The Lost Photos of Borneo

This week's post was going to be about a marvellous Buddhist temple I visited on Sunday morning. It's an an unassuming timber building in a suburb of Kuching and unlike many of the temples I've seen on this trip, extremely simple - a timber building, with a timber deck at the front of it. I've managed to lose all the photos I took of this magical place, but for some idea of how the temple looks, go to their blogspot. It's 168 years old. Peace has permeated every beam and board, and I found myself not wanting to leave.

Fishing Boats & Flags
Trawlers moored at the edge of the river, the flags of Malaysia and Sarawak flying.

Like everywhere here, the people there were almost aggressively friendly. As I ate the vegetarian lunch they insisted I have I chatted to some of the members, three elderly gentlemen in their seventies and eighties. I also met the Master of the Temple, a wonderful Taiwanese woman.

The Basket Shop
The basket maker also sold the raw materials. They're on the lower shelves towards the back of the shop. I adore baskets, and if I'd have had a way of carrying them, I would have bought out half the shop.

However the most remarkable thing about this temple isn't its age or its serenity or its natural setting, but the fact that they have come up with a truly innovative way to fund the temple's activities. The delightful gentleman who showed me around told me that they got tired of asking businesses for donations. Now they ask them for their rubbish. The temple has its own recycling facility, where volunteers dismantle and process anything from TVs to washing machines to old mattresses, and sell the valuable metals they contain. This way they're not only raising money, they're helping the environment and the world, so it fits in very well with Buddhist philosophy.

The Coffin Maker's shop
These coffins are too beautifully made to bury.

Kuching overall has not been anything like I expected. It's a modern city with a busy airport and a six lane highway into the city. A few tall buildings dominate the city skyline, and there's plenty of business and commercial activity here. Yet underneath it all there's a feeling that most of it hasn't been here for very long. It still has a frontier, country town feel about it, yet the Chinese have been here for centuries. (Interestingly, Kuching hosts a Country Music festival, which I missed by a couple of weeks.)

The Tinsmith
The tinsmith sat on a low stool surrounded by the tools of his trade. He looked as though he'd been there forever.

The local history is fascinating and may possibly be the basis for my next historical romance. The city was established, or taken over, by an Englishman who was known as the White Rajah in the first half of the eighteenth century. He and his descendants ruled until the city fell to the Japanese in 1941. After  WW2 it was briefly administered by Australia - in this period the local governor was assassinated, so we may assume that some of the local people weren't happy with the changes in the government structure - until it eventually became part of the new country of Malaysia.

The Net Maker
The net was like cobweb, fine and perfectly even. He was quite amused when I asked to take his photo. All in a day's work to him.

The second White Rajah brought an English bride here. Ranee Margaret proved to be incredibly popular locally. She learned the local language and took to Borneo as though she'd been born here. She sounds as though she was typical of a particular breed of late Victorian Englishwoman who let very little stand in her way. There's little written about her on the internet, and a revised biography would make a fascinating project for an enterprising student of History. I may have to put it on my List.

Fort Margherita
The White Rajah named the fort after his wife, Margaret, the Ranee. No shot was ever fired from it, but the Japanese attempted to bomb it in the WW2. They missed, killing many innocent civilians.

A few days ago I found a narrow street where, next door to each other, were a coffin maker, a basket weaver and a tin smith. I got the impression their ancestors had probably run the same businesses out of the same shop houses for a couple of hundred years - at least.

Trawlers moor at the jetty beneath my apartment window.

Leaving the jetty
To the left of the picture you can see the cord the ferryman uses to turn the engine off and on. He stands in the prow, using two oars to steer.

The best way to cross the Sarawak River at Kuching is by ferry. These are small, shallow draft boats run by a single ferryman. They have engines, stopped and started by means of a cable that runs through the roof of the boat. The ferryman doesn't worry about tying up the boat, he holds onto the dock so his passengers can board or disembark.

And then, when I reached the shore on the other side, a fisherman was making a net, by hand, with a bone needle.

Peak hour, as you can see. The fare is 50 sens, about 17 cents, each way.
Peak hour, as you can see. The fare is 50 sens, about 17 cents, each way.

Kuching itself is an interesting city, not yet spoiled by the tourists who have yet to discover it en masse. I'm tending to avoid tourists and the places they go wherever possible. To me, one of the great mysteries of life is why people pay the money to travel and then recreate their own world around them. As an example, I walked past The Hilton yesterday. Everything is Western, right down to the food at the buffet, yet the food here is one of the many exciting things about the place.

A peaceful tributary of the Sarawak River, late in the afternoon.
A peaceful tributary of the Sarawak River, late in the afternoon.

I'm staying in accommodation run by a Chinese chef by the name of Barry, whose ancestors have lived here for many generations. Last night he took me to dinner at a local food court. As usual, the food was out of this world. At the end of the meal, I asked Barry what I'd been eating - half the ingredients I'd never encountered. In the fish and vegetables were Ladies Fingers (I'm not sure if it's a bean or a sort of egg plant) and another fruit which Barry didn't know the Anglicised name for. It looked like a yellow, seedless tomato, but was tart. The taste was a blend of lemongrass, and lemon, and something else. There was also yam cooked with egg, a Borneo version of a Spanish omelette. Simple to cook, a wonderful flavour and a great combination.

But the best part of the meal was a plate of the tiny green curling shoots of ferns, barely cooked so they were still crunchy, and delicately flavoured. Heaven!


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