Malaysia 20 years later

I’ll be going to Kuala Lumpur this July for a conference—a very different experience from my last trip twenty years ago during a backpacking adventure through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Though I’ll be heading to a meeting where treatment advances in HIV will be discussed, my hotel will be comfortable, I’ll be stuck in a conference centre and I will no doubt feel very much removed from the lives or ordinary Malaysians.

In 1993, I was not even two years out of a Master’s degree where I had the privilege of befriending Michael Chai, a Malaysian ex-priest. Michael’s rights-based work with indigenous populations often placed him at odds with a government hell-bent on rapid economic development. When I saw him in Ipoh and later in Kuala Lumpur, he introduced me to friends of his, founders of one of Malaysia’s first feminist organizations.

The All-Women’s Action Movement, founded in 1988, was required to change its name because the government forbade it to refer to itself as a movement (the Canadian government’s growing paranoia about civil society may reach this fever pitch in the not-too-distant future). The group changed its name to AWAM: All-Women’s Action Society. Keeping the m in the acronym and placing it squarely ahead of the full name was clearly a nose-thumbing at the authorities.

Trying earnestly to be good hosts, Michael and his friends, though straight, took me to the only gay bar that existed in 1993. We entered a nearly empty room of shadows and lonely men. It was an Asian echo of North American and European establishments from forty to fifty years in the past. I was glad there was somewhere for Malaysian gay men to meet but after one drink I asked to be taken elsewhere, so depressing did I find it.

Planning my onward trip, I thought I might visit indigenous communities in Borneo, but Michael warned me it would be too dangerous because those communities were heavily monitored due to their recent political protests. I could be deported or worse, arrested, for visiting them. Instead, I flew to Sibu, a city in Sarawak province, and camped in a Niah National Park, a nearby provincial park renowned for its limestone caves where thousands of swallows nest.

On a walk into the park I deviated from the raised wooden pathway that went to the officially sanctioned tourist cave. A small path on the jungle floor was too intriguing to ignore. Ten minutes along, a man passed and waved cheerfully. He was clearly not a tourist, and I wondered if he worked in the park. A ways on, I encountered the base of limestone cliffs, and the improbable sound of clucking chickens coming from above caused me to raise my head. I saw nothing; tree branches obscured the view. Lowering my head, I started—another man had appeared before me as if out of thin air. He pointed up to where I had been looking and asked if I wanted to see the bird’s nests. I understood he collected them for a living; they were highly prized for their use in making the eponymous Chinese soup.

I was twenty-five with a healthy sense of adventure and an unhealthy sense of fear, so I followed. Up we climbed to where he and the other man I’d passed in the jungle slept in makeshift hammocks in the jaws of a cave. “Where are the nests?” I asked. “Higher,” he pointed, and I understood this was only the way station. As the rock face became steeper, the way onwards would be by climbing onto ladders made of branches tied together by twine and lashed into natural hooks in the limestone.

I tested a ladder. It felt sturdy and I rationalized that since he did this every day, it must be safe. I asked nonetheless. “Is it dangerous?” “Not so dangerous for me,” was his frank response. I followed (remember how I mentioned I was twenty-five?).

Bellies hugging the cliff, we shuffled sideways along a shallow ledge while holding onto a thick rope strung laterally from one point to another. My heart raced and I tried not to look down. “How much higher?” I asked. “Higher” he said. We carried on. Finally we reached more branch ladders and up we went, eventually reaching a cave nearly at the cliff-top. He showed me the nests that he and his friend harvested at great peril. The swallow saliva used to hold together the tiny twigs was the prized soup ingredient, and a one-kilo bag fetched US$100. It didn’t seem very much even for that economy. The number of nests it would take to fill a one-kilo bag was unfathomable. How long would it take to collect them? How many perilous climbs to unstick them from the crags at the very top of the cliff’s ceiling? How did he even get up to them? It turned out this climb to his workplace was only the morning commute, and it was the least dangerous part.

Malaysia’s promise of economic development had nothing yet to offer this man, and was little consolation in the face of tragedy. A third co-worker had died a few weeks before, fallen to his death. “Where,” I asked. “There.” He pointed to the ladder we had just used. So saying it wasn’t dangerous–for him–was bravado. Perhaps he had to believe it to carry on.

We descended in silence, and for my part in terror, until we reached the first cave. I saw a cross fashioned from two sticks, one driven into the dry earth, and asked, my voice solemn and respectful, if this was his friend’s grave.

He laughed. “That is where we tie up the chickens.” I’d forgotten for a moment that this was a predominantly Muslim country and now I remembered the clucking that had first caught my attention. I descended, feeling schooled and ridiculous, but also awestruck and humbled by the conditions in which people earn their livelihood.

As I return to KL in a few weeks, I will be curious to see how things have changed. Malaysia is undoubtedly a different country. The website for AWAM-All-Women’s Action Society ( is announcing an annual “award” given to highlight sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, and trans-phobic behaviour. There are more than a dozen gay and lesbian-friendly establishments in KL now, according to a quick web search.  But I wonder if people still collect bird’s nests in that park in Borneo, and if so, what is the going rate for risking one’s life to produce delicacies for the wealthy.