Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sarawak Borneo - Experience the exotic

Borneo has a fascinating history, a rainforest swinging with wildlife — and terrific street food

KUCHING, Sarawak, on the Island of Borneo — The roof of a multi-storey parking lot is not the first place you’d expect to find some of the best food in town, but like much in Kuching, Top Spot comes as a pleasant surprise.

It’s loud, lively, colourful and, in the balmy night air that always seems to bless this place, an exceptional venue for people-watching and getting a sense of the exotic.

Top Spot is a sort of co-operative of seafood vendors who share the open-air space — there’s a ceiling but no walls. They compete vigorously for each customer, or group of customers, as they walk in, pointing excitedly at their employer’s neon sign.

It’s respectful hustle. Once the customer has chosen, the "losers" back away and move on to the next target.

Some customers have their favourite spot. Others, typically visitors without local knowledge, are swayed by the hawkers, but if there are major differences in the food quality or quantity, it isn’t obvious.

Locals will tell you that one vendor is better than the other, but I ate there three times and couldn’t detect any significant difference. On each occasion, the food was perfectly cooked and remarkably inexpensive — spend more than $5 or $6 (not including a local Tiger beer) and you’re probably overeating.

Each vendor displays an exotic array of fish and shellfish. The diner buys by weight and sits while it’s cooked and served. There is no ownership over the chairs and tables, most of which are large, round and occupied by extended local families.

Where locals go to eat, tourists would be wise to follow — especially when there is lots of choice in town.

Food is one of Sarawak’s major selling points and eating is one of its favourite pastimes, but beyond the belly there is a whole exotic world for visitors to explore. It’s fair to say that Sarawak is not on the Canadian tourist radar, but for those with a flair for the exotic it should be. It’s a long, relatively expensive journey to the other side of the world, but once you’ve made that leap, there’s a wonderful world of nature, history and culture to explore — and once there, you can do it comfortably on a relatively tight budget.

Kuching, the state capital, is a good place to land. It is the largest state in Malaysia and sits on the island of Borneo.

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