Kuching: Day One

While travelling in Greece several years ago, my companion and I were not surprised when the bus to Epidaurus left 45 minutes later than its scheduled departure time. We shrugged, accepted it as part of a Greek holiday, and counted our blessings that we’d found a shady spot to wait in. We were, however, somewhat blindsided when we turned up 7 minutes or so early for the return bus and found that it had already left, with the next bus due in about two and a half hours. We passed the time easily enough with other stranded backpackers, but I’ve never forgotten the laughable unpredictability of that particular travel glitch. Bloody Greeks.

Anyway, since a Greek bus leaving early is about as unheard of as a Parisian pavement without dog poo, I always dismissed it as a one-off, the sort of anecdote you throw into a conversation about travel stories when it reaches the point at which you revel, cackling, in the various national stereotypes your cosmopolitan jet-setting has only served to confirm.

Until we arrived at Senai Airport two weeks ago only to discover that the AirAsia flight described on our tickets as leaving at 1630 was, in fact, now leaving at 1545. We had received absolutely no notification of the change. But by a stroke of pure luck, we’d arrived in the last few minutes before the check-in counters closed, and made the flight.

Amusingly, the only reason we had even arrived as early as 1500 for what we thought was a 1630 internal flight was that the airport coach schedule from Senai Airport’s City Lounge was also markedly different from the coach schedule its website promised. So, having found that the 1440 coach no longer existed, we’d decided to take a cab rather than chance the 1500 coach. If not for that, we’d have been roundly fucked, first by the Senai City Lounge and then by AirAsia. Bloody Malaysia.

(There isn’t much more to write about the first day of the trip once we got to Kuching, apart from mentioning the great Teochew steamed fish dinner we had at ABC Seafood and the beginning of a dramatic shoe disintegration process that finally culminated in their utter surrender while trekking in Bako National Park two days later. I mostly just wanted to warn anyone reading this to be careful when flying AirAsia from Senai.)

Rainforest Music Festival 2005, Sarawak

The idea of going to the Rainforest Music Festival was first planted in my head by Joe raving about it, but it took someone with Louise’s energy to gather a group of 12 like-minded people and actually get us to Sarawak to attend it. I won’t be needing any further prompting to make my bookings for next year though.

Sarawak Sunset


(Click on photos for larger versions.)


Tribal statue against surrounding mountains

The Sarawak Cultural Village is that very rare exception to the general rule that cultural villages are tacky. It’s beautifully situated, well-maintained, lovingly curated, and loads of fun.


Fay on the swing
Yes, the blurring is deliberate

We clambered up narrow bridges and staircases to longhouses elevated nearly three storeys in the air by stilts (no photographs could do them justice), cheered Fay on as she threw herself down from a height clinging on to a ring of bamboo (a traditional swing), and had a brief but precious ad hoc performance from one of the few remaining players of the Sarawak nose-flute.


Fish-traps to light the way

Unfortunately, we still never really got time to explore the Village properly, because we couldn’t manage to get there early enough before the concerts started at night, and once the concerts started it was hard to tear ourselves away from the great music. Even so, little details continued to make me happy. On my way to the toilet, I learned that traditional fish-traps make stunning lamps.


The venue for the night concerts was a huge field with naturally sloping sides, and the stages were set against backdrops of tall rainforest trees. A particularly nice touch was that there was no back wall to the stages, so you could see right through them to the greenery behind. I wish I could show you photos, but the lack of a tripod rendered all of them hopelessly blurry.

I’ve heard that WOMAD gets more prestigious acts than this festival, but for some reason I enjoyed this much more than either of the WOMADs I’ve attended. Caution about my stitches meant I didn’t do the vigorous dancing I’d normally have engaged in, but I couldn’t help giving in twice – the Old Spice Boys (Australia) got me itching to swing, Petrona Martinez (Colombia) drove everyone wild with hot mama vocals and asstastic beats, and a capable and careful dance partner was available in the form of Louise’s tangomate Kris.

Topless kilt-clad beardy headbanging Poles

I’ve always loved men in kilts, so although I may have looked like I was dancing during the traditional Irish music performance by Shannon (Poland), it was really just the quivering of my loins. Lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Marcin Ruminski was looking hot on the big screen as I was eating grilled chicken in the (awesome) food area, so I made my way to the front few rows of the stage, and found Louise and Vivien there for exactly the same reason. I realize the hotness isn’t apparent from the photo – you really have to watch him perform to see it – but believe me, he transfixed all of us so much that his ZZ Top beard didn’t even matter any more. However, it wasn’t just him that made Shannon’s performance so bloody amazing. Individually, all the members of the band were excellent musicians and effervescent performers, and together they were incredibly tight and had great chemistry. And while I suppose a headbanging bodhran player is a bit of a gimmick, it’s still a pretty cool gimmick.


All in all, the festival was fabulous, so professionally organised that you’d think you were in Singapore, except, that is, for the friendly volunteers and service staff, the uninhibited exuberance of the crowd, the 6.50 RM pints of Heineken and the illicit rice wine sold in mineral water bottles for 5 RM, the dirt cheap but excellent food (grilled lobster for 9 RM) and the wonderfully cool non-humid weather. Roll on Rainforest Music Festival 2006. I’ll be there.


Kuching city itself seemed rather unremarkable, though perhaps that may just have been due to my extreme sleep deprivation while we were there. Apart from strolling along the waterfront and through a pedestrianised street of Indian shops, I saw little else of it before exhaustion set in after lunch (we’d left Singapore at 4.30 AM, and I didn’t get any sleep before that) and I retreated to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before we headed to the festival.

Better rested the next day, we managed an earlyish start for a trip to the Fairy Cave and Wind Cave, about an hour’s drive from Kuching. I’m sure there are better caves in East Malaysia than these, but they were the most convenient to visit in the short time we had and more than enough to awe a city person like me.

Fairy Cave
Middle Earth? No, Malaysia.

The Fairy Cave was like something out of Tolkien. I felt like Bilbo in the Misty Mountains, about to be captured by goblins. Amazingly, I didn’t see any graffitti, not even a tiny “Kennysia wuz here”!


Fairy Cave detail
Stalactites and shrubbery

Details of one of the mouths of the Fairy Cave.


Wind Cave
Inside looking out

The Wind Cave was less transporting, but geologically more interesting, as the effects of water in hollowing out holes in the ceiling and sculpting river channels were more pronounced. As you’ll see if you view the large version of the photo, there was some graffitti this time.


Everybody Offer Centre shop sign
These Kuching people are so friendly!

As I do everywhere I go, I noticed some amusing shop signs as we were driving to the caves and wandering around Kuching city.


Mushroom King's Bridal Studio shop sign
If you’re marrying a “fun guy”…

I really don’t know what to make of this one. I cannot see how fungal growths or their non-democratically elected leader for that matter have any connection with romance. Surely this must be a shit-take? (I’d apologise for that last pun, except I’m not sorry.)


I’m so glad I was still able to go on this trip despite my operation, and I’m even more glad no harm came to me as a result of it. I’m also very grateful to my travel companions, who rallied round me, helped me carry my luggage, and looked out for me in crowds. I couldn’t have gone without that support.