Welcome to Borneo

The island of Borneo holds legendary status among travelers.  The name conjures images and thoughts of dense rainforest, mysterious cultures and exotic wildlife.  It is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea (Australia, being a continent, doesn’t count).  Roughly 70% of the island (mainly the southern portion) consists of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, with the remainder (mainly the northern portion) being the Malaysian states of Sarawak (in the west, where Kuching, our entry point, is located) and Sabah (in the east), plus the sovereignty of Brunei.

This is the first portion of our trip where we booked everything through a tour company (Audley).  Independent travel in Borneo seems quite doable, but we chose to spend less than two weeks on the island and felt it would be a smoother and more enjoyable destination if we had our plans laid out and the benefits of a private guide.

One of the biggest early surprises after doing research and arriving in Kuching is how developed the island is.  Kuching has a population of 650,000 and several buildings at least 15 stories tall.  For some reason, we kind of pictured Borneo as an undeveloped island with perhaps an airport or two and dirt roads and rivers.  I assume there are other landing strips for puddle jumpers, but Air Asia flies its Airbus A-320s to no fewer than eight different airports in Malaysian Borneo alone!

This city has a modern shopping mall with western chains and a Starbucks.  And a Maserati parked out front.  There is a large convention center outside town.  As if to confirm that we are not in the middle of nowhere, walking along the Kuching Waterfront we had our first chance encounter since California: we ran into Sheryl, my friend from Tufts.  Crazy small world.

For a city whose name literally translates to “cat” in the local language, you would think that it might appeal more to Jenni, but it somewhat underwhelmed. The cat thing is played up big time with cat statues all around the city (cheesy but cute) and souvenir and trinket shops selling I ❤ Kuching paraphernalia decorated with cats. There is clearly an effort underway to develop Kuching as a tourism hub for Borneo. It has the potential to become more Cancun than Cassis in class. Fingers crossed that this city can manage its growth well and preserve its character while adding facilities and benefitting locals.

Kuching is not a bad place at all.  It is pleasant enough and a fine place to spend a day or two to explore or while in transit.  The city is a bit weathered and our expectations were lofty. I think we envisioned a quaint, colonial-style riverfront village and that it is not. Perhaps though if we’d showed up here fresh from Los Angeles, and hadn’t just spent two and a half months gallivanting around other highlights of Asia we’d be more enticed by the Asian flair and the temples and all that. Are we becoming jaded!?

We definitely did enjoy the relief from Singapore prices and had a handful of tasty meals, including some fantastic laksa and teh tarik, a traditional spicy Malay noodle dish and tea drink, respectively. Walks along the Waterfront in the evenings were quite pleasant, with a handful of young musicians providing a soundtrack to the families and lovers walking about.  I really enjoyed my visit with Eric (while Jenni was sick) to the non-touristy Premier 101 Food Centre our last night in town. Tsingtao and chicken feet for the soul.

Our hotel was also a highlight, as it was the first place we stopped in Asia that had a bathtub. And not just any bathtub, a big lovely tub with a sliding door that opened to the balcony. Living large at The Ranee in Kuching.

Granted we are on a tropical island now, but it’s also the first place on our trip that we visited at the edge of its high season, and so we weren’t terribly surprised to experience our first rain on the trip since leaving the U.S.  But an impressive downpour and thunderstorm it was!  And very well-timed as it did not interfere with any of our scheduled activities.

There is much to see and do in Malaysian Borneo, and a comprehensive description is well beyond the scope of our blog.  But we will mention a couple places we skipped, in part because one area was a most difficult decision.  Some of the best places to see wildlife and I think the undisputed best places for tropical paradise islands in Borneo are in eastern Sabah.  This includes the Kinabatangan River and Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and world-famous SCUBA diving destinations like Sipadan and Mabul.  Unfortunately, there have been terrorist incidents on the offshore islands, with the most recent kidnap/murder occurring in November 2013.  The US State Department advises against travel to eastern Sabah.  We read the travel advice of the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, too.  Each is cautious on the coastal regions, though only the US recommends avoiding such a large geography.  Australia’s website warns: “There are recent indications that extremists may be in the advanced stages of planning to kidnap foreigners from locations in this vicinity.”

Most seasoned travelers will tell you that the US State Department is alarmist, and often we agree.  Every single person we asked (meaning Borneo residents and those in the travel industry operating on Borneo) said they would not worry about the travel warnings, or at least would only worry with respect to the offshore islands but not the slightly inland destinations of eastern Sabah.  People said they feel entirely safe there.  We take more comfort in such statements when the primary concern is petty or violent crime, as opposed to terrorism.  There is no right answer, but that is the decision we made.  Plus, we are hopeful that the risk will diminish over time (especially with the recent Philippines peace accord) and now we have a great reason to return.

Another top attraction we are skipping is the Gunung Mulu National Park.  This area in eastern Sarawak (close to Brunei) is famous for its karst formations and enormous caves, including the largest known natural chamber in the world.  We hope to return to visit this area, too.

Practical Info

Kuching is the largest city on the island of Borneo, with a population around 650,000.  It is the typical base for exploration of Sarawak.  It sits on the Sarawak River, a little south of the ocean.  Tourist activity seems concentrated on the Kuching Waterfront.  There is a lot of commercial activity on Jalan Padungan with food, hardware stores, bars, restaurants, etc.

There is a cluster of three banks with ATMs next to the Riverside Majestic hotel, across the street from a 24-hour McDonald’s.

We purchased a DiGi SIM card, and it was less smooth than in some other places.  Nobody could give us a clear answer on rates to call the US.  It seems to work fine.  We found lots of shops selling SIM cards on Jalan Padungan.  You can top up DiGi cards at 7-11, and you can also purchase U Mobile cards there.

Transportation: Kuching has an international airport about 15-20 minutes from downtown.  There is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean.  Air Asia flies here, and there are direct flights from several Asian cities.  Since we are using a tour company for Borneo, we did not arrange our own transport from/to the airport nor to Bako National Park, etc.  I would imagine it is not too difficult.  You can walk around most of the downtown area.

Accommodation: We stayed at The Ranee Boutique Suites located across from the Kuching Waterfront.  The room is large and well-decorated, with a sitting area and big, modern bath with separate tub.  The location is excellent.  The included breakfast leaves a bit to be desired.  There is a large Hilton and other high-rise hotels on the eastern end of the Waterfront.  I think you would want to stay around the Waterfront, but the central city area seems small enough that it probably doesn’t matter too much.

Food and Drink: Lunch at James Brooke Cafe on the Waterfront was great.  10 MYR for a large, delicious bowl of Sarawak Laksa.  We were a little disappointed by Top Spot food court, a collection of seafood and other stands atop a parking garage.  It is very popular with locals and tourists.  We ate at Ling Loong seafood, and my snapper was neither grilled nor filleted as requested and at 26 MYR the value is questionable.  Though in fairness I inquired at a food stall in town that seemed entirely local and was quoted a higher price per kilo.  We dined at The Junk, a supremely atmospheric restaurant with good food and mediocre service.  Pizza, risotto, a glass of house red and a pint of Guinness cost 113 MYR.  We had lunch at Little Lebanon by the Sarawak Tourism Complex, across from India Street.  The food was pretty good and they have hookahs, which they also call Hubbly-Bubbly.  There is another location on the Kuching Waterfront.

There are many vendors selling popcorn, chicken kebab, laksa and more along the Waterfront.  Waffle stands are all over and smell amazing. There are a couple popular stalls selling pork satay (0.60 MYR each, minimum five, limited hours) across from Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple (aka Shang Ti Temple) and next to Backpacker’s Stay.  We saw some Chinese noodle shops, dim sum spots and pork leg rice places on Jalan Padungan. Near India Street and the Electra House shopping center are food stalls with laksa, mee goreng, bao etc. for ~4 MYR per plate.

Premier 101 Food Centre is a mainly Hokkien hawker market located 10-15 minutes outside downtown.  There are hardly any other tourists, and perhaps 20-30 vendor stalls.  The spot at one end of the alley serves BBQ chicken feet (among other items) with a great, spicy dry rub (4 MYR).  I tried kolo mee (3 MYR) and kong pia (1 MYR each) and each was tasty.  Char siu bao (2 MYR) was also good.  The highlight was the apam balik, a very thin and crispy pancake that had ground peanuts and butter and was superb.

There are loaf-shaped cakes (Jenni deemed these “Tetris cakes”) sold around town, especially along Main Bazaar.  I hear Secret Recipe is the spot for cheesecake.

Zeus Sports Bar looks like a place you could catch EPL games.  21 Bistro had a more sophisticated menu.  Jambu and the Dyak are higher end restaurants that come recommended.

Activities: Walk along the Kuching Waterfront, which offers views across to the Astana palace (the official residence of the state Governor) and impressive State Assembly Building.  We did not visit any of the Chinese or Hindu temples and skipped a museum or two, but we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the very good Sarawak Museum.  It has informative displays on fauna, longhouses and headhunting (among more), and it is open every day with free admission.  Walk along India Street, Gambier Road and the Indian Mosque Lane that connects the two.  It didn’t seem like the India mosque was too exciting, but we weren’t dressed appropriately to enter so couldn’t tell for sure.  You can cross the river and we read there are some villages and an orchid garden.  There is a weekend market that I believe is now located outside the city.

Day trips are perhaps the premier activity of Kuching.  We visited Bako National Park, and it was awesome.  We stopped at the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary on our way to overnight at an Iban longhouse, but many visit the Sanctuary on a day trip that includes a nearer Iban longhouse.  You can also visit the Sarawak Cultural Village near Damai Beach.

February 18-21 + 23, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday + Sunday)

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