Good as gold

With a rich past, the Sarawak cap­i­tal is now a home for cool cats

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - BERNARD LANE

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

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