Get up at 4:45 am, walk a few kilometers to a bus station, take an hour long bus to the airport, catch a 1.5 hour flight to Kuching International Airport, walk a few more kilometers to a bus stop, catch a bus that is (hopefully) going into town, and finally spend 2.5 hours looking for a place to stay.
We made it to Borneo, Malaysia! Megan and I were walking into a week of real cultural adventures and were completely unaware of it.
We stayed at a nice little guesthouse, recommended by friends, which had a full kitchen and complimentary eggs/bread/oats so you could make your own breakfast. I ate copious amounts of toast all week long! Franky, who owns and runs the place, is a Malaysian of Chinese heritage. She is a fast talking, super excited, and constantly on the go kind of person. Franky was the key to our very memorable week.
(Us and Franky)
On our first full day we explored Kuching. We stopped off at the planetarium and watched a show on life and evolution. This was my first time in a planetarium and it was pretty awesome! We were the only guests there and it only cost about 75 cents to see the show. Afterwards, we made our way back to the guesthouse to cool down and relax. Franky caught us back at the guesthouse and was super excited to take us to a Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. We had no clue what was going on but she said something about burning money, houses, cars, and seeing a “shaman” in a trance. All I could think was they are going to burn a house and car! We headed out with another couple in Franky’s car around 7pm to see this festival. Upon arriving there were tons of Chinese people making their way to a small building that was so crowded and filled with incense smoke that we couldn’t make out what was going on. Franky explained that people put their names into a queue so they can visit the shaman. We didn’t fully understand what the deal was with the shaman, but he is apparently possessed by a spirit and can provide advice or knowledge to a current situation. Because there were so many people that night, he was just blessing (or approving?) gifts to the spirits (ghosts) that each person presented before him. We found that they had a huge tent full of food offerings to appease the hell spirits; pig heads, shrimp, lobster, beer, liqueur, potatoes, pineapples, cakes, and so much more.
As Franky was explaining all of this to us over a nice plate of noodles covered in chili sauce (I went back for seconds), she decided to put Megan’s name into the queue. Megan was completely lost at what was going on, but the other couple with us were freaking out because they needed to get back and pack for an early flight. So we headed back to the guesthouse to drop off those two and crammed four others into Franky’s tiny car. I think Megan was secretly hoping they would have passed her number by the time we got back, but it was going to be a long time before Franky and Megan’s numbers were drawn. While waiting, the amount of Chinese people were slowly thinning out and we were able to see the shaman sitting at a table acting really strange, tongue sticking out and eyes closed, while stamping things people brought before him. Typically it was some sort of paper, a couple of gutted orange peels, and a flag of some sort. People took the orange peels, filled them with oil, put in a wick, said a prayer, and then set them in a pool of water to float. Time to enjoy some more noodles and chili sauce.
(Orange peel candle pool)
Finally it was Megan’s turn around 1:30am. Looking nervous she sat next to the Shaman who sort of stared at her, started rambling something in Chinese, and then quickly stamped the orange peels she brought. People all around were entertained as we were the only foreigners at this festival. Megan walked away unscathed but still had to wave the oranges over some incense while someone rang a bell, then she got to add hers to the collection of lit orange peels in the pool.
(Megan and the Shaman)
After that excitement we still had to wait for everything to come to an end, so we helped some others burn fake money. They literally go out and buy stacks of fake, paper money to take to a festival and just throw into a fire, and they burn a lot of fake money! Finally we reached the time to burn a house and car! Woot! Out of nowhere a guy walked around a corner carrying a big paper house. Excitement gone… There was a large square with a bamboo fence that we filled with a few paper houses, cars, shirts, shoes, and copious amounts of fake money. There was so much it ended up being a pile roughly 10 feet tall within a 30’x30′ area. It took an hour to fill. The shaman came out and ran around the food tent chanting and then off to light the big pile of paper. Once lit, people bum rushed the food tent to take the offerings no longer needed by the hell ghosts. Megan destroyed little kids, stealing their precious pineapples! Not really, but we did end up with a lot of fruit, sweet potatoes, and some MSG coated goodies.
(Paper houses submerged in paper money in a bamboo cage)
A couple days later we got up pretty early to head to a nature preserve to see some orangutans! The preserve has a viewing area to watch while rangers put a bucket of fruit on a platform for the semi-wild orangutans. While waiting we watched the tree tops until we finally saw trees swaying back and forth. Orangutans are like tree ninjas moving through the canopy. We got to see nine of them, a few just little babies. Later we took in some of the museums as they are free across the state. That evening Franky surprised us with dinner, a vegetable dish with salted duck eggs. To eat, you put a spoonful of the vegetables and egg into a lettuce leaf. I called them Malaysian burritos. After that nice dinner we went to see the waterfront at night. In the central area we found a large tent set up for a formal dinner, and other tents full of local food vendors and tables. Military and police were all over the place, and people were pouring in and out of the vendor tents carrying all sorts of good looking food. Megan and I were quite perplexed at what was going on, and as we stopped to observe an officer took us into a tent where another officer handed us both some ice cream explaining everything was complimentary. Free food! Again! We just barely stepped into the tent and an old lady, not speaking any English, led us through the crowd to a vendor and got us a couple of food dishes. She was so excited to help us. After that we grabbed a couple of drinks and then found a vendor handing out murtabaks! Oh this has to be heaven. With our arms full of food we found a place to sit. Most scrumptious! I am pretty sure Megan and I put a few pounds on after that. The event was put on by the police and was free for everyone. The Chief Minister of Sarawak showed up a bit later by a large police escort, and he got to enjoy the nice dinner tent. Bet he didn’t get a murtabak.
The next morning we headed out to Bako National Park. We met a couple of Canadians at the bus stop that we shared the boat with to get into the park. If you don’t stay overnight at the park it is said that it can be pretty difficult to see the infamous proboscis monkeys that are known for their rather large noses. Stepping off the boat we had to follow a path to the headquarters to check-in. Just in that short walk we saw three proboscis monkeys and a few bearded wild pigs. Woot! Seeing anything after this was just gravy. Megan and I decided to take a nice hike to a cliff edge overlooking a beach, and got to see a ton of carnivorous pitcher plants along the way. I was pretty excited to see these. After heading back we took a small detour to check out another area where the proboscis monkeys are known to hang out. Luckily we saw a handful more, yelling and grunting at each other. Great trip! When we made it back to town we decided to have some beers with the Canadians, which didn’t end until about 3 the next morning when we drug them back to their hotel.
For our last full day we were supposed to go on a hike with Franky and a few others, but the others cancelled. In style, Franky had another event that she could take us to if we were interested. It was a luncheon put on by the Ministry of Tourism for the Sarawak Homestay group. The different homestays were supposed to bring tourists to the event for yummy free food and to watch a mock traditional wedding ceremony. We ended up being the only tourists there. Through the beginning of the event everything was going well as we got to see examples of different wedding attire from different villages. Halfway through the event the Minister of Tourism gave a speech and had to promptly leave, but before heading out, he stopped by our table to most conveniently use us as PR puppets. The reporters took tons of photos of him shaking our hands and talking to us. This started a chain of events that we can only laugh about now. We immediately were asked to have photos taken of us eating some of Sarawaks famous layered cake. They wanted to use it for advertising, so you might see us on a billboard or tourists brochures in Malaysia. After looking ridiculous while pretending to eat cake, Franky introduced us to some tribe’s people that she commonly takes her guests out to see in their village. After taking a photo with them, the news people saw and asked to take more photos of us, but this time with us trying on their traditional garb. This made for some awkward moments, but we were laughing the entire time. In the middle of the photo shoot one of the national news channels came over and interviewed us. I am not sure how much longer we took photos, but some Chinese Nationals that were guests of the event also had to be part of some our photos. In the end we ate some really good food, had our photo taken way too many times, and even helped Franky collect little cake gift packages that were left on tables to take back to the guesthouse with us.
(Megan and I with a homestay village group)
After so much excitement, our day had to come for us to fly to Kota Kinabalu. While waiting for the plane I walked into a duty free store, and Boom! Right in the middle of the newspaper stand was a big photo of Megan and I. Of course I bought a paper, for now the best proof of what we went through.
Kota Kinabalu was just a junction point for us to fly into Bali, Indonesia. We didn’t really do much there but tour the town and enjoy some different types of Malaysian cuisine. Malaysia was a great time and I would consider it the easiest S.E. Asia country to get around in thus far. There are a ton of photos from Kuching so be sure to check them out.