From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


December’s back and here I am, on a regular thirty something degrees Celsius pre-Christmas day, standing in my neighbor’s chilli-pepper field. I am here specifically to shoot a Durio zibethinus (a Durian tree) with my camera and collect a new picture for this blog. Standing near me and my tripod is Ah Chai, the chilli-peppers grower; he is frankly disappointed with the scarce number of oblong golden fruits which we can see, hanging from the huge tree ahead of us. “This season is not good” he laments. As I recall, the previous one, half a year ago, was not any better; climate changes?
I seldom have the opportunity to talk to my neighbours; they are all farmers and our family is of the urban kind, “wanna be” hobby farmers. We commute in and out of the small country drive, we wave, we give way to motorcyclists, sometimes to a van, yet we rarely stop. The only friendship we have developed is with Ah Peck, which by the way is not his name, it really means “grand-father” or “old man” in local Chinese. We don’t know his real name; he’s never told us and he seems to enjoy us calling him Ah Peck.                                                                   
It was easy to for us to become good neighbours because he and his family are the only planters who actually live on their land; the others are daily farmers.      Today happens to be a busy field day for most of them, a fortunate coincidence, and a chance for me to finally meet them on my walk to that large durian tree down the drive where Ah Chai, and by now three other men, have gathered around my strategic photo-shoot spot. Right now, with them by my side, I can witness the legendary and amazing power of the durian: the power to attract and unite people. This is exactly what is happening here, in the midst of chilli-pepper plants for two Hakka and one Bidayuh men and I, a French woman.

The powerful spell of the durian spreads through South East Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, southern Thailand and Malaysia. No other fruit I know of can get people together to enjoy a splendid time like this one does. I mean, no-one would ever fuss so much over a pineapple, a bunch of bananas or even a jack fruit.
Despite its thorny nature (“duri” in Malay means “thorn”) the durian actually creates bonds, at least between locals. As a general rule though, sharing a durian with a non-Asian without any prior briefing may result in the end of a beautiful friendship. Although there seems to be a growing number of Caucasians who claim to love the custard-like pulp that covers the large seeds encased in the inner compartments of the spiky shell, even for those, it is still an acquired taste; most of them react by running off, literally, or like my friend Elsa did, by diving head first into a river.                                                                                       
As controversial as a durian can sometimes proved to be, and as much as it can test East meets West friendships to the brink, here in Sarawak, as everywhere else in the region, it is, truly, a diplomatic fruit which has been unanimously crowned KING of FRUITS, by both genders of all ethnic groups and regardless of their religious faith. Call a few friends to join a durian hunt all the way to some remote kampong (village) and you will find yourself leading a caravan!

Durians are good business too, and many shrewd farmers set up makeshift stalls on the roadside, the ultimate temptation for drivers to make an impromptu stop and start a “durian ritual”: pick a few fruits, sniff them like a French would a truffle, shake them like a maracas, close to the ear to listen to the dull, subtle knocks that tell the tale of a ripe to perfection durian. Buyers even like to exchange savvy comments with total strangers on how to pick the best fruit (yet not before they have finished picking their own) and finally negotiate the price with the seller.

Except for its look, I used to hate everything about the durian, its taste and its odour; then without me even knowing, my nose, first, got used to it, and what I had first perceived as a revolting stench, I now identify as a familiar call to get together with friends and have fun sharing a fruit I have grown to actually enjoy! Mind you I do have a preference for the orangey pulp rather than the whitish one. I am picky.

The durian happens to be particularly nourishing; it is loaded with vitamins and minerals, a real bonus to animals and for this reason humans actually have to seriously compete to get to it first while it is still on the branch. I remember an Iban legend that tells the story of an unfortunate young woman who had been abducted by a randy Orang-Utan and owed the success of her escape only to the fact that the big ape had let himself be distracted by the sight of a few durians that had fallen to the ground, long enough to give his sweet heart enough time to run to her rescuers’ long boat.

The KING of FRUITs does come with some dangers though. Although it never seems to drop onto the heads of those patient fellows who spend whole nights waiting for their prize to fall from the branch (they’ll tell you it just never, ever happens.), it does have bad chemistry with alcohol.

Yes, it’s almost Christmas; back on the French Riviera, my brother and the whole family are probably feasting on tiny and cute looking, irresistibly flagrant Corsican Clementines (a winter fruit), while I am ready to bet with my husband that the almost 30 centimetres long, 15 centimetres in diameter and well above 2.5 kilos orangey durian that dropped last night, from one of our trees, is going to taste like the perfect KING of FRUITS, and tomorrow morning, I’ll walk down the drive again, to talk about it with Ah Chai and may be with a few other neighbours too.

Have a splendid festive season!

P.S: To Raeleen, “thank you” and I hope I will have to say it again many times in future.

Some useful information was gathered from “Durian - How to Choose and Open a Durian” from Dennis Sim, former Guide

As published in THE EXPAT magazine - Dec 2010 issue

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I have never been a fan of crocodiles except perhaps in the case of cartoon character Wally Gator and Captain Hook’s nemesis, tic, toc, tic, toc….
I must also confess that despite my sincere commitment to the protection of animal species, I am simply unable to feel for crocodiles.
My long time friend Johnson Jong feel differently. He created and developed Jong’s Crocodile Farm, which is half way between Kuching and Serian, and has devoted most of his life to breeding crocodiles and their narrow snouted cousins, the gavials (or gharials) and occasionally hunting some rogue man-eaters. What's lucking beneath? A gavial!

Johnson does not scare easily, even an old croc would agree with that. I have seen him creep along the mucky banks of his huge breeding pond to investigate nests and check out the eggs temperature and how close they were to hatching, then run for his life and jump onto rather precarious looking wooden platform with an angry croc mum rushing after him at an amazing speed for its size and weight. I remember Johnson almost lost one calf once and he still reckons that one day he’ll end up, Hook’s style, with only his Rolex as proof of his demise, ticking deep inside the stomach of one of his boarders. For those of you, readers, who would be tempted to imagine a croc licking its whiskers with its tongue after such a yummy meal, STOP right here! Crocodiles do not have a tongue and they have no whiskers either. Really.

Crocodiles are archosaurs, in other words, they are the living fossils of the dinosaurs’ age. If you ever happen to face a fifteen or twenty years old crocodylus, and I hope for your sake that it will be through a fence, the large grey armored scales and the huge predatory teeth that awkwardly stick out of the lower jaw will leave you no doubt on their pre-historical origin. They feed on fish and relatively large mammals; that means us, humans, too.

Johnson’s involvement with crocodiles is not “just” business but one of the most exciting, griping strands of passion anyone can fall subject to. My husband once recalled out loud some hair rising memories of crocs encounters, while on his native river in the Saribas region, only to hear Johnson beg him to please, "please!", organise a night trip aboard a shallow longboat, where Ian’s part would be to hold the torch light so as to catch the reptilian eyes above water level. I am not a widow yet; that tells you that, luckily, the trip never materialised.

One of the most spectacular hunts that ever took place here happened in the 1990s when Johnson helped a group of villagers from the Batang Lupar river, catch the elusive and gigantic Bujang Senang (the cool bachelor) which turned out to be a female. To say the least the beast was a monster with an unusual white stripe running the whole length of its back. The six meters long Bujang had imposed a long reign of terror and sorrow over the riverine dwellers: it had taken a number of their children. The local daily had published a photo of the great catch lying at the feet of a long line victorious looking people who seem to have no qualms whatsoever about the kill they had just made and why should they really?

Indeed it brought closure to the bereaved families who in turn gave respect to the spirit in the beast. As it was, not long after the hunt, an Iban football fan who happened to be driving from his remote village on his way to watch a crucial match in Kuching, stopped to pick up a young man in need of a lift, thinking it would be good company on the long drive and of course they talked about football. The young man then said he could tell which team would win and by how many goals. “Trust me “he said to the driver as he asked to be dropped on the Batang Lupar bridge. When the driver looked in his reflector, the young man was gone, but where? On that night the predictions came true, and of course the man told everyone who would care to listen to him, which came to a considerable number. By the time the press caught hold of the story, the driver had become absolutely convinced that he had given a lift to the spirit of Bujang Senang itself. From that very day the state football team of Sarawak adopted the name “Bujang Senang” while thousands of supporters hailed the giant croc’s name at every match. Long live the legend of Bujang Senang!

Most people here do believe in spirits and that these spirits dwell in nature and often inside the bodies of animals. They can just as well ruin our life and even kill us or bring us luck. My friend Sek Hua who has a real gift for seeing the bright side of life, firmly believes that crocodiles bring luck too, at least in exceptional and highly unusual circumstances. He should know, after all he may be the only man on the planet to have been caught in a shower straight out of a croc’s bladder (he said it felt hot), the day he helped Johnson carry the rear end of a half sedated and muzzled adult reptile that needed to be shifted to a larger pond. It got to be luck!

Recently as I was spending quality time reading Tropical Affairs (Episodes from an expat life in Malaysia) I found out that Robert Raymer, the author (for pix see ) had actually once held a live crocodile during a photo shoot on the set of a movie where he worked as an extra. My most daring deeds in front of a camera have been with a bear- cat (Artictis Binturun), an adult (and recently fed) python and a grass spider (I meant to fight an old phobia). No, I really don’t have any love for crocs and I’d gladly leave their handling to Johnson, Robert and Sek Hua; yet I must confess that despite my fear and dislike towards the beasts, I always have a splendid time with tourists, as I tell them how the spirit of Bujang Senang supports the state football team and how one day, one old French lady had somehow escaped my supervision and simply gone for a cool swim in the Batang Lupar at the very hour when crocs were lurking looking for food and how they all parted respectfully to give her way, because you see, the old lady happened to be grand ma’ Lacoste.

Artictis Binturun

Friday, October 16, 2009


On the Sarawak River
“Can you offer us a seat for a few minutes? Under the fan if you don’t mind.”
Taking part in an historical event can be absolutely exhausting by 33 degrees C. and 80% humidity on a sunny day. I have been walking with Helen since 8.30 this morning from the Riverbank Suites, all along the Kuching (Pix of RB Suites, Astana) Waterfront, to the end of Gambier road to take pictures of the governor’s Astana (the palace, formerly Rajah Brooke’s Bungalow) and back to the Main Bazaar to finally find a cool shelter at John’s Gallery where my friend Corina works. Outside the gallery the whole street has been transformed into a long succession of white tents where crafty Sarawakians have gathered here to display their works for three days.

Have you seen the Agong yet?” is Corina’s first question. My husband has been stationed at Hotel Margherita which occupies a prime location on the Sarawak’s river bank where longboats will be racing the whole day. Tonight there will be a parade of small ships which have been entirely decorated with props and lit up in honor of the Agong, the king of Malaysia. His majesty has come to Kuching to chair the Rulers’ Conference which will take place in the new assembly hall to be officially inaugurated today Monday 27th of July 2009 in the presence of all 13 state leaders, the Prime Minister of Malaysia with the Chief Minister of Sarawak and all the dignitaries. The Dun, as it is known can be reached by boat or sampan or the longer way, by road. It now stands gigantic between the Astana and Fort Margherita.
Fort Margherita
The fort was built in 1879 as a military defense for Kuching, 130 years later the Dun stands to safeguard Sarawak’s principles.

Corina gives me a disappointed look: I haven’t met the Agong. He is staying with his suite in another hotel. Finding which hotel would be an easy task: look for the hotel with a large Red Crescent ambulance(the alter ego of a Red Cross ambulance) parked right in front. The paramedics follow him everywhere; it’s protocol.

The roof of the  D.U.N
I am starting to feel better; Helen is in deep conversation with Corina; something to do with healing techniques, Corina’s dad is a renowned Kung Fu master and a healer, Helen is a therapist.

I look around the old souvenir cum “antiques” shop, always looking for interesting photo shots. John’s Gallery (Dayak Arts) is one of the oldest shops on the Main Bazaar stretch. At lot 62, it is deep and narrow with a first floor. In the old days the whole area used to be a wholesale zone, small ships unloaded their cargo near-by to warehouses and wet markets; shops like John’s were filled with food supplies from China, Singapore and the main land. The place would be buzzing from 3am to

5pm. Nowadays, tourists and nostalgic residents like me or simply art and craft lovers come to the Bazaar, while a little further, past the old Court House, Gambier road still thrives selling textiles, spices and the odd miraculous ointments made of snake parts or Gambier. If you are looking for a lucky stone to wear on as a talisman, that’s where you should go to.
John’s Gallery does not deal in small knick knack souvenirs like most of its neighbors. John Tan’s interest is in old jars, impressive wood carvings and statues, gongs, native parangs and Malay Krises. I love browsing here. I take a few shots at Corina and Helen then I notice the old safe. I wonder if it contains the weekend's earnings? I won’t even ask; my loot is what I store inside my camera, so I just take the whole mysterious old safe into my memory card, with a click.

Helen wants to leave; she has appointments, back at the beauty parlor. Corina grumbles that she has to work while it should be her day off. She must keep the tourists happy and John’s business going. I am the lucky one; I am totally free to go where ever I please with my camera. I wish Corina a nice day “all the same” and remind Helen that the floats are due to start right in front of the hotel terrace tonight at 8 o’clock.

On the Sarawak River, teams are competing in a special regatta in honor of the honorable guests; the annual event will take place later,during the weekend. While the VIP's tent is slowly filling up, I walk along the bank,
watching, listening, enjoying and clicking to capture the amazing colors and the moods. I notice many people are wearing hats, many of them “same-same but different”; an amusing theme comes to my mind: “The many hats of Sarawak”. There’s the Malay songkok,dark blue or black, rigid and velvety or made of a more casual cloth and embroidered; there are the indigenous hats, all made from vegetal fiber. Their different shapes indicate a different ethnic group; there are the ladies' elaborate head-gears too and I even find a chef wearing what the French call toque, a chef’s hat!

It’s high noon and all the tables are occupied. I find Ramsay and Edric Ong who is actually wearing an Iban hat! I immortalize him of course. The cousins are taking a break before joining the VIPs. Both own a gallery/shop (Outrageously Ramsay Ong – EON Company) on the Bazaar and both are actively involved in promoting the arts of Sarawak.
I have been walking for hours now and I am happy to find a spot to seat on a parapet under a large leafy tree and next to an English lady. She is in Kuching with a friend who seems to have disappeared in one of the shops. She is leaving tomorrow and right now she is fully taken by what’s going on around her, all the people even the very old and the children. There could be chaos yet there is only good humor, there could be heavy security, there are only jovial and helpful uniformed men. It's true, it’s the people who make the event. The English lady comments that she feels so overwhelmed yet perfectly safe. I wish her “Bon Voyage” and continue on my way back to the hotel for a break, never having enough of taking pictures of people and racers, everyone always greeting me with a hand wave or with a smile. Tonight I’ll meet Helen again, it’s going to be a splendid show of “Sarawak Boleh” (Sarawak can do it), there will be fireworks and mee mamak (noodles Malay style) at James Brooke’s Café will taste better than ever.

See you next year at the Regatta!

Friday, October 9, 2009


The pix Modis Borneo belongs to the European Space Agency

Borneo, east of Sumatra, north of Java, west of Sulawesi is a gigantic island, 757 050 sq km; the third largest on our planet. Around it, seas: the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea, the Sea of Sulawesi and the Java Sea.
On it, the highest picks in South East Asia (Mt. Kinabalu 4 094m) tower above 40 million years old rain-forests and mangroves.
Men have lived here for at least 42 000 years. The first ones on records thrived in the caves of Niah between the towns of Miri and Bintulu in Sarawak. Traditionally, villages in the interior of the island stretch under one long single roof; they are the wooden longhouses constructed on river banks by the indigenous people. Closer to the sea, Malays live in individual houses built on stilts. While modern towns and cities keep on expanding so do national parks. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Sultanate of Brunei share the whole of Borneo and the three governments have become painfully aware that their territories are fast becoming an endangered world that requires their most responsible vigilance.
I am not a native of Borneo, yet I have lived in Sarawak (East Malaysia) for many years now; my husband and my children were born here. When I followed my husband from the south of France to Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak, little did I know what a tough challenge it would to be to adapt to the climate, to my new life style and to the people, how I would have to shut my loud European ego and let my love grow for this amazing land. For this fortunate change I owe many strangers from Jorgen Sundvall ( who introduced me to hypnotherapy, to Ecckart Tolle ( – The Power of Now – The Awakening) and a long list of philosophers, not to mention The Secret team and of course Helen Lo, the best friend anyone could ever wish for; yet and most of all I am eternally grateful to my son Fabien who is the living proof that life, come what may, is a daily exciting adventure that is well worth living.
Now, and thanks to modern technology, its pay-back time as I can now contribute with this blog and its French alter ego to placing Borneo and more particularly Sarawak on everyone’s list of places to visit during one’s life time and that includes Sarawakians themselves!