At the heart of Borneo’s jungle

Borneo? More than just an imaginary place that only exists on National Geographic Channel. From orangutans to shamans, from jungles to beaches or even from a wedding proposal to caves, here is my story. My journey started in the state of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, in the city of Kuching more precisely. As soon as I arrived, my host from Couchsurfing was there, waiting for me at the airport to drive me back to her place. I was lucky enough to meet Katy, an anthropology graduate, traveller and food lover like me and since then my travel companion, as she was hosted by the same person.

Kuching is the perfect city to be based in to start your trip in the jungle. It is relatively cheap, quite modern, with not too many westerners, all the entertainment facilities that you need and close to many sights of interest. And most importantly, as it is always the people who make the difference, locals there are some of the friendliest I have ever met, and I have been on the road for a year already! They are not trying to sell you anything, and they never harass you. All they want to know is your name and where you come from to welcome you to their city with a big smile on their face. Soon enough, they’ll all become your friends. Even the 7/11 guys had become my friends and every time I went grocery shopping, they welcomed me with something like “Hi Sarine! How can I help you today darling?”

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My first day in the city started with a trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre where they rescue orangutans, mainly from the Indonesian side where the locals unfortunately still hunt them, and where they try to preserve and protect the ones who already live in their jungles. We had to get there early morning to arrive a little before 9AM for feeding time. And even so, there is no guarantee that you are going to be able to see any of these human-like animals as this is not a zoo. If it is raining, or the weather is too hot for example, chances are they won’t come out… I was lucky enough to be able to spot 7 of them! They are really fun and interesting to watch as in a way, they look very much like us…

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It is at night that it got the most interesting… There is a small shrine a little out of town where our host took us to. We were there to meet the shaman and ask him anything we’d like as long as it was not a hypothetical question related to some unknown and distant future. I had seen shamans before in South America so I was expecting this experience to be more or less similar. But I was totally wrong. It was one of the most unexpected scenes I had witnessed.

The shaman, who was connected to the underworld, stepped into the room screaming as loud as he could. He then started running around the shrine, banging his head against the walls, jumping around, shouting unintelligible things and sticking his tongue out. He was into a trance and he was possessed by the spirits from hell. He then went to sit down at a table and his assistants handed him a paintbrush. The assistants started calling out our names one by one reading from the papers we had to hand out with our name and age before the session started. His tongue still sticking out, painting curvy shapes with black ink using his right hand, he would mutter things in Cantonese that our host would translate for us. It was always positive things such as ‘’the case will turn into your favour’’ or ‘’you should not worry about things as you already have more than you need in life’’. He even told a guy to keep on being a womanizer as long as he did not steal or kill. He then handed us a block of so-called paper money that we had to gradually burn in the backyard thanking the spirits from hell and the shaman to have taken their time for us. Our host had also brought some offerings that he blessed and we went back home to have a feast of chicken, pork and fish. This was definitely a very interesting night and the best way to start a journey off the beaten path.

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The following days were not as spiritually intense but still very rewarding in many different ways… I had the chance to visit a Bidayuh tribe still living in longhouses up in the jungle in Southern Sarawak. They used to be headhunters back in the days. As a symbol of pride and strength, every family would hang in front of their house the decapitated head of one of their Iban enemy that they had killed. When the British came in, missionaries converted this indigenous group to Christianity and made them stop this practice that they judged too barbaric. Today, even though they are all Christians, you can see that they have kept the heads that are now skulls somewhere in their house.

And if you are lucky enough, they might show them to you. Or else you can spot a few of them piled up in a cage in a house built for that single purpose. One of the families was nice enough to entertain my friends and I for some time and show us their way of life. Some of the guys went to cut bamboo with the man of the house so that we could cook rice in it, also using pandan leaves. We learnt how to play some local music instruments and to listen to the sound of the rainforest. We were invited to drink a very strong rice wine that they make called tuak, and so much more. It is a very peaceful and relaxing village where locals enjoy community life by spending their time smoking tobacco pipes, fishing, swimming in the river, drinking, and living harmoniously with the nature around them.

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Another interesting trip from Kuching was to Bako National Park. It is only a 30minutes bus ride from the city centre, but after a certain point you need to take a longboat as it is the only way to reach the trails in the park. The views are amazing and you get to see mangrove trees. If you want to feel like you are in the rainforest but don’t have the time to go to the interior, then this is the place to be! There is a lot of wildlife to see. The most interesting animal to spot in my opinion was the Proboscis monkey. It really is a beautiful place with many different trails you can take according to how fit you are and how much time you have. For Katy and I the most rewarding moment was after trekking for a while, reaching the end of the trail to find a beautiful beach, just for us!

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In the city itself you also have a few things to do, like walking near the riverfront or going to some museums, but the best part for me was the food! It would be the biggest mistake to go there without trying at least these 3 local specialties: Sarawak laksa, 3 layer tea, and evergreen kek lapis! The first one is a type of noodle with seafood, the second one is a drink with a layer of tea, one of condensed milk and a third one of pandan, and the last one is a soft cake made with pandan. You can tell I am addicted to pandan now I think… And seriously not only is everything delicious, it is also cheap!

It took me a week before deciding that it was time for me to leave the city when I had only planned on spending 3 nights at first! Nothing ever happens according to plans anyway and it is probably best like this. I had no idea of what to expect from Borneo really before going there as most people tend to overlook it but once I got there, I got the Sarawak travel bug and decided to explore more of the region. This is how Katy and I decided to fly to the interior to visit the caves at Mulu National Park. Flying was not even an option; it was more or less our only way to reach the park. This is how remote the place was! And the ride to the airport was one of the most interesting ones. I got proposed by our local friend who was driving us when we were ready to check in! It went along the lines of “Your face spoke to me. It is indescribable. Would you make me the happiest man on earth and marry me?” Well, that was fast. Flying with MASwings was great too! For a flight that cost us only RM70 each, we were offered a sandwich and a milo, yes a milo! I also loved the security announcement where smoking was a “big no no”, same applied to your phone that you loved “very very much” and in case of emergency you had to take off your high heels no matter how expensive they were.

Now I am finding myself in the smallest airport I’ve ever been to, ready for my next adventure, the Mulu caves!

Sarine Arslanian

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