Saturday, September 11, 2010

Borneo beckons

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, on the island of Borneo, 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.

Top Spot is a sort of co-operative of seafood vendors who share the open-air space — there’s a ceiling but no walls — competing vigorously for each customer. It’s a respectful hustle. Once the customer has chosen, the “losers” move on to the next target. Some customers have their favourite spot. Others, typically newbies, are swayed by the hawkers, but if there are major differences in the food quality or quantity, after three meals it wasn’t obvious to me. The food was perfectly cooked and inexpensive — spend more than $5 or $6 (not including a Tiger beer) and you’re probably overeating.

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

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, expensive journey, but once you’ve made that leap, a wonderful world of nature, history and culture awaits.

Kuching, the state capital, is the largest state in Malaysia and sits on the island of Borneo. Within a short distance of the city centre, there are crocodiles, orangutans, proboscis monkeys and easy access to the rainforest. It’s hot, invariably humid and if you go at the wrong time of year, it rains furiously. But weather patterns have become unpredictable. The rainy season isn’t what it used to be.

Kuching means “cat” in Malay, which is why the city appears to have a cat fetish. It has massive cat statues in and around its city centre and even has its own cat museum. This kitty kitsch has successfully branded the city, but it is neither representative of Kuching — an orangutan or monkey might be more appropriate — nor, say linguistic experts, is it an accurate interpretation of the city’s name.

More likely, they say, it derives from the Mandarin kochin, which means “harbour,” or it is named after the lychee-type fruit mata kuching (cat’s eye). Either way, the cats are there to stay.

Kuching is blessed with a rich colonial past that was sporadically nasty while it was being written, but has left a legacy that the city’s smart tourism marketers use to its fullest. During the early 19th century, Sarawak was a Malay principality ruled by the Sultan of Brunei and, notwithstanding some headhunting in the interior (plastic skulls are plentiful in souvenir shops), it was generally peaceful. That changed when the sultan appointed an unpopular governor and a guerrilla war ensued that continued until 1839, when a wealthy young Englishman named James Brooke arrived with his own private army and quashed the rebellion. The grateful sultan made Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak and, in the British tradition, Brooke and his descendants put an indelible stamp on Sarawak and its capital. After the Second World War and a period of Japanese occupation, Sarawak worked its way toward independence and joined Malaya in 1963 to form the new nation of Malaysia.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Borneo beckons

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