ironwood (which is termite and insect resistant). The roof is made of corrugated iron for one thing and at 300m, the house is much longer than I ever thought it would be. It is also much more modern having not just electricity but also flat screen TVs and WiFi. The contrast with our last homestay with the family in Lake Titicaca was striking.

The Longhouse is definitely long!At breakfast (more of those sticky rice pancakes!) the puzzles continued – like Bilbo Baggins with Gollum we clearly had to earn our passage! We were quite sad to leave when it was time to load up on the minibus. We got to know these people at least a little during our time here. I had a (limited) conversation with a woman who was working on a mound of rice stalks using her feet to separate the rice grains from the stalks. We saw large mats covered with drying peppercorns and car mat sized yellowish sheets of latex made from rubber tapped from local trees. Once again, we have a great set of memories to take away with us.

Ooops! That didn't go well.More of an issue was that we have drawn the short straw with our minibus which seems to be at risk of not making it to Sibu. The engine appears to be shot so any and every hill is a real challenge that requires first gear and the air conditioning to be switched off. Still, at least we are in better shape than a tanker that we passed which had lost its tractor unit and was sitting forlornly in the middle of the road with one end resting on the tarmac.

Lunch - broad noodles or thin in your soup?Sibu is in the centre of Sarawak on the banks of the Rejang river, Malaysia’s longest. The community here is predominantly Chinese so, in addition to all of the shops and restaurants having signs in Chinese, there was pork on the menus. A welcome change from all the chicken we’ve been having. Even in Cuba we had better choice (though blander food) with the predictable pork, chicken or fish.

Sibu market - the best we have seen on our travelsAfter dumping our bags (and laundry) at our hotel, we were off to explore town and to visit the Central Market. We have been in local markets in most towns in every country we’ve visited. Not only was this one of the biggest, it was the stand-out best presented with the cleanest conditions and widest variety of foods that we’ve seen anywhere. We just loved it. The huge prawns looked delicious as did the huge variety of fish on display – though we were less sure about the live catfish wriggling in a plastic tub or the mounds of chicken feet, or worse, chicken heads. Apparently, we missed the live chickens wrapped in newspaper tied with string for easy transportation.

They might be straight, but they are yummyAlso present in great variety are food vendors and street hawkers frying, steaming or boiling all manner of foods not just the usual rice and noodles but also breads and dumplings. We couldn’t resist the freshly made doughnuts though rather than the round ones, we went for the long straight ones that the locals seemed to favour. While we were waiting for ours to be cooked (yes, they were that fresh) we were entertained by the chef rolling out and cutting the dough. We took it as a good sign that the doughnuts were selling as quickly as they could be made.

Boats waiting to go down the riverJust by our hotel is the ferry terminal that seems to support a thriving industry of passenger boats heading up and down river. We spent a little while watching the (surprisingly long) boats arrive, disgorge their passengers, load up a new set and head off. The irony of the boat with a motto ‘travel in comfort and style’ whilst so crammed with passengers they had to sit on the roof was diminished by the realisation that this might be us in a few days time.

Tua Pek Kong temple - just ask for thje key!Sibu is not a major tourist destination but it does have a large Chinese Buddhist temple, Tua Pek Kong as the other major sight singled out in our Lonely Planet guide. LP tells us to ask the caretaker for a key in order to climb the stairs to get a view from the top of the seven storey building. Sure enough, after wandering around the outside, admiring the dragons on the roof and the golden lions guarding the front door we head through the temple only to be called back by a lady manning the desk in the corner. “Would you like the key for the stairs?” she asks. Truth be told, there wasn’t that much to see either on display on the upper floors or as a view from the top but that didn’t diminish our experience. As there was no entrance fee, I left a little money as a donation but was again called back – I had forgotten to ring the bell for luck or to notify the spirits.

Sibu's mascotThe final activity for the day is packing for our trip to Gunung Mulu National Park. This promises to be one of the highlights of our time in Borneo as the park contains wildlife, caves, rivers and .mountains. We need to pack daypacks for 4 nights and 3 days of trekking so there will be some hard walking – including the climb of Gunung Api at 1700m in order to see the Pinnacles rock formation – before we are reunited again with our backpacks. With clothes, snacks and particularly water, our daypacks are heavier than we’d really like them to be but no doubt we’ll manage.

It’s an early start tomorrow as we are being collected at 5am but we are looking forward to whatever new treats Borneo has in store for us over the next few days.


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