Travel Guide: Kuching and Sarawak

Reader be warned: As in Penang, I took a lot of pictures.

The third and final weekend of our (currently) planned trips out of Seremban brought us to Kuching, the capital of the East Malaysia state of Sarawak. Sarawak is located on the island of Borneo along with another Malaysian state, Sabah, the country of Brunei, and part of Indonesia.

For clarity and your viewing pleasure, here is a map

Kuching means “cat” and there are statues of cats around the city, a cat museum, and, of course, many feral cats.

Cat statue in the center of Kuching
Cat statue in the center of Kuching

We arrived on Wednesday because of a school holiday for Deepavali/Divali/Diwali so this was a longer trip than any trip we’ve taken so far. We spent Wednesday getting our bearings and wandering around. Kuching is not a big city and there are sidewalks and a boardwalk along the river. What we found really interesting was that it felt old. Not old in a historic, cultural sense but old as in neglected and rundown. It didn’t bother us, but we noticed. Sarawak and its neighboring state, Sabah, are the primary oil producers in Malaysia but they don’t get the same government aid and funding as the peninsula. Yes, it shows. Regardless, we loved Kuching and the areas that we explored around it. These pictures are from our walk around the city on our first day:

We took a little motorboat to cross the river (finally, this blog lives up to its name) to visit Fort Margherita, a relic of Sarawak’s early history. The British arrived in Sarawak in the 1840s and Charles Brooke, the second of the White Rajahs (the first was his uncle) gets the credit for its construction.

The interior of the motorboat that we took from one side of the river to the other
The interior of the motorboat that we took from one side of the river to the other
We walked through a neighborhood and found starfruit growing on trees . . .
We walked through a neighborhood and found starfruit growing on trees . . .
. . . and finally arrived at the fort and then promptly left because it was closed
. . . and finally arrived at the fort and then promptly left because it was closed

For dinner the first night we took a colleague’s recommendation to go to Top Spot, a food court on top of a multi-story parking garage.

This place is amazing. Go
This place is amazing. Go

The picture isn’t the best, but the food was. You literally pick your fish or other seafood from ice, put all the vegetables that you want on a plate, tell the staff how you want it cooked (they have different lists of cooking styles depending on what you’re eating), and enjoy your beautiful food when it arrives. We were in heaven the entire time. Our sea bass was steamed with ginger, pepper, garlic, and some other magical ingredients and it was quite possibly the best fish I’ve ever had.

We woke up early the next morning to catch the first bus to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, located about 45 minutes outside Kuching. Basically everything a tourist is supposed to do while staying in Kuching is 45 minutes out of Kuching. Public transit is cheap and shuttles are readily available, so there’s no need for a car. Semenggoh is a huge land preservation area with different types of botanical gardens, but it is best known for its orangutan project.

Semenggoh also had a few crocodiles, but no one paid much attention to them
Semenggoh also had a few crocodiles, but no one paid much attention to them

The orangutans are fed twice a day at the center, though the goal is for them to find food in the while on their own. It’s the end of fruit season now, so they were beginning to return to the center at the designated feeding times.

Handy chart helping visitors understand the family structure of these orangutans, when they arrived at the center, and how old they are
Handy chart helping visitors understand the family structure of these orangutans, when they arrived at the center, and how old they are

We ended up seeing both feedings because of a trip that we took in the middle of the day, so these pictures are a combination of the feedings. The first time, two mothers and their babies came to eat and the second time we met two young males and an older male (though not the alpha, who was reportedly lurking in the forest nearby). One of the mothers returned with her baby, too.

Watching the orangutans was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. They are so agile and flexible and so human-like. (Or, I suppose, humans are very orangutan-like.) They have distinct personalities, facial expressions, and relationships with each other and it was just a very humbling experience. I felt almost as though I were watching evolution as it happened; it is so easy to see how orangutans and humans are related. If you’re not convinced, consider that “orang utan” in Malaya means “people of the forest.” Wow.

After the first orangutan feeding, we joined an older Belgian couple with whom we had been talking to visit the Annah Rais Longhouse located 45 minutes away. They say that no trip to Sarawak is complete without visiting one of the many indigenous groups of the area and this Bidayuh longhouse is happy to have visitors.

Beautiful scenery we passed along the way. There are churches all over Sarawak and there were crosses on most of the doorways at Annah Rais
Beautiful scenery we passed along the way. There are churches all over Sarawak and there were crosses on most of the doorways at Annah Rais

I felt a little strange walking through people’s homes and basically dancing on their heads, but if my RM5 entry fee helps alleviate their poverty (or supports their choice to live in traditional longhouses), so be it.

While visiting the Annah Rais Longhouse, Mitch bought a bottle of rice wine sweetened with sugar. We had it as a welcome drink on the way into the longhouse and had tried an unsweetened version the night before. We liked the first and loved the second. We also loved that it was RM5 and came in a Carlsberg bottle – definitely homemade and definitely authentic. After a delicious dinner at a local, cheap restaurant we took our Carlsberg bottle down to the river and shared it while looking out over the water. We really did love Kuching.

Our trip the next day, Friday, to the Sarawak Cultural Village 45 minutes from Kuching helped put the Bidayuh lifestyle into context. The Cultural Village contained examples of dwellings of many of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples and it was really interesting to see the differences and similarities between them, as well as learn about where they’re located on Borneo. Considering I knew next to nothing before going, I’m glad we went. However, the lack of pictures should tell you my overall impression of Sarawak Cultural Village. I found it stale, dry, lacking in detail, and hellbent on an agenda to teach its visitors that the modern Malay people are superior to everyone else. In short, I found it distasteful and insulting. I didn’t think any of the people who worked there (there were no interpreters, which is a crime in itself) took the place seriously and concrete and nails do not give much of a representation of authentic building methods. If nothing else, we started to ask questions that we didn’t know we needed to ask.

Our walk along the beach later in the afternoon proved less educational, but also more enjoyable. The South China Sea and the rain forests along the coast are really beautiful.

Mitch by the water
Mitch by the water
Look, I'm in a picture!
Look, I’m in a picture!
Really cool vine
Really cool vine
Beautiful Borneo
Beautiful Borneo

Dinner Friday night found us at the Drunk Monkey, another place recommended by my coworker. Ray learned that we were going to Kuching and sent me a lengthy email with suggestions of not only where to go, but which sites and trips to combine. We followed his advice almost to the letter. Anyway, the Drunk Monkey is a Western-style bar that had a handful of takeout menus from cafes across the street sitting at the counter. We ordered our food at the bar, a bartender brought the order across the street, and cafe staff brought us our meals. Great system!

Look at all the choices!
Look at all the choices!
There was a cool atmosphere in the bar with old posters for Coca-Cola and various vintage objects
There was a cool atmosphere in the bar with old posters for Coca-Cola and various vintage objects
Drunk Monkey's exterior was a alleyway in between the bar and a restaurant next door
Drunk Monkey’s exterior was a alleyway in between the bar and a restaurant next door

(And then we bought a bottle of rice wine at a corner store that came in a Tiger bottle and was missing the sugar from the Annah Rais bottle. We didn’t finish it, unfortunately. As Mitch said, it was like drinking real pirate liquor.)

On Saturday we met up with a friend who was also in Kuching for the weekend. We rented a car and drove about – you guessed it! – 45 minutes to Bao to see the Fairy Cave, a cave so named because of the fairy statue inside. It was a dark, scary walk both up into the cave and down the slick flights of stairs back to Earth, but definitely worth it. The pictures don’t do it justice, but imagine grass and foliage growing in a bat cave. Imagine that all you can hear are the bats and that the only light comes from a gaping opening hundreds of feet off the ground.

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P1040394

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From there we drove for another 45 minutes or so to the coast to put our feet in a very, very hot bit of the South China Sea. The beach we found was at the edge of a tiny fishing village and completely empty. It was also flat, which provided some fantastic scenery and a real appreciation for the vastness of nature.

We drove around the coastal countryside for a bit longer, found a restaurant with some delicious fish that had definitely been caught that day, and finally made our way to the airport. It was a very nice way to end a wonderful trip.

Long story short: We loved Kuching and want to go back. The more time one has in Sarawak, so I’m told, the farther from Kuching one ought to go. We’d love to spend a few nights in Bako National Park, for example, or stay at a longhouse further out in the jungle. Maybe next time!

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