Ka-ching! Value for money in Borneo's western hub Kuching

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January 2nd 2014
Published: February 11th 2014
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Jalan CarpenterJalan CarpenterJalan Carpenter

One of the two gorgeous Chinese temples along the 'back street' of Main Bazaar
After the mandatory visit to Malaysia's capital, it was off to neighbouring Borneo (or put simply the east island of Malaysia). We chose Kuching (a 90 minute flight from KL) in the largest Malaysian state of Sarawak as the reviews of all of the Orang Utan sanctuaries seemed to be more focused on keeping the animals wild and away from humans, rather than kept in cages as a tourist venture.

You can only imagine my delight when Matt told me Kuching meant 'cat' in the Malay dialect - and what's more, there was cat statues all across the city (even the world's only Cat Museum). After seeing hardly any ACTUAL cats in the city (and mentioning it to our lovely taxi driver Hamitaf) we actually found out the city was more likely named from the Chinese word for port ("cochin"). There are many Chinese in Kuching and this makes for a great variety of dining options!

Back to the beginning of our Borneo adventure - we arrived at Kuching airport at midday to a balmy 40 degrees and cloudy sky. We grabbed a taxi coupon before heading inside which guaranteed us the rate of 26RM
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Wish I saw more 'real' cats in Kuching!
to our hotel door ($9.50AUD).

We chose to stay at the Grand Margherita hotel along the Kuching waterfront. Location was completely fab, although river-view room not all that impressive at that particular section of the Kuching waterfront.

Our hotel was directly opposite the 'touristy' cat statues and a short walk to Main Bazaar (the main shopping street opposite the Kuching waterfront). We spent a solid few hours trawling through the antique stores along the Main Bazaar on our first day. One of our favourites was the dubiously named Bong Gallery, a Chinese store owned by the same family for generations. There are literally piles of pewter, brass, wood and resin antiquities to browse. The written prices are quite expensive but they were readily offering customers 40-60% off. A pair of 20-30cm solid brass dragons/tigers/Buddha’s will set you back around 800RM ($280AUD). Worth it if you will have them as a feature piece in your home as a reminder of your time in Borneo.

We also nipped into the Textile Museum (which is open daily 9am to 4:30pm) which was just around the corner from the end of Main Bazaar. Entry is
Top SpotTop SpotTop Spot

GREAT spot for an authentic Malay dinner
free and it is a great way to familiarise yourself with the local tribes (primarily Iban and Bidayuh) and the proper design and use of their fabrics and costumes. This came in handy when visiting market stalls and souvenir shops. It was also quite inspiring on a fashion level, the use of colour and fringing - particularly with beads and pompoms. Completely gorgeous!

We returned to our hotel via the 'backstreet' (Jalan Carpenter) where not only were prices a lot cheaper, but we saw the more authentic side of Kuching. There are two small Chinese temples along the way, including the larger Tua Peck Kong temple at the intersection of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman.

After a few Tiger beers in the air-conditioned respite of our hotel, it was off to the #2 ranked Kuching restaurant on Trip Advisor. We were 2 of 10 Caucasians at 'Top Spot' restaurant precinct; the remainder of patrons made up of around 500 eager locals - a good sign the food is 'top notch'! Top Spot's bright red neon prawn sign lights up the nights' sky like a beacon to all seafood lovers, which is handy considering it is located on top of a 5-storey parking garage and a bit tricky to find. It's directly up the street (Jalan Padungan) 100m from the cat statues.

We ate at Ling Loong whose staff were super friendly and helpful - my fiancé picked out his own river king prawns which were bbq'ed with butter and garlic. They vanished off his plate and at that point managed to breathe and tell me they were divine. Being allergic to seafood I opted for the sweet and sour chicken with side of mix vege - so fresh in fact I could have done away with the chicken. Dinner with Tiger beer came in at 101RM (around $36AUD). Great value and great ambience! Highly recommended for the seafood lovers visiting Kuching. Definitely not for the faint hearted who don't like being hassled or amongst crowds (although I would have to ask why you are visiting Asia if you fall into that category). Our taxi driver Hamitaf also highly recommended the 'ABC' stall at Top Spot for its quick service (Matt's dish from Ling Loon did take around a half hour to come out).

It was off to Semmengoh Orang-Utan
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Started out blue and cooked to golden-orange perfection!
Sanctuary the next day for the 9am feeding - then back to town via Fairy & Wind Caves. We hired a private taxi driver through our hotel for 250MR for the day ($89AUD). Definite value if you don't want to be crammed onto a bus with other tourists and ushered from place to place on a tight schedule (which was going to cost 370RM anyhow!). We had to pay for entry into Semmengoh separately (10RM / $3.60AUD each) and the Fairy Cave was free. Unfortunately the Wind Caves were closed for maintenance due to recent storm damage.

I had read reviews that it was best to take insect repellent, sturdy walking shoes and a torch with you for a day at the sanctuary and caves. This research was a saving grace! I would also recommend taking a frozen bottle of water, towel and spare memory cards and batteries for your camera. The frozen water aspect will help it last longer and act as a cooling agent when you near fainting from the jungle heat - and the towel will help if, to quote Hamitaf, "a monkey pees at you". The camera tips go without saying, this is

Ritchie and his posse
a stunning part of the world and you will want to go crazy capturing it! Our memory card maxed out after around 15 minutes at Semmengoh and you're not allowed to walk back through the jungle unsupervised (as the animals are wild and you are cautioned to quote "run for your life" if they approach).

Luckily we were not doused in ape urine and instead got to watch 15 beautiful Orang Utans at Semmengoh. One of which was the huge dominant male Ritchie, who Hamitaf told us had previously killed four other mature males who "threatened his rule as King". We also saw three females and their infants playing and chasing...simply heart-warming, conservation is the clear winner at Semmengoh. We had to leave Kuching at 7am for the 9am feeding, which lasted until just after 10. There is a second feeding but apparently the first is the better of the two (and a greater likelihood of seeing Ritchie!).

It was off to our next stop, the Fairy Caves (around 45mins from Semmengoh). They are located in the Bau region (once popular for gold mining) and are incredibly close to the Indonesian border. We absolutely
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Moving away quickly from the unpredictable locals
loved these caves. Despite their "interesting" entry, to quote Hamitaf again, which was a large set of winding stairs up the side of the cliff-face - they are definitely worth it! Every step both inside and out is covered in moss and dew which makes for a slippery endeavour - but we made it! It is like something off the pages of a magical storybook! The greens are so green - and the caves so invitingly open. Hamitaf said he actually prefers the Wind Caves so we were really disappointed they were closed. He was very surprised and said he had never seen them closed before!

It was back to town after the caves (around an hour) an on the way Hamitaf stopped off at a Pottery Factory so we could see how they are made. It was really interesting, especially the Bonsai garden were we watched lady wrapping the wire to constrict the trees growth. The prices were also a lot cheaper here (around 36RM / $12.70AUD) for a 30cm hand painted/carved vase. By this stage we were starving for lunch and asked Hamitaf to drop us off at a traditional Malay restaurant for lunch. Located
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Not for the faint hearted!
around the corner from Top Spot / beside 'The Cottage' bar / behind the Pullman Hotel, we can easily say Warong Nusantara was the best Malaysian food we had whilst in Kuching (23 Jalan Bukit Matang). The cheese roti was so delicious we ordered a second - I had chicken laced with ginger and fresh veges while Matt had Kung Pau Chicken (black bean meets bbq). With drinks it came in at a grand total of 28RM ($10AUD). When Matt told me how much it cost I was almost tempted to go back and give them more money! Things to note if you do venture to Warong Nusantara is that the 11-page menu has virtually no English (neither do the staff) and so it's best if you know a few key words so you can convey what you're looking for (ie. chicken = ayam / ia pedas = not spicy / mee = noodles).

We arrived back at our hotel at 3pm after lunch, had a quick refresher and decided to make our way to the Kuching Orchid Garden across the river. Long boats readily serve to get you across the river (for 0.40RM / 15cents AUD
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Escaping to another world...
from the Square Tower) and run virtually every 5 minutes. We were so glad we made the effort - as Orchid lovers (and with free entry) it was a great way to spend an hour or so. We were shocked we saw so many beautiful varieties of orchids considering January is not peak flowering season in Borneo.

After such a hot, long day we literally crashed and fell into deep sleep. We decided to take a more relaxed approach to our third day in Kuching (partly due to the full-on Friday and Matt catching a nasty flu). We spent an hour browsing the 'Sunday Markets' which kick off around midday on Saturday. These are about 15 minutes from the waterfront, across the river via the Satok bridge. The markets are mainly fresh vegetables, Kek Lapis (sweet colourful cake), spices, fresh fish/meat and flowers/plants. Not much in the way of local wares and not particularly worth the 20RM taxi for the visiting tourist. Some would say the neighbouring Kubah Ria complex makes up for what the markets lack, with their large variety of food stalls similar to Top Spot. To be honest, we felt a little out of
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Little old man powered us across for just 5cents Aussie!
place and unwelcome at Kubah Ria. The locals were staring as though they'd never seen a tourist! It was disappointing that the only stall we felt we could ait down at was Stall #26 'Mama Chop Papa Grill' which was signed as a 'Western Food' outlet. We wouldn't let the staring locals get to us though and ordered the famed local dishes Sarawak Laksa and Mee Goring Ayam. They were quite nice though nothing fantastic and we went home with 24 less RM in our pocket ($8.50AUD).

With the whole trip to the Sunday Markets with lunch coming in at 64RM ($22.50 AUD) it was still a worthwhile experience on a day where we were wanting to take it easy. The Concierge also recommended the Sarawak Museum as a place to visit, and we also had Bako National Park and Gunung Gading National Park (home to the world's largest flower - the size of a coffee table) on our radar. A fourth day here and we would have got round to them!

Nevertheless we have loved our trip to Sarawak. Borneo is a beautiful island abundant with rich forrest life and friendly locals who
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So many stunning specimens...
value tourism. If we returned we would love to venture to nearby Miri (still in Sarawak) or the neighbouring state of Sabah - home to picturesque Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and the Sipadan Islands. We almost booked a trip to Tawau so we could visit the Sipadan Islands in Sabah but took the advice of the Australian Smart Traveller warning not to travel to the area due to threat of kidnapping from Phillipino pirates. When we mentioned this to Hamitaf he told us that the situation had just come under control, but he would not recommend visiting the area for at least another year. So from February 2015 the stunning Sipadan islands are back on the cards - you have it from a local who seems pretty switched on to the political going-on's in Borneo!

When we arrived at the airport on our last morning the airport was packed - especially with young people getting off buses. It wasn't until we ran into one of the friendly doormen from our hotel that we figured out what was going on. He told us he was there to see his son off who had been drawn for 1 year of
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A riot of colour!
military conscription. The Malaysian government selects around 1,000 young men and women when they turn 18 to serve for military training in KL. The doorman told us they will go to jail of they do not go. It was a definite wake up call to the difference in this country to our own back home.

Off to the duty-free beach island of Langkawi next - cannot wait for a little sun tanning time in a place that is more of a 'free zone' (to quote SATC's Samantha Jones). Talk then, much love xoxo AG


*Blue cabs are more modern, clean with great aircon!

*Expect to pay around 35RM per hour for a private taxi.

*Choose the Serapi Wing when booking at Grand Margherita hotel - and consider seriously if you want to pay more for the meek Executive 'benefits'

*Don't pre-book any tours as they will depend on the weather and you can get a much better price booking direct through your hotel *Please take note that during the 'fruiting season' (which we were told is October to December) there is no guarantee how many Orang Utans will be at the feedings at Semmengoh, there have been reports were there have been none!

*A can of beer will set you back 8RM ($2.80AUD) from most convenience stores

*An average meal for two people (with drinks) from a Malaysian Food Stall will set you back 20 to 30RM ($8 to $11AUD)

*Grab a map/city guide produced by the Sarawak Tourism Board, we found them to be the most comprehensive.

*If you love seafood you must visit Top Spot for dinner!

*Always ask for a discount/offer them an amount that is 20 to 60%!l(MISSING)ess than the marked price. This area survives by tourism, especially in the monsoon months.


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