Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Borneo, City Pleasures and Jungle Adventure

A SNOW-WHITE fortress in the style of the English Renaissance, garnished with crenellations, pepper pot turrets and an octagonal keep, is not quite what you'd expect to find on a steamy bluff overlooking an equatorial river in Malaysian Borneo. But Fort Margherita, built in 1879 by Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak, is just one of the many charms of Kuching, a gracious and kaleidoscopically diverse city of about 600,000 just an hour and a half by air from Singapore.

An amble through its safe, eminently walkable streets will reveal dragon-festooned Chinese temples a few blocks from a 19th-century South Indian mosque; fortresses from the time of the White Rajahs (English rulers of the Kingdom of Sarawak from 1841 to 1941) a short walk from a high-rise district of hotels and icily air-conditioned shopping malls; and chic restaurants that would not be out of place in London a few streets away from open-air stalls redolent with half-a-dozen Asian cuisines.

The most extraordinary attractions in the Kuching area, however, are natural. Drive an hour or two out of town and you come to tracts of some of the most ancient and species-rich rain forests on earth. In less than a week, you can plunge into an exotic world of primeval flora and endangered fauna, visit -- or live with -- a local tribe, and still have time for urban pursuits -- i.e. eating and shopping. In addition, many Sarawakians converse comfortably in English, making travel a breeze.

I first discovered the sundry delights of Kuching, which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak (pronounced sah-RAH-wok) several years ago. My soon-to-be wife, Rachel, was living in Singapore and we decided to escape it for a few days and explore some of Malaysia's other half. In less than a day I was entranced and decided to return at some point -- with a note pad.

When I went with Rachel, we stayed in the center of town, but for this visit I chose a guesthouse a bit off the beaten path. Kuching has several international-standard business hotels, but this place came with a good recommendation, and the fact that the co-owner of the Fairview Guesthouse, Eric Yap, a retired civil servant, offered to show me around was a bonus, especially since many of the places I wanted to go are not accessible by public transport. My game plan was to head to nearby national parks in the morning and explore the city later in the day.

One of my top priorities was to pay another visit to Asia's only great ape, the orangutan, which is endemic to Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Early one morning, after a quick breakfast, Eric and I got into his late-model Honda and drove 20 minutes south from Kuching to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, whose wildlife center was established 35 years ago to rehabilitate jungle animals rescued from captivity. The 2.5-square-mile area is now one of the best places in the world to see orangutans up close and on the loose.

So far, we were told, 5 of the center's 27 orangutans -- 16 of them born here -- have kicked the habit of dining at park headquarters, but the other 22 often swing by (literally) to partake of the banana manna set out each day. We had been forewarned, however, that there was no guarantee that any of the orangutans -- the world's largest tree-dwelling animals -- would show up.

"Yaaay-ooh!" the park ranger yelled, the second tone lower than the first, as he scanned the forest canopy, "yaaay-oh!" The energetic rustle of leaves in a distant tree was the first indication that an orangutan was approaching. "If a big male is coming, keep distance. He is unpredictable," the ranger warned, adding nonchalantly, "he might attack, he might not." But it was a smallish young ape making his way toward us, clambering from one tree to another, grabbing onto vines and branches with gravity-defying agility.

At one point, we -- along with dozens of other visitors -- could see five shaggy orangutans clutching trunks, branches and vines with arms that can reach six feet or more. A female orangutan with a baby clinging to the long hairs of her torso descended warily to a stash of bright yellow bananas, stuffed as many as she could in her mouth, grabbed a green coconut in one hand and scrambled up a rope. Soon the last of the climbers disappeared back into the canopy, and Eric and I continued on.

We headed farther south, through a patchwork of dense secondary forests, open fields, houses and small orchards. For tens of millions of years -- until logging companies arrived in the late 20th century -- Sarawak's dense rain forests remained unchanged, but today only patches of completely untouched jungle remain.

Our destination was Annah Rais, a Bidayuh village whose residents -- or most of them -- live in longhouses, a collaborative habitation that serves as a home for the entire community. (The Bidayuh are one of the Bornean indigenous groups known collectively as Dayaks.) In a longhouse, each family retains a high degree of economic autonomy (this is not a kibbutz) but common areas are in constant use for cooking, traditional crafts, socializing and celebrations. If you were making a Dayak version of "Seinfeld," you'd set it in a longhouse.

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