Although the affluent gas, oil and timber town of Miri on the South China Sea coast is only about an hour’s drive across the Malaysian border from Bandar Seri Begawan, it takes about four hours to get there by bus from the Brunei capital.
That’s how things work in this part of Borneo: leisurely. The bus ride included stopping for lunch in Seria, a small town in western Brunei, whose name comes from the river located nearby where oil was first discovered in 1929. I didn’t find any oil, but I did locate an iced coffee and a char siu pau (roast pork bun).
This is thematically significant, because eating was a big part of visiting Miri. Eating, being introduced to the British/US co-production Downton Abbey, and losing an earring at a performance by the Miri Youth Chinese Orchestra Company.
The bus, meanwhile, continued to meander around some Bruneian back roads, and we rumbled past a giant teapot on a roundabout in the town of Kuala Belait. Apparently this was erected to celebrate the Sultan of Brunei’s 55th birthday. Seeing as they don’t sell alcohol in this country, obviously a giant champagne flute or a glass of beer would be inappropriate and rather silly.
Arriving in Miri I sat on a patch of lawn by a supermarket until my lovely host Paul (found through CouchSurfing) collected me. Judging by the number of stares I received, my bags and I were the most compelling items to hit that neighbourhood in a while. One dude cruised by, mouth open, then made a face like a grumpy jellyfish, so I assumed this was my man, but he was just a random guy checking me out and exercising his facial muscles.
Miri is a quiet town, though it is the second largest city in the state of Sarawak, with a population of about 300,000. Shell built Malaysia’s first oil refinery in a Miri suburb in 1914 and there is a petroleum museum perched on a hill with a view of Miri’s elongated skyline.
There are national parks to visit, including the Gunung Mulu National Park, which is a 30-minute flight away. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular eco-tourism destination, this park is home to the largest known enclosed space in the world, the Sarawak Chamber. I saw enough caves in Laos to last me a lifetime, and I tramped through the rainforest in Brunei, so I allowed Paul to show me what urban Miri has to offer instead.
‘Most people come here to relax,’ said Paul, who has a large DVD collection. He insisted that I forsake plans to catch up with the fourth series of Gossip Girl (‘Nothing happens! Well OK, Blair meets Prince Louis, but we don’t like him that much.’) Instead I was coerced to drool over Maggie Smith pursing her lips around Downton Abbey to ignite fresh, unrequited televisual desires.
But enough of TV, let’s move onto consumption. A number of tribes live on Borneo and Paul introduced me to Kelabit food. The Kelabit tribe are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak and historically the community inhabited the Kelabit Highlands.
Labo belatuh (smoked meat) is traditional Kelabit fare, and wild boar and venison is often salted and smoked over an open fire. The meat is later boiled and pounded into small strips, to be eaten with rice.
A more colorful specialty of this region is Kek Lapis Sarawak – vibrant layer cake eaten at special occasions – with intricate patterns and featuring a variety of flavors such as cinnamon (Paul’s favorite), various fruity ingredients, mint and chocolate.
Then Paul and his equally charming housemate Frankie took me to Beach Republic, a cafe, bar and pool located at Luak Bay, a short drive out of town. We didn’t go anywhere near the beach (too hot) but sat upstairs near a gaggle of boys on computers who had their backs to the sand. We drank imported cider and scoffed down pork buns and egg tarts that Frankie had purchased on the way. The bathroom was impressively clean, quite stylish and reasonably dry. I like a dry bathroom, but outside pricey hotels, they are not easy to find in Asia.
Returning to Miri for yet another meal, we dropped into Citrus Cafe on Jalan Sylvia, where the menu offers mystifying treats such as Cheesy Wigglie Sausage, Doggie Bolognaise and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Sausage. We decided combining vegetables of any kind with waffles is just plain wrong, but putting honey butter on them is fine and that went down very easily with an iced mocha.
In Ming Cafe I gave the waiter a panic attack by asking for an iced latte – in the end he brought me a normal (fairly average) coffee with a cup of ice on the side. I don’t have many vices left, but in this climate, iced coffee is one of them, and I will not be thwarted.
As northern Borneo is about 4 degrees north of the Equator, it is quite warm here. Mirians, however, love their air conditioning nearly as much as the Bruneians do. We attended the concert by the Miri youth orchestra, which is in part managed by Paul and Frankie’s friend Jay. We nag him about promotion (‘Where is your facebook page? When are you going to get sponsorship from Shell?) and terrify the gentle creature.
The young musicians however applied themselves to what could only be described as music of high melodrama with admirable skill. According to the Symphony of Season, the orchestra had an abysmal summer and a tragic autumn, but they found oil in winter and things perked up. I nearly froze to death in the Imperial Hotel’s Grand Ballroom and nearly had a tragic wintry episode myself as the cooling units went into overdrive.
Sleeping on Paul’s sitting room floor buffered by a pile of cushions, there is no chance of anything freezing – I’m edging back to hot’n'itchy territory again and the fan’s gentle breeze is very welcome.
The morning I leave, we have a plan which involves getting up at a reasonable time, but Paul, being a anesthetist, is summoned by an irritating surgeon with no respect for slumber. Paul wakes me at 6.10am and says we have to go to the hospital now.
‘The sun rises very early here,’ mutters Paul tersely. ‘The children start school at 6.30am.’
‘Why?’ I moan. ‘It’s just too early.’
Too early for us it may be, but everyone else is up and causing traffic jams.
We shuffle into the clinic and Paul points at a stumpy sofa. ‘You can have a nap there, or sleep in the other operating theatre.’ He warns me if I turn off the light in the operating theatre, it will be pitch black. Fine by me. When it comes to sleeping, a dark place is a good place as far as I’m concerned.
The operating table is fine, if a little narrow, the only negative is the temperature: it’s even colder than the Imperial Hotel and I’m not trying to stay awake now. I doze fitfully under something used to cover some large chunk of machinery vital to maintaining life during surgery, until Paul has finished, then he gets changed and we get in the car to go and find breakfast.
As he starts the engine, the phone rings. Now the surgeon has decided to do a Caesar. Just like Al Pacino in The Godfather part three, Paul is pulled back in and he’s not happy. Both of us are irritated by the surgeon by this point, but at least Paul can vent his rage by charging more. I amble off to eat chicken dumplings and ask staff at the hotel about my lost (worthless) jewellery. They don’t find it, but they are very nice about at least pretending to look for it.
Leaving Miri, I appear a little asymmetrical, am thinking about English country houses, and have some new experiences to baffle my friends with. A little weary, nonetheless it’s been an excellent weekend. Kulvinder, the third housemate in Paul’s household, took pity on me and found the Gossip Girl DVDs. And let me use the washing machine. Thank you, I will be back, as I have ten GG episodes to go.