Rooms allocated, bags unpacked, navigation of light switches and facilities accomplished it was time to venture out in to the cool overcast afternoon. Our condo is right on the river so we decided to head downstream into the main part of town first. Much to our delight, right next door is the Petanak Central Market. Downstairs a wet market in the morning and upstairs supposedly a bustling hawker centre in the evening. That’s our dinners taken care of!
Kuching is relaxed and quiet. Very little peak hour traffic, no honking horns, no hard sell of souvenirs and everything looks a little weathered. There’s obviously a lot of new building going on. Condo blocks, up market hotels and shopping centres; but mostly it’s two story shop houses like the old days of Chinatown in Singapore. Delightfully run down, plants growing out of cracks in walls, window shutters peeling, walls a little crumbly – like the jungle is slowly reclaiming the city back. Even the new buildings have mould stains on their vast white walls.
The main street has been handed over to the tourist industry. Narrow covered sidewalks reminiscent of Little India in Singapore, spill tables of packaged “local foods”, t-shirts and handicrafts into the hands of strollers like ourselves. The beautifully kept bricked path along the river has the remnants of food stalls waiting to be set up for the evening trade. All ever so slightly westernised and expensified (is that a word? spellcheck tells me no) for the visitors staying at the Hilton opposite. Signs on the handrails tell of Weekend Night Markets, so we’ll save the romantic river promenade till later in the trip when all the satay sellers start sizzling and the trinket stalls set up.
Dive in behind the main street and you start to see the real Kuching, the locals’ Kuching. Sanitised bars and backpacker lodges give way to hawker centres, temples, and mangy dogs. Colourful Chinese New Year decorations still line the streets; the mismatched paint jobs of many hues highlight the mismatched architecture of the narrow shop houses. Crumbling buildings stand next to those newly renovated.
Our hosts advised us that Kuching is bustling in the morning, quiet in the afternoons and busy again at night. Which explained all the closed cafes and hawker centres at 3 o’clock. Must be siesta time for everyone. So the search for our first meal was hampered by the disappointment of menus displayed on shuttered shop fronts. Laura succumbed to the lurid layer cakes sold on the main street as we started to gather provisions for the fridge back home. A trestle table out the front of a half-closed stall brought me my first shriek of joy. Keuh! Packets of homemade sticky rice cakes just waiting for me to come along. Four trayfuls were less than $3 and will take care of my early breakfasts for the rest of the trip. No fruit stalls in sight yet but it was early days.
Desperate for a feed we found a small hawker centre that was open and full of locals so it was time to indulge. Three plates of nasi goreng ikan – fried rice with salty fish, and a slab of tofu with sweet chilli sauce and our eating journey had finally commenced. Hot Pisang Goreng (banana fritters) fresh out of the frying wok provided desert, although served with a sweet chilli sauce made for an interesting combination.
Continuing along the back streets our stroll took us through India street – closed to traffic, mall style with an overhead cover for rain protection. By now it was 6pm and all these stalls were closing but this area needs a day time visit to sample the menus of some of the cafes – roti channai, nasi padang – yum. Another note in the diary for a return visit was a Chinese run seafood hawker centre which was just gearing up for the evening trade. No menu lists – just lots of fresh seafood, veg and noodles on display. I guess it’s point at what you want and they’ll cook it.
A large photogenic Mosque and Muslim grave yard was our turning around point to stroll back down along the river bund towards home. It had been a long day and night of travel for all of us and we were feeling a little weary. At least we’d got a feel for what Kuching has to offer us. A stop at a supermarket to get more supplies – soya milk for my tea, coat hangers for the flat, 3-in-1 coffee sachets for Laura. We contemplated some beers for the fridge but there wasn’t much on offer and quite expensive – fair enough in this non-drinking culture. We’ll have to find a Chinese run Supermarket tomorrow.
I insisted we go upstairs to investigate the food stalls at the Petanak Central Market on the way home. There were lights on but we couldn’t see much of a crowd. About 10 stall were open in this large space but it was slowly filling as people finished work and came down out of the surrounding condos and drove into the extensive car park. Right in the middle of the hall was a keuh stall, some of the same types I’d bought earlier. So, if I run out I can just pop next door. We were very nearly convinced to try some fried noodles but feeling too exhausted and full we opted for a Tiger or two, a sit down, and some contemplation of the days ahead and what we’d left behind at home. But we will return to dine at the market very soon. By the time we left at 7.30pm the “bustling” was in evidence and given the market was open till 2am, it was just warming up I reckon.
Simon and Laura were off to bed early so I started on my new book “Eat First Talk Later” by Malay writer Beth Yahp, bought especially for this year with more trips to Malaysia planned. My room has a balcony door that overlooks the river so leaving that wide open no fans were necessary on this coolish night. I was probably asleep by 9.30pm but woke very early. Right on cue at 5am the roosters in the village opposite were in full cry, followed very closely by the call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Normally I can sleep through these disturbances but was wide awake by now anyway. The body clock must still be set to Central Standard time (Territory Time) and as a regular 6am riser there was nothing else to do but put the kettle on.
I wrote for half an hour in bed finishing off yesterday’s travels before diving into the fridge for a plateful of sticky rice. I even found a teapot in the well provisioned kitchen. A small table on the balcony is the perfect place for breakfast and to set up my laptop so I’ve been typing away for two hours, drinking tea, watching the sun rise and listening to the incessant crowing of several roosters. The river, very still below, has no rowing teams speeding past, no sweaty joggers on its banks – just reflections of the shacks and houses built right to the edge and the jungle that surrounds them. You’d never know you were in the heart of a major regional city.