A Taste of Multifaceted Wonders of Kuching, Sarawak
By Teh Chin Liang
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
The sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with a fiery glow.
On the staircase leading down to the riverbank, tourists in Kuching snacked on skewers and fish balls while taking in the fleeting splendor of the sunset.
Standing atop the S-curved bridge, I gazed out over its graceful arc over the flowing river beneath. Its cutting-edge design was truly a marvel of engineering.
The bridge was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colors, from vibrant green to yellow, and deep sapphire blue.
The river mirrored the spectacle, blending the bridge’s changing colors with the mesmerizing glow of the nearby mosque.
The reflection was soon splintered into shards as a passenger boat sliced through, sending glittering ripples across the surface.
The boat passengers waved at the tourists on the shore, flashing a genuine toothy smile. The tourists waved back, watching the boat recede into the darkness, dwindling into a tiny dot of light.
The sweeping panorama reminded me of the romantic Istanbul evening. But I was far from that part of the world. I was standing on the famous Darul Hana Bridge in Kuching, Sarawak, overlooking the vibrant waterfront on one end and the grandeur of the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly on the other.
The sprawling promenade was packed with tourists. A man in Dayak attire plucked the strings of a Sape, a long and slender traditional string instrument made of a single piece of wood.
The music rose and fell in unison with the rushing waters of the Sarawak River, as if telling the story of the rise and fall of civilizations along the riverbank.
Kuching is Cat City
Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the largest state of Malaysia. An assembly of cat statues in downtown reminded me that I was in the “Cat City,” a nickname derived from the similarity of its name to the Malay word for “cat.”
Sarawak was under British occupation for over 100 years, from 1841 to 1946. The well-kept historic buildings around Kuching still bear the remnants of British colonialism.
The Sarawak State Museum is a stunning example of British architecture. Its symmetrical façade sits majestically on a sprawling verdant lawn – a postcard sight to behold. If it weren’t for the local architecture, I could have mistaken this was a quaint English town.
The distinctive features of Muslim, Chinese, and Indian cultures are woven into the rich architectural tapestry of Kuching, a testament to its multicultural heritage.
Reminiscent of British Colonization
A quick boat trip across the river ferried me to The Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita. Built in 1879, the fort was named after Renee Margaret, the wife of the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke.
I climbed a narrow, spiral wooden staircase that led to exhibition rooms on each floor. As my footsteps creaked into the room, the lights flickered to life, as if a time capsule had been activated, transporting me back in time to the reign of the Brooke family.
Celebrating the Brookes
The exhibition rooms house a vast array of artifacts and replicas that commemorate the Brooke dynasty. These artifacts and replicas offer a glimpse into Sarawak’s history under the Brookes’ rule for over a century, which ended during World War II.
I creaked up the wooden stairs to the rooftop, breathing in the earthy wood smell that had lingered for a hundred years in the fort.
As I landed on the rooftop, the creaking planks fell silent. The only sound was the gusty wind howling in my ears.
This 19th-century fort was originally built to fend off river pirates. Leaning against the fort’s wall, I was surrounded by the ruins of its illustrious past, sharply juxtaposed against the modern cityscape in the distance. It was as if two different worlds were colliding.
A tantalizing array of local delicacies
Carpenter Street is the Kuching’s Chinatown. An intricate Chinese arch marks the entrance to Chinatown, where a trove of local culinary delights lines up to please the various tastebuds.
Be sure to treat yourself to Kolo Mee, dried noodles and savory pork; Kuey Chap, rolled flat rice noodles in a dark broth; Sarawak Laksa, a vermicelli rice noodle dish cooked in a shrimp-based broth, and Kompia, a minced pork filled crispy bun.
An up-close encounter with orangutans
At dawn the next day, I boarded a free shuttle bus that took me to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, 13 miles away from the city center.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve is a sanctuary for orangutans in Sarawak, offering a natural shelter for injured or orphaned orangutans, or those rescued from illegal captivity.
The main highlight at the reserve is to get up close with orangutans as they come out to feed on fruit. There was a total of 27 orangutans residing in the reserve at the time of my visit.
“There is a good chance that we won’t see any orangutans today. They are likely hiding in the jungle during the fruiting season.” A ranger said.
At the feeding area, a large signboard displayed the names of the orangutans. including some funky ones like “Digital Guro”, “Kidding”, and “Dr. Kok”.
Semenggoh’s Big Boss
Ritchie is the dominant orangutan at the reserve, nicknamed “Semenggoh’s Big Boss.” He is an alpha male who rules his territory with an “iron fist”.
His dominant nature gives him the advantage of being surrounded by female orangutans. All other orangutans give way when he passes, making him the “King” of the primate family.
Ritchie took down many male orangutans in many confrontations, often leaving them bloodied and bruised. One of his opponents lost his fingers in a brutal altercation.
On the viewing deck, visitors had their filming equipment ready for the arrival of the orangutans onto a platform piled high with fruits.
Coaxing the Orangutans to Eat
A ranger stood on the platform, calling out to orangutans in a high-pitched voice. The voice mimicked the orangutan’s deep-throated call, coaxing them out to eat.
Nothing. He called again. Still, no signs of movement.
The ranger continued, but the orangutan remained out of sight.
As we stood there, someone suddenly pointed to the trees. Then, a hush fell over us. All eyes were on the trees. The rustling started softly, then grew louder. The trees swayed back and forth.
Like King Kong
The scene reminded me of the King Kong movie where a giant ape is about to storm out of the jungle in a fit of rage.
Except it was not a wrecking beast, but an adorable orangutan named Seduku.
Seduku swung from one tree to another, scaling a thick rope that zigzagged around the trees before sliding down to the feeding platform.
Everyone held their breath in awe as they watched Seduku’s acrobatic entrance.
Seduku Digs In
Seduku settled in front of the pile of fruit and began to dig in. He occasionally lifted his head to give us curious glances. We must have looked like animals in an enclosure to him.
Now, who’s watching who?
The mountain of fruit was soon reduced to half. He stayed on the platform for a bit before returning to the trees and vanishing into the jungle.
The rangers reminded us to take our trash with us when leaving.
“If you leave your trash behind, it could end up in the trees the next day.” A ranger said in deadpan humor.
A variety of exotic fruits, including Giant Bananas
The rainforests of Sarawak are home to a variety of exotic fruits. The Satok Weekend Market is a must-visit if you are a fruit lover like me.
Engkala, a fruit that looks like an avocado, was in season and was plentiful in the market. The fruit has pink skin and soft, avocado-like flesh.
Don’t Eat Engkala Raw!
Engkala is not to be consumed raw. To eat, soak in hot water until soft, then squeeze out and eat the creamy white flesh with salt.
Krystal is another fruit that caught my attention. It is a longan-like fruit, but bigger and with a tough exterior. A vendor handed me a piece of fruit. I gladly accepted.
The thick, sweet, and chewy texture of the fruit was love at first bite. I bought a handful without hesitation.
The horn bananas (‘Pisang Tanduk’ in Malay) are a bizarre but interesting sight to behold. Their larger-than-life size always stops passersby in their tracks. It was surreal standing beside these colossal bananas, as if I had been transported into a scene from ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’ where everything was shrunk to miniature proportions.
Food in Kuching
On my last night in Kuching, I returned to the waterfront. The city felt more flavorful and interesting than ever before after an exploration of its heart and soul.
I took a bite of Kuih Lapis (Sarawak Layer Cake). The name of the cake said it all: a colorful layering of sweet, rich, buttery flavors with a hint of vanilla.
A realization dawned on me: Isn’t this what Kuching is all about?
The city itself is like Kuih Lapis, with layers of history, culture, cuisine, wildlife, and exotic harvests waiting to be discovered and savored. Every layer you peel back is a new wonder that makes you want to come back for more.
Read more about Kuching.