Friday, September 26, 2008

Day 11 – Kuching – Kuala Lumpur

By Jim

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We woke to a gentle rain in Kuching. We had a few errands to run before our flight. One, we needed to go pick up Barbara's shirt from the tailor [This was the ladies' tailor shop next to the men's tailor I went to]. She did a great job on it, and it was cheaper than my shirt. Also I wanted to get some souvenirs for my colleagues. We then headed back, packed up, checked out, and were off to the airport. Once again, I paid overage fees on our baggage (all those sarongs and souvenirs weighed about 7 kilos!), and we were off on AirAsia's 11:55 flight to KL.

The flight was uneventful. We arrived at KLIA and taxied over to the LCC terminal. On the taxiway we saw a Cathay Pacific plane, and wondered if it was our friend Loren's flight back to the US. (We found out later it was.) We collected our bags and got a taxi to the city. At KL International Airport (KLIA), like many other Malaysian airports, they use a taxi coupon system, where you buy a coupon and give it to the driver. For a premier taxi (we needed the space for our luggage) it was RM92.40 (Around US$30).

After about a 45 minute drive, we arrived at the Renaissance Hotel KL. Holy cow, this place is swanky. A 5-star kind of place, for around $100 a night. We were staying in the west tower of the hotel. Barbara has been told that the west tower had a view of the Petronas towers. Unfortunately, this was incorrect. But, it made up for this shortcoming with a spectacular view of the KL Communications Tower (Menara KL).

The small chandelier

Menara KL - Our View

Barbara took a video of our doorbell and our bathroom

The room was suitable for a well-heeled potentate, and had all of the features we had come to expect such as a doorbell and a telephone in the bathroom. We got settled in, then headed out to find some lunch and see some sights.

Our hotel was also right next to the Bukit Nanas Monorail Station, so we hopped on it to go down to Chinatown to start seeing the sights. We passed a pretty temple on our way there from the monorail station.

You can see the banner around the temple from the election

The hawkers were out in force, selling fake Rolexes, purses, everything. The crowded walk and the pushiness of some of the hawkers sort of creeped out Barbara, so we worked our way into the Tang City food court for some lunch. Fried noodles, bean sprouts, green onions, and some little bits of shellfish (cockles or the like). This improved our mood, so we strolled back to the monorail and the hotel for a nap.

That evening Sadiyuk, who put the training program together, came and picked us up from the hotel to show us some of the city. We drove around a little, then he took us to the Suria KLCC, which is under the Petronas Towers. This is a six-story shopping center, with everything that you would expect to find in a high-end mall. OK, what you would expect in two or three high-end malls. This place is huge, and you definitely need the map to help you navigate.

Barbara wanted to check out some pewter souvenirs, so we went to Royal Selangor first. The pewter was beautiful but on the pricey side, so we took a pass on that. After that, we wandered around the mall a bit.

We wanted to take Sadiyuk out to dinner to thank him for the drive around and tour, so we went to Madam Kwan's. I've seen it described on-line as hawker fare without having to sit outside, or sort of a safe way to explore Malay cooking. This description may set off alarm bells for those of us in the US, whose idea of mall food is dreary Applebees or TGI Fridays. In this case, don't worry. Like about everything else in Malaysia, this is good food. Really good. I had one of their signature dishes, Nasi Bojari, which is a big mound of tricolored rice with a leg quarter of chicken that has been fried, assam shrimp, and beef rending, served on a banana leaf.
Barbara ordered the beef rendang, and Sadiyuk had the chicken curry.
Prices were higher than at the hawker stalls and kopitiams, but not unreasonable for a sit-down kind of place. Portions were large, and we sent Sadiyuk home with leftovers.

He dropped us off at the hotel, and then headed home as he had things to do the next day. I stopped in the lounge for a smoke and a drink, then we crashed out. Tomorrow would be a busy, interesting day. Which for us was the norm in Malaysia.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Day 10 – Kuching – Sarawak Cultural Village

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mr. Bong, our driver and guide from yesterday, met us at the hotel and we headed out to the Sarawak Cultural Village. SCV is a collection of traditional style houses for each of the ethnic groups of Sarawak: Chinese, Malay, Melanau, Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, and Penan. You tour the houses and then go for the big dance show at the central theater.

Our first stop was the traditional Chinese farmhouse.

Then a traditional Malay Borneo house

Then we got into the more exotic indigenous groups. First was the Melanau Tall House.

The Melanau people harvest the sago palm, both for its starch, similar to tapioca, and for the sago grubs that were traditionally a source of protein. I held one, but couldn’t bring myself to eat it alive and wiggling. Sautéed in butter and garlic might have been a different story.

I also tried their stick dance, where the sticks are clapped twice on the floor, then smacked together twice. I was unsuccessful, but the professionals there made it look easy.

Can you tell which ones are the professionals?

We went next to the Orang Ulu longhouse, another tall structure. There a man was playing a sape' and three dancers performed.

The Penan people are nomadic. To show this nomadism, sometimes they're at the SCV, and sometimes they're not. They weren't in residence when we were there, but they did have one warrior showing how to shoot a blowgun. Three tries for one ringgit. I wish I had this advice then: "Do not blow from your mouth. Blow from your chest and your stomach." Let’s just say that I would have gone hungry for a long time if I had to hunt with a blowgun. Unless the animal died of laughter.

Next was the Iban longhouse. Formerly a tribe of fierce headhunters, they have managed to ease into the modern world without losing their identity and culture. There was a demonstration of weaving there, showing how their ornate textiles are made.

Our last house was the Bidayuh headhouse. Like the Iban, they were headhunters as well. The headhouse was where the heads of their slain enemies were hung, as well as a store for weapons and meeting place for the village.

Here is a youtube video of the inside of the headhouse.

The hornbill sculpture that is the crest of the house.

Bidayuh using bamboo for weaving what looks like a small basket for poison darts. They sold blowguns there as well. I knew better than to buy one, because of my miserable failure at the Penan hut.
After this, we went to the big dance/musical show at the central theater. It was spectacular. I'm not sure if I learned anything more, but I certainly enjoyed it.

On the way back to Kuching, Mr. Bong asked if we’d like to make a side trip to the Cat Museum. Remember that Kuching means "Cat" in Malay? To tell the truth, we were museumed, cultured out, from all we had seen for the past two days. But I knew the Cat Museum was a little bit silly, a little bit of a tourist trap, and it was on the way, so why not? And after all of the seriousness, it was fun and lighthearted.

A Muslim Girl's School was having a field trip

A mummified cat from Egypt

Cat porcelain, including a cat pipe

Friskies through the ages

The museum is in the Kuching City Hall, up on a hill, so you also get a beautiful view of Kuching from it.

When we got back, I had to do some business with the bank. The day before, I had tried to withdraw some cash for my shirts. It didn't work the first time, and was like the machine reset itself. I did it a second time, and it worked. But I also checked my account online and it showed two withdrawals. So, I went to the bank there and filed a report, and also reported to my home bank via e-mail. The transaction was reversed very quickly, but I was told by the Hilton doorman that he only recommends the Standard Chartered Bank ATMs, in the same row of banks across from the Holiday Inn.

After this was squared away, we took a walk along Jln Main Bazaar and Jln Gambir looking for souveniers for my colleagues at work. Afterwards, Barbara headed back to the hotel to write and I went to take a massage. The masseuse I had wasn’t as good as the other ones I had and seemed a bit sketchy.

After that, I went and had my usual beer and cigarette at the Chinese café across from the Hilton. This had become my place where I could sit, read, and think about everything that happened during the day. Barbara and I travel well together, and part of that is knowing we both need a little alone time to think. Hers was in the Executive Lounge of the Hilton, writing in her journal, enjoying the river view, watching the little water taxis running across and up and down the river.

Dinner was again at Top Spot. There is nothing, nothing better than fresh seafood cooked by people who know how to cook it just right.

Another Pomfret, a cousin of the Florida Pompano, and just as tasty.
Shrimp with onions and chiles.
More stir-fried midin, the tasty fiddlehead ferns also known as "jungle vegetable".

A small portion of deep fried squid. I asked the waitress to ask the cook if he would, after frying, toss it with salt, hot peppers, and garlic like they do at the Chinese restaurants back home. She did, and it came out wonderful. The entire deal, with beer and everything, was around $30.

After dinner, we walked along the riverfront. This was our last night in Kuching, and we didn't want to leave. It had been a wonderful experience for us. The people were all so friendly, and a little curious about the Americans. We had seen a lot of wildlife and a lot of history. We also just enjoyed being there. It felt good.

Tomorrow was another day, another adventure, the final destination of our trip, Kuala Lumpur.

Logistics: P.F. Bong, a local taxi driver, arranged the trip to Semenggoh on Monday and SCV on Tuesday for us. Because he got the tickets to SCV ahead of time, they were a little cheaper. He can be reached at email (, or on his handphone at 013-8089724 (outside Malaysia, +6013-8089724).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Day 9 - Kuching and Orangutans!

Monday morning we headed over to Green Hill Corner for a breakfast of laksa. We'd had some the other day and liked it so much that we had to go back one more time before we left Kuching. A spicy rich coconut milk based broth with noodles, chicken and shrimp. This video of Green Hill Corner shows Jim reading the local paper as we enjoyed our breakfast.

After we ate, we headed over to the tailor shop to pick up Jim's shirts. They were beautiful! So much so that I asked if I could get one made as well. The tailor walked us next door to a ladies' tailor and asked her if it were possible to make me a shirt and have it ready by Wednesday morning before we left. She said yes, so we looked over some of the material selections that the men's tailor brought over from his shop. I picked out a brick red version of the red Dayak material that Jim used for one of his shirts. Then I had to get measured, left a deposit and we took Jim's new shirts back to the hotel.

After dropping them off, we asked the doorman for a cab to take us to Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to see orangutans. Our cab driver was Mr. Bong, a very nice fellow who inquired about what we had seen so far in Kuching. We told him of our ventures and that we were going to go to the Sarawak Cultural Village tomorrow, our last day in Kuching. He offered to meet us at the hotel the next morning and drive us there and back. The price was right so we said sure.

The drive to the Center took about 20 minutes. And unlike the less expensive local bus, the cabs go all the way into the center whereas the bus drops you off at the front gates and you then have to walk about 2 miles to get to the actual center itself. I don't know about you, but I was very glad we paid the money for the cab. The hike in would have done me in for the day.

Once at the visitors center, we paid our fee and waiting with about 2 dozen other people to walk into the jungle to see the orangutans. These are semi-wild and will come to the feeding platforms during the year when food is more difficult to find on their own. There are no cages, this is open ground and the orangutans can come and go as they please.This chart shows the orangutans that frequent the center.

After a 10 minute walk we came up on a small clearing with some small stadium type benches. This little green snail was sitting on the edge of the railing. About 30 yards away was the feeding platform already laden with fresh fruit like pineapples, bananas, and durian (a favorite of the orangutans).
Within minutes, a female with two babies arrived for breakfast. They quickly went to town on the fruit. The babies stuck around a little bit then got full and began to play in the trees above us. Water would rain down on us when they jumped from branch to branch overhead. Mom had her fill a few minutes later and retreated to the trees overhead with her youngsters just as a young orangutan showed up. This one was happily enjoying his meal when he suddenly stopped and scampered up into the trees. The park guide pointed out some movement in the distant trees behind the feeding platform and soon we could hear the crashing of branches. Then we saw him. A huge male orangutan! He was amazing! Long read fur went from his shoulders down to the ground, arms as big as tree limbs and a face only another orangutan could love. Here are a couple of videos of him enjoying his meal.

He took his time devouring what was left of the fruit on the feeding platform while the younger one kept a watchful eye out for his departure. After close to 10 -15 minutes the big male decided he had eaten his fill and got up to leave. The younger one picked up on this right away and cautiously glided down from the trees on the vines and ropes and was back on the platform to pick over the remains. He was still leery of the big guy coming back and was grabbing hand- and foot-fuls of fruit and heading back up to the safety of the trees to eat his fruit as you can see in this picture and video.

Thus the morning feeding was over and we all walked back to the visitors center spotting some pretty orchids along the way. I picked up a few things to bring back to a fellow manager who was working at my library in my absence and something for my supervisor. And for Miss Sophie, I got a stuffed orangutan.

Jim and I found Mr. Bong waiting on us and climbed into the cab for the ride home. Mr. Bong turned the A/C on full blast which felt heavenly. Once back at the hotel, we confirmed his pick up time the next morning and we headed into the hotel to drop off our things and head back out to walk around.

Jim and I wanted to go back to a couple of shops that sold material. We wanted to bring some back home and have more shirts made. We bought three brightly colored fabrics and began a search for some lunch but changed our mind when we realized it was getting later in the afternoon than we realized and didn't want to spoil our dinner. Some snacks in the lounge back at the hotel would be good and not fill us up. Plus we could shower and freshen up a little.

For dinner, we headed back to Top Spot. This is a nice little video I took of it.

Only this time we knew to go right to a vendor to pick out food rather than have someone else do it for us at their place. The place that was most recommended was ABC Seafood and for good reason. It not only had the largest selection, it was by far the busiest place there. Once we looked over the choices, we found one of the ABC tables that was partially under an awning. I sat at the table while Jim picked out dinner. The two large shrimp on the plate would soon be ours. A few minutes later, two Tiger beers arrived. Jim had a grin on his face. I knew that this meant he'd found something good for dinner. And indeed he did. First to show up was squid rings, battered, fried, very tender and very tasty. Joining it were grilled freshwater prawns. Two of them, big enough to scare us had they not been grilled, dead, and delicioius.Then our main course showed up, pomfret steamed with scallions and ginger. And to round out the meal, miden, a jungle vegetable that resembles fiddle head ferns. But what also arrived was the rain. While part of our table was under the awning, it soon became apparent that the rain would invade and we were moved to another table. Dry again, we finished our wonderful meal. And thankfully, the rain had stopped just in time for us to head back to the hotel.

On the way, Jim mentioned he had seen a sign outside a bar for Kilkenny beer on tap. And as I mentioned in one of the Singapore posts, this was a beer Jim could not find back home. The chance to have one or two more frosty pints could not be passed up so we stopped at the bar which was named The Cottage. We notice a gentleman and two woman sitting at one of the outdoor tables as we walked up. It was a little dark so I didn't notice at first that the man's voice welcoming us to the bar didn't come from the sole man sitting at the table. It was one of the women! Yes, boys and girls, we had wandered into a transvestite bar in Kuching. While not something we'd planned on, we decided to go with the flow and have a drink. It turns out we were the only ones there besides the trio outside who were actually the staff. Guess things don't pick up until later in the evening. The bar was dark and resembled an English pub and actually very nice (not that I've been to any English or transvestite pubs before). Jim got his Kilkenny and I ordered some fru-fru drink that had amaretto and Kahlua in it. Both drinks were a bit pricey so we decided to settle up our tab at one drink each and continue on to the hotel. We made one last stop at a gelato shop across the street from the hotel for some dessert.

Back at the hotel, we both stayed up for a short while before going to sleep and getting ready for the Sarawak Cultural Village the next day.