Wandering Around with Little to Do in Kuching (Matt)
Jul 6, 2007
|Dusk shows us our first glimpse of Kuching as our taxi winds its way into town. We're bleary eyed, tired, and hungry. Our bodies are stiff from being on a bus for ten hours. Unlike every other bus journey in the last eight months, we had no break for lunch, just brief pauses in the long winding road for bathroom breaks and a bag of chips. At one point, I attempted to buy some "jungle fruit" from a local woman who had spread the scaly plum-sized things on a cloth before her. They look like fruit I've tasted before that tasted like apple, pear, and strawberry all at once. As I point at them, a man interrupts, telling me they are "very very sour". I taste one and the bitter-sour taste dries my mouth and coats my tongue. Ugh. I return to the bus, still hungry.
Our guesthouse, once the taxi driver finds it, turns out to be in an alley atop some local food stalls. The staff are friendly and welcoming enough, but our room can at best be described as "odd". There are two single beds and a bunk bed in a basic box of a room. In the corner, a shoulder-height cement partition conceals the toilet and shower. Holes have been torn in the shower curtain at what appear to be deliberately revealing levels (I'm guessing by men who might be exploiting a co-ed sleeping arrangement). The toilet allows more privacy for those who don't mind anyone in the room listening as they relieve themselves. The walls between rooms are paper-thin. It is clean and affordable; that's about all I can say for it. Everywhere else in town appears to be beyond our budget.
I'm tired and irritable. We find a nearby restaurant recommended in our guide as being fashionable with good food. It is good enough, but I probably don't appreciate the food as much as I might have on another day. I really just want to eat and get some sleep. That's basically what we do.
Morning light shows Kuching to be a clean well-manicured town with a pleasant promenade along the Sarawak river.
The riverfront is designed for tourists: large expensive hotels tower nearby while information centres, handicraft stores, and snack stalls line the walk.
By 10AM, it becomes almost unbearably hot, forcing us to find shelter. We find an internet café and let the afternoon grow hotter, then cool bit by bit. Malay food courts are everywhere and inexpensive. It feels much like having dinner in a shopping mall at home.
A few things soon become clear as we explore the town: there are lots of tourists who visit here; the town is pleasant with manicured gardens, parks and public areas; and there is little for a visitor to do. I begin to feel like I am staying in Nanaimo at home: a nice enough place, perhaps a good city to live in, but not somewhere I would travel to the other side of the world to visit.
Our days take on a pattern: rise and eat breakfast of toast, coffee, and instant oatmeal at the guesthouse; find an activity to do in the morning before the heat becomes unbearable, then retreat to a coffee shop or internet café in the afternoon. As evening comes, we venture out to a restaurant, a walk around the town, then we retreat to bed.
One day we take a local bus to an area known for its potters. The bus, despite assurances of reliability, takes a long, long time to appear at the depot. When we are dropped at the side of a busy highway, what we had expected to be shops where local potters create and sell their work turn out to be quite different. The large stores have the sprawling look of a garden centre filled with similar ceramic pots. Many are decorated with kitchy patterns for the tourists. Outside, large empty parking lots seem to wait for a fleet of tour buses. The buses don't come, nor do any other tourists while we browse one, then another shop, each identical to the others.
At one, we are invited to view the ceramics being made. To my surprise, the complex designs decorating most of the pots are indeed done by hand. Women carve into partly-dried clay to form floral, geometric, and other patterns. It is interesting, for a time.
Before long, we return to town and visit the local museum. A large display of traditional ceramics awaits us, coincidental with our visit to the potteries. The traditional techniques and information on various archaeological digs in Borneo turn out to be quite interesting. The remainder of the museum is filled with artifacts from various indigenous peoples (drums, carvings, housewares) and a natural history section brimming with stuffed animals -- some of which have a distinct scent of rotting meat.
A historical walking tour of Kuching on another day is like learning about history in Canada: it is all recent, and all related to British colonization.
Our last evening in Kuching, we decide to take a "romantic sunset boat tour" (according to the ad anyway) along the river. Loud pop music blares on the sound system as the boat loads. As we begin to move, our "guide" starts his routine: "Ladies and gentlemen, for your information," blasts the speakers, "on your left is the mosque, on your left is the mosque." Then, as we return down the river past each landmark again, the exact same directions are given once more, "Ladies and gentlemen, for your information, to your right, to your left, for your information we are cruising at the mosque ..." It is touristy in the most inane, sheep-herding, tell-the-stupid-visitors-everything-five-times sort of way. When the river cruise ethnic dancers emerge, I can't decide whether to cringe, laugh, or be saddened by the obvious exploitation of cultural rituals and traditions to make some money from the tourists.
For our last dinner in Kuching, we head to a local food centre which, unmentioned in our guide, turns out to be a seafood centre. Good for me; bad for Laura. Optimistically, we choose a stall and look for something without meat for Laura. It isn't easy.
I order a small crab cooked in black pepper sauce. Laura has some fried rice and vegetables. A man comes by offering prawns and, imagining a satay stick of small grilled and spiced prawns with her rice and vegetables, she requests four.
Our rice arrives and is mostly eaten by the time Laura's vegetables are delivered. Almost everything is eaten by the time my crab comes. The prawns -- which the man told us would cost $16 per kilo -- turn out to cost $60 per kilo and are huge fleshy things that have not been deveined, a thick line of blood and intestine must be picked from the meat like a biology dissection. Each is about the size of a butterflied chicken breast and weighs a quarter of a kilo. In total, the meal costs us almost $40 CDN (not a lot in Canada, but the equivalent of about $200 here). The crab is almost tasteless, though the pepper sauce is tasty enough to allow me to eat most of the prawns, and nothing like the ones we have at home (I didn't realize how lucky we are). The prawns are rubbery, overcooked, and barely edible -- I think Laura has a small bite and leaves the rest for me to finish (along with the seafood picked out of the rice, and my disappointing crab) It should have been a seafood treat for me; I've been wanting to try the crab here for a while. All in all, it is a disaster, and an expensive one at that.
Our one good meal in Kuching (yes, there was only really one) was with an Australian couple we met at our guesthouse one morning. We reunited later that day and took a water taxi across the river for a tasty meal in an outdoor restaurant lit with little lights while boats passed by on the river behind us. Good food and good company ... much needed after our other experiences in this city!
The following day, we catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur, leaving the island of Borneo behind. I'm ready to leave. I'm fighting to keep my mind open to experiences here, to see the best and enjoy the country. I try not to see the cities and towns as bland places with the conveniences of a developed country but with little I find appealing. Perhaps I am still judging places by comparing them to India, a country of extreme beauty and ugliness both. Developed countries like Malaysia achieve a bland middle ground, I'm starting to feel. Once you've been to the rainforest and explored the caves, what more is there? Beaches maybe, but they are lined with expensive resorts here ... and beyond our means.
Perhaps Kuala Lumpur will energize my interest in Malaysia.