Good as gold
With a rich past, the Sarawak capital is now a home for cool cats
ON THE WATERFRONT: Kuching has a rip-roaring history as a trading port, complete with pirates, and a stroll along the waterfront is the perfect introduction to the city, which reaches back from the south bank of the Sarawak River. Afternoons bring a welcome breeze and stallholders sell drinks and snacks, while boy bands pour out their hearts in earnest Malaysian pop. On the other side of the river is Fort Margherita, one of the impressive buildings left behind by the “white rajahs” or kings who ruled Sarawak for 100 years until the 1940s; Englishman James Brooke, who had a yacht and a taste for adventure, was the founding rajah and helped inspire Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. To get to the fort, hop on one of the long, narrow boats, known as perahu tambang, which will ferry you for the princely sum of 1 Malaysian Ringgit (about 30c). Rivers are the highways of the state of Sarawak, which occupies the northwest of the island of Borneo. More: malaysiaholidays.com.au; sarawak.attractionsinmalaysia.com.
ALLA THAT GLISTERS: Back on the south side, explore the narrow streets of old Chinatown. Begin at Carpenter Street, by the temple, where the glitter of goldsmith shops will soon catch your eye; it was antinomy, used to separate gold, that gave 19th-century Sarawak much of its income. Other shopkeepers deal in anything from coffins through hawker foods to an old fellow hammering away at unidentifiable bits of metal. It’s probably time for a drink. On the corner of Carpenter and Bishopsgate streets, the Drunk Monkey Old Street Bar is friendly, well-stocked and has a cooling punkah with a mechanical wallah. More: facebook.com/drunkmonkeyoldstreetbar.
THET VERDICT: The lovely old courthouse, where the rajah would preside over cases, is a few steps fromf Chinatown; today its graceful colonnades host an art competition in which any visitor can try painting a favourite musical instrument or rendering the image of a cat (the Malay word for cat, kucing, sounds the same as the city’s name). ChinaHouse, well known on the Malaysian island of Penang, has set up here with the promise of good food, events and art exhibitions. Its cafe, Kopi-C, is an elegant retreat from humidity and a homecoming for cake fanciers. More: facebook.com/ChinaHouseK/.
A SNIP AT HALF THE PRICE: Also new and hip is the cafe-cum-bar and restaurant The Barber; a stylish conversion from an old barber’s shop, it lies on the other side of Chinatown. The menu is a playful melange of US diner and Asian cuisine, with offerings such as a beef rendang sandwich, chicken sambal burger and Texas-sized jugs of Asahi beer. The crowd is young, local and affluent. Asian heart-throbs peer down from retro wall calendars; outside, a barber’s striped pole keeps up its business. More: facebook.com/thebarberkch.
CULTURE VULTURE: Sarawak is a patchwork of peoples — some once bound together by mutual antipathy and a fondness for headhunting — and a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village gives the lowdown on likely friends and enemies. On show are the traditional longhouses of groups such as the Land Dyaks (Bidayuh people) and Sea Dayaks (Iban); the Melanau had to be different and opted for tall houses. First we step into a Bidayuh headhouse built from bamboo and thatched with palm fronds. This is where the fighters keep their weapons and, yes, heads taken in battle, which are smoked over a fire. The headhouse protects the longhouse, which can stretch to 400m and bring together more than 150 family members. The cultural village also offers a taste of traditional dance and music; I’m taken with the hypnotic pluck and trill of the Borneo guitar or sape, which is played by the Orang Ulu group of peoples. Entry to the village, 45 minutes from Kuching, is about $20 but it’s worth paying the extra $50 for a guide. I ask our Bidayuh guide, Jimmy, when the head-hunting stopped. He pauses, then admits there were reports as recently as the 1960s conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia. More: scv.com.my/.
M MEOW MUSEUM: Kuching claims the world’s first cat museum, and all because of a homophone ( (see 3). It is housed inside a building that looks like an Islamic shuttlecock and gives little hint of the whimsy on display inside. Imagine any cat-themed item of kitsch, culture and history, and you may find it here. There are photos of kitty-cute tattoos adorning a brutish bloke from San Diego, cats kitted out as rockers, cats in the raunchy bathhouse prints of Japan’s Hiroshige; cats in advertising, Burt Reynolds in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing; cats in Egypt, Aesop’s fables and T.S. Eliot. “The appreciation of cats,” the museum says, “is engraved deeply in the human soul and is of ancient origin.” Entry costs about $1. The museum is easily found on the way to the Semenggoh orang-utan centre. More: sarawaktourism.com/attraction/cat-museum/.
M MESSING ABOUT: An hour’s drive takes us to the upper reaches of the Sarawak River for a kayak adventure. After a quick tutorial from guides, who come armed with waterproof cameras to catch all the action, we push ourselves out into the current. A few bends of the river, flanked by towering jungle and limestone mountains, are enough to make me appreciate the herculean efforts of those explorers who plunged into the heart of Borneo. It also makes me hungry and so we stop at Kampung Danu, which proudly displays a sign anointing it as the winner of a best Dayak village competition. A simple but tasty lunch is on offer, including the local speciality of ayam pansuh, chicken cooked in bamboo. Well-fed veterans of the kayak now, we go on to negotiate not-too-rapid rapids, splash one another, throw ourselves fully clothed into the river, and somehow reach the 11km finish line. More: semadangkayak.com/.
MILD MAN OF BORNEO: There’s no guarantee you’ll see orang-utans at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. In January or February, for example, when fruit is in season, they have little reason to come in from the wild to the feeding areas. We are lucky. Three have swung in to view. At first, they hang from on high like a sack of potatoes. Then they begin to move with the utmost agility; this swinging from branch to branch has the quaint name of “branciating”. The big boss of these 26 orang-utans is Ritchie, named after journalist James Ritchie, who rescued him. On the black market a baby orang-utan can command $US50,000 ($67,100). Ritchie doesn’t emerge the day I visit. Once I accept we are running on orang-utan time, I’m content to relax into the rhythms of the forest. The centre is a 45-minute trip from Kuching and a visit, with guide, costs about $30. More: sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-nr-semenggoh.html.
TOTALLYT STUFFED: The Sarawak Museum, reputedly modelled on the design of a French town h hall, has stuffed animals downstairs and modern interpretive displays upstairs. There are longhouse models, carvings, baskets, ceremonial daggers and spooky masks. Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who almost beat Charles Darwin to the promulgation of natural selection, deserves much of the credit for the museum. He went to Sarawak at the invitation of the first rajah. In 1883 Wallace complained he “had no hunter to shoot for me regularly and being myself fully occupied with insects, I did not succeed in obtaining a very good collection of the birds or mammalia”. The museum is several minutes’ walk from the waterfront but because of the vicissitudes of institutional history, the museum cafe is across town on Main Bazaar street, right by the waterfront. It is a narrow, nicely decorated place with cool drinks (the iceblended cappuccino is a reliable heat-killer), a good range of books on the history, culture and botany of Borneo, as well as handicrafts and contemporary jewellery. More: museum.sarawak.gov.my/index.php/en/. FAMILY FRIENDLY: We bed down at the Pullman Kuching, uphill from the Hilton; both are close to the waterfront. Our connecting rooms have views of the river snaking around other high rises. The hotel is efficient, friendly and pitched to business; we just miss a Secretaries’ Week promotion. It is quiet when we arrive — the lobby is an empty soccer pitch in marble — and we wonder who on Earth will eat their way through the delicious abundance that is the breakfast buffet. The answer is our children until, later in the week, business folk arrive and start to give us serious competition. Our room rate, part of a package, is a good-value $167. More: pullmanhotels.com.
Clockwise from main: Sarawak River, with Parliament Palace across the water; lively shopping in Kuching; traditional house at the Sarawak Cultural Village
Kuching pays tribute to the cat, above; an orang-utan at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, below