Detour – Kuching 04 #1

Someone once said that there are only three cities in Malaysia worth visiting: Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching. I had the good fortune to visit Penang this year, unfortunately before this blog began (although there was a mini write-up on it on my older blog minus photos). However, I managed to visit the third city worth visiting recently, Kuching, and I definitely was taken by its charm.

RFD and I left for the airport mid-morning, via the KLIA Express from KL Sentral. I usually come back from the airport via the train, but I’ve never taken it from town to the airport. Of course, things seem a lot more exciting on the way out, and I noticed how much development there was going on in the Salak South and Bandar Tasik Selatan, Cheras (left pic).

I have never flown Air Asia before, or any other kind of budget airline, so this was another first for me. I was told many things, and everything was true: the free seating, and the mad rush to the gate to get good seats – all true. However, what I wasn’t expecting was the boredom. I never realised how much comfort played a part in flying, and how much the serving of drinks and meals actually fill in the time. Instead, I found myself staring into the leather seat ahead, bored out of my mind, wondering why one hour and forty minutes felt like five hours.

Saying that though, it was good value for money, in terms of flying, and the part of the journey when I was close to Kuching was great. We were flying low enough so I could see the sea and the islands (pic above). Once we got over land, I got a tremendous view of the Sarawak river winding like a huge snake through the tropical rainforest (pic below). Soon, a few dots of houses appeared, and the next thing I knew, we were landing.

The airport is quite an experience as well. I was quite surprised that I had to fill in forms and go through Immigration, as if I were a foreigner to the country. Later on, I was even more surprised to find I had to get a work permit, should I wish to work in Sarawak. Apparently, all this is part of the deal northern Borneo made with peninsular Malaysia when they joined the country.

The ride from the airport to Kuching town seemed long. Truth be told, I was really tired, having had a busy week. However, there was lots to see. Kuching is very much a cool green city, with lots of trees. There are also lots of artpieces in public spaces, like this welcoming metal hornbill sculpture (right pic). The roads were small and narrow, which meant that most of them were designated one-way to ease traffic tension. And the most charming thing I found within the city itself was how well they preserved and maintained their old buildings and shoplots (but more of that later).

We got to our hotel, Holiday Inn, located on Kuching’s riverfront within half an hour or so after leaving the airport. The hotel was quite nice, although slightly old. The room was good, with some ethnic flavour (pics above), including a nice sketch of a headhunter, carrying a head! In no time, I had dumped my bags, and was off looking for a place to eat. Along the way, I couldn’t miss the huge ornamental cat monument right in front of the hotel. I also noticed that Kuala Lumpur isn’t the only place suffering traffic congestion (left pic below).
I found the Khatulistiwa Cafe within a stone’s throw of the hotel. It looked like a tourist trap, but the prices weren’t so bad. The building itself was shaped in a hut, with a club on the upper floor, and a restaurant on the ground floor. The restaurant was decorated with local ethnic masks and spears (right pic above), and was open and breezy, with a good view of the river (pic below). We both ended up having “Laksa Sarawak”, one of the famous local dishes. It was an interesting dish, which RFD believed to be “healthy”, although I am of a slightly different opinion.

RFD later went back to the hotel to work, while I decided to just hit the streets of Kuching to see what’s what. The town is set in quite a hilly area (left pic above), with the river seperating its north and south regions. The riverbank (right pic above), a popular R&R spot for locals and tourist alike, is quite picturesqe, with stalls and hawkers selling food, drink and aphrodisiacs. Halfway through the walkway, I came across an elegent looking restaurant, called “The James Brooke Cafe” (pic below). Right across it, was the Chinese History Museum.

The building in which the museum is housed is actually quite pretty, painted pale pink and set among tall green trees along the riverbank (pic below). The structure was built, with Charles Brooke’s consent, to accomodate the Chinese Court, established in 1911. The building was taken over by the government when the Chinese Court was dissolved in 1912, and later by the Sarawak Chinese General Chamber of Commerce in 1930. The museum has information and displays on the Chinese immigration into the state, and also background information the 8 major dialect groups. It was small enough for me to breeze through quickly (an exhibit in right pic). The security guard was friendly, and told me that there seemed to a number of KL-ites in town that weekend.

Inbetween the Chinese History Museum and the James Brooke Cafe was a main walkway with fountains featuring one of the many public art displays in the city (left pic). I’m not too sure what these are meant to be, but they appeared to me like storks. Right across the road is the Tua Pek Tong Temple (left pic below), one of the many temples in the narrow scenic streets of Kuching. As a matter of fact, just a few streets away, I found this brighter larger Chinese temple (right pic below).
There were many shops along the Main Bazaar catering to the tourist (right pic). Most of them sold souveniers, trinkets, t-shirts, traditional garb and ethnic statues and masks, while others were slightly high-end, like Artrageously Ramsay Ong. I loved the paintings and clothes he had on display, but I couldn’t really afford any of them. I also loved the way his gallery (and a number of other shops) had been designed. Some of them had little waterfalls inside the old airwell seperating the main shop and the backlot, while all of them utilised the upstairs as part of their shop/gallery. I think this is definitely one thing KL folk should pay attention to, rather than tearing down old shoplots, or painting them inelegent shades of pink and salmon.
Marvelling at the quaint charming shoplots along and slightly off the Main Bazaar (pics above), I came across signs pointing towards “Bishopsgate”. Curiously, there were signs all over the place, pointing towards some secret destination, signs which everyone else on the street seem to be ignoring. I just followed them doggedly, down through quiet streets, and little alleyways, until I finally came upon a little tiled square inbetween two rows of shophouses. There was a little old fashioned street lamp, wall with a plaque, proudly proclaiming that this was “Bishopsgate”, a litte piece of wall (pic below) which formerly was part of the gates leading to the Anglican mission, most of which had been torn down for development. I think it’s wonderful they’ve managed to retain that little bit of wall, make little signs to it like a little enigmatic tourist secret. Good one.

After this, I just decided to walk up quickly to the main promenade along the riverbank, and came across the Square Tower (pic below). This is a tiny building, built in 1879 for prisoners’ detention. The square was apparently later converted into a fortress, then a dance hall. Today, it acts as a multimedia centre displaying Sarawak’s tourist attractions.

Right across the street from the Square Tower is the Court House (pic below), an elegent building which reminds me of those old buildings in Singapore’s main colonial heritage area near the Singapore Padang. It was built in 1874 as an administrative block. State Council meetings were held there from that time, until as recently as 1973. It now houses the High Court, Magistrate’s Court and several governmental departments. The site on which the Court House sits used to be a missionary.

Feeling tired, I walked back to the hotel, coming across even more public art pieces, on which children play. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any other photos that day because my battery died. However, we didn’t do much else that evening, except to have dinner at an Italian restaurant (because both our tummies were a little upset, and needed something gentle and friendly), and tv in the hotel room.