Posts Tagged With: Sarawak

A Pinay in a Village, Bamboo Music, and a Sape

I had come to Sarawak primarily for a quick, albeit on-the-surface, immersion of its traditional music as practiced by its people in the longhouses.   I had spent the previous day at the longhouses at Benuk and Annah Rais and had experienced nothing.  More of a sight-seeing trip really.

Of course, a day’s excursion to a village to visit a musician, see him make an instruments, and have him play it isn’t much but it was all I could manage given the very limited time and even more limited funds.

I had previously made arrangements with David Lim, a guide referred to by Danney Tan whom I found in a website that engages independent guides.  Though it was something quite new to David who was more of a nature guide, he nevertheless rose-up to the challenge and found me a musician in a seldom-visited village in the Borneo Highlands and a visit to world-famous sape player, Matthew Ngau Jau, whose profile is used in the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival marketing materials. The day trip cost me RM 250 for the car hire and RM 100 for David’s services.  It was quite steep since I was alone but it was well worth it.

We made an early start for the Borneo Highlands at 8am from the Berambih Lodge where I was staying; going through the same piece of highway I had taken earlier towards Annah Rais.  During the long ride, I had gotten to know more of David.  He was part-Thai and part Bidayuh who quite his job as a disciplinary officer at Malaysian Airlines to work as a free-lance guide while helping his friend run Beds Lodge in Kuching.  It was a dream job for me.  I told him how much I wanted to set-up my own adventure company that will bring people to seldom-visited places in the Philippines and to experience real local culture.  Anyway, back to my story.

At Annah Rais, we stopped at a small shack and had some local coffee while we stretched our legs.  I was lucky having gone the previous day with hardly a crowd as the place was teeming with people that day.  A few minutes later, we were off up an unsealed road that climbed higher and higher and left the crowds of tourists behind.  Phew!

It was green green everywhere.  Gorgeous landscape of rolling hills and mountains with nary another vehicle in sight.  We finally pulled to a small clearing beside a curving road and David pointed to a small house up a small hill accessible by a short flight of steps carved out from the soil.

Meeting Kirat was my first introduction to village politics.  Acting like a coordinator for the village and the local government, it was his responsibility to see to it that the needs of the community as far as government services  such as  road repair, hygiene, infrastructure etc are provided for, which is not an easy task given typical government bureaucracy.  He doesn’t decided on matters pertaining to the social and cultural life which is the duty of the village headman.    He was very nice and even accompanied us to the house of the musician.  Learning that I was Filipino, he exclaimed that there was a Filipina there who was in one of her regular visits teaching them organic farming.  What a surprise!

Rosie had been visiting the village for the past three years as a volunteer from her church.  She had grown fond of the village and visits from time-to-time.  She had just made a brief visit and was on her way back  to the lowlands bringing  with her some edible plants.  She was apparently well-accepted and appreciated by the community as people were quite excited when they learned that I, too was a Filipino.  That was one Pinay making a difference in the world through her own personal efforts.

The village is set in a small plateau surrounded by hills and the mountain ranges of Kalimantan.  In fact, the border was just less than a hundred kilometers away as the crow flies.  It was all very pretty especially at the top of the hill where some of the houses were.

David was right about the village not being in the tourist trail as there was no other visitor there except me and Rosie.  The villagers were very friendly and I even took the time to chat with a few of them who were gathered in a circle at some sort of verandah just before the longhouse.

I had come at an opportune time as it was Easter Sunday and the community was making pugang, rice cooked in bamboo tubes.  I was invited to go see them make it.  Men and women were unloading baskets of freshly-cut bamboo which was bring cleaned and filled with rice and water.  These were then steamed over fire.  The juice from the bamboo seeps into the rice adding more flavor and aroma to it.

Bamboo freshly cut form the forest is carried on baskets to be used for the "pugang"

Grains of rice are placed inside the bamboo tube together with a little water.

Leaves ares stuffed on the mouth of the tube to seal it.

We followed a dirt path to the longhouse and into a concrete house where Rison, the musician lived.  Still attached to the longhouse, Rison’s house had been modernized with concrete but unpainted walls. However, the interiors remained essentially traditional— no walls and no furniture.  Some kids were having a mid-morning meal with their plates of rice and viands on the floor as they ate with their fingers.

Using a type of bamboo called patung, it took Rison about half an hour to make the 3-stringed bamboo zither.  The tube measured just over an arm’s length and was newly-cut.  Strips of the skin were raised and frets were placed at both ends to provide tension to the string.  These were placed in specific positions so as to create a specific tone for each string.  Small flat boards were clipped on the two strings on first and third strings. These were suspended over small holes bored on the bamboo.  The strings were struck by a thin stick to produce a lovely vibrating sound.  The boards were never struck, though.

Rison playing the bamboo zither he had made.

Scrounging at his backyard, Rison returned with two small and thin bamboo tubes with one end scraped away. This was a pair of bamboo stamping tubes with the longer and lower one dubbed as the “male” one and the other “female.” This accompanied the playing of the zither.  Rison was a masterful musician. Though the music was repetitive, it was not boring to listen to as he made music out of the bamboo strings.  Another guy, Hosen would sometimes tap on one end of the bamboo tube or play the stamping tubes with Kirat who also displayed his musicianship with a few numbers.

There was so much to learn about the instruments from Rison such as that it could be played as an ensemble with two to four players playing together.  It could also be played as a solo instrument.  I offered to buy the instrument from him.  David later confided to me that Rison having no concept of  the monetary value of his instruments and his efforts on making it, offered it at RM 10 to which David told him it was too late and suggested RM 50 for it.  Not a bad deal considering that it also included his playing of it.  I also took the two stamping tubes with me which amused them, including David, as they were just scraps and I could easily make one at home.  I tried in vain to explain to them, that it what was junk to them was valuable specimen to me.

It was past noon when we made our way out of the village.  We drove back towards the direction of Kuching for lunch at a simple eatery in Satok.

Sounds of the Sape

Storm clouds had been gathering as we made our way to the house of Matthew Ngau Jau.  We made it time to his place just as the rain poured.  He was out cutting some bamboo for the Bidayuh head house he was building adjacent to the longhouse where we sought shelter.  The family compound was set prettily on a green patch away from the main road in the district of Bau.

The family lived in simple modern concrete houses but Matthew had built a longhouse for a simple homestay and a place to teach sape.

Matthew arrived a few minutes later. The simplicity of the man and his warm and endearing ways does not belie his stature as one of the superstars of the sape, the Orang Ulu lute that has become the icon of Sarawak’s musical heritage.  Over glasses of sweetish tuak, which his two workers on the his head house passed around, he talked about his home stay program.  Only able to accommodate five guests at a time, it was unlike that of the more commercial ones.  He would bring them to see the caves upriver in Bau and in the evenings, his wife would demonstrate Bidayuh cooking while he would play the sape as his son performed the warrior dance.

The rains finally ceased and he played the sape.  I’ve always liked the sound of traditional lutes such as our own Maguindanaon kutyapi and T’boli hegalong.  The melodies are haunting and the drone lends an hypnotic aural feel to the music.  Matthew reminisced about the old days of the sape which then had just two strings but later on became 3 then eventually 4 which is the more common one found today.  He says that the younger generation uses as much as six strings but he doesn’t like it as it sounds like a guitar already.  Whereas before, only men were allowed to play the instrument, now he has more women than men students.

Underneath the longhouse was his workshop where unfinished sape mutely stood in rows waiting to be fashioned into musical instruments under the deft craftsmanship of Matthew.  I would have bought one if not for the prohibitive cost.

We bade goodbye to Matthew and thanked him for is time.  I would have bought the box zither for RM 200 which was an instruments I had not seen being sold anywhere but I was running low on my budget. I promised to get one when I returned in July for the Rainforest Music Festival. He was very kind and said he’d keep one for me.

I really enjoyed myself today and every moment was a well worth it.

Categories: Sarawak | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Longhouse Life: Annah Rais and Benuk

Day 2 at Kuching.  I hired Sebastian, the cab driver I got  from the airport the previous day to take me to the longhouses at Benuk and Annah Rais which were around 60k from Kuching plus a side trip to Kubah National Park.  I asked him if it was possible to head to all three places plus a little hiking thrown in, “Boleh!” he enthusiastically answered.  On the short drive from the airport to Wo Jia the previous days, he seemed a nice and reliable guy as we made small talk about Sarawak so I decided to hire him even if it wasn’t in my budget.  I figured RM 230 for the entire day including petrol was a good price.  At the end of the day, the meter read almost RM 400 so it was a really good deal.  Plus being a  Bidayuh from Senerai I could get to ask him a lot of stuff about his people and his culture plus I get to practice my Bahasa-Melayu.

At 8 in the morning, we were well on the sealed road to Kampung Benuk . It was smooth going all the way along the Penrissen Road  with hardly any vehicular traffic as we followed the gently curving  road along a backdrop of magnificent mountains and small kampung along the road.  It was Good Friday so everyone was probably indoors plus the sun was unbearably hot.


We arrived in Benuk to find the visitors information center close.  Fortunately, someone came along on a battered sedan on the way out of the village and Sebastian got out of the cab to inquire with the middle-aged guy who sat waiting for someone.  Sebastian returned and said the center close as it was a holiday we could just go to the longhouse which was just a few feet from where we were.  He parked the car at a small clearing then we took the steep narrow wooden steps up to the longhouse.

It was quiet as there was hardly anyone there. “They’re at church because it’s Good Friday today.”  There weren’t any other visitors either as another car with some middle-aged Chinese girls seemed to have turned back when they saw the center closed.  I had the entire longhouse to myself!  How cool is that!

I had known beforehand that except for the facades, the longhouses aren’t exactly the way they used to be.  For one, there were satellite dishes and peeking into the open doors, you could see a few modern appliances and amenities.  Some had even changed their facade with more modern materials.  What seemed to be the main longhouse was on the right as we headed up the stairs.  Wide bamboo pathways  linked one longhouse to another which were all raised on stilts and towered above the modern concrete houses which surrounded them.  It was like a mini village within a village.

Rolled large mats made from rattan and dried bark leaned against the walls while cut bamboo used for cooking were stacked neatly.  As we made our way to the other side, we passed the pangah, the communal hall where everyone met.  It looked fairly new but still designed in the traditional Bidayuh way of a round structure topped with a straw roof.  It was closed so we didn’t get to go inside.

Down some really narrow wooden steps that looked exactly like the ones in the H’mong houses in Sapa in Vietnam and those of the Ifugao in the northern Philippines we headed down the road and up some concrete steps to the mini museum that was perched on a little hill above the village.  Apparently, church service was over as the villagers were returning back to the village.

The mini museum is the house of the Paka anak Otor who died in October 2004.  As a direct descendant of a Ketua Gawai (ritual chief) he  made it his calling to collect and preserve the material culture of his people. Housed on the ground floor of his residence, the museum had displays of musical instruments such as gongs and drums, farming implements, baskets, rare beads with one necklace dating back to the 19th c. , traditional clothes and accessories, ritual objects and tools, and other things the Bidayuh use in their everyday lives. Most of the artifacts were unlabeled which was a pity because each piece would have made for an interesting story.

Ritual beads

A cradle for a Bidayuh baby

On one corner was a mini replica of the cave the Bidayuhs used to live before the reign of the White Rajahs.  It was interesting to note that the Kamupung Benuk Bidayuh in the past generations used to live in the limestone caves far from the kampung.  It was James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, that convinced them to abandon the caves and settle in a village.  An old photograph showed the old longhouse which was longer and bigger.  The section from the museum to where we exited from has since been demolished and replaced with the more modern concrete houses that lined the small paved road.

The mini museum is now under the care of his white-haired widow who gamely agreed to pose for a photo with me 🙂  Faded black and white photographs showed what a beauty she was in her youth.  She couldn’t speak English nor Malay so I couldn’t understand what she was telling me as she gesticulated.  I assumed that she was asking for a donation which I was more than willing to give as there was no entrance fee to the museum and any effort to preserve heritage needs some sort of support.   I put RM 5 at the box and she quieted down.  She kept repeating a certain word which I had forgotten. Back at the cab I asked Sebastian what it means and he said “died.”  I assumed she was telling me that her husband had died already and that she needed money for her expenses.

Annah Rais

More popular, at least as far as the travel agencies and guide books have it, Annah Rais is just a few kilometers from Benuk and close to the Indonesian border of East Kalimantan.  From the sealed road, we turned to a reasonably good dirt track which terminated at the village entrance where I paid an RM 8 fee at the small information center manned by two women sewing beads.  The Chinese group on the car I saw at Benuk earlier were there.  Turned-out they were from Singapore and were a happy lot.  We were given a welcome drink of tuak .  I had expected a fiery alcoholic drink but what I tasted was something sweet that faintly hinted of freshly harvested tuba.  I was given a second shot and we were told that it was the women’s version of the drink which accounted for the mild taste.

With more than a hundred doors, the Annah Rais longhouse is very long indeed.  Unlike Benuk which still had a semblance of a real being-lived in longhouse, Annah Rais was deeply entrenched into tourism.  One section had been converted into a homestay with more modern amenities.  At the far end was a row of common showers and squat toilets.  Looking down below, I wasn’t quite sure where all the waste ended-up.  Maybe on the fields below?

Some sections were still quite traditional with outside stoves and looked really lived in  while others were really quite modern by longhouse standards. One open door revealed someone using a laptop inside!

Chicken coop

Is that a washing machine peeking out of the open door?

True to the reality that the Bidayuh have since moved on to the 21st century, a replica or a “preserved” (depends on how you look at it) interior of a traditional Bidayuh home was on display. If you still hadn’t gotten the message that the only thing traditional about the longhouse is its exteriors, then seeing the replica would suddenly have you make sense of your surroundings.

Inside the small pangah, some skulls from the headhunting days were in a locked metal basket suspended from the ceiling.  There was nothing else inside except for some folded tables and chairs.

Wanna donate your head?

A woman sold souvenirs at a table at one part of the longhouse but the items were the same ones you could get at any of the shops in Kuching.  I had read at Lonely Planet, that they actually get most of the stuff in Kuching.

I exited the bamboo pathways that connected the longhouses, down some steps and crossed a wooden bridge over a rive. It looked like a good spot to ward off the heat as the water sparkled in its cleanliness and the banks were shaded by leafy trees and shrubs.  The bridge led to another row of longhouses.

Split bamboo tubes lying under the sun to dry

Because it is bigger and settled at a better place close to the forests, Annah Rais seems much nicer than Benuk.  There are concrete houses but it doesn’t look like a set of longhouses smack in the middle of a tiny subdivision, the kind that you see in provinces here. But I had a better experience at Benuk because it felt less touristy to me. Maybe because I was all alone there.

It was a long drive back to Kuching for late lunch before heading to Kubah.   We stopped at a covered hawker center where I had a bowl of belacan beehon. The vermicelli was doused in a sauce of belacan, a mildly spicy paste made from fermented shrimp sold in blocks and which is a fixture in Malay cooking. The closest we have to belacan is Iloilo’s ginamos though it’s a saltier version.

The beehon was really tasty and delicious, I slurped every drop of the  the belacan sauce which had a sweetish shrimpy taste.  Sebastian who had a mee Jawa which were egg noodles in a thick brown gravy reminiscent of Indonesian noodles seemed amuse as I kept proclaiming that it was sedap sekali (very delicious).

Next stop was Kubah National Park but that deserves a post of its own.

Travel Tips

1.  There is no direct public transpo to both Benuk and Annah Rais.  There are however shared vans.  To get to Annah Rais, you have to get on a public bus to Padawan and from there get on a shared van.

2.  The best way is to get a cab hire from Kuching.

3.  The cheapest way is to join one of the many tours on offer though I didn’t see anyone offering trips to Benuk.  Annah Rais tours include a trip Semenggoh Orangutan Center.  I didn’t go to Semenggoh anymore as I have been quite contented withmy orangutan experience at Sepilok and at the Kinabatangan (yeah.. orangutans in the wild!) both at Sabah.

4. Both Benuk and Annah Rais have homestay programs that can be quite expensive if you’re traveling alone. Annah Rais’s homestay is in a separate facility a few meters from the longhouse which I passed on my way to Kampung Sitmul. There’s also  hotsprings there.

Categories: Sarawak | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Cooling it off in Kuching

I was quite knackered when I arrived in KK the previous night so plans of heading to the night market for dinner was trashed.  I had some 13 sticks of satay, 2 ketupat , a plate of nasi goreng kampung, a bowl of ABC, and a 1.5 bottle of mineral water all for RM 15  at the open-air food court by the beach instead.

My dorm mate at Borneo Beach House, a few minutes walk from the airport was a cheerful Chinese girl from Beijing who was leaving for an early flight to Hongkong for some shopping before going back home. In the middle of the night, two people came-in, dropped their packs and promptly sleep on the remaining bunks.  They were out before daylight.  I hardly slept a wink as it took a lot of getting-up and toying around with the a/c remote control to keep the a/c from shutting down automatically every time it reached a certain temperature.

I did manage to get a some shut-eye during the pleasant flight to Kuching.  I really liked the convenience of Air Asia’s online check-in which allows passengers up to 400 days! to check-in for their flight.  I did mine for all my flights while still in Manila.

Making my way through the airport, I was pleasantly surprised how spacious, spanking-clean, and modern it was.  KK’s low cost terminal seemed better suited for how I imagined Kuching to be.  More surprises  as the cab made its way to the waterfront—large avenues, enormous  public and commercial buildings and a  swankily-new long distance bus station, Kuching Sentral.  I have always thought of Sabah and Kota Kinabalu as the big boys of Malaysian Borneo.  I have long-held notions of Sarawak and its thick jungles and muddy rivers settled by ethnic tribes.  But gone are the days of headhunting and most of the longhouses, aty least in the vicinity  around Kuching, are nothing more than living relics of a bygone age meant more for the edification of the tourists.   As for James Brooke, the White Rajah, his memory lives on in a marker in front of the Old Courthouse.  So seeing Kuching as bigger and seemingly more modern than Kota Kinabalu was a bit of a jolt.  Well, Sarawak IS Malaysia’s largest state so I guess it deserves a really nice capital.

I love colorful shophouses

As the days wore on I realized that no matter how big and modern it was, Kuching, in all its feline grace managed to retain a charming small town feel.  For one, it was totally walkable and the sights were all near each other.  I especially liked the esplanade at the waterfront across which was the Astana.  Benches under leafy trees provided respite from the mid-day sun.  In the evenings, a small gathering of vendors peddled glow-in-the dark and battery-lighted toys, one of which shoots-up a few feet in the sky like a brightly-colored firework.

Was it because it was a holiday and a weekend that there didn’t seem to be too many people even along Main Bazaar?  Sarawak was largely Christian due to the numerous missionaries that have found it their calling to try to convert anyone and everyone.   The next day, as I made my way to the longhouses of Annah Rais and Benuk, I noticed the tiny churches that dotted the roadside.  It felt strange to be in Borneo and to be told that Friday was a holiday because it was Good Friday.

Heading east were the Hilton and the Grand Margherita hotels  and the Sarawak Plaza and the Tun Jugah malls which thankfully, weren’t massive concrete hulks destroying the skyline.  There was a McDonald’s and a KFC, the latter seeming more popular as it had more branches. One local said that people still preferred the burgers peddled on small stalls along the streets.  One such stall at the end of Main Bazaar near the temple did brisk business especially in the morning.  I proudly told him that in the Philippines, we had buy-one-take-one deals!

Waterfront Walk

I had read somewhere that Kuching’s waterfront was one of the most expensive per square feet as it cost millions to restore it.  Old godowns were torn down while some colonial buildings were beautifully restored.  The morning I arrived, after checking-in at Wo Jia Lodge along Main Bazaar, I headed west towards the esplanade.  Easy enough to go around Kuching even without a map.  In my case, I had discovered the joy and ease of using Google Maps on my Blackberry with a RM2/day pre-paid BB plan from local carrier, Celcom.  It was easy enough to avail one.  I bought  an ordinary  pre-paid Celcom card (RM 10 with free RM 5 load) at the airport then just followed the instructions to activate the BB plan. Quick and painless.  Really helpful to be able to use my BB on a trip.

The Old Courthouse that has since been turned into something more commercial not that there ain't any commerce going on in some courthouses....

A row of white buildings with columns and linked by boardwalks caught my eye.  It was the  Old Courthouse.  No dusty offices here as the spaces have been converted to restaurants (Little Lebanon and Magenta), travel agencies, and the offices of the Sarawak Forestry Department and the Sarawak Tourism Board.  Again, I didn’t see too many tourists here.  The guy I inquired with at the tourism office wasn’t very helpful nor encouraging about the sampan ride I wanted to take for a lazy cruise along the Sungai Sarawak.  With a sneer, he merely said that they weren’t under them. Asked how much it would cost to charter one, he said he didn’t know.  C’mon!  You’re with the tourism department, you could give at least a ballpark figure.  Before he could endorse a Sarawak river cruise package, I bolted out.  Too bad because the information center was quite nice and it’s cool confines were an escape from the stifling heat.  I cooled my heels instead at the leafy esplanade.

I was quite hungry having had only cereal for breakfast but the stalls at the hawker center near Jl Gambir, Kuching’s Little India, didn’t seem too inviting though it came recommended at Lonely Planet.  There was hardly anyone there so I couldn’t gauge which stalls were popular (read: clean and delicious).  Kept my grumbling stomach in check and took the road behind  to the  Sarawak Museum hoping to pass by a kedai kopi for a snack. I had promised not to gain weight on this trip so a light lunch would do.

I was totally famished by the time I made it to the museum.  There were no kedai kopi or any sort of rumah makan or restoran along the way unless I upped my budget and changed my outfit and went inside one of the big hotels. Totally  impossible.  I was all sweaty and smelly and my budget was ill-suited for anything with aircon and white tablecloths.  Fortunately, one of the two souvenir shops had a small  cafe. I ordered a tuna panini and a can of Coke.  Not bad for RM 8. Bought a book on Sarawak music and some cds of the sape, the poster child of Sarawak musical instruments and music.

Sarawak Museum

The Sarawak Museum definitely isn’t one of the best museums in SE Asia (a claim I head read in a tourist brochure).  Some of the exhibits weren’t well labeled and curated as they seem to have just been put there.  There were informative exhibits on the different ethnic people and their culture, though.     Sarawak is home to various indigenous people with the Iban as the most numerous while the Bidayuh live closest to Kuching.

Most interesting were the palang, small horizontal rods made of metal or bone that were placed on the male penis to enhance pleasure—- the woman’s of course as I can’t imagine the pain that came with inserting the  rods crosswise into the penis head.  They were supposedly meant to imitate the penis of the Sumatran rhino. Eeehhhwww.  Photographs showing tattooing, mostly on women, also made the process seemed so painful. On one photograph, a woman lay on her back while another woman clamped on her arm as another applied the tattoo.  Interesting to note that among the Iban, the women had more tattoo than men.

Ongoing at the Art Museum was a really interesting exhibit of  never before seen photographs of a 1930s research excursion to the Sarawak interior by the English.  The black and white photographs showed the indigenous people just as they had lived before modern times.  I was envious.  It would have been infinitely exciting to have been there at the time Sarawak had yet to be truly discovered by the outside world.  The Museum is on the  pretty complex opposite the Sarawak Museum.  Alongside it was the Natural History Museum with a huge butterfly replica on the facade and perpendicular to it the Ethnology Museum with its recreations of traditional longhouses that you could enter and explore.

There were other museums such as the Sarawak Textile Museum beside the Sarawak Craft Council which I passed on my way back to Main Bazaar. Both were housed in colonial buildings with the Craft Council on a small round structure called the Round Tower which resembled a light house. Interestingly, according to my Lonely Planet guidebook, locals dare not step inside as its supposedly haunted as the building, constructed in 1886, was used by the Japanese military police during the occupation. Looking inside,  the only thing to spook me were the high prices of some the crafts.

The Smallest Chinatown

Where there’s a settlement, there’s bound to be the Chinese. This is probably the smallest Chinatown in the world and the one with the least number of places to eat.  Quite strange for a Chinatown.  Except for a small open-air food court with stalls dispensing fish ball soup and mee there didn’t seem to be too much eating places or kedai kopi.  There was Black Bean Coffee and Tea Leaf just across the Berambih Lodge where I transferred from the Wo Jia for the next two nights as the former was fully booked.

Just beside Bermabih was the red-colored (what else)  Hong San Si Temple which had the cutest and cuddliest  fu dogs ever.    Once you’ve been in a Chinese temple you’ve been to all Chinese temples unless it’s very historical or stylistically different so I didn’t bother going inside Tua Pek Kong, which looked like a multilayer cake.  Too bad that the garish multicolor and multistory building beside it intruded into its visual space on what would otherwise have been a perfect location.

Cute cute cute cute doggy

Wouldn't you want a dog like this?

Maybe because it was a holiday but Chinatown was strangely quiet and devoid of any crowds.  But as David, my driver/guide who is part Thai and part Bidayuh said, the Chinese in Kuching lack the aggressiveness  of the Chinese in KL.  Agree.  Even the shopkeepers at Main Bazaar were pretty laidback.  They actually left you alone and didn’t coerce you into buying anything.  Come to think of it, walking along Main Bazaar with its souvenir shops had none of the attendant “wanna look?”  “wanna buy?” invites.  Perusing some stuff at one of the antique shops manned by the Chinese, I only got a cursory glance.  Speaking of antique shops, I was totally awed by the sutff being sold.  I could have spent hours just searching nooks and crannies of the dark recesses of the shops.  Antique gongs, wooden carvings, baskets,  Iban pua textiles and clothing, colorful beads, musical instruments, and countless objects d’art.  I drooled and oohed and aaahed but went bitterly away distressed at the poverty of my pocket.  I did manage to buy some collectible musical instruments though.  Thanks to my ability to speak Melayu (“boleh harga dikurangin?”) , I managed to get a good price for all of them.  Plus one shop, John’s Gallery, which had a really good collection of alat-alat musik  and other stuff accepted kartu kredit.  The Chinese owner was a real gentleman too.

Can't find any souvenirs? How about a coffin?

Row Row Row Your Boat

 Ok.  There was no paddle and the driver steered the wheel.   It was no sampan but a motorboat.  At RM9, it was the cheapest river cruise being peddled at the waterfront. One company offered  “the most authentic rivercruise experience” with a longhouse-type wooden boat at RM19.  Most authentic meaing you sit inside a motorized wooden boat cruising the same river as everyone else including the RM9 boat.  So I stuck with the cheapest option.  The guy said that 6 students had already signed-up and the boat was on its way back and ready to depart again by 5:30pm.

It arrived much earlier and we all boarded.  In addition to the six students from KL we were joined by three Scandinavian-sounding guys.  I grabbed one of the upholstered mini sofas and sat out front.    “Do we expect to see anything spectacular soon?” asked one of the Europeans. That seemed to sum up the total experience. There was nothing.  Nothing at all.  Perhaps there would have been something more to see if we headed to the other direction towards the villages.  Halfway, it  began to shower so I got a little wet as we were all squeezed in under the canopy and me seated front meant I got the end of the canopy.  The trip took less than an hour and the Europeans and I asked to be let-off at the dock across the Hilton.  I had meant to eat Top Spot but it seemed a little too early so I had a kopi o at Old Town Coffee outside Tun Juga mall.

Tummy Fillers

Tuna panini in a museum cafe isn’t the most original way to start-off a culinary adventure so for my first dinner, a local brought me to a hawker area at Satok where I tasted my first kolo meeThe egg noodles were served in a dark sauce and topped with crisp-fried garlic and shallots and minced beef.  Yummy and filling as the toppings were especially generous. 

The next night, on the advice of Sebastien, the driver of the cab I had rented to bring me to Benuk and Annah Rais longhouses and to Kubah National Park, I took a sampan to the small kampung across. Sampans  rowed the short expans between the banks.  It just cost 50 sen to cross and the last boat headed back to the waterfront at midnight.  The boat wobbled a bit whenever someone got on as there were no outriggers.  The boatman rowed the boat standing-up for the first few meters then pulled a string that ran the length of the boat roof and which was  connected to the small motor on the other end. 

Alighting, I followed the sign to a small cemented foot path that cut across the kampung and up some stairs towards Fort Margherita.  The banks of the river lay below as I stood on a deserted road lined with tall grass as the parliament building towered above.  Two guys who looked like soldiers on-leave wearing their fatigue shorts asked for directions to the dock.  They were surpised when they learned I was from the Philippines and could converse in Bahasa-Melayu.  They pointed me to the direction of Fort Margherita.  I had bad thoughts of the two guys as soldiers who had deserted their unit.  Maybe there was a mission somewhere in the deserted fields and road heading to Fort Margherita which looked so far away. I turned back and headed down to the dock and to the open-air foodcourt Sebastian had told me about.  Silly me.

Ordering was easy.  I just went to the stalls I wanted to order from, told them what I wanted and pointed out to where I was seated and paid when the food arrived.  I ate twice here as the food was good and cheap.  There was another food court at Kampung Gersik which was just a stone’s throw away but this seemed to be more popular, perhaps because it was just by the dock.  I gotta laud the honesty system here. You can just order, change your mind, or be impatient and disappear leaving your food untouched and unpaid.  Considering that food is cooked-on-order, an unclaimed meal would go to waste.  Perhaps, in Malay food court practices, such things don’t happen considering that with such a small community, doing so would mean social death.

I have always loved the aromatic and spicy taste of laksa and the Sarawak laksa did not disappoint.  An RM6 special was a large  steaming-hot bowl of orangy spicy broth with vermicelli.  I perspired as spooned every single bit of its tasty broth.   A spoonful of spicy sambal  enhanced the flavor of the broth.  It went well with keropok lekor , chewy fried fish nuggets that looked like our kikiam that came with a sweetish dip.  While waiting for my laksa, I had satay kambingI can’t seem to get over satay whenever I’m in Malaysia or Indonesia.  It really tastes good and nowhere else in the world can you get satay that delicious and authentic especially with the peanut sauce.

Next dinner, I had nasi tomato which was fried rice cooked in tomato sauce.  It came with a small serving of fried chicken in a sweet-spicy sauce.  The rice was good but I found the chicken too sweet to my liking.  I also had  satay ayam and satay kambing and more keropok lekor.  As a kikiam and fishball enthusiast, I  found the keropok much to my liking.  The minced fish grounded into a thick paste mixed with flour and other ingredients accounted for the chewy texture.  Sometimes, large bits of fish spine snagged between the teeth.

I never had the chance to try the White Lady, one of Sarawak’s signature drinks as the one and only stall that made it  forgot my order. 

I liked Kuching very much. It was very clean—- no trash and the streets and buildings, both private and public, were well maintained.  The laidback vibe made it very conducive for a few days of a relxing holiday break.

I like cities with waterfronts as they are cheap places to get some breeze and be with the locals.  In the few nights I was there, I took to the waterfront after dinner to just watch the world go by.  Though lacking in any real sights, just looking across the water to the magnificently lit Astan or the twinkling lights of Kampung Boyen is enough. In the evenings, tables are set-up and small stalls dish out a variety of rice and noodle meals.  It amazed me how those miniscule kitchens can manage to cook-up some tasty-looking meals that came served in proper plates and cutlery considering that some of them offered a variety of options.  I should try to dine there when I return. 

The rains had began to fall as I winded my trip to Kuching.  But somehow, the gunmetal skies seemed to complement the slow pace of life as if reminding me to stop a bit, relax, and just watch the rain fall.

Categories: Sarawak | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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