KUCHING: MALAYSIA'S CAPTIVATING ‘CAT' CITY
A woman in a blazing orange and green batik-print gown and embroidered head scarf examines pair of sunglasses bearing a designer label; a stout matriarch, floppy hat perched on her head, presides over her display of fresh bok choy and taro roots; a shop-keeper rolls out a bolt of shimmering brocade for a couple of teenagers, and two little girls giggle shyly as I stop to take a look at the array of fresh fish set out on green plastic trays.
I am on Jalan Gambier street in the heart of the city of Kuching (capital of Sarawak, Borneo) on a humid December afternoon. My T-shirt has been reduced to a soggy dish-rag, and my hair clings in Medusa-like coils around my temples. If I had any sense, I'd retreat to the my air-conditioned haven at the Crown Plaza Hotel, but I'm a junkie when it comes to inhaling the smells, sights and sounds of street bazaars—and this one has me hooked.
I look wistfully at carved Iban blow-pipes and darts—they'd be a wonderful conversation piece back home, but airport security might squirm; no knowing what havoc an elderly grey-haired woman might cause on board with tribal blow-pipe and darts sticking out of her hand-baggage.
I move on to peer at an exquisitely crafted hornbill, and a blaze of silver jewellery – both beyond my means. But then...oh, my look at that...a gorgeous blue silk batik skirt and tunic painted with a swirl of orchids. I succumb. Will worry about my Master Card billing later.
Across Jalan Gambier street is a produce market where housewives, like flocks of fussy hens, peck at flame coloured peppers, purple egg-plants and chubby little yellow bananas. The air smells of papaya, mango and durian mingled with spicier aromas of coriander, chillies and roasting peanuts. I pass on an offering of sago worms, but toy with the idea of buying a jar of sambal— shrimp paste embellished with a fiery chilli sauce.
It is early evening now, and a breeze has sprung up, dissipating the afternoon's humidity. I stroll towards Kuching's Waterfront Esplanade, and come face to face with the city's unique historical heritage. Just beyond the dignified old courthouse and clock tower, a stone obelisk honours Rajah Charles Brooke. Sarawak is, in fact, the only state in the world to have been ruled by three generations of "White Rajahs". The astonishing thing is that they weren't representatives of Britain's colonial power—they were independent administrators who held sway as absolute rulers for three generations.
The first Rajah, a swashbuckling adventurer, James Brooke succeeded in quelling a rebellion against a local governor. As a token of gratitude, the Sultan of Brunei who owned vast territories in Borneo, proclaimed him Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. His nephew Charles Brooke and Charles's son, Vyner Brooke continued the White Rajah dynasty— although Vyner Brooke and his family were forced to take refuge in Australia after the Japanese occupation in 1941. On his return to Borneo, he decided to cede Sarawak to the British Crown in 1946. It wasn't a popular move. Anti-colonial sentiment erupted into violent demonstrations, and eventually Sarawak became part of the federation of Malaysia in the early sixties.
An interesting footnote to this is that a branch of the Rajahs Brooke family reputedly now live in Canada, and that a small town (16 sq. miles) called Sarawak near Owen Sound in northern Ontario pays tribute to this connection.
As I emerge onto the Waterfront Esplanade, the sun is setting, turning the sky to burnished copper. The cityscape glimmers with firefly lights, their reflections fractured in the Sarawak River. People stroll, chat, and munch on peanuts. Across the water, the magnificent Astana—once the Brooke family's palace—is a white ghost against the encroaching dusk.
I am regretful at the thought of leaving Kuching the following morning. It is a charming town, and not the least of its appeal is that it is that it pays whimsical tribute to its nomenclature. Kuching means "cat" in Malay. No one is quite sure how the name originated but perhaps it was derived from the "cat's eye" trees that grow abundantly in the area. Be that as it may, two statues of playful felines—one in the main town square the other at the Waterfront Esplanade—are oft–photographed icons of a city as graceful and beguiling as its namesake.
IF YOU GO:
• Tua Pek Tong Temple: A brick red Chinese temple with dragon wall murals, it is the oldest such temple in Kuching, said to have been built in 1843.
• Chinese History Museum across from the Temple has a collection of Chinese artifacts and old photographs.
• Sarawak Museum: Reputedly one of the oldest and best museums in South East Asia with a stunning display of carvings, books, lithographs and re–creations of long house interiors, cooking, agricultural and hunting implements, musical instruments, ceramics, costumes and Iban textiles. The old section of the museum is accessible via a pedestrian bridge over Jalan Tun Haji Openg. It's displays include a hair ball and pair of spectacles retrieved from a crocodile's stomach, an infamous palang, (penis pin) and a section on tattooing.
• Sarawak Islamic Museum: Seven galleries cover the Muslim heritage of Sarawak and abroad.
• The Square Tower: A old defence tower located on the Waterfront Esplanade
• Charles Brooke Memorial: is embossed with bronze plaques representing Sarawak's mixed ethnic population: European, Malay, Iban and Chinese.
• Sarawak Cultural Village: Although this is located about 35 km (a 40 minute drive) out of Kuching city centre, it is well worth spending half a day or more, while exploring the traditional houses and culture of Sarawak's indigenous peoples. Billed as a "living museum" it is set in 7 acres of tropical landscaped gardens, and features a superb folk dance performance every afternoon. A "must see" attraction!
• Kutching's unique Cat Museum: http://sarawaktourism.com/attraction/cat-museum/Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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