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Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Oh ya…Miri

1kg of black pepper crab, watercress-pork rib soup, midin, rice and 2 drinks was quickly devoured. All for only RM$26.80! This is the most important thing we have to share about Miri.

Kuching-Bako-Gading (28 Sept – 7 Oct)

The Fokker 50 flight from Miri to Kuching costs RM$182 per person whereas bus-ride would cost only RM$80 but it meant 16 hours in a mobile freezer again. We had to go into Miri to catch the bus and might have to stay the night there for the third time. This wasn’t a good idea as we would probably succumb to the temptation of eating our second kilo of crab. So we paid the money. Apart from the flight to KK from KL, this was the longest stretch of distance we have covered in a go. I kept staring out of the window to see what we have missed. The Similajau National Park’s famed beaches didn’t look half as good as Redang’s and Sibu’s waterfront refineries made me quite happy to give it a miss. I tried to peep into Niah Cave but the binos were not good enough…well after Mulu, we’ll give the next few caves a miss. As the plane skirted the coastline, I could see all three (successively larger) estuaries of the Kerian, Saribas and Lupar rivers. These sluggish winding waterways could well cross each other’s paths given their close proximity and the extent of their meandering. Geographically, it was a little lesson of environmental determinism as highways had to bend further inland where the width of these rivers was narrower. Man’s dabbling with nature is made apparent by larger rivers like the Sungei Baram (nearer Miri) which was brown with the silt from the deforested interior. Looking down at the sea, I thought I saw hundreds of swimmers far from the coastline. It took me quite a bit of squinting to realise that they were in fact whitecaps stirred up by the squalls. We flew over Bintulu, and I could see where the old airstrip used to be. These observations from the small window certainly beat any in-flight entertainment. At 450km/hr, we arrived in Cat City in two and a half hours, fresh, unfrozen and without a 16 hour buttache.

At the baggage claim, a minor financial-morale disaster struck when Karen’s therm-a-rest (inflatable mattress for camping), which was secured to her backpack failed to emerge on the conveyor belt. We approached the staff, filled in a form and never expected to see it again.

After the air-ticket and the loss of such expensive camping gear (which has been used only once), we felt that we did not deserve to take a cab 12km into town. So, with Sara, a friend we met in Bario, we waited at the bus-stop…for a bus that never came. We owe this slight delay to someone Sara approached who said that buses ran till eight. We did have a good time talking to the dredlocked Sara, who recently had her hair dyed pink, who has a silver nose-ring through her right nostril and who is flying back to Sheffield to start on her 3 year doctorate in Nerosciences. It’s really disarming! Karen and I wondered why we kept running into such highly educated people! After some travel talk with Sara and soon realising that the bus may never come, we decided to share the RM$17.50 cab-ride into the City of Cats. (we observed later that there were very few cats walking the streets)

If you are in Kuching, B&B Inn is the place to stay. A dorm costs RM$17 and a double RM$35, so of course we took the dorm. Nah...we took the double. Coming up to the second floor office, the familiar waft of smelly shoes accosted our noses. This made a lot of sense after a few seconds. If odour centre was here, that meant that the guests would be able to breathe in the rest of the building. Walking barefoot was therapeutic since the floor is religiously mopped every morning. Bathrooms and toilets do obscure sexual segregation. Décor is tasteful, simply and ingenious; the owner bought a 70 page book with loads of B&W photographs of the tribal people of Sarawak, tore the pages out, mounted them on A4 sized boards, laminated them and stuck them on the walls! Large maps of Sarawak, Kuching and Sabah are sensibly stuck on the walls and the array of useful brochures available makes B&B a self-contained tourist information centre. A self service basic breakfast of coffee and toast is even thrown in. The lights in the common area go off at 11pm so everyone goes to sleep early. My two favourite parts of this wonderful place is the shower and the bed. The shower is strong enough to blast out your eyeballs and the army-barrack-style hard beds and compact mattresses eliminate the backaches. The boss is also nice enough to come into your room and change the mattresses, sheets and pillows when the rain soaked everything when we had forgotten to close the windows.

The icon for Kuching should not be the cat but the Kolo Mee. But then again, it would be strange to have giant concrete bowls of noodles dotting the city. Noodles are a serious business here. Besides the mandatory KLM, Melaka-style shophouses carve out their specialities like claypot lamb kway teow (which I ate for 3 dinners), blachan noodles (served with sotong), yong tau foo with tang hoon (size doesn’t matter with these small but bouncy homemade fishballs), Sarawak Laksa, Mee Sapi (beef) and Mee Jawa (a cross between satay beehoon and mee rebus). The satay here is the best and leanest I have ever tasted. Even the stick is leaner than those found at home. Ironically, the only choice of meat is pork in that popular Chinese joint. A RM$5‘special’ KLM would include mince pork, liver, intestine, char siew, prawns and fishcake. The best KLM stall is supposedly a tiny corner shop along Jalan Carpenter which has been around for more than 30 years. Check out Aladdin Café on the same street for fantastic chicken rice, chopped and served by a heavily tattooed man and his son. The cinnamon fried chicken here is also extremely popular with the locals. Food in Kuching is cheap and of super-high standard. Talk to the locals and hawkers and they will be happy to tell you where the best pig-out places are. Sarawak has 7 museums but we only visited two. The food distractions were just too enticing and prolific.

The street architecture is very similar to Melaka’s but unlike the latter, the city has a strong bent on cleanliness (Kuching was actually voted by WHO as on of the healthiest cities to live in). The roads, backalleys, coffeeshop toilets, river and waterfront are spotless and free of any visible vermin. The five-foot way does give continuous shelter from the weather and has been levelled for easy walking. A warning has been issues in the papers for people to remove their unauthorised tele-communication devices from their houses. This essentially means : Take Down Your Big Fat Obtrusive Satellite Dishes! The penalty is a RM$25,000 fine! Sounds a tad like home really. The waterfront is really charming in the evening with the unique water-taxis ferrying school children back home across the river as the sun goes beneath the horizon. There are only a few small stalls along the wide pavement that follows the river so the annoying Clark Quay-style haggling is non-existent enabling you to enjoy your stroll. The only complaints I have about Kuching are that the internet cafes are expensive and the cat statues clusters do not do justice at all to the appearance and the charm of the real felines.

We reached B&B after dinner, tired but pleasantly surprised to find that the staff at Kuching airport had found and returned the therm-a-rest. What a great day!

Bako National Park (30 Sept – 2 Oct)

This promontory only occupies 27 square kilometres but its coastal location and zig-zag of headlands and bays make it vastly different from the inland forest reserves. Being the oldest national park in Sarawak, Bako is home to seven different vegetation types. I like Bako because it is not compulsory to have a guide. The 30km worth of walking trails are all colour-coded and well-marked. There is a good spread of walks (17 in total) to suit the different fitness levels ranging from 2 to 15 hour treks. Another wonderful thing about the wildlife in this park is that they choose to roam close to the park HQ and the chalets. The guides are friendly and willingly share accurate information on where to spot these creatures. There are also two resident bearded pigs which seem to be patrolling the premises. We must have looked quite silly when we first saw these strange beasts. We gasped and leapt for our cameras while the other tourists who had been there before sat calmly in their seats.

A short walk to Paku beach landed us among the long-nosed Proboscis monkeys. They spot us quickly and casually move up the trees, honking their low monotone protests like a tenor saxophone. The ‘Ngawk’ honk they make is really comical, especially with their long noses jolting simultaneously upwards! Some individuals were more daring and chose to observe and challenge us with more honking from a lower level. We mimic the honk and they, obviously agitated, return the call a couple of decibels louder. The males with their characteristic severe pot-bellies would squat on the lower branches then go clumsily crashing into the nearby trees. A can of tiger in one hand would make the scene perfectly logical. Through the binos, they looked just contented to be where and who they are. You can actually see smiles on their faces. According to one theory, having a long nose helps attract the girls. Being strict vegetarians, they need a big belly to contain all the bacteria to break down the heavy fibre they consume. Big males can weigh up to 20 kilos. The noses on the females end in a little snout and they have a redder coat on their backs. There are estimated to be only a 150 of them in Bako and just on that short walk we saw two separate groups of them at close range. One baby saw me, gave a panicked yelp and its mum speedily packed it off up the tree. When we approached the next group, it was with a Vietcong stealth-like manner, one slow silent step at a time and only speaking in whispers. The only thing lacking were the M16s and hand-signals. As a result of all our efforts to remain noiseless, our reward was a close encounter with a large male who swung by us (again crashing most ungracefully into some branches nearby), two young ones sitting on a branch just above us and a cool and probably old male who was just minding his own business in at the base of a tree 3 metres away. We observed them for as long as we could endure the compulsory and constant jungle blood donation. That was an itchy 7 minutes.

The next day’s trek brought us onto the sandstone plateau where we saw at least four varieties of pitcher plants including the very alien-looking and very large Nepenthes Rafflesiana and the stubby Nepenthes Ampullaria which looked like a little fat Red Indian with a feather sticking out of his head. Karen with her amazing contact lenses spotted a small blue crab on top of the plateau. How did it end up there? There were also quite a few ant plants with their overgrown tubers clinging like cancerous tumours to its host. We made our way to Telok Tanjor, a wide bay whose rippled black sand made it look initially unappealing. Here, we watched the tide come in, spilling over the thousands of tiny black sand ridges like a tsunami as a huge Brahminy Kite glided above. At one rocky end of the bay, I spent 20 intense minutes trying to photograph a hermit crab and at the other, Karen was perched on a boulder watching crabs scuttling in and out of their holes.

The afternoon was a total washout. The downpour transformed the clayey paths into rivulets and the water-levels of streams rose to submerge the logs and planks that bridged them. After Bario’s wet weather training, we became seasoned rain-walkers and continued the two hour trek to Tanjong Rhu, a thin headland where there was supposedly an impressive stack at its end. The rainy trek became enjoyable once you have learnt to abandon all hope of keeping any part of your body dry and your boot out of the mud. The squishing, squashing and falling into streams became rather childlike and natural. Some rainwater flowed over large boulders which being heated by the sun, warmed up the water. This, we gladly used to warm our clammy hands! Tanjong Rhu on a fine day would offer spectacular views of the open sea. Unfortunately, the short stack was unimpressive and the foul weather made it impossible to admire the wave-cut platform at the bottom of the cliff for very long. Still, the honeycomb weathering and the pock-marked surface if the coastal cliff made a Geographer’s treat. After a few minutes drying out in a hut, the rain eased up and the ghostly outline of the coast became visible. It was quite a sight! There was also a bat in the hut which fell off the bottom of a bench!

We survived the remaining one and a half hours walk down the escarpment to our room showered and got ready for dinner. The blokes here have a good meal system. Following strict meal-times, the cook would lay the dishes out nasi padang-style and we would decide on which ones and how much to put on our plate. The queue would end at the cashier who would charge you accordingly. This ‘accordingly’ is the problematic part as some meals ended up really cheap and others a little dearer. Prices were not ridiculous and the quality of food made up for it. Tourists soon learnt to adhere to the meal times or to be faced with cold left-overs. The owner of the canteen carries a catapult with him. When the macaques steal into his premises, he whips his weapon out, tension the elastic band and they flee for their lives. Macaques are as much of a nuisance as they are intelligent. Leave any object that would inerest them lying around and it would be swiped. The lateral thinking persistent rascals know how to approach their target from a variety of angles too. One managed to get close enough to my pack to peer inside. I was only 2 metres away. Some friends we made there had pears stolen from their chalet after leaving a window open.

On our last morning there, we decided to forgo the one and a half hour trek to a scenic cove named Pandan Kechil to watch the thousands of fiddler crabs on the mangrove 10 minutes walk away. These guys make you laugh! With the right pincer a hundred or more times larger than the left one, I secretly hoped they would grow to the size of the Sri Lanka crab. Their antennae eyes extended out like two radio receivers and with their smaller arm, they continually shove microscopic stuff from the mangrove mud into their mouths like gluttons with an eating disorder at a buffet. The overgrown orange pincer comes in handy when there are territorial disputes.

We failed in our mission to find the Silver Leafed Languar which is a kind of long-haired monkey and we didn’t spot any vipers but Bako with its coastal landscape, crabs and monkeys is certainly well worth a visit.


Kuching Once More

In Bako, the Food God linked us up with Christine and Duc, a Vietnamese couple who have living in France for the past 20 years or so. They were on the mangrove boardwalk peering at something in the trees through their binos when ‘kaypo+kiasu’ me popped over to see what wildlife I may be missing. It wasn’t a Silver Leaf Languar which I so hoped to find. Soon I discovered that they had been to Singapore 10 times! Anyone who intentionally visits Singapore 10 times is either seriously mental or addicted to the good food. The animated and spirited Christine and Mr Happy fortunately belonged to the latter and we soon found ourselves in a thoroughly intense makan-sutra sharing session. From Joo Chiat Pepper Crab to Adam’s Road Prawn Noodle to Carlton’s Cantonese Restaurant, we seasoned gluttons unveiled the sacred food sites of Singapore and brought enlightenment to their faces. Duc’s permanent grin got wider and wider with each of our recommendations. With only 4 days (only 12 main meals) in Singapore, they would have to choose wisely. Christine teasingly calls him a Proboscis Monkey and is resigned to the fate that food would be the main determiner of their travel itinerary. When we were not discussing food issues, travel stories made up the conversation. This was just a small excursion and we would inevitably boomerang to the topic of food finery in Singapore! This lovely couple invited us to a seafood dinner on their last night in Kuching before flying off to meet and eat their Joo Chiat crabs. The duo drink beer at every meal. Christine has very expressive mannerisms and likes to starts conversations with ‘And here’s the deal…’ and Duc smiles all the time like Mr Happy in the Mr Men series. When we parted, I said I’ll take them around if they came to Singapore again. Christine corrected me and said it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Thanks for the wonderful company Christine and Duc!


The Cat Museum

Kuching’s Cat Museum looks like an inverted shuttle cock atop a hill. It houses some 4000 well presented exhibits which cover just about everything that has the tiniest relation to the cat. All cat lovers should make a pilgrimage here to expand their knowledge about the feline species. Even if you are not interested in cats the view of Kuching, the plains and the surrounding highlands from here is well worth the trip.

A few cat nuggets for you:

‘Feline insomnia is unknown. The useless experiments habe shown that when prohibited to sleep for a week, a cat dies.’

‘…cats have an extraordinary sensitivity to tiny changes in surrounding temperature.’ (They change their sleeping posture according to the temperature.)


Sarawak Museum

The new wing resembles a fraction of our Science Centre. The old wing is more interesting with a comprehensive collection of stuffed Sarawakian mammals, primates, fishes, snakes, birds and insects. I found my Silver Leafed Langar here. There is even a skeleton of a killer whale! The second storey is devoted to the tribes. Their culture is preserved and communicated through old photographs, artefacts, scale models, intricate rattan and bamboo weavings, weapons, tattoo tools, pottery, and a live-sized replica of a portion of a longhouse with its macabre décor of human skulls which were once trophies of the warriors. Among the tribes, selfishness was not only frowned upon but seen as a serious crime. Everyone was expected to share their belongings and hunting bounty to ensure the survival of the tribe. Kind of communistic eh?


Gunung Gading

The splendid tourist information centre in Kuching mans a Rafflesia Hotline (714735)! Whenever one of these mutants emerge, the rangers at Gunung Gading National Park will alert Kuching, fax the specifications (e.g. 65 cm in diameter, 20 mins from park HQ, date of bloom) and like a chain reaction, tourists would flock to the long distance bus station, take the 90 minute ride to Lundu, and grab another short cab-ride to Gading where they will have to pay RM$10 for the entrance fee and RM$20 for a guide to show you the flower’s location. It’s worth it. The Rafflesia is indeed the King of the flowers. (Sir Stamford Raffles did have a hand in its discovery but the main man was a Brit chap called Joseph Arnold hence the full name Rafflesia arnoldii.) The one we saw, at 65cm in diameter, looked almost animalistic with its gaping mouth (from which the fetid smell is emitted to attract carrion flies to aid in its pollination) shouting right in your face. This parasitic flower takes 9 months to germinate and open, blooms for only 5 days and then quicky turns into an ugly black mess. It has no blooming season which is what makes it so uncommon! In the beginning, this bud looks like a huge walnut which will grow and eventually look like a dark purple cabbage on the forest floor. There is no stem, just the big bud growing out of its roots. Our guide says that it actually smells nice on the first day of its bloom!

The next few hours at Gading were spent swimming at a waterfall. Before leaving Lundu (the town near Gading) for Kuching, we had a nice meal of rice and wild boar as recommended by our taxi driver!

On the bus to Gading, we met Lothar, an Austrian student who told us about an amazing French woman who goes around the world studying gorillas and orang utans and teaching them sign language so that they could communicate with her. Once she was signing with a gorilla who was signing so fast, she couldn’t catch what he was ‘saying’. She signed to him to slow down and he ‘replied’, ‘Oh I forgot you are a stupid human!’ There was also another story of how her orang utan learned to drive after observing her. This lady is a genius who speaks 6 languages and goes around the world teaching others in the ‘animal line’ how to better communicate with these great apes! She apparently had a hand in designing the cage-less enclosures in our very own zoo!

After more than a week in Kuching, we were glad to fly to Bangkok to immerse ourselves in some Thai light-heartedness!

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