A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
I missed out on getting a tattoo in Kuching where former lawyer Ernesto the Headhunter and sidekick Robinson had done up a really nice traditional Iban design for me. I hadn’t been sure about it, so only asked for a tentative booking a week later but this was taken up by the time I’d decided. I put it down to serendipity – it just wasn’t meant to be. In Singapore however, I thought about getting some ink to remember our Borneo trip together and had been thinking about a Singapore Orchid because we had these in our wedding. Mine on my lapel, and Nani in her bouquet. I thought about sticking it around the characters of Nani’s name already on my arm.
I surfed around various forums to find out some names of the good artists in Singapore and turned up a few, writing them down and the areas they were in. This way wherever Nani decided to shop, I’d have somewhere to go and have a chat with someone and see what they thought. Far East Plaza down on Scotts Rd came on the radar, and I pulled up the iPhone note and scanned it and located Boon Wen Kai who works for Primitive Tattoos on the fourth floor. I wander in and there’s one bloke having lunch there, and I ask for Boon, and he says “that would be me”. He is a slight fella, with a bit of a Beeber hair do but pretty down to earth. He doesn’t look like feral so Nani and I start bouncing some ideas around with him. Eventually we work out what we want – a couple of purple Singapore Orchids with a few buds.
After signing some disclaimer and negotiating a price, Boon gets out his inks and gun. He plasters the outline on my arm to get the positioning. He says he doesn’t want to turn it too far this way, because it’s a bit painful there. I wish he hadn’t mentioned this detail. I hadn’t actually thought about the fact that my inner bicep might have fairly thin skin, but was about to find out. He tosses a bunch of magazines my way and I say “won’t need them” and he says “you’ll get bored otherwise” and I say that boredom isn’t too bad – gives me time to think. But I reckon Boon is worried that I need something to take my mind off things. I pull out my iPhone and dial up a podcast – it’s a Radio National talkback program about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do (like your mum making your learn piano or violin, or your boss making you go to that weird team building day). Boon cranks up his gun and it starts chattering away. Nani takes a few happy snaps and she’s off – shopping.
I’m listening to this podcast and Boon’s drilling away, but it’s not feeling great. Ten minutes and I can’t really focus on the story so I decide to find the happiest music I can which turns out to be Atomic Kitten’s greatest hits. I figure happy music might raise some endorphins that might make things feel a bit better. Boon’s got my arm resting downhill on a support so whenever he stops and reloads his ink, I raise my arm to get the blood to flow because it’s starting to go all pins and needles but then I wonder whether I should stop this as the numb arm might have actually made things better.
It’s starting to feel like Boon is my mate in grade 9 giving me a going over with the compass point, scratching in some nasty initials or the like. It bothers me a bit and Atomic Kitten is going flat out but I have to try something else. I decide to try relaxing my body, but as soon as I take my mind off it, my legs tense up and lower back arches up off the reclining seat, which has become more of a dentist chair than a Laz E Boy. I’m praciting mindfulness now – paying attention to my thoughts that are all like “shit this hurts a bit” and “this is wearing a bit thin” and not fusing with them but letting them go. I try distraction and focus on the skateboards on the wall – there is one decorated with some tattoo art. It’s a chick that looks all Kat Von D from LA Ink. Her hair is black and long with a white streak. she’s looking over her shoulder with a topless back showing an entire back tattoo. Her pants are low slung and the ink reaches to her buttocks. She’s obviously a lot tougher than me.
I’m into Paul Simon’s Graceland now after finishing Atomic Kitten. There are some spots he hits that makes me involuntarily jump and others that make shooting pains reach my fingers. Some interesting nerves must be tucked in the inner arm. I am feeling distressed at this point. Not anxious because I don’t have that dread feeling. I know the pain isn’t harming me, just distressed. At one point it feels like he’s accidentally set my armpit hair on fire. Eventually Boon decides to have a smoke. I think he’d been expecting me to have a break, but I just want it done as fast as possible. Why drag out the agony? He nicks out and I think bugger it, I’ve had enough of this, and inhale a couple of ibuprofen. Nani pops back in to check on progress, takes a couple more happy snaps and then gone again.
Boon is etching away again with his implement from hell. I start to think that if this was involuntary and I was blindfolded, this would be a form of torture. I’m no sissy, and already have three tattoos, but none of them felt this bad. No offense to victims of torture, but if this was against my will and I didn’t know what was happening, after an hour of thinking your skin has been flayed into tiny strips would make me ask exactly what secrets would they like to know. Eventually he’s done and he asks me to take a look. My legs are a bit shakey from tensing too much and the intital feelings want to yell “Brilliant Boon, I’m out of here” but I actually do look properly over the tattoo. He’s done a fine job though, so I just get him to touch up part of one of Nani’s tattoos where I had lost a scab and some ink out of it as a result. He glad wraps me up and blood starts to ooze under the plastic. He explains that color is a bit more painful because you have to keep going over the same spot to build up the depth.
Nani is back and she peers through the wrap but can’t quite make out the design. We wander toward the escalator and she says “220 bucks! We weren’t getting Christmas presents this year because of the trip”. I say, this isn’t a Christmas present for me, it’s a Christmas present for you – I mean it’s an orchid and all, enhancing your name on my arm! I secretly hope to God that she hasn’t bought a Christmas present for me because I’m not sure that carving some ink into your arm would really count as a Chrissy present for the little wife and I haven’t bought anything for her. I can say though, that I really earned this one.
he 5am start today made it the equivalent of 8am AEST so going back to sleep wasn’t going to happen. I had walked Nani to her taxi and she asked me to photograph the drivers I.D in case she went missing. She either has a vivid imagination or an over active sense of caution.
It’s pouring rain which makes the shower drain in our lunch box sized room gurgle. Somehow the storm water downpipe and our shower drain are intimate in ways I’m sure are not healthy (something like brothers and sisters marrying). I pretend I like the gurgling like its a water feature as I lie on the hard mattress and wait for dawn.
The kids are awake around 6 so by 6.30 we can’t hold out any longer. We head down to the common room for the second B of the B&B. When we enter we rouse someone sleeping on the floor. It’s Chris the manager – now that’s commitment to the cause! He gets up and starts pulling out fruit, fresh bread, spreads, cups and plates. He laughs with the kids and teaches them to juggle while I toast their bread. After brekky he plays guitar while the kids play Jenga and scrabble on the floor. 16 Brisbane Grammar year 12 girls on an end of school trip with their minders appear. Time to clear out.
Chris makes Nomad B&B what it is. He’ll probably blow dart my aussie ass for saying this but oddly he reminds me of Rob Schneider and who doesn’t consider Rob a close friend? You can do eeet!
It’s not the most modern nor the cleanest of hostels but judging by former guests texta scrawls on the wall it’s one of the most popular. An Iban by birth Chris sports traditional tattoos by world famous Ernesto the Borneo Headhunter and his hand tapping method. He tees up an appointment for me to get a consultation for some inkwork on my shoulder.
A pet giant snakehead lurks in a fish tank in the common room. Ernesto had tried for 2 years to catch one before landing this one in a lake “somewhere” and repatriating it to become Nomad’s mascot. I ask if I can photograph it by inserting my waterproof camera. Chris says it bit the last person who tried. Snakehead have been described as the mafia of the waterways because they literally mug their prey without warning so I take a happy snap through the glass. The snakehead drifts towards me nonchalantly, eyeball swiveling as he sizes me up. He’s thinking he could take me.
A smaller fish swims around with him. This confuses me as snakehead are renowned for being aggressive and territorial. Chris explains it was put in there as food but it had refused to eat it. Normally it just inhales live fish so fast you can’t even see it happen, but it seems it’s taken this little guy under his wing and decided to befriend him. Chris said he did this with another fish once before. I ask what happened to it and he says the snakehead ate it after 2 months. Must have been a fishy falling out I guess.
I get to Celcom to buy a SIM card and am directed to a reseller because they didn’t have stock. The sun was merciless on our walk to the reseller. I break out the umbrella. After hacking a normal SIM down to a micro with some expert surgery involving a cutter and blade it’s slid into my iPhone. This is where things go pear shaped. We learn the phone is locked. This is after me calling Telstra last week to discuss using an overseas SIM. I jump on the resellers laptop and find a number for Telstra that can be dialed from overseas (not easy). I call and am on hold freaking out because I’m global roaming and I’ve heard the horror stories of the charges people have been extorted. Telstra ask for my IMEI and process the unlock (something they used to charge for) and tell me I will need to sync with iTunes after waiting anywhere from 5-72 hrs. Umm hello? I don’t have my Mac with me?!? Thank god I’ve sent the kids off to look around because this was starting to really stress me out. My head is starting to hurt. I pay for the celcom SIM wondering how the hell I’m going to sync to iTunes and take the kids to buy some sandals because when we arrived Oscar ripped his sandals apart.
We catch a taxi back to Nomad after lunch and on arriving Abbey says she’s lost her shoulder bag – I mean the shoulder bag Nani’s friend had lent her for the trip. You have to be kidding me! I round on her and say “so we have to spend another 24rm to go there and back to retrieve a bag with 10rm and a 6rm pair of socks in it? Huh?!” Then I read her the riot act. All I want is for you just to look after your own stuff!” I’m ticked. My head hurts. The taxi driver takes us back. We go upstairs to the hawker store and I make her ask the staff. No bag. I find the waitress who cleared our table. Nope. Now we’ve spent 24rm retrieving nothing. Hang on. Maybe she left it in the toilet.
We had been to the toilet earlier. A strange experience as there was a bloke sitting in front selling tickets. The boys walked straight past him. I stood and looked at what was going on. Half of the patrons paid, half just walked through. I decided to pay 20sen for Abbey. He gave me a blue ticket. Was there a ticket collector in there like at the movies? I ask for toilet paper when I see the little rolls in front of him. 10sen. I gave Abbey the TP and in she went. I then went in myself. Nobody collected my ticket. The urinal was an amazing baked on yellow color from decades of abuse and the smell might have been similar to the smelling salts they must give boxers who are partially KO’d because it really jolted me and cleared the sinuses. The boys reckoned the toilets were long drops and the floor was all wet in there and there were hoses lying in there for two purposes (use imagination). They thought it was amazing in an amusing “check this out!” kind of way. Fortunately my kids are used to gross stuff and have an appreciation for levels of grossness that deserves an award. What was amazing was that it was the only toilet we had been charged for and it was the worst! No wonder half the people didn’t pay – silent protest?
So we rush back to the box office of the toilet from hell and our ticket seller notices us and hands over the red shoulder bag. I make Abbey use all her money to pay the taxi driver. He must have pitied Abbey and gives me a 3rm discount.
I send the kids to the room to rest instructing them not to open the door for anyone. We decide on a line from their favorite movie Benchwarmers as my password for them to let me in. I wander over the road keen for some man-time to chill out and restore my zen. I knock on the door of the Borneo Head Hunter Tattoo Studio and Robinson lets me in.
I head upstairs to Ernesto’s dimly lit and smoky studio decorated with antique malay artifacts, statues and art. Neither Robinson nor Ernesto wear tops – just shorts. They have long hair and traditional Iban tattoos on their backs, chest and arms. Ernesto is playing a guitar. I meet another Aussie there who is psyching himself up to have a tattoo banged in with a stick the ancient tap tap method for which Ernesto is world famous for. He gets flown around the world by conventions who bring him out to demonstrate his craft. The Aussie from Melbourne teaches English in South Korea.
I start to chill out and we start to discuss what I want. I tell them my life changed after a difficult experience and that I had to fight to get to where I am today after experiencing severe depression. They discuss how Iban would symbolize this. Warriors used markings to commemorate significant events on their journeys. They say that the dragon represents my story of victory but I don’t want a dragon. Then they say the serpent has new life because it sheds its skin. I don’t want a serpent. I have second thoughts. We talk a bit more and they speak in Malay and Robinson starts drawing. I’m not sure what they’ve decided but I’m chilling so let it all happen. I flip through their albums and learn the significance of various patterns. I learn how the dragon is embedded in the pattern (unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for). I ask if they can omit this element and they’re cool. I eventually find the style I’m looking for and Ernesto said that’s exactly the style they were working up for me. Bingo. It’s based loosely on a stylized crab prized because of its tough armor. The first draft is readied and held to my shoulder. But it’s not yet what I had imagined I wanted. I suggested some modifications and Ernesto and Robinson made some changes. It looks great. The consult has gone an hour and another Aussie arrives. he’s from Healesville but works in Singapore. I ask if his tap tap tats hurt much. He reckons its much better than machine and you bleed less so it heals faster.
It’s time to wrap up. The ESL teacher has waited an hour so i ask for a quote and we make a tentative date. they spread out a bamboo mat. I ask to watch a bit and he asks me to take a few happy snaps. Ernesto dips a long stick with a needle attached into the ink. Robinson seated on the other side stretches the Aussies skin and Ernesto starts tapping. I click a few off and it’s time to go.
After a good one hour man time my zen is restored and I cross the road to make sure the children haven’t become the contraband of a well oiled people trafficking operation and aren’t already en route to Thailand – one of Nani’s concerns about them being out of eyesight. They’re are still there and much password asking and giggling takes place. I doubt much rest took place.
With the kids still bouncy (remember that neither pooh, rabbit, or eeyore appreciated tigger’s bouncing) I had to take them out again despite needing zzz’s myself. I’m looking for shoes for Lachie that he can bash around jungle trails tomorrow. As we ready to head out the heavens open with a downpour and a few flashes of lightning. Everyone outside takes cover. We do too but ours is umbrella and waterproof jackets. We walk in the pelting rain that is so hard it penetrates my umbrella. We slosh through roads now running with water. The air is cooler now and much more pleasant. The kids are loving it. Isn’t it fun walking in the rain? Sometimes it’s good to be reminded to see things as a child.
After trying three or four shopping centers we find shoes. Our pants are soaked from the runoff but i didn’t buy quick dry for nothing. The kids don’t mind. Time to eat.
We ask shop staff and they point “down there” for some good makan. We eat chicken and mushroom handmade noodles and drink iced teh tarik. We finish this off with fried bananas. There were other fried things. We asked about them but language failed. A boy came over and tried to help but he couldn’t remember the English words for them either. I figured one was sweet potato and bought a few of the other small fried mysteries that were about chicken nugget size. The food comes with a plate of red sauce. The bananas were yummy but the sauce turned out to be sweet chilli so it was strange but we kept dipping. I bit into one of the nuggets and there was a nut inside it. A chewy fairly flavorless nut a bit like a chestnut but firmer. It wasn’t til I got to the end of it I detected a faint taste like durian then realized it was something like jack fruit and the seed wasn’t meant to be eaten. Duh. I informed the rest.
We decided to walk along the beautiful paved waterfront along the swollen Kuching river as the light faded. Small hawker stores dotted the banks selling drinks, ice creams, souvenirs and popcorn. Abbey says hi to a group of soldiers. Some say hi, others ignore her. She keeps going and I’m thinking “maybe not a good idea honey”. Then she starts marching alongside them (they weren’t marching).
We wend our way through the old part of town with its rustic old buildings, narrow streets and open drains buying pink and white sticky, soft chewy kway? Queh? The pink turtles steamed on a square of pandan leaf had yellow bean inside and the white golf ball looking ones had sweet shredded coconut.
I have succeeded in wearing out the kids. It was their best day of the trip so far they said. I’m wondering where on earth can I hook up to iTunes.
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
Well here is the rough draft after much reading, surfing the net, reading forums, asking for advice and listening to podcasts.
At this stage there’s not much that we’re doing that requires us to lock in early, now that we’ve decided against climbing Mt Kinibalu so we can be fairly flexible.
1. Kuching 8 NIGHTS. Nani has a wedding dinner to attend here so we can’t shorten the time here in Sarawak. Having said that, it’s not hard to fill it in. We’ll visit Semmenggoh NP to check out the orang utan rehabilitation. We’ll do this in Sepilok as well, but at Semmenggoh apparently you get closer and on the odd occasion not many turn up so we’re hedging our bets between the two centres. The Sarawak cultural village and museum will be touristy but no doubt be really educational and I love learning new stuff.
Bako NP is an amazing place from all reports with loads of walks and it’s a great place to see the Proboscis monkeys early morning and evening. Apparently they’re quite shy so the kids will have to be in stealth mode. Because there’s so many walks there, and it’s a bit hard to get to (bus and boat) I reckon we’ll stay at least one or two nights in the park, although the accommodation is a bit sketchy from reviews. I’d suggest booking early rather than late, as it starting to book out months in advance.
Tattoos. I’m thinking seriously about getting some tribal ink in Kuching. International award winning Iban tattooist Ernesto Kalum (Borneo headhunter) is there, who’s recognised globally as being a leading tribal tattooist who also uses the traditional method. That’s the needle on the stick and bang with another stick method. I’m fairly sure the traditional method sounds a bit…. slow and maybe more painful than the machine, but the emails I’ve had from his offsider suggests it heals faster than machine – but I might just stick to what I know.
When I’m freshly inked I think we’ll check out the Santubong area north of Kuching and climb the mountain, do some walks, visit the fishing village nearby, grab a couple of kayaks and maybe stay in the Permai tree house for a night with the kids. How cool would that be?
Optionally (because we’ve got around eight nights in Kuching while waiting for a wedding dinner) is to head to Serian for a day trip where apparently there are some really nice waterfalls there.
2. Mulu. 3 NIGHTS. We’ll fly from Kuching to Mulu and stay at the Gunung Mulu NP for a few nights while we visit the famed caves there, dig around in the batshit and watch them fly out at night, look for carnivorous plants that might eat one or two of the kids and millipedes as big as your foot. I might even take the 10 year old and hike the Pinnacles which is a three day two night jungle trek with the last part hoisting yourself up rope ladders, which sounds like a great challenge.
3. Sandakan. 4 NIGHTS. We’ll then fly to Sandakan via KK and check out Sepilok Orang Utan rehab centre and then check in to Uncle Tan’s jungle camp. Apparently spartan but it’s on the Kinibatangan River which is the most densely populated wildlife place in East Malaysia so our chances of seeing elephants, orang utan, and proboscis monkeys will be great.
I’m really keen to do the historic walk in Sandakan and visit the war memorial and tell the kids about the 1400 aussie diggers that were killed on the death marches there by the Japanese in World War II. Only six, who escaped and were looked after by villagers survived. I’m going to pay my respects. Agnes Keith house will be fascinating too. She was an American author, who along with her husband and toddler, survived the brief occupation in a prison camp in Kuching and wrote about her experiences living in Sabah.
4. Mt Kinibalu. 2 NIGHTS. I don’t like the idea of flying everywhere. It’s disjointed from the landscape and gives a false sense of distance and time, so from Sandakan to KK we’ll go by coach. That way we can slow things down, and be forced to wait, watch, anticipate, rest, talk and think about what we’re doing. It will give us a perspective perhaps on the 250km march to Ranau that the diggers did through the jungle, some in barefeet. Stopping at Mt Kinibalu NP we’ll stay from a couple of nights and do some of the great walks in the area and get a good view of SE Asia’s highest peak.
5. Poring Hot Springs 1 NIGHT. After hopefully covering a few kilometers at Mt Kinibalu , we’ll head across to Poring Hot Springs nearby and soak in them and do some walks there and relax for a night. I think the kids will really like it here and we’ll probably stay outside of the park. There are some nice waterfalls to visit as well.
6. Kota Kinibalu 2 NIGHTS. After that we’ll finish up in Kota Kinibalu, the capital of Sabah (it used to be Sandakan before it was bombed to oblivion by the Japanese), where I’m dying to try the Filipino night market barbeque and visit the Tunku Abdul Rahman chain of islands to snorkel, swim and relax on the beaches before jumping on a plane and heading back to KL via Singapore.
We really want to be able to relax and take our time to absorb culture and a sense of place as we move through East Malaysia, so we will consciously resist the sense of “I’ve got to see as much as I can because we’ve spent so much to get here” which can easily suck you in. The harder you push with kids, the less enjoyable things are.
We’ve got relatives in Singapore and since we’re in the area, we thought we’d stop over there on the way back to KL for several nights. I’m not keen on this leg of the trip because I’m not a fan of the concrete jungle, but I’ve drawn up a bit of an itinerary that will hopefully be relaxing and enjoyable with the kids whilst steering clear of Orchard Rd and avoiding affluenza like the plague.
Any thoughts about our itinerary? Anything we could cut out or should maybe add in? I’m still agonizing about booking internal flights because I’m really not sure how long to stay in each place. Once again – a victim of procrastination.