Posted on Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Well it was definitely a fun and eye opening weekend in Malaysia. No matter how saintly you are, when you are about to travel to a new place, you have preconceptions and expectations. Miri was what I was expecting, but not in the way I expected it to be.
Miri city has a population of approximately 350000 people, of which about half live in close proximity to the centre of town. It’s fast becoming a tourist focal point, due to it being a jumping off point for surrounding natural wonders, and a fairly hefty contingent of cashed up Bruneians and expats looking for legal beer.
Sitting at the Seria bus station filling out my immigration card for Sarawak in the fuzzy early afternoon air, I knew I was in for some fun. In between kneeling down to scratch the stray cats that seem to be strolling around everywhere here, smiling and exchanging greetings with the weary locals, I looked around at the station itself. It’s mostly a cement slab with a cement box, all covered in dirty one inch tiles. Kind of like being in an inside out public toilet really.
I had to stash my half completed card as bus number one of four pulled up as half the town were making their way to the nearby mosque for the 12:45pm prayer. Sitting on the bus was fairly surreal, listening to a random Muslim cleric saying something nice about Allah.
I was tempted to slip on my headphones and listen to some music, but instead I slipped into a Lonely Planet/Globe Trekkers moment, looking out the window with some dodgy new age-y music floating around in my head instead.
The thirty-and-still-single globe moment was interrupted by our arrival at Kuala Belait, the next town down the road, where we swapped buses and travelled 500m down the road, round the corner to where we were told to hop out, jump into the waiting long boat to cross the river and get on the next bus waiting on the other side. This undoubtedly added a nice stream of adventure to the afternoon, but considering there is a fantastic brand new four lane cement bridge crossing the river 1 kilometre upstream, it seamed slightly redundant. But hey, I got a good photo out of it!
Border crossings are turning out to be not my most favourite of things, and it seems that the Brunei immigrations and customs service would rather be doing something else as well. At least, they were when we were trying to get our little books stamped. The Sarawak border check-point however was a startling contrast, with the entire bus load being stamped and shooed through before the driver could even get the bus back into gear to drive off without us. Good thing that because this was bus number four by this point, and I was starting to get a bit stroppy after the Brunei customs. I was so close to causing and international incident and start hurling abuse at the customs people chatting and having tea behind the not so much one way mirror. I held back, and after witnessing what happened to the Indonesian guy on the way back in, I’m glad. The Bruneians really don’t like Indonesians it seems…
You notice the difference between Sarawak and Brunei pretty much immediately after you cross the border. Sarawak has been indiscriminately felling the hard woods from their jungles for the last 30 years, and after the impenetrable corridors of forests surrounding the road in Brunei, being able to see for more than 10 meters either side becomes a nice change. Right up until you get onto the massive toll bridge crossing the Baram river and you see the lines of humongous barges heading down the river laden down with logs bigger than your bus.
The outskirts of Miri are a bit of an unfathomable conundrum for me. It starts at the Curtin University Technology Park Development area. The planes of cleared jungle give way to endless concrete slabs being coerced into buildings, fronted by and endless stream of road side vendors selling *shudder* Durians and other fruits.
When Bong (a Malaysian med student who stayed at Rocky during the last rotation for the non-Rocky people) was explaining to me that Malaysia was not a first world country, I was being honest in my misunderstanding. Mostly I think that was because I assumed that being so close, Malaysia and Singapore would be very similar. They’re not. They’re really, really not.
All along the approach to the centre of Miri, you will find the most amazing, colossal palatial houses I have ever seen. And right next to these mansions are the most tragic hovels I have ever witnessed. I’m trying to be open-minded about all this, but at the end of the day, I’m Australian, and at home, I can honestly say dogs wouldn’t even live in the conditions of some of the water villages I saw, let alone be allowed to. Again I have to stress I am trying very hard to be non-judgmental, as very large communities live in these shanty villages, and as a whole they seem relatively happy and healthy and all, but I never would have imagined it even if someone had tried to describe them to me.
The gap between the rich and the poor may be getting larger in Australia, but we have a very long way to go before we’ll ever catch up with our neighbours.
Miri city centre is as I mentioned earlier, what I was expecting, but not in the way I was expecting. It is indeed a massive set of shops selling lots of things very cheaply. The fact that I am not the biggest of shopping freaks to begin with probably didn’t help me be enthralled with the place, but if you like that sort of thing it’s heaven. What I wasn’t expecting, and by now I should really know better, was what the place is physically like. For some stupid reason, my head is set on shopping places being like Queen Street Mall, or Orchard Road in Singapore. All shiny windows, clean cement and aesthetics. Not Miri. Think of the dodgiest part of the sleaziest china town you’ve been to, then add the character building slosh and smell of open sewer drains, and you’re getting close.
Don’t misunderstand me however, I don’t actually dislike Miri. I just have reset my mind to the fact that I am in Asia now, and things are simply done differently here. Once you get past that, Miri’s actually a pretty cool place.
I will always have fond memories of Miri mostly because of how friendly people are there. I thought Bruneians were friendly, but Sarawak really does take it to another level.
As I was walking around starving, looking for a hawker’s stall that was open at 7:30pm (Way too early it turns out, most people go out to makan (Food/eat) in Miri after 11pm) A friendly Muslim lady asked me something in Bahasa. Obviously I have about this much idea (.) what she was talking about, so she grabbed her 20 year old daughter to translate for me. Then the whole family invited me to join them at their table for dinner. It turned out that the woman’s sister owned the stall, and we all chatted, very stiltedly, and with lots of translation, about life in Sarawak and Australia over the most fantastic Nasi goereng (lit. Rice Fried) I have ever had.
Yes, sorry Fongie but there is another.
It was a great night that even the torrential down pour and my almost concussing myself on the roof when I stood up, couldn’t ruin it. The family joking about marrying me off to their daughter was getting there though.
The first question people ask you here is “Are you married?” followed by “How many children do you have?”
Stories of high school kids being whisked off and forced to marry after being caught holding hands are still not unheard of. I was totally sitting on the other side of the table, and the jokes were more about me being a “Rich Australian Doctor” than anything. It doesn’t matter how many times you say “I’m still a student; Not a doctor yet.” It just doesn’t stick.
I used to be scared of dropping the med student card after the 7 hour train trip from hell where I learnt that cancer CAN be cured by a daily aspirin pessary. Not here though. The worst that will happen is the occasional tongue in cheek joke about marrying someone’s daughter. Some of them are really cute too ;P
On the walk back to the hotel, I stopped at a random charcoal grill and asked for one of the chicken bits on a stick. The woman also gave me some random jungle fruits that were like a mix between lychees and a mandarin that tasted amazing. The chicken was also the best tasting chicken I’ve had. So much so that I didn’t even mind being reamed RM1 for what turned out to be parson’s nose on a stick.
Early the next morning, I woke to catch the first bus to Batu Niah to go to the Niah caves national park. Too early as it turned out, so I went for a quick walk through the jungle markets. Every weekend people from the jungles come into Miri to sell fruits and other produce from the jungle. They used to sell ‘jungle meat’, a euphemism for meat from random animals, but the practice was outlawed in 1998. I’ve been informed that it still happens, but people are much more discreet about it now, so there were no exotic animals to be seen.
I had another lonely planet moment on the bus out, with the jungle clad hills of Borneo looming up ahead of us on the road, draped in mists from the recent rains. The western side of Miri is much wilder, although if you look closely you notice a lot of it is actually market gardens in between the jungle. Some of the small towns we stopped at on the way were also like something out of an 80’s Jean Claude Van Damme movie, with massive apartment blocks in random patches of jungle, abandoned and slowly being reclaimed by the vegetation.
I got to Niah national park by 8:30am, not too bad seeing as it’s a 2 hour bus ride from Miri. About 100m into the 3 k walk though, I was regretting getting there so early. The path to the great cave in it’s entirety is a board walk. A board walk that combined with overnight deluges, the sun barely being up, and my runners which have negative grip in the wet, is slipperier than ice, and twice as infectious.
The next 2.9km were punctuated by a dismembered Australian voice drifting through the jungle, trying in vain to contain the endless swears leaping out every slippery step. It took me 50mins to cover those 3 kilometres.
The Great Cave is incredible however, and the best way I could describe it seeing as my camera is not suited to taking pictures in semi-darkness, is to go to the Lord of the Rings. The scene where they are cutting through the caverns in the mountains and the fire beast thing almost kills Gandalf. That’s how huge this thing is. It’s dumbfounding to find that such a cave system actually exists. Even more so when you think that there are more extensive cave systems in Sarawak, and those are just the ones that are known about. The jungle is so thick here I am amazed anyone could even get 2 metres through it.
The photo I’ve included here is of the mouth of that cave, which I could not get all of into the camera, and which is much smaller than the cavern itself. By the way, just for perspective, that little hut thing, is actually a real hut, about the size of your average 4 bedroom single level house.
On that note, I think I’ll leave you all clamouring *cough* for the next instalment.
This weekend I’m going to Bandar Seri Begawan. Not sure what I’ll be getting up to exactly while I’m there, as I am primarily going to meet up with my Dad who’ll be on his way how from his own Borneo adventure in Sabah. I’m sure I’ll find some time for at least some photos of the mosque, istana (Sultan’s palace) and Kampang Ayer (the water village in the capital that houses about 10000 people).
I hope all is going well for everyone back home, and I look forward to seeing you all in good time.


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