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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 mee. The 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 kambing. I 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.