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Exploring Kota Kinabalu and Kuching on the Island of Borneo


Sleeping on a floor for four hours after attempting to sleep on a bus for another eight makes for an uncomfortable evening. I lay on the floor in front of two large French doors which opened onto a balcony overlooking the street. Every hour or so we were woken by Muslim prayers which blasted through speakers throughout town. Welcome to Kota Kinabalu.

In the morning I walked over to the local Starbucks and was greeted by ten eager staff who ushered me into their air conditioned snacking establishment. I was incredibly happy to discover that it was Starbucks 10th anniversary in Borneo and all of the locations on the island were providing free coffee from 10am till 2pm. I sat on a comfy couch with my first free coffee and nibbled on a huge slice of blueberry cheesecake while humming to the Nat King Cole Christmas album playing through the store. Over the next four hours I lost myself in the familiarity of Starbucks and its ringing Christmas carols while in the middle of a very hot and humid place. I was regularly interrupted by Buddhist Chinese monks who would approach me and try and sell small golden cats. I’d wave them away quickly and often laughed as the manager of the store would chase them out of the front door with a broomstick.

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In the afternoon I headed to the Center Point mall complex in search of the basements famed food hawker stalls. I walked past endless buffet stalls with a plethora of steaming curries, noodles, seafood, fried chicken and dumplings. I also walked by a few familiar faces; a KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and a Kenny Rogers Roasters Restaurant. The McDonald’s had a few interesting dinning options. They toted curly spicy fries and a Double Enjoyment Beef Prosperity Burger (one of the most outrageous burger names I have ever come across).

At around 6pm I walked towards the waterfront to check out the cities famous markets. I passed through the indigenous craft market where several groups of retired men played chess on the sidewalk. Arriving at the hawker stalls I was greeted by the strong aroma of curry and mango. Many stalls feature sliced chicken or beef with a large wok for stir frying on the spot. The other popular stall variety is that of the ice slushy where a woman takes a large block of ice and shaves it down by spinning a wooden lever. Fresh tropical fruit is then blended with condensed milk for a sweet treat. Along the perimeter of the food stalls sit ten or so men who huddle around sewing machines. At the far end of the market space is the Kota Kinabalu fish market. Behind these fish mongers one can see colourful fishing boats bobbing up and down in the harbour. I had to hold my breath to avoid fainting from the sour aroma of seafood in the midday sun. I also had to be careful where I was walking as hatchets clashed and blood and guts flicked into the pedestrian walkway. The market was loud and it sounded as though you were walking through a bee hive as men covered in blood rambled on in Arabic trying to entice passers by to purchase their days catch.

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I reached the end of the fish market in one piece and walked up a few stairs to the beautiful boardwalk which overlooks the harbour. The platform is lined by nice restaurants and more importantly is lit by the cities famed multi-coloured sunset. Walking back to my hostel I past through the vegetable and fruit market where long lines of banana, mango, hot chili peppers, key limes and ginger rest under the setting sun. I was saddened to pass by a dehydrated seafood store which had an entire wall devoted to shark fin. The demand for shark fin soup has led to the rapid decline of shark communities in the oceans around the world and which encourages illegal pirating. I took an incriminating picture and rushed out of the store.

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I spent the evening sitting on the ledge of my hostel’s balcony staring down at the neighbourhood night market which bustled directly bellow my feet. I gradually became accustomed to the somewhat soothing melody of the Arabic music which played throughout the street. I watched locals sift through large piles of used shoes and flick through racks upon racks of worn cloths. I could smell sweet curry and hear the distant blast of firecrackers in the park a block away. I stood up on the balcony ledge to stretch my legs and soon realized that everyone bellow thought I was thinking of jumping. A suicide attempt! I had never found myself in this awkward position, eager eyes staring up at me in a panic of worry. I simply put up my hands and smiled and could see the sigh of relief in their eyes.

In the late evening I sat in the hostel chatting with my fellow travellers. I overheard a German woman say to a few New Zealanders, “go talk to that Canadian guy he knows everything!” I had to laugh to myself as a short line of tourists formed beside my sofa couch for the next hour. I realized I have the ability to freakishly retain details. I was rambling off bus schedules, prices, hotel names and restaurant suggestions. I spent thirty minutes planning two months of a retired British couple’s trip through the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. They stared at me in bewilderment as I had every visa rule, border checkpoint and budget airline flight stowed away in my memory.

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Just before heading to the airport I popped by one of many local curry houses across the road. My eyes bulged and my nostrils flared as I walked past the restaurants buffet offerings. I ordered a portion of tomato chicken curry, almond chicken korma and a large helping of pink, red, orange and yellow coloured saffron rice. I sat in my seat tearing apart juicy peaces of white breast meat with my spoon and fork, shifting in my seat in anticipation. For the next thirty minutes I was entirely silent and came to realize one can rejuvenate oneself with a sublime curry.

Having spent two weeks in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah province I was excited to spend a short stint in the capital of Sarawack, the city of Kuching. Once the capital of the White Rajahs of Sarawak it now boasts a population of some 600,000. The name of the city, Kuching, is thought to derive from the Malay word kucing, meaning cat. Many of the locals refer to Kuching as the “Cat City” but it more likely comes from the Chinese word for port cochin, coupled with the Malay name mata kucing (cat’s-eye) for the longan fruit, a popular trade item.

Sarawak was a part of the Sultanate of Brunei 200 years ago but as a reward for help in putting down a rebellion, it was ceded to the British adventurer James Brooke who ruled it as his personal kingdom. Kuching was made his capital and headquarters. The Brooke Administration was given the status of Protectorate under Rajah Charles Brooke’s rule and was placed behind the Indian Rajs and Princes. The Brooke family ruled Sarawak until the Japanese occupation in December 1941.

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As my flight descended over the city the contrasts between Sabah and Sarawack province became evident. Rural Sarawack is covered in winding rivers where many of the indigenous peoples live in traditional longhouses. Flying towards Kuching I stared out of my window and could see nothing but palm forests and glistening rivers. Amazingly the weather only 80 minutes west of Kota Kinabalu is remarkably different. Kuching was right in the middle of its monsoon season so the next two days would be somewhat of a wet, puddle hopping adventure. I found a cab and was pleasantly surprised by the postcard perfect orange, red, and yellow sunset which was draping itself over the horizon. The air was filled with a thick humidity and looking outside the window the city appeared to be pink and purple from the sunsets overflowing rouge rainbow. Kuching is also home to the countries largest Chinese population. While driving into the city I noticed plenty of colourful Chinese temples and buzzing supermarkets.

I grabbed an umbrella and walked towards the cities signature natural landmark, the Sarawack River. I passed by the Tua Pek Kong Chinese temple and stared up at the red and gold hues which blasted through the dark night sky. The river has a lovely boardwalk which is decorated with lush gardens, lit palms and various sculptures and water fountains. It seems as though the locals come down here at night for a stroll so they can enjoy the moon as it shines across the slow moving mirror like river. Half way down the main bazaar you can see the glowing Fort Margherita, a prominent historical monument on the other side of the river. Kuching city has a unique feel to it. One can get a sense of its colonial roots when walking past many of the waterfronts colourful colonial buildings.

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Walking back to my hotel I passed a large Chinese restaurant. Vendors along the sidewalk cook up various dishes which you can watch being prepared right in front of your eyes. I selected a few beef and chicken satay sticks which were served with a spicy peanut sauce. I also ordered a small plate of yellow Chinese noodles which were thrown together in a wok with bean sprouts, spices, egg and chicken. I inquired about the available beers and their respective prices. I was excited when told that imported Heineken was only $1.00 USD a can. I turned off the light to my vacant twenty bunk bed, birds nest of a room and could hear the rat-a-tat-tat on the metal shingles of the roof as the night rain continued to pour over the city.

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The following morning I peeled open my eyes and groaned as I heard the hiss of rain outside. I grabbed an umbrella once again and trampled through the city to find the Coffee Bean Café. Hopping over large puddles, I skipped past an ornate Chinese temple where I was introduced to the smell of sweet incense. I followed the thin aromatic cloud and stepped into the temples large golden shrine. After watching the interior of the shrine sparkle for a few moments I continued down the street to the cities famous cat statue. I walked back to the Boardwalk and strolled all the way to the west end of the city where I found myself standing in front of the cities towering State Mosque. Walking away from the Mosque I past Padang Merdeka, a large public square where ancient moss covered trees created a canopy overhead.

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For the next three hours I wandered through several of the cities Museums which are located at the south end of the park. I first walked into the Dewan Tun Abdul Razak (try saying that ten times quickly). The man at the front desk was a total bore and when I asked a simple question such as, “where is the entrance to your exhibition hall?” He responded, “walk around.” I apparently walked into the worst of the cities ten free Museums as the staff were non-existent and the actual exhibit consisted of a few posters of the royal family who refused to smile or show a sliver of excitement in any of their portraits. The majority of the one hall exhibit consisted of a few old pots and pans. Totally unimpressed I ran out the front door and headed to the Islamic Museum.

I walked past three large wooden indigenous Malay totems, through a tropical garden and past three large native longboats before arriving at the entrance to the “everything Muslim Museum.” The Museum claims to present the splendour and beauty of Islamic Civilization. It has seven galleries depicting the history of Islam globally as well as its specific historical roots in Malaysian Borneo. I past through the following galleries: Islamic Architecture, Islamic Science and Technology, Economy, Education and Literature, Islamic Music, Costumes and Personal Ornaments, Islamic Decorative Arts and Domestic Utensils, Islamic Weaponry and the Holy Quran Collection. The museum was empty when I visited so I was able to stroll through the galleries at my leisure. I found the exhibit on Islamic weaponry rather odd. The museum showcased hundreds of knives, swords, shields and suits of armour.

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A large plaque read: Weapons are generally seen as symbols of strength, ferocity and war. Nevertheless, in Islam weapons were used to defend the purity of religion, the good name of the community, and the rights of each individual Muslim. The use of weapons was only necessary when there was no other solution available.

It went on to explain how each weapon was made for the glory of God and it made me wonder why they couldn’t have just crafted beautiful soup bowls or shiny jewelry. I had never seen a religious museum which showcased weaponry with such intensity.

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My next stop was the landmark Sarawack Museum which is an old Victorian mansion and one of the oldest museums in South East Asia. The museum is currently being transformed into an ethnology museum. The main floor features a rather creepy collection of glass cased stuffed monkeys, bats, squirrels, birds and tropical fish. There is also a rather mundane exhibit on Malaysian oil refineries. The top floor is the most interesting as the east wing has a large collection of indigenous masks and statues. The west wing features several scale models of traditional aboriginal longhouses as well as a reconstructed life size longhouse which you can walk through. I was rather startled when I entered the longhouse kitchen and dinning area and found a wicker chandelier decorated with human skulls.

My final stop was the cities Art Museum. The bottom floor featured a few interesting modern pieces. Walking into the gallery you are first greeted by two medium sized chicken sculptures (depicting a cock fight) which are made of crushed beer cans. The gallery also featured a few indigenous statues and interesting abstract tropical floral paintings.

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Every weekend Kuching holds a massive and colourful farmers market in the west end of town. I took an hour to walk to the market (which apparently should have taken me ten minutes). Every road seemed to be written in Arabic, or at least sounded so unfamiliar that I was unable to keep track of where I was. One of the main streets had seven individual words in its name! I ended up damp from the rain and frustrated (as I had yet to eat) in front of the State Mosque. I ended up asking about nine Kuching locals for directions. As I zigzagged across the city I thought to myself, “this market better be the most amazing market in the world or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.”

After walking past the cities museum complex and its beautiful gardens I arrived at a large park where I slipped on the moss covered slimy sidewalk and nearly broke my neck in front of group of five 90 year old men who laughed at me uncontrollably. I watched the locals as they darted across four lane expressways and followed suit as it seemed like the only way to get around town. This city could use a crosswalk or two. After walking under a few expressway overpasses I finally arrived at the entrance to the weekend market. A little soaked, exhausted, and starving…but alive at least. I spent the next hour walking through endless stalls of brightly coloured, foreign, fuzzy, prickly, huge, tiny and smelly produce stands. I was fascinated by the meat market as there were several vendors who sold the most hilarious things. One man just sold chicken heads and feet. Another woman specialized in fish heads.

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My stomach grumbled and reminded me that I was in need of nourishment. I walked past several Chinese and Indian eateries, sticking my nose up to their mediocre offerings. I watched a group of Arabic men rolling and frying roti while their wives worked the tandoori pot pulling out long sticks of perfectly roasted chicken on long skewers.

After I finished walking through the market I headed back to my hotel. At the halfway point the clouds over Kuching decided to drop themselves across the city. I arrived at my hotel soaked and cranky. I quickly had a shower and packed up my things. I handed my keys over to the Chinese lady at the front desk and asked her to indicate on my city map where I could wait for the cheap airport bus. She seemed very unsure about herself and I stared up at her skeptically. She kept waving her hands in my face and telling me that she knew the city perfectly, “this is my New York,” she kept repeating. I suspected she had recently dipped into the opium.

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