Borneo charmed us with orang utans, night climbing, beautiful beaches and remote highlands. I even learned to enjoy – well, not to hate – durian. But one of the loveliest sides to Malaysia – something I hadn’t expected – is the wonderful way they speak English. In Kuching, we asked some Chinese-Malaysians the way to the waterfront. After a bit of debate between them about precisely which statue of cats to turn at (yes, there is more than one), they told us the way. Was there food down there, Yon asked? “Yes!”, the lady said with a huge warm smile. “Everything got!”
The capital of Sarawak is delightful – a wonderful mix of South East Asian friendliness and relaxed approach to life, sprinkled with some Southern Chinese flavour. Great food, warm people. And the English! “Everything got” is a direct translation from the Chinese 都有 – d’oh yoh! I loved hearing it. We walked the back streets after our visit to the Semenggoh orang utan reserve and happened upon a brightly lit Chinese temple. Gaudier and less reserved than the typical northern Chinese temple, Yon speculated this had a much more southern flavour, just as the streets reminded her more of the Hong Kong of her childhood than of Beijing. Nearby, we’d strolled the back streets past fat, shirtless guys reading the paper in the sun, in front of their Gremlins-style curio stores. Yon felt real nostalgia for her past. Across the road, a little set of food stands full of happy-sounding people beckoned us into “second dinner”. A fellow at the next table was approaching the biggest burger I think I’ve ever seen – this thing was epic, the size of a kid’s head – but I ordered (what else but) char kway teow. I love that stuff. The waiter was a little kid, maybe 13; his counterpart from the bar came over to offer us drinks.
Durian – A New Sensation of the East!
While I ordered a beer, Yon asked if there was durian to be had. “Over dere, maybe you can get”, he said, in that great staccato Chinese-Malaysian English. Where, exactly, asks Yon. “Over dere, in that van, sometimes he have”. The bigger question, given how pungent durian is, was whether she could eat it here at his little burger/noodle/beer place? “Can, no problem”.
I was reading Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago” as my companion to this trip. It’s all about his experiences hunting orang utans (for science) and collecting specimens that helped him come up with a theory of evolution consistent with and contemporary to Darwin’s. But he also spares a thought for durian, laying it out as something of a challenge for the likes of me:
“When brought into a house the smell is often so offensive that some persons can never bear to taste it. This was my own case when I first tried it in Malacca, but in Borneo I found a ripe fruit on the ground, and, eating it out of doors, I at once became a confirmed Durian eater”.
Wallace had a head start on me, though. Where he had read of a traveller in 1599 saying durian is “of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all the other fruits of the world”, I had a clear memory of my Malaysian fifth grade teacher, Mrs Sandhu. “The durian is so smelly, you are forbidden to take it in a hotel room. If there was a durian in the principal’s office right now, we could smell it right here in the classroom”. That really had an impact on me, back in 1983. It was a long way from our classroom to the principal’s office. But I refused to be weak, and, after all, this was an outdoor bar.
Perhaps Wallace’s theory was true: eat it outdoors. As Yon cut open the tough spiky armoured skin (and wasn’t that evolution telling her something like “go away, don’t eat this!”?), I faced the pungent odour like a man. I grabbed a pulpy chunk, shoved it in my mouth, and sucked it off the big pip as I’d just watched Yon do (I couldn’t replicate the joyful facial expressions she produced while doing so). Wallace went on:
“This pulp is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable [so far, so true]. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. …It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact to eat Durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.“
Later, we ate at “the.Dyak“, Kuching’s famous new restaurant. Run and opened by a western trained chef, it offers a modern twist on traditional tribal recipes. The word Dyak (or Dayak) refers to the natives of Borneo, encompassing a few ethnic groups or tribes (like Iban) and contrasting with Malays from the peninsula (Borneo only merged with Malaysia in the 1960s). The Iban were headhunters, with whom Wallace has many adventures in his book, including a cultural performance he says was glad to escape, and after which he “slept very comfortably with half a dozen smoke-dried human skulls suspended above my head”. I was still not convinced by durian, though I would grudgingly admit it was not quite as foul as I’d thought, and, in fact, not really worthy of that description at all. So when I saw pork and pickled durian on the menu, I had to try it. Needless to say, Wallace had beaten me to it in 1869:
“In a good fruit season large quantities are preserved [by the Dyaks] salted, in jars and bamboos, and kept the year round, when it acquires a most disgusting odour to Europeans, but the Dyaks appreciate it highly as a relish with their rice”.
Perhaps this dish wasn’t precisely what Wallace had eaten – or smelled – but it was unquestionably delicious. Cooked with pork, the nice fatty kind so beloved by Asians who place taste and texture on a pedestal above low fat and low cholesterol, the durian had a wonderful, nuanced, sweet flavour that, to borrow Wallace’s enthusiasm, was a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience. I can’t say I became a confirmed durian eater that night, but I resolved to try it again if the chance arose (and would certainly recommend the.Dyak if you are ever in Kuching).
“KK”, as everybody calls it, is Sabah’s capital, but I can’t honestly say I was much enamoured of it. Friendly people, sure enough, but as a holiday destination it’s a good transport hub.
Jellybugs and Roadbullies at The Tip of Borneo
Our last stop in Borneo was right at its very tip. That’s its actual name, in fact. It’s a remote beach where Magellan, or maybe his fleet after he was killed in the Philippines, is reputed to have spent more than a month during their epic circumnavigation of the globe back in 1521. I say “reputed” because apart from Sabah tourism websites and a plaque at the Tip, I can’t find any real evidence of the visit. Still, it would have been a nice place to anchor for a little while and recover from the privations of the voyage (of about 235 who set off from Spain in five ships, just 18 returned, in only one ship).
We’d planned to rent a car in KK and drive up here, maybe exploring some remote beaches on the way. At KK airport, I asked how long it was to Kudat, the nearest town. The Hertz guy said “oh, if you leave tomorrow about eight, you’ll…” Interrupting, I said we wanted to go tonight, now. “Oh no sir, it’s too dangerous!”. Why?
After he was done explaining, I pictured the scene he’d painted – a dark, windy road, a car right behind me, and one in front, both braking to force me to stop. Next thing I know, a knife or even a gun in my face, then all our stuff and the rental car stolen, leaving us to our wits in some remote jungle. No thanks. Yon and I agreed that we might as well take the bus in the morning. At a hotel that night, we spoke to Tommy, owner of Tommy’s Place where we were booked to stay. He laughed when I told him about “roadbullies” and said he’d drive us up there himself, as he was going tomorrow anyway. On the way, he said “roadbullies” really only lived on the Malaysian peninsula, not Borneo. We’d have been fine. Still, his truck was air conditioned and luxurious and he was a talkative, friendly character whose company we enjoyed.
The beach was glorious, worthy of any “tropical island” brochure from anywhere in the world. The water was clear and calm, the sand white, the sun yellow, and the breeze gentle. But this was real tropics – the beach was covered in sand flies, the sun shone down like an industrial heatlamp and that gentle breeze was intermittent at best. We waded into the water to cool down. After a few minutes I wondered what that tingling sensation was. Not painful, not even itchy really, just a continual buzzing on the skin. I looked more closely at a handful of water. It was full of tiny, almost invisible brown circles.
We withdrew, returned to the hotel and asked Tommy. His answer was as quick as the Hertz guy’s:
It was jellyfish spawning season and there must have been a billion tiny jellyfish – jellybugs – floating around in the serene waters of the bay.
We lingered a while, but didn’t go back in the sea. Instead, we sat in the shade and watched the water; from high above the bay you could see out to the open ocean where waves broke over a reef. Far below the cliff, a man waded over coral to his fishing nets.
On our last night, we walked in the dark up to the point, the “tip of Borneo”. Out at sea, lights shone, from fishing boats (or Chinese patrol vessels, trying to stake Beijing’s claim on the South China Sea?). The stars shone down, the breeze was finally, mercifully cool.
We messed around with the camera, and considered ourselves very lucky indeed.