Kuching: City of Cats

Borneo Hotel circa 1992Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, East Malaysia, where one of the few airports had been built in the late 20th Century. Flights to-and-from the city were limited, as were the number of hotels available for staging our time in the Rajang delta. And, where else would one want to stay while making arrangements for field work than the Borneo Hotel? Today, now that international chains have built western-style hotels in the city, the Borneo Hotel is no longer the premier accommodation in the city. In fact, although rooms are inexpensive relative to other hotels, its rating on TripAdvisor might make one to think twice about booking a room.

Similar throughout countries outside of the U.S., open-air markets act as a principal site for daily shopping of fresh meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits. But, unlike many other world markets, Kuching’s market offers the Durian fruit for sale. Durian, you may ask? This is one of the very few fruits that is banned from most public spaces in both Malaysia and Singapore. The fruit is considered, by many, to be the most foul-smelling fruit in the world. Its aroma has been compared to raw sewage, rotting flesh, and smelly gym socks, but considered a sweet, custard-like textured delicacy akin to cheesecake. According to an online search, it is now possible to buy a single fruit in the United States as of this writing. Due to challenges in transporting it from Malaysia to North America, you’ll pay ha high price for the experience.

Kuching was carved out the tropical forests of Sarawak in 1839, according to one source, by Sir James Brooke, the “White” Rajah born in Bengal, India, who appointed himself as the ruler of Sarawak after arriving in the country. He built the city’s first European-style house along the southern bank of the muddy, crocodile-infested Sarawak River, and his descendants ruled as a a dynastic monarchy until 1946. Only after WWII did the monarchy cede the country to Britain where it remained a crown colony until 1963 when it was granted self-government; subsequently, the country became one of the founding members of Malaysia. The main government buildings continue to include the Astana (“Palace”; 1870) and Supreme Court (1874), and surround the city’s central square. Although it is the largest and wealthiest city in Sarawak with a population greater than half-a-million, nearly half of the country’s population (44%) of 625,400 households earn below RM4,000 (<$1000) with 10.7 per cent earning less than RM2,000 (<$500).

Kuching was a very different city in the early 1990s than today, where it now serves as the economic and financial hub for the palm-oil industry that has thrived during the early 21st Century. Then, there were very few paved roads outside of the city’s boundaries, leaving the sole Ferrari we encountered with a limited radius in which it could be driven. Eateries were limited to street vendors and outdoor cafés down by the river where a variety of fresh fish, blood cockles and other clams, and fern crosiers (Midin Belakan) constituted most evening’s meals while in the city, in addition to Kolo Mee and Kampua Mee (noodle dishes) and Laksa (a traditional soup). And one can’t forget tuak, a local fermented rice wine. In early 1993, though, western eateries began arriving in the city. Upon our arrival in October, the concierge at the Borneo Hotel was enthusiastic to recommend a newly opened restaurant that was the talk-of-the-city: Kentucky Fried Chicken!