Monday, August 04, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Kuching festival

Shophouses on Kuching Main Bazaar [Enlarge]

Our arrival into Kuching, Sarawak's largest city, must rank as one of the most bizarre arrivals of our trip so far. To get through the door of the Waterfront Lodge, our home for the next couple of days, we had to duck between groups of locals in colourful costumes, and the endless stalls which had been set up in front of all the buildings. We managed to slip through between the boys brigade and the India society into a haven of relative tranquillity. The Waterfront Lodge is part of the old colonial-era waterfront, but it has only just opened after a complete refurbishment. The beautiful shophouse must be one of the oldest buildings in town. The tastefully restored interior is all terracotta floor tiles, white walls, plants and gorgeous local wood. Despite the lobby not being air conditioned it felt like an oasis from the tropical heat. There was more than a little of the caravanserai ambiance that we'd felt in the souk in Aleppo—the silk road may not have come through here, but the Chinese certainly did.

The manager greeted us with a broad smile and checked us in. As he showed us to our spotless room, he told us that this Friday night parade was the beginning of a weekend of festivities. We'd had no idea. When we were checking in the noise from outside was deafening, but it turned out that Sarawakians like to go to bed early, even when there's a parade. By 10:30pm the city was quiet...

Sarawak regatta [Enlarge]

...Until 7:00am on Saturday when the rowing regatta commentator decided to do an early sound check of the PA system, and we discovered that there was a massive speaker right outside our room. We were awake whether we wanted to be or not. After a bit we got up and went for a look at what was going on. Just across the road, under marquees, a small band was playing. A man in his sixties was up on the little stage, dancing. As we watched, a middle aged guy joined him, grooving to the mellow Bornean music. The people of Malaysian Borneo, we began to realise, are an even more chilled out bunch than their mainland cousins.

We paid a visit to the local tourist information centre to pick up a map of the town and to look at our options for onward travel. Then we spent some time walking around, mingling with the crowds watching the regatta races that had now got under way on the river. The regatta had attracted a big crowd. They lined the river on both sides. We learned later some regional bigwigs had paid a visit at some point, but we didn't see, let alone get to meet, the Sultan of Brunei, or Jason Brooke, great-great-grandson of the second Rajah Brooke of Sarawak. Everyone was having a great time, eating satay from the riverside stalls, drinking iced tea and fluorescent milk drinks, buying helium balloons and generally enjoying a day out with the family.

Sarawak regatta. [IMG_4715]
Buying a cold drink [Enlarge]

We hadn't really known what to expect in Borneo, but we'd somehow expected less civilisation. We certainly hadn't envisioned wifi in our room and an excellent Lebanese restaurant just around the corner. Kuching isn't just modern, it's characterful, cultured, vibrant and welcoming. We had such a nice time just hanging out, eating nice food, we didn't want to leave. But we can't really stay forever.

On our last day we crossed the river and visited Fort Margherita, Rajah Brooke's defence against pirates. Sarawak's history is unusual—it wasn't a colony of another country, but was owned and administered by three generations of the Brooke family for over a century, having been granted to Englishman James Brooke in 1841 by the Sultan of Brunei as thanks for Brooke's brokering a peaceful settlement of the Dayak uprising. Brooke styled himself the first Rajah of Sarawak, but eventually the dynasty was pressured into ceding sovereignty to the British after World War II.

Fort Margherita, Kuching [Enlarge]

With the Rajahs and the pirates long gone (at least from Malaysian Borneo) the fort doesn't have much purpose any more, and it's looking a bit tatty. The Bornean weather is not kind—relentlessly hot with torrential rain for part of the year. Our guidebook uncharitably describes the fort as having "been left to rot under the Borneo sun". This is a huge exaggeration. Inside the fort we found a local still guarding the fort. As we arrived he leaned his broom up and led us inside the main building to write our names in the visitors book and stow our bag before climbing the spiral staircase to the watchtower.

It was close to midday. The sun was beating down on the fort's whitewashed stone and gleaming off the river. Water taxis were shuttling back and forth. A rooster crowded somewhere down the hill, and in the background, noise from the huge construction site next door (the new Sarawak parliament we think) rumbled over to the watchtower. The heat was almost unbearable and our need to find some shade became irresistible, so we had to come down from the tower. It's hard to believe that there was ever any need for forts and defences—In this equatorial heat surely no one has the energy to have wars!

Sarawak river taxi [Enlarge]

We beat our retreat down the hill and back across the river. There's plenty to do in Kuching if you have the stamina. There are a couple of crazily decorated temples and some small museums around the town centre, and lots of shops where you can buy locally made souvenirs. Some of the hardwood furniture was beautiful. If we still had a house we might well have bought one of the amazing boat-shaped seats. Of course it wouldn't have fitted in our backpacks, so it's probably a good thing we don't have anywhere to put it. The city's restaurants are many and varied. Chinese food dominates, with Malay cuisine a close second, but you can find almost anything.

So, Kuching was a wonderful start to our Bornean adventure. We can only hope that after such a great introduction, the rest of Sarawak doesn't bring us crashing back to earth.