Kuching, Borneo

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End Apr 30, 2009

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Saturday, March 28, 2009

The flight left on time and landed in Kuching 85 minutes later.  As we were going through Sarawak's customs process, we noticed advertisements on the wall for Tune Hotel advertising rooms starting at 9.95 RM.  As we started looking for a method to get from the airport to the downtown area of the city of Kuching, we noticed that Tune Hotels offered a shuttle service at 7.99 RM each.  This was a better deal than the taxis for 25 RM, and since they leave every 30 minutes we didn't have to wait long before we got our ride.

The Tune Hotel (www.tunehotels.com) in Kuching has an excellent location (N1 33.513 E110 21.071), right across the street from the Hilton Hotel on the waterfront.  The hotel is run in a no-frills system much like Air Asia.  This means that if you can plan way ahead, you may actually get a room at 10 RM.  However we only found out about this hotel chain as we showed up and paid substantially more to stay here.  At first I asked for the price of a room to spend just one night there and was told it would be 60 RM.  After hearing that, I enquired about a three-night stay and found that the price dropped to 40 RM the following day before returning to 60 RM for a 3rd night.  We decided to stay for three nights, but by the time our order was entered into the computer, the price of the first night was raised to 80 RM.

These prices covered only a very small and basic room, but with a very comfortable bed and modern bathroom facilities.  There are several add-ons that you can purchase with a room in Tune Hotels including air-conditioning.   Although all rooms have ceiling fans, you can purchase air-conditioning services in blocks of 12 hours for 13.49 RM and it is actually billed only when being used.  There are options for getting Wi-Fi Internet (12 RM for 24 hours), but they provide a computer in the lobby for free Internet access as well.  Towels are extra and there will soon be additional services offered like laundry and TV.

Since our room was so small, we spent a great deal of time outside in Kuching.  On our first night there, we first headed down to walk along Sungai Sarawak (the river going through the city.)  It has been tastefully developed as a tourist attraction with lots of public seating and vendors selling all types of local foods and drinks.  The meals here are reasonably priced for Western standards, but there are cheaper options right behind Tune Hotel where Lisa and I ate a great deal of our meals.  There are over a dozen food vendors spread around an area that serve Mee Goreng (fried noodles), Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and plenty of other local specialties for around 3 or 4 RM a plate.  Each cluster of restaurants seems to have a single vendor selling drinks and they are the only people that service the tables.  Lisa and I simply followed our nose to an appealing scent and grabbed a dish from whichever food vendor we ended up in front of.

On our second day in Kuching, while we were walking along the river again, we met a young man named Frankie that we ended up spending quite a bit of time with.  He was from a village called Lundu which is situated right on the edge of Smenggoh Wildlife Rehabilition Park, around two hours from Kuching.  Frankie was in the city to try out for a provincial takraw team and mentioned that he would be playing later that day.  If you have never seen the sport of takraw, it is a really fun event to watch.  It is sort of like volleyball, only players are only allowed to hit the ball with their feet and heads.  Good players are able to slam the ball over the net, which requires a great deal of acrobatic skill as they kick the ball from well above their heads.  I asked Frankie if we could tag along to watch the game and he was happy to have us join him.

The game wasn't starting until 17:00, so I spent the rest of the day chilling out on the water front talking to Frankie.  I found out that he was the oldest child in him family that included nine children.  This may seem like a lot, but we met another local guy later that had ten children himself.  He was proud that all of them had graduated from secondary school, but later he mentioned that his brother had eighteen children (that also all graduated from secondary school.)  I figured that he was likely a Muslim, since they are allowed to have four wives in this area of the world, but he said that they were all from a single wife.  I guess they start having children young here and now I understand how the population of Borneo has been exploding for the past 40 years or so.

Shortly before the game was starting, we were joined by another European couple and we walked out to the Muslim area of town where there was a takraw court.  There were a number of players already there starting to warm up and I tried joining them for awhile to see if my years of playing hacky-sack would allow me to play.  Unfortunately I was wearing sandals, which kept falling off and were far from ideal for this sport.  All of the players had on rather simple canvas shoes; I presume they were official for the sport since every single player had them on.  The balls were made of plastic, although they were the same size and looked like rotan balls that were used in the past.  After passing the plastic ball around for awhile (and no stretching of any kind), the first game started.

Lisa and I had seen this game being played before in Thailand and although Thailand has the best takraw team of the world, we had only seen casual games that were nowhere near the level that these guys were playing at.  A round would start when one member of a team threw the ball to another player on his team that kicked it over the net (to the other team.)  The other team would dig the ball up before it hit the ground and then on the second hit, they'd try to set it up so that it could be spiked over the net.  The coolest aspect of this sport (in my eyes) is how they spike it over the net on the third hit.  They try to kick it from as high as possible, so that they can kick it very fast to the ground on the other side.  Of course the other team tries to repeat this process and that is basically how the game is played.

As we were watching the game and trying to take pictures, Lisa started wandering around to the surrounding houses to take some more pictures.  One of the ladies, who was an English teacher by profession, invited Lisa in to see her home and meet her children.  Lisa went in with her video camera and spent five minutes touring the house (which was on stilts.) and meeting her family.  Shortly after coming out of this home, she was invited to the home next door.  This was the home of the manager of the takraw team and had ten people living in the house.  The stilted home looked small on the outside, but once she was in it seemed quite large, cool and breezy.  This was a rather affluent family as they had a brother that was a PhD in Mathematics.

Eventually Lisa and the other European couple were served a variety of local dessert dishes, which included deep-fried yam and banana chips (which were packaged in air tight plastic bags.)  They kept encouraging me to join them, but I was engrossed in the takraw game and stayed outside.  Eventually they brought me out a can of Coke and shared some of the desserts with me and the takraw players (which were sort of like seafood donuts.)  While Lisa was in the house, the Muslim call-to-prayer started and Lisa was surprised that nobody stopped to pray.  She asked about whether it was a recorded song and found out that it was sung live all of the time with the first prayer of the day being performed at 4:30 in the morning.  Additionally, the man of the house was one of the people who performed it because he had a good voice.  Even though the family was devout Muslims, they still did not pause to pray while they had foreign guests in their house.

After watching several rounds of takraw, it was starting to get dark outside and it was time to walk back to downtown Kuching.  As we were leaving, somebody from the family of the second house Lisa visited ran to give her some more packaged banana chips.  After being in Hanoi, where most people seemed interested only in how much money they could extract from us, this was almost unbelievable.  I would have to say that Malaysia may have some of the most friendly and generous people in the world.  As we were walking back, I shared that I had some bottles of Vietnamese vodka that I wanted to use up and we decided to sit down by the river and see if we could use up a few bottles.

Since Frankie was a Christian, he had no problem with drinking alcohol and after he tried some he noted on how it tasted quite similar to a drink that they made in his home village.  Although I bought some orange soda to mix with the vodka, he drank a lot of his straight up which was pretty brazen for a man that weighed less than 50 kilograms.  Since he was spending his night sleeping outside of the local Christian Church, I had a feeling that the vodka may help him get a good night's sleep.  After we were almost through the second 350 mililiter bottle, we were joined by two tourist police officers that essentially just wanted to talk with us.  They knew Frankie already and told us that he was a good and safe guy to hang out with and I don't think they noticed that we were all quite intoxicated.  Once we were through the second bottle though, Lisa and I called it a night because we wanted to get up early the next day to see the orangutans being fed in the morning.

Frankie gave us some good advice on how to see the orangutans on our own without paying for an organized tour.  We had to make our way to the bus station and catch a green #6 bus which would take us straight there in about an hour.  We found out that the first bus left the station at 7:30 and after a quick McDonalds breakfast we caught the bus just in time.  We were surprised to see Frankie already sitting on the bus; apparently he was going to join us for the day.  This was great news because he had already been there on several occasions and he was a great guide.  Frankie even knew that we could save a few RM by getting into a group of five, which qualified us for the "tour rate" of 2 RM instead of the regular 3 RM.

By 8:30 we arrived at the park and then we had to walk about a kilometer into the rain forest, where the orangutans lived.  The previous night Frankie had mentioned how he missed the sound of the jungle that helped it him get to sleep.  He described the sounds as an "orchestra" and it was easy to understand why.  It was actually quite loud but also very peaceful and it made for a real rain-forest experience as we walked further into this 100,000,000 year old primary jungle.  We made it to the feeding area a little before 9:00 and had to wait awhile for it to open.  The sign in front of the feeding area stated that it was open from 9:00 to 10:00 and from 2:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon.  Shortly after 9:00, the waiting group of a few dozen people was let in and we walked about 200 meters to a platform where we could watch the feeding area (which was simply a platform surrounded by trees.

Shortly thereafter the park rangers placed bananas and coconuts out on the feeding platform and began calling the orangutans.  We all stood about 10 m away from the feeding platform quietly and eagerly awaiting the appearance of the orangutans from the tree tops.  After a half hour passed with no orangutans in site, Frankie told me that  it would be better to go near the entrance, as that is the usual path the orangutans followed on their way to get food.  About half way back, we saw a small group of people looking up into the trees and lots of "oooohs" and "awwws" could be heard.  It took a lot of looking and pointing for me to finally see the reddish colored fur about 75m near the top of a very tall tree.  The park rangers were banging on the trees, trying to coax the animals to move on and eventually the orangutans began making their way towards the feeding platform, throwing dead branches down at us along the way.  After a further 5 minutes, there were around six orangutans who decided that it was time to eat and they made their way to the feeding platforms from all directions.
Included in this group was a female with her baby clutching to her mama's chest for dear life as mama swung through the treetops.  While the mother and baby orangutans were directly above the viewing platform, the baby orangutan decided it was a good time to relieve its bladder and some tourists ended up getting a warm shower.  A man that worked for the park said that this may happen before we were allowed into the feeding area and I thought this was somewhat of a joke.  It makes me wonder if the timing was a coincidence, whether orangutans need to pee a lot, or whether they actually had a bit of a sick sense of humor.  The orangutans were amazing, some of them hung around the platform and ate, while others grabbed their food and headed back up into the trees.  A few of the animals grabbed coconuts and you could hear them cracking the coconuts against the trees to open them.

After about 20 minutes of observing the orangutans feeding, our Malaysian friend Frankie told us that he overheard the park rangers say there was a female orangutan near the park entrance over their radios.  We rushed back down the jungle trail to the entrance area to find a large female (named Selina) with her very young baby, sitting on one of the benches staring back at us.  I think this particular orangutan enjoyed attention, because she sat only 2 meters away from us, looking directly into our cameras for almost 30 minutes while she tore open a coconut with her teeth.  She occasionally lifted her very hairy arms to show off her newborn baby who was dead asleep, but still clutched tightly to her side.  We took some amazing photos of Selina and her baby and it made for a great end to a excellent morning.  It was at that time that the park ranger announced that the park was closing for lunch, so we made our way back down the 1 km driveway to the main road.

We had missed the scheduled 10:30am return bus ride to Kuching, as by this time it was nearly 11:30.  Our friend Frankie was able to flag down an open bed truck and arrange for a free ride to get us to the nearest town.  From here we caught a city bus back to Kuching (2 RM) which took about 30 minutes.  

After the 15 minute walk back from the bus station we decided to treat our host Frankie to a lunch at Pizza Hut, because he said he had never tried pizza before.  Since pizza is one of my favorite foods we jumped at the opportunity to introduce him to a North American favorite.  He liked the pizza and saved a slice to take to his auntie whom he said had also never tried pizza.  After lunch we took the opportunity to shower and get cleaned up before meeting Frankie and a girl from KL at 2:00pm to visit Fort Margherita, on the north side of the river in downtown Kuching.

Fort Margherita was built by Charles Brookes in 1879 and he named it after his wife.  The purpose of the Fort was to protect Kuching against invading pirates, as it is perched upon the banks of the Sungai Sarawak River.  Admission to the fort is free, and it is easily reached from the other side of the river via a small rowboat style ferry for 0.40 RM per person.   The fort is not very large, and it only took about 30 minutes to explore, however it did offer some nice views and picture taking opportunities.  After taking a quick walk by the new Sarawak Government Office and the First Ministers house (a gigantic mansion), we took another 0.40 RM boat ride to the south side of the river again.
By the time we arrived back to our hotel we had spent the entire day in the hot sun and we were cooked and tired.  We went back to our hotel rooms, grabbed a quick nap and then headed out of the food court downstairs for some Mee Goreng (3 RM/plate).  We later went to a movie in the mall next door because it was "cheap day" and the movie "The International" only cost 5 RM each.  Most of the movies at the theatre played in English language and just had Malay and Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

The next day we switched hotels, and moved to the B & B Inn (at the corner of Jln. Mathie & Jln. Tabuan - N1 33.260 E110 20.914) which was located down the street and was much cheaper.  It was a very nice hostel, complete with a TV room, free wifi, hot showers, self-service kitchen and a roof top patio.  The kitchen was a nice touch because there is a large grocery store (Ting & Ting) just down Jln Tabuan that has lots of selection (and the cheapest water we had seen in Borneo - 1.5 liters for 0.90 RM0.  The B&B Inn claims to be the only licensed hostel in town and had a special that advertised 3 Stella Artois (or Skol) for 10 RM.  Although we would've preferred an A/C room for 40 RM, they were not available, so we paid 35 RM for a fan room with a shared bathroom and that included a basic breakfast.  The hostel was very clean and the staff was very friendly, and they offered many tours that seemed reasonably priced and made us wish that we had discovered this place instead of staying at the Tune Hotel.

The rest of the two days we had left in Kuching were spent sipping beers on the riverfront and shopping for souvenirs.  Frankie had shown me a grocery store on the eastern edge of the Main Bazaar that offered several different brands of beer (including Tsingtao) at a price of 4 for only 10 RM.  This was by far the best deal that we had seen in Malaysia for beer, although Langkawi (the duty free port) had them much cheaper still.  Frankie had told us that the traditional way to drink shots of alcohol in Sarawak was with a small bamboo shot glass, but we were unable to find some even with his help.  Apparently the Sunday market vendors would've had these, but our plane was leaving on Saturday night.  We settled for some ceramic shot glasses instead that we found for 4.50 RM/each.  We also found a cool Borneo mask to add to our collection at home for 50 RM.

We left for the airport earlier than we needed to on the day of March 28th, 2009 because we did not have a room and were dying from the heat and humidity.  This day seemed hotter than any other day of our trip so far and the humidex temperature must've surpassed 40 degrees by quite a bit.  Our flight to Penang was scheduled for 8:15pm, so we took the same shuttle from Tune Hotel (7.99 RM per person) to the airport around 5:30pm so that we could sit in the air-conditioning for a while before our flight left.  The Kuching airport is very modern and offered comfortable padded seats with available electrical outlets that let us watch some movies on the laptop while we waited.  The airport also had lots of restaurants that were very reasonably priced.
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Where I stayed
B&B Inn
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