A Saunter in Sarawak
In which our own correspondent, having taught himself the Malay tongue in his rooms, polishes his pith helmet and leaves the bailiffs and the predictable pavements of Blighty behind to saunter "off-road" in the Far East in the rain-forests of Borneo, where all-too-often the running water goes down one's neck and the humidity can destroy an immaculately-starched collar in minutes!
Saturday 18th November 2006
Things have changed since Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad knocked back Singapore Slings in the Borneo Hotel. Now the skyline is dominated by a hideous Hilton and a worse Holiday Inn.
I'm booked into a pleasant place run by Orang Ulu, folk from up river. Everyone is very friendly, especially the porter who refused to let go of my hand and asked me out for a coffee.
Was this just traditional Iban hospitality or should I shout 'Hinchit! Jangan gangu saya!' which roughly translated means 'I say, do lay off, old chap.'
I am proud of my Malay and have finally got the chance to talk to native speakers after walking into Malaysian Restaurants in Blighty to be met with a blank stare and to be told "I'm from Pakistan" by the waiter when I asked for a table. I have no trouble in asking directions and understanding the reply "It's somewhere over there." but my greatest linguistic triumph is being able to order coffee without sugar.
This is impossible to do in English. You can turn blue in the face and scream. 'No bloody sugar in my bloody coffee please!' and you just get extra spoonfuls as no-one can believe coffee can be drunk without sugar. Now a simple yet firm 'Tidak gula' does the trick but they still put a spoon in the cup in case I change my mind when I taste it.
Well that's it for now over the next few days I'm planning my trip 'outstation' and avoiding the attentions of the Hotel Porter, something a good whipping would have sorted in the old days. Nowadays a Tuan has to be more circumspect.
Date unclear, perhaps a few drinks later…
So far I have not seen a cockroach in my hotel and have found it rather disappointing because out here a room without a cockroach and a gecko is like an English Farm without a black-and-white collie in the yard and a cat curled up in front of the fire.
There are many species of cockroach in Borneo but the three common ones the traveller is likely to come across are called - in common parlance - the Kinabalu Greyhound, the Borneo Diver and the Asiatic Depressed Cockroach.
The Kinabalu Greyhound is as its name suggests very large and fast. No need to spend money on a fancy gym if you have a few of these to chase around your room.
The Borneo Diver is a mainly arboreal species and sits quietly on a branch or on the ceiling until you have a bowl of soup or cup of tea when it dives with surprising accuracy into your food.
The Asiatic Depressed Cockroach is found all across India and South East Asia. Small and a rather revolting brown they sit unmoving on walls or in the corner of a room until hit with the heel of a shoe when they explode with that disgusting yet enormously satisfying sound that is somewhere between a crunch and a squelch. What survival value this behaviour has is any one's guess but perhaps all their energy goes into breeding in vast numbers and they have none left to run away.
Off to Bako National Park on Monday to search for insects and will be very disappointed if I do not see at least a couple of dozen cockroaches.
Saturday 25th November 2006
Upon returning from a five-day saunter in the Bako National Park
Some folk are a little nervous of foreign parts and I'm often asked 'Aren't you afraid of hooligans, or snakes, poisonous spiders and so on. The answer is a resounding No! But travel is not without its hazards and for any traveller in the Orient there are two very real dangers.
The first and by far the most likely to befall the unwary European is falling down a drain. Storm drains are about three feet deep, often run under the pavements and are always in very poor condition. On top of that in the more out of the way places they frequently double as sewers and home for several species of snake. A three foot plunge through the pavement into raw sewage can inflict severe damage on a sensitive European and then there is the humiliation or running a gauntlet of guffawing natives.
So my tip is in the city forget thieves and ne'er-do-wells and just watch where you are putting your feet.
In the jungle, the real unforested jungle, you obviously do not have to worry about falling down a drain, neither do you have to worry too much about where you are putting your feet. Even the most sluggish pit-viper will hear you coming and slowly slither out of the way.
No, the danger in the forest is things falling on your head. Parasitic plants, epiphites, grow on the branches and slowly rot them through. Stand still in the rain forest and every few minutes you will hear a crash as branch or plant comes tumbling down. Jungle fruits are often very large, hard and spiny. Imagine a mighty durian plummeting down from over 150 feet above right onto your head. Not a pretty thought is it?
So tip number two is in the jungle forget about snakes and dangerous animals but always make sure you were a proper hat. A stout solar topee is ideal. Why did you think they made them so solid?
Hoping your readers will find my humble advice of some use. Now in Kuching again and off for a Singapore Sling.
Friday, 1st December, Kuching
"Under the Skulls"
I'm now back in Kuching after having spent a few pleasant days in Fort Sylvia, now known as Kapit.
As the only white man in town I was given a hearty welcome and taken to a longhouse where I had a pleasant chat with the Tai Rumah under his skull collection. Over a few glasses - plastic mugs to be precise - of rice wine he assured me that none of the skulls were British, though a friend of his did have the head of nephew of the first Rajah Brooke as a family heirloom.
Head-hunting died out comparative recently mainly because the British under the doughty Tom Harrisson offered rewards for every Japanese head the Borneo Resistance brought in during WW2. The problem arose when it was time to explain to the over-enthusiastic Orang Ulu that the war was over. A concept they had trouble with until the 1950s.
While at Kapit I was encouraged to try the local delicacy of 'Chicken Bottoms on a Stick' and the restaurateur, Mr. Fang, was kind enough to give me the recipe. I will pass it on to your readers in my next missive. Last time I offered two tips and now I would like to give two cautionary tales.
I'm feeling in a generous mood after several bottles of Tiger Beer this evening so I will leave you with an extra tip.
When travelling in Malaysia never get the words 'kepala' and 'kelapa' mixed up. One means 'head' and the other 'coconut'. If you were to go to a doctor's and say, 'Doctor, saya sakit kelapa.' you would be saying 'Doctor I have a sick coconut', thus causing much unwonted merriment.
Next time, Mr. Fang's recipe for Chicken Bottoms on a Stick.
For the elucidation of readers, here is a Daguerreotype of a Long-Tailed Macaque, disporting a hang-dog expression.
I should at this point make an apology to the hotel porter mentioned previously. The Orang Ulu are just tremendously friendly chaps when they're not chopping off heads and just love holding hands. This is of course something utterly alien to the well brought-up Englishman but in their favour the Orang Ulu do not kiss you on both cheeks like those damn Frenchies.
Saturday, 2nd December
I was going to give you Mr. Fang's recipe for Chicken Bottoms on a Stick but that will have to wait for another time.
Today I had intended to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. I have certain reservations about such places as there is some debate about their effectiveness in reintroducing animals back to the wild and they have become more of a tourist attraction than serious environmental centres. No matter, I had little else to do and I set off to catch the bus and had the misfortune to bump into the Hotel Porter once again. He told me it was his day off and offered me a lift. Think I may have misjudged him and it would save a tedious bus journey I accepted.
All went well and we reached Semenggoh and waited for the usual crowd of 'pelanghong kambing' to arrive in the tour buses to see the orang utans fed. Soon a whole crowd of us trooped off to watch the great apes. However the oran utans had better things to do, so we all stood around watching a man holding bananas and shouting before trooping back to the car park. Secretly I was glad the orang utans had not turned up, after seeing the beasts in the wild it is a saddening sight to see them reduced to objects of tourist curiosity.
I well remember an encounter with a huge male oran utan while walking deep in the forest with my son. I have trained the boy well and he did not flinch as it rained branches and fruit down upon us from its nest high in the trees. However when the ginger monster climbed down the tree to confront us my son took a step backwards and gripped my arm. He has a cool head and has been in sticky situations before but this time I could feel him trembling. I, however, did not flinch and merely stared the great ape in the eyes until disconcerted it shrank back into the undergrowth.
However I digress. Lacking oran utans I expressed a wish to walk one of small trails around the centre as we did so the Porter, who's name was Michel, told me a strange story of being "dopted" by an elderly Frenchman and having spent some time in France. I got the distinct feeling that he was a case of great expectations come to nothing but directed my attention to the flora and fauna that surrounded us. I discovered a giant millipede, a favourite of mine, I picked it up to have a closer look and then handed it to Michel who flinched and declined to take it. A man who can't handle a millipede would not have what it takes to hack off a head, I thought.
Further on I saw a particularly interesting ants' nest built on a palm leaf. Please don't go near, whimpered my companion. Obvious by now he was no Oran Ulu. Ignoring his pleas I squatted down, brushed off the ants and began to take some snaps. It was at this point when the damn man asked me to turn and smile while he took my picture. He now has a photograph of me squatting in the bushes as though I had been taken short on the trail and looking like a damn fool.
That was enough. We completed the walk and headed back to Kuching. On the way he asked me to look in the glove compartment where there was a small photograph album consisting of pictures of elderly and rather stuffed shirt sort of men. He explained that these were his 'friends' from around the world.
A cold shudder ran through me and I felt sick at the thought of the picture of me seemingly up to no good in the bushes would appear in this rogues' gallery of teachers, solicitors and accountants. I urge all your readers if they ever visit Kuching to avoid this man like the plague and if they ever have the misfortune to fall into his clutches snatch the cursed album and fling it into the sungai.
On reflection and to look at him in the best possible light I fear he be one of those poor creatures who have fallen between two cultures and feel at home in neither, destined to live only on their dreams of some impossible future.
On that rather philosophical note I leave you. Tomorrow the Kelabit Highlands. Next time I promise, Chicken Bottoms!
'Selamat Tinggal' has a double 'g'.
As an accomplished editor I would have expected you to notice this error.
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"Oh it's all too much, too grim, too lovely, too -- how should I put this? It's general chaos." -- Edward Gorey
Friday, 8th December
Last time I promised faithfully to give you Mr Fang's Chicken Bottoms on a Stick recipe but I am afraid it will have to wait until next time once again because I have some amazing news for you.
After flying into the airstrip at Bario I wasted no time and hired a local Kelabit hunter, a young chap by the name of Irwan and we headed off into the jungle heading for Tom Harrisson's WW2 hideout - I realise that I am mentioning names like James and Charles Brooke, Tom and Bruno Manser and do not want to launch into a history lesson, but these are amazing characters whose lives were real ripping yarns. So some links Editor, if you please.Harrisson
It was raining in the Kelabit Highlands and we tramped through ankle deep mud for miles, crossed high above streams on a single slippery log bridges, waded across the torrent of swollen rivers, all the time continuously being attacked by leeches, mosquitoes and biting flies. After we reached Harrisson's base we made camp and explored at night for wildlife. The region has been well hunted for generations so does not teem with animals the ways the remotest untouched parts of the rainforest do, but there was plenty around.
We boldly marched among a large herd of wild buffalo, staring them in the eye and stepping forward steadily. Incidentally the wild buffalo was the only animal the great white hunter Trader Horn was afraid of. We saw the palm and striped civet, barking deer came to my Hunter's imitation of a fawn in pain, gibbon hooted above us and countless bright birds and insects fluttered and glinted in the bushes. But on the night of the full moon we encountered the legendary Moon Rat (Raffles Gymnure) [links to both Raffles and Gymnure, please] the largest living insectivore on Earth, the Hairy Hedgehog. The animal I have been searching for over ten years. The extraordinary beast came whiffling towards us, its white fur pale and ghostly in the moonlight, its eyes red in the light of our torches as we stood paralysed with awe as the incredible creature passed by.
I could not have been more stunned if the Hotel Porter from Kuching had leapt from behind a tree waving his photo album. "One hantu Moon Rat la, Tuan" Irwan whispered his voice full of reverential awe.
That night the Hunter told me of the ghosts and spirits that inhabit the jungle, 280 half-human, half-animal creatures and then other ghosts and spirits like the elephant eared dwarf with a long pointed nose his grandfather once saw sitting besides its camp fire; and what he called the 'elves' who live in villages deep in the jungle and are only glimpsed by the cleverest hunters. He also told me how the Moon Rat stands on its hind legs and worships the full moon. Something I can quite believe after my encounter with the beast. I'm sure you will now understand why the Chicken Bottoms had to wait.
A final jungle tip for Gentlemen.
When trekking in the Monsoon the correct underwear is most important. Those of you who wear the effete American garments called, I believe, 'Boxer Shorts' will inevitably experience severe chafing of the upper leg.
I recommend the traveller purchases underwear from the local bazaar. I can highly recommend the brand known as Fatty Mens Briefs. If the editor does not consider it improper I can post a photograph at a later date to help with identification.
Next time Chicken Bottoms or I'm an Orang Belunda.
As you wish, excellency…
Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Brooke
Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah
Tom Harrisson - could find no working links, but a biography entitled The Most Offending Soul Alive - Tom Harrisson and his Remarkable Life written by Judith M. Heimann was published by the University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu 1998. "From jungle fighter to museum curator" it says here. Sounds a heroic chap all right!
Bruno Manser - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Manser
Trader Horn - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trader_Horn
Raffle's Gymnure - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gymnure
Saturday, 9th December
As you know I am now resting in KK prior to my return to Blighty on Monday. Spent the morning shopping for dried frogs in the bazaar - excellent and unusual presents- and the afternoon resting in my hammock and taking the occasional dip out on the islands.
Before I forget. In my last letter I mentioned the problem of underwear in the jungle and suggested male travellers buy theirs locally. However I forgot to mention that in Malaysia and Singapore men's underpants are colloqually called 'suspenders'. So the correct way to ask would be, 'Ada suspenders yang besar-besar, nama Fatty Mens, lah?' You should have no problems if you use that phrase and spare yourself much unnecessary embarrassment.
Speaking of embarrassment... Whilst I was frog shopping I carried the small red rucksack - I think they're called 'daypacks - I had brought with me as well as my large proper rucksack. The little one has a handle on the top and I was carrying it by that. As I passed a loafer squatting in the dirt and smoking one of those vile clove flavoured cigarettes they are so fond of, I distinctly heard the word "Ladyman..."
Quick as a flash I spun on my heel and riposted with "Hinchit! Jangan gangu Saya!" You should have seen the blighter's face as he slunk off into the crowd. On reflection though he does have a point; a large white man going shopping carrying a small red bag. Have made a mental note to find something more appropriate next time. Am very pleased with my frogs and sure my friends will be delighted, though I did want to purchase a stuffed snake. Have seen no snakes this trip unlike the last time when we saw six species including a ten foot King Cobra which slithered between myself and The Boy as we were picnicking. "Steady, old chap." I said to him and I'm proud to say the plucky lad did not move a muscle. Though afterwards he was a little pale and visibly shaken. It was on the same trip I taught him to handle the Ular Laut, the feared Banr Sea Snake and one of the four most deadly creatures in the world.
Saturday, 9th December
Chicken Bottoms on a Stick
We seem to be having trouble with the internet again.
Now as I promised I will give you Mr. Fang's recipe for Chicken Bottoms on a Stick.
To serve 4.
16 Bamboo skewers
Place c.b.s (chicken bottoms) in a bowl and marinate with the juice of two limes, the juice squeezed from the ginger root, crushed garlic and soy sauce. Leave for at least 4 hours in a cool place - and I don't mean your favourite nightclub.
Remove c.b.s and thread 4 onto each skewer aligning them so the pointed end of the heart shaped c.b.s all point in the same direction. - This would make an ideal and unusual Valentine's meal for that special person in your life.
Take the marinade, pour out the excess and leave enough to make a thick paste by adding a tbs of molasses. Coat the c.b.s with the thickened sticky marinade. Just a light coating.
Grill c.b.s under a fierce heat until golden brown and skin starting to crisp.
Cut remaining limes in half and serve with c.b.s. Best accompanied with a good long G & T or Singapore Sling. (link to recipe please)
As you wish, Excellency! www.tedhaigh.com/Sling.pdf
Monday 18th December 2006
Of Leeches and Durian
Back in Blighty once again. How the place has declined even in a single month; but enough of that!
Before I sign off to indulge in Christmas festivities I thought that I would send brief notes on two topics of importance to those travelling in what was once The Golden Chersonese and further afield.
First 'Leeches'. 'How to eat a Durian' will follow.
I have to admit a fondness for the leech, its bite is hardly felt, unlike the mosquito and the cursed sandfly, and it may actually be beneficial to one's health. (perhaps a cultural link to Wordworth's Leech gatherer might be appropriate). Also "de-leeching" at the end of a long day in the jungle is often a time of relaxation, contemplation and anticipation of the sundowner that waits inside.
There are three main types of Borneo leech, the Common Brown, The Tiger and the Kinabalu Giant (a chap I have yet to meet).
I am used to the Tiger but this trip it was the Common Brown that festooned my body like so many sleek black grapes. I have always used a good flick with forefinger and thumb to remove them rather in the style of a shove ha'penny player (link please Editor for the younger readers born after real money was abolished
Other ways of leech removal include the use of salt, vinegar, Tiger Balm or best of all the business end of a good cheroot. I leave the choice to you. Leech socks may do something to lessen bites around the ankle but your leech is a clever little chappie and just as likely to drop down the neck of your shirt if he can't dine off your feet so they are of limited use.
I have come to believe that the best way of deterring the average leech - I say nothing of the Kinabalu Giant - is to eat copious amounts of the hottest chillies you can find until your sweat is like the oil on a beef vindaloo. It seems to work for me. If you are accompanied by a lady during your trip in the jungle - something I can hardly recommend! - one of the new-fangled sprays might be useful as I have known members of the fair sex (an unusual term as in my experience they have all been extremely unfair) go into hysterics at the sight of bloated leeches adorning their delicate bodies, though how this differs from some of their bizarre fashion items beats me. One cannot really stub out one's cheroot on a lady, or soak her with vinegar, hence the rather effete spray. A lady who likes leeches is no lady, you can be sure of that.
Personally I find a blood soaked shirt rather dashing, looks as if one has seen some action.
Next time I will conclude with the king of fruit, the Durian.
Post Script I enclose a couple of snaps as promised.
Fig. 1 Leeches
Fig. 2 Drawers for the Portly Gentleman.
Saturday, 23rd December 2006
Four things that smell like drains.
1. Drains. Nor more need to be said except take great care not to fall in one.
2. The Midnight Horror Oroxylum indicum a.k.a.. Broken Bones Plant, Indian Trumpet Flower, Tree of Damocles. Evergreen or partly deciduous tree to 50-60ft. Flowers bloom at night and emit a strong, stinky odour which attracts bats. I have long wished to see the Midnight Horror in bloom and this was one of the objectives of my trip but alas I was not successful, but perhaps next time.
3. Rafflesia, a genus of parasitic flowering plants. It contains 15-19 species (including four incompletely characterised species as recognised by Meijer 1997), all found in southeastern Asia, on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra and Kalimantan, West Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The flowers have no leaves and hardly any stem, just a huge speckled five-petaled flower with a diameter up to 106 cm, and weighing up to 10 kg. Even the smallest species, R. Manillana, has 20 cm diameter flowers. The flowers smell like rotting meat, hence its local names which translate to "corpse flower" or "meat flower". The vile smell that the flower gives off can sometimes attract flies. It is parasitic on vines in the genus Tetrastigma (Vitaceae), spreading its roots inside the vine. The fruit is eaten by tree shrews and other forest mammals. Rafflesia is an official state flower of Sabah in Malaysia
4. Durians. I was going to write at length about the durian but have found two excellent web-sites that already cover the topic in great detail.
I urge all readers of these pages to explore these links in detail, instead I will limit myself to trying to explain the attraction of the durian to those as yet unacquainted with its delights.
I can only compare the taste, texture and smell of durian with the ripest of ripe cheeses, in particular a Camembert or Brie. Imagine this contained in a huge spiky shell and you pretty much have the idea of durian. Irresistible!
The Durian Palace has an entertaining essay on opening a durian with one's bare hands, but I would not suggest such a thing to a first timer, it could result in severe lacerations. Give the thing a good whack with a parang to open it and get on to the subtleties later. If eating the fruit in Europe I suggest it is accompanied by a good dry white wine and perhaps a dry biscuit.
The Boy, in a rare moment of good sense, begged me to bring him a durian for Christmas and wrapped in fifteen layers of plastic and cardboard it still managed fill an entire railway carriage with its offensive smell and I found myself alone at one end of the compartment with the rest of the passengers at the other giving me strange and disapproving looks.
Luckily I arrived at my destination before the police were called.
It is also worth mentioning in case there are any budding botanists reading this (a rather good pun I think) that the durian is a good example of cauliflory,
Though durian is undoubtedly the king of fruit the Jackfruit and related species are also highly odiferous and delicious. I also have a soft spot for the little soursop which left to ripen in a fridge makes a natural ice cream. I conclude these notes with my own recipe for soursop zabaglione which would be the perfect dessert after chicken bottoms.
Open soursops and remove the pulp placing it in a large copper bowl. Mix in the double cream using s large silver fork until the whole is the consistency of a thick paste. Add the dash of Cointreau. Beat the mixture and add the in the white wine until thick enough to stand in peaks. Be careful not to add to much wine and thin the mixture. Drink remainder of wine. Place the mixture in wine glasses. Chill and serve.
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"Oh it's all too much, too grim, too lovely, too -- how should I put this? It's general chaos." -- Edward Gorey