A walk around Kuching

Kuching’s not a big place. The main city centre area can be circled in maybe half an hour or forty minutes on foot if you don’t stop to look at things. It’s also worth checking when things are open or accessible as these times vary. In particular, the mosques will have times when they’re in use so unless you’re Muslim you can’t enter.

Before I begin, though, a brief history of Kuching. First bit of trivia is that “Kuching” is Malay for “cat” which explains some of the decor and statues. And the fact that there’s a cat museum a few kilometres from the north side of the river. And the statues. And the drain covers. The city was given the name by an English man – Charles Brooke – who’s uncle settled here in the early19th century after deciding he didn’t want to head home after being injured and sent packing while in Burma by the East India Company. So he decided to travel a bit, thanks to being fairly well off anyway, and also getting a decent pension.

Sir James Brooke landed in Sarawak (as Kuching used to be called – a name it shared with the region of Borneo in which it is situated) and helped the local viceroy quell an uprising. As a reward, the sultan of Brunei declared him raja of Sarawak. This was in 1842. Pretty cool, really.

For three generations, the Brookes ruled the area. From James to Charles (who renamed Kuching in 1872) to Charles Vyner Brooke. And then the Japanese arrived as part of their WWII plans at which point Charles V decided to take a hasty holiday in Sydney. The Japanese surrendered in 1945, but… and here I have heard two different versions of the story. In one, Charles V “decided” to cecede his rule of Sarawak to the British Crown. In the other, he was told in no uncertain terms by the royalty that he (or any of the Brooke’s family) wasn’t allowed anywhere near Sarawak any more, and was given £150,000 as a golden handshake.

Either way, on July 1 1946 Britain had another colony in its grasp. And then Anthony Brooke – next in line for the raja “hat” – jumped in and threw his weight behind an already-growing movemement which wanted to oust the British. Because bizarrely, despite what I gather was a harsh rule by the second Brooke, the Malaysians rather liked the way things were before the war.

Five years later, Anthony Brooke announced that the protests and fighting should end and withdrew his support. In 1957, Britain herself withdrew and Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known) was made an independant nation. In 1963, after a lot of grumbling and political dummy-throwing, the Borneo area was included into Malaya and the Federation of Malaysia was formally recognised. Indonesia and the Philippines weren’t so happy, and Indonesia conducted border raids for some years to try and disrupt the new state. The Philippines just stuck to random acts of piracy which still (rarely) occur today in the far outlying islands.

Nowadays, Sarawak is a hugely diverse region. The population are a mix of people from Chinese, Malay, Indian and probably still some western backgrounds. Kuching is prime example, being like a very small Singapore. The same mix of nationalities with the same architectural styles and the same lack of animosity between them all.

The city has an Anglican cathedral, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese temples. The food is similarly diverse and although there are areas which are more one culture than another, there’s a tremendous mish-mash even if you just walk in one long street. It does make for a very interesting visual experience.

It had rained a lot overnight and it was still torrential in early morning. By around 10:00 it had settled to a steady stream with could be contended with using one of the umbrellas kept handy in the hostel foyer – I loaned my folding umbrella to the two girls as they were heading to one of the parks and would need something smaller.

Passing the Heroes’ Monument I walked up to the Sarawak Museum. This is split into two buildings on either side of the main road and is open from 9:00 to 4:30 (not 5:30 as in Lonely Planet – it’s changed recently and the signs have been hand-altered) all week. Entry is free, though there’s a donation pot just inside the door. I checked out the old wing and it’s OK. A lot of stuffed animals and fish in various glass cases, some interesting information on geology and a Shell-sponsored exhibit about recovering oil and gas. Fact: Shell got its name as the company was originally an export business based here. One of its major exports was polished sea shells. Only later did their founder plunge his money into the new-fangled “oil” stuff.

Upstairs are some displays on various indiginous cultures with a replica set of rooms from a longhouse and miniature longhouses from several of the “tribes”. Pretty good stuff. Overall, it could do with a spring-clean and some morr lighting but it is informative and free.

Over the road, the new wing looked like it was between exhibits. A handful of pictures and a small model boat were all I could see, and the upstairs viewing gallery was closed. The new Natural History and Arts buildings seemed to be closed, but whether this is due to them not being complete yet, I don’t know. Also, for reference, the Islamic and Chinese museums are both closed on Fridays.

As the rain eased off, I walked up to the open market and some of the shopping streets. I picked up possibly the world least healthy chicken-and-beef burger. It was Halal so I have no doubt over the quality of the meat, but the sauces were ladled on and by the time I unwrapped it somewhere out of the rain, grease was oozing from the greaseproof paper it was wrapped in. Still, it was tasty and only RM2.70 (maybe 45p) for a double-burger with everything isn’t bad. A shame there were no napkins in the bag. I washed my face and hands using rainwater pouring from a nearby roof. When in Rome… (or Kuching).

My next stopoff was the tourist office to check boat and bus times for the next couple of days. The Lonely Planet I’m working from is the “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” one and I’ve already found some things out of date in it. It’s the current edition, but published in January 2007 so that’s to be expected. I don’t mind if I get somewhere and a guest house is a pound more than I’d planned, but missing a bus because of a schedule change could be disastrous.

While there I asked about cinemas and was shown two on a map and given the local paper to dig through for the schedules. I’d wanted to see Wall-E, but despite and August 7th release date in Malaysia, it’s not making it to Borneo until the 14th. Ah well, I’ll catch it in Kota Kinabalu.

I had to skip the mosques as they don’t open for non-Muslims until 3pm on a Friday, so I wandered through one of the more Chinese areas (Carpenter Street) and hd a quick look at the beautiful Sang Ti Miao and Hong San temples. The Tua Pek Kong temple a little further over could be the oldest standing building in Kuching, although the Bishop’s residence (now within the cathedral grounds) is “officially” the oldest. The temple is mentioned in texts pre-dating the residence, but the latter has formal paperwork detailing its construction. I’m going for the temple because it’s prettier and I’m not a church-goer.

There’s a bizarrely-painted car park down the street from the Tua Pek Kong temple – each floor is a different garish pastel colour – and this houses the Star City cinema on the 9th floor. The lower ground is meant to be a food court and the upper ground a mall, but they’re both closed. Everything else is parking. I took the lift up to the cinema and thought I’d entered a film as the staff all seemed to be keeled over. The woman collecting the 20s for the toilet, the concession counter worker… Only they weren’t dead, just asleep.

I checked the times and prices (and languages). Sadly, Red Fort is only available in Chinese with no subtitles. In Bangkok it had Thai subtitles so I was hoping here they may have English. Ah well. Shaolin Girl looked entertaining as it’s by the same director as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Chinese with English subtitles, RM8 per ticket… and I couldn’t see it as I was the only customer. They need at least two to show a film. Tempted as I was to pay for two tickets, I decided to wait till later and see if the girls at the hostel fancied it.

Despite checking every other mall in the area, I couldn’t find the other cinema. Never mind.

I managed to locate the bar which is designed like a long house, but it was shut (most bars open at 6pm) so I’ll save that one for later. I hear the food is good and cooked in a traditional manner. A block or two away is Picaddily’s, a bar run by an ex-guest of the hostel I’m staying at.

After a quick email check (OK, an hour online but it was only 50p) I got back to the hostel for some munchies and a shower. The place is deserted and it’s like staying at a friend’s only they’ve given you the key! I hope the girls didn’t get rained on too much and I’ll catch them later.

Tomorrow – orang-utan and mosques. And perhaps I’ll find out where orang-utan get their name from. I’ve seen “orang” in a lot of signs in Malay – I think it means “adult” or “senior” or maybe just “big”. Must remember not to call them “monkeys”.

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