Friday, October 30, 2009


1. Woke up early to see Sibu's Central Market on Oct 29, Day 16 of the trip, before we we began the 400 km drive to Kuching.

2. It is a huge market, possibly 100 m by 400 m, reputed to be the largest indoor market in the whole of Malaysia. Ground floor contains hundreds of stalls selling fresh vegetables and meat, household items, plants etc. A food court is on the first floor with many stalls selling clothes. At 6+ in the morning, the crowd was beginning to come in. Coffee shops across the streets were filling up with people having their breakfast.

3. Strolling further to the other end of the market brought me to a Chinese temple and 7 storey pagoda and the river bank. The river bank was already busy with activities. A barge with a full load of logs, pulled by a tugboat, was sailing down the river to the coast. The temple, Yong Ang temple, must be about a hundred years old. A story board near the temple talked about the arrival of the Chiang Chuan clan from Fukien province in China in the mid 19th century, encouraged by the Brooke Administration and how it went on to make significant contribution to the development of central Sarawak and further inland along the Rejiang River.

4. Walking back to the hotel, I saw a park attendant issuing a parking fine to a car in the public car park. It was 8.15 am. Its serious business in Sibu. Car attendant hard at work at 8 am in the morning. The government here means business. In the square near the hotel was a Swan Garden, erected by the Lim clan of Sibu. Swan is a city symbol of Sibu.

5. Left the hotel at 10+ for the drive to Kuching. After a lunch stop and a couple of coffee stops, we arrived Kuching at about 5 pm. It was hard driving. After checking a few hotels near the river bank, we checked into Grand Margherita Hotel for RM170 ++. Our plan was to stay 2 nights, and then head for Kalimantan the day after, 31 Oct. Opposite the hotel was a cat artwork (persumably because kuching is cat in Malay). The origin of the city name, Kuching, however, remains a point of dispute. One version says that it came from the Chinese words, "old well".

6. We had a couple of things to sort out in Kuching the next day before our departure for Kalimantan. We wanted to have the car suspension checked as we could hear occasional noise when we drove over bumpy roads, and to buy the car insurance for our travel in Kalimantan.

7. We got to the EON workshop, which handles the servicing of Mitsubishi cars, in Bintawa Industrial Estate by about 10 am. The staff there were very service oriented and immediately asked a technician (Jafar) to check the car. After test driving for some 20-30 km, he concluded the noise was internal to the car and possibly came from the seat. When we returned to the workshop, he jacked the car up for further checks. There was no charge for the checks done. Cant say more about the friendly service given.

8. As for car insurance, we checked out 3 insurance companies but none of them sell insurance for coverage in Kalimantan. We will have to buy them when we cross over to Kalimantan, either at Entikong, Singkawang or Pontianak.

9. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the rows of shops that looked like the town's Chinatown for lunch. They were prewar buildings painted with charming colours.

10. We rested for the rest of the day, and did some blogging. With laundry completed, we are all set to begin our journey to Indonesia's Kalimantan. It will be nearly 10 hours of driving to Singkawang tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


1. Oct 28, Day 15: Up at 6 am this morning at Niah Caves Chalets. We did more than an hour of qigong. Qi was strong, with many trees nearby, the adjacent river and the rising sun. Left the chalets at about 8 am, had "Kueh Chap" for breakfast at a coffee shop in Batu Niah town. All satisfied, we set off in our journey to Sibu, some 350 km away, on way to Kuching. Along the way, we passed through Bentulu at about 11 am.

2. We plan to stay Thursday and Friday night in Kuching, before crossing over to Kalimantan at Entikong on Saturday, and spending Saturday night in Singkawang. Singkawang is Michelle's (wife of Yeow Pheng) hometown. Tentatively, we will spend 2 days in Pontianak before moving on.

3. It was a relatively comfortable drive to Sibu; potholed and uneven road surfaces in some stretches, but otherwise good road, one land either way. Could see that timber industry is still a thriving business in Sarawak. Saw a number of sawmills along the way. Trucks carrying logs were also a regular occurrences along the road to Sibu. It was quite a challenge trying to pass one of these.

4. We arrived at Sibu about 3 pm and, with the help of our GPS, checked into Premier Hotel, at RM230 a night. With a population of about 260 000, Sibu is located at the confluence of 2 rivers. It is a gateway for tours to tribal long houses up the rivers. From our 12th floor hotel room, we have a great view of the town. The town hugs the North side of the wide brown river, as the river meanders to the sea. It has wide roads and looks orderly. Many 3 to 4 storey shop houses with English and Chinese signage, much like any Chinatown. I could see a church in the centre of the town, rising more than 7 storey high, and further out, 2 Chinese temples, one of them with a pagoda rising above the surrounding buildings.

5. In the evening, we had dinner at a colourful restaurant that served relatively good chicken rice, and walked the popular Pasar Malam (night market), a car park turned hawker centre in the night. It looked great, against the setting sun.

6. It served the familiar hawker fare, but was surprised to see the pau here is much bigger than usual and mee chiang kueh, which I have not come across for a long time.

7. Will take a look at the Central Market tomorrow morning before continuing our journey to Kuching. The Central Market is the largest indoor market in Malaysia.


1. Our flight from Bario was punctual, leaving Bario at 9.30 and we were back at Grand Palace Hotel in Miri before 11 am. After checking emails at the lobby at the hotel, while Yeow Pheng "cupped" his troubled legs, we had tim sum lunch at the restaurant on the 2nd level. We were off to explore Niah Caves.

2. The Niah Caves are located on Sungai Niah, about 3 km from the small town of Batu Niah, some 100 km SW of Miri. They are huge limestone caves, with the Great Cave measuring some 60 m high and 250 m wide, with traces of human activities here going as far back as 40 000 years. Wall paintings were found in the Painted Cave. They are also spots for bird-nest harvesting.

3. Other than Niah Caves, the other popular cave destination in Sarawak is the Mulu Caves, accessible only by air, about half an hour flight time from Miri. Yeow Pheng and I decided that between them, Niah and Mulu, we would select one to visit; and since Niah was conveniently located on the way South to Sibu, we decided to visit the Niah Caves.

4. Roads to the Niah Caves were good and sign-postings were clear. We reached the Park HQ at 3 pm. After buying the ticket, the female officer told us that it will take about 3.5 hrs to tour the caves. In order not to rush, we decided to stay the night in the chalets at the Park HQ. Pricing of rooms was rather strange here- room with aircon, RM157 and room with just fan, about RM40. We nonetheless decided to take the aircon room, to ensure we have a good night sleep.

5. The caves are located on the other side of the river. After paying RM1.50 for the boat ride, we boarded the boat for the other side of the river. After going up the slope, it was a walk of 4.5 km along a board walk to the caves, with forest on both sides.

6. Along the way, before the Niah Caves, were patches of what looked like remnants of walls, with trees growing over them (much like those in Siem Reap), in the vicinity of a overhang cave - signs of earlier human settlement. A group of youngsters passed us and alerted us of possible attack by bees. One of them was badly beaten, with a swollen face and puffy eyes. We pressed on, but made sure we have something to fend off the bees if they do come.

7. The Trader's Cave was the first cave we reached, after passing through a security gate, at the end of the long and sweaty walk.
Its an overhang cave of about 100 m long. The wooden structures were probably erected for easy harvesting of bird nests. On the ceilings and floors, especially near the cave entrances, are the usual stalagmites and stalactites.

8. Walking further in along the wooden structures, we came to the Great Cave. Measuring 60 m high and 250 m high, the entrance to the cave is reputed to be one of the most spectacular in the world.
Torch light was needed here as we walked through the darkness, along boardwalk and up and down wooden staircases. In one stretch, we had to bend low, almost like a tunnel. We were not alone, as an English couple was not far from us.

9. From the ceiling to the floor were hung a number of long metal poles with small steps, with long cables securing them to the cave walls. They were used by bird nest harvesters to reach the ceiling to gather the bird nests. There were a number of them at work, near the ceiling, with lights strapped to their heads. Was told that in the old days, they would be using bamboo poles, tied to each other to extend their length, in order to reach the ceiling. And they would be doing all this in near darkness. Real hard life, to make a living.

10. At the end of the walk, we came to the Painted Cave. The area where the wall paintings were was fenced up. It was not possible to see the wall paintings from where we stood. There were a number of information boards that gave an idea how the paintings look like. From the info boards, it seems the paintings depict warriors and hunters, animals in the surrounding areas, and long boats carrying souls of the deceased to the land of the dead.

11. Backtracking, we emerged from the caves at about 6 pm and before the sky turned dark. It was a good work out for the day, all in about 9 km of walk, up and down stairs. We were drenched with sweat when we got back, and I poured in two 100 Plus at the canteen. After washing up, we took a short drive to Batu Niah for dinner. Luckily we managed to locate a restaurant, run by a capable Khek lady, that was still open.
We had a good meal and slept early. No internet anyway.


1. After early breakfast on 26 Oct, Day 13, we left for Miri airport at about 6.30 am to catch a flight to Bario, a small mountain village, 45 mins flight time from Miri. We left the car in the hotel car park.

2. Bario is located in the centre of the Kelabit Highlands in NE Sarawak, close to the Indonesian Kalimantan border, at more than 1000 m above sea level, in the beautiful valleys flanked by high mountains. The area grows the famous Bario rice, which is regarded by some Japanese as the best rice in the world. Bario airport has a short air-strip and is linked to a number of nearby towns by small aircraft.

3. Kelabit is one of the smaller tribes of Sarawak, number about 5000 with about 1000 staying in Bario, many still staying in their traditional long houses. However, many younger Kelabits have migrated to the cities. Kelabits are known to be friendly and hospitable.

4. At the departure lounge of Miri airport, we were seated next to a number of senior people who were on the same flight with us to Bario. Indeed they were very friendly and one of them kept smiling at us. We said hello but was not very successful in striking up a conversation with them in English. They spoke little English. Yeow Pheng asked the old man next to him his age. The old man took out his wallet from his pocket and retrieved a folded paper. I thought he was getting his birth certificate to show us. It was not the case. What he was showing us was a certificate of service, which was sort of a certificate of good conduct from this service in the ranger department. He was obviously very proud of this service as a ranger and carried the certificate in his wallet.

5. The plane taking us to Bario was a 18 seater Twin Otter. It could take 12 people on its way to Bario but 18 people on the way back to Miri, given the less fuel load on the way back. The aircraft flew at about 7-8000 ft and we could see the ground fairly clearly. We could see that the logging industry was a thriving business, with its network of logging tracks. Vast tracts of land had been cleared for oil palm estates and they were huge. On flat ground, the plantation tracks ran perpendicular to each other, like a huge chess board.

6. Bario airport was a small airport, like a small family airport; a small canteen and a room each for arrival and departure, and everybody seemed to know one another.
We were "greeted" at the airport by this very cute young couple. There was no tourism counter or office, no tourism rack or brochures, no tourism advertisements. A couple of enterprising local people were in the airport tactfully trying to market their accommodation. In the absence of tourism information, they were performing an useful function. The staff of the handling agent recommended us Bario Asal (meaning The Original Bario). We accepted it and "Joe" drove us to the long house for RM10 each.

7. We reached Bario Asal at about 10 am. After some clumsy introduction to the hosts, and after settling down and a drink, we asked James Maga, a warm and welcoming gentleman who was a resident of Bario Asal, to show us around Bario. James disappeared for a while and returned, nicely equipped with jacket and rubber boots, all ready for outdoor activities. We were much less prepared. Yeow Pheng remarked that his shoes were not fitting and not intended for real walk up and down the hills.

8. Our first outing was a visit to the water project -some 3 km walk to see how the mountain stream was dammed, and water piped to a facility where it was filtered and stored and then distributed to the long houses. This project was undertaken by the government, and the villagers pay for the water used. The mountain stream was a small stream, with little water. The water tank was one tenth full. We were told by James that they had not have rain for more than 5 months now.

9. Along the way, we were shown an experimental windmill and solar energy project undertaken by the government. Accordingly to James, the project was not yet fully operational because the cabling to the homes had yet to be completed. If proven successful, this windmill and solar cell project could be replicated for other villages.

10. On the way to the dam, James showed us a teak tree - round, straight and very tall. This the first time I saw a teak tree even though teak wood furniture is very common in Singapore. The sap from the tree could be used for lighting. On the way back, James saw and picked a huge mushroom; largest I had seen. He did not know if its edible.

11. James was 64 years old. His weathered face made him looked older than his age but he moved fast and was as agile as a younger man half his age.

12. Lunch was a simple home cooked meal at Bario Asal - Bario rice and a couple of dishes (fried chicken and vegetables). Bario rice did taste especially fragrant, or maybe we were just hungry. After lunch, I took a walk with James to visit a micro-hydro 45 KVA project. 50 homes funded a RM1000 each and with remaining funding from the government, this power project was initiated. The long pipe brought the water down to the dynamo room, but unfortunately, there was too little water for the plant to work and generate electricity for the homes.

13. In the evening, before dinner, Yeow Pheng and I took a stroll to the nearby schools. We were surprised to see a bar cum small provision stall and we dropped by to have a beer. There was a group of friendly locals enjoying their evening there too. On the way back to Bario Asal, we came across this thirsty padi field.

14. We had a simple dinner, took our showers and went to back to bed early. We were alerted that power would only be available up to about 8 pm. Before we did, we walked around the long house, took some pictures and dropped by James' home to give him the guide fee for the day and gave some souvenirs to his grandchildren. He had 3 with him (one of them to the right), out of five. I gave him RM 20 and asked him if it was enough. He took it and replied "I dont know". His grandchildren were thrilled with the the Hello Kitty stickers which Yeow Pheng gave them. That night, it rained for a short time. I felt happy for Bario.

15. The long house was essentially a community. When asked, we were told that Bario Asal's population was 500. But, clearly, we didnt see that many people; only a few older people there. After further discussion, it became clearer to me that the extended family of Bario Asal numbered 500 if the family members who had gone to stay in the towns and cities were included. Take James Maga, his 5 children were working and staying in KL, Kuching and Miri. They would all come home for Christmas. Three of the 5 grandchildren stayed with him and they went to school in Bario. James' situation was not unique. Many young Kelabits have gone working in the cities. The long houses looked sadly empty.

16. The structure of the long house was fairly simple. Families have their rooms in the middle, linked to a long open corridor of compartmentalised kitchen cum dining area for each family and a long corridor on the other side. Each family had its own stove for cooking, though now they had gas cookers on the side as well. The hall in the picture on the right was specially built for functions and to handle tourists. Our room was attached to this hall. In there, there were family pictures on the wall, and traditional souvenirs for sale.

17. Woke up at 4.30 am next morning to attend 5.15 am morning mass. The kitchens were already alive with fire in the stove. Kelabits are mostly Christians and each cluster of long houses had their church. At 5.15 am sharp, the wooden gongs outside the houses were sounded one after another to get people to the mass. After mass, they would have enough time to have their breakfast and get ready for work when first light appeared at 7 am.

18. Here we are, with Hendrik Iboh (also 64, and retired, after 30 years in the Police force), whom we were staying with in Bario Asal, after the morning mass. James was not in the picture but was at mass too. Mass started punctually at about 5.20 am, when a handful was already present. One of locals started singing with an acoustic guitar. More people trickled in and another went on stage to play the accompanying base electric guitar, followed by a female pastor delivering the sermon. It was done by about 6 am. All in, there were about 12 people at mass. After mass, James told me that it rained last night. He was visibly happy. Here, mass is everyday, at 5.15 am.

19. Had breakfast with James Maga and Hendrick Iboh. Loved the rice fried with ikan bilis; really good. James and Hendrik told us they each owned about 5 ha of padi field. Without their children, they had to depend on Indonesian workers from across the border to work on the rice-fields during planting and harvesting times. These workers would walk one whole day to get to Bario. Between planting and harvesting, they would look after the rice-fields themselves.

20. We paid RM60 each for our stay at Bario Asal. After packing, we were off to the airport at 7.30 am. Hendrik was at the airport and saw us off. I left with a heavy heart, wondering what Bario will be like 10, 20 years from now.