We started our morning with a drive out to the Sarawak Cultural Center. It’s very difficult for the average tourist to get a true glimpse of the lives of the indigenous people of Borneo — this is a big island, and much of it is traversable only by waterways — so Sarawak has made an attempt to bring its native inhabitants to the tourists. In the 1990s, they developed a “living museum” that includes architectural reproductions of traditional housing and “living artists” doing everything from cooking to playing instruments to teaching people how to spin tops.
It’s hard to know what to make of the Cultural Village — it’s fascinating on the one hand and feels totally fake on the other (for example, it’s hard to take “ethnic houses” seriously when some of them are up on concrete pylons and all have electric fans, and you know that the “living artists” are barely showing you their real lives). Also, although the Village was built just twenty-odd years ago, it’s already showing significant signs of age. But we enjoyed our time once we lowered our expectations a notch or two.
The buildings were the main draw for us. Native buildings run from the simple, temporary huts of the jungle-dwelling Penan, to the longhouses of the Bidayuh, Iban, and Orang Ulu, to the massive tall houses of the Melenau.
We also had the chance to see multiple musicians at work. The most common instruments here are the gongs and drums, though I was particularly interested in the sound of the sape, a traditional lute-like instrument.
The Cultural Village also provided many examples of traditional (or what I’ll call modern-traditional) cooking. For a small extra fee, you could sample glutinous coconut/palm sugar rice wrapped in leaves …
… or thin wafer cookies and sponge cakes.
I wish that the Village had offered a little more in the way of education about each ethnic group. At this stop, we learned that the Orang Ulu believe that if you’re really sick, a medicine man can make a rough effigy of your sickness and then set it downriver in a little boat, making the sickness depart.
The Cultural Village is in a beautiful setting, right up against this cliff side. Since it’s been raining a lot, there was a little waterfall running down the mountain.
We also found our first example of Borneo wildlife (I’m pretty sure it’s a green crested lizard):
Our visit culminated in a dance show, which was far more entertaining than I expected.
And of course I found flowers:
Our next stop was Damai Beach Resort. On the one hand, this was a huge disappointment, because they served us a spectacularly bad lunch; on the other hand, it was nice to put my feet in the water.
We then took a long drive to Semenggoh Wildlife Center, a conservation area where they both rehabilitate and raise semi-wild orangutans. The Wildlife Center is essentially a giant forest where the apes roam free, but there are feeding times twice a day – so if the orangutans feel like it, they come down to the two main feeding areas for some easy-access fruit. This gives visitors an amazing animal-viewing experience, because you’re seeing the apes with no barriers – they’re right there in front of you. At one point, we were no more than a couple yards away from the forty-five-year-old grandma orangutan.
She looked like she wanted to give us a speech:
And then she lay down for a nap right at our feet:
We saw three orangutans total; the grandmother spent most of her time on the ground, but the other two were almost entirely in the trees or swinging on ropes (meant to replicate vines). They gave us a great show of peeling bananas and cracking open coconuts.
The Center is also a botanic research facility, so they have some great plant species, including these pitcher plants:
And I saw a few great signs today. Bathroom humor is really not up my alley, but it’s hard not to laugh at these attempts to address visitors who are only used to squat toilets:
And this sign seems odd for a separate reason: nearly all of these make sense at a wildlife preserve, but gambling? Is that really a big problem with the orangutans?