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Exploring Sarawak from the waterfront of Kuching

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak. From here, many daytrips can be made to National Parks, Semengoh orang-utan rehabilitation center, and a cultural village. But Kuching itself has also much to offer, like a lovely waterfront.

Sampan on the Sarawak river in Kuching

The boat trip to Kuching brings us from the Rejang river to the sea, before we move through the sluice-gate back up the Sarawak river, and on to Kuching. From the boat we are led into a minivan and a little later we are in the middle of the capital of Sarawak. Since the only backpacker hostel in Kuching is full, we have to divert to one of the budget hotels, which are expensive for Southeast Asian standards. When we are finally settled, we go out to fall in love with Kuching.

Kuching has the most beautiful boulevard we ever saw. A nice park where we can walk along the river, with benches to relax and stalls for food and drinks. On the other side of the river, the fort is standing in the spotlights at night, and so is the palace of the sultan. On the other side of the road is the bazaar, a shopping street full of souvenir shops with antiques and woodcuttings. This is a place where we can relax for a while.

Our first full day in Kuching we take it slow. We pay a visit to the Kuching museum, with stuffed animals of Borneo on the first floor, and all kinds of artefacts of the different tribes of Borneo on the second. There are also scale models of the different types of longhouses, and a lot of information about the wooden masks, statues and totem poles. These served an animistic religious purpose in the old days, but have more value for souvenir shops nowadays.

To the fort

From Kuching, we make a visit to Semengoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Back in Kuching we take one of the sampan boats to take us to fort Margerita, on the other side of the Sarawak river. The boatsman uses crossed oars first, but after 5 meters he pulls a chord to activate the engine. It ruins the setting a bit, but fortunately it's a silent engine.

Fort Margerita in KuchingOn the other side of the river we walk through this part of Kuching, which is actually more like a small village. Then we climb the hill to reach the fort, where a military museum is housed. We are especially interested in the former prison, with the torture attributes. But unfortunately, the museum is closed and we will have to settle with watching the exterior of the fort and with the military vehicles exposed there.

A little disappointed we return, passing the terrain of the local police, where a festival tent is being built. When we ask what the occasion is, they tell us that it is the end of the harvest celebrations (Gawai). Tonight there will be a lot of important visitors, like the minister of cultivation, to watch some performances. Over 1000 visitors are expected, and we are invited as well.

Gawai festival

That night, after having dinner at the waterfront, we decide to have it a go to watch the Gawai celebrations. We take a sampan again and once on the other side of the river we enter the terrain of the festivities, and walk to the longhouse they were building this afternoon. There is a crowd surrounding a stage in the middle, but to enter that we have to cross the red carpet, used for leading the officials to the entrance of the longhouse. When we pass the carpet, however, people invite us to come inside the longhouse, too, instead of joining the crowd. A little hesitant we let them lead us inside, where a commotion starts about taking a picture. We try to make room, but it appears that they want us in the picture as well. All of a sudden, we seem to be important guests.

Group Picture at the Gawai festivalWhile on stage formal speeches are given, we are asked to sit on the floor with the other people. Ladies in the traditional dresses of the different tribes of Sarawak are serving different dishes on the floor, and everybody starts eating. We ate already, so we merely stick to the lemonade and tuak, fermented rice wine. But we take some of the food as well, in order not to seem impolite.

The official program continues with a speech from a man who made a chat with us before. To our surprise he changes in English since there are some "foreign guests". Does he mean us? We don't see other white people. Then, the minister is put to work. He is wearing traditional clothes and in a ceremonial dance he has the cut some presents from a tree with a huge sword. When he is done, the official part is over.

Since a lame band starts playing, we decide to leave the festival. On our way out, however, we are stopped by almost everybody to have a chat and drink with them. And when we finally reach the exit, traditional dances are being performed on stage. So we stay some more, watch the beautiful dances, chat some more, and have more drinks. In the end, we leave after midnight, but not before half of the police squad has been on a picture with us. They also wake up the boats man for us to bring us back, so the police really is our best friend here in Kuching.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Traditional dance in one of the longhouses in Sarawak Cultural VillageAfter we spent two days in Bako National Park we take a day tour to the cultural village, a living museum showing the cultural heritage of the different ethnic groups in Sarawak. The village is difficult to reach, though. We have to take a shuttle bus from Holiday Inn hotel. For a while, we seem to be the only ones in the mini-van, but it passes different other fancy hotels like the Hilton and Continental to pick-up tourists first. And so we find ourselves between the luxurious types of tourists.

The cultural village is very nice. Longhouses of the different tribes in Sarawak are built here: the Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu. The latter is a general term meaning river people, used for many smaller tribes. There is also a village of the nomadic Penang tribe, and traditional houses of the other population groups: the Malay, the Melanau, and the Chinese. Every longhouse offers us a welcoming dance, and we see the people in their traditional clothes making or working with traditional tools.

Around noon there is a show of traditional dances on a large central stage. There are not many visitors in the park, and there seem to be more performers than viewers. Yet, the performance is great. Penang people making a blowpipe in the cultural villageHighlight is the volunteer from the audience (a tourist from our mini-van) who gets to shoot at a balloon with a blowpipe. Everybody takes cover at her three attempts, since the darts fly in all directions.

Cat Museum

Kuching is the Malay word for Cat. And thus we walk to all the cat statues in town. And we also pay a visit to the Cat Museum, the only one in the world. A lot of drawings, pictures, statues, and stories about cats are on display here. But unfortunately no explanation why the city is called Kuching.

The food in Kuching is very divers. We ate a lot of Roti Chanai for breakfast, a soft kind of bread with tasty curry. There are also many Chinese restaurants, catering especially the Chinese themselves, scaring others away with their spitting and loud eating noises. And there are also many western eateries, more expensive and of varying quality.

Kuching is a great city. It offers different possibilities to see the cultural heritage of the different tribes of Sarawak, without having to make a trip to the hinterlands. The proximity to Bako national park and Semingoh orangutan rehabilitation center is also an asset. But we mostly enjoyed the terrific waterfront.

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