Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 153. I find the trail of Cheng Ho

The day started with a fine boat ride in the morning mist, to try to spot the elusive Orang-Utan. I think they must have a trained one, because in the last moment, when all hope was lost, we saw a female lazily hanging over her nest. I am delighted :) I also saw a crocodile, but he was in the water like a flash. Didn’t get to see the famous Borneo pigmy elephant (only 3 m tall at the withers), because it is now in the far side of its migration loop. Elephants are a problem for the farmers, and the current management technique is to scare them away with noise or chili pepper “bombs” (a plastic bag filled with a mix of water and chili pepper is burst against the flanks of the elephant, and since this animal has sensitive skin—just like Mexicans—he turns around a flees).

By the time I got home from my jungle adventure I was stinky, hot, and tired. A bath (a simple bucket with water, since the family doesn’t have a shower), and a hearty breakfast of noodles, eggs and coffee restored me to life, however, and an hour later I met with my trusty Jeffrey to go visit the “cave with the graves”.

Less that one kilometer away from the Kinabatangan River (which in retrospect means the Batangan River of the Chinese) rises a small limestone hillock, and within it are two small caves. What is interesting about these caves is that in them were found something like 20 wooden sarcophagi. Unfortunately you don’t get to see pictures of them, because the site is under the protection of the Department of Antiquities, which forbids photography in its sites. Anyway, there are no inscriptions that I know of, but according to the posted sign the sarcophagi are a little under 600 years old, which would put them in the early 1400’s, at about the time Cheng Ho and the Treasure Fleet were establishing trading relations with the peoples of the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits, and the Indian Ocean. Together with the name of the river, and the facts that this is the largest river in the region and is navigable, this has lead to believe that a Chinese trading post was established in the neighborhood, and that the sarcophagi belonged to the elite of this settlement. Locals are convinced that this is also the point at which Islam was introduced to Borneo (remember Cheng Ho was a Muslim).

To prove the great value of the river, a timber raft just went by, under the disapproving eyes of the eco-tourists. Of course, timber is the main construction material through the small towns of Malaysia, and the jungle woods are hardy and will not rot under the humid weather (witness to this are the 600 year-old sarcophagi, which have survived intact inside a damp cave), so they are a valuable resource. Furthermore, these were clearly not company-logged trees, but rather the work of individual lumber men, who either sold to the boat that would drag them to the sawmill, or have formed a cooperative to take their merchandise to the sawmill.

Not counting marvelously generous meals, the last event of my stay at Mangaris was a cultural performance with traditional music and traditional dance. I recognized our guide of the jungle camping among the dancers, so I am very favorably impressed by the concerted effort made by every member of the village to provide a program that is interesting to their visitors. The dancing was beautiful, and at the end they had a rousing dance in which we all took part. It was a great finale to a wonderful couple of days!

Just in case I forget to mention it later, let me recommend Malaysia (both the peninsula and Borneo) as a destination for anyone wanting to do a discovery trip. The country is beautiful and has a balanced mix of development and natural attractions, hotels and beaches are to be found for all budgets, it is cheap in comparison with the US or Europe, the food is tasty, and the people are fantabulous!

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