Malaysia – Kuching
From Penang we took an Air Asia flight to Kuching in Sarawak state on the island of Borneo. Borneo conjures a lot of exotic images for a lot of people, not for me particularly, but it was easy to see why. Rainforests, mountains, orangutans, head-hunting tribesmen, all of it adds up for a potential out-of-this-world experience. Given Malaysia’s rapid economic expansion, the abundant tour operators and the fact nearly everyone speaks English, you’re not going to find a new world here, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy all the things Borneo has to offer.
In Kuching city the main point of interest is the south side of the harbour, during the night it’s full of people out about on walks, having a meal, listening to buskers and perusing market stalls. During the day on the other side of the road you can visit the many shops that offer numerous locally made handicrafts, particularly by those of tribes native to Sarawak. For a Middle Eastern perfume head like me Sarawak’s main product is oud, but alas I didn’t see anyone selling to the public here or in neighbouring Sabah state which we visited later during our trip. Our first meal in Kuching was at an excellent food court called Top Spot, a number of hawker stalls operate here most of which specialise, in what I assume, are freshly caught local fish. Located on top of a car park (look out for the sign) this place gets frequented by loads of locals in the evening. Pick a fish/lobster/crab/Godzilla size prawn, anything that looks good and have it steamed/fried/grilled, definitely try some steamed fish (I think we had the snapper). Prices at fresh fish hawker stalls are more expensive as you’re paying for a whole fish by weight, so don’t be surprised when you get the bill, but make sure you check it over before paying.
On our first whole day in Kuching we started with a wander round the harbour where we were the night before. Making our way westwards towards the main city mosque. At this point we tried to find the Islamic Civilizations Museum, which took us a very long time, due mostly to Lonely Planet’s surprisingly inaccurate map and directions. To get to the museum find the Gurdwara on the corner of Jalan P. Ramlee and from there head south-west down this road, you’ll see the museum on your left. The museum is quite dated, everything feels like it’s from the 80s, but it was free and quite varied so I wasn’t complaining. Before we found the museum we came across an “Islamic shopping centre”, I can’t remember what it was called but it’s near the museum and next to a banqueting hall called Dewan Kompleks Islam, I only mention it if sisters are looking to buy hijabs/jilbabs etc, there wasn’t much in the way of goods for men over 6ft. In the afternoon we had booked a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, situated in a nature reserve the centre caters for the semi-wild orangutans that live there. Seeing orangutans is a big feature of many people who visit Borneo, as this is one of only two places in the world you can see them (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). The good thing about Semenggoh is that the orangutans here are not kept in captive, they live in the nature reserve and come to the centre for food if they’re hungry. The whole purpose of the centre being to help them get reintroduced back into the wild, so as such their main concern is not catering for tourists but the orangutans themselves. However this does mean that you’re visit Semenggoh may result in you not seeing many, or any orangutans at all. From what I gathered Semenggoh is quite difficult to get to using public transport, it may be worth doing what we did and booking a tour through your hotel (which is quite out of character for me), our guide was a native Sarawakan called Tony, he drove us from the hotel, gave us information about the centre, explained things, let us wander by ourselves and then drove us back, the cost of the tour includes entry into the reserve, so it works out pretty well. If you do decide to visit the centre on your own there are two feeding times, once in the morning and once in the afternoon so time your visit to coincide with them.
The next day we visited Bako National Park, we took a taxi there which cost RM50 (we unknowingly agreed a price with one of the blue taxi drivers which are more expensive than the more humble red ones), the bus is a much cheaper alternative at RM3.50 per person and leaves every hour from the bus station near the mosque, and takes around an hour to get there. The bus or taxi won’t actually take you to the national park itself, it’s situated on a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea and can only be reached by boat. You buy your ticket and get on the next boat, it’ll stop a little further out from the beach so you have to wade out to the park entrance (apparently this is meant to be “part of the experience”). At the park entrance pay the entrance fee, sign in, pick a trail and head out. You can hire a guide if you wish but apparently given Bako’s relatively small size it’s not really needed. The park has a mixture of beaches, jungle, mangroves and cliffs, it’s definitely worth making a visit to if you’re in Sarawak. Just make sure you take a big bottle of water for each person, use mosquito repellent, and as a personal recommendation, consider wearing one layer of clothing. Sisters who wear hijab may want to consider bandana style, though you do see Malaysian girls wearing the standard hijab I suppose they’re used to the heat and humidity. The park is one of the best places you can see proboscis monkeys, who are only found in Borneo, as well as silver leaf and macaques. Bit of advice, don’t feed the macaques, unless you want them to go through your bag for anything else you may have to offer (and no I didn’t find that out the hard way). There is a trail that leads to a beach where you’re meant to be able to see proboscises, though we didn’t see them along the way, there were quite a few at the park entrance. The tide was low when we got there and you can go for a swim but the water around the park is teeming with jellyfish so check with the rangers at the entrance before deciding to take a dip. From there we backtracked to take another trail which went through different terrains in a very short period of time to reach a cliff overlooking a great secluded beach:
The reason for its seclusion is that the only way to get there is to charter one of the numerous boats operating around the park (I only realised that after we go to the top of the cliff). From there we made our way back to park headquarters and paid for a ticket on the last boat at 4pm. There are a number of lodges you can stay in overnight if you want to, the wildlife changes completely at night and it’s meant to be quite an experience, but apparently the accommodation is quite dire.
The next day we visited the cat museum on the north side of the city. At this point I should explain that ‘Kuching’ means cat in Malay, and as a result the city authorities have jumped full on in capitalising on this, there’s a number of cat statues scattered across the city, and the cat museum is even run by the state and located in city hall. Entry is free but you have to pay if you want to take photographs, or hand over your equipment. The museum is an eccentric collection of literally everything cat related covering numerous topics. History, religion, culture, biology, film, anything that had anything remotely cat related you can find it here. In the afternoon we decided to use the time to visit the Sarawak museums located near the western side of the city centre, you can tie in a visit to these museums as well as others, including the Islamic Civilizations Museum in a single trip.
And thus ended our time in Kuching. One of the main tourists things we skipped on was the ‘longhouse experience’. Personally I don’t really see the appeal of going into a longhouse to experience someone else’s culture just because it’s weird and different to where you’re from. Sure the whole point of travelling is to see, experience and feel a different culture to yours, but when it’s handed to you on a plate as opposed to coming to you naturally it loses its appeal to me. But if you are interested every tour company offers trips to take you to some of the longhouses still occupied by native tribespeople, most of whom are now Christians, and there’s also the Sarawak Cultural Village if you prefer to see it in a sanitized form.
From Kuching we flew further east to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state, and that will God willing follow in the next piece.