A river ferryboat pulls into the pier in Sibu, Sarawak.
I just spent 16 days biking and traveling through Malaysian Borneo, in the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Niah Cave National Park, near Batu Niah, Sarawak.
I was totally excited to go deep into Sarawak, since my whole life I've wanted to go to Borneo. We had originally planned to go all the way from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to Kuching in Sarawak, 1300 kms, by bicycle, but as fate would have it, we lost a few days when we blew all our spare tubes just as the shops closed for Chinese New Year.
Michael Cannon rides the highway.
My friend Michael brought his recumbent. Everywhere we went people stopped to talk to him about his bicycle. It was a fabulous ice breaker. However, it was difficult to travel with, heavy and bulky.
Vendors, Filipino night market, Kota Kinabalu.
One thing that struck both of us, as Michael pithily put it, as you went deeper in to Sarawak it became more Chinese. In Miri, in northern Sarawak near the border with Brunei, there were still plenty of Malay-style and Islamic eateries. By the time we'd gone 400 kms further south to Sibu, a large river port, these restaurants had become harder to find. Moreover, in Sibu, lots of the places serving Islamic food closed by noon.
Logging operations upriver from Sibu.
The extent of Chinese ownership of businesses was astounding. I got smiles and friendly interactions from all the local Chinese whenever I spoke to them in Mandarin, and could have gotten around on Mandarin exclusively if I'd felt like it. Yet, most of these businesses were shops; I saw few factories. It appears that fundamentally Sarawak's relationship with the outside world is still colonial: resources (logs, oil, and palm oil) go out, and manufactured goods come in. The Chinese community with its control of business actually mediates that colonial relationship with the outside world, which adds tension to the already fraught relations between Sarawak's ethnic groups.
Bintulu town, Sarawak.
Superficially Taiwan and Sarawak share some similarities -- an incoming Han settler population, extensive undeveloped aboriginal areas, extensive logging, a long history of colonialism, long-term involvement in global export markets, and so forth. So why is Taiwan a major manufacturing center and Sarawak still a colonial economy?
Night market, Sibu
Another thing that struck me: I was asked several times by locals whether there would be war over the South China Sea and over the Senkakus. This is not a discussion that locals in Taiwan ever initiate with me.
Playing by the waterfront, Kota Kinabalu
While we viewed Sarawak with mixed feelings, Sabah we both liked very much. It was cleaner and much less crowded than Sarawak. The roads were in decent condition and it was a pleasure to interact with everyone. It was also cheaper than Sarawak and easier to get to interesting places. In Sarawak there are over 200 kms between major towns, with few places to stop in between. In Sabah distances are not so great. The roads were flatter too; in Sarawak the main highway is one long roller coastal, up a short incline and then down one. Brutal.
Buffet, rest stop outside Batu Niah, Sarawak.
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