Five planes and almost three days later (with a pleasant eight-hour layover in the utopian Singapore airport), I arrived in Kuching – the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Sarawak is one of the two states (along with Sabah) that make up Western Malaysia, or the portion of Malaysia located on the island of Borneo.
This is my first time in Asia and occasionally something will remind me of it. For example, squat toilets are ubiquitous.
I open a public bathroom stall expecting a porcelain throne, only to encounter a ceramic hole in the ground equipped with a water hose instead of toilet paper. When Western “sit” toilets are available, signs remind locals to please not stand and squat on them – the preferred position.
Among the many cultural adaptations I’ve made on my journey around the world – from eating raw meat, grubs, to forgoing a shower for a week – somehow this vertical adjustment proves most difficult.
Kuching derives its name from a fruit called the “Cat’s Eyes” which grew abundantly in the area. And I confess: I hate cats but I love Kuching. Giant cat statues and a kitschy “cat museum” remind visitors that the locals still refer to this place as cat city. I must confess: I hate cats, but I love Kuching.
The terms “vibrant” and “multi-ethnic” immediately come to mind when walking through the city. Muslim Malays, Chinese, Indians, and members of various indigenous groups blend together to produce a city of diverse food, businesses, languages and dress. The riverfront crawls with touristy shops, and sleepy oar boats bring locals and foreigners alike across the river to eat dinner at one of the local Malay stalls.
Oh, and did I mention the food is delicious? Here’s some kolo mee (fried noodles) and orange-carrot juice I bought for about $2 across the river.
I spent my first week in Kuching wandering the streets and soaking in the sights and smells – and sometimes just soaking. Rain makes a daily jail break from the sky in spontaneous fits that rival Texas storms. One umbrella-less day while wandering Chinatown, I was forced to seek refuge from the rain in a nearby structure.
Far too concerned by the deluge, I noticed only after entering that I stood in the middle of a vibrant Chinese temple. Believers placed offerings of incense, money and fruit on the altars in front of deities. I asked a temple attendant if this was normal, and he quickly explained that the temple’s principle deity was celebrating a birthday. “In fact, there’s a procession later – you should come!” What luck, I thought!
That night, I stood in a crowd locals sprinkled with obvious tourists and watched the procession roll by – for hours and hours and hours. It includes everything from traditional Chinese dragons and drumming to toddlers dancing to “Gangnam Style” (ugh).