Saturday, July 23, 2011

Malaysia travels: so many faces.

So much new, different, fascinating and frustrating stuff…. With Malaysia’s many faces we have never been bored! First, we have to put a map in here: Malaysia has an unusual geography, and we had no clue of how it worked (still don’t, really…) until we set off along its shores.
So, there is Peninsular or West Malaysia (South of Thailand) and then East Malaysia, which is on the top part of Borneo Island (the bottom section of Borneo is part of the huge sprawling region of Indonesia). Malaysia has 13 states; 11 on the peninsular and 2 on Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), which have the Brunei Sultanate separating them. Ketoro is decorated below with the flags of all the countries we have visited, and the smaller flags are those of all the Malaysian states.
Why the geography lesson? Well, because we want to cover each section separately in this blog. Two posts ago, we wrote about the trip down the Malacca Straits and enjoying the Chinese / Malay / Indian influences in Penang and Malacca (west coast of Peninsula Malaysia): places that made us (foreign tourists) feel very welcome. Malaysia is a real melting-pot of these communities, and the ratios of the different cultures determine that region’s work and service ethic and to what extent foreigners are made welcome. Generally: the more the Chinese, the more economically energetic the place and the happier they appear to be to receive tourists (perceived as bearers of dollars and not as negative influences and subverters of morals…?)

So first…

Peninsula Malaysia: East coast

This stretch has beautiful islands which are magnificent for diving and very tourist-friendly; it also has mainland villages that are ultra-conservative Muslim Malay strongholds and less easy to visit and understand.

The Tioman Island group was a great place to start, with a beautiful anchorage near the airport that is hemmed in by mountains and where planes coming in to land are actually nose down and look like they are about to crash.
A cultural day brought rally adults and kids together with the local people: a presentation of local music was followed by games: the rally-men’s tug of war team got a great boost when this local lady helped them to win… and clearly Rolf gave it his best shot! This island depends on tourism and the local Malay community are not reserved here, but as relaxed with the tourists as the Chinese are.
Other beautiful uninhabited islands were enjoyed on the trip to and from Tioman, with drinks on the beach and snorkelling (or reading) being favourite post-anchoring activities.
Many of the beaches, however, are breeding grounds of several types of annoying insects and particularly sand-flies: yachties’ stories abound of contact with these tiny creatures and at least 6 in the group had previously been hospitalised from infection resulting from the bites, while many have bad scars.
This time was no different and a friend ended up getting dreadful ulcerating infections within 24 hours of flies stinging (and peeing in, apparently) an already-open wound. At the first land stop she was admitted to the local hospital and was treated effectively with 4 days of antibiotic drip; she checked out earlier than the doctors would have it though…. she praises the medical treatment but after every patient and visitor in the hospital came at all times of the day, pulled back her screens, stared at her and left, she got fed up! This is evidently a typical experience for foreigners in hospitals in rural Malaysia.

So on to Terengganu town (beautiful crystal mosque pictured), in the northern-most and most conservative state of Malaysia.
Terengganu Marina was typical of Malaysian marinas: muddy, exposed and poorly designed but flanked by a huge under-utilised resort and supported by grand buildings, intended to accommodate conferences of a demand not likely to be seen in the future. Malaysia has money (lots) and huge construction projects on-going to meet the government’s envisioned future growth. But looking at the vast, empty, resonating halls, it is hard to believe that the dreams will come true.

Tourism growth is particularly hard to believe when this local Malay community’s reception of foreign visitors is less than positive: their government may want foreigners to come, but they and / or their religious leaders appear less enthusiastic! By contrast, the 5% of Chinese in the Terengganu population went out of their way to welcome and help us find our way around. China town buildings with tiny shop-fronts sell a fascinating and useful variety of wares on the ground floor and typically have the owner living upstairs. In this case however, the second storey of the buildings of a whole street was dedicated to accommodation of swiftlets, busily making nests for their young…. Oops, I mean tomorrow’s bird’s nest soup (for some)!
Our diving and island experiences over the following week at the Perhentian Islands were superb: these are some of the best dive sites in the world, and we saw wonderful mature, healthy coral as a backdrop to many fish species in great numbers. The islands also made a beautiful backdrop to the working area when the dive compressor inevitably needs repairing or de-rusting (only 2 years old, it is close to its demise!).
We were ready to move on to Eastern Malaysia on Borneo Island after this, a passage story we put up in the last blog (and thank heavens we HAD had this restful time, before that passage!)

Eastern Malaysia: Borneo Island

Well, what a pleasant surprise! Guilty of paying little attention to Borneo previously, we have found most things to be a surprise here: the scenery, people, cities, industries….
But first, the fascinating history of Borneo….

Head-hunters and white Rajahs

There are many ethnic communities on this island, currently living peacefully alongside each other and the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. Before the latter two arrived, it was very different. Until the 19th century Sarawak State was under the control of the Sultanate of Brunei, but the Sultan was having trouble with the local tribes who were constantly at war and lopping off each other’s heads to take them home as trophies.

James Brooke, an adventurer with large inheritance who had been invalided from the British East India Company, happened to come by with his large, well-armed ship, so assisted in the ‘suppression’ of the troublesome rebels. The Sultan, mightily pleased, gave him a huge chunk of land (lucky boy…. But apparently Brooke also persuaded the Sultan of how much land he should be given by parking his warship off the Sultan’s palace!) and installed him as Raja of Sarawak. The Brooke family saw a further two generations of Brooke family take over as Rajas of their personal kingdom until WWII; after a period under Japanese control and then Australian administration, Sarawak was ceded to Britain by the Brooke family. What it was to be a citizen of Sarawak in those days….! Ultimately Sarawak and Sabah, the other state on Borneo Island, were brought into the Federation of Malaysia, but only after the two Borneo states insisted on some independence (they did not wish to lose their oil money to the peninsular): they now have their own immigration and customs procedures – but have nevertheless lost their oil money to the Kuala Lumpur government (only 5% of their revenue finds its way back into the region).
Our first impression of Borneo from the sea was a huge dark green mountainous island with extensive flat (but very greened) areas extending inland. After spending our first post-passage night at a small island (last blog) we went into a large river to anchor…. River Santubong, under Mount Santubong, and this takes us to a general topic:

The rivers of Borneo

These are many, and wide, and long, and fast-flowing, and muddy, with huge tidal ranges, many fish, prawns and crocodiles.

With a yacht, it is potentially easy to go inland on Borneo using the rivers; in fact there are many towns and villages that have no access to other cities except via the water… why chop down jungle and build roads when you have waterways? People live on and alongside the rivers while industries are based near them.

What this all means is the following…. The rivers are busy, busy places and while anchored in them there is an endless pageant of life taking place in front of you. The Santubong River anchorage gave us mostly blissful peace, with birdlife, fish, a huge crocodile (discouraged you from swimming, even if the muddiness did not), small family fishing clusters on stilts nearby, canoes quietly fishing…
… and then the peace was broken by huge tugs pulling large barges, huge cargo carriers, industrial fishing boats…. All in our back garden (and sometimes making our home rock!).

This was our base for seeing Kuching, and we later moved to the marina in the Sarawak River closer to the city…. even more and bigger ships, big logs and islands of vegetation moving down in the current to us; however the marina structures gave us some protection from these.
It was time for inland exploring, so we took the ferry out to sea then up the giant Redang River (longest in Borneo) to Sibu; even this tough, huge, speedy ferry had to slow to a crawl and dodge the islands of floating debris which were coming down in masses. From the ferry we saw the evidence of the Borneo jungles… but also huge areas that had been cleared and planted with palm oil plantations, and the sawmills leading down to the river from where tons of logs were loaded onto the giant barges (from where many fall into the river or sea to plague yachties…!)

A trip even further inland to Kapit saw us using the only available public transport:
Odd, long, torpedo-shaped jet boats, strong enough to fight against a huge tidal current and deal with the floating debris. The range of sights was fantastic: tug-barge combos, fishing and cargo boats, dugout canoes for fishing or a means of short-distance transport. There were fewer sawmills here, and more villages to be seen, often the homes of the Iban community: stilted longhouses with a long communal deck as a shared patio off which led doors to the rooms belonging to individual families.
Which brings us to…

The cities and people of Sarawak, Borneo

Sarawak State, “Land of the Hornbills”, is great: so much to do and see! The best part of it all is the fact that there is a broad spread of ethnic groups who are keen to welcome tourists and we have felt very comfortable travelling here, contrasted to our experiences in the more conservative Muslim areas of peninsular Malaysia.

There are over 100 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups in Borneo (for example Iban, Orang Ulu and Melanau people), generally termed the Dayaks, each with their own cultures, traditions and dialects. Those whom we met in the towns are friendly and many surprised us: we asked directions of a thin, wiry, bare-torso Iban man, tattoo-ed on every bit of skin, long hair in dreadlocks … and were answered in perfectly-spoken English with a strong English accent. The Muslim people on Borneo are also far more pragmatic in their ways and tolerant of others than those Malays on the mainland with their exclusive attitude: our Muslim lady taxi driver happily eats in restaurants with her friends from the Chinese and Iban communities.

Kuching, Sibu and Kapit gave us an idea of the cultures, history, way of life; we have still to get to Mulu National Park near the town of Miri to savour a good sample of Sarawak’s mountains, caves, rivers and rainforests.

Kuching is a wonderful city for a holiday, with a China town, an Indian street, and Malay areas; a wonderful museum, and cat statues everywhere: Kuching in Malay means cat, so the Malay people, who are sensitive about their ownership of the country, claim the city was named for the cats roaming the streets. HUH!? Well, Kuching means harbour in Chinese, and that is far more likely to be the origin…
On the Sarawak River, Kuching has a great waterfront alongside Main Bazaar, a road that has oodles of small shops selling souvenirs, curios, artefacts, antiques peculiar to the area… and the area is peculiar! Care for blowpipes, knives, spears, skulls? They are all here, in crammed, dusty shops alongside the textiles, wood, carvings, beadwork; you can spend hours browsing!
As with most cities in SE Asia, there is a permanent market and several others at night or on the weekend. The unusual purchases on offer here include bamboo sago worms, separated lovingly from their bamboo and sold by the kilogram;
forest ferns (midden… a really tasty green vegetable which is the curled tops of new ferns harvested in the jungles) and chicken wrapped in newspaper and pink ribbon, to take home to your chicken coop or kitchen.
Sibu and Kapit are much smaller towns, non-touristy and interesting for the abundance of goldsmiths, betting shops and karaoke bars! The many coffee shops sell Borneo coffee: strong, and served with sweetened condensed milk.

Both of these towns are approached from the water, but their waterfronts are practical and functional… and ugly, definitely not addressing the tourist! This view of the waterfront in Sibu is taken from the top of the Chinese Taoist Pagoda.
The Chinese populations in these towns are large, and there are far more Dayak people than Malays. Although many of these communities have moved to the big cities, a large percentage still live their lives near their original home territories, in the style of their original communities (e.g. the Iban people in longhouses) and many rely on their community’s trademark handcraft for income, like this Orang Ulu (means “up-river dwellers”) lady with her beadwork.
A rehabilitation park in Kuching helps a variety of animals and snakes, but in particular orang utans. Interesting to us was the fact that “orang” is the Malay word for people. Thus, the Orang Asli were one of the first human inhabitant groups in Malaysia and the Orang Ulu are people of the river. Heard of the “wild man of Borneo”? That is the Orang Utan, the man of the forest. Orang utans are only found in the wild in Borneo and Indonesia, and their numbers are decreasing as their habitat becomes destroyed. Here, Junior tries to sneak some of Ritchie’s snacks off his table.

A real treat was to be in Kuching for the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF). Based at a cultural village with the stages flanked by mighty trees, there were three nights in which bands from various countries (Finland, Iran, Poland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Polynesia, Senegal, Caribbean, Kenya, Algeria, Malaysia, UK, USA, NZ, Vanuatu, Mexico) and representing many ethnic communities played music from their heritage.
The music was not always to everyone’s taste but the instruments were often unusual (like this sape, below), the background stories interesting and the spirit always positive: the field rocked with appreciative audiences till midnight!
Even better, during the day workshops were held in the Iban longhouses and Melanau tallhouses in which large groupings of the musicians played together, talking about their background and their instruments and developing into amazing improvising and “jamming” sessions.

This festival, and Kuching, and Sarawak…. Are a MUST VISIT!