As so many yachties had talked positively about Kuching (Sarawak), we felt that it necessitated a visit. Having missed stopping there on Stolen Kiss, we decided to fly there from Kota Kinabalu.
Unfortunately for us, our plane was again delayed for 5 hours out of KK, which is the second time we had experienced the same delay in 12 months, resulting in a very late arrival into Kuching. In the taxi we were thumbing through the Lonely Planet accommodation guide, making a quick selection. It was pouring with rain (we had indeed found the ITCZ) and we were hoping our choice would not prove to be futile. Our selection was just Ok and we planned to move the next morning. What we didn’t count on was a convention, essentially taking all the good accommodation. We found a guest house in the centre of town that was recommended – clean and friendly. It had its drawbacks as the room was a tads small – so much so that Peter could stretch out and touch 3 of the 4 walls! As this was the first stage of our 3 weeks of travel (Phuket and Laos to follow – a little more planned!) we thought we would pace ourselves and could lash out on accommodation nearing the end when we perhaps felt a little jaded.
To us, the name ‘Kuching’ represented the onomatopoeic ring of the old cash registers. We must have been very bored at the time as we found much amusement in this! The Malay translation for ‘cat’ is Kuching; the city deriving its modern day name apparently from the amount of cats that were there in the early days of settlement. (??) Charles Brooke gave the city this name in 1872. Kuching has a colourful history; with a strong European and Chinese influence, interwoven with the traditional peoples.
The city and its people are indeed unique but somewhere lurking for us was the feeling of the familiarity of Malacca. Maybe that is just because Malacca was also such a wonderful place to visit. The major settlement has been built on the southern bank of the Sungai Sarawak, with Fort Margherita, the Istana and the new parliamentary building (looking like something Darth Vader would be comfortable in) on the opposite side presiding over the city. The waterfront is artistically paved, having bronze plaques marking every historical spot. The confluence of the little river that apparently gave Kuching its name (the other explanation offered) is today nothing more than an underground pipe capped by a disk with a map of old Kuching engraved on it.
Many hours were enjoyed just wandering around the town during the day and the evening; enjoying the people, the old buildings and the colourful car park! We did the usual exploration of the markets and the craft shops. It never ceases to amaze us the amount of stock these shops carry. To us, Kuching had an enchanting, charismatic feel. We decided to take the bus to check out the Santubong anchorage, not realizing how isolated it was. We stayed on the bus so we could walk around the coast a little further on. In a strong SW wind, it all looked a little inhospitable to the north, as it would! We finally took the Hilton shuttle bus back to the city for 10 RM.
A must was a visit to the Cat Museum; although a little kitsch, we found it to be quite amusing. The museum stands proudly on a hill (Lonely Planet describes it as a UFO shaped building) offering an excellent vista of an old meandering river across its wide floodplain, with the distant mountains taking on a blueish haze. A model of such was on display in the museum foyer, which saved having to go on a joy flight to get a bird’s eye view! We were reminded of the vast run-off that occurs in the tropics (confirmed what the weather gurus were telling us; the ITCZ was indeed located over Kuching) when we were caught in significant thunder storm just after we had alighted from the bus. Needless to say we had to run up the hill to an unused shelter with much haste, as we could hear the wind rushing up the valley towards us, promptly followed by the deluge. It appeared that a substantial colony of bull ants was also enjoying this dry spot, so we had to do a little dance to keep the ants at bay, much to the amusement of the passers by. The shower soon passed and we scurried up the hill to the museum, opting for the short cut up the cliff, rather than following the road. We had not planned on a rock climbing expedition. Looking rather disheveled and quite wet on our arrival, we straightened ourselves out and pretended that all was ok.
The Cat Museum had all that one could think of relating to cats, along with some fantastic historic photos of Kuching. There were hundreds of ceramic cats of various sizes and poses, as well as paintings, posters and literature. We did find some omissions like ‘101 Things to do with a Dead Cat’, Puss ‘n Boots, any reference the ‘Cats’ (the wonderful musical) and famous ship’s cats like Trim and Simon.
We hired a driver to take us up into the mountains towards the Indonesian border (Kalimantan) so we could visit a Bidyah Long House. He was very interesting to talk to and gave us a local perspective of life in Sarawak. We wandered through the Long House with him and across an amazing bridge that was constructed of bamboo. We sat with the village representative who organizes homestays, mainly with environmentalists, scientists and artists who come to visit. The village has remained in its traditional manner with predominatley elderly people and young children. The teenagers and young adults go off to Kuching for their secondary and tertiary education. We spent some time talking about how life has changed for these tribal people and the impact of modern day life on their children and families. On our tour of the long house we were taken up to the ‘Head House’ which takes on a new meaning when you see the human skulls inside the cage. Considering the spiritual aspect of head hunting in the context of their social structure, the act itself it is not at all unfathomable and certainly part of their self preservation. The more heads you had, the more you were respected and the more your daughter’s dowry was worth. One tribe would kill another person only if they were considered an ‘enemy’. This translated into if you spoke another dialect, you would be considered the enemy. A good reason to be multi lingual!!
Peter had more blow pipe lessons, fortunately before the rice wine was bought out. (We have a blow pipe and darts on board from the Cameroon Highlands.) After several tastings to ensure its worth, a bottle was purchased for Peter’s night caps! Unfortunately we forgot that the opened (litre) bottle could not be taken on the plane as hand luggage; not realizing this until the baggage scanner at the airport identified it! Feeling a tads embarrassed, Peter reluctantly gave it to a very happy baggage handler (non-Muslim!). The Muslim lady at the scanner said we could stand there and drink it. She was serious and we fell over laughing. Sculling almost a litre of 46% proof rice wine? Not a good look! We did notice a few smiles around us. Silly white folk again!
As we don’t spend enough time on a boat (??) we decided to hire a little river ferryfor a jaunt up the river. The tambangs were traditionally double ended, double oared, but today they have a little motor which is started and stopped by some wires running from the stern to the bow. The drivers glide in an out of the dock from the bow using the oars, with the engine at the stern. It took Peter a few minutes to check out the system and find the small wire which was the cut off for the engine. He restrained himself admirably by not pulling it to see if he was right! Today some of the boats are painted bright yellow and others red as they are sponsored by Digi and Maxis. We paid the man too much for this pleasure but made his day in doing so. The smile on his face when he saw us talk to two young Brits, sending them to him for the same, made our day.
Our decision to go to Semmingoh Rehabilitaiton Centre was rewarded with the pleasure of once again watching the orangutans. As there were only a few tourists, we were able to enjoy the feeding and interactions between the orangs in peace. Although not nearly as good as Camp Leaky in Kumai, it is always a special moment to observe these beautiful primates.
As there are many more places to explore, we would be happy to return to Kuching with Stolen Kiss, although unfortunately the bridges restrict our anchorage anywhere near the city.
From Kuching we are flying to Phuket to meet some sailing friends, then on to Laos. It is an extremely busy and somewhat overwhelming time at the airport as many Muslims are off to the Hajj. The Malays have this beautiful gesture of shaking someone’s hand then touching their heart as a mark of respect and honour. We find this to be such a quiet, gentle gesture and we are very humbled when it is done to us.