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Beyond Singapore.

Borneo's wad men, head hunters' village, the ancient Bataks . . . Southeast Asian adventures out of Singapore are easy to arrange

Few names on a schoolbook page can conjure more exotic images than those in the chapters on sultry Southeast Asia. If the passing years have left your curiosity undulled, you'll find it's never been easier to explore fantastic tales of cannibals roaming Sumatra's volcanic heights; of headhunters and white rajahs in Borneo; of spices and silver, perfumes and pearls in the fabled trading port of Melaka (known in those bygone schoolbooks as Malacca).

With better air service throughout the area, access is no longer a barrier to adventure, Singapore, the region's air hub and commercial center, is the easiest jumping-off point. Our map shows its location in relation to the four destinations we describe on these pages.

Whether you want to make a day trip to the cultural crossroads of Melaka, an overnight visit to a head-hunters' longhouse, a jungle flight to an orang-utan sanctuary, or a cruise to tribal villages on the shores of Southeast Asia's largest lake, it's best to start with expert travel planning advice. The tourist offices of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia will refer you to tour agencies for itincrary and reservation help (see page 87). The best time to travel in the region is during the dry season, April through October.

Lake Toba: the Batak heartland in Sumatra's highlands

Garuda and Singapore airlines make the 1-hour flight ($260 round trip) to Medan, gateway to the volcanic crater of Lake Toba and one of Indonesia's oldest civilizations. Two- to four-day guided itineraries (from $100) highlight the culture and history of the Bataks, descended from Malay tribes who fled the Mongol hordes before 1000 B.C.

The roads that wind the 100-odd miles up to the lake reveal dense tropical forest, rice paddies, and plantations devoted to rubber, palm oil, tobacco, cacao, coffee, and tea. You pass Batak communal longhouses on stilts with soaring peaked roofs of heavy palm thatch. Through pine forest the 50-mile-long lake emerges at 3,000 feet, backdropped by receding peaks of the island's volcanic spine.

At Prapat, the main lakeside town, simple accommodations range from wood-paneIed bungalows to multistory modern hotels. Restaurant fare includes Indonesian, Chinese, and Western-style dishes. At the lake's edge, you can sip tuak (palm wine) and listen to the sentimental folk songs of the Bataks, known for their strong melodic voices. Poke in Prapat's shops for old native-made vessels and boxes of handworked bamboo, brass, and bone. Weavers sell new work in traditional Batak colors-red, black, and white.

A 30-minute cruise across the lake is Samosir Island (slightly larger than Singapore), with its famous well-preserved Batak villages. Most natives speak a little English. At Tomok, a path under giant banyan trees leads to the stone sarcophagi of ancient Batak kings; nearby, 3-foot stone figures depict a rain ceremony, complete with a sacrificial water buffalo. At Ambarita, rough stone chairs and tables formed an open-air courtroom where enemies were tried and sentenced to immediate death. (Until 1914, kings and courtiers drank the blood and ate the flesh of the decapitated.)

An unusually fine row of houses and rice barns at Simanindo amounts to an openair museum; you can visit one house up a wooden ladder. Resident Bataks may want money to be photographed.

Melaka: relies of four cultures in an old trading crossroads

Tour desks in Singapore hotels can arrange for you to join a long day or overnight guided trip to Melaka in a van for up to 15 passengers ($50 to $90 each). With stops, it's about a 4-hour drive through green jungle and rubber and palm oil plantations the tree trunks sprouting ferns and bromeliads.

Settled by the Chinese in the 15th century and inhabited subsequently by the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641, and finally the British in 1824, Melaka retains traces of all four groups. Descendants of the Chinese who've lived here for centuries are called Straits Chinese or Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women). Their distinctive style of cooking Malay and Indonesian ingredients, with such Chinese additions as pork, soy sauce, and mushrooms is also called Nyonya. Guides usually have you try Nyonya restaurants. Across the Melaka River from the square fronting Christ Church, walk along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock to see the "millionaires' row" of Baba-Nyonya houses, with their shuttered facades and floral-inspired tile designs.

Don't miss the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum at number 50 (nominal admission); this century-old house has the typically deep front-to-back arrangement of living spaces, starting with a family altar and open-roofed courtyard, then passing through a living room and dining area to another open courtyard, and then into the kitchen. You'll see elaborate carved and gilded woodwork, lacquer and inlaid mother-of-pearl furniture, Chinese and Dutch porcelains.

Around the main square, the bright red 17th-century Dutch town hall (Stadhuys) is matched by a newer post office and clock tower. The only Portuguese relic is the Porta de Santiago, part of the old fort.

Though Melaka has lost its commanding position on the shipping route to the Far East, the waters of the port are busy with small craft. You can watch their activity from Gluttons' Corner's waterfront food stalls (satay is a specialty).

Behind the stalls is a small market; if you find any Melaka baskets to buy, you're lucky. This local craft grasses, plain or dyed, are woven into six-sided designs-has almost disappeared. Otherwise, the stalls sell fairly conventional batiks and carvings. But if you like to bargain, do try; sellers are eager for business.

Sabah: Borneo's wild men and wild mountains

Malaysian Airline System offers 2-1/4-hour flights ($340 round trip) from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. This area could easily occupy an entire vacation, but you can sample the highlights in three days.

Targeted by the government for tourist development, the state boasts modern hotels and first-class beach resorts. And just offshore, the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park beckon snorkelers and divers to reefs that include rare red and white coral species.

Fresh-caught seafood, usually grilled, is a menu mainstay. Other choices run to curries, satay, and Chinese and Indian dishes. At one breakfast, we received turtle eggs: small globes like dented ping-pong balls, with a gritty, mud-flavored interior-only for the adventurous.

From Kota Kinabalu, two excursions are very popular. A day trip ($170) includes a 40-minute flight over virgin jungle to Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary Exhibits explain the rehabilitation of this endangered ape (the so-called wild man of Borneo). On preserve pathways, you hear a steady din of clicks, chirps, trills, buzzes, and squeals from jungle fauna. Sun filters through a towering canopy of trees draped and entwined with fat vines. You can watch orphan baby orangs learn to climb and swing; when self-sufficient, they are released back into the wild.

Two hours' drive east of Kota Kinabalu, the craggy massif of 13,431-foot Mount Kinabalu is the focus of many tours (from $70). Hotels, cabins, and campgrounds offer bases for exploring terrain ranging from tropical rain forest to bare granite. The national park's botanically famous flora include more than 1,000 orchid species, 450 ferns, 40 kinds of oak, 27 rhododendrons, and a plant that bears plattersize flowers, Rafflesia.

The trek to the top and back takes three days; on your own, get permits, hut reservations, and English guidebooks at the tourist office (1 Beach Street in Kota Kinabalu). With only a day in the park, we drove to the 6,000-foot level, then hiked up the mountain's midsection and back past waterfalls, blooming rhododendrons, and conifers. In steep sections, the trail becomes a twisty staircase of tree roots and rustic wooden rails and ladders.

Sarawak-a history of head-hunters and white rajahs

From Singapore, a 90-minute flight on Malaysian Airline System ($340 round trip) will land you at Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on Borneo. Still a largely undeveloped land of jungle and rivers, it was for a century a kingdom of white rajahs. (Englishman James Brooke helped a Brunei chief quell local tribes and in return received rule of the region; the Brooke family continued to reign from 1841 to 1946.)

In a three-day visit, you can explore remnants of the colonial era and join an overnight excursion ($200) to an upriver village of the Iban tribes (they haven't hunted heads since the end of World War II). Though riverftont Kuching has a handful of high-rise hotels, its older buildings evoke scenes from Lord Jim. Still in use as government buildings are the 1870 Brooke palace and various colonial forts with crenelated parapets.

The Sarawak Museum, opened in 1891 in a building of Norman and Queen Anne styles, is one of Asia's top museums and the essential introduction to the region. Archeological and natural history exhibits display 35,000-year-old skulls and artifacts found in nearby caves in the 1950s; they also document the region's trading history (dating from the 11th century), its inland and seacoast tribes, the Brooke regimes, and Borneo's rare and endangered species.

Upriver-village trips begin with a 2- to 4hour drive through rain forest, market villages, and cacao and pepper plantations (you see men raking harvested peppercorns on straw mats to dry them evenly). Iban hosts pick up visitors in outboardpowered boats for the cruise through jungly tunnels with mossy-trunked trees meshed overhead (don't do this if having 2 inches of freeboard makes you nervous).

Ashore, villagers greet guests on straw mats in a thatch-roofed longhouse that can stretch hundreds of yards on stilts along the bank. Nowadays, some quarters sprout electric wiring and television antennas. Like clusters of coconuts, skulls blackened by smoke and time hang overhead. Elaborately tattooed Iban men dressed in loincloths, feathers, and heavy silver perform primitive dances to the music of drums and gongs, exhort guests to join them, and share swigs of rice wine. Other honorific entertainments may include pig sacrifices and cock fights.

Overnight guests sleep on mosquitonetted platforms in a communal chamber; dinner consists of rice and wok-cooked meat and vegetables. Crowing cocks, clucking chicks, and snorting pigs herald dawn and your return downriver.

For travel planning help

Especially if your schedule doesn't allow much flexibility, start your arrangement inquiries with the following offices. All area codes are 213.

Government tourist offices. Indonesia Tourist Promotion Office, 3457 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010; 387-2078 or 387-8309. Malaysian Tourist Information Center, 818 W. Seventh St., Los Angeles 90017; 689-9702 or, in California, (800) 336-6842. Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., #510, Beverly Hills 90211; 852-1901.

Airlines. Garuda Indonesian Airways, 3457 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010; 387-3323. Malaysian Airline System (MAS), 5933 W. Century Blvd., #506, Los Angeles 90045; 642-0849. Singapore Airlines, 8350 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90211; 655-9270.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1989
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