10-12 March 2020
We didn’t really know what to expect of Kuching, on the northwest edge of Borneo, other than rain. The average rainfall in March in Kuching is 340mm (13.4in). The Malaysian state of Sarawak, of which Kuching is the capital, has 4000mm (157in) per year. That’s a lot of rain. But we really wanted to go to Kuching – because orangutangs!
Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, an orangutang sanctuary and nature reserve, is easily accessible from Kuching and at the morning and afternoon feeding times you’re likely to see these wondrous primates that share 97% of their DNA with us humans. More research enticed us to this small town for the easy access to Bako National Park. So we decided we’d just go to Kuching anyway, and if it rained so what. We went expecting rain, but then, except for a light sprinkle on the third morning, we had three rain-free days! The weather gods were smiling on us.
We went to Bako and it was fantastic. We didn’t go to Semenggoh. Further research would have told us that March is the tail end of fruiting season and that when the orangutangs can forage fruit for themselves in the jungle they don’t come in to be fed at the centre. The manager at our hostel discouraged us from going because there’d been none seen there for a few days. This is good news of course for the orangutangs; it means they are becoming fully wild again after rehabilitation, but not such good news for the likes of Don and me.
So what of the town of Kuching? With both time and weather on our side, we discovered a charming town with a laid-back atmosphere and an easy grace. By the end of three days there this riverside town had wrapped its friendly arms around us and we were captivated. Kuching embraces the curves of the tranquil Sarawak River, the location making it a gateway between other Asian ports and the mysterious jungle of Borneo.
We arrived there at 7am, brain dead from a straight thirty hours of travel from Rishikesh. After checking into our hostel, the first thing we do is walk down to the river that slices the town in two, past the idle fishing boats,
and take a lazy ride in a sampan.
As we head towards the distant bridge
we pass the kampungs (villages) on the north side,
with the glowing domes of Masjid Lama (the Old Mosque) in the distance.
Fishermen and sampan boatmen
work the river, the lifeblood of the area, as we move ever closer to the Darul Hana Bridge, a mighty S-shaped structure linking the north and south parts of the city.
As we move slowly along we watch a building come closer and closer. It is so unusual as not to be dismissed, but rather to inspire curiosity and awe. It is the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building opened in 2009 and it dominates the riverbank.
The building is a nine-pointed star with a roof echoing that of a traditional Malaysian royal umbrella, and a cultural icon of both Kuching and Sarawak.
Our boatman turns around and takes us back to our starting point, and we return to our hostel room at the top of four weary flights of stairs, and collapse in bed for a much needed nap. Travelling life is not all doobies and chocolate cake. Sometimes you just have to stop.
There’s a thing in SE Asia called Grab. It’s the local Uber and we used it for every journey (some 10 of them) in Malaysia and it never failed us; it was always reliable, prompt, and inexpensive. The Grab driver who brought us from the airport told us about Premier 101. The best place to eat in Kuching he said. So having revived somewhat from our nap we grabbed a Grab and went to Premier 101, an enormous food court, Asian style.
The name comes from the original 101 food stalls. There are probably more now, and our first reaction was to be overwhelmed. So much choice! Where to start? We wandered around taking in the sheer size of the place, the number of stalls, and the endless varieties of food, most of which were unfamiliar to us. Finally we chose some food and one of the fancy local drinks, and sat. People meandered all throughout the space, chatting with friends, eating, and drinking beer. It felt friendly, fun, informal, the atmosphere relaxed and unhurried in the sultry tropical evening air.
I don’t remember what we ate, but it was good. All the food in Malaysia was good. Really good. At least three times, before we left Vancouver, when we mentioned to friends that we were going to Malaysia their response was about how fabulous the food is. And they were right!
The next two nights we ate at Topspot Food Court: rooftop dining with a difference. This large open-air space in central Kuching, at the top of a six-story car park, has about eight or ten restaurants all serving the same huge eating area.
The place buzzes, noisy and busy with both locals and visitors. It offers the best seafood in town, and there’s also a huge array of vegetables, including the famous Malaysian fiddleheads known as mindin. You hardly even have a chance to actually look at a menu. You wander from stall to stall, gaze at the seafood and next thing a server suggests something and then suggests some vegetables, and some rice, and off they go. How they ever find you again is a mystery but both nights we dined royally for very little and the food was excellent.
Breakfast was really good soup at the food court next door to the hostel.
We went to Sarawak Cultural Village, a living museum dedicated to preserving the indigenous cultures of the area. In retrospect it was not the best choice we could have made, and I wonder now why we didn’t get a sampan across the river and go exploring Malay life as it is today in the kampongs. In a grand attempt (17 acres!) to authentically preserve the culture of all the indigenous tribes they somehow managed to lose all authenticity. The Cultural Village was a dead zone, except for the dance performance, where each tribe showed their traditional dance. That was worth seeing.
Three men held the pole firm. A fourth man shimmied up to the top
and then spread himself out like a star on top of the pole and began to twirl around!
This man entered silently from the back of the theatre, and using a blowgun he sent a dart that popped a balloon clear across the auditorium.
It was a pretty spectacular show.
In the evenings we wandered like lemmings to the river where there’s a wide boulevard
next to Main Bazaar, the oldest street in Kuching. Main Bazaar is lined with 19th century Chinese shophouses many of which have been occupied by the same family for generations.
And a little further along, at the end of Main bazaar is Tua Pek Kong Temple sitting atop a red-tiled base with a blue dragon mural, festooned with dozens of red lanterns, and topped with more dragons. It’s the most popular temple in town for Chinese residents.
We walked all the way to the bridge and across to the other side and back, stopping to admire the newly opened Floating Mosque as the end of the day approached.
Walking back along the riverside boulevard we stopped for ice cream and watched the area come alive with food stalls, and people, buskers and street performers, and a spectacular sunset turning the river first golden
and then pink.
This small city of just over half a million, with its food courts, wide lazy river, and friendly people, suited our mood perfectly, and won our hearts. Meanwhile we were getting emails from friends suggesting we come home because of the corona virus pandemic. We didn’t know it had been declared a pandemic. We weren’t following the news closely and didn’t want to. Neither did we want to go home. Following our intuition we remained in our bubble and travelled on to Sepilok on the other side of Borneo – because orangutangs!
Next post: We did see plenty of Orangutangs – in Sepilok, which I’ll post about eventually. Meanwhile I think I’ll swing over to the holy city of Rishikesh, India for a look at all the activity in and on the banks of the sacred Ganges River. It’s an on-going carnival!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.