Aboard the #KuchingExpress ~ Rainforest Fringe Fest 2017!
So there we were - Batik&Bubbles - but this time with brand new bebe + a hubby in tow, perched at the Air Asia KLIA2 gate. A distinct undercurrent of excitement bounced off us, as it became apparent that along with a few familiar faces came a whole host of interesting Malaysian personalities that formed the #KL50 - All of us on the #KuchingExpress bound straight for Sarawak!
Sarawak is located on the Island of Borneo and together with Sabah comprises what is collectively termed as "East Malaysia". As we touched down, we were greeted by friendly immigration staff; normally one isn't require to go through immigration from state to state but Sarawak along with Sabah and Labuan are unique exceptions.
Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in the early 1960s after Malaysia gained its independence in 1957, well after it was originally formed as a Kingdom under the rule of the "White Rajahs'.
The White Rajahs was a dynastic monarchy stemming from an English family - The Brookes - in the mid 1800s, which was later followed by British protectorate status, and subsequently self-governingship.
All this serves as interesting historical footnotes in the development of Sarawak's national and later, state identity, but belies the most fascinating aspect, which are the rich tribal cultures and heritages that exist up till now within Sarawak.
It's these aspects which interest us the most - a chance, and truthfully only a small tiny taste - to discover more about the arts, culture and craftsmanship emanating from the different tribal groups that have long populated the jungles, highlands, and coasts of Sarawak.
The Fringe Fest is a small arts feast for those who hunger to expand their appreciation beyond the musical scene; it's the opportunity to uncover local artists, craftsmen and women, academics, chefs, and yes also local musicians and dancers!
To commemorate the 20th year anniversary of the World Music festival, this new 10 day arts and culture festival is the perfect lead up to a particularly remarkable musical celebration.
If arts and culture are at the heart of the Rainforest Fringe, then the epicentre is the Old Court House just besides the Kuching Waterfront.
Built in the early 1870s, the white colonial style Court House served as the perfect backdrop against a verdant inner courtyard around which galleries, cafes and an auditorium reside. One would be hard pressed to find a more perfect locale, particularly for those of us conveniently staying just next door at the lovely Kuching Waterfront hotel.
Upon arrival at the hotel, we mingled with the #Singapore50 fresh from their flight into Sarawak. I quickly realised that whilst there were essentially 100+ intriguing & artsy folks gathered to revel in the opening of the RFF2017, there was indeed only one baby onboard the Kuching Express!
With no time to decide whether we were brave or crazy for bringing our baby, we hopped onto waiting buses towards a "‘Harvesting the Wild’ dinner at Telung Usan Hotel that promised delicious and ingenuitive local jungle inspired dishes.
We were greeted by the lilting melodies of the Det Diet Ensemble and the Borneo Bamboo Band, as they performed indigenous Kenyah and Kadazan-Dusun songs with instruments made of gourds, wood and bamboo. These musicians are at the forefront of the preservation and dissemination of their traditional songs and instruments under the direction of Dr. Chong Per Lin and Sompoton expert Kuhim Ugat, respectively for the two bands.
Meanwhile, we were tempted by an assortment of interesting appetisers including what quickly became a group favourite - the Umai-umai; a sort of spicy Sarawakian ceviche using calamansi lime juice!
The famous Sarawakian Fiddle Head Jungle fern was of course there to tempt us; it's one of the dishes I always try to order in KL whenever I see it.
Even as we were filling up on the little bites, we could smell all these unusual scents wafting up from the buffet - where generous servings of ulam-ulam, wild venison, young banana hearts, fried tapioca leaves, grilled stingray and much more was awaiting us. Suffice to say we were thoroughly and happily fed, and fetted!
The following morning after a relaxed breakfast at the hotel, folks streamed out to the neighbouring Old Court House as the vendors for the Craft and Vintage Market finished setting up and setting out their wares.
There's something abut market days, whether they be in the South of France scented by fresh bread and lavender, or here in Kuching - folks are smiling, people are mingling and chatting with the artisans who are equally keen to share their unique products.
As the day drew on, there was a steady stream of shoppers keen to find that perfect beaded necklace or a woven bag in their favourite colours, at least I know that was part of our mini-quest!
One of the things I was most looking forward to were the talks held in the Auditorium over the weekend. Although I wanted to attend ALL of them and especially the one on rainforest plants & their healing abilities, which was unfortunately on the final weekend when we'd already departed - we did manage to attend two!
I love a good lecture; the heady combination of stimulating new subjects and charismatic speakers all brings me back to my beloved student days. So i was filled with some trepidation when Curator Anke Degenhard informed us that in lieu of her speaking, she'd let Jimmy Nelson do it in his own words via an earlier recorded video to a Dutch audience.
I needn't have worried - even over video, Jimmy Nelson was so engaging, lively and interesting that his personality and passion jumped off the screen and into the room with us! I was already a massive fan of his photojournalism style and had fallen in love with the photographs in his now famous tome; but it was an entirely different experience to get the back story of how he established rapport with the different tribes and communities he photographed, especially the very remote and sometimes hostile ones.
It made me all the more keen to head to the upcoming George Town Festival in Penang later this month to catch his stories in person!
We also caught Professor Dr. Andrew Alek Tuen who presented an interesting presentation on the famous Naturalist, Collector and Bio-Geographer Alfred Wallace.
Among other things, Wallace was best known for formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection, a law that came to be known as the 'Sarawak Law' based on his time spent there in the 1850s-60s; he collected over 126,000 specimens (overwhelmingly beetles!) for museums and collectors in England and the world over, and in all this time only one lonely beetle was formally returned to Sarawak...
Wallace's theory was published jointly together with the findings of Charles Darwin, who had been concurrently formulating his theories in the Galapagos Islands.
Wallace would later go on to write renowned The Malay Archipelago. His legacy is also evident in the "Wallace Line"; an invisible line separating the distinct eco-zones between Borneo and its neighbouring islands or more broadly between the Asian and Australasian eco-zones. This transitory zone is known quite fittingly as "Wallacea"!
Professor Andrew was quite persuasive that more needed to be done to properly preserve Wallace's legacy in Sarawak and we hope that this call to action will be heeded!
Later as the crowds thinned over lunch time, Farena & I made our way to the Other Half (OH!) immersive art installation. Shaped like a large hexagonal kaleidoscope, you entered barefoot into this vibrant immersive installation that featured jungle blooms and rainforest vibes, and theoretically, enchanting sounds to lull you deep into an jungly womb experience.
However, the two creativeprenuers behind this - Lay Hoon (also known as Arty Guava) and Sumay - were kind enough to turn the music off to make sure it wasn't too loud for my little bebe in such a small space. Luckily, they weren't the least bit miffed that our experience was slightly lessened since they both are mums to young tots as well. Check out the little clip below to learn a little about this lovely Malaysian-Singaporean duo!
There were so many interesting things to indulge and explore in at the Rainforest Fringe that I didn't expect to do much else but after seeing the gorgeous Pua Kumbu textile exhibition, I was easily tempted by the talented David Cheah to go visit the Tun Jugah Foundation.
I ended up spending hours there and probably could spend days learning about the traditional Iban craft and weaving styles! The foundation and the weaving in itself deserves its own feature so for now just a couple photos of the local weavers making the very special, unique Pua Kumbu fabrics (See our BatikandBubbles Instagram for videos I did whilst there if you're super keen!).
Do hope that I get the chance to delve further into this topic another time, on another trip to Sarawak!
Sarawak amazed us and we had just brushed the surface, even of the festival. There was still the theatrical, stunning Theatre of Clothes Fashion Gala and the Soda Kamek: Music of Sarawak, not to mention more interesting artists and exhibits to follow.
All that and more will be shared in our next article!
So for now, signing off as a wannabe Sarawakian in my Iban style hat!
- Our deepest thanks to the organisers of the Rainforest Fringe Festival and especially to Joe, Shireen, Lisa and Li-Ann for all your thoughtfulness and kindness and most of all, for including us in the #KL50!!
- And thanks to our friends & partners for this feature -