Kota Kinabalu: I’m done on this side

Kota Kinabalu has the personality of a dollar store. Cheap and ugly.The only reason to come here is because there is no other way to get to somewhere else. Which is how we found ourselves there for the night. If you want to imagine what a Vegas hotel felt like in Asia during the 50’s, I’d recommend the Promenade hotel. But funny thing, it wasn’t the experience we were looking for.

So I had a brilliant idea, let’s escape to a spa. Another brilliant idea…let’s go to the one the taxi driver handed us a flyer for.What the hell was I thinking? Like, when would I ever do that in NY? We both decide to get a foot massage as it seemed like a safe place to start. We sit in the lazy-boy-like lounge chairs, get served some tea all the while the masseuse boys are chattin’ us up.

7 bucks for 45 minutes for the 2 of us.  I’m thinkin’, “It don’t get better than this! Seeing how good we’re feelin’, masseuse boys convince us to get this treatment called “cupping”. We both get the “adventure rush”. Meaning….”Yeah, let’s do something we never heard of ’cause we’re in Borneo”. So here’s what cupping is…You lie  face down on a massage table, they light a match or candle into a cup and then place 10 cups on your back. The heat from the candle creates a vacuum-like suction and “supposedly” pulls the “toxins” out of your body. The darker the mark left from this procedure, the more lovely toxins are removed from your body. “tisk, tisk, tisk, toxins”, that’s all we kept on hearing from Jonah’s non-english speaking masseuse. We and couldn’t figure out why he kept repeating this. We found out soon enough.

Those damn embarrassing circles and burns were on our backs for the next 2 weeks. Honestly, I thought I scarred my son for life! My advice, stick with the foot massage and leave the cupping for the next dumb tourist.While we’re on the topic of seared meat… right across from the spa is the best Korean bbq, EVER.

So how to survive a day in KK? Stick to a foot massage, chow down at the bbq then get the hell out of dodge.

Kuching: tribal junkie goes shopping

Maybe there’s more to Kuching than the Main Bazaar that runs along a picturesque waterfront. Honestly, I have no clue and really don’t give a damn. For me, or should I say, for the person who waits for the clearance sales at ABC home and carpet, the main bazaar experience was like being a heroine addict running through a poppy field.

Here’s what it is…a long but manageable row of stall-like things that are just across the street from the waterfront. Stall after stall of enormously high quality tribal art at Loehmann prices. Antiques and modern, yes they still use the stuff. But all original pieces. And, they’re legit. I shopped, I conquered, I shipped. But darn it, not enough.

So let me just throw out these little pearls of wisdom. If this is your first stop in Borneo before becoming one with the Orangutans, SHOP! If you think you’ll find this stuff in Sandakan, KK or Kuala Lumpur, YOU’RE NOT! If you’re there and stop in my places (Nelson’s Lot 14 and John’s Gallery Lot 52), SHOOT ME AN EMAIL. We can coordinate shopping efforts. I’ll love you, and I’m not kidding. I have serious regrets about not buying more. Oh yeah, I forgot about Jonah. The 17-year-old man-boy that I travel with that needs to eat.  And yes, man, he had all the shopping he could take. So if you walk a block behind the Main bazaar there is a street that has a mega-charm all unto its own. Stop in at the Siang Ti Miao Temple.

After that, right next store is a little chinese dive with the best sweet and sour chicken I ever tasted. For what?, 2 bucks. It don’t get better than that.

So to sum up Kuching, I found more than I bargained for. I arrived there thinking it’s just some gateway to super cool things see and do. It was my little layover for tribes and Orangutans. Definitely well worth it. Tribes, 4 thumbs up. (see previous post). Semenggoh, waay more authentic than Sepilok Orangutan Center. There weren’t hoards of tourist corralled onto a viewing platform.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d keep the side trips and ADD a full day in Kuching just to embrace my inner shopper junkie, relax on the waterfront and enjoy finding another “this is light years better than any NY Chinatown” meal.

Nanga Sumpa longhouse: Buying a knife from a headhunter

Jonah and I somehow ended up in Borneo. I say that because 2 weeks prior, we were scheduled to arrive in Bangkok for a completely different adventure. Since political upheaval and burning shopping malls didn’t seem like the most idyllic place for a vacation, I opted for plan B. Borneo. First stop, Kuching. A fabulous little city and also known as the gateway for visiting the indigenous tribes. You can drive an hour outside the city and visit a tourist set-up and see tribes dance in costume like some Disney World event OR you can book yourself a guide at Borneo Adventure to take you to the real thing. So no guessin’ what this Dian Fossey wanna be did. Real deal, baby! To get to the tribe, it’s a 4 hour drive from Kuching to some river near the Indonesian border. At the river we were greeted by an Iban who took us in his longboat for the final leg of our journey to the longhouse.  After an hour and a half in torrential rainfall, we finally arrive at the longhouse for our 3 night stay.

Our accommodations were a simple little tribal version of a bed & breakfast where we stay with our guide. BTW…there is no electricity in the middle of nowhere. But look, I’m there to experience tribal living. Not a spa weekend.

Our days are filled with hiking and exploring the river and  jungle with our guide and an Iban boatman. Jonah (my 16-year-old kid), can’t help but notice, every one of these Iban guys has a huge knife tied around his waist and is using it for everything….. chopping up chickens, cutting string beans, hacking paths through the jungle…whatever. Everything is this big freakin’ knife. It’s basically a machete. And every Iban male from the age of 6 to 90 seems to have one attached to their hip. Actually, every male BUT my  son. And now his male hormones are crying out “MUST GET KNIFE”.

We spent our evenings at the longhouse as guests of the chief. The chief brings out rice wine and glasses and serves it to our little group of guides and fellow tribesman. We all sit in a circle on the floor  as a candle is placed in the center for light. The atmosphere is like your favorite neighborhood bar. Nice, casual, everybody’s just hangin’ and  having a relaxed good time.  Rice wine is generously flowing and Lemon, one of our guides tells us it would be some insult if we didn’t drink it. So now, Jonah is drinking alcohol. Mind you, all in the spirit of cultural respect.

So back to knife obsession…In the longhouse, outside every door, are hanging things for sale. Mostly baskets. But here and there are…THE KNIVES. I mention to our hosts that my son is dying to have one.  The tribe guys love this and in an instant a magical male bonding thing takes-over like Superbowl Sunday and melts away any and cultural barriers that existed. The big white boy is now one with them.  They tell him  to go pick the one he is thinking about and bring it to the chief.

He picks out 2, and brings it back to our little circle. The men pass around the knives. They feel the blade, the weight, the action. They examine the knives with pleasure and expertise and a consensus is made on one.

My PC son is questioning if he could even have one in NYC  and the chief and the Iban guys give him a look as if he’s lost a screw. How could a big man-boy, not have a knife? How could big man-boy not even know how to use one???  They knew they had a job to do. One tribes member gets up and starts to show him how to handle a knife. Another ties it around his waist and teaches him how to take it out of the sheef. Over and over they practiced how to take it out and swash it around. In the meantime, I was sipping rice wine, getting nicely buzzed, watching my nice jewish boy getting lessons on how to use a knife from an actual headhunter. True. We ended up buying the knife for 20 bucks. But the demo…priceless.

The next morning our guide Paul, took my son out into the jungle and taught him how to really use “the weapon”. He cleared a path from Borneo to China with that thing.Today, it hangs on Jonah’s bedroom wall. I pity the poor slob who might try to break into our nice little place on the Upper West Side. The poor schmuck would come face to face with a warrior. Who knew!