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A Jungle Feast in Borneo


A tour in deepest Borneo sends diners gliding through seldom-seen waterways in pursuit of wild edibles and adventure. By MARCO FERRARESE. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Jan 31, 2017


"WELCOME TO OUR SUPERMARKET," says Jim, one of our three Bidayuh guides, as he balances on the tip of our bamboo raft. He's using a long pole to steer us out of the current and towards an alluring rocky beach framed by jungle. Our journey to this remote corner of Borneo's rain forest started at Kampung Peraya, a tiny ethnic Bidayuh village an hour's drive southeast of Sarawak's capital Kuching, where we embarked on a winding river voyage. Before we can ask Jim what he means, the two other Bidayuh guides are already wading waist-deep towards the thicket that extends beyond the river bend.

Bamboo raft
Just around the river bend.

 

"They are going to collect ferns and greens for your lunch," Jim clarifies, while helping us out of our padded chairs. Careful not to capsize our narrow vessel, we ease onto the shore. We are taken aback, not by the wild plants on today's menu, but by the seductive sight of weathered boulders and a natural pool shrouded by a crescent of forest in front of us—an unbeatable location for a meal prepared with century-old methods.

The Bidayuh riverside lunch is the climax of a river rafting day tour launched in 2016 by Kuching's Batik Boutique Hotel (doubles from RM280) to help guests get a real taste of Sarawak's nature and tribal culture. "Most travelers don't have the time to reach distant longhouses," says the hotel's founder and owner Jacqueline Fong, so she designed this tour. "From the raft ride to the lunch extravaganza, it packs all the thrills that travelers expect from Borneo's rain forest into a day."

Jungle Trek
A junkle trek.

Our river journey certainly lives up to her promises. At times, the canopy above our heads is so dense that it feels like we're cruising through an emerald tunnel. Birds chirp and monkeys chatter from perches unseen in the greenery.

In order to give guests the most authentic experience, Batik Boutique Hotel teamed up with former Bidayuh nature tourist guide Valentine "Val" Ritong and his Peraya Homestay (rafting tour RM350 per person), set riverside next to the jungle. Val hoped that by arranging this most unusual of meals, he could put his village on the map. "The forest is our first source of livelihood, exactly like supermarkets are for city people," he explains. "I want my guests to be amazed by the power of our jungle."

Peraya Homestay
Traditional bamboo architecture at Peraya Homestay.

That's why Val's well-trained Bidayuh guides set off into the dense undergrowth to forage for edibles, a tribal skill passed down by generations of hunter-gatherers. Even the cooking tools that Jim is setting up around the campfire are not carried along from the village, but carved out of bamboo shoots on the spot with a parang, the Malaysian machete. With a silent smile, Jim hands me a warm, green cup made with the severed end of a bamboo pole. The tea has an irresistible, wild aroma that seeps directly from the bark.

With expert technique, Jim and the other two guides, who have just returned to the beach with hands full of ferns, continue cutting bamboo shoots in half. They fill them with rice, durian and chicken from the village, and then place them next to the fire to cook. The rest of the meat sizzles away on grills over the flames. While the tribal chefs keep busy, we plunge into the natural pool and float in inner tubes, a peaceful reprieve from the rapids gurgling nearby.

็Hewn Bamboo
Cooking with freshly hewn bamboo.

Lunch is served on the raft itself, placed inside traditional Bidayuh wooden baskets. Seated under the canopy, with the stream sloshing at our right, we dive into the bold, primal flavors of Sarawak's tribal cuisine. Barbecued chicken in a savory fermented durian sauce and grilled pork pile up on our plates. Pinches of bamboo-steamed sticky rice offer a neutral foil for the grassy, wild taste of the forest ferns. The dishes are rustic, but in this setting our unfancy fare could hold its own against the finest degustation. Val was right: the jungle really does have the power to amaze... especially the tastebuds.

 

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Just around the river bend.
  • Wild taste of the forest ferns.
  • Lunch is served in traditional Bidayuh wooden baskets.

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