The town of natural beaches

Also officially, Lundu: Bandar Pantai Semulajadi. Which is warranted, considering within the southwest: Tanjung Datu-Sematan-Lundu, has the best beaches. While not the white sands of our neighbours (we are a mostly swampy mangrove coast), the stretches that are sandy is shallow, warm, tan grey sand with long coastlines. Certain times of the year, the seawater is crystal, shimmering like liquid glass under tropical blue skies, with casuarina and coconut trees swaying nearby.

While not the cleanest beach, I do always enjoy a visit to Sematan. There used to be many mini resorts and B&Bs, mostly chalets. But after last year’s lockdown, 2 of them has closed down. We encountered some sea butterflies, apparently a sharp, prickly, almost invisible thing that’s not harmful (the internet said so) while swimming. They’re like have bamboo needles stuck in your clothes. Unpleasant, although the next day it disappeared.

This trip, we stayed at Sematan Palm Beach Resort. We stayed in the Terrace Twin overlooking the individual chalets below. A decent accommodation, with basic amenities. The chalets looked nicer but fully booked over that weekend. The booking came with breakfast and dinner, which is also decent (for local tastebuds). They even have a functioning bar with cocktails and pizzas. Although I’m pretty sure the cocktails are spiked with cheap liquors from the taste. The staff as a whole are very friendly and warm. The beach in front of the resort has the typical beach swing and a playground set for the kids. In the mornings and sometimes at night, local fishermen can be seen taking home their catch or putting in the nets before the tides come in.

Flying a kite kind of weekend

I’m not one to sit back and chill all the time, even on beach vacation, so I did what I always do, explore. I walked up the coast till Kampung Siru Melayu, and that’s where I passed the Roxy Beach Resort, a new planned mega resort. Probably bigger than any development that was ever done in the area and definitely tapping into the connections from the ever-unfinished Pan Borneo Highway.

I do wonder if big resorts are a good thing. Once, I did imagine Sematan-Lundu to be a more vibrant beach getaway, I was thinking more along the lines of smaller scale boutique accommodations that won’t overly impact the environment. Even today, local fishermen still use the coast for their fishing activities. Will the opening of Roxy mean that other bigger and more international brands put their foot in? Will Sematan turn into another Batu Feringghi (Penang)?

Even Telok Serabang, newly connected to the main highway grid has a Roxy resort. Funny, I always remembered Roxy as the cinema when I was kid and now they’ve bloomed into a supermarket plus hotel/resort chain.

But meh, the beach in front of Roxy isn’t a nice as the Palm Beach-Abang Amin stretch.

One of the Adis’

Probably the closest pristine river to access from Kuching, the Adis River has for awhile now grown into a major local recreational attraction in the Singai region. Unsurprisingly, many locals have cashed in on this hype to provide these “natural outdoor facilities” like chalets, event spaces, BBQ pits for the urban masses.

If I remember correctly, Adis Buan was among the first to develop successfully and market it, among the riverside recreation industry. The Adis River is a long one, winding its way across farmland, homes and jungles that shiled a big part of the river from direct sunlight. Strewn with rocks and sandstone, a big part of the river terrain is also sand, which is why the water is clear crystal on hot days. It’s deep in some spots but generally shallow in most.

I visited Adis Sori recently, which lies downstream from the popular Adis Buan (sections of the river has place names). There were mostly locals enjoying the cool waters underneath the building of a new bailey bridge to connect a new road into the backcountry of Segong. While there weren’t many outsiders, there’s already an entry rate and parking fee by the landowner. It’s a matter of time before the general public finds out about it and traffic from the popular Adis Buan and Tiporang filters downstream.

But that’s the general reality of the outdoors recreation industry, isn’t it? As Kuching grows, and urbanites seek easy access slice of jungle paradise, demand will increase. Soon all available, pristine rivers will become part of the tourism economy. It has already happened in many spot around Padawan and Bau like Jangoi, Teng Bukap, Krokong et. al.

While it can be a bummer to have to crowd with so many people, and the horrible potential for littering by the average idiot and general decline in cleanliness, it will provide incentive for those who take care of these places to be vigilant and keep the rivers clean or find some way to make sure the upriver channels remain safe. Too many rivers have gone the way of open sewers now. I’m honestly glad some have made it and stayed beautiful enough to be enjoyed.

For the more resilient of us adventurers, there’ll always be a river or waterfall that’s harder to get to and can remain so.

Gunung Lundu and the slow descent into darkness

It started as an innocuous adventure to explore the surroundings of a mountain ridgeline in Lundu that escalated into 9 and a half hours hike past sunset, off trail.

The trek began easy enough through farmland and orchards, passing water catchments used as direct supply to the villages lying at the foot of the mountain. With a local guide, the 5 of us wound our way up towards what ended up being the highest point of said ridge. I had a nagging suspicion that the summit we arrived at was Sibuluh (I was wrong), one of 4 prominence within the Gunung Gading National Park.

Found a Rafflesia bud!

Once arriving at approximately 500 meters above sea level, the terrain plateaued slightly, presenting a long corridor of ridgeline with a slight incline. Massive and ancient hardwood trees spaced around us evenly, the canopy shielding the brunt of the sunlight. Where brilliant fungi burst from the undergrowth at the lower, moister altitudes, here the air was drier, colder. A brisk wind blew through easily enough, as we shuffled through a thick layer of fallen leaves. Between gnarly trunks, I saw a peek of the flatland beneath us. There were no viewpoints, just endless, towering trees as far as you can see, while the terrain on both sides fell.

Water catchment

We finally reached the highest point about 5 hours in and took a break, approximately 840 meters. It was a nice enough hike, none too technical nor dangerous, with thriving flora everywhere. I can only imagine how cold it would be at night or before dawn, with the soft breeze blowing down from the sea, funneled into the valley between Berumput Range and the Gading mountains.

Look at that magnificent liana vine

Then began our slow descent… into darkness. Taking an alternate trail, we wound up picking our way through inconstant terrain and steep inclines. With the dimming light, it wasn’t long before we had to slow our movement to avoid stepping into holes or get our face ripped by thorny vines. Luckily we had brought our headlamps as a precaution, which – even if you think you’ll exit a wild area before sunset – you should always have one in hand. Once we hit a wall of thick undergrowth, it was easy to surmise we weren’t far from human habitation. By then, it was a few hours past sunset. Secondary jungle can be a bitch to bushwhack through, especially in the dark. Suffice to say, we all arrived at the base of the mountain safely, way on the other end, if a bit worn and grimy. I was never so glad to see banana trees and Daun Ubi poking up through the dark earth!

Hitched a ride back to our cars by the kindness of a stranger whose house lay exactly were we popped out of the jungle.

Tired, dirty and aggravated bunch

Anyway, it turns out the mountain is Gunung Lundu, which along with the adjacent Gunung Gading, hugs Lundu town in a semicircle. The name itself, as I later checked, was recorded in the US Geological Survey Map 1944 with an elevation of 823 meters. While the NP does display the summit name Lundu in their physical map, the word Gading is still sometimes used interchangeably depending on the record, since the entire mountain (with its 4 prominence) is called Gading.

Definitely a trip to remember.

Kapit, koboi town of the east

Been awhile since I wrote something. Wasn’t in the right frame of mind to pen thoughts. Thinking about travel is just making me sad. I was cooking dinner when Spotify randomly played a song that reminded me of Jogja, standing on the 3rd floor balcony of the hostel, overlooking the city as the sun set. Two Scenes by Putra Timur, so appropriate.

Mmmm Ijok, or palm nectar wine

But I’ll write about Kapit. Funny enough I didn’t record anything about it besides on social media. I was there a few months back before Malaysia went to the dogs. My first time there, ticking off the last division proper (in Sarawak). The last stop on the way home.

Basically the town of Kapit

At the time, the road connection from the Pan Borneo Highway was almost finished. Via Kanowit (and getting a little lost in the town), I made my way towards Song-Kapit, chasing the small window where private vehicles are allowed access. I made it through with enough time to spare, and the road wasn’t particularly bad. Mostly smooth except for the hairpin turns and steep inclines. Just to chase basic access, they built an unsafe road (not to mention the years long delay to completion). Before, Kapit can only be accessed via speedboats/ferry from Sibu, which is now reduced to twice a day as more cars start coming in.

The access road via Kanowit, onwards to Ngemah-Song-Kapit

Arriving into the sweltering town on Kapit, I was greeted by a most familiar sight. Traffic jams. Yeay.

Honestly there wasn’t much to do in the town itself, it’s pretty small. Everyone speaks Iban. It is their heartland. The town, which looked like someone plopped concrete buildings on hilly terrain and the Rajang falling steeply next to it, is surrounded by vibrant Iban longhouse communities that throng the town for shopping and other government services like schools. Lucky to have a friend who brought me around to try the food and enjoy some river downtime; unlucky to visit in the age of COVID as all longhouses barred outsiders from entering.

I spent most of time meeting new people and hanging out at a riverside bar built by the banks, with a beautiful view of the brown waters and boats zipping up and down. Beer, and more beer (and soju) throughout the 2 nights I was there. Soaking the vibe of a town just passing the cusp of physical invasion from the now easy to access Pan Borneo Highway.

Verdict: I like it. There’s things to see if you’re the open minded type and like to people watch. Wandering the square and backroads, drinking, watching locals coming in on a weekday to the market via boats. If shopping malls and Sunway Lagoon is more your jam, just don’t go.

Mi Goreng Babi Injien, or fried noodles with meatballs
Rumah Manok Manchal 😏😏😏
Rajang, the heart of Kapit

Plus, I increased my Iban vocabulary… bangka’ !

A quick dip to forget the heat at Sungai Pinik

Gaya Sa Pelikula, the Soundtrack

I guess I could’ve written about Gaya Sa Pelikula, the latest hit Globe Studios webseries storming the Philippines with tight, layered writing, charismatic leads and carving a niche for itself without pandering. Some call it BL (boy’s love) but I think it universal for the romcom category.

I can’t stop thinking about the music, with each song, usually an independent Filipino band or artists (referred to as OPM: Original Pinoy Music) underscoring the right moments in the story. The closest rival to the way the soundtrack carries a big part of a show is probably Hanging Out (Petersen Vargas) and I’m Drunk, I Love You (PJ Habac).

It tells the story of college students Karl and Vlad, the ensuing conflict and complexity of falling in love, interspersed by social archetypes faced by everyone especially those of the LGBTQ community in today’s age while addressing the often fraught complication of family dynamics and expectations. It’s about courage to love, and accepting yourself before you can learn to love others.

Disclaimer: A non-musician review of the songs.

Hanggang wala na

Ang luha sa puso ko

Hanggang sa muli

Tayo rin magtatagpo

The main theme of the show, Unti-Unti by Up Dharma Down playing whenever the two leads meet or have a moment, the soft, almost intimate beats of the song foreshadows the growing relationship, never rushed, with undercurrent of hope through pain.

Ben&Ben never disappoints with their song Ride Home, when Karl finally lets go and dances it out, expressing himself in ways that was never possible for him before. The sweet strumming of guitar accompanies the raucous and uplifting melody, probably the most anthemic in the soundtrack lineup. It’s definitely dance-able, sweet and designed to hit you right in the feels.

So I’m coming home to you, ooh

You, ooh

You’re all I need, the very air I breathe

You are home, home

Selos, (meaning: jealous) by The Vowels They Orbit, perfectly captures a spark of confused jealousy, the word echoing throughout the scene of Vlad receiving a call from his ex. The word rises and ebbs, like a word you say so much you start to wonder what it really means. The song is filled with a slightly generic dreampop vibe, simple enough that it floats, just a little out of reach.

When Karl is swept up in the iconic dream sequence, a prom date that never happened for Vlad, the apt song Magkaibigan O Magka-Ibigan (Friend or Lover) by Coeli sums up the conflict of falling for a friend. Makes me think the crew actually wrote the scene to fit the songs. The song is accented with a cheeky violin and guitar interplay, like a waltz (which is basically what happens anyway).

My favourite track is Fools by Nathan & Mercury, a pop rock song busting out in one of the most intense sequences. The opening choral notes is much like the audience holding their breath, dialing up the anxiety and then letting it fall into a kind of dazed numbness.

I’ve been a fool

I’ve been running after you

Times have changed but it’s not too late

Rushing my heart when I could have just waited

And then like a lightning bolt, it hits with the crash of cascading thunder.

Ikaw (Mula Sa Buwan ft. Nicco Manalo), a soft tune designed to wring as much tears as possible from already reddened eyes, plays against the background of what ifs in a world where we don’t need to answer to society’s expectations. But it’s also about love and sometimes, everyone has the right to some time to accept who they are.

Other songs include:

TYL (Kakie Pangalinan)

Tahanan (Nico Del Rosario)

Nasa’n Ka, Oh Luna? (MarsMango)

I’m seriously impressed with the effort put into the music for the show. Some would argue that quiet moments are better, but when there’s this vast treasure trove of indie OPM available to toy with your emotions, I say go for it. And kudos to the team of Gaya Sa Pelikula for giving me a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Save the Santubong Blue Pool

A few months back there were ripples within the Sarawak outdoors community. The proposed construction of the Al-Falak Complex, and a 2km access road from Camp Permai to Tanjung Salleh got everyone’s attention. It will cut through a swathe of Taman Negara Santubong, following the coast, and destroying in its path, among virgin jungles and streams, the famed Blue Pool, discovered less than 5 years ago by some intrepid hikers.

The blue parts mark the proposed development.
Credit: Rahim Bugo

The Santubong Blue Pool is a clearwater pool that tints aquamarine or blue under certain light, about an hour hike from Permai. By any stretch it’s not the biggest freshwater pool, nor the prettiest, but it is special for the local hiking community. All you have to do is sit close enough and listen as the water trickles down through a thick sediment of natural rock, filtering it into that gorgeous, pristine color. It’s always a welcome dip after a humid hike.

The development was brought to mainstream attention by Rahim Bugo, managing director of Permai Rainforest Resort. As of now the online petition has hit 9,000 signatures.

…on Oct 19, 2015, that the then State Mufti Datu Kipli Yassin said the Sarawak Al-Falak Complex would house a gallery and a number of study areas.

“The complex will also be the platform for moon-sighting to decide key dates in Islam such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Aidiladha, as well as an observatory,”…

Save Santubong’s ‘Blue Pool’, petition urges govt to relocate proposed complex, The Borneo Post, 19 November 2020

What I’m dumbfounded is why the need to build this complex in the middle of pristine rainforest and within the borders of our national park? Supposedly to also be a “tourism product”, doesn’t it strike you as ironic that to escape the urban jungle I now have to trek inside another manmade structure? What kind of reasoning is this?

The view in the path of destruction

It’s bad enough that after incident of the hiker who died recently on the slopes of 4.5, most of the national park is off limits. Now we have to contend with wanton development in a place that was meant to be enjoyed as a natural escape!

Look at Damai Puri and the buildings surrounding it. For decades the resort has seen its share of rise and falls. Now it lies there, another project of SEDC, abandoned and in ruins. Why not build the Al-Falak Complex there? Southwest Sarawak is huge, with tracts of empty land along the coast to get your beauty shot of the moon. Build it in Trombol and no one would make any noise.

This hearkens back to that same tone deaf cable car project in a bid to “increase tourism” to Santubong, supposedly designated a tourism hub, which let’s be frank, has failed spectacularly. The Damai resorts have been breathing by a hair’s breadth, Damai Central is an over-glorified Pasar Malam, even the cultural artifacts are disappearing (time will tell if the Santubong Archeological Park in Sungai Jaong be all it’s touted to be.) The only time the peninsula is alive is for the Rainforest World Music Festival in the Sarawak Cultural Village, and weekends when crowds throng the national parks to explore the rivers, waterfalls, summits and beaches.

Counterintuitively, because people like nature, we should plop buildings there. I mean, the visitors have to go shopping somewhere right?

A massive tree on the trail to Blue Pool

That’s what happens when politicians try to become urban planners and throw money to win their popularity contest, without critical thinking (one wonders if there was any thinking actually involved) and follow-up on impact not just to humans, but the environment as a whole.

Sign the petition here.

You can also join the Facebook group to keep up to date on news about the development.

In the news:

Proposed complex in Santubong will go ahead, says S’wak Mufti Dept officer amid calls to save ‘Blue Pool’ (The Borneo Post, Nov 2020)

Save Santubong’s ‘Blue Pool’, petition urges govt to relocate proposed complex (The Borneo Post, Nov 2020)

Bung Sadung, Motherland

People say your ancestral lands will evoke some form of connection within your soul, or something along those poetic lines. I’m not sure I totally agree.

The Bidayuh trace back many of their ancestral settlements from mountains, the term Hill Dayak attributed to them by white colonizers in the 19th century for their penchant of building longhouses on high ground to protect themselves from hostile raiders. Darud Sadung is one of them, a landing point for some of the peoples that migrated over the watershed from Kalimantan.

As you drive to Serian, you can see it gently rising from the otherwise undulating hills. On cold days, mists and clouds would wreathed themselves around the upper peaks, like a familiar caress.

On a hike up Bung Sadung, accessed via Kampung Bunga’, what was interesting for me is the ability to converse with the guides in one of my mother tongues. That was an interesting aspect. Knowing a language allows one to sift through layers in meaning and culture. There’s a lot to be learnt.

Anyway, the hike up was fine. It took our group a few hours to reach the summit, because the trailhead is on the other end of the sprawling mountain. There were leeches, it was muddy, and the view from the top, definitely rewarding. I’m far from the most squeamish person, but the last time I was in a leech feast, I learnt I scar or take a very long while to heal from the bites. THEY. BLOODY. ITCH.

I asked the guide if the shops down in the village sells beer today (it was a Sunday). I was hot and thirsty, the prospect of some carbonated alcohol really seemed like a good idea. He smiled sheepishly and answered, the next kampung over would have some.

Did I feel any sort of connection with the mountain? Not really. It was interesting to see the lay of the land from a higher angle, especially one I’ve lived in. The feeling is more universal, that post-hike bliss like a comfortable blanket of achievement. If anything, I’m full of admiration for the ancient ones that lives in these highlands before I was born, walking through what would have then been virgin rainforest teeming with wild animals and flora.

As we cooled off in a pool fondly called LA by the locals, or Lubui Arud (meaning Boat Pool for its shape), I counted myself privileged to set off on weekends, going ehem “forest bathing”.

As I walked to the car, refreshed from the cool dip, that the realization hit me. Kampung Bunga’ are members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, who, as I blushed red, don’t consume alcohol or eat pork.

And I asked about beer, twice. Goddamit.

A touch of culture in Mukah

Out of Sarawak’s 12 Divisions, I’ve yet to step foot in Mukah and Kapit proper, until recently. It was part work trip, part travel bug after being cooped up.

Mukah Division is coastal peatland, hugging the western portion of Sarawak. Coming from the southwest that has a variety of terrain (rolling hills and highlands), driving along the Balingian-Mukah road is like driving through a vast, featureless plain. There’s plenty of oil palm and smooth, asphalted roads.

I walked in the old quarter by the river, where the market and older shophouses still stand. The vibe is Kuching Waterfront circa 1990s, with a parking lot in the middle fenced by buildings in various states of new paint to tree grown.

I waited for a friend, who is teaching in MRSM for a long overdue meetup. The day was hot and humid, lunch hour crowds swirling along the thoroughfares and a quaint food court by the riverside. I took a picture of the old sago manufactory tower, and wandered between the lanes, observing the people. Hoping to contrast market vibes, I walked in the wet market, but ultimately didn’t buy anything. But you know you’re in Mukah by the sheer amount of sago products on display.

Looking at the time, I started driving in circles to get a feel of the town. It’s better to walk, but the weather was just too hot and it seems like various commercial centres are spread in between residential zones.

Suddenly I remembered an old article I read about a tiny cultural museum. Google proved a right friend, and off I went to search for the Sapan Pulo Museum.

As I walked the plankway to a quiet home built on the water, I thought it was closed and resolved to return some day. Until, above my shoulder, a voice called out from the house next door! It was Mr. Tommy, proprietor and collector of old things. He welcomed me in, gave me a tour and we proceeded to chat a little more about the Melanau Tellian.

It was hard to talk with masks on, but I tried to capture as much knowledge of the Melanau Tellian as possible, with my mostly rudimentary understanding of them. The wooden structure housing the artifacts is owned by Tommy, and he has been collecting them for a long time. He says he has the largest collection, with many of the artifacts that no longer has copies. I learnt about the ubiquity of rice farming among the Tellian before oil palm became a cash crop, contrary to popular belief that these coastal dwellers ate mostly sago only in the past. The intricacy and documentation of the healing ceremonies, along with artifacts used with specific rites. And the growing narrative of people who are discontent with his display of knowledge, declaiming it as presumptuous.

That’s the argument today isn’t it? We rail against those who have done something substantial, yet we do nothing to either counteract what we disagree upon or create something. Humans like to destroy, and pull things down. With social media and the internet, its easier to become a troll, using the most common line of argument “This is not true because my ancestors never mentioned this!”

For those who persevere, and continue to educate others, is a gargantuan and thankless job. But in that, something to admire upon.

Our voices rang across the rafters, as Tommy’s eyes shone, talking about the possibility of expanding his space to include a better display. The noon light reflected on the stark yellow and red tapestries, dark dragon carvings silently staring at me. All the while, the pulse of Mukah was always present, in the waters that flowed underneath us, in the smell of wet swamps and salt all rolled into one.

I did meet my friend after, and we had a few hours while we enjoyed coffee and pastries at the only Western style cafe in quiet Mukah town, until the sun outside burned the growing dusk.

Travel is not Travaille

Who else misses travel?

The feeling of soaring in a thundering iron bird, leaving behind the borders of familiarity. Note that I am aware of my privilege, that while there are uncertainties today, the fact I can still fantasize about taking a holiday to go gallivanting means I am one of the lucky ones.

I take comfort in my Instagram feed, funny enough. Like a linear photo album to remember the past and all the emotions tied with it. The people I’ve met, the places I found. Familiar, warm and comforting.

Where would I go tomorrow if the world is safe again?

Cambodia. This time taking my time and moving south from Siem Reap all the way to Koh Rong. Spend 2-3 weeks making my way through Battambang, Tonle Sap Lake, Phnom Penh. The noum kong looks positively delish.

Last time I was there, it was only for a few days after a long trip ending in Siem Reap. I took the train from Bangkok and did the land crossing at Poipet on Maha Sangkranta. That was fun.

Philippines. I’ll do a northern Luzon trip up to Vigan and Sagada. I have to try pinikpikan, better yet see it done myself after hearing about it for so long. Then find a nice beach down south, or tack on a road trip in Palawan, From Puerto Princessa to El Nido. Or chill at San Juan, see the waves break at La Union. Of course, must try the bagnet!

Indonesia, my heart. I have people there waiting for me, and mountains to climb. It won’t be anything super outlandish, just East Java and one or two of the major mountains. I missed Merbabu the last time, I’d like to add Sumbing or Semeru to the list. Hop over to Madura to have some lorjuk.

I have travelled within Sarawak this year, partly for work and partly to get the itch scratched. It is still special, as I’m a firm believer in all destinations being inherently good or interesting, as long as we put ourselves out there.

But to travel outside our national borders, where we put a lot of trust in those who receive us, and trying to make sense of cultures and rules that can be directly contrary to our own. It’s riveting and fun. Pushes me to be someone else, a person I’m not at all like at home. Like wearing a costume for Halloween.

The more I write this, the more travel-sick I get. But I’m hopeful, and 2020 has taught me never to take any moment for granted.