Saturday, June 28, 2014

Visiting Sarawak, Borneo: Kuching

Its nickname is "Cat City" so there are numerous cat sculptures about. R was a fan.
Back in September of last year, we took a trip to Kuching, Malaysia.This is probably not a place most people have heard of, but I was very excited to go for two reasons: 1. Kuching is actually in Sarawak, Borneo (where Sarawak white pepper originates: it's still a local product!), which seems almost impossibly exotic to me and 2. it is possible to see wild or semi wild orangutans in their native habitat not far from the city.
Former residence of the Brookes, today the governor's residence (and not open to the public)
Kuching has a fascinating history. It was founded by a British adventurer, who received the area as a personal fiefdom in the 19th century as a reward for his pirate-killing abilities. He and his descendants proceeded to rule it for the next 100+ years as the "White Rajahs": they seem to have been dictators/kings of the benevolent kind, however, and despite their foreign origin were popular. Their rule continued until the Japanese invaded Malaysia during WWII: after the war, the last Rajah ceded Kuching to the British government and it lost its independent state status (this was apparently a rather unpopular move locally).
All the resulting British influence is reflected in the architecture and makes Kuching a very charming place to wander around in.
Public park
Shophouses, traditional architecture in British SE Asia (Singapore had them too, at least until most of them were torn down in urban renewal projects)
Old colonial building where we ate lunch
The legislative building dominates the skyline: Kuching is not a high rise kind of place
My favorite activity, besides wandering the streets, was taking a boat ride along the Sarawak River. It was a great way to see the city and a little bit of local life, and inspired me with thoughts of week-long cruises up the river into the deep jungle...Maybe someday!
Inside of our sampan
The outside (not ours): the only other high rise in town currently is the hotel where we stayed, on the right
Local fisherman
I loved the brightly painted boats
Houses on stilts, so practical
Kuching is a heavily Chinese city, rather to my surprise (the population is at least half ethnically Chinese). Most of the urban Chinese originate from Fujian (as do the Chinese in Taiwan), so the temples looked rather familiar to me, in a pleasing way.

Red is the lucky color so it predominates

Typical Fujianese style roof (dragons chasing the pearl of immortality)
Chinese opera stage and snacking area, though the opera wasn't currently on. Note the very short shorts: Malaysia is Muslim, but the Chinese have their own style of dressing
There's a very well done museum (the Chinese History Museum) about the different groups of overseas Chinese represented in Borneo and Kuching in particular. While they came from only a few provinces in China, those provinces happened to have a huge variety of ethnicities and language groups. I highly recommend a visit.
Two of the major ones: Hakka and Cantonese (this group dominates Hong Kong, for example)

Overall, Kuching is quite a charming city, with a very relaxed vibe. We definitely plan on going back!

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