Thursday, August 28, 2008

Meow: Kuching the cat city is calling


Destination: Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia (Borneo)
Number of Days there: 4 (starting point for Longhouse visit and Bako National Park)
Our Best of: Kuching Food Festival, Sunday Market, eating Laksa at a local dive
One thing unexpected: The contrast of the Malay village to Kuching's main tourist area (separated by a river, but seemingly miles away from one another)
Times we took the: Bus: 0, Train/Subway: 0, Taxi/Car: 3, Boat: 2
Estimated KM walked: 16
Where we stayed: Borneo Bed & Breakfast - RM 45 (US $15) Friendly Iban ran joint
Favorite Restaurant: Kuching Food Festival - probably a hundred food stalls with awesome food at bargain prices Pineapple Fried Rice (RM 2.50 - less than US $1), Mango Fish (RM 3.50 - just over US $1), Pau (RM 1.10 - US $.35) & Roti (RM 1 - US $.30)

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, Malaysia. Most people still refer to the region as Borneo which is actually the name of the island that is home to the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. The state is comprised of mostly Iban or Orang Asli (one of the two main tribes and Christian in religion) followed by Malay from the mainland and then Indonesians(legal and illegal). In talking with the Iban family that runs the nice B & B we stayed in, you get the sense that they don't care for the predominately Muslim Malay or the Indonesians that apparently come across the border and are up to no good. For this regions standards, Malaysia is far better off than the much poorer Indonesians. The main draw of Sarawak are all the national parks that are set up along with visits to to the longhouses. We chose Kuching for our base to explore the area so our time spent here is divided by visits to Bako and the Longhouse (both on separate postings).

After arriving into Kutching late at night, we were greeted at the door of the B&B by May and Bidas, the owners. After sitting our bags down in our cozy little room (hot shower/attached bath/A/C for 45rm $15us) we returned to the outdoor patio where we were promptly handed two beers. The jovial owners sat and talked about the area, what to see, where to go, and of course, their longhouse visits. The hotel itself is very simple, but the hospitality that was given more than made up for any inconvenience. The only complaint of the hotel was its proximity to a bar that thumped out an entire Whitney Houston CD on a loop (yes, we can't make this stuff up!) until around midnight and then they turned it off or down. Otherwise, nice place to stay and the price is right.

We started our first day in Kutching by promptly getting lost, don't let the small size of the town fool you - it's easy to get turned around. After getting our bearings back in line and retracing our steps a little, we made our way to the visitor information center, which is one of the few places you can book the accommodations for the only place to stay in Bako National Park. Luckily for us, someone had canceled their stay for the next night and so we jumped on that taking the last room available. Otherwise it would have been 6 days later for a room. After getting that business taken care of we had just enough time to duck into a Chinese restaurant around the corner for lunch before catching the afternoon shuttle to Semmengoh Orangutan rehabilitation center. After asking specifically for no disgusting fish balls and getting them anyways (they taste as bad as they smell) in our soupy broth of noodles, we have both decided to avoid Chinese food for a while. American readers might find this a little strange, but trust us, Chinese food here is nothing like the buffets back home. From what we pass in most markets and street corners, it's fish balls, boiled chicken bones that you have to pick through, and most things come topped with this "delicious" shrimp paste that has an overpowering rotting fish taste, along with some variety of dried fish (anchovies are VERY popular here). If you enjoy the taste of rotting or dried fish, then we apologize and eat up, I promise we will leave some for you! This now being the second posting in a row on our disgust for Chinese food and moreover the aroma that wafts through every street you turn down we will now try and let this one be.

The saving grace of any meal that we come across as bad is the ice cream that is basically sold on every street corner in the little convenience stores. After grabbing a couple of cones for the road we jump on the van bound for the orangutan center. Since there are no public buses that go directly to the reserve (you can find a bus heading south, get off at the nearby town, and walk about 30 minutes to the entrance for 3rm one way so we have been told) we opted for the round trip 25rm ($8US) per person that departs from town and coincides with the feeding times at the park. The park is home to around 20 Orangutans that have either been rescued or born in captivity. Despite the fact that they feed them, they are considered wild and free to roam about in the forest. From the constant clearing of land to make way for planting crops, their natural habitat is quickly disappearing making them an endangered species. As it stands now, Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia are the only two places in the world that they are found wild and the numbers of wild orangutans are quickly dwindling. The orangutan is an amazing creature, and quite similar to humans in a lot of regards. Being 97% closely related to humans they have a lot of the same characteristics of humans. It was quite the experience to be up close and personal with a few of them. They would often times be right in the walking path and we would have to stop and wait for them to move out of the way.

After returning to Kutching, we had heard of a little street fair that was going on across town to celebrate Merdeka (Independence Day for Sarawak) so we decided to head out there for a bite to eat. Along the way we passed all three of the main cat statues (one is a family of cats, the other is a tall tower with a cat perched on each corner, and the last is the Great Cat of Kutching). Kutching literally translates to cat in Malay and the city has embraced that fact. All the shops have wood carvings of cats for sale, there are several statues randomly placed throughout town and naturally, a cat museum which we visited later. If you are looking for a massive statue, the Great Cat of Kutching, despite its name, stands only about 9-10 feet high. After passing around the traffic circle and walking another couple of blocks, we find the fair.

The fair ended up being our favorite part of Kutching. Sadly, it was only lasting for 3 weeks so you have to be here at the right time to visit. Imagine that QVC, or home shopping network, was an actual place and each booth represented a different segment and you come close to the actual fair part. Each booth had their respective products out for show and many had demonstrations of how they worked complete with microphone and loud speakers. From woks that don't stick to mops that get up the toughest of grime the only thing this place was missing was Ron Popel himself. After laughing a little at the spectacle, we made our way through the booths, past the live performance stage (had to be karaoke night, another popular past time here) we came across our little oasis. Stall after stall, cuisine after cuisine (of course the Chinese fish balls had to make an appearance) we strolled though picking up little things here and there. Since the average cost of any item you chose was less than 3rm (less than $1US) with some 1 rm it was guilt free pleasure. We even found a Chinese food we liked - Pao (basically steamed bread dough stuffed with various fillings and served warm, Tracy prefers the coconut or kelapa in Malay; and I think they even have fish ball flavor, but we dared not ask!) so perhaps not all hope is lost for Chinese food...yet. After stuffing ourselves, we took a stroll through the nice little park they had set up, complete with water effects - waterfalls and fountains. One thing of note on public transportation in Kutching - don't expect it after dark unless it's a taxi in the middle of the tourist district. We waited for 20 minutes to no avail to catch one back into town and finally gave up and walked back to the hotel.

The next two days were spent in Bako. For more info, read the next posting.

While we were in Bako we met Hong & Harold (from CA) and they invited us to dinner at the Top Spot Food Court in Kuching. Amongst mostly locals we enjoyed spicy chili crab, grilled prawns & Tiger beer (yummy)! It was a bit over our backpacker budget (around $13-$15 per person with beer) but it was a nice splurge after two days of hiking!

After a lazy morning recouping from the hiking in Bako, we made our way to the Sarakraf Craft Center on the south side of town. We were expecting lots of artists making various items, but instead found two artists, one making a traditional batik, used for weddings, and the other making sarongs. Not sure if it was just the day we visited, but we were virtually the only ones there. Tracy decided to take the little class that was offered on doing bead work (30rm and you get to keep what you make). About an hour later, she had finished a little bracelet. After the class, we walked down to a great little Indian restaurant Tok Janggut Cafe. Jason got his first haircut abroad at a little salon nearby after lunch and we headed back into town to the museums. The museums, from what we saw of them, were fairly basic. The top floor of the Entomology Museum was interesting which covered in detail the various tribes of the region and their customs over the years - from the headhunting days to present day living. We only saw a couple of rooms of the Islamic museum before they kicked us out at closing time but the ones we saw were interesting. That night we took the little boat (.50rm each way) across the river to the Malay village on the other side of the river. It was surprisingly a lot different than the touristy and mostly Iban side of town. The bars were replaced with mosques and we received some odd looks from the locals. Despite the odd vibe, we still enjoyed our meal from one of the little stands on the street which had tables right on the waterfront. We also stumbled across the home of the little cakes that are sold up and down the main bazaar in town - kek lapiz. The little bakery was humming with locals buying lots of these colorful and tasty little treats. While there are too many flavors to name here, and most we don't even know the flavors to begin with, we settled on what they call a Swiss Roll which was delicious. We caught the little ferry back across the water and decided to call it an early night considering we had an early start to the next morning.

The day earlier, we had asked May where a good place in town to find Laksa might be. Laksa is another Chinese food that is a breakfast item consisting of a coconut chicken porridge (soup broth), prawns, and noodles. Instead of just telling us where it was, she told us that her son would take us there in the morning and then drop us off where ever we were going for the day. That in itself was a friendly gesture, but when her son not only took us there, but paid for it as well, that was something special. The Laksa did not disappoint - full of flavor and just the right consistency, it was certainly one of the best meals we have had so far (score another good point for the Chinese, they are making a comeback!). After devouring the delicious meal, we were dropped off at the Sunday market. The place was packed with stands selling huge pummelos (large grapefruits), plants and flowers, all the fresh fish you could ever want, to even pet dogs and fish (not for least we think). There was even a stand that sold old magazines with the covers ripped off and DVD's for 1rm each, mostly B movies and American wrestling (every Wrestlemania title) seems to be huge here as well. Of course there were plenty of options for food as well. We sampled the coconut juice which Tracy thought was the best so far and various pastries - mostly good, but the one Chinese whispy fingers (some sort of fried dough) was nasty (minus 1 for the Chinese). We even came across the "snail shells" for momma Karen. After lingering in the market for most of the morning, we made our way to the bus stop to take it up to the Cat Museum. Quite a ways up on the north side of town, the Cat Museum sits on top of a huge hill and overlooks the city below. The Museum building has an interesting architecture style and was much more interesting than the museum itself. Inside, there is everything you wanted to know about the history of cats from Egyptian times to "present" day (I think the museum needs a little updating as it appears present day really means sometime in the mid 80's.) Not really worth the effort in our opinions but when do you ever get a chance to see a museum completely dedicated to felines? After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the bus to come by, we were starving but didn't feel like walking all the way out to the fair given the time of night and our early departure time to the longhouse, so we asked where an Indian restaurant might be and were told their would be one just off the waterfront. After walking down basically desolate roads where NOTHING was open (this town really shuts down after dark) we settled on a little Italian joint in the touristy part of town. Not our style, but it was not too bad considering the other options that were readily nearby were Pizza Hut, McDonalds and the ubiquitous KFC (2 within two blocks). The bucket of chicken rises higher than any cat statue they put up!

The next three days are spent at the Panggil Longhouse. See the posting for more info.

After three days of eating basically chicken bones in broth served with weeds and rice, we were ready for some real food and we could not think of any place finer than the festival for dinner! We hightailed it over there and our eyes became much larger than our stomachs ordering two portions instead of the usual one for the two of us. We gorged until it was painful, but it was worth it and really only added up to about $13US! Later that night we went to book the plane ticket to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah for the next day. The cheap ticket had all of the sudden doubled in price, but the flight to Bali was back on the board and a normal fare on Air Asia (total of US$100 per person) so we booked it instead with plans to go to Sabah after Indonesia now.

We spent the next day basically catching up on reading about Bali, since we really thought we would be there in another 3 weeks, picking up some last minute souvenirs, and trying to book a hotel in Kuta for the night, to no avail.

We run out of time calling places for a room, so we board the plane heading to Bali with no room booked yet again. One day we will get with it, but until that day comes, off we go to Bali for some more adventures!

To see more pictures from Kuching click here.

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