Growing up in Southeast Asia, I used to take this part of the world for granted. Like some of my friends, my dream vacations involved faraway, ‘interesting’ places like France and Italy.
If I could turn back time, I’d change my perspective. Hot, sticky summers; amazing thunderstorms; delectable food; juicy tropical fruit … how much I overlooked the gifts of home :-)
Around two weeks ago, I popped over to Kuching, Sarawak to visit my friend Soo Sian. We met at university more than a decade ago (!) and I was excited that I was going to see her again … and visit her in her hometown! I didn’t really know what to expect; I had heard about Kuching’s famous orang utans and ‘food that was better than Singapore’s’ (a bold statement?) … aside from that, I went with an open mind.
Soo Sian came to pick me up at the airport and we dove right into easy, rapid conversation – as if the last time we caught up face to face properly was mere days ago, rather than years ago. My first thought about the city was that it was a cross between Singapore and Phuket in terms of pace, feel and cleanliness. It has the best of both cities :-) We headed straight to the heart of the city, into charming ‘old Kuching’ for lunch – sweet and smoky satay, noodles cooked in a gentle broth. I relaxed immediately.
So began six lovely days :-)
Old Kuching / Main Bazaar / Carpenter Street
Some parts of the area have been ‘touristified’, but it doesn’t take away the quiet beauty and charm of this area – loved both the cheerful, well-preserved buildings and the tranquil waterfront. Some really good food in the area too, which is great to enjoy in such surroundings.
The only downside for me was one public loo I walked into there, but I won’t say too much about that – just try not to need one if you are used to public toilets in Singapore or New Zealand.
At one of the jetties we caught a sampan across the river to Fort Margherita (where I got a quick introduction to the history of Kuching at the Brooke Gallery, recommended for first-time tourists).
Street art / heritage
One of the best things about Kuching for me was how you didn’t have to go far to step back in time, or admire the simple pleasures in life – and I mean that in the best way. Cities develop at such a rapid pace now, it was honestly such a joy to gaze at street art, see people doing things the ‘old (and best!) way’, walk past shops that brought back happy childhood memories …
It goes without saying … diets don’t work well in Southeast Asia, and definitely not in Kuching :-) And yes – there were moments in which I thought the food was good enough to rival Singapore’s!
I fell in love at first bite with this crunchy, succulent jungle fern known as midin. We ate it cooked with red wine twice, and belachan (shrimp paste) once. Scrumptious. I could eat it every day.
Local kueh, zhong zi / bak zhang (glutinous rice dumplings) and other delights: my grandma used to make or buy these quite frequently when she was alive. Always makes me happy to see them. I feel they are getting more rare now in shops, as they are labour-intensive and their low prices hardly make up for it.
Kolo mee: affectionately known as one of Sarawak’s national dishes – it’s easy to see its appeal, especially at breakfast time! You can find it almost anywhere in Kuching where there is food sold, though Soo Sian did say there are a few places that do it better than others.
Kway chap: a robust dish with the potential to charm or offend. Flat rice sheets – a little like torn lasagne sheets – served in a herbal broth flavoured with hearty spices like star anise and five spice powder, with braised offal, tongue, belly, etc. It has to be cooked well in order for it to be enjoyable and not pungent; we ate this dish at two places and both were delicious.
Let’s not forget one of the most important meals: dessert! We had some mighty fine dessert … most notably Cocopuri (try their signature). Light and delightful. I don’t think I’ve ever had three scoops of ice cream in a single sitting, nor would I have welcomed the thought, but here it was easy! On the night we were there I loved the combination I got: coconut + lychee bandung + teh-c special. This was topped with what I think were toasted coconut flakes and gula apong.
Kopi-C / China House was a haven of relaxation and indulgence too, with their tempting selection of cakes, good coffee and tasteful decor :-) A great place to visit alone with a notebook and pen, or with friends.
Being in Kuching at the start of Ramadan meant we got to visit a pop-up Ramadan bazaar, a lovely and lively experience, and pick up some delicious ayam penyet, biryani and sugar cane juice.
Indian Temple Trail, Matang
Home to three Indian temples, the trail is also a lovely walk for nature lovers and introverts. Ideal for those looking to start exercising too ;-)
Serapi Virgin coconut shake
A delicious treat after our walk! It was busy but still felt like one of Kuching’s well-kept secrets :-) Also enjoyed the drive there as we got to enjoy lovely views and lush greenery en route.
So it feels like I’ve spent most of this post talking about food … and it is obvious that I missed some of the obvious places and activities most tourists head to Kuching for :-) It is home to many other treasures besides what I have listed here, guess another trip there in the future may be in order. From a fellow tourist-who-loves-exploring-great-places point of view I hope tourism there will grow, yet in another way I hope it doesn’t grow so much that it loses the quiet beauty it enjoys now.
For me I was very lucky to have a friend and travel companion who also hosted me and drove me around, as I do think it would be very hard to get around on my own otherwise. Attractions are spread out and signage and public transport options were not clear to me. That said … when there’s a will, there’s a way. :-)
Thanks Soo Sian and all the beautiful people I met there for a relaxing, restorative getaway!