Sarawak, Borneo - It may be called Cat City, but the streets of Kuching in Borneo don’t teem with feline creatures...although you do notice a lot of cat statues.
A statue with its left paw in the air is an open welcome, while a cat with its right paw in the air is a symbol of wealth. Because of this, many shop owners put the right-paw cat statues inside their shops.
Our tour guide on this best-kept-secret island in Malaysia, Bob Zakaria, was quick to dispel the legend that the inhabitants of Kuching, capital of Sarawak province, are cat worshippers.
But, there are plenty of the creatures around and the city’s inhabitants had become fond of them over the years, he said.
As we wandered around the city’s cat museum (yes, really, they take the creatures that seriously ...),we found ourselves marvelling at the porcelain and stuffed feline creatures on display, which included the famous Hello Kitty brand that children adore.
It was a curious, quaint and unexpected side to a city which surprised me and my companions as we stopped over there en route to the annual Rain Forest World Music Festival elsewhere in Sarawak province.
As we flew in from Singapore, the tropical landscape below resembled an interminable maze. It’s as if man had deliberately been digging trenches since the beginning of time. Hectares of lush greenery and forest surrounded the glistening rivers. Its beauty took my breath away.
The city itself has a fascinating history, and is a reminder of the strange twists to the world expansion by the imperial nations...and of the eccentric Europeans who made lives a world away from the cold of the north.
Sarawak was part of the Sultanate of Brunei and the city itself was founded in 1827 by the representative of the Sultan of Brunei, Pengiran Indera Mahkota.
Sarawak was ceded to British adventurer James Brooke, who ruled it as his personal kingdom, and was called the rajah, from 1841. Brooke took over as a reward for helping to bring about a peaceful settlement following an uprising against the sultan of Brunei.
In 1872, Kuching was given its current name his by his son, Charles Brooke, the second rajah.
Kuching was surrendered to the Japanese in 1941 during World War II.
After the war, the third and last rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, ceded Sarawak and Kuching to the British crown.
When Sarawak, together with Northern Borneo, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya, formed the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, Kuching was maintained as the state capital.
Today it has a population of about 1 million. The dialect of Malay spoken there is Bahasa Sarawak (Sarawakian Malay language), which is a subset of the Malay language.
The city is divided into two areas: Kuching North and Kuching South and is the only city in Malaysia administered by two entities, a city council and a state government statutory.
Inside the Sarawak Museum, the oldest one on the island, visitors are barred from taking pictures. While I found myself frowning at the idea, I thought that perhaps the people of Sarawak didn’t want their precious traditions turned into mere entertainment for people just passing through. And then the ban made a bit more sense to me.
Kuching’s oldest street, the Main Bazaar, is located along the city’s waterfront overlooking the Sarawak River.
An evening stroll along the river bank is a perfect way for any couple to soak up the city vibe.
On our second day in the city, the humidity got the better of me. The sweltering air is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Kuching’s weather stays at 37°C year-round.
When it comes to clothes, most of the city’s inhabitants are not swayed by modern fashion. They stick to Muslim dress.
The streets are often filled with young girls and old women wearing hijabs. But people are allowed to wear what they like.
Tourists can wear their mini-skirts, sandals or shorts without feeling as though they are breaking the rules.
Among the highly recommended restaurants in the city are Bing Coffee Cafe, Cafe 75, Madam Tang’s Cafe and the Seafood Roof Top.
The seafood at any of the restaurants is delightful. A fellow traveller and I relished the shellfish served with fried ferns.
The deep-fried crab, mushroom soup and prawns laced with lemon and cream sauce were fantastic.
Bing incorporates classic Western cuisine, while Cafe 75 provides a similar menu but applies a Sarawak slant.
At Cafe 75, we lingered over chicken thickly marinated in soy sauce, a traditional curry chicken dish and steamed rice among other dishes. We didn’t hesitate to call for second helpings either, and in the end begged the café owner for her secret recipes.
A dish that made my taste buds dance was the Sarawak Laksa (a noodle and prawn dish) and Litchi Assam Boi (litchi virgin cocktail) at Madam Tang’s. I’d go there again just for these two delectable treats.
Kuching is spotless and I was amazed at how adults and children throw every bit of paper in a bin.
I looked for litter wherever I went, but found no trace of any.
To any tourist, souvenirs and gifts to take back home are always important and the city’s Sunday Market is a good place to load up on those goods.
As we navigated the narrow stalls, we were overwhelmed.
The clothing in particular offered a chance to snap up bargains that neither of us were prepared to let slip. The market certainly helps you hone your bargaining skills.
Tourists driving in the city need not worry about getting around or battling to deal with road signs. Small cars are popular and petrol and diesel are affordable.
Spending a night in a traditional Sarawak long house is a special experience.
The concept of the housing dates to a time when tribes sought safety in numbers in case of attack by rivals or wild animals.
The practice has persisted, though, as families continue to live together in these homes.
The long houses are a good choice of accommodation for anyone who wants to get to know the locals or is looking for a home away from home.
There is, of course, also the option of a more pampered stay in one of the five-star luxury hotels.
When we visited the Bako National Park on our last day, we felt we had really saved the best for last.
The park’s lush, green, awe-inspiring foliage makes you feel at one with your creator.
The trip to the park started with a boat ride from a depot filled with boats owned by fishermen.
We were warned that the river would be teeming with wild animals, including crocodiles.
But I felt much better when I was reassured that the crocodiles would not worry us because they ventured into the water only at high tide.
As our boat thumped along the green river, I felt like an explorer making my way through the Amazon jungle.
The trip was scary but also interesting.
As we approached the river bank, we noted a small mountain that appeared as though it had been smoothly chiselled by a sculptor.
“This is one of human nature’s greatest gifts to us and our ancestors here in Sarawak,” said our tour guide, beaming.
A wild boar grazed nearby on what constituted the ideal beach to get away from it all.
Bako National Park officials said the animals foraged in their natural habitat unhindered.
I picked up a shell from the sand, but my tour guide insisted that I put it back.
We were told that nothing was to be picked up from the park – not even a leaf was to be plucked.
As we walked into the forest, we were confronted by a cacophony of bird sounds.
A troop of proboscis monkeys mischievously jumped from tree to tree. A green snake lay twirled around a branch.
We took joy in witnessing nature’s unspoilt gifts.
Our tour guide told us orang-utans and hornbills were important assets to the state of Sarawak – and even Malaysia – as they came from this area.
The day we left for the airport, I felt some sadness at going but was also grateful for the experience and appreciated the break.
l Makati was a guest of the Malaysian Tourism Authority and Singapore Airlines.
If You Go...
How to get there: Leave from O R Tambo International Airport on a Singapore Airlines flight to Changi International Airport (Singapore).
Travel time: Nine and a half hours
In Singapore, board a connecting flight to Kuching International Airport in Sarawak, Borneo. Travel time: an hour and 25 minutes. - Saturday Star