Report From Borneo (Continued)

JULY 1998


Early Morning at Royal Mulu Resort

A beautiful morning in Mulu – we wished that for some reason our plane would not be able to land. It was a pity that our trip had needed to be so rushed – a bit like our lives really! Of course, our plane departed on time, after we had all been duly weighed, along with our luggage. 35 mins later, we arrived in Miri. We knew when we were organising this trip that we would have a couple of hours to kill, so organised a quick short tour of Miri. Our guide was waiting at the airport for us as we walked out of the terminal. We had wanted to check our bags in for the next flight to Kuching, but he suggested that it might not be a good idea, as they would probably end up on another flight. We set off to see the sights of Miri, a bustling town on the banks of the Miri River. We drove through the town – there are quite a few new buildings going up in the centre of the town, mostly due to the wealth of the area which has been derived from the oil. The incongruities of the place are obvious – on one side of the river is the new vibrant part of the town, while on the other side are the shanties and the poorer parts of the are town. To the North of the town is the head office of the Shell Oil Company – an imposing building set amongst gardens and park-like surroundings. The employees of Shell are also well looked after, with housing provided in a Shell “suburb” of Miri.

The Grand Old Lady of Canada Hill

The highlight of the tour is the visit to the top of Canada Hill where oil was first drilled back at the turn of the century. The remains of the “Grand Old Lady” oil well are still to be seen, and are currently being used as the centrepiece of a monument to the oil industry in Miri. It would appear that a park complex will ultimately be erected around the remains of the oil well. Good views of the town, as well as all the oil rigs located off the coast to the North of the town, may be had from the top of the hill.

Miri From Canada Hill

The flight to Kuching from Miri takes only about 40 mins. We were met at the airport by our guide, James, and transferred to the Kuching Hilton Hotel – set in an imposing position with views directly up the Sarawak River. A quick lunch in a nearby Chinese restaurant in a street directly behind the Main Bazaar, and then a bit of shopping for some souvenirs of our trip. Kuching offers some of the best artefacts of Borneo to be found in the whole of the island, and some of the best shops appear to be located on the Main Bazaar, which is one of Kuching’s oldest roads, and runs along the waterfront. As well as genuine artefacts, there are also the reproductions which are sold at genuine artefact prices, until you start to bargain, then the price falls dramatically. We looked in a number of shops – we had our eyes on a baby carrier, a blow pipe (we bought the darts and the dart holder on our last trip), some baskets, and an ornamental hornbill. It is not easy work, and you really have to allocate quite a bit of time in order to find just the thing. Our budget was not large, so we had to chose wisely. We found the best shops were the ones that looked as if they were holding a jumble sale – they had so much stuff in them that it was piled up all over the place. On e thing in common was that they all had the reproduction items at the front of the shop, and the genuine article piled up at the rear of the shop. One shop we went into took us out the back and also upstairs in an adjoining building to see the “masterpieces” when they found out that we wanted the genuine thing. Unfortunately, they were just beyond our means, and we thought that we may end up with only a couple of baskets, when we walked into a shop, and there in the back was a marvellous looking hornbill, about 1 metre long, with shells hanging off it – in the whole afternoon, we had not seen anything which looked as good as this one. The price started high, but with a bit of bargaining, we managed to reduce it by about half, and I think everyone was happy with the outcome. If anyone wants to find this shop, all I can say is that it is near No. 55 Main Bazaar – probably the first or second “Jumble Sale” looking shop to the left, as you stand in the street looking at the shops. (Sorry if you are now confused).

We had dinner that night with friends at the local food market, where we first came across the Red Telapia fish which is found in the dam on the Batang Ai. Absolutely delicious.


Up fairly early again for a departure at 07.00 hrs for a trip up the Skrang River which is located in the interior of Sarawak, almost due East of Kuching, and not far from the Kalimantan border. The drive to the starting point is about 270 km and takes nearly 4 hrs. Our guide for the day would be another Charlie. The weather was not looking good – the rain had started early the previous evening. We were starting to think that our luck with the weather (forgetting about our aborted flight to Mulu) had finally changed, and that we would be in for a wet trip on the longboat later in the day. Our first stop along the way was at the town of Serian, the first major town after leaving Kuching. We had an opportunity there to visit the local market which was in full swing when we arrived there at about 09.00 hrs. On sale were all the fruits and vegetables of the area, as well as a fish market and the various meat markets – primarily chicken and pork. One thing that really took our interest was the public toilet block. It was one of the most ornate toilet blocks that we had ever seen, complete with a reception area, and a squad of people to make sure that it stayed clean. Naturally, this meant that there would be an entrance fee – the grand sum of 10 Sen (about 4 cents Australian).

Further along the road towards Sri Aman we started to notice the large amounts of pepper being grown. Black and White Pepper comes from the same plant – the difference is that the white pepper is soaked in the river for one week, then has the skin removed before being dried, whereas the black pepper has been taken straight from the plant to the drying mat. Many of the villages grow pepper as a cash crop, and in some places, the hillsides are covered in pepper plants. Also in the same area, and many other areas within Borneo, are many Cocoa and oil palm plantations.

We also noticed at various places, a large police presence on the road. Apparently, the Indonesians living in Kalimantan have found out that it is possible to earn a lot more money working in Malaysia than in Kalimantan, and so try to get across the border to find work. The police are there manning road blocks to make sure that they do not, although, looking at the amount of jungle in the area, it would not surprise me if there were quite a few who managed to cross the border elsewhere and find their way into a job on the Sarawak side of the border.

Skrang River

The weather was trying to lift most of the trip, but just when we thought the sun was going to come out, down came the rain again. By the time we arrived at the wharf in the village where would start our trip, we had just about given up hope of having reasonable weather, but luck had not yet deserted us. No sooner had we stopped, than the sun came out, and stayed out! We had a fabulous afternoon. Charlie sought out a boat driver, and we were issued with life vests (all tourists get life vests) and then shepherded into one of the many longboats tied up at the jetty, although the jetty itself was in not the best condition. We actually had to get into the longboat from a sandy shoal on the river bank.

We headed up river, against the quite strong current. All long boats these days are equipped with outboard motors, although the shape of the longboat is still true to the original design of the canoe which has been plying the rivers of Borneo for centuries. Both sides of the river were covered in thick jungle, with occasional clearings where crops were being grown, or a village longhouse was located. The trip to Nanga Murat, which was the longhouse we were to visit, took about 45 minutes, and was a most enjoyable trip. As we got further up the river, we were having to go up rapids, something we found quite exciting (little did we know what was in store for us the following day!!). We actually wondered how the locals would have plied the river in their canoes without the aid of the motor. The answer is that it was hard work. Luckily for us, too, the river was running quite full. It is not uncommon to have to get out and push and pull the longboat over shoals.

The Communal Verandah - Nanga Murat

We arrived at Nanga Murat, and were greeted by the villagers who were there. Most of the people, however, were apparently out in the fields tending their crops. The first thing we noticed when we walked into the longhouse, was its immense size. No wonder it is called a longhouse – there is no other word to describe it. This was the first longhouse that I had ever visited, and I must admit that I was overwhelmed by its size. The building itself sits on stilts above the ground. Under the longhouse, they may keep chooks, or pigs or some other animal. Basically, you walk up some stairs at the end of the building, and through a door. At this point you are entering a large enclosed verandah with a couple of rows of support posts running along its length. At the other end of the longhouse is another door in a similar position. Off the verandah to one side are doors leading to an open deck where some activities take place, such as drying pepper or rice, or mending fishing nets, etc. Toilet facilities are also located at the end of the deck in an enclosed cabin. You probably don’t want to know that there is nothing in there except a hole in the floor. Off the other side of the enclosed verandah are a number of doorways which lead to the private quarters of all the inhabitants of the longhouse. Each private quarter consists of a large living area, and behind that a kitchen area, with a further open deck beyond that. There is also an upstairs storage area under the roof and above the enclosed verandah, accessed from each of the private quarters. This is, however, a modern longhouse. The design is not typical of the more traditional style longhouse, although, these days, more and more of the longhouses are adopting a more modern approach – and why shouldn’t they? Is there any reason why the longhouses needs to be roofed with Nippa palm, when a sheet of galvanised iron will keep the water out far better, or why meals should be cooked over an open fire when LP gas provides a much more efficient means of cooking? The tourists like to see the traditional, but the villagers themselves also have a right to live in the 20th Century. Traditional longhouses also tend to have a bamboo slat floor, whereas Nanga Murat has replaced the floor with more durable timber (so the tourists don’t fall through).

We had lunch in one of the private living areas which has been set aside for tourists to stay in, and then joined the women in the main verandah area. The verandah is where all communal activities take place. Traditional longhouses also displayed the heads which had been taken, in this part of the building. Nanga Murat also has a collection of skulls on display. Many of the longhouses have sold their skulls off – some to museums, some to tourists. This one has kept them, as they have meaning to the inhabitants of the longhouse (or you could take the cynical approach and say that as this is one of the main “tourist” longhouses, they wanted to impress the tourists).

The women make baskets, traditional cloth blankets/covers and woven mats which they offer for sale to the tourists. Yes, it is commercial, but why should they not make things which the tourists can use. The handicrafts are still made in the traditional ways, and helps to keep the traditions alive. Some of the things are a bit kitschy, but other things are quite reasonable. We ended up buying a basket, a cloth blanket in traditional design and a couple of woven place mats. The villagers don’t speak much English, so Charlie had to do the negotiating for us, although, they will not bargain very much (we had been told that they would, but the most reduction we got was about RM5 on the blanket which was originally RM50). After the sales had been completed, we were asked to join them for tuak, the local rice wine, which is really an acquired taste. It is very sweet, and, depending on who makes it, contains varying amounts of alcohol.

Travelling on the Skrang River

We eventually had to take our leave of the longhouse and set off back down the river, this time with the current. There must have been heavy rain upstream during the morning, as while we were in the longhouse, the river level had risen about half a metre! The trip down was just as interesting as the trip up, with beautiful trees overhanging the river on both sides. Once we arrived at our starting point, we had time for a quick drink, and then we were off again. We were going to Hilton’s Batang Ai Resort for a couple of days, and the trip from where we were to the dam was only about 20 mins. We arrived at the dam at about 16.30 hrs. And were lucky enough to find that the launch was actually waiting for us (luck more than good management). Access to the resort is only by boat, although there is a very rough track running along the side of the dam which was used during the construction of the resort about 4 years ago.

Approaching Batang Ai Resort

I doubt that you would have much luck trying to drive on it, as it has apparently not been used since the resort was finished in 1995. The trip across the lake only takes about 10 mins – the resort which starts off as a smudge on the horizon gradually takes shape. The resort is based on the native Iban architectural design, and comprises 11 separate longhouses sitting on a low ridge on the edge of the lake.

On arrival , we were met with a refreshing drink, and then shown to our room which, like the longhouse we had just visited, was accessed off an enclosed verandah. The verandah allowed access to a smaller balcony overlooking the lake, and provided the perfect place for some lovely photographs of the sunset over the lake.

Sunset over the lake

Dinner was pretty good – although we wondered about the scarcity of people in the dining room. There appeared to be only a handful of people in the resort which could cater for up to about 250 guests! It appears that the Asian economic crisis is having an impact on domestic travel as well (We had also noticed in Mulu that there were not many people around, although, there were definitely more than there were at Batang Ai). At 20.30 hrs every night, there is a video presentation by the resident Naturalist, Winston, who is a bit of a character. He was apparently born and grew up in Burma to English parents. He then moved to Malaysia with his family when he was about 12 or so, but found that he could not get on at school, even though in Burma he had no problems. So he left school, and went to work for his Dad in the timber industry, until one day his dad blamed him for something which he did not do, and hit him in front of other workers, so he got up and ran away from home and joined the Malaysian army or police at the time of the communist uprising. He was then sent into the jungle to track the enemy, and learnt a lot about the environment he was working in, so much so that he became a real bushman – more so than a lot of the natives he was working with. He married an Iban woman, and somehow scored himself a job at the resort during its construction, and subsequently, became the in house naturalist after it was finished. If there is anything to know about the area, Winston has the answer. [Winston now works at Sukau Rainforest Lodge at Sukau on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah – ed]

Tomorrow, we journey up the Batang Ai to the Batang Ai National Park, and Tibu Longhouse.

Trip Travelogues

Clarissa’s Diary continues on the next page

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