Borneo and the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival

Borneo!  For me, it has always conjured up images of the wild man of Borneo, headhunters and orangutans.  Having said that, I must say that prior to this trip I did not really know much about this place.  Borneo is actually the third largest island in the world, lies north of Australia and is administratively made up of three countries, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states and Kalimantan is the Indonesian one.  Confused?  So was I!  Spending a bit of time there, however, helped me to wrap my head around it.  Borneo proved to be an exciting as well as interesting place, and we didn’t spend nearly enough time there.  This is definitely a place that I would like to come back to and explore.

Nothin like a good foot massage – Miri.

Whilst our destination was Kuching, we had to fly from Miri.  Without getting into it, Air Asia does not fly from the capital of Brunei to Kuching, so we had to catch a bus across the border to Miri, which is in Malaysia, and then take a flight to Kuching.  Easy, peasy!  The bus was leaving early and from the city centre, so we had to get up early and get a taxi from the Empire Hotel to the bus stop.  It was an interesting bus ride – although people in the country of Brunei clearly do not live like those in the capital, they clearly aren’t poor either.  As we crossed over to Malaysia, this clearly changed.  Upon reaching Miri, we promptly looked for a place to stay. We bumped into a Malaysian woman who was living in Australia, and she proceeded to tell us that she had a friend who had a guesthouse.  In no time at all, she made a phone call, and we were on our way to the guesthouse.  It was a good little find; clean, safe and quiet.  We were only really here long enough to have a bit of a wander around town and eat some fantastic food (always a good thing!)…oh, and get a brilliant foot massage from some Chinese massage students.  THAT was definitely an OMG moment.  I have always said that a truly good foot massage is better than a body one.  And that was a good foot massage….Linda and Alex were agreeing in unison!



Again, our flight to Kuching proved to be without commotion; it was the place we needed to get to next, before embarking on our stint as Artist Liaison volunteer workers at the Sarawak Rainforest Festival. Whilst all of our accommodation would be paid for and organised by the event organisers, we would be arriving a couple of days before to check the place out.  We checked out some accommodation online (what would we do without the internet…or more to the point, how did we do without it before?), and ended up booking Singgahsana Lodge.  It was clean and central – a perfect spot from which to explore the city.

In a temple in Kuching.

Kuching (which means cat in Malay) is very easy to navigate, especially as the main sights (and sites) are on the Southbank of the Sungai Sarawak, or Sarawak River.  A decent dose of fitness and some decent walking shoes is all you need to explore.  Oh, and water…lots of it, as it gets mighty hot, especially by mid-afternoon.  We thoroughly enjoyed this place, walking around, trying different foods, sampling the local beer (Alex and Linda!), going to and through markets, visiting different sites and museums.  It truly is the kind of place you can just wander around in, and see where you end up.  The Southbank of the Sarawak River has been really tastefully developed, with a one-kilometre stretch of paved walkway, lawns and flowerbeds.

The ‘ferry’ between the two banks of the river in Kuching.

It’s also an excellent place to people-watch, both foreigners and locals alike, which is actually one of my favourite pastimes. One afternoon, as we watched and observed, Alex and I decided to take the short boat ride across the river and do some exploring where few tourists venture.  Again, it was great to weave in and out of areas that gave us an insight to how people really live.  Whilst not destitute, the people here certainly were not living the high life.  When I travel (it’s a personal thing) I think it’s important, if not imperative, to see how the locals really live.  I know that this can often be both daunting and uncomfortable, but for me, this is the solar plexus of travel.

I must say…the rambutans were good!

Food.  Did we eat, or did we eat?  Of course, we ate, trying many different things, from the hawker-style fare, through to the famous Kuching laksa (which left me relatively unimpressed, and I tried it on a couple of occasions) and the various noodle and rice dishes on offer.  Whilst Kuching is supposed to have the best selection of food in Borneo, it was no comparison to Penang (more on that later).  Generally, however, I mostly did like the food.

Swinging around!

There was quite a bit to see and do in the City of Cats, and I think we managed to pack a fairly mean punch in a couple of days.  We visited the Main Bazaar, smack bang in the middle of town, on a couple of occasions – if retail therapy is what one has come for, this is utopia! It’s the oldest street in Kuching, dating back to 1964, and is lined with old shops. Despite the throes of people trying to hunt down a bargain (its veneer), it represents the very heart of Kuching’s history (it’s soul).  Again, it’s a great place to buy and an even better one to observe people.

How can one come to Borneo and not see the orangutans?  We did our homework and found out that we could go to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.  Established in 1975 for the rehabilitation of confiscated and surrendered animals, it’s only 20 kilometres away from the centre of Kuching.  Too easy, we caught a bus out there one morning, in order to get there for when they are being fed (they’re fed twice a day, which is really the best time to see them in action).  It’s said that 20 of Borneo’s great orang-utans (which means people of the forest, by the way) live there and although there isn’t sufficient natural forest in the surrounding area to make actual reintroduction possible, it’s still a wonderful way to see our relatives interacting with each other.    Shy, cheeky, jokesters, wanting to be the centre of attention…they are all of these things, and watching them was fascinating!

One of the houses we saw walking around Kuching.

Our exploratory walks took us through China Street, India Street as well as a multitude of temples and museums.  Whilst we saw a lot there is also only so much that one can humanely do.  We certainly gave it our best shot!  The time had come…we checked out of Singghasana Lodge, and made our way to the Santubong Resort, where all of the artists, media personnel and volunteers participating in the Rainforest World Music Festival 2010 would be staying.  The festival would run from the 9th until the 11th of July, but we had to be at the hotel a day earlier in order to get ourselves organised.  As soon as we got there, we introduced ourselves to Peggy Wong, who was the Festival Co-Director and the person we had been liaising with for months, who promptly gave us our Welcome Packs,  including everything we needed to know as well as festival t-shirts.  She then helped us organise the keys to our rooms.  Women and men were to have separate quarters, and I would be sharing with Linda and one other person.  The whole resort/ hotel was abuzz with activity…artists arriving from all over the world, everybody trying to get organised, media floating around, people translating.  It had a good vibe; seemed like it was going to be lots of fun!


L to R: With I Beddi (Davide, PierPaolo, Giampaolo, Mimi).
The very talented men from Galandun Galundaina.

Our room was clean, comfortable and very big.  We dumped our stuff inside and relaxed briefly, before getting ready.  There would be a series of buses to take us all back into the centre of Kuching, where we would all attend the launching ceremony and Welcome Dinner at the Sarawak Tourism Complex (on the site of the Old Courthouse Complex).  The next few days proved to be lots of fun but pretty full on too.  As far as ceremonies go, it was fairly stock-standard:  Tourism Minister comes really, really late, everyone hangs around starving and wanting to go and eat, speeches made, everyone runs out to the buffet and starts eating and socialising.  Some things are the same in every country! There was also a little taste of what was to come, with a brief performance by the Portugese band, Galandun Galundaina. Alex had been assigned this group, who all spoke excellent Spanish.  A great group of guys.  I also got to meet my band, a group of four guys from Italy, called I Beddi (or the beautiful ones). They play traditional folk/ acoustic music from Sicily. Four lovelier guys, I could not have met – they all proved to be gentlemen!  Luckily for Linda, she did not get to meet her band, Novalima from Peru, until the next day.  They proved to be difficult to deal with, rude, arrogant, wanna-be rock stars whose music, quite frankly, was not a slice above average (chichera meets house rock!  In-house joke!  He, he!) The one saving grace for that group was the excellent guitar work of the talented and polite Yuri Juarez, who was actually standing in for the group guitarist who couldn’t make it.

Giampaolo playing the harmonica.

The actual festival itself was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, which is effectively a living museum, showcasing the heritage of the major racial groups in Sarawak.  This includes replicas of their dwellings amidst 14 acres of tropical vegetation.  Once a year, however, this massive space becomes a massive stage (or two or three) and is attended by people from all over the world, who come to participate in an event that is most aptly described as culturally enlightening.  During the three-day event, people are treated to a multitude of workshops and, at night, a series of concerts.  The entire village is abuzz with excitement, activity and sounds.  Everything from local bands from Borneo to groups from afar as Africa; there is something for everyone.  It was sometimes hot, sometimes muggy, sometimes wet, but always fun!  Market stall holders, mixed with henna tattoo artists; photographers mixed with volunteers, it was terrific.  We all made lots of good friends here.

Dressed up in traditional clothes at the festival.

Different volunteers did different things, but our role, as artist liaison, was to make sure that our group was where they had to be on time as well as translating if there was the need.  The three days flew by, as we mixed helping with watching concerts and performances where we could.  All of our meals were included, and we were given coupons for buffet lunches and dinners.  On two of the three nights it rained so hard that I thought that the entire village was going to slide away, but rain or no rain, people were out there jammin’ (and getting drenched) to the groove.

Ombi, Alex and Linda with I Beddi, from Sicily!

Time off?  Yeh, there was some of that.  I did not get to see lots of either Alex or Linda during these days, as we were all off doing stuff with our own band, but when I did have time off, I was hanging with the boys from my band, Davide, Mimi, Giampaolo and Pier Paolo.  I truly hit the jackpot with these guys – they were talented, intelligent, interesting, fun, and included me in everything.  We hit the pool together a few times and chatted whilst swimming and sun-baking (probably my other addiction apart from travelling).

Many of the artists jamming at the hotel.

Apart from the festival itself, on many nights,  members from the various bands would come back and jam at the hotel, staying up until the early hours of the morning – this had a totally different vibe from the festival, as it was more intimate.  Having said that, there were some huge egos amongst some of those performers…

And just as it had begun, it was time for it to end.  The day after the last day of the festival was again a day full of activity, as the various performers, photographers, volunteers etc packed up and left, one by one, group by group, and person by person.  We stayed until one of the last buses took a group of performers to the airport (so we could hitch a ride).  When the Italian group left, we were all crying – a real friendship had been forged between the five of us.  They all looked out of the bus window, and I waited outside waving, with them waving back.  When the bus finally took off, I ran waving after it with tears in my eyes.  I will see those guys again!  I told them that!

Some of the performers.

Before we knew it, we were on an Air Asia flight to Penang.  Well, that is actually a lie!   The flight arrival time was changed something like four times in the space of the few hours whilst we were at the airport waiting to board the original flight.  We were already meant to be arriving late enough but ended up doing so after midnight.  We frantically combed the internet for accommodation, as rocking up in central Penang at 2.00am looking for a place to stay did not seem at all appealing to any of us!  The hotels were either booked up, too far out, too expensive or too something else!  We finally found a place, right in the centre, called the Oriental Hotel.  It looked OK on-line and so we called up to make a booking.  We were told that whilst no bookings were accepted (we should have heard the warning bells then!), that we should just rock upon arrival, and that space shouldn’t be a problem.  Couldn’t be that bad, or could it?  Desperate people do desperate things!


What am I reading?

Dedication: I want to dedicate this blog to the four beautiful ones from I Beddi: Davide, Mimi, Giampaolo and Pierpaolo.  You were an absolute pleasure to be around and I will always remember you fondly.  Davide, you made me laugh so much; Mimi, tranquil, down to earth and with amazing insight; Pier Paolo, I loved our discussions on the meaning of life; and Giampaolo, so sweet…it was with such warmth and integrity that you would show me with love the pictures of your children.  You all hold a special place in my heart, and I know that I will see you all again someday.

Dedicazione: Voglio dedicare questo blog ai quattro “belli” del gruppo, I Beddi: Davide, Mimi, Pier Paolo e Giampaolo.  Eravate un piacere di avere intorno e vi ricordero’ sempre con molto simpatia.  Davide, mi hai fatto ridere tanto (diciamo, che mi hai fatto pisciare sotto); Mimi, tranquillo, molto alla mano e con tanta perspicacia; Pier Paolo, mi hanno piaciuto i nostri discorsi a riguardo il significato della vita; e Giampaolo, cosi dolce…era con tanto calore e integrita che mi mostravi con amore le fotografie dei tuoi bambini.  Ognuno di voi avete un posto speciale nel mio cuore, e lo so che un giorno ci rivedremo.
“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies” – Aristotle.


A couple looking over the bridge – Kuching.
Closing night, with Giampaolo and PierPaolo (I Beddi).
Traditional painting, Borneo.


With Peggy, Randy and I Beddi.
Closing ceremony ‘mud slide’; infront of stage, in the pouring rain!



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Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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