Friday, February 22, 2013

Observations from Borneo

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.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums! Delenda est, baby.


yankdownunder said...

So why is Taiwan a major manufacturing center and Sarawak still a colonial economy?

South Korea is another success story. They both endured a
"brutal horrific occupation" by Japan but I'm sure that's not why they have surpassed other European colonies in Asia.

AV&VA said...

Hi, Michael !

By the way : I always wanted to spot one common thing -
People are watching and searching mystics in Pyramids,
But they do not notice the construction of “Chinese Pagoda” …

1stCMalaysia said...

Now you know how difficult it is to travel in Sarawak, welcome. Yes, I am from Sarawak. But to read that Sabah is cleaner surprises me. Didn't anyone express the concern over the crime rates in places like Kota Kinabalu in Sabah? And why didn't you try to communicate in Taiwanese with the local in Sarawak? You did notice that a lot of Sarawakian Chinese actually speak Hokkian, right? In Kuching, even Malay, and Iban and the other aboriginals speak Hokkian.

Michael Turton said...

Crime: No, we didn't encounter any crime in either state.

Taiwanese: My Taiwanese is nowhere near good enough to have a conversation. I did notice a lot of Hokkien, though, but since I can't speak it.

I think one of my problems with Sarawak was that I expected too much. :)


1stCMalaysia said...

"expected too much"? What did you expect to see before going there?
I had been back in Malaysia for years, but I still feel like looking at my country like a foreigner. But the way you look at Malaysian Borneo, I got the feeling of looking at a foreigner looking at my country.
The way you put it: "go deeper in to Sarawak", actually is inaccurate, it was more like travel southwest-ward along the northern coast of Borneo Island, as Chinese population mainly settled along the coastal area. And from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching, I guess you had been to Limbang, Sibu, Sarikei, Miri, Kuching, all along the coast. BTW, did you go to Brunei?
Deep in Malaysian Borneo, forest and mountain, a lot of aboriginal tribes are still like trapped in there, as the government, both the state and federal, do very little to give them access: transport, education, medical.
And Malaysian Borneo actually has a very different history from Malay Peninsula, even Sabah and Sarawak have different histories; though both were manipulated to join (or swallowed up by) Malay Peninsula and Singapore to form Malaysia. (And in 1964 Singapore was kicked out.)
And the name Malaysia actually existed before the nation. It had the meaning of Malay Archipelago before the nation took the name.
And the kind of stories of White Rajah you hear/read while in Sarawak, do not believe them too much, as most of them are reworked to suit the taste of power to be; and those tour-guides actually know nothing about the true history themselves, just the approved textbook from the compulsory course for the license.
Can't help it, whenever some foreigner talk about Sarawak.

Michael Turton said...

""expected too much"? What did you expect to see before going there?"

I had a lot of romantic stupid ideas. Hard to explain. When I was a kid I made up my mind to go to Borneo and Ceylon as they were soooo exotic.

"The way you put it: "go deeper in to Sarawak", actually is inaccurate"

From our perspective, it wasn't, we were further from the border as we went! Yes, i am painfully aware of how little I know about it.

" BTW, did you go to Brunei?"

Yes, too boring and organized. The highlight of that was when some poor damn fool was gawking at michael's bike and rear ended the car in front of him. We were stuck in Kuala Belait for a day, then went to Miri to wait out Chinese New Year for the shops to open.

we avoided the tour guides and guided tours.

I hope someday we can meet and chat about everything.

We'll probably head back to Sabah in two years, unless luck takes us there in August with our wives, that's one plan... welcome to join.


lousiewhei said...

@ AV&VA:
To understand true Chinese Han influenced buildings, check out 《中國建築史》by 梁思成. Sorry I have no idea how the author and his book is known as in American.
Wikipedia has a page about the author, but it is in Chinese:

Hope you read Chinese.

And note this, I typed "Chinese Han influenced buildings", as the China we know today spans across many climate regions, and has many tribes, those who live in Yunan or Northern China, actually have very geological smart buildings, and they are very different from what Han people had built.

Pagoda is supposedly a Han design. The art of pagoda construction can be found in ancient building guides that survived. But don't expect this art is perfectly preserved in China.

Anonymous said...

Just checked out your photos from Borneo in flickr, why did you name your album as Broneo?

Michael Turton said...

LOL. Typo.

MC said...

i cycled from KK to Kuching last year, and i found the drivers in Sarawak to be the friendliest i have experienced anywhere wrt cyclists. They sit behind you if anything is coming the other way, wait, wait and wait, then pull out leaving a couple of meters clear between you and they. Awesome.

Regarding those 200km between towns, my only real problem was between Miri and Bintulu. I took the coast road, and there is like ONE shop. I had a tent, so slept in that, but for water i had to "hitch" water from passing vehicles. Never waited more than 3 cars! Awesome #2.