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Malaysia

Sibu

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It was a pity I hadnt managed to square away at least some of the city the day before, and an early start had me racing the clock to make up for it this morning after a standard Martabak brekkie. The town square proved to be a stark sterile space of polished stone not inviting any reason to linger, and in what was obviously recently cleared parkland a nearby incongruous memorial lay sheltering under 2 massive isolated trees which looked naked now, as if the jungle had only been cleared away yesterday from around them. Written only in Bahasa, I was still able to discern a short local history mentioning one of the Brookes, centred upon a memorial to locals who had been lost opposing the Japanese. The adjacent King Howe Memorial Museum appeared empty and deserted but was not much of a drawcard in any case, simply a testimony to a local who had transformed early healthcare provision in the region. This early in the day, it was notably exceptionally humid here, the moisture laden air proving even too thick for good photography. The local methodist church proved to be very grand, new and shiny, and then the nearby Chinese temple which is one of the city's most defining sights markedly competed with its garish red 7 tiered pagoda. A poke around inside revealed predictable dragons and incense sticks burning but sadly the staircase leading to the roof was closed off. Past the jetties congregated with boats of all shapes and colours the local bus station proved conveniently located even if the services were an enigma even to most of the locals, but eventually I bagged a bus out to the Civic Centre 2Ks north, promising the attraction of a small local museum.

SIBU CULTURAL EXHIBITION HALL

After scanning models of many ambitious construction projects which showed Sibu to be a town and region on the move, the juxtaposition of many old photos relating indiginous culture in traditional dress and practice was an excellent departure. Chinese immigrants founded the town at least 180 years ago and in 1862 the Brooke government moved their Rejang River headquarters here downriver from Kanowit, establishing Fort Brooke. By the turn of the 20th century Sibu boasted 60 Chinese shops and government sponsorship brought in many more immigrants at this time to open up agriculture in the area. At last a short history of the Brooke dynasty was related here, revealing that Sibu came under the "Lands of the Cessation", meaning land granted by the Sultan of Brunei in reward for affording the area peace. The first of the 3 "White Rajahs", James Brooke concentrated on establishing Kuching initially from 1841, only building Fort Brooke in 1862 to quell insurgency from the Ibans of the Rejang. Unfortunately nothing remains of the fort today, the Wisma Sayan, Sibu's tallest building now stands on the spot. This could be claimed to be the birth of Sibu since it was only under the fort's protection that the Chinese were able to establish the first shops here. It was the same history of insurgency which had led the Sultan of Brunei to initially seek Brooke's help, ceding these "troubled lands" to him in payment of thanks in 1853. After Sir Charles Brooke and then Vyner Brooke, who returned to Sarawak upon the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sarawak became ceded in turn as a British Crown Colony in 1946 at his behest, since the dynasty could not unilaterally afford the expense of post war reconstruction.

The adjacent museum though small proved to be surprisingly well presented in reflection of Sibu's go getting spirit, with delicious air-con proving vital, sadly though no photos were allowed. A distribution map first revealed the ethnic distribution of Sarawak, with the Iban (also known as the Sea Dayaks) inhabiting the shores of the major inland waterways, especially the Rejang. In the central interior including Belaga where I was now headed the Kayan and Kenyah were predominant, and small pockets of the Murut and Kelabit were concentrated in the north, just south of Brunei. The Land Dayaks, Melanau and Kedayan were restricted to the banks of smaller coastal rivers and ethnic Malays were concentrated around Kuching. The nomadic Punans were nominally native to the most remote internal regions. In the absence of a translation I could only deduce that the Iban had been successively pushed north eastwards from one extremity of Sarawak around Kuching to finally settle around Brunei in the early 20th century. A neighbouring map again somewhat ambiguously related the periodic expansion of Sarawak as an entity under the Brooke dynasty, appropriating progressively further lands in 1873, 1882, 1885, 1928 and inexplicably even in 1973. Then a superb relief map showed the topography of the Rejang River valley, my intended trip up to Belaga would be rewarded with more mountainous views it seemed, and the whole area was riddled with watercourses.

A fauna display matched the museum's general vibe in being much better presented than normal, with 3 species of Hornbill, Sarawak's state symbol, though now protected its feathers are prized for ceremonial performances. The Tarsier was a favourite, a very slow moving nocturnal insect feeder with big bulging round eyes and the rare Hawksbill Turtle was a beautiful dark mottled breed, reputedly a species unchanged for 100 million years, a living dinosaur. I came across a hitherto unencountered beastie here again, the Moonrat, which resembles a pointy nosed conventional rat but is the size of a cat, it allegedly shares little ancestry with the rat family however and is a nocturnal ground dwelling invertebrate forager sporting a white coat and unusual musky smell. 3 impressive aquatic mammals found in these parts are the Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin which has a pointy beak, the very contrasting round headed Irrawaddy Dolphin which has large broad flippers but a tiny dorsal fin, and the rare Dugong which has no dorsal fin at all. Dubbed the Sea Cow, it mimics one in grazing on sea grass with its wide bristly mouth, and retains 2 nostrils unlike the single spiracles of the others. Finally I learned that the Estuarine Crocodile indiginous to the Rejang can reach 7 metres in length.

A single floral species was represented in the Rafflesia, the worlds largest flower which I had seen in the Cameron Highlands. I learned here that its scientific name is Rafflesia Arnoldi, since it was actually first recorded by Raffles and his sidekick Dr. Joseph Arnold whilst jungle bashing. All 9 Rafflesia species are total parasites, with no roots, leaves or ability to produce food for themselves, they simply live off their Liana Vine hosts.

I then moved on to learn about the Melanau people of Sarawak's coastal rivers, who from pagan origins are now divided into pagan, Christian and Moslem groups. Naturally they are proficient boat builders and the men also practice excellent woodcarving of mainly "Blum" (sickness images) and "Suk" (fishing fetishes). The examples on display amounted to scary looking totems meant to resemble the evil spirits responsible for illnesses, used in ceremonies by the "Dukun" (Spirit Doctor) to extract the illness out. The totems are then cast adrift or hidden in the jungle. The womenfolk are similarly renowned for their basketware, and as well as fishing the processing of Sago is very important in Melanau culture.

I glazed over an uninspiring Malay section before reaching a sizeable and important relation of the Chinese community in Sibu. A painting of Sibu in 1880 revealed it to have been just a tiny settlement of a few longhouses and a dozen or so smaller shacks at that time, but that was soon to change with the arrival of immigrants contracted to transform its virgin soil into pepper and rubber plantations. A notification printed in the Sarawak Gazette that year related a formal invitation from Rajah Charles Brooke to attract "Chinese settlers with wives and families numbering not less than 300 souls", setting favourable terms in the expectancy that "the said Chinese will permanently settle in the territory of Sarawak". Word got around. After reconnaissance by influential Chinese wishing to escape instability at home, deals were done to subsequently establish "New Foochow", as Sibu is still often referred as to this day. Many further Chinese ethnic groups followed, and clan associations sprang up to co-ordinate these communities. An important development in creating unity was the adoption of Mandarin in the 1930s as the language of education. A surprising revelation in this regard was the importance of Christianity too, since besides the sponsoring of missionaries by Rajah Charles Brooke, the majority of Chinese immigrants were Christian. Further displays of Chinese culture showed traditional costumes and explained their many festivals, which though interesting I considered to be too much work to record ad infinitum. One example was the Moon Festival however, a mid-autumnal celebration which honours the moon goddess and features the eating of "Moon Cakes". They also mark the Wandering Soul festival (one for me perhaps), the Dragon Boat festival, the Jade Emperor festival, the Tomb Visiting festival and most importantly, the Chinese New Year.

Onto Iban culture, Sarawak's largest ethnic group mainly live in longhouses along lowland riverbanks and are responsible for much of the rice, pepper and rubber cultivation in the state. Still retaining strong traditional ties, they were once warriors and headhunters, building their longhouses elevated on stilts for defence. Their renowned crafts are the weaving of blankets and skirts, the carving of Hornbill images and the building of burial huts. The men would sport prolific body tattoos and communal life centred on the longhouses' external verandah. The fireplace here was used to smoke the skulls of dead enemies. These were often the Orang Ulu (the Kayan and Kenyah people) who had migrated from north east Kalimantan. Persistent conflict with the Iban has split them into many separate groups, with many having returned to Kalimantan. For those who stayed a peace treaty was finally settled with the Iban under the tutelage of the Rajah in 1924, and so they remain on the upper Rejang and Baram Rivers. The Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Punan and nomadic Penan also belong to this group. Much of their supernatural folklore revolves around the cycle of rice cultivation and besides habitual whickerwork and woodcarving, elaborate beadwork is an important craft, they also produce knives and blowpipes.

From here a short history of the local timber industry related that in 1986 it was Sarawak's greatest foreign exchange earner after oil and gas, reaching 1.4 billion Ringgit. That says it all. Cardboard passports of the once independent state of Sarawak were fantastic colonial vestiges, francked with postage stamps portraying either Rajah Vyner Brooke or George VI. It was also notable that the currency was referred to as the Dollar on these, and that perhaps explained why locals sometimes still referred to it as that.

After a great fire destroyed much of Sibu in 1928 it was soon rebuilt, the people curiously further polarised in the creation of many anti-Japanese organisations, indicative of the political climate back in China and the local peoples' continuing attachment. The Japanese subsequently invaded mainland China in 1937 (again) and were in Sibu by 1942. Political development in opposition to British colonial rule matured from street protests into the foundation of the Sarawak United Peoples Party in 1959, which was overwhelmingly supported in Sarawak's first general election in 1963. Amongst many photos of dignitaries and political rallies, one inexplicably showed "security forces" patrolling during an unexplained curfew in 1971.

The museum had been unexpectedly excellent and it was a lot like hard work trying to do it justice. The final fling was a walk around an excellent ceramics collection boasting dozens of enormous glazed jars, I resisted their history though since fatigue already had me begging for no more by 2.30pm. That still rather precluded my onward progress all the same though. Not expecting such a fine in depth documentary I had hoped to head back to my hotel in time for the noon check out and hop aboard a boat upriver. A second night was a delay I could stomach however, my air-con room and the assurance of curry and beer would probably be unobtainable indulgences for the next while, and Sibu had merited it. Initially planning to hit the tourist office in search of more distractions, a handy net cafe adjacent to the museum proved too good to turn down instead. I assured interested parties back home that I still breathed, checked the airline website in view of some important time-sensitive planning and then re-affirmed my poor typing in more diary dabblings. It was another chance bonus in that in a town full of Chinese eateries and little else, my overtly Moslem hotel just happened to neighbour a unique "Islamic Cafe" tabling excellent curry and Roti Canai, it was a saviour from greasy MSG and gelatine poisoned concoctions even if you couldnt get a beer there. The favoured dish around here besides the indiginous Foochow noodles (steamed in soya and oyster sauce, with spring onions and dried fish) was caramelised frogs legs. It aint Kelty.

An afternoon storm meant that the net cafe had actually proved a blessed distraction and though thankfully fresher, the stubborn cloud served to rob me of the gorgeous crimson sunset I had witnessed the night previous. I checked out the Wisma Sayan that night, an incredible polished marble palace of a shopping mall featuring designer fashions and KFC in the jungle, and then it was an easy choice between Tsingtao beer and prayers on TV. As I supped away, the squeaks of the giant Flying Foxes dangling from the aives overhead kept me company and it was here that I became aware of the renewed convention of proferring items to be passed (mainly money!) respectfully with both hands, a throwback to Thailand almost. A couple of further realisations came to the fore here in that the predominant Chinese probably found English as preferable to Malay as I did, certainly they were more inclined to speak it, also that in spite of the Islamic weekend which had presented many businesses closed today, the pubs had contrastingly kicked off bigtime. It was just a pity that presumably in line with local sensitivities, every single one was located up a stark foreboding staircase out of the limelight and so I thought better of frequenting any of them. Though doubtless I didnt know what I was missing I didnt so much fear the potential for clip joints as excruciating oriental karaoke!

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Kuching to Sibu

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Too compromised to have made a move the day previous, I redeemed my frustration at having succumbed to Kuching's cheap and cheerful chill out factor by clearing up still more pressing practicalities. I finally managed to treat myself to a new T-shirt but concentrated in the main on corrolating many important notes, with more hours also invested in the net and the research of imminent considerations.

Next morning I finally managed to shirk off my unintended lengthy stay with an early taxi ride out to a terminal for the express ferry boat to Sibu, the next city north east. It had always been my presumption that Borneo's one major road artery in that direction would make matters simple for the want of alternatives, yet upon research I learned that the bus journey would take fully twice as long as the boat. Though I might have preferred the road trip in order to avail myself of more unexplored scenery, the ferry at little more than a fiver was finally a no brainer. In fact it had been a major point to ponder over the last week whether I would now actually trace any of the land route through Sarawak in the end, since from Sibu an unexpected tantalising alternative had become more exciting the more I had contemplated it. Exploring the reaches of the Batang Rejang, the longest river in all Malaysia at 560Ks long would offer the chance to appreciate a more authentic experience of Borneo away from modernity, up waterways promising variously indiginous culture, rainforest and the sadly associated logging operations. My resolve to extend the simple half day bus journey from Sibu to Bintulu would alternatively be stretched to a week in that detour, but in the end my only reservation at that prospect was the lack of an onward connection. The staged river trip would take me hundreds of Ks into the interior of Borneo to an outpost called Belaga, but it was a crushing realisation to discover that sods law, the onward air connection from there onto Bintulu and back to the coast had been suspended due to aircraft maintenance. It was a ridiculous affair moreover for the locals to have lost their only convenient contact with the outside world for 2 months or more, a poor shortcoming. There was an alternative in the prospect of a 4 wheel drive trip down logging tracks but that would be an uninspiring and notoriously costly indulgence. I would save my decision until Sibu then.

The deliciously modern air-con boat thrust me powerfully up the final reaches of the bay around Kuching past jungle clad banks to realise another exotic wonder, the South China Sea. The name itself was enough to make it amazing just to be here. After a while of sea skimming we entered an arm of the Batang Rejang delta for a short pit stop at a spot known as Tanjung Manis (Cape Sweet), immediately witnessing the sorry forboding scene of logging yards and freighters loaded with the same. One just departing with logs piled the length of its deck was Thai registered I noted. More bankside logging yards, some now cutting it into timber or manufacturing plywood materialised, and massive mounds of offcast sawdust testified to the longevity of the assault on nature. A major confluence then took us from the primary fork of the delta into the Rejang River proper, with the dark hue of the former immediately transforming into a golden tan coloured mud laden highway. The propensity of small log laden merchantmen and larger tugboat towed barges was only alleviated by a couple of enormous gravel filled trampers precariously sunken to the gunwales, then the small town of Sarikei materialised functional and modern but unremarkable. It was simply the location itself which was amazing. More concerted timber operations peppered the banks periodically now, a particularly massive pile of grey logs proving unusually hollow, and then just short of Sibu the already rusted hulks of vessels under construction sat beached at rudimentary dockyards. Still surrounded by jungle, a prominent tower block perversely pierced the horizon from afar, and I knew this to be Sibu's tallest building, a skyscraper some 28 storys high thrusting up from the rainforest. Not what one expects in the Borneo hinterland. The town materialised at another river fork, actually the parting of the Rejang and one of its major delta arteries the Igan, immediately impressive in its modern, clean and colourful Chinese character. It also became promptly apparent that my tatty guidebook lagged somewhat behind it, with prettified parkland lying where my first 2 hotels of choice should have been. Weary of the heat, in the end I ended up plumping for a palpably mid-range option complete with elevator, air-con, TV, western style en suite and even that previously unknown concept, a bath. I dont know if it was the shock but I conked out and wasted the remainder of the day. A late foray down to the river could only muster beer besides a statue testifying to Sibu's title as the "City of Swans", from whence a fantastic sunset over the river then descended into a full on thunderstorm, it was still the rainforest sure enough.

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Semenggoh Wildlife Park

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Finally managing an early start for a change, I resisted the Stupid O'Clock urge to beat the crowds and so headed instead for the 7.45am local bus out to Semenggoh. At least thats what the timetable promised. With no bus apparent I believed a rival van driver when he said that it was actually 7.30, and so together with a token English couple it was a redemption to plump for his more direct alternative at a still cheap as chips 4 Ringgit. From the park gate where I bagged a cheeky student discount costing all of 1 Ringgit 50, a race was assumed with the aloof Anglo duo in resistance to any distractions, we had an appointment at 9 and wanted to be early. The 20 minute tarmac trek brought us to a clearing adjacent to the park nerve centre, a jungle ringed haven which finally mustered perhaps 50 fellow itinerants as opposed to the 5 there had been at Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. That comparison was pertinent in the realisation of a second stab at a rare opportunity, the chance to get up close and personal with wild Orang Utans. As the prescribed feeding time arose, park wardens would let out a holler which was promptly answered by movement in the distant jungle canopy, and soon a juvenile male made himself centre stage courtesy of a network of elevated ropes. A second larger juvenile wasnt long in joining him, and this in itself was a new departure since at Bukit Lawang it had only been pregnant or mothering females who had materialised. One amazed at their dexterity and precision, always maintaining 3 points of contact as every good climber knew when manoeuvering, though first trick of the day was juvenile no.1 dangling upside down by his feet to catch an upwardly thrust banana.

The show was soon stolen though by Ritchie, a dramatic appearance provoking audible awe, ambling as he was on all fours along one of the paths. Ritchie was famous, an attraction I had particularly come to witness and it was superb to realise him showing up right on cue. Amongst a local population of perhaps 30 Ritchie was the Alpha Male, the King of the Swingers and a very contrasting soul to any I had hitherto encountered. As males matured they began to develop very striking physical attributes of dominance, displaying bizzare otherwise functionless cheek lobes making their face a rounder concave dinner plate. A throat pouch would also develop so that they might avail the forest with a booming croak to ward off competing males and attract females, and their coat would become a lengthened cloak of hanging dreadlocks. An amazing quirk of natural selection meant that such indulgences were partially supressed in less dominant males however in order to prevent needless confrontation, but Ritchie had risen from his introduction to the park in 1981 to subdue all contenders and display these incredible traits to the max. Somewhat intimidating, he promptly displayed his unparalleled prowess by mounting a feeding platform via a tree trunk with consummate ease despite his incredible bulk, it was reckoned that comparing like with like such males could muster 6 times the strength of a man. Further evidence of this was revealed upon him first biting off the husk of a coconut and then cracking it open with one strike against a branch, so that the milk ran down the tree trunk before grating off the internal flesh with his teeth. The juveniles had understandably made way but no.1 still stole centre stage momentarily as he deliciously peed over the carpet of camera clickers beneath him. Ritchie then had some of the tourists scarpering off frantically as he lumbered off unintimidated in their direction, he took no challenge from any quarter that was clear, and with the juveniles humorous rope walking departure the day trippers departed just as quick. I was left on my own then to take a more measured wander around the park's other neglected delights. After eyeing a trio of cage ensconced crocodiles, an interpretation centre rather overwroughtly tried to supersell the park's priority in dubiously claiming that Orang Utans are the only nest building apes (bollocks, gorillas make them too for sure), also that they were the only singularly tree dwelling apes, not too sure about that one either.

An introduction to Borneo's many varied frog species courtesy of a poster related such wonders as the Hole-in-the-Head Frog for example, and outside I also chanced for the first time upon another notable which had hitherto eluded me, bug digesting pitcher plants. A presentation gleaned such facts as the life expectancy of the "Men of the Forest" being upwards of 60 years, another characteristic revealing them to be closer to humans than one might expect. Of the 2 species worldwide, there is reckoned to be a world population of around 15,000, split between the "Pongo Pygmaeus" of Borneo and the "Pongo Abelii" of Sumatra. A roll call revealed how Ritchie is 27 years old and the oldest know ape present is a 37 year old female.

The cherrypickers had all but disappeared by now, but determined to make the most of nature's opportunity a site map illustrated that the grudge trudge back along the 20 minutes of tarmac to the bus stop would be much better rewarded with a walk through the parallel Arboretum instead. The Masing Trail as it was also dubbed proved to be a muddy kilometre long walk past many buttress rooted trees of very tall perfectly straight trunks, and though the full on screech of insects and whoop of Borneon Gibbons went unrewarded of any sightings, it was still an intimidating wonder in itself to be alone in the full on throes of the jungle. I had to exercise care since the rich tapestry of tree roots underfoot could well disguise snakes, scorpions or other such drawbacks, but in the end I only came across a predictable rustle as probably a disturbed lizard scuttled off, a crack which reminded me to look up in deference to the danger of falling branches, and a sizeable brown centipede cum caterpillar. The trail ended at a seed garden which betrayed the propagation of many weird floral species, and for my trouble I was rewarded with a traffic dodging walk and long wait in the infernal heat.

With transport conspicuous by its absence I was thankfully joined by an older Tamil couple on an indulgent short break from K.L., who helped negotiate a minivan and bus connection back to Kuching. Practicalities from there took me a hitherto unexplored quarter of the centre which rewarded me with a very rare small bottle of surgical spirit and underrated Tsingtao Chinese beer, and then en route back to the tourist office I endured the midday scorch to trace the series of pavement plaques along the Sarawak River waterfront I had previously spied. A friendly pharmacist lady had related bizzarely that insect repellant of any potency was illegal here, so not wanting to succumb to that inadequacy I then retraced a shopping plaza boasting another great rarity a camping shop and ridiculously contradictory 99% DEET solution. In deliberation as to whether it was practical to dilute it, lathering on lotion which would melt my skin still seemed preferable to getting eaten alive by life threatening bugs. The pavement plaques were a vagiary of unexpected importance in that after my disappointment of the local museums not relating a single reference to the 19th century dynastic heritage which had founded Sarawak as an entity, this was the only evidence to be had.

Kuching still presented the odd street name as unlikely as Jalan MacDougall, Jalan Crookshank and Bishopgate, and yet many more had obviously been altered out of nationalistic fervour. The fact that Malay was but a secondary tongue to the majority of the populace had detracted little from it. That night a rare indulgence in a trip out to a conventional bar was still qualified by sexy leeches, and the subsequent patronage of a trio of aging unlovely rednecks who promptly got latched onto further managed to scupper any illusions of normality. I told the chicks straight that they were wasting their time, paid lip service to the doubtless genuine Hokkien locals and eventually got the fuck out. In search of redemption, a stark overilluminated Chinese foodcourt offered more eyelash fluttering come to bed looking lady boys than peace, and I went to bed contemplating once again that like every country I had ever imagined, Borneo was a very contrary place from rainforest and little else. As I sat writing in objection to the prevalent culture of bullshit, a big bottle of Tsingtao was thrust at me courtesy of an unforeseen fellow indulgent. The wobbly manic teenager wouldnt take no for an answer, man if the locals didnt want to fuck you they wanted to get you shitfaced instead! As if I needed any encouragement! Upon ridiculously trying to "bless" me with a packet of cigarettes for good measure, I took my cue from a worried young stallminder and escaped into the night. Fucked up.

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Further City Forays

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Waking just too late for the intended early bus out to Semenggoh Wildlife Park, Plan B involved a more sedate pace in traipsing Jalan MacDougall and onwards through the blistering heat in search of a more unusual diversion, the Planetarium. Upon arrival I was surprised to find it deserted however and tracking down the caretaker revealed that it was closed for renovation, he was almost distraught in his apologies and did not want to let me go off disappointed. I guessed they didnt actually get too many tourists frequenting it after all. Eventually managing to escape, as a vague compensation I was at least able to mount the adjacent Civic Centre watchtower, a very tall and elaborate design which afforded fine vistas of the whole city and Sarawak River, before completing a loop back towards the centre which found me passing the state museum.

It was to here that I had intentionally returned in order to investigate a mystery which had only belatedly dawned on me, that throughout my pursuit of the entire heritage trail around Kuching there had been barely a mention of the fundamentally important Brooke dynasty, certainly there was somewhat bafflingly no related artifacts on display at the museum. I could recall having come across artifacts related to the histories of Sarawak and Sabah at the National History Museum in K.L. but had paid them short shrift at the time in the expectation of later more thorough insight. Now here I was looking for that history but none was to be found. No statues around town, not a single potrait on display. Enquiring as to their whereabouts had me informed that they had been placed in storage for preservation, a lame excuse which rang less and less true the more I contemplated it. It was upon later relating my perplexion to Jeremy an older English guy and resident of Sabah I had had for company the last couple of nights that he immediately sussed what was gradually dawning on me. Sarawak was in denial of its own history, a situation which could be considered something of a scandal. My realisation of this had come too late for me to assume any action over it, but considering the unique and fascinating nature of Sarawak's past it merited further investigation we agreed. Over the coming weeks Jeremy was to keep in touch as to what he had managed to deduce, and ended up sweet talking the museum security staff and contacting the Borneo Post in this vain. He also managed to track down the Brooke family mausoleum situated close to the Palace across the river, just one more attraction and point of note to which there had been singularly no reference around town.

Leaving it at that, I then checked out the post office, perhaps Kuching's grandest colonial vestige with a view to sending stuff home, inside it was contrastingly small but orderly as required. That was only after I had strolled around the Textile Museum across the road however, really a sidetrack pursued just for the sake of completeness. Ostensibly uninspiring, the presentations of traditional dress and collection of old black and white photos transpired to be a better introduction to indiginous culture than the Ethnographic Museum had been, and a single map and storyboard revealed a history of Sarawak which included facts hitherto undisclosed. It was only here and now that I found my first reference to the mysterious Langkasuka Kingdom which purportedly had ruled over an expanse of the Thai-Malay border region from the first to the 10th centuries AD. The Sriwijaya Empire which had incorporated nearby land in western Kalimantan was dated here as early as the 5th century until its 14th century demise, and the Majapahit Kingdom was revealed to have conquered the vast majority of the present day Indonesian and Malaysian lands from the 13th century, obviously in opposition. The less extant Melaka Kingdom of the 15th and 16th centuries also got a mention. This one simple representation was enough to justify my whimsical visit, and served to illustrate that in trying to piece together a jigsaw of complex scattered pieces, dark corners could sometimes reveal hidden gems. You could read books about it very succinctly, but it would only stay with you if you had tangibly seen it, touched it, tasted it I mused. I had often thought back to the National Museum of Cyprus visited almost a year before and how I had marvelled at the unexpected warrior statues of a hitherto unknown tomb, I knew I would always remember them better than any history could have ever related.

I resisted the choresome investigation it would have been to interpret the local artistry of weaving, but in the passing gleaned passable insights into the fact that much of the intricate patternwork served to resemble local flora such as ferns and bamboo, also that the cloth had to be prepared in a carefully concocted bath of ginger, lime and salt. The women would perfuse it into the cloth with their feet and then quench the resulting burning with a paddle in the river! That served to illustrate an intelligent industrious nature which had somehow discovered inspired unlikely solutions to seemingly inconsequential problems.

From there, a long hot sweaty walk failed to reveal the FAX airline office, discovering instead another of the many cat statues favoured for the cities roundabouts, I did finally get the remainder of my photos burnt to DVD surprisingly efficiently however, even if it was pricey. I was now well wary of wasting further days to Kuching's chill out factor but still had a number of practicalities to attend to. Even the supposedly simple tasks of picking up small bottles of DEET and surgical spirit had proved fruitless, and I couldnt give prospect to tackling the jungle without them. I rounded off the day with more frustrating time on the net, sometimes mimicing 2 steps forwards and 1 step back, at other times the even more crushing contrary. Just as well the beer was cheap!

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Kuching

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Having squared away the main priorities in Kuching's considerable attractions commensurate with a state capital, today became a time for practicalities. A review of my kit had underlined the immediacy of certain shortcomings, and so it was a boon to efficiently track down such acceutriments as thin ankle socks, a surprisingly rare convention which had eluded me in months of searching, also a new pair of knee length shorts and fantastically after a more enduring search, new shoes. The whole city could only offer one style up to my requirements it seemed, yet remarkably matching my new shorts in their brown/orange hue and a superb bonus in securing them for only 6 quid. My depleted antimalarial tablets had to be supplanted by less desirable capsules, but 9 quid for 100 was a good deal and the boy waived the prescription requirement in the face of practicality. I also got at least some of my photos burnt to disc after a plague of hitches, compounded by the loss of 2 hours of work on the net which failed to save. All in all a very satisfying day however, capped off with what had now become a ritualised daily pilgrimage to the suitably relaxed and shady Spring Forest Cafe, a hybrid of local and tourist offerings which secured me a chicken curry and a 4 beer in an ice bucket "set" for all of 2 quid. That just had to be the best deal in town.

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