Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Millennial Traveller: How a heritage race opened my eyes to Kuching

In an industry where government tourism boards relentlessly invoke buzzwords and catch phrases to generate publicity, it becomes easy to build a certain level of cynicism (or perhaps ‘scepticism’ is a better word) about the strategies used to attract visitors to target destinations.

There is an inherent artificiality or insincerity to it, where it simply feels like a PR stunt rather than an honest-to-God expression of pride in a place. In an odd sort of way and somewhat ironically, this can generate levels of appeal for places whose reputation rests solely on word-of-mouth recommendations and social networking rather than expensive campaigns.

I must admit that a month ago, Kuching, Sarawak, was not a ‘must see’ destination on my own globetrotting agenda. When I hear “Malaysia”, I (and many others, I suspect) typically think of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca, and if you’re in Singapore, Johor Bahru for the cheap shopping just across the causeway, of course!

In all frankness, the notion of visiting had not crossed my mind until I found that it was the destination for the fourth Heritage Race.

The race itself is a relatively straightforward affair, where teams of two to eight are required to race around an area (in this case, Kuching), and undertake challenges at various heritage sites, learn about traditional ways, and document progress with a selfie or a simple chop on a race card (or ‘passport’ as it was called).

Certainly none too taxing and a far cry from the aggressively competitive road races that are so commonplace in many major cities. Like an intense day tour with an added dose of adrenaline, it’s definitely an extremely ‘efficient’ way to explore a city, all the while raising money for significant causes.

As it turns out, Kuching can be regarded as a hidden and largely unknown treasure – the type of place reserved for people ‘in the know’.

While my father and I had flown from Singapore (a remarkably painless 90 minute flight on AirAsia), many of the other participants in the Kuching Heritage Race turned out to be from the town itself.

While they definitely had the upper hand in being able to navigate between the different historical and cultural hotspots and completing the various challenges, we simply could not compete with their sheer enthusiasm and passion for their hometown either.

It was almost as though the Kuching Heritage Race gave them the opportunity to see their hometown with fresh eyes, reminding them of a beauty so many of us take for granted when in familiar territory. The perks of also raising funds for charities and supporting local businesses just added to their fervour.