October 21, 2006


From Niah Caves I jumped on another bumpy bus to Miri where I spent an uneventful night before catching another bus (actually four, with all the border crossing bus transfers) into Brunei. Brunei is one of the smallest and richest countries in the world, with most of it's wealth coming from oil (making it quite a lot more expensive to travel than Malaysia). It's completely surrounded by Sarawak, Malaysia besides the side that meets the sea. Brunei is a mostly Muslim country that successfully banned alcohol in the early 90's. I only spent two days there (I was on a mission, which I'll get to later) in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB, as it's known) but because it's such a small country I was still able to see quite a lot of it.

I was there in the middle of Ramadan, the month-long fast that Muslims celebrate each year. The fasting takes place from sunrise to sunset and no eating, drinking or smoking is allowed. I would be sitting in a cafe for breakfast or lunch and the surrounding tables would be scattered with Muslim men sitting around chatting and passing the time without even a solitary coffee cup or water glass to talk over. I would try to eat my meals discreetly, very conscious of the fact that I was one of the very few people actually eating in the restaurant. The second afternoon at the bus station, I absentmindedly offered some peanuts to a man who gave me directions. "Thanks dear, but I'm fasting!"

My first afternoon I took a boat out and then decided to walk around Kampung Ayer (water village), which is a house stilt village connected by "streets" of plank walkways. Kids peeked out of windows and three braver ones, siblings, came out and asked me to take their photograph, of course wanting to see it directly afterwards. Near sunset I bought some watermelon and pineapple and walked towards the Sultan Omar Ali Saifudden Mosque (or how about just "the mosque"). The sun setting on the mosque turned the white into an ever-changing beautiful orange-pink that was reflected in the moat below. The evening prayer was blaring out of the speakers and afterwards everyone gathered around picnic tables just outside of the mosque to break fast together. A man offered me a meal of chicken and rice. I declined but had a cup of hot tea with them instead.

When I walked back to the hostel it was only 7:30 pm but it felt much later. The city was quiet and still, dinner was finished and the streets were not alivened with bars and clubs and drunk old men. Everything was closed and everyone was home, going to bed early in order to wake up for the 4:30 am meal before the next sun comes up.

October 17, 2006

Niah Caves

After I woke up and had some breakfast I started out for the park. Once I got there I crossed the river and began on the plank board walkway leading to the cave entrance. It was still raining and the boards were slippery. Every few steps there would be a rotten or missing board. I was the first person to arrive at the park and I didn't see anyone else inside the caves besides a couple birds' nest collectors. The biggest cave at Niah is one of the biggest limestone caves in the world. It was huge and dark and very weird to explore alone. My flashlight was being temperamental and when it was out it was pitch black. I could hear chattering of birds? bats? bugs? My light came on once pointed directly at a huge mouse-sized cricket(?) in my path. I came to circular opening in the cave several meters above me. It was still raining and the water flowed down in to an illuminated shower in front of me. I was already soaked from rain and sweat and itchy from mosquito bites so I used it as an opportunity to shower off and cool down.

The night bus to Niah Caves dropped me off at the bus stop at 4 am in the rain. I found a dry wooden bench and fell asleep until the sun came up. I woke up to a young man curiously looking at me. Only my head and eyes were showing from under my sheet. "He or she?", he wanted to know.

In Painted Cave there are supposedly paintings from some 1,200 years ago. I saw some indistinguishable marks on a wall behind a gate that must have been them. I fell in Painted Cave on the slippery red clay floor but was actually surprised it didn't happen any sooner. It made me think what would happen if I fell into a crevice. How long would it take for another person to come along?

By the time I made my way out and back across the slippery plank walkway I was covered in sweat, mud and mosquito bites and in desperate need of a cold shower. Much to my relief I found one at park headquarters. An hour later I had walked the 3 kilometers back to town and found a ride in a pickup truck back to the bus stop (public transport to the caves is non-existent). I sat around eating corn on the cob and oranges while waiting for the next bumpy bus to take me to Miri.

October 16, 2006

Iban life

From Kuching I caught a boat several hours up river to Sibu and then from Sibu caught another boat on the mighty Rajang towards Kapit. I was sitting outside on the front of the boat looking at the passing longhouses when I met Brian, an Iban man, who invited me to come stay at his longhouse. 10 minutes later we were in a small boat with two of his seven kids, Amat and Janefer, heading to his home.


Traditionally the Iban people live in longhouses, which are (not surprisingly) very long houses divided into several rooms where many families live together. Iban people are quite famously known now for their past headhunting practices. Times have changed and the Iban people are becoming more modern with even TV's and electricity in some.


We walked up from the river to the house and many people started peering out of windows and coming out on the porch to get a look at the unexpected visitor. I followed Daniel into his family room and we sat around on the floor drinking juice and talking as best we could. More and more neighbors kept showing up and soon the room was nearly full. They wanted to know all about me: Where you from? Why you alone? You no friends? Why no hair? I showed them a family photograph and they said my Dad looks like a famous American actor that could turn himself into an animal in some movie. (I have no idea about that, if anyone does, email me!) I was told that the last foreign visitor to their longhouse was 3 or 4 years earlier, which explained the excitement of all the neighbors upon my arrival.

Mother and Amat

Soon enough I was told that it was bath time. In front of the entire crowd of curious onlookers, Sahidah (or Mother), pulled a sarong over my head. I have never before undressed (although thankfully covered by a sarong) in front of so many people. Sarongs on, we headed for the river. The kids and I swam around; I was trying to keep my sarong from falling off while simultaneously twirling, throwing and splashing. Not an easy task until you get the hang of it. Daniel's son, seven year old Amat, took a particular liking to me and followed me around holding my hand every where I went . After the river bath I had to go meet the "head master", Matthew, and gain approval for my visit. Approval was quickly granted and then it was on to a meal and rice wine. Then I was retrieved from Matthew's home back to Brian's where we had (my second) dinner, which was fully prepared by 14 year old Janefer (who does all the food preparation and clothes washing for the entire family).

Amat cooking

That first evening was a very enjoyable introduction to the friendly Iban people. I graded Janefer's English homework, played with Amat, looked at family photographs, and finally tucked in underneath the mosquito net and fell asleep in the candle light.

I ended up staying three nights in the longhouse and was truly treated as one of the family. During my stay, Amat was my constant playmate. He has been learning English so he knows many English words (colors, animals, numbers, the alphabet) but can't formulate sentences yet. We would be swimming in the river (which is something that we did several times each day)and Amat would frantically point behind me and yell, "Crocodile!", or "Snake!". I would start dramatically screaming and he would fall over laughing in the water. (My fear wasn't entirely an act-- only a few weeks ago a boy was killed by a crocodile in the river near Kuching.)

The men showing off their Iban tribal tattoos

Every day the Iban people go out to hunt and gather food for the day. They used weaved baskets to comb the water for fish and prawns. Their diet almost entirely consists of plants, vegetables, and fruit that grows in the jungle, fish from the river and animals that are hunted by blow pipe. Rice is the main staple in every meal and my Iban family claims that Iban rice is the best in the world. Iban food is absolutely delicious! Ripe mangos, papayas, bananas, eggplants, edible fern ("bako", my new favorite food), mushrooms, durian (southeast Asia's famous smelly fruit), and small, red and spicy chilies.

The second night it was raining and all the children gathered together in a room surrounding me. Hmmm... how to entertain a large group of kids who don't know English? Luckily I have plenty of practice in that department and and in no time we were singing and playing. We sang the Alphabet song, I taught them itsy bitsy spider and then they taught me an Iban song. After singing we sat in a circle and we played duck duck goose. The kids loved it and many of the parents started gathering around the doorway and window to watch. I tried to get a picture of them playing duck duck goose but as soon as my camera came out the game was clearly over. They all wanted their picture taken and then to see it directly after.

Iban kiddies after a disrupted game of duck duck goose

The next morning was Sunday. We ate breakfast and then (quite surprising) it was time for Mass in the long covered porch. Traditionally the Iban were animist but now they observe both traditional and Christian ceremonies. This was by far the weirdest Mass I have ever attended. The nearly 100 members of the longhouse sat lining the walls of both sides of the porch. Kids talked and played, sometimes running loudly across the floor. They played with the 20 sen coin they were given for donation, sticking it to their foreheads, spinning it on the floor and rolling it around. Mothers did nothing to stop them but no one seemed to mind. Men smoked and looked entirely uninterested. You couldn't hear anything being said or read but no one seemed bothered by that fact. An hour later the donation basket was passed around and it was over.

Staying with the Iban family was the most interesting and fun experience I've had in Malaysia. The Iban people are so friendly and welcoming and they seemed to really enjoy teaching me about Iban culture and also learning about my culture. After spending so much time with Amat, I was touched when Daniel and Mother asked me if I would be Amat's godmother. So I am now the new godmother to the cutest seven year old Iban kid in Malaysia!

Amat being goofy

Malaysian Borneo: Kuching

My first destination in Malaysian Borneo was Kuching (meaning "cat" in Malay), the capital of Sarawak. I showed up just in time for the Moon Cake Festival, a week long event which takes place in China town every night during the festival. My first night at the festival I met a local man who took me, along with two other travelers he met, to some nearby beaches the next day.

While in Kuching I went to visit the orangutan sanctuary (orang utan is a Malay word that translates to "forest people") where they rescue orangutans that have been captured and are being sold for profit and rehabilitate them for the wild. We showed up just in time for feeding time and we were able to see the animals in their natural habitat, not restricted by cages.

The most interesting part of my visit to Kuching though was crossing the river and walking around the several kampung (villages). I walked several kilometers to the end of the road and saw many colorful Malay-style houses along the way. It was a rather small dirt road and as I was walking I felt like somewhat of a celebrity: people would call out to me from windows, "hello!", children would follow me at a distance on bicycles, and food stand vendors were offering me to sample the goods. Everyone wanted to know where I was from, how long I was in Sarawak, how I liked it, and funny enough, "Where is your mommy?". I was there in the midst of Ramadan, which for Muslims means fasting from sunrise until sunset (including water, sex and tobacco). At sunset (6: 36 pm) everyone disappeared into their homes for a much anticipated meal and I headed back across the river to the other, much different, side of town.

Smoke in Kuching from burning rice fields in Indonesia

October 15, 2006

Langkawi island

After Taman Negara I met back up with Eddy and we traveled together to Singapore, Penang and Langkawi. Pulau Langkawi-- a beautiful island off the northwest coast of Malaysia was my favorite although the public transport in Singapore can't be beat and the food in Penang was delicious (and we tried a lot of it!). Langkawi is not really marketed for the backpacker but there are still deals to be found on accommodation and food. Eddy and I stayed at Shirins, a small, rather cute place ran by a Japanese woman and her insane Iranian husband, whom she met in India. (The insanity of "Abe" was taken to a whole new level after an unknown amount of vodka was consumed. His two favorite phrases, which we heard uncountable times during our short stay, vodka or none, were, "bloody bastard," and "fuckin' idiot", applied to any and all things, animate or otherwise. Despite his quite apparent pessimistic character flaws, I believe he has a good heart deep--maybe really deep--down.) When we checked in, we were greeted cheerfully, served juice and given cheap beds for our stay.

Owners of Shirin Guesthouse

The weather was great the first couple days and we rented a motor bike and rode around the island. We visited the cable car with fantastic views of the ocean and surrounding islands from high, we went to a couple waterfalls and swam in the clear pool below one of them, saw many monkeys (Langkawi is where I changed my opinion on monkeys from cute and harmless to rather fierce and frightening), rode by a huge iguana on the side of the road and went to an almost deserted white sand beach, which we shared only with monkeys and a couple of locals.

On our third day there almost 20 of Eddy's friends from KL showed up for a weekend island holiday away from the city. Two days of beach soccer, banana boat rides, swimming in the ocean, large meals together, Taboo (and tequila shots of course, Taboo and tequila were meant for each other, right?), and then they (including Eddy) were back to KL and I was left with one more day on the island solo.

The last day was rainy but I wanted to do an island hopping tour before I left. The rain was light before we left but once we were on the small boat cruising towards the first island it was a downpour. The barefoot and leather-skinned old man driving the boat was singing in Malay, squinting his eyes trying to see. There were only 6 passengers aboard-- apparently island hopping isn't a popular outing in the rain. The emerald green water met the gray sky with what seemed to be a layer of mist floating over the choppy waves. The Guatemalan-American woman sitting next to me was terrified and asked if she could hold my hand. We bounced and bounced our way there, the rain hitting us like sleet. We were soaked and I was doing my best to keep my backpack dry. Once we got the the island we walked to Pregnant Maiden Lake in the middle. I put my bag in a dry place and put my feet in the water while dozens of small catfish swam around them, nibbling on my toes. It was still raining and I jumped in the bath-warm water with all my clothes on. Ah! swimming in the rain...

Eddy and I after swimming

October 09, 2006

Images: Malaysia & Singapore

Hindu temple in Singapore

This parrot told my fortune in Little India, Singapre.

At a wedding of one of Eddy's friends in Kuala Lumpur.

A trishaw driver in Melaca, Malaysia

Eddy, Aly, and Bec in Singapore. A Canberra Uni reunion after 3 years!

October 05, 2006

A night with the Orang Asli

My last night in Taman Negara was an unforgettable one: Asri and I went to a small Orang Asli village on the river at dusk. He has known them for several years and when we arrived he asked and received permission from the chief for us to stay the night in the extra hut. The village consisted of several small huts made from, among other things, bamboo, palm leaves and rattan. Each hut has a small fire inside which in most huts people were gathered around. The Orang Asli have their own language but some of the men speak some Malay and therefore could communicate with Asri. This tribe gave Asri the nickname in their language that means "mistake" because of his first attempts at using the blow pipe many years ago. The children seemed rather scared of me and I was getting very strange looks from many of the women. A small group of teenage girls were giggling, watching us from the shadows but would run away shrieking every time Asri tried to talk to them or pointed a flashlight their way. We crouched down near the entrance of one of the huts while Asri distributed cigarettes to the women inside.

I felt like I had just walked into a National Geographic magazine and was uncertain how to feel about it. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to witness and take part in for a night the daily life of people so different from me but at the same time I didn't know, because of the lack of communication, how they felt about my presence there. We had also arrived at what I think is a very personal time, after dinner and just before bed. Asri kept urging me to take pictures but after a few I put my camera away because I felt far too awkward and didn't want to make anyone else uncomfortable either.

After a short visit with the tribe we went and sat on the sandy river bank. Fireflies were out again and the sky was perfectly clear, the stars were as bright as I've seen them in a long time. The nightly musical performance was once again being put on by the creatures of the jungle. It was all very surreal, the entire night. Amazingly it didn't rain at all that night. It was possibly the first night since I had been in Malaysia that it didn't rain and lucky-- the hut had large holes in the top.

In the morning we woke up early and went back to talk to the people. With the light of day I didn't feel so much like I was imposing and I was also relieved that they seemed comfortable having me as a guest. A young boy gave us a demonstration of how the Orang Asli start a fire and also make blow darts with use of the fire. The man that made the blow dart then let me try my luck with the blow pipe. I was amazed at how far the dart travels and so easily. They sometimes dip the dart in poison and use it to hunt for food, monkeys included.

After saying my thanks to the chief and giving him an offering of money in appreciation for the invitation I was off in a river boat for a journey back to civilization.

Aly with a blow pipe. Beware.

Good eats

Banana leaf meal. No utensils needed.

Fried carrot cake. Radish, egg, onion, chili, garlic, and flour. Not at all like the carrot cake at home!

Garlic naan

Vegetable murtabak

Chinese vegetarian economic rice street food.

Nasi lemak

And of course, drinks as well.