Day 210: A visit to the jungle supermarket

After flying out of Japan I had a short stop-over in Kuala Lumpur, before heading to Borneo. This island – which is partially Malaysian (Sarawak and Sabah), partially Indonesian (Kalimantan) and also contains the small sultanate of Brunei – had been on my mind since talking to the lovely Chris on my Galapagos trip. Based on her descriptions and the information I got out of the guidebooks, Borneo must be one big adventure park filled with jungle, animals and surrounded by marine life. My kind of place. I flew in to Kuching in Sarawak and I am on my way up to Kota Kinabula in Sabah. Before flying back to Singapore from there, I’m planning to do some decent jungle trekking, adventure caving, maybe climb a mountain on the way and dive at one of the world’s best diving spots.

My adventure starts in the Kelabit Highlands, a remote area up in the Sarawak region. From the provincial town of Miri, I took a small aeroplane to reach Bario. There were only three people taking the plane, myself and two people who later would turn out to be my hosts. Although it was pleasant to have the plane almost to myself, the views outside were rather frightening. Soon after taking off from Miri, I could see the endless view of palm oil plantations and the logging roads cutting through whatever forest that was remaining. What once had been a pristine rainforest, now had been cut or burnt down and replaced by endless rows of palm trees. Clearly this is a profitable business for Malaysia and some of its inhabitants, however the environmental damage seems to be high.

Upon arrival in Bario, I had to sign in and found out that only four other people had signed in earlier that month. On the positive side this meant that this place was just as un-touristy as I was hoping for, on the negative side it meant that it would be impossible to find any other tourists to share a guide with for a big trek. Instead of staying in Bario an already remote village of 800 people, I decided to along with Mrs. Supang and Mr. Nabun, my fellow passengers who run the Batu Ritung homestay in Pa-Lungan. This tiny village of 100 people is not yet connected by road, so we set off on a journey by jeep, then by boat and finally a one hour walk to get at their place. It might be quite an effort to get here, but it is surely wearth it. Surrounded by lush green hills, I had found maybe the most peaceful location of my trip up until now. They are planning to build a road connection in a couple of years, cell phone signal only reached this place a couple of months ago and for internet connection you have to walk all the way back to Bario.


Pa'Lungan skyline


As a consequence these people also do not have a regular supermarket available, instead they go to the ‘jungle supermarket’. Being a foodie myself, I decided to go and figure out what this meant.

The fruits and vegetables department.

When I woke up the following morning Mr. Nabun invited me to go along for a visit to his part of the jungle supermarket. During a three hour walk out of the village we went looking for the ingredients required to prepare dinner. While I was just looking at all the green vegetation and could not distinguish edible from poisonous, the trained eye of Nabun showed me all the richness the jungle has to offer. Along our walk we picked up wild river ferns, wild asparagus, wild ginger roots and flowers, mushrooms, wild spinach, British yem, wild strawberries and sour mangosteen. A short stop in their little garden also got us some beans, peppers and pineapple; all the ingredients that Supang needed to make us a delicious dinner.


Clockwise: British yem, mushrooms, spinach, long beans, ginger flower, asparagus, ginger.


We also walked along the rice fields for which the area is famous. Claiming to produce the best rice of Asia (and thus the world) every family here owns some patches of paty-fields, where they grow their own rice. After collecting the paty (raw rice product) in January, they send this to the local mill to get the pure white high quality rice. While most of it stays in the village for own usage, some gets flown out to Miri where it is sold for 10 ringit per kilo or Europe where it is sold for 2 euros per 100 grammes.

The meat department

The next day I had planned a trip with two overnight stays in the jungle together with two hunters. Maran and Juan are two locals who would show me how the Kelabit gathered meat from the jungle supermarket. In the jungle they mainly hunt for wild boar, deer and monkeys; especially that last part made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Ever since meeting up with Guillaume – who’s living on a pure ‘raw fruit and veg’-diet and feeling great – at the beginning of this year, I have been thinking more consciously about the food I eat. Based on mainly health and ecological motives, I’ve tried eating healthier ever since. This means less pre-prepared foods, more fruit and vegetables and finally less meat. During this trip it hasn’t always been easy to maintain such a lifestyle, but I did my best whenever possible. So how does this ruthless killing of animals fit in? It took me a while to figure out, but in the end it seemed logical. These animals live in the jungle where they are not fed highly water- and energy-consuming animal food (ecologically okay), they only eat natural food without any additives (healthy okay) and they live a pretty happy life before getting shot (ethically okay as well). And since locals survive based on these skills, I did not want to be a snubby tourist who’s belittling their way of living. Thus we set off …


Three hunters


The first day we spend six hours walking through the jungle, stopping at various times to try and lure barking deer. This deer variation is typical for Borneo and hunters try to get them closer by whistling on some leaves. When the wind is coming from the right direction, the deer would not smell us and interpret this as a sign of distress of young deer. When it comes to the rescue, the hunter then can easily shoot it. Although it all seemed pretty simple, we didn’t see any deer before we were setting up camp. This by itself however was a great experience, within 30 minutes these men made a pretty luxurious camp spot with what nature provided them and the two tarps they had brought along.

Our accommodation

While we had not seen any deer yet, there were plenty of leeches to go around. Rainy season for the leeches of the Kelabit is what tourist season is for ladyboys in the dodgier areas of Thai beach towns. There are heaps of them around, they will cling on to you with all their power and are only happy when they have sucked you dry.




Trying to prevent the latter I was picking the leeches from my socks, when we decided to go for a final attempt at hunting before night fall. All of the sudden we were luckier, as a barking deer (or Red Common Muntjac) was answering our call and walked in to the sight of the hunter. As he pulled the trigger the deer got hit by a load of hail in the rear limb. Fazed but not deadly hit yet, the deer came back to its senses and tried to flee away. This was the start of a half an hour pursuit in which the deer kept sprinting away whenever it got in sight. Finally a second bullet got fired and the deer was no more.


Barking deer


After carrying it back to camp, they removed the intestines of the deer and cut it up in different pieces. The liver and lungs were put in a little stew for that night’s dinner while the rest was being smoked so it could be conserved longer. During dinner the hunters, happy with today’s catch, were hoping to shoot another deer the following day. A short night sleep and a collection of insect bites richer, we set off the following morning for our second day of hunting. We were not very successful, but did run into the Malaysian army who were hunting here as well. They considered it a good practice as well as a welcome addition to the army food. For the second night we set camp up in a deserted Penan (nomadic hunting tribe) village, that now was being used as a hunters’ shelter.

The following day we returned to the peaceful little village of Pa’Lungan. While the remainders of our hunting trip we’re turned into a delicious highland curry, I had some more time to ponder about the food we eat and the ways in which we get it.

Up to a new adventure now, Gunung Mulu national park is awaiting me,

Take care and eat well,


PS: For more pictures click here.

PPS: The consultant in me got the better of me, so I delved a bit further in my expenses (as described in the previous post) and came up with the following lovely table:

PPPS: A big advantage of this trip is that I’ve been reading much more than I’d done in the last couple of years. As a backpacker you’re always dependent on what you can find in the book exchange of the hostels you’re passing by. But sometimes you get lucky and stumble on something really interesting. In this specific case I picked up “The world is flat” by Thomas Friedman, one of the world’s better    economical journalists. Although it’s a little bit outdated (it was published in 2005), I was really eager to work my way through this 469 page long masterpiece on globalization in the early twenty-first century. At times it made me anxious about the world we’re evolving in to and the competition we’ll be facing. But it also gave me inspiration to try and be the very best in whatever I’ll be attempting in my career.

At one point it also made me think about the Belgian political situation and how bad this is influencing our country’s position as well as our personal wealth fare. Friedman writes about how countries can adopt to globalization by doing ‘reform retail’:

“It involves looking at four key aspects of your society – infrastructure, regulatory institutions, education, and culture – and upgrading each one to remove as many frictions as possible. The idea of reform retail is to enable  the greatest number of your people to have the best legal and institutional framework  within which to innovate, start companies, and become attractive partners for those who want to collaborate with them from elsewhere in the world.”

Further on he writes about the political leadership needed to establish this:

“I think the real issue is leadership. There are democracies that are blessed with leaders who are able to make the sale and get their people focused on reform retail – Margaret Thatcher in England comes to mind – and there are democracies that drift for a long time without biting the bullet – modern Germany, for example.”

Based on the information I’m getting here about the situation in Belgium, it seems to me that we’re firmly entrenched in the latter group. This is also how a lot of other travellers I ran into perceive Belgium and it doesn’t look like a good position to be into.