Whether you are looking for natural beauty, adventure or simply a getaway, Kuching, the biggest city in Sarawak has it all. Kuching is derived from the Malay word “Kucing” meaning cat. There are statues of cats all over the town including an original cat museum devoted to all things feline! The biggest cat statue at Jalan Padungan is dressed up on special occasions! Kuching is a cosmopolitan city, today where the population though predominantly Malay and Chinese, is also home to many of Sarawak’s ethnic groups.
Kuching‘s history is one of romance, adventure, piracy and head-hunting! Sarawak used to be under the control of the Sultan of Brunei. A young British adventurer, James Brooke was asked by the Sultan of Brunei to quell some demonstrations by local Dayak tribes and in return was given this city. He named himself the Raja of Sarawak .This was the beginning of the importance of Kuching as an administrative and commercial centre. Most of the colonial-style buildings like the Astana, the Sarawak Museum etc, were built by his successor, Charles Brooke.
Like many towns in Borneo, the focal point of Kuching is the river. Our hotel looks into the river and there are enchanting vignettes of daily life on the Sarawak River. There are quaint antique shops along the Main bazaar Street with beads, masks, blowpipes, Iban Pua Kumba (handwoven rugs) and baby carriers that used to be toted by the native women on their backs! Across the River is Fort Margherita named after the Rajah’s second wife. It was built in 1849 to serve as a fort to guard Kuching’s waters from pirates and today it’s a Police Museum with a collection of Cannon balls, guns swords, etc and reconstructed opium dens and scenes of criminal punishment. On the North bank we also see the white Astana, which was built by Charles Brooke as a gift for his wife, and today is the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak.
We visit the Sarawak Museum on the first day where there are intricate wood carvings by the local Dayak tribes. There is an interesting “Walk- through” Long-house modeled after those built by the Iban tribes. Long-house is a type of Communal living practiced by the tribes of Malaysia where an entire village of several hundred people live in a single long-house! Other sections of the Museum display tattoos used by the tribes and contraptions used by the native women to beautify themselves. We then drive to China town which has the Tua pek kong Temple supposed to be the oldest temple in Kuching. The atmosphere of this quarter is distinctive and the temple is dedicated to the deity for peace and prosperity. Our guide takes us to the futuristic civic tower with an open-air viewing platform, from where we get a spectacular view of the city and its hinterland including the strange looking Mount Santubong (which looks like a man sleeping!).The Kuching Waterfront is a major restoration and land reclamation project. It’s dotted with benches, eateries and fountains. An evening walk on the waterfront is a colorful sensory immersion. The chatty food-vendors draw hungry visitors to their stalls. The River sampans go back and forth making their bank to bank journeys and as the enticing aroma of grilled satay wafts the night air, the small lights shimmer in the dark waters.
Our main reason for visiting Kuching is the trip to Bako National Park which is about 37 kms away from the city. We take a van to Kampung Bako , a sleepy fishing village on stilts, and from there a long boat on the South China sea to Bako. As we approach the National Park after an adventurous boat-ride crashing on the waves, we see gigantic limestone cliffs. The constant erosion over millions of years has given Bako a picturesque coastline and has created many sea-stacks and sea arches that rear above the sea like mighty serpents. The boatmen tell us to take off our shoes and walk to the jetty as it is low tide and they cannot land the boats.
We are on a deserted beach, and in the distance is the National park Hostel and headquarters. Bako is Borneo’s oldest national park and home to the famous Proboscis Monkey with its pendulous nose and pot belly! The powerful lure for travelers is that even though Bako is fairly small in size, you can see seven types of Borneo’s vegetation here! There are 16 color-codes walking trails here. The fit and adventurous can even opt for a full day jungle hike. We opt to do a fairly easy plank walk into the forest which is rainforest in part and mangrove swamps in part. We really hope to spot the elusive Proboscis monkeys... The trail is serene. We pass loads of Pitcher plants, which are capable of holding up to four liters of water in which their prey, mostly insects are digested . Our guide tells us they are called Periuk Kera in Malay, meaning Monkey’s pot! We hear a crash overhead. It’s a pack of long –tailed macaques, the most fearless creatures on earth and we try not to meet their bold gazes. As we press on, dark rain clouds threaten and towards the end of our trail we spot them-four proboscis monkeys, huge with their long noses grunting noisily! The end of the trail leads to large stretches of mangrove vegetation in the no-man’s-land where the sea meets the dry land. We watch mud-skippers trailing through the clear waters and trudge back to the camp head quarters for lunch. Bearded Bornean pigs with prominent bristles are scavenging for food around the restaurant. There can be few places on the earth which can pack so much natural beauty into such a small area. The secret of its charm lies in the delightful hassle of getting there! It’s truly a paradise for stressed-out city folk like me. With proper tourism management, hopefully it will remain that way!
Published in the New Indian express, 2008