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Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown

Borneo. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired November 08, 2015 - 20:00   ET



[20:00:26] ANTHONY BOURDAIN, CNN ANCHOR: When I first went up this river, I was sick with love. The bad kind. The fist around your heart kind.

I ran far but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver all the way.

That was ten long years ago, a previous episode of a previous series in a previous life.

Yet, here I am again, heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.


BOURDAIN: I time I saw all this, I think it's fair to say I was at a turning point in my life.

I promised some people I'd come back, and I am back. My life has changed a lot. How much have their lives changed?

Kuala Lumpur. Happy to be here, but brimming with mixed emotions. Surrounded by all the sights, smells, and flavors I remember so well.

This is where a wandering soul such as myself can dive right in and get some of that straight Chinese food I've been missing.

First order of business, dinner. I've been on a plane for, like -- I don't know, it was long, very long.

So, like five Mark Wahlberg films. I can't tell you how excited I am about the prospect of getting some black pepper crab, some chocolate chow and some pork gladed noodles and a regional beverage.

Reasonably cold. I don't even know what this is. How I love you, noodles. Don't want to get all heavy and philosophical at this point, but why I'm here, what my mission is, what I expect to find, basically me tracing my steps and all that. We'll talk about that later. Right now, noodles.

Good, wanton, this place is most excellent, oh, chocolate chow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chocolate chow exactly. BOURDAIN: Chocolate chow which is, oh, look at the greasy, fatty, yes, come to daddy. I'm a bad man. This is, like, a random restaurant, look like a purloin Minney Mouse logo. And their food is unbelievably good.

Oh, yeah, black pepper crab is going right here. Reveal yourself to me my love.

Hot, hot, hot, hot. Oh, yeah.

Wow. All right, the frenzy's over. Now, to eat in a more relaxed phase.

[20:05:05] Kuala Lumpur, rises up out of steamy, equatorial southeast Asian jungle, Malaysia's capital city, a chaotic, multi-ethnic, multi- cultural, modern metropolis of Malay, Chinese and India.

This is where you start out when fulfilling a decade-old promise to your ex-head hunter friends to return for Gawai. The annual Iban Rice Harvest Festival.

What's was interesting the last time I was there, was the old guys with their tattoos and the rings on their fingers.

EDDIE DAVID, BORNEO INK: Yeah. You know, a lot of people, a lot of them have passed on.

BOURDAIN: I hear no more skulls. They made them put the skulls away.

The Iban once enjoyed a truly formidable reputation as trackers, warriors, and ritualistic takers of heads.

They were and continue to be wanderers. Valuing the vaguely a tradition where every tribesman are going to set out from the longhouse of his birth to travel, learn, to bring something back.

Each tattoo he gets over the course ever of his life represents a different experience, a different journey.

DAVID: I see you got tattoo that just to signify knowledge and good wealth and to drop back to the longhouse, what you probably would want to get is were not the wrong, some like this.

BOURDAIN: Oh, like that.


BOURDAIN: Since last I saw you and you gave me this.

DAVID: And it's still there.

BOURDAIN: Still there. Ten years ago at his shop, Borneo Ink, Eddie David tattooed me with an Iban-style ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating its own tail, life, death, the eternal ebb and flow.

I think I was going through a hippy phase. Eddie does great work and he's known for traditional tribal tattoos, but I'm looking forward to getting it done old school this time. Hand tapped in the jungle.

So, I need your advice because I'm going back from the same village that I went to last time.

DAVID: Just be careful of the Langkau.

BOURDAIN: The Langkau, yes, they had it in every type of bottle. This is clear sort of cloudy liquid with particles in it.

DAVID: Sometimes they put weird stuff inside because my dad used to tell me they take a mosquito coil and leave it inside the Langkau.

BOURDAIN: A mosquito what?

DAVID: Coil.

BOURDAIN: Like the pesticide?

DAVID: Yeah. Just make it, like, stronger, I guess.

BOURDAIN: I would imagine so.

DAVID: That's a natural staple. Gawai is usually sparing, drinking, passing out, waking up, eating, drinking some more, passing out again and then getting up and drinking some more. Yeah, you're going to have fun, man.

BOURDAIN: Wow, all right.

So I'm headed upriver again. Yes, sorry I can't be there. I promise to my adviser I'm going back.

DAVID MAGGI (ph): About nine years late on your promise, but...

BOURDAIN: Nine years late.

MAGGI (ph): What happens with Langkau, you know, promises come liberally.

BOURDAIN: It was David Maggi (ph) who first took me up to the longhouse. On that previous trip we met at Aunty Aini's on the outskirts of K.L.

MAGGI (ph): Everything moves exponentially, right. I just feels like some things remain exactly the same, some things haven't changed at all. This place is certainly one.

BOURDAIN: The charming and for lack of a better word fabulous Aini was an actor in the Malaysian film scene who now runs a very successful kampung-style restaurant specializing in beloved village or country classics.

All of them prepared with a staggering finesse and precision. This is delicious, delicious food.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome. It's been so long. Oh, my god and you still look as handsome as ever.

All right, so...

MAGGI (ph): So let's pick up right where we left off which started with this.


MAGGI (ph): Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're going to have the roast beef and this poached egg and our favorite will be our (inaudible) this is Chicken Renee.

BOURDAIN: So good to be back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love watching you guys eat.

BOURDAIN: Who taught you to cook? Who was the good cook in your family?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we were small, my grandmother would say stuff like, I don't care who you are, if you can't cook, you're nobody to me.

BOURDAIN: Oh, wow.

[20:09:59] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, that from there. There's no teaching Malay cooking here. It comes from your grandma's kitchen, your mom's kitchen. And you learn by smelling, by seeing, it's how I teach my children to cook.

All these dishes when you do them, the aroma just floats around. I know exactly where the chili paste frying in the pan ready for not. It's from here. Basically it's from here.

BOURDAIN: Wow, this food is so perfect. I mean the flavors are so perfect. It's so delicious.


BOURDAIN: After a two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, I land in Borneo, third largest island in the world, divided between Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.

Kuching capital of the Malaysian Sarawak, it's a sleepily city with a colorful 19th century boys adventure story history.

Pirates, head hunters, opportunists, the former domain of Sir James Brook, an Englishman who came to be known as the "White Rajah."

For a century, generations of the Brook family ruled Sarawak as an independent kingdom. They created their own army, the Sarawak rangers who also acted as rajah's personal guard.

Tomorrow I follow the pavement as far as it goes and then it's boats the rest of the way. But first, breakfast. Unfortunately, I know exactly where to go.

I sat at this same table last time.

If I look at my life as a continuum, a trail of noodles, going round and round the world until it comes right back to the same spicy bowl.

[20:15:07] Oh, yeah, that is, can I say tumescent on CNN? Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can.

Oh, yeah, baby this is a magical dish. I don't know, it's like two types of noodles I think, chicken, prawn, coconut, chili. But, you know, the main event for this is the broth. The wisdom of the ages is contained in there. It's, like, super complex.

Might need more of this.

All right, I'll have another one of these, more.

It's the broth, the broth. Look at this. Thank you.

OK, now I'm becoming the object of much amusement. People have noticed I'm on my second.

Damn, best breakfast ever.

I love that sound.

Before heading out to the longhouse, I'm meeting Kuching native Alex Wong at a dockside karaoke joint on the Malay side of town.

Now what's up with the karaoke here? I mean it's popular everywhere, but this is alcohol-free karaoke.


BOURDAIN: In my experience, you got to be really adapted with karaoke, but here apparently not.

WONG: No, no, it's the spirit. Our people here, they can party any time.

BOURDAIN: So you're coming upriver with us?

WONG: Yes, I am, I am.

BOURDAIN: Exciting.

WONG: ... four days of non-connectivity, you know, that, right?

BOURDAIN: Yes, I'm committed to that. It's the drinking.

WONG: I'm worried about that, too, really seriously, because I'm way past my drinking days, you know.

BOURDAIN: Yes. WONG: But I don't think there's an escape from it. So why are you back in Kuching after ten years? I mean why Kuching? We have got -- we got a lot all the places in Borneo?

BOURDAIN: That's a good question. I'm revisiting some stuff. Just some -- I was in a weird place in my head when I first came here. I was personally, professionally, everything in my life was changing. I was in this sort of nowhere land between previous life and whatever came next.

I'm retracing my steps to a lot of this to see if it still hurts.


BOURDAIN: And also I said I'd promise these guys in the village, the chiefs, that I'd come back.

Well, I made a promise, and I'm going to live up to it.

[20:20:26] WONG: Yeah.


BOURDAIN: Even the jungle wanted him dead.

This rang river, what's the line, snakes through the Sarawak jungle like a main circuit cable, plugs straight in a -- somewhere.

A place, a state of mind, I don't know. I was a basket case last time I went up this river, my mind miles away.

[20:25:08] WONG: Is this how you remember it, Tony?


WONG: Exactly the same, huh? Ten years later?

BOURDAIN: Pretty much, yeah, so far.

You pick your way upriver, like walking up a gradual flight of stairs, getting out often to push.

With several hours still to go a stop for lunch, there we are. We're even right on a beach too.

All right, that's cool.

WONG: Looks like bamboo chicken there.

BOURDAIN: Good, ha. (Foreign language). It's good, right?

WONG: It's great, you said (Foreign language) that means delicious.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, how's your...

WONG: It's possible, I guess all basic words. BOURDAIN: I gather the plan is to try to get there before dark.

WONG: I don't think it's going to happen.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, me either.


Hello. (Speaking Foreign Language)

BOURDAIN: All those years ago the man who looked after me at the longhouse was named Itom (ph). Over 80 years old back then, he led us bounding uphill through the jungle like a young gazelle.

He still had the marks on his fingers of a man who'd taken heads, in Itom's (ph) case, presumably communist guerillas when he fought with the British during the Malay insurgency.

We drank shots of rice whiskey together under replicate the human skulls, trophies from another time. And I promised that I'd come back for Gawai a big day on the Iban calendar, when friends and relatives return to the longhouse.

A lot has changed since the Iban tracked comis through the jungle. And much has changed in the ten years since I've been here.

Itom passed away the year before last at the age of 92. And the evidence of how timbering he's depleted much of the forest is everywhere, scandalously so.

It's dark by the time we arrive. But someone has been waiting for us.

Please advise me of protocol.

(Speaking Foreign Language)

BOURDAIN: Thank you. All for me?

WONG: All of that.

BOURDAIN: Oh, yeah, just like old times.

There you go, my man. A custom must be observed.

(Speaking Foreign Language)

BOURDAIN: Thank you.

Oh, yeah.


(Speaking Foreign Language)


[20:30:24] More cell phones than last time.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it come with though.



BOURDAIN: My respect, my condolence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe again (inaudible) don't come more.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She cannot stand longer.

BOURDAIN: Of course.




[20:35:55] BOURDAIN: Back in Entalau (ph) after a lot of years and a lot of miles. I wake up to the sounds of early morning village life. Roosters call. The coughing and clearing of lungs as the elders rise to perform their morning chores.

The whole village lives here in separate apartments, sharing a communal space that runs the length of the building. Some things have noticeably changed. The longhouse I first stayed in has been replaced by a somewhat more modern version. These days there's electricity from a reliable diesel generator. And while there's no cellphone signal, the plumbing works, the washing in the river is still, the way I see it, anyway, the preferable option.

In this part of the world, you live or die by the rice harvest. Less so these days as timbering has changed, well, everything out here, but traditions run deep, with the Iban and in Gawai, the harvest festival was and remains like Christmas and New Year's rolled into one.

We will need pork for Gawai. And unfortunately, that means a pig must die. More awkwardly, custom, and my personal history in this village demands, once again, that I do the job.

Down by the river, I shot my baby. What did he mean by that? Why would he do that? Shoot his baby? Unless baby was a delicious, delicious pig.

I'd like to tell you that this is never easy, that I felt this time like I did the first time. Sad, nauseated, complicit, aware that I crossed a line, been changed by the violence and the blood and the awful noise. But that would be a lie.

[20:40:02] Now? Straight ahead?

This time, I plunged the spear in without hesitation or remorse.

When the pig dies, finally gives it up, I feel only relief. I have been hardened by the last ten years. I don't know what that says about me, but there it is.


[20:45:40] Far up the Skrang River, the countdown to Gawai is on, and I can't help but be struck by one particular upgrade since my last visit.

Karaoke. As I come to learn, constant karaoke. Never-ending karaoke. From a limited playlist of favorites. Nearly 24 hours a day accompanied by copious amounts of beer, Tuak and other strong spirits.


BOURDAIN: It should be pointed out Gawai isn't just about consuming potentially blinding amounts of alcohol. It's also about food. And one would be well advised to eat a lot. Lay down a solid base for the torment to come.

Oh, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see you so guilty.

BOURDAIN: No, no, not at all, actually.


BOURDAIN: So delicious.


BOURDAIN: No, no it's good (ph). All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a bound tradition they keep of, you know, put rice on your plate, on it.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Good. Delicious.



BOURDAIN: Thank you.




BOURDAIN: As the revelry kicks into high gear, there is nowhere to hide. I know only that if I sit still anywhere within range of hospitality, there will be a river of booze. Beer, Tuak, which is rough hand crafted local rice wine and its more lethal distilled bigger brother Langkau. Then somebody's pouring you Johnny Black or J.D. or Vat 69. Then Langkau again, then who knows. You only know it keeps coming until you sag facedown on the hand woven math and pass out, perfectly acceptable practice, by the way.

[20:50:21] Bring me back in paradise.

I wake up, I go to sleep, I wake up again. The party has moved down a few doors, but it's still going. This is an experience that will repeat itself again and again for the next three days. One time it's the ladies still standing, partying like it's 1999, dancing and drinking, and another time it's the old dudes, the village chiefs and elders, and everybody, elders, women, children, visiting relatives and their families in Kuala Lumpur, and Kuching in the abroad, wherever circumstances, that's the vaguely took them.

The party expands and contracts according to mysterious patterns that I am in no shape to discern.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three.



[20:55:37] Mourning routine, wake up, feed the chickens, rake the pepper drying in the sun, then it's time to rock the bike people and it starts all over again.

While the party continues up the longhouse I've got an appointment.

If you're wondering by the way if this hurts? Two guys hammering a way on my sternum with a bamboo club and sharp needles. Yes. Yes, it hurts a lot. And you're going to be damn sure if I wasn't on television while it was happening, I'd be whimpering and yelping like gun-shot poodle.


BOURDAIN: All right, good? Very happy guys, thank you.


BOURDAIN: Happy go life (ph). All right, let's party. Another tattoo is never going to make me younger, or tougher or more relevant and won't connect me 10 years from now with some spiritual crossroads in my life, no.

At this point I think my body is like an old car, another dent ain't going to make a whole lot of difference. At best it's a reminder that you are still alive and lucky as hell. Another tattoo, another thing you did, another place you've been.

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) A final long gaze at the river, take in probably for the last time in my life, the slow rhythms of the village. One more thing to do, say good-bye to an old friend.

He was a very strong man.


BOURDAIN: I remember him well running uphill, faster than all of us. So do we do? We leave him a beer and some cigarettes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you're right.

BOURDAIN: He would like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, he'd like.

BOURDAIN: First cigarette in two years for you, man.