Penang – the culinary tour


Into the Jungle

The trek was already organised for a fellow Aussie traveler, Tahlia, who I met at the guesthouse we were staying at in the beautiful town of Bario in the cool Kelabit Highlands, deep in the heart of Borneo.   Our guide for the three days rambling in the jungle was an unassuming local Kelabit named Johnson.  He seemed friendly and relaxed like all the locals here and spoke English, though most his replies at that time were “yes” or “can”.  I noticed Johnson was shorter than me (quite a rarity), though solid in build.  He had a strong air of confidence and reminded me of a military commando – there was his strange haircut, his plain neat attire, Jungle-style backpack, machete, oh yeah and his shotgun and home-made ammo belt! 
Hunter gatherer – Johnson here with his trusty shotgun and the fresh seedling of a nameless exotic fruit gifted by his uncle.

My enquiries mainly involved comfort, specifically how we would sleep in such an inhospitable place as the wild jungles of Borneo.  No sooner said than done, I was handed a hammock kitted out with a mosquito net, a tarp, and an impressively compact sleeping bag.  I’ve always wanted to camp out in a hammock and if there’s one thing Bear Grylls has taught me, it’s that getting off the ground is key when it comes to jungle slumber.  In true form, I had barely had breakfast and was already looking forward to the night’s sleep.  Aunty Linda handed us a packed lunch wrapped in banana leaf and wished us a happy if not foolhardy journey.

So Tahlia and I were destined for an unknown wilderness, where for millennia the Kelabits have turned to for their livelihood.  As Uncle Scott thrashed his 4WD down ever bumpier roads, I blissfully watched the sun-drenched scenery, lapping up the cooling wind like so many summer road trips gone by.  Perhaps it was partly this connotation that reminded me of Australia.  The exposed earth was rocky and dry (despite months of rainy days), the sky so clear and blue that gave the sun such a piercing warmth.  For a moment I had forgotten where I was, not lost, but at home.

When we finally came to a stop at a nondescript hole in the bush, my two companions donned their specialist leech socks – a knee high device of material not unlike the radioactive biohazard suits seen in disaster zones.  Meanwhile I sheepishly tucked my skinny pants into my happy socks and focussed on breathing.  The warm fuzzy feelings disappeared as quickly as the midday sun did when we stepped through the portal and into the jungle.  

I had no idea where we were, no map, no mobile reception, not even a damned paring knife.  I admit that my first few hours were focussed solely on the ground.  Our boots would often squelch and sink ankledeep into muddy silt. Skating and sliding was as common as scrambling and scaling.  On the areas of flat terrain, I would be busy sidestepping those creepy little bloodsuckers as they writhed on the forest floor, seemingly sniffing the scent of our blood, groping furiously like tiny elephants trunks of death.  Countless times they latched on to my boots and climb ever higher in their mindless quest for my flesh.  Tahlia would often wait for me as I routinely performed my purging dance, scraping them off furiously whilst never standing in one spot for more than a second.
Apparently we trekked for three hours until we made it to out first camp.  Suffice to say I arrived relieved and rather dishevelled.  Our camp was a well-used clearing by the river, with an established seating area and table under a waterproof tarpaulin roof.  Kelabit men would often camp here during their hunting expeditions and a party of 20 or so had revelled here just days earlier.  There was even a wooden shack and power cables for such occasions when a diesel generator would be used.  

After enjoying our packed lunches of rice, chicken curry and water spinach, Johnson shifted into gear.  In no time at all he had set up all our hammocks and raincovers, gathered water from the river, started a fire with the billy on for a hot cuppa, and was skipping down by the river to set up a fishing net.  

Meanwhile I had just started to take in my surroundings and scratch my belly.  To my utter horror there was a wet squishy feeling below my navel.  Somehow a leech had infiltrated my defences and was latched on to my belly as I frantically tried to pull the sucker of.  A slightly painful little circular lovebite remained which bled afterward but it was my frazzled mind which was scarred.  I needed to regroup.  I wriggled into my hammock, zipped up the mosquito net and for the first time felt safe and calm, floating in my cocoon.

The Kelabit Highlands of Borneo

I awoke early in my cabin in Lambir National park on Tuesday, excited to visit Bario, a small town 1040 metres above sea level in the Kelabit Highlands, deep in the remote interior of Borneo.  I had heard enthusiastic tales of this place from a fellow traveler who adored the hospitality, food, climate and natural beauty of this far away world.  Famed for its Bario rice and known as the land of a hundred handshakes, it was a rural change I had been longing for since my journey of coastal cities had begun.

Waiting at a bus stop is something I always try to avoid as I become helplessly restless and anxious. So waiting 90 minutes in the increasingly hot morning sun for a bus to the airport wasn’t fun.  The air-conditioned bus was of little comfort, however, as the TV was showing some God-awful American wrestling channel with dolled up girls pretending to pummel the life out each other for the glory of some shiny golden belt.  After that was over, the speakers continued to assault everyone on board with some more glorified violence with a dark, satanic, Hannibal Lector dungeon setting – not quite the ideal morning so far!

I had missed my flight but managed to change to the next and final one for the day with minimal waiting or fuss and only a 10RM ($3) fee – thank you MASWings, the best airline service ever.  The flight from Miri to the small trading town of Marudi was a 20 minute trip on a small Twin Otter plane, flying below the clouds over endless expanses of palm plantations.  After unloading and reloading of supplies and some 8 or so passengers, I was back on the otter.  This time we flew for an hour, high through the clouds with breathtaking views of unspoilt rainforest on rolling hills as far as the eye could see.  I think I also spotted the jagged rocks of Mulu National Park, a World Heritage listed region of virgin forest I hope to later explore. 

Disembarking from our little otter, we were greeted with a refreshingly cooler climate and the smiles of a handful of locals welcoming their family back.  I hitched a ride with one of them who dropped me off at one of the guesthouses. In this cosy town with a population of less than 1000, homestays are the only type of accommodation which I find far superior to hotels as you are welcomed into someone’s home with home-cooked meals and plenty of interaction with locals and fellow travellers.  As it happens, when I arrived at Ngimat Homestay, no one was home except a young Australian guest Tahlia who was enjoying the views on the patio.  It was such a joy to arrive, grab a home-grown banana and take in the magnificence of this piece of heaven on earth.

Soon enough I was welcomed by the matriarch of the family Tepu (grandma) and two of her children Uncle Scott and Aunty Linda who were our gracious hosts.  After a lunch of home style fried rice, I began to learn about the fascinating culture and culinary heritage of the Kelabit people from a wonderful book Pesta Nukenen, which was recently published to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bario food festival held every July.  Thanks to the warmth of hospitality and  pride of their culture here in Bario, every meal and conversation has broadened my understanding of life in the Kelabit Highlands, and they are tasty lessons indeed!

Tahlia and I were lucky enough that evening to visit a traditional longhouse and enjoy a dance performance and dinner with some locals and other Malaysian tourists.  Longhouses were the traditional dwellings for many cultures in Borneo and were huge communal buildings originally designed to safeguard against attack from rival villages.  It was a real treat to see a real one still in operation.  This one could house around 15 families, each with their own open plan hearth and common area with seperate sleeping quarters.  All the common areas were adjoined as one long hallway, allowing plenty of interaction and sharing of meals between families. I imagined it was like one big dinner party every night.  Aunty Linda told me that her late father was the patriarch of the Kelabit people.  Accordingly, they had the largest longhouse which boasted 18 hearths and housing up to 150 people under one long roof.  These days, most Kelabits have opted for individual houses and many longhouses lie disused contemplating their futures.  In Bario, the local artists have converted part of a longhouse into a studio and exhibition hall, an innovative example of their possible uses for future generations. 

After our sticky-beak into the mechanics of the longhouse and an enlightening conversation with a Malaysian couple working as researching linguists, the music began.  Some 16 women garbed in ceremonial Kelabit dress performed several traditional dances for us to the tune of the Kelabit stringed instrument, the sape’.  We were then asked to join in some old favourite games like the bamboo quickstep and spin the plate.  All were very thankful for visiting Bario and many of the older Kelabits relished conversing with us in English, as all Malaysian schools were all taught in English from 1963 (when Malaysia was federated) until 1982 when Bahasa Malaysia became the norm.

 Later that night, I contemplated the Tahlia’s offer to join her the next day on a three day trek into the jungle.  It sounded wonderful, after all this is what I came to Borneo for – to see and experience these unique rainforest ecosystems up close and personal.  Aunty Linda told me she avoided the jungle on account of the swarms of leeches.  I had only encountered leeches once in Australia and they were definitely unsettling.  It had also been raining everyday for months and everywhere the ground was saturated.  I told Tahlia that I would sleep on it and decide whether to go into the jungle or not in the morning…

And so it begins…

I’ve come to really enjoy driving. At first it was slightly terrifying to be in sole control of a two tonne battering ram on wheels.  Especially one that would jolt to “kill speed” at the slightest twitch of the right foot.  But once I got the hang of it, I could cruise the coastal countryside on a whim at high speed without breaking a sweat.  At its best, my car was my own teleportation device, just in slow motion, with a beautiful view, great tunes and the warmth of the summer sun tempered by the gush of windows-down breeze. 

During an 18 month period ending in 2016 whilst living on the outskirts of Sydney, running a market stall business and intermittently roadtripping during the summers.  I racked up about 40,000 km: an average on 70km a day; probably driving 12-15 hours a week; that’s further than to London and back from Sydney.  Anyway I did a lot of driving!  And I really enjoyed it. There was a comforting sense of control once I got behind the wheel, confident in my abilities and no longer afraid of the “kill” factor.  Especially when driving familiar and habitual routes, I would enter an automated trance-like state.  The kind of meditative state where my mind could relax and process it’s thoughts, while at the same time drive competently and safely. Even when I was stressed out of my mind and the traffic was horrendous and I was running late, I think I had an easing balance of control (of the vehicle) and surrender (to the flow of traffic and chaos).  In an unexpected way, driving became a type of meditation for me, a place where I could just be and to contemplate.

Three months ago I traded my car in for a scooter.  Eager to live a more minamalist lifestyle with a lesser environmental footprint and lesser financial burden, I was also keen to master riding a scooter in preparation my next trip to South-east Asia.

  I could not and still cannot drive this scooter.  Every time I even looked at it, I was starkly reminded of the fear and the “kill” factor when first learning to drive a car, only now it was not a pedestrian’s life in danger, but my very own.  This paralysing fear had thwarted my mastering the scooter.  As a result, I have been afforded no teleporting abilities and no meditative moments from said scooter, only harsh lessons in humility, mortality, control and other indigestibles.
Alas, I have left the lame mechanical beast behind.  I have since teleported to the island of Borneo.  A vast untouched wilderness where pristine tropical rainforest ecosystems can still be found.  I have come to see the natural wonder of the rich Borneo jungles, before they vanish into myth and legend.