This past August, I flew from Bangkok to Kuching to attend the Rainforest World Music Festival, an annual three-day event that brings bands and artists from all over the globe to share the roots of their respective music cultures. It’s one of the best organized, most relaxed, and most absorbing music festivals in the world. Equally absorbing is the eccentric post-colonial city of Kuching, the capital and most populous city in Sarawak, a Malaysian state that occupies much of the north coast of the island of Borneo.
Kuching is a town that revels in the distinction of having started life as one of the quirkiest ventures in European colonialism, under the rule of a dynastic monarchy known as the White Rajahs from 1841 to 1946. Englishman James Brooke served as the first monarch of the Kingdom of Sarawak, which was given to him as a reward for helping the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and insurgency among Borneo’s tribal peoples. Based on descent through the male line, the White Rajahs’ dynasty continued through Brooke’s nephew and grandnephew, the latter ceding his rights to the British Crown following World War II in 1946. Kuching developed rapidly under the Brooke family, which built a palace in 1870; a classic, cloistered courthouse in 1874 (still standing today); a towered fort in 1879; and one of Asia’s first museums in 1891.
Margaret Brooke, the Ranee (queen consort) and wife of Rajah Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke, described the city in her biography, My Life in Sarawak: “The little town looked so neat and fresh and prosperous under the careful jurisdiction of the Rajah and his officers, that it reminded me of a box of painted toys kept scrupulously clean by a child.”
Drop “scrupulously clean” and the description still applies today, for the most part. While Malaysian cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Johor Bahru sprout skyscrapers by the mile, Kuching has somehow managed to avoid the worst of urban sprawl.
The city’s disparate ethnic groups also tend to socialize in mixed communities. While in KL, Chinese often stick to Chinese cafés and restaurants, and Malays similarly hang with their own, here it’s not unusual to see Chinese and Malays scooping up laksa Sarawak side by side. The social milieu is further enriched by residents who hail from various Borneo tribes, most prominently the Iban and Bidayuh. Often lumped together under the generic name “Dayak,” they add their own foods and traditions to the Kuching stew. There are also numerous descendants of Indian migrants—Tamils, Sikhs, and Punjabis—who arrived in Kuching during the White Rajah and British colonial eras.
Like most visitors, the first place I gravitate to on arrival is the Waterfront, a two-kilometre esplanade alongside the tranquil and winding Sarawak River. Lined by old warehouses, hundreds of Straits Settlements-style shophouses, and the original courthouse of Raja Brookes, it’s good for hunting down food, shopping for local souvenirs, or strolling slowly along the riverfront to view the Astana Palace, Fort Margherita, and Malay kampungs (villages) on the opposite shore. The most visually striking edifice on the other bank is the New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building, with its multi-spoke umbrella-style roof profile that’s illuminated nightly. On the esplanade side, there’s an observation tower, an open-air theatre, musical fountains, and a series of engraved brass plaques detailing Kuching history along the esplanade.
Sarawak State Museum, the oldest museum in Borneo, provides a look into the region’s fascinating past. Built in 1891 to specifications drawn up by the second Rajah’s French valet, in imitation of a half-remembered Norman town hall, it’s the state’s main archive for cultural, natural, and historical artefacts. Probably most interesting among its collections are the indigenous artefacts, including real-life longhouses, musical instruments, fish and animal traps, and folk utensils, found on the first floor. Meanwhile the Chinese History Museum, housed in small and beautiful colonial-era building on the Waterfront, displays a permanent exhibition on Kuching’s many Chinese migrant groups.
The Rainforest World Music Festival, now heading into its 19th year, is held 35 minutes outside of town, at the Sarawak Cultural Center, on forested Damai Peninsula. Two main stages sit at the foot of majestic Mount Santubong, backed by a lake that ensures a cross-breeze, making the music all the more enjoyable. Shows start just after sunset and continue through midnight. The afternoon hours are filled with informative workshops, ethno-musical lectures, jam sessions, and mini-concerts. A variety of food and drink stalls provide plenty of local, Malaysian, and international dishes, along with copious beer and wine. Separate tents purvey local arts and crafts, as well as festival memorabilia and CDs from performing artists. On weekends, crowds swell to up to 30,000 people.
Musical highlights of the 2015 festival, for me, were energetic Bargou 8 from Tunisia; other-worldly throat-singer and horse-fiddler Enkj Jargal from Mongolia; a super-up-tempo trikitixa (Basque-style button accordion), guitar, bass, and drum ensemble called Korrontzi, from Spain’s Basque Country;
Scotland’s seminal acid croft group Shooglenifty; and finally uKanDanZ, an explosive band mating Parisian performers on tenor sax, bass, drums, and rock guitar with adept Ethiopian singer Asnake Guebreyes.
Festival-goers who wish to stay close to the Santubong festival site have a choice of Damai Beach Resort (semi-upscale), Damai Puri Resort (upscale), One Hotel Santubong (moderate), and Permai Rainforest Camp (moderate). During the festival, I stayed at Damai Beach Resort and was very happy with the facilities and services, not to mention the two swimming pools and beach frontage.
If you’d rather stay in town to take advantage of sightseeing and greater culinary options, there are tons of alternatives, starting with such high-dollar international chains as Hilton and Pullman and extending to a slew of inexpensive but comfortable guesthouses. Before the festival, I stayed in the spacious Attic Room at Kuching Waterfront Lodge, which occupies a historic, Straits Settlements-style shophouse almost on the river. After the festival, I moved to Tune Hotel, a budget spot owned by Air Asia and strategically located off Jalan Padungan, near several of Kuching’s best-loved local eateries.
Speaking of which, Kuching easily rivals Penang as the food capital of Malaysia. One must-try dish is Sarawak laksa, a spicy noodle soup with a base of sambal belacan (chillies pounded with dried shrimp), sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, and coconut milk, filled with thin rice vermicelli, and topped with omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander, and bittersweet kalamansy lime. It’s eaten any time of day or night, and everyone enjoys the dish, whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, or tribal. Another all-day, all-night specialty is kolok mee, made with squiggly egg noodles and served with a light savoury sauce and sliced pork (for Chinese) or chicken cutlets (for Muslims). The best place to enjoy both dishes is ancient Chong Choon Café on Jalan Abell, open from 7am to noon except Tuesday, when it’s closed. Teh tarik, or Malaysian-style pulled milk tea, is delicious here.
River taxis called tambang or penambang ply the Sarawak River along the Waterfront for a one-way fare of RM 0.40 (about B4). Metered taxis are cheap, starting at around RM 4 at flagfall. For festival-goers, shuttle buses operate from three points in the city—Hills Shopping Mall, Harbour View Hotel, Merdeka Palace Hotel—which run hourly from 10am until 1.30am. The cost is RM20 each way or RM100 for an unlimited three-day pass.