By Lily Ong
Kuching is the capital and the most populous city of Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. Although the name itself means ‘cat’ in Malay, stories of how it got its name have ranged from being a city filled with wild cats a long time ago, to meaning ‘port in Indochina’.
Sarawak’s time under the White Rajahs ranks as one of the most notable historical moments in Southeast Asia, so no trip to Kuching would be complete without a visit to Fort Margherita. It was constructed in the style of an English castle in 1879 and was intended to protect Sarawak from pirates. As I watched my daughter skip her way across its courtyard though, I found it hard to fathom that prisoners were once executed on this very same spot.
Nestled within Fort Margherita is the Brooke Gallery, named after James Brooke, the British adventurer credited with founding the Kingdom of Sarawak, ruling as its first White Rajah. The history of Sarawak, its former people, places and events come alive through the gallery’s exhibitions and narrations.
Next, we took a cruise on the Sarawak River on an old sampan, a flat-bottomed Chinese boat with a modest-sized shelter. The cruise fare is equally modest at RM1 (S$0.30), with kids going free and is a lovely way to see Kuching from a different vantage point.
About 20 minutes out of the city is Siniawan Night Market. Although its architecture is Chinese in style and strings of Chinese lanterns overhang the streets, the variety of food is proudly Malay. One of the celebrated dishes is the lemang periuk kera – sticky rice covered in coconut milk steamed in pouches of pitcher plants.
We stayed at the reasonably priced Tune Hotel directly across from the Hilton and a stone’s throw from the riverfront promenade, perfect for evening strolls to the pleasant sounds of street musicians and the aroma of street food. If inclement weather is against you for a walk, though, Mr. DIY stores around town sell inexpensive craft packs to keep kids amused back at the hotel.
A fun place to visit is the Upside Down House where everything is, as the name implies, upside down! You will be guided on how to take pictures that go from the cool to the wacky. Our favorite was a picture of us chilling upside down on the ceiling of one of the rooms.
Sarawak’s very own living museum, the Sarawak Cultural Village, is located in the foothills of Mount Santubong, where the lives of seven ethnic groups are depicted. Here, one can take in the Chinese Farm House, the Traditional Malay House and the Longhouses of the Iban Orang Ulu among others.
For those who love the outdoors, Kuching offers various national parks. For a visit to the caves, head to Mulu National Park; to see pepper and cocoa growing, go to Gading National Park; for a walk on a beautiful beach after swimming in crystal clear water, head to Tanjung Datu National Park; and, lastly, if you’re keen on wild proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards and wild boars, Bako National Park will have plenty in store for you. Away from land, there are also wildlife cruises that take you to the company of crocodiles and dolphins.
About a 45-minute drive away from Kuching City Centre is Borneo Happy Farm, where visitors can learn about life on the farm and meet the animals that live there. This idyllic pastoral scene of green hills dotted with grazing horses, pasturing sheep, crawling tortoises, staring water buffaloes and hopping rabbits makes up the centerpiece of a 130-acre landscape; a far cry from the city. Local fruit, such as mangosteens, langsats, rambutans and durian – a word of warning to anyone sensitive to its odor – are grown here and sold in their Tropical Farm Café.
Our final stop was at the Cat Museum. I didn’t know so much could be said about cats, but we saw many from different junctures of history; from an ancient Egyptian mummified cat to the modern Hello Kitty. Walls were adorned with everything feline, including inscribed plaques of idioms linked to cats, such as “Busier than a one-eyed cat watching two mouse holes” and “Busier than a three-legged cat in a dry sand box”. One thing I knew for sure, by the time our visit was over, I was more than ready for a Kuching-style cat nap!