A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
John and Ik Hui are kindly dropping us to Key Point in the Beach Road area from where Golden Express Coach departs. Their hospitality has been amazing – as is all Asian hospitality from which Aussies have much to learn (ours is the more shut-the-door-on-your-way-out, laid-back kind). Whilst saying our goodbyes, the boys are looking the wrong way. I’m wondering why they are so rude and ask them to turn around. They say their goodbyes then turn back to study their original distraction – Doritos Man. Their jaws drop and they stare unashamedly as this fellow traveler stands awaiting the bus and eats an entire pack of Doritos without touching a single one. If you can imagine how that is done, you can understand why they would be so captivated. I might try it some time just to see how doable this is, but I feel it would be at the cost of very cheesy powdery lips.
Catching a bus to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore involves going to the Woodlands Checkpoint and exiting Singapore’s border control, then hopping back on the bus, crossing the border, hauling your luggage off the bus, going through customs in Malaysia, then hauling everything back on. It probably adds an hour all up to the five hour trip. On the bus the little boy next to me says “a lizard just crawled under your shoe” looking genuinely concerned. Without moving my shoe I say “would you like me to catch it for you”. His eyes widen and he shakes his head. Later, Lachie taps me and says I have a gecko on my shoulder. I ask him to grab it which he does. The kid is amazed but frightened. Lachie offers it to him but he’s actually petrified and his sister starts protesting. She says that if he touches it, he can’t sit next to her anymore. Their dad stretches forward with his camera and says “I have to take a photo of the hero!” People here poison them with insect spray because they’re frightened of them and think they’re dirty. We reckon they’re great though and they do a fantastic job of keeping the insects down. Lachie gets really close and checks the lizard out from head to toe. He names him Gary Gecko.
I enjoy the bus trip. From the confines of Singapore’s high rises, to the open road, the hills, valleys and now familiar tropical vegetation makes me feel relieved. Singapore is busy, densely populated and highly built up and while I enjoyed visiting, being a country boy I always like to fall back to open spaces. Along the way and bloke has been asking the driver to stop and dashing out to sort stuff out. I got to thinking “hang on mate, you’re holding all of us up here, why can’t you just sort your shit out?” It was getting a bit rich I thought. At the lunch stop however, after we re-boarded the bus, I couldn’t believe it when he was even given a turn at driving. When’s my turn?
Lachie, Oscar and I get lots of rest on the bus which is just what the doctor ordered. It gives us time to be with ourselves and our thoughts since we are sitting in the single seats. The kids actually enjoy this and said they preferred the coach to the plane. We arrive at KL around 3.30pm and grab a taxi to Mark and Deb’s in Petaling Jaya, just 16km out of town. I didn’t actually have enough cash for the taxi so I gave him everything I had including a Singapore $2 note. The cabbie took the lot. Inside, I say “Merry Xmas” to their smallest child (the one I dubbed “ninja” on our earlier visit) Ong Jia Chen. He replies “Merry Christmas. Who are you?” and proceeds to tell me that he likes Uncle Carter (his swimming coach) but that he made him disappear back home today…Ong Jia Chen has some powerful Chi going on in his little body. Later he asks him mum if he cries harder will I return?
We’re getting ready to go snakehead fishing. I’ve carried my rod and reel around Malaysia for four weeks hoping to target this species because they are widespread and have adapted to drains and ponds being a swamp type ambush predator that can even live outside of water. I saw a River Monsters program on the bullseye snakehead that is aggressively invading North America and was gripped watching Jeremy Wade catch these then track down its cousin, the giant snakehead that had allegedly killed a man in Thailand. One of these was kept in a tank at Nomad B&B in Kuching and when I’d asked if I can submerge my underwater camera for a shot, they mentioned that someone from Sweden had tried this and it bit him. Mark and his dad have organized some seventy little brown frogs for bait, and these are being kept in the shower and get a bath everyday to keep them hopping and fresh. We re-bag these ten at a time for each fisherman and load up our rods, food, drinks and eskies into the 4wd for a quick getaway in the morning. A couple of frogs did get loose in the bathroom, but they’re no match for ten year old boys.
At 05:30 there’s a knock on my door. It’s Jonathan, but I don’t don’t need a wake-up call, I’ve been awake since 4 – as is common when I’m going on a fishing trip. It’s a quick breakfast of enormous meat and veggie bao, out the door at 6:14 and into the pajero for the long drive to the district of Bidor in the neighboring state of Perak. One of Mark’s friends Sam joins us who is an equally keen fisherman. At Kampung Coldstream we pull off road and into farmland and palm plantation where ponds and lakes abound. We pull up at a beautiful large pond surrounded by tall tropical grasses and covered with thick kang kong pond weed (kang kong is one of my favorite vegetables by the way). One side of the pond borders a palm plantation, another has nesting storks in some tall trees adjoining a Peking duck farm. These scatter as I approach, all herding away from me. In the distance I smell a pig farm and at various intervals can hear the squealing of feeding time. There is a family of Asian Otters in the pond behind bobbing up and down busily (everything otters do looks busy).
Excitement mounts as we see fish rising all over the pond and arcing fins scything the surface. Big fish. These are the telapia and carp that are being raised here – I suspect on effluent from the pig farm – suspicions founded by the smell and crust at a drain pipe entering the pond on the other side. Mark shows us how to stun the frogs, then pierce their heads to kill them and rig them up so they can be cast and retrieved over the weed without getting snagged. This is foreign fishing to me. We cast the frogs on top of the weed and slowly retrieve them. They get caught as we drag them back toward us, then release in a jerky hopping motion which simulates a live frog. Top level predators, the snakehead living under the weed sense the vibrations and sound and strike at the frogs – that’s the theory anyway.
Lachie has a couple of hits that mangle his first frog but doesn’t hook up. I eventually have one grab a frog but on setting the hook, the frog pulls straight out of it’s mouth. The next take I get, I actually strip line to let it really swallow the bait before trying to set the hook, but the strike pulls it free again and the frog sails past my head. Mark has missed a couple too, though his dad has landed one. I’m a bit perplexed so I switch to something I know. Maybe being the aggressive “eat anything” predator, they’ll take a soft bait. I rig up with a hot pink Strike Tiger grub and start a slow retrieve and bang I’m onto a good fish first cast. These fish are so powerful and the waters full of weed and snags that we’re fishing high poundage line and a locked up drag so I just hold it and let it tire whooping “I’m on!!!” across the water. The kids grab the fishing bag and start running toward me. On landing the fish, it’s grabbed the lure so hard, I have to physically prise its jaws open and use pliers to get the hook out. I’m elated that I’ve landed my first snakehead. I lift up the fish and take a good look and snap a few shots. The head is flat and pointed like a snake with two beady black eyes on top. The mouth wide and hard. The skin on the fish actually looks like snake skin – black on top changing to white underneath with a primal type of fin running over it’s back and halfway under it’s belly. These ancient monsters are well represented in the fossil record and look like it too. They are prized for their healing ability when served as soup to convalescing patients.
After a few more casts, I lose the princess on a snag. Switching to an old faithful Berkley black and gold T-Tail after noticing some small grey baitfish in the water, a few casts later I’m on again. This one’s a bit smaller, so he gets to go play another day but he’s completely chopped the T-Tail in half. I head back toward the car where the kids have retreated and on the way back notice a snakehead hovering in the water a couple of feet from the bank. I toss out the T-Tail and draw it past it’s nose. I dangle it there, then jig it up and down – it pays no attention. Perplexing. Somehow these fish need to have their aggression triggered to make them strike – the most aggressive are ones protecting their nest. These have been known to attack people – such as the kayaker in Delaware.
I wander back to the opposite shore to find the boys have given up because it’s hard to cast and retrieve a dead frog continuously with no result, and are playing around the car so I tell them just chuck the frog in the water instead of baking it crisp on the roof of the car where their rods are leaning. The sun is really up now and starting its torment. The rods are now leaning against some tall grasses with the frogs sunk to the bottom. It’s not long and Oscar’s rod pulls flat. He races over and strikes to find nothing on the end. The hook fails to set again. These fish are tricky. I cast it back in for him, but this time strip of lots of loose line. The snakehead are taking the frog into their mouth, moving away before swallowing. Any resistance leads to the frog being spat out. The next time he’s rod bends, he has his first snakehead.
Around midday, the heat starts to beats us into submission. Even though we’ve got full sleeves and hats on, the heat is what I consider an preview to hell. Eventually, with my core temperature rising, I give up and sit in the shade of a short palm oil tree, half naked trying not to move. The boys accompany me and we suck back water and 100 Plus an isotonic fizzy drink. We are wilted. Husked. Punished. Oscar plays around a nearby palm trying to climb it and I let him know that there are sometimes ant nests in there. Sam who has joined us for some relief mentions that he doesn’t usually venture too far into palm oil plantations because of the cobra’s. I let Oscar know about this too.
Eventually Mark and his dad pull over and give way to the juggernaut that is the scorching, oppressive sun and sitting down in the shade with us. Mark has copped a leech helping land my third haruan (the local name) which was tangled in a mass of weed. We decide to head into the nearest Kampung and get some drinks and shade. Oddly, his dad recommends the curry noodles, which equally strangely were so delicious the boys were nearly licking the bowl.
I photograph the lady preparing them, scooping the noodles into a huge boiler to cook them and the old aunties around a plastic table on the corner all laugh and tease her in Malay. She ducks and looks embarrassed, which encourages me, so I switch to video and film the scene. A table of men are flipping and shuffling mahjong tiles. They must be escaping the heat too.
Around 4pm we head back checking out a few other ponds on the way, but returning to our original site. The boys continue with their bottom fishing as this seems to be the most effective method in the middle of the day. Jonathan has hooked a fish but struggles to land it. Oscar takes over manning the rod and Lachie gets down and hand-lines the fish in. They call it a team effort and chalk it up as a “Band of Brothers” effort. Lachie still hasn’t landed one on his own, but just before we call it a day, manages a small one, so we’re all happy.
Thunder clouds begin to roll out across the horizon and we hear the rumble. The odd lightning flash goes off and a cooler breeze has picked up. The light changes from the harsh white light of a fiercely hot day, to the warm evening glow of a monsoon clouded evening. The pond looks really pretty now, and I can see rain on the mountain range. I count the time between the flashes and rumbles and conclude the storm cell is still a few kilometres away. The breeze is waving the grasses and the white storks are hovering over their nests. Eventually it starts to spit and satisfied with our catch of thirteen, we decide to start our long trip home.
It’s dark now and the boys are all asleep in the back of the Pajero. We’ve had a sumptious feed of charsiew, roast pork, yam, fried sweet potato leaf, and soup on the way back through Bidor. We fly south along the Utara Selatan Highway toward Selangor and the road is relatively uncrowded. In the back it still smells froggy and the silence as each of us is lost in thought is punctuated by pounding on the roof of the esky, as the prehistoric channa striata launch themselves out of the shallow water and crash their bony heads into the molded plastic in a bid for freedom.
I still feel hot.
Luckily we have some great friends in KL called Mark and Deb (that’s their English names – they are in fact real Kuala Lumpians) who have invited us to stay for the layover through to Kuching in Borneo tomorrow.
We breeze through immigration/customs/stamping documents and strangely the blokes in uniform don’t seem to have had their humor surgically removed like those in most countries. Mark had messaged his address and to take a taxi which should cost around 100 ringgit which I think is steep. I hoped to find an alternative. As we exited baggage claim there was a counter with shouting people. It was a bus ticket bazaar. I approached slowly wondering how to pick so I randomly went for the yelling Airbus counter and showed her the address. Bus to KL Sentral then taxi from there came the answer. Nani handed over 28 rm and the lady handed me the change. Patriarchal maybe or perhaps i look poor. We headed for platform 2 (in truth we just followed Nani who was walking flat out). We rushed out onto the street and I looked around but there were no signs to any platforms just huge car parks. Nani headed left – fast. I’m fully 2ft taller than her so my recon is pretty good and she’s never been to the bus station at LCCT airport in her life. She leads us directly to it. Possibly this ability is related to the one where she can always find a bargain in a shopping centre.
We loved the bus trip. Primarily because it had psychedelic carpet – on the ceiling – and golden tassly curtains.
50km later as we neared KL Sentral the thought struck me “what if it still costs 100rm for a taxi from here?” after all the shouting people at the ticket bazaar were there to sell bus tickets not dole out public transport information.
We descend the bus and are set upon by people asking where we want to go. Taxi touts. No taxis in sight. This is a bus depot not a taxi depot I realise. I explain we are going to Petaling Jaya and there are 5 of us thinking we need a mini bus. Tout 1 goes and gets Tout 2 who says he can take us. I say there are 5 of us. He looks concerned. T1 says not to worry some of us are really small. I figure they will cram us into a sedan. I ask T2 how much and he says 34 rm. “34rm?” i confirm. He replies “35rm”. Either I’m a really bad negotiator or my hearing is going. He takes off to get his car. Eventually we find our destination. He really didn’t know where we were going but drove round for long enough to find it. He didn’t seem to have a map but I had already agreed on the price so it didn’t matter. We put it down to the scenic route and he was a friendly guy despite being told by Abbey that her dad was bigger than he.
Mark wasn’t home when we arrived but his parents were (they live at their parents house) and Deb was too and a lot of other people. They have four children and Marks sister was over with her boy then there were two maids and a boy that might have been one of the maids sons maybe.
The hospitality was fantastic. We were told to rest prior to tea – who gets to have a lie down while dinner is prepared?!
As we lay under the fans a small boy with a #1 clipper job sneaked in. Being the uber parent I strike up a conversation leading with the trusty “what’s your name?” with my play school presenter voice. “Ong Chai Chen” he announced loudly. It sounded oddly like the mandarin for “thank you”. It was a mouthful so I persevered. “yeah but what do people call you?” “Ong Chai Chen!” He reiterated. Probably thinks I’m so old I’m hard of hearing. Nani chimed in “what does your teacher call you?” same answer. I ask if I can just call him Chai or Chen. Charlie maybe? He says he can do the work of a five year old at school. Nani asks how old is he. He says “five”.
His grandma knocked and offered us a pile of towels. The small one dived behind the door. I recall Mark telling me on a recent trip down under that she was the no nonsense one. Apparently she sleeps at 16deg so it seems she is to the kids what the ice queen was to Narnia. He emerges when it’s safe and shows us some karate moves. Either he’s really fast because he’s small or he’s really fast because he’s really fast. I decide the latter. He reminds me of Dash from The Incredibles. He says he’s got a machine gun. When I enquire further he says he also has a bazooka. Ahhh a kindred spirit. I like talking munitions. Then he discloses that he has not one but two bombs. I caution him that bombs can tend to explode and to let me know before he sets them off so I can get out onto the street because I don’t want to be trapped in the rubble of his grandparents former house.
The dinner is amazing. It’s a spread of roast duck, bak kut teh which is pork bones in a garlic star anise broth, fried chicken, chicken feet soup with mushroom and fish maw (I think that’s something in fish guts), tofu, barbecued pork (char skew) and on it went. We were besides ourselves.
Eventually whilst peeling and stuffing our faces with tiny thumb sized Goreng Susu bananas and Rambutan, mark called to say he was on the way home from his part in the closing ceremony of the inaugural Asian Shotgun Championship where a new Asian record and equal world record in skeet shooting had been set.
There’s talk at the table of dogs being locked up before he arrives and a reminder a few minutes later. My interest is piqued. I wonder if they don’t like mark maybe? Then I figure maybe they’re a bit feral and could take off when the automatic gate opens. It’s the latter. Then deb adds that she’s worried they could take off down the street and attack and kill someone so they lock them up when someone arrives home and let them back out when the gate closes. Presumably a game of fetch is out question then. I stayed at the home of a magistrate in Singapore once that had three dobermans, one of which bailed me up on a foray to the dunny one night so I ask what kind of dogs are Debs? The dad replies “just normal ones”. He represented Malaya in shotgun shooting at the ’54 Rome Olympics so I don’t press him about the dogs.
As I squat in the plugless bath pouring a little bucket of hot water over myself and wondering what the ceramic thing with the hole and tap next to the toilet is, I feel that I really like KL. First impressions count for something and I decided that while it wasn’t slick like say Singapore or as developed as Melbourne I felt at home here. It’s a work in progress with the odd abandoned apartment block being reclaimed by moss and ferns amidst the sprawling brand new cookie cutter identical terraces overshadowed by the sparkling twin towers in the distance.
T2 had said the traffic was jammed due to UMNO (the ruling political party) holding their annual convention but having just plowed through Melbourne peak hour in drizzle this morning theirs was a breeze.
Malaysians strike me as being really laid back. In the toilets at the airport a couple of the cleaners were having a bit of a kip possibly figuring the boss couldn’t see them back there. It strikes a chord in my laid back Aussie heart. Combine that with talk of deer shooting and the Cameron Highland Rusa stag head hanging in the foyer its no wonder I’m feeling at home.
I’ve been tattooed twice. My first time I drilled three Hebrew words on my forearm; Battle, Beauty and Adventure. Author John Eldredge wrote in Wild at Heart: Discovering The Secret of a Man’s Soul that at the core of every man is inherent a desire to fight battles (think Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln). Also there is the instinct to rescue a beauty – specifically the woman of our dreams, but also more broadly for me, a search to find beauty in everything I do, or in everyday life. Lastly, life is an adventure. Domestication is a killer. Being a passionate hunter, fisher and having a love of the outdoors, I wanted to remind myself of what I was about, so I inked it on permanently during the mid-life crisis of burnout.
Later, I had my children and wife’s name etched on my upper arm in the chinese characters that make up their names.
Traveling to Borneo and reading about the tribal Iban and the significance and culture they have attached to their tattoos, made me think that getting a tribal tattoo would mark this trip with my family so I started to look about for a good tattooist and found the Borneo Headhunter Ernesto Kalum who is internationally renowed for his tribal work. Ernesto is one of the last Iban to tattoo using the traditional hand tapping method. In communication with his studio, they assure me that hand tapped tattoos heal quicker, but I’m pretty sure they’re more painful. I might just stick to what I know with the machine.
On the downside these guys are based in Kuching and I’m there at the start of my trip and aftercare for a tattoo is pretty important because the last thing you want is to get an infection or sunburn on the healing skin. Protecting the scab is important too because if they tear off, they can take the ink with them and I want to be able to swim and be comfortable while on my holidays.
I saw a fantastic documentary The Vanishing Tattoo on YouTube clip on traditional borneo tattoo culture and noticed they mentioned Eddie, Simon and Lina David who run Borneo Ink out of KL and looked them up as well. I’ll be in KL at the end of our trip, so fingers crossed I can pay these guys a visit.
All the Iban tattoos that are gathered over the life of a warrior mark certain stages of his life (including the first head that he takes) and for me getting a tribal Iban tattoo, would be the same thought – marking a time in my life that I traveled to Borneo with my family. Hopefully I can find a design with a meaning that would be significant to me and blend in with my other work.
For further reading check out this great blog post on Iban tattoos here