South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Cat City . . . and beyond.
Date: March 27, 1995 20:40


7:41 Mandarin Hotel, Kuching, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 18 MAR 95

The rain woke me up about an hour ago. Torrential.

Kuching means 'cat' in Malay and it's a nice place-an interesting change from what I've encountered so far. The town spreads along the south bank of the Sarawak River. This used to be the main harbour for the area but sometime in the last decade that function was moved downstream. Kuching's waterfront was then redeveloped in a western style with cafe's, food stands, eateries, fountains, green plants galore, benches, statues. It's a hit with both tourists and locals and in the evening half the town seems to be taking a walk there, stopping to watch the world go by. Still, there's plenty of Far East appeal, dominated by the Chinese shops and restorans. It just seems the pace slowed a notch or two.

Across the river from town are some 'local points of historical interest' meaning 'a bunch of old buildings where something once happened that we've fixed up, at night we've lit up, and we figure will give tourists reason to spend more time (money) in Kuching'.

You can get there via some ancient wooden water taxis, about the length of a large row-boat but with a wooden roof. To operate these, the pilot stands facing forward in the bow. He grips in each hand the 'T' handle of an oar that is steeply angled into the water. These oars cross in front of him so that the left oar is in his right hand and both are locked to the gunwales forward of him. The intricate and subtle motions of wrist and arms that maneuver the craft defy description. Once in open water the pilot operates a small outboard engine and rudder located at the stern via foot pedals at his position in the bow while using one or both of the oars as a forward rudder.

Never encountered anything like it before.

As for the town itself, there are two sections. There's the older section with the familiar Chinese shops, produce and goods markets, food stalls, Borneo native artifact salesmen, grotty hotels, and temples and other places of worship for the various religions. The streets are a little wider, and the sidewalks three times the regular width. There's even a pedestrian mall-no cars, trucks, or even motor-bikes, allowed. Inside the town's busiest roundabout, a rather large one, stands a large block of food stalls.

In the new section, down river beyond the renovated waterfront, you'll find the prominent banks, the Hilton, Holiday Inn, KFC, McDonalds and Bavarian Motors car sales.

I prefer the old section.

Speaking of Bavarian Motors, I've seen cars made by the Japanese, English, French, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Koreans-even the Malay car manufacturer, Proton-but not a single GM, Ford or Chrysler model. Hmmmm. Unless one of the American companies owns Proton?

10:45 Mandarin Hotel, Kuching, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 18 MAR 95

Given the variety of food available here, it's a topic I've expended very little effort toward. As a remedy, I'll start with a recipe for a favourite of mine, murtabak. These are something like an Asian idea of a crepe with meat filling. They're yummy.

MURTABAK

Ingredients:

For the roti:

1tsp salt
1tblsp ghee (margarine or butter)
1 cup lukewarm water
½ cup oil
3 cups plain white flour

For the filling:

1 large red onion-sliced fine
1tsp turmeric powder
1tsp garam masala
½ tsp. fresh ginger-grated
2 cloves garlic-crushed
2tblsp ghee (margarine or butter)
500gms minced meat
1 fresh red chili-finely sliced
1 onion-finely sliced
2 eggs-beaten
Salt & pepper
1½ tsp salt
2 tbs. fresh coriander leaves-finely chopped

Method:

For the roti:

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and rub in the ghee.
Add the water and mix to a fairly soft dough.
Knead the dough for ten minutes or longer.
Divide the dough into equal-sized balls and place them in a small bowl containing the oil.
Leave for at least an hour.

To make the filling:

Heat the ghee and fry the onion until it is soft.
Add the garlic and fresh ginger and continue to fry until the onion is golden brown.
Add the turmeric and chili powder and stir for a few seconds. Put in the meat and carry on frying, stirring constantly, until it is well cooked.

To cook the murtabak:

Season the beaten eggs with salt and pepper and set aside in a small bowl. On a smooth surface, spread a little oil from the bowl and flatten one of the dough balls with a rolling pin.
Gently press with fingers, spreading the dough until it is almost as thin as strudel pastry. (very thin)
Heat the griddle and grease it lightly with ghee.
Drape the roti over a rolling pin and transfer it onto the griddle. It will cook very quickly so spoon on some beaten egg and spread it over the middle portion of the roti with the underside of the spoon. Sprinkle some meat over and just before folding, add a few slices of onion. Fold over the side of the roti, in an envelope like fashion to enclose the filling completely.
Turn it over and cook the other side, spreading a little more ghee or oil on the griddle before putting it down.
Cook until crisp and golden on both sides.
Serve hot either on its own or with a bowl of curry gravy or dhall.

Once you've gotten the roti down pat, you can experiment with lots of other 'fillings' and sauces, though dhall is among the best. There are a couple versions for roti, the following is roti canai (pronounced chan-eye with a short 'a' sound)

ROTI CANAI

Ingredients:

1 egg
1 cup warm water
1 tsp. salt (mixed with the water)
3 tbs. ghee (margarine or butter)
600 gms plain flour
sugar to taste

Method;

Mix together flour, water, sugar and egg. Knead until a soft dough is formed.
Form into small balls and keep overnight.
When you are ready to make the roti canai, spread the ghee on the balls and flatten.
Heat an iron griddle and fry the roti individually until cooked.
Serve hot with curry or dhall.

You can experiment with your own fillings-a simple one is to fry an egg folded in the roti. It's a favourite here.

DHALL

Ingredients:

1 cup dhall
1 tsp. cummin
1 large onion - sliced
2 cloves garlic - chopped
2 cups water
2 large tomatoes - quartered
1.5 cm piece ginger - shredded
a pinch turmeric powder
Salt to taste
3-4 dried chilies - broken roughly into a few pieces
4tblsp ghee (margarine or butter)

Method:

Clean wash and drain the dhall. Put into a deep pan with two cups water, garlic and ginger, salt and turmeric, and simmer till dhall is soft and mashable.
In a small wok or frying pan, heat ghee.
When not, add dried chilies, cummin, and when crackling, add sliced onions. Fry until onions are golden.
When onions are golden, add the tomatoes, fry for a few minutes, then add the cooked dhall, and let it simmer for about 5 minutes.

Serve hot with rice and vegetables and fried fish, or with vegetables and chapatis. (Or with roti, or anything else for that matter.)

21:32 Hoover House; Sibu, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 18 MAR 95

I picked a good day to talk about food. This evening's sortie proved particularly rewarding.

Once before, I mentioned that finding food was never a problem but that getting what you wanted could be. The following options are de rigeur:

  1. learn to speak Malay (get serious);
  2. find a place with English menus (good luck);
  3. find a place with Malay menus which, by now, you're finally beginning to figure out--a little, particularly if you've splurged on a Malay-English dictionary (I did);
  4. find a place where you see something you like, sit down near it and point (apologize to the diner who's meal you point at);
  5. follow that smell of good food cooking or see food being prepared in an interesting way, then point at something raw (like a whole fish) and see what you get.
  6. sit at a table and wave RM20 (about $11CDN)--tell whoever shows up, "feed me", "food" or try "membawa makanan", literally "bring food".

We tried option 5) tonight, and were pretty much guaranteed an interesting result since the place smelled good and was 'roasting' (grilling) whole filleted fish on a banana leaf. The result was a very special dish with the fillets splayed on the banana leaf and on top of them a thick coating of a sort of Cajun-style dhall. Yum! The best meal since arriving in Malaysia-at RM19 (with tea for two) not the cheapest, but not the most expensive either.

Before that we'd walked through the night market and, from a couple of food hawkers, bought a couple varieties of Chinese 'crepe' sorta things. Both very sweet and scrumptious. No idea what they're called, but one was quite thin and about 20cm across before folding. The other about 10cm more in diameter and of a consistency more like a thick pancake. Can't tell you what was in the filling, but yummy it was.

Nasi Goreng means fried rice. Nasi Goreng Ayam means chicken fried rice. Mee Goreng Datang means fried egg noodles with meat (beef, normally). Tomyam is a hot & sour soup with coconut milk base. Mee Hoon Sup is rice noodle soup (usually with (whole) shrimp). Laksa is a variation on the simpler Mee Hoon Sup and the Curry Laksa is coconut milk based. Satays are skewers of beef and/or chicken that, along with rice cubes and chopped cucumber, you dip in a peanut sauce.

One night we ate an 'Indian Banana Leaf Meal'. No, you don't eat the banana leaf. That's your 'plate', upon which is placed dollops of various vegetable pastes, sauces and a big serving of rice bathed in yellow curry. Add to this a side dish of curried meat of some kind (mutton, chicken or beef) and then dig in, with your fingers.

It's an interesting exercise, but I prefer a fork.

Fruit hawkers sell slices of fresh fruit of any variety (except durian -- the so -- called 'king of fruits' that apparently tastes great but smells like rotting road-kill when the skin is broken). Or you can buy a couple of Chinese dumplings from another hawker.

20:03 Hoover House; Sibu, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 19 MAR 95

On the other hand the food, because you're often unfamiliar with its contents and preparation, has the capacity to lay you mighty low. For example, traditional Greek Moussakka and I don't get along. All that olive oil impregnating the eggplant sits at the bottom of my stomach, sometimes for 48 hours or more. Indigestion for two days- yuk. Much as I love Moussakka, I never make a meal of it. And much as I loved that roast fish last night, I won't make a meal of it again. I think oil constituted the primary ingredient. 24 hours later and I'm finally making some exploratory gestures toward food again.

We got to Sibu from Kuching via the very fast (>60km/hr) 'longboats' (long, aerodynamically sleek and V12 powered). Our intention from Sibu is to travel inland via waterway to Kapit about 150 kms up Batang Rajang (the Rajang river). There we'll attempt to hook up with a guide and go a further 200 kms up the Rajang to Belaga. Both these legs are serviced by fast longboat.

Not alot of westerners get all the way to Belaga. (As a matter of fact, not alot of westerners get as far even as Sibu; Katrin saw two today while I lay prone-and probably sleeping-here at Hoover House but that's been the extent of it.) For one, permits are required to travel upriver from Kapit, and these can prove troublesome to get. Secondly, a more difficult permit to get is the one that allows access beyond Belaga. The intention of permits is to secure the indigenous Borneo peoples still living there in the jungle from being overrun by tourists and locals. In fact, the Malaysian state of Sarawak has its own immigration policy designed to minimize immigration of Peninsular Malaysians, again with the intent of securing the native people's continued existence.

The whole point of this exercise is to earn an invitation to a native longhouse in order to observe and participate in the festivities and culture there. The least affected by tourism and other influences of the 'outside world' lie beyond Belaga. The opportunity to see these cultures is not taken by many travelers. Near Kuching you can visit a 'cultural centre' and get a taste of aboriginal Borneo longhouse culture. But I imagine this is likely to resemble the 'cultural centres' I've visited in places like Hawaii-somewhat overproduced, even 'westernized' for the audience: culture made palatable to the KFC crowd.

We've heard word of two Swedes in Kapit looking for a guide. That came from Joshua, a local offering his 'freelance' guide services. If the we and Swedes were to take him up, the cost would be RM250 each for approximately 4 days of pretty remote travel beyond Belaga to Bintulu via Tubau.

If you get out your atlas, and these towns are even listed in it, you'll probably find there's no road marked between them. Well, the logging companies have built many, and rivers provide more access, but the going's presumably a bit rough. One tourist office clerk suggested that from Belaga it is possible to hire a boat to a logging camp, 'hitch' a ride to Tubau from there and then hitch a ride or hire a boat to Bintulu. Note that this trek traverses in excess of 150 kms between Belaga and Bintulu. There was no suggestion of this being easy to manage.

Unfortunately, we haven't heard back from Joshua since he left a note on our door last evening, before we got back from fateful fish. We'd indicated yesterday our intention of making it to Kapit today, but the last thing I wanted was to treat my stomach to 4 or 5 hours of longboat, even on the relatively smooth Rajang. Hopefully, we'll catch up to him, or another guide, tomorrow in Kapit. Having a local guide should make the process of permit-getting easier.

21:47 Rejang (air-conditioned) Hotel; Kapit, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 20 MAR 95

An interesting voyage upriver. Here Batang Rejang runs a little faster, and life moves a little bit slower than in Sibu. That town left behind an odd after-taste. Earlier I commented that it's a little startling to realize I'm now the member of a 'visible' minority (being exceedingly tall, beefy and white). It's even more startling, upsetting even, to be an object of abject scrutiny. At least, that's how we felt under their disquieting stares.

In Kuching, Melaka, Mersing, we were stared at. That's not unusual. We are stared at here in Kapit. When caught staring, people exchange a smile. Foremost, not everybody stares.

In Sibu, it seemed everyone stared. When caught staring, people continued to stare. When you tried a smile on them, people continued to stare. There were lots of "hello"s, like in Kuching and Melaka, but they were often accompanied by sniggers. Men appeared to be making comments about Katrin, the blatant object of most stares.

Katrin wonders whether all these feelings aren't partially the result of crossed cultures. Sibu is apparently a predominantly Chinese town and the Chinese are traditionally known to be more direct and unflinchin (by English speaking people's cultural standards, rude) in their interpersonal dealings. Perhaps., I haven't been to China and can't speak that way through experience concerning the Chinese culture.

Anyway, something was disagreeably different about the experience of Sibu, not least because I got sick there. On the other hand, there was this wonderful man at the Chinese Taoist Temple in Sibu who, over 4 hours on two separate days, explained the basics of Taoism and Taoist Buddhism. One of those primary experiences that stays with you long after the trip ends. I will remember Sibu for this event, not the baleful eyes of the population.

17:59 Hotel Belaga; Belaga, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 21 MAR 95

What does 'the guide' say about Belaga . . .

Belaga is just a small village and government administration centre on the upper reaches of the Rejang where the river divides into the Belaga and Balui rivers. There is a Kayan longhouse within walking distance from Belaga town and many others further abroad.

Permits are required for travel upriver from Belaga, but these are hard to get. There's no need to have a permit to travel on the logging route to Tubau and Bintulu.

You just need a bundle of cash. Also worthy of note, the Penan longhouse we visited is across the river and a two hour hike away.

Belaga is a frontier logging town serviced primarily via the Rejang river. Service is provided by a daily ekspress longboat run costing RM20 per person. I'm not sure how much the chickens, roosters, pigs, etc. pay. Just be careful the box you lay your pack on doesn't contain one. In June and July, the dry season, the water is too low to permit passage of the ekspress boats. At these times privateers with smaller speed boats still make the passage but the price goes up to RM50 per person.

The ride up here is an interesting one. The Rejang runs fast in a couple of sections, most notably about 45 minutes out of Kapit is a ½ kilometer run of very fast water that the locals call 'rapids'. With a lower water-level, these may earn that distinction with its implicit image of boiling white water. Still, negotiating the churning water, small drops and back-eddies is plenty exciting. Got it all on video tape.

As for other means of transport: The logging companies and/or government also operates a pair of helicopters, and Malaysia Airlines flies out of here twice a week (Sundays and Thursdays) in a Twin Otter (seats: 19). The only driving route is over 100 to 150 kms of logging road to Tubau and then longboat 'ekspres' to Bintulu. As mentioned earlier, this latter route appears to be expensive, that is, more than RM100 per person. Since there is no public transportation of any kind to Tubau, you must hire someone to drive you.

We haven't found a guide for visiting longhouses. We don't have here in Malaysia the Australian massive and efficient response to tourism. It's a tad more impromptu. The one operator we did find with an available guide turned out to be the one operator we were warned against using. Instead, we've opted to join another couple (poms they are-what else should I expect except, perhaps, Germans?) and trek out to the Kayan longhouse that's literally 'over the river and through the . . . [er] jungle' from here. We still need to work out what to bring for food, gifts, etc. And I don't fancy lugging all my gear for 2 hours through the jungle so there's the matter of storage to consider.

21:09 Hotel Belaga; Belaga, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 21 MAR 95

<sigh> Frontier towns. At just a little after eight we went out for a bite. That's early by the standards we've become accustomed to. The whole town is pulling up stakes for the night. A couple of places - off the beaten track-are still serving, but by the time we'd found them the resolution to forego a late snack had already been agreed upon.

The 'commercial district' here consists primarily of 5 of those by now quite familiar retail blocks with small retail/restoran space on ground and, overhanging the sidewalk, 2 stories of residential/hotel space above. The 5 blocks are all geometrically squared to one another but not in a symmetrical pattern. Three are parallel longitudinally and the other two lie on a latitudinal axis. Interesting town planning.

Behind and to one side of these buildings are the heli-pads and, beyond them, the generator. Scattered about you'll find some homes and public buildings and about 500 meters out of 'town center' is a brand-spanking new apartment development. A small park and children's playground separates the town's 'main drag' from the river, the ekspres wharf and the shell petrol barge.

Down river from the barge you'll find the most interesting buildings, a series of Malay homes known as Kampung houses. These are always raised on stilts with clapboard walls and tin roofs, and nearly always one floor. Often, light comes through the cracks between the clapboards. Although this might lead one to the conclusion that their construction is lacking, on closer inspection they actually appear decently sturdy. Sometimes they make the clapboards, trim and flooring from untreated wood and it is therefore weathered, dark grey, but usually the Kampungs are painted in a variety of pleasant colours. There's always a verandah though sometimes only a small one. And louvered windows are de rigeur for all construction here in the tropical heat.

The commercial zone seems broken into the following pattern: retail shop, restoran, retail shop, restoran, retail, retail, restoran. Above all this retail and restoran there are three hotels. The guide recommends this one as the best deal but its neighbour as the cheapest while the third is over-priced.

One Asian idiosyncrasy you don't encounter here in Belaga that I've seen everywhere else is Western mannequins displaying Far Eastern clothing wearing Asian style wigs. (There aren't any mannequins here at all.) The oddest experience of this had to be the National Museum in KL where long, aquiline faces with round eyes and roman noses were caught in time performing native Borneo dances, enacting traditional Malay wedding ceremonies and modeling colonial era Chinese dress. Few of the display mannequins throughout the country, regardless of their usage, present an Asian physique. However, one would expect a national museum to try a little harder to present an Asian face than a clothing shop.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Bintulu is a modern, air-conditioned boom town which is best passed through as quickly as possible, unless you want holes burned in every pocket. There's absolutely nothing of interest in the town.
  graphical element South-East Asia on a Shoestring
Lonely Planet Publications

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