When I first moved to Hong Kong in the summer of 2009, I joined a small group at an international church, The Vine Christian Fellowship, now simply The Vine Church. In the months and years that followed, we became family and a much needed support network in a new city. Our composition was diverse and littered with hyphens and multiple identities – Chinese, Hong Konger, Canadian, American, Korean, Malaysian, British, Taiwanese, and Singaporean. We did everything together, including travel, and many of them have appeared in earlier writings. In the years since, almost half of our community have moved away from Hong Kong, and the webs of our friendship now extend from Hong Kong to Vancouver, New York, Tokyo, and Sydney.
Shing, a young Chinese-Malaysian who had moved to Hong Kong to volunteer for a year at a local orphanage, was one of those who had departed our neon shores – first for Malaysia and home, then New Zealand for school. In the spring of 2014, she invited us to her wedding festivities in her hometown of Kuching, in East Malaysia (she had invited us to an earlier wedding ceremony in New Zealand as well, but we were unable to make that one). Besides Ashley and myself, the other travelers would be Derek, Cora, Will, Alex, and Vikki, a group of friends with a wealth of shared travel experiences (Nepal 2010, Vietnam 2011, Malaysia 2011, Shanghai 2011, Seoul 2012, Taiwan 2013, Ho Chi Minh 2013, Switzerland 2013, Gemany 2013, Austria 2013, France 2013). Also joining us would be Grace, a Singaporean-Hong Konger, and Jessie, a Malaysian-American based out of Singapore who had been a part of our small group in Hong Kong while on secondment a few years back. After some unfortunate airport miscommunication that resulted in Will’s luggage being left behind at the Departures Hall, and a quick and tasty layover in Kuala Lumpur, we finally touched down on the tarmac of Kuching International Airport, emerging into the steamy jungles of exotic Borneo.
Kuching is the largest city in East Malaysia, a collection of Malaysian states along the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Separated from the more densely populated and Malay-dominated Malaysian Peninsula by the South China Sea, the resource-rich East Malaysia has a diverse demographic landscape scattered throughout its lowland jungles and mountainous rain forests. The westernmost of the East Malaysian states, Sarawak, is where Kuching is located, and it has been the regional capital since the reign of the White Rajahs in the 19th and 20th centuries. We walked through its downtown streets on our first day in the tropical city, the low two and three-story shophouses, with the familiar five foot way indentations on the ground floor, a callback to the colonial architecture I’ve noticed in Singapore and West Malaysia. There was a sleepy feel to the town, a languid atmosphere that belied its population of over 300,000.
That night, we met up with Shing and her new husband, Ivan, a fellow Chinese-Malaysian but based out of Sydney, Australia; her friend Beatrix, who we had met when she had visited Shing in Hong Kong; and some of Shing’s cousins at a hawker market for dinner. It was good to catch up with an old friend and dine on the fresh flavours of southeast Asian street cuisine again. I have a lot of love for food from this part of the world, though Sarawak has some unique twists and flavours that set it apart from West Malaysia and Singapore. After our stomachs had been filled to bursting, we hung out at our nearby hotel for a bit, letting the food vapours dissipate from our slack bodies, but we couldn’t stay up and chat for too long. The next morning, we’d be getting up bright and early to do some jungle kayaking on the Semadang River.
We booked our kayaking trip through Semadang Kayak, a local outfit that organizes and leads adventure tours on the inland rivers and jungle paths south of Kuching. Semadang is what the locals call a particular stretch of the Upper Sarawak River, about an hour’s drive into the rain forest. When we arrived, we got some basic safety instructions before pairing off into our two-person kayaks – Ashley and I, Alex and Vikki, Will and Grace, and Derek and Cora. We had a fairly easy go of it in the beginning, all of us having a decent amount of kayaking experience around the beaches and inlets of Hong Kong. The lush tropical vegetation steamed in the early morning sun, and the stillness of the jungle was broken only by the light splashes of our paddles.
After a few bends in the river, our guides directed us to one side of the waterway, where we beached our kayaks and followed a sluggish brook upstream into the jungle. After a ten minute hike, the path ended in a waterfall, and the guides helped us climb up the slippery stone cliff to the summit. We took a few pictures together at the top, and then we were on our way, stepping into our kayaks to continue our journey down the Semadang.
We stopped for a quick lunch in a small village, paddling ourselves over to a small sandbar and pulling our kayaks out of the water. It was a simple meal of chicken, rice, fresh greens, and a local pastry prepared by the the kayaking company. Then, it was back onto the Semadang, our kayaks gently being pushed downstream by the steady current. The river is quite wide throughout, and we often gathered together to hang out and talk. At other times, we drifted apart, content with the company of our kayaking partners. Thus far, we hadn’t encountered any rough waters, but the guides indicated that there would be a small patch some time after lunch, which roused our lazy spirits a bit.
The rapids were not quite so rapid after all, and it was over within seconds. So we resumed our riverine crawl, the day’s humidity increasing as we drifted beneath the jungle canopy. When it retreated, the views beyond the river’s edge were breathtaking, as distant peaks draped in vines and lush plant life cast their deep shadows across the muddy waters.
Near the end of the journey, the guides had us pull up on a beach and then swim out across the river towards a small cave. One of them showed us some of the small life forms that survive in such pockets of still water in the jungle, and then we swam around in the river for a while. The current here was quite strong, and, if you didn’t pay attention, it was swift enough to pick you up and carry you around the river bend. As we slipped back into our kayaks, we passed more prehistoric landscapes, the weight of the jungle atmosphere felt in every breath. We arrived back at the Semadang Kayak grounds in the late afternoon after a full, and fulfilling, day on the Upper Sarawak. I can’t say this was the most exciting way to spend a day, but I appreciated the opportunity to pass through a living, breathing, jungle with minimal effort.