Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

In the City of the Cat

on April 16, 2013

Welcome to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. ‘Kuching’ in Malay literally means ‘cat’ and while I didn’t see hordes of feline friends roaming the streets while I was there, there is an overwhelming array of cat themed souvenirs, an impressive number of cat statues, and even a cat museum to make sure you know it! Kuching is a lovely, laid-back city on the Sarawak River in the west of Borneo. It very clean (this probably has something to do with the existence of rubbish bins around town) and the concept of continuous footpaths seems to be embraced much better here than in Miri. Most paths in the centre of Kuching don’t even have holes in them, though the Main Bazaar features the hazardous inch tall step/drop every 2 meters or so, because for some reason, every shop front’s piece of footpath is at a slightly different height…

cat statue cat vs lizard

I arrived in Kuching by boat from a town called Sibu. My short stay in Sibu was mostly for the food (gasp! I hear you exclaim). It’s not a particularly backpacker-friendly town, with no hostels and not a whole lot to do (except for eat really cheap and delicious Chinese food) or see (aside from a pretty Chinese temple and the giant swan statue- the symbol of Sibu).

hua pek tong temple swan of sibu

I ended up staying in a borderline hotel which my reduced budget from Mulu allowed, so it had air conditioning (set to an Antarctic 18 degrees but no remote), a TV from the 80s and free wifi, but lacked cleanliness, a sense of security and décor… but it was only for a night, and I survived sleeping on top of the covers in my silk sheet!

security in sibu

The boat from Sibu to Kuching takes 5 hours, cruising out down the Rejang River past logging yards and small riverside villages to the South China Sea, before coming back into the Sarawak River. It may sound relaxing, but inside in the upstairs ‘VIP’ seating they played movies full bawl, the first dubbed in Mandarin and the following movies having an awful lot of shouting, sirens, shooting and explosions. I spent some time out on the back deck to take a break from the blaring cop movie soundtracks, though the wind tangled my hair into knots, and out there you often had the luxury of cigarette smoke blowing in your face too. The soundtrack outside was the engine accompanied by an occasional rooster crowing from inside one of four large cardboard boxes with holes in them.

the boat to kuching Logging by the Rejang

In Kuching, I stayed in a lovely B&B called Threehouse where the dorm was thankfully leaps and bounds above my hotel in Sibu- clean, secure, comfortable, nicely decorated and half the price! The guesthouse is run by a Swedish girl called Bindi, she’s lived in Kuching for 6 years and is now married to an Iban tattoo artist (Iban is one of the native tribes in Sarawak).

jalan china

I spent my first evening wandering down the waterfront which was really pretty and had lots of little food stalls. I ate some rojak, the malay ‘black salad’- basically a bunch of fruit and veg in this dark, spicy but delicious mystery sauce topped with peanuts. It looks intimidating, but it’s tasty!

Rojak

The locals were all very friendly and everyone wanted to chat. Once it was established I was from Australia, one guy selling beautiful batik said to me, ‘Is it true? About the kangaroo?’ and I was a bit confused, but was like, ‘Uh, yes… they do exist!’ Then he wanted to know… ‘How big are they? Do they really have a ‘pocket’? Can you keep them as pets?’ It was really cute! I really wanted to buy some of his batik but decided it wasn’t wise at this stage of the trip!

kuching waterfront

The next morning I woke to the sound of steady rain and debated whether or not I should bother getting up to catch the 7am local bus out to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre as I’d planned. I ended up hoping for the best and going for it. Kuching, unlike Kota Kinabalu, does have a bus schedule (in KK, the buses just leave whenever they are full, so you just wait. And wait. And wait….), however the schedule in Kuching does come with the disclaimer that the service is ‘not accurate or reliable’! I had been told if anything, the buses tend to leave early if they fill up so to leave plenty of time. Punctuality- particularly early in the morning- is not usually my forte, but I did well on this occasion and managed to catch the bus. Hooray! As is pretty standard in asia, the air con was cranked to about zero, and I got so cold I had to put on my rain jacket inside for most of the hour plus journey!

bus schedule

By the time we reached Semenggoh, the rain had eased. Semenggoh is famous for its orangutan rehabilitation programme, which aims to rehabilitate animals that are injured, orphaned in the wild or handicapped by prolonged captivity, with the objective of subsequently releasing them back to the wild. It is nowadays a centre for the study of orangutan biology and behaviour, with about 28 semi-wild orangutan living in the forest there (they are wild in the sense that they live in the forest not in an enclosure, but they do get some food provided by people).

orangutan tightrope

There are 2 feeding times a day, and if they are hungry the orangutan come down and get fruit off the park rangers. The morning I was there we were lucky and got to see quite a few of them, including the big alpha male and a mum with a baby clinging to her- very cute! It was funny to see the way they got as much fruit as they could hold in their mouth/ feet/ hands and still manage to climb up then dangle off the ropes and trees in these awkward positions, peeling their bananas and eating them whole!

orangutan arabesque orangutan eating

At Semenggoh, I met Jessica from Germany and Gustaf and Martin from Sweden who were all going to Bako National Park the next day and said I should join them. As it was school holidays, the park was busy- lots of the locals like to visit Bako too- and when I checked at the park office all the dorm accommodation for the following night was booked out unfortunately. Most people recommend staying at least one night in the park so you can see more of the wildlife, but I ended up having to do a day trip.

It was another early start with a 7am bus to catch to Bako town where you then charter a boat to the national park. We were told low tide was in the morning, so if we didn’t get the first bus the river would be too shallow and we’d have to wait til about 11am-midday for the boat to leave which would turn my day trip into a few hour trip.  I just got there in the nick of time with Ondrej, a Czech guy staying at my guesthouse, as the bus left from a different spot to the Semenggoh one, so we’d gone on a bit of a run around! We met the others on the bus, and again I had to wear my rain jacket inside cos the A/C was set to freezing!

When we got to Bako town we had to pay our park entry fee (which everyone thought was RM10, but was actually RM20) and then organise our boat. Everything we’d read and heard said it was 5 people to a boat- perfect for our group, but when we got there they said, no, its only 4 to a boat. They also make you arrange your return boat at the same time as booking one over, which was a bit tricky since I was only there for a day, Ondrej was staying 1 night and the other three were staying 3 nights. We ended up splitting, and Ondrej and I got a boat across with a Spanish couple who were also day tripping, but Ondrej had to pay for his return boat on his own (he was meeting another friend there so could split it with her later) so it worked out ok for everybody after a long time standing at the desk confusing the poor busy girl who was working there on her own! I was worried the tide would be out by the time we were done sorting the payment, but we made it…

welcome to bako

It was about a 20 minute boat ride to get to park HQ, passing houses on stilts by the river, then with views of the rocky cliffs out on the sea. As it was low tide, the water was way too far out to reach the jetty, so we had to take off our shoes and jump out in the shallows of the front beach and wade in. Our boat driver told us his name was Lee and we arranged to meet him at 4pm at the jetty as it would be high tide by then- this is why you have to pay in advance, because the same driver does your return trip. It’s a bit confusing but I guess the system works! On the way up to the park HQ, we were lucky enough to spot two Proboscis monkeys, or ‘long-nosed monkeys’, sleeping in the trees. To see some of these monkeys- a species found only in Borneo- was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Bako. They are quite shy and often out in the early morning or evening, so I wasn’t sure if I’d get to see any on a day trip, but tick- Mission Accomplished by 9.30am!

proboscis side profile

After watching the monkeys for a bit, we went to park HQ where you handover your registration to show you’ve paid your entry fee, pick up your map and can discuss which trails to do in the time you have. Since I only had the day, the others were all happy to follow wherever I wanted to go (lucky me!) so I chose to visit Telok Pandan Kecil- a beach where you can see the famous ‘sea stack’ (which is on every postcard or advertisement you see for Bako) and of course so we could go for a swim. That would leave us enough time to also walk the Paku trail, which is the main wildlife trail where you are meant to be able to see more of the proboscis monkeys.

bako trails

The start of the trail was shady, an undulating mesh of tree roots, but it was hot, still and humid. The trail then opens up to a combination of sand, rock or boardwalk- quite flat and easy walking, but out in the open with no shade- it was absolutely scorching by 10.30am!

jessica on the trail in bako  bako boardwalk

We saw lots of the carnivorous pitcher plants but we could now see why these trails were not renowned for wildlife sightings- the animals clearly knew not to fry themselves out here during the day!  With a few rests in the shady spots we found along the way, we arrived at Telok Pandan Besar, which is a lookout over the large beach. We were greeted with shade, stunning views and an occasional breeze up on the cliff top.

bako- telok pandan besar

After Gustaf and Martin had climbed everything possible (rocks, fences, trees!) and we’d all taken our postcard pictures, we were eager for a swim to cool off from the relentless heat and headed on down to Telok Pandan Kecil, the small beach.

bako liana swing

With some creative changing techniques, we all managed to get into our bathers as well as retain our modesty, and then rushed on down to the water. We were disappointed to find it was warm and didn’t give us the feeling of refreshment and rejuvenation we looking for! It was like taking a murky bath (amongst very beautiful scenery nonetheless). The ‘sea stack’ I had wanted to see was partially hidden by the cliff face- it seems all of the advertising shots must have been taken from a boat rather than from the coast. I tried to swim out closer to it, but gave up after a while as it was so warm and I was making very slow progress- I did get a reasonable picture for my efforts though (well, reasonable considering I was treading water at the time!)

bako sea stack

On the way back to the turnoff for the Paku trail, 3 out of 5 of us had run out of water. Luckily Ondrej had brought 3L so still had a bit and I still had about 500mL to ration, so we decided to push on. We moved quietly, scanning the trees for monkeys and taking care to stop moving our feet whilst doing so to avoid face planting in a spectacular way. After a little while we spotted a mother and baby proboscis monkey, and a bigger one munching on some leaves.

proboscis 1

The baby proboscis are sooooo cute! We watched them for a bit then continued on to Paku beach. The only other ‘wildlife’ we saw was a hermit crab who appeared to have got himself lost in the rainforest. He was perched up on a mossy covered rock and started to scurry across it, but turns out crabs aren’t so good on rounded surfaces and he slipped and tumbled down the side to the forest floor, poor thing! We left him to continue on his merry adventure.

P1050844

At Paku beach we drank the last of our warm water and headed back to park HQ with thoughts of cold beer on our minds. Just before we got back, we spotted some more proboscis monkeys- a couple of babies with their mum up in the trees and then a big fella sauntering around right next to the boardwalk! I was starting to think it’s a myth that these monkeys were rare- they seemed to be everywhere! We were lucky to get very close to the big one, most of the others we’d just seen from afar. We watched him just going about his business, chomping on some leaves, and snapped away like the monkey paparazzi! Eventually we remembered our thirst and made our way back to park HQ, but unfortunately they have the worst refrigerator ever and keep their drinks at ambient temperature minus one or two degrees. I crossed warm beer off the list and settled for a tepid coke and an icy pole instead (the freezer was actually functioning properly). After that I had to say goodbye to the crew and headed down to the jetty to meet the boat.

bako- low tide at the jetty bako- high tide at the jetty

Back at Bako town, we’d just missed a bus (as it had left 10 minutes early) so I read about the estuarine crocodiles in Sarawak (the same species we call saltwater crocodiles in Australia) while I waited. One of the boards specified that ‘larger animals prefer large preys such as dog, buffalo and human’. Another had facts and figures on crocodile attacks in Sarawak, complete with some gory pictures- one of a girl being attacked by a crocodile (good thing the person watching was taking a picture and not running off to get help!) and another of some body parts that had been pulled out of a captured crocodile’s gut! Quite graphic for a public noticeboard I thought…

P1050953 P1050954

That night in Kuching I went to pick up a ticket for an event I had found out through Couchsurfers- the ASEAN Film Festival Launch called ‘Movies in the Rainforest’. It was a movie marathon running all night in the Sarawak Cultural Village. Sounded cool so I thought I’d go along. Besides, tickets were only RM18 (entry to the village itself is normally RM60) and for that price, you could wander around and stay overnight in the village as well as see all the movies. Bargain! The lady who’d organised the group had also organised lifts for everyone which was great, so we planned to meet at 10.30am the next day to head down.

I was late that morning as my watch kept losing time (I think I’ve accidentally worn it in the water one too many times…) so I didn’t get to the meeting place till about 11, but by then my lift hadn’t arrived yet either- phew! I was travelling down with a guy called Brian (who goes by ‘King Kong’) and he arrived with a flurry of energy. I chatted to his sister Ping who will be in Melbourne in a couple of weeks and talked things to eat, see and do. Since the rest of our contingent was yet to arrive, we headed downstairs to the Chinese restaurant to eat. Ping recommended I try the ‘cangkuk manis’ (or ‘sweet leaf’), a local vegetable normally stir-fried with egg- very tasty. Eventually our group of 8 had all gathered and eaten, and off we went to the cultural village.

P1050971

We arrived around 2.00 in the afternoon. The movies weren’t starting til 5.00pm so we walked around for a few hours, looking at houses and artefacts from each of the major cultural groups in Sarawak- Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, Melanau, Malay and Chinese. My favourite was probably the Orang Ulu longhouse, which was up on these huge elaborately carved stilts.

orang ulu longhouse 2

At 5 we went to watch our first film, a Chinese Malaysian film set in KL, called ‘Kepong Gangster’. It was about 5 school friends who decide to join a gang once they graduate and what happens to them all. Lots of fighting and very melodramatic with the ultimate moral of: kids… don’t join a gang. But not a bad film. Afterward we decided to go and get some food; we met another Couchsurfer called Melvin who knew a good seafood restaurant nearby (randomly I had met Melvin’s aunty on the boat from Sibu! What a small world!). On our way out it was the opening of the festival and there were traditional musicians playing and lots of celebrities who none of us travellers recognised, but the locals were going crazy! At the restaurant, King Kong and Ping ordered us a whole bunch of dishes to share and a coconut each to drink (enormous ones, bigger than my head!) and we left feeling very full. We hung out down by the beach for a while and then went to watch some more films.

P1060027

Ping and I went to watch what we thought was going to be a Singaporean movie called ‘Boys to Men’ about soldiers, but unfortunately, in true Kuching style, the schedule was neither reliable nor accurate and had different movies showing in different places and at different times to what was actually happening! The film actually showing was a Malay one called ‘8 Jam’ (‘8 hours’) about a guy sentenced to the death penalty and the story about how he got there, so we watched it anyway.  Again featured lots of fighting and was quite melodramatic, but pretty good as well. By the end it was about 2am, so Ping and I relocated to the air-conditioned, mosquito-free auditorium to sleep for a few hours. Initially this was quite difficult with the movie soundtrack booming through my ear plugs, but eventually I fell asleep on the floor until Ping woke me at 7am- the end of the festival. We stumbled outside into the daylight, and met the others at the front gate looking equally as haggard and of course King Kong wanted a photo of the group so we all tried to smile!

Melvin and 2 of the guys were going to climb Mt Santubong and Melvin kept trying to get me to come, but having no gear (I was wearing thongs and day clothes) and on about 4 hours of broken sleep I was not really in my mountain-climbing prime! So I headed back to Kuching with the rest of the group. Ping and I went to get more local food for me to try for breakfast- the Sarawak laksa, Kuey Chap (‘pig soup’) and Char Kuey (a delicious fried dish with rice cake and egg in a sweet soy sauce- I think I have a new fave!).

char kuay sarawak laksa

Ping then took me to the Cat Museum, as I was so excited to see what kind of crazy cat paraphernalia was inside, but I forgot it was Good Friday and it was closed! Sad face 😦 I got the security guard to take a picture of me at the entrance which was almost worth the trip anyway…

cat museum

After freshening up, Ping thought we could go to Jong’s Crocodile Farm instead. They breed crocs there and there were THOUSANDS of them! Ridiculous numbers, they were all lying on top of one another in the enclosures. Methinks they need to separate the males and females for a while…

crocs

Oh and disappointingly, swimming is prohibited at the croc farm… Damn! I had brought my bathers and everything…

no swimming with crocs

We had by chance arrived in time for the main attraction, the crocodile feeding. The staff hang chicken carcasses from strings above the pond and the crocs make these spectacular leaps for them. I have to say, some of them had pretty bad aim- they missed completely, and others took 2 or 3 goes to pull the chicken off the string (if another croc didn’t move in and grab it in the meantime)…

croc feeding   croc feeding 2

There were lots of other animals in the park, including deer, eagles, giant South American fish (arapaima), monkeys, peacocks, otters, lemurs, and what has to be one of the cutest animals of all time, the Malayan Sunbear (cue collective ‘awwwww!’).

sun bear

On the way out we walked through a small ‘crocodile museum’ which was largely a collection of disgusting things (eg. Preserved crocodile foetuses at various stages of development) and a lot more confronting pictures of small children’s bodies/body parts being pulled out of crocodiles. FULL. ON. There was no ‘Warning: This section contains photographs which may scar your children for life’. It was like crocodile fun facts, cool. Pictures of crocs lazing in the sun, uh huh, crocs swimming, yep. Then BAM! Dead 8 year old boy. Severed limbs of 10 year old girl. WHAT?! I took pictures of the pictures just cos they were so graphic and horrifying it bewildered me that they were just plonked on the wall there! Worse than the ones on the noticeboard at Bako town. I won’t post them here, but if anyone has a morbid curiosity let me know and I’ll show you! But you have been forewarned…

That evening King Kong had offered for me to stay at his house- my first couchsurfing experience! We went out to eat more local cuisine- Kolo Mee, a type of noodle topped with pork, and cendol, a shaved ice dessert (which again looks intimidating but is delicious). In the morning he drove me to the airport for my flight out, but after checking in, we went to get more local food! We shared tomato mee in 2 varieties, kuey teow (large flat rice noodles) and crispy mee, as well as a Chinese sticky rice dumpling wrapped in banana leaf. When I was sufficiently stuffed, it was back to the airport to say goodbye and on to my next destination, Singapore…

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8 responses to “In the City of the Cat

  1. Keith Hill says:

    Wow Mandy, what you crammed into these few days makes Mount Kinabalu sound like a walk in the park. And hope you’re managing to keep the weight down, with what sounds like 6 mouth-watering meals a day!
    Love, dad and mum

  2. […] In the City of the Cat (mandyandtheworld.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Thank you for visiting my hometown, Kuching. I am pleased to read your story and will reblog your post 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on littlegirlstory and commented:
    This is the hometown of one little Borneo girl. I am pleased to share Mandy’s post here, from a visitor’s prospective of my hometown.

  5. oopps sorry typo error. Should read ‘perspective’ instead ‘prospective’. Cheers 🙂

  6. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am having problems with your RSS.

    I don’t understand why I can’t join it. Is there anybody else having identical RSS issues?
    Anyone that knows the answer will you kindly respond?
    Thanx!!

    • mandyhill25 says:

      Thanks!! I’m sorry I can’t help you with the RSS thing though- I’m not very tech savvy. I’ll have to admit I don’t even know what RSS stands for! :-/ I hope someone else can help you!

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