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.
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.
So on to Terengganu town (beautiful crystal mosque pictured), in the northern-most and most conservative state of Malaysia.
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)!
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….
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).
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…
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.
A trip even further inland to Kapit saw us using the only available public transport:
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…
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.
This festival, and Kuching, and Sarawak…. Are a MUST VISIT!