My only qualm when I write these blog posts is about how ignorant I must often sound. I sometimes try to put myself in the shoes of a local who might be reading what I write, who could be cringing at every second sentence! So my apologies in advance for any misinformation or misinterpretation that I might spread. I’m just a tourist relying on the power of Google! Some people have asked me to share a map of where (in the world) we actually are – so here are some maps to give you a little more context.
My summary: Borneo is a very large island – the third largest in the world – ‘owned’ by three separate countries: Indonesia (down the bottom, the state of Kalimantan), Brunei (tiny country up the top) and Malaysia (the two states of Sarawak and Sabah). As per Wikipedia: The island is politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south. Approximately 73% of the island is Indonesian territory. In the north, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak make up about 26% of the island. Additionally, the Malaysian federal territory of Labuan is situated on a small island just off the coast of Borneo. The sovereign state of Brunei, located on the north coast, comprises about 1% of Borneo’s land area. A little more than half of the island is in the Northern Hemisphere including Brunei and the Malaysian portion, while the Indonesian portion spans both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Borneo is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
We began our day with a general wander, osstensibly in search of Sarawak laksa for Dan to eat for breakfast (laksa isn’t my thing, and the girls are sticking with the toast and/or milo cornflakes at the hotel). As always, I enjoyed examining the variety of building architecture and checking out the wares that were on offer in the shophouses.
We came across kek lapis, also known as Sarawak layer cake. This is a local speciality, along with protected naming. Wikipedia has more information: Sarawakian modern layered cakes can be divided into two categories: cakes with ordinary layers and cakes with patterns, motifs, or shapes. All must have at least two colours. The cake can be baked in an oven or microwave. The batter uses butter or vegetable oil, milk and eggs, and requires a strong arm or electric mixer to be properly prepared. The baked cake has a high, firm texture and the layers are fastened together with jam or a similarly sticky sweet substance. More detailed cakes often require special moulds to maintain the perfect layer thickness.
The cake was delicious! We decided on red velvet cake and chocolate chip cake. Some are arranged into spectacular patterns, with the layers cut and stacked at angles. Very fancy! Then it was time to continue on along the waterfront.
Yes, I found fabric! I bought a few pieces from Fabriko, all in cotton, each chosen by a different member of my family to be turned into something eventually. We chose local designs and motifs, printed with modern colours and inks. There are lots of ‘batiks’ for sale in the tourist shops and markets that aren’t actually batik, but are printed, as well as lots of ‘ikat’ that is also printed. However this shop appears to have an excellent range across styles and price points.
We found Dan his laksa! Sarawak laksa is also well known and a highly regarded speciality. I found this information about it: The origins of Sarawak laksa are not set in stone, but according to Edgar Ong in an article in Flavours magazine, the local legend is that a Chinese Teochew immigrant from Guangzhou named Goh Lik Teck first began peddling his noodle dish along Kuching’s Carpenter Street in 1945. The dish was only made up of six ingredients, which is how it got its name – the Hokkien term for six sounds like “lak” and “sa” is slang for vermicelli. An alternative tale is one derived from the co-mingling of the Chinese and Malay cultures, which allegedly led to the term laksa from the conjoining of the words “lak” which meant “spicy” locally, and “sa”, which in colloquial Hokkien means to grab whatever is available – which often meant vermicelli, as it was a pantry staple.
Dan said that it was delicious – the best laksa he’s ever had! He couldn’t detect coconut milk, and the flavours were ‘exquisitely balanced in terms of spiciness and saltiness’. From there were proceeded to the Chinese History Museum (with an unfortunate slip on wet tiles for me on the way, resulting in a very bruised hip/shoulder/arm and bleeding elbow and a cracked phone screen. I’m okay, just sore). The museum shares information about the different local dialect groups, explaining where they were originally from in China and the trades and employment and locations that they settled in. Exhibits include the early trade routes, initial migration from various regions of China, geographical distribution, the early pioneers, traditional trading activities, the formation of trade and community associations, political history and the involvement of the Chinese community in modern, multi-racial Sarawak.
At this stage it had been raining since before dawn, and our original thought of a short boat trip on the Sarawak River wasn’t very appealing. We went on a cat statue hunt instead.
But then we found the Upside Down House! The photos really do tell the story. Lots of family fun on a rainy day!
In the afternoon we headed to the Sarawak Cultural Village. This is described as Sarawak’s Living Museum. There are replica buildings representing every major ethnic group in Sarawak mainly the Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, Penan, Melanau, Malay & Chinese. All buildings are staﬀed with members of the ethnic groups in traditional costume and carrying out traditional activities. We had a guide with us who was able to provide us with more information about each building and the community who normally lived in it. You can read more about each type of building here.
In the Chinese house we were shown the pepper vine and tools that are used in harvesting and processing. Pepper is an extremely important local product. The vines are trained to grow up stakes of ironwood, then are harvested by hand when ripe. Black pepper is left out in the sun to dry, and white pepper has the black skins removed by hand.
The processing of bird’s nests used for bird’s nest soup was also explained. After harvesting, the swift nests are soaked in water and the fluff and feathers separated from the saliva strands by hand. Extremely labour intensive – and extremely expensive to buy!
The Malay house was very appealing with dark timbers, plenty of ventilation and pretty floral curtains. There was also a cheeky macaque helping herself to leftover rice in a pot – then sneakily stealing some biscuits from the maker!
The tall house was definitely tall! On very high stilts, with multiple storeys. Check out those steps carved into a log. You’d certainly get very fit running up and down! Multiple families live in this style of building.
This gentleman had a number of carved knives on display. He also told us about a wood that acted as a deterrent to snakes and scorpions – it smelled a little like lemongrass when sanded. I need to google this!
This house was also shared by a number of families. Once again, it was very tall and spacious. With those stairs!
Dan had a ball trying to use a blow pipe accurately. It takes a very strong puff from deep in the diaphragm to get the dart moving fast enough to cover a decent distance!
I’ve run out of time today to properly caption the photos that we took at the cultural village. It was definitely worth going to – I feel that we learned a great deal about the ethinic communities that live in Sarawak. I encourage you to have a read of the Wikipedia page about the demographics of Sarawak. The original communities are still the majority of the population.