AN ODE TO DIVERSITY

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Published on January 07, 2019 with No Comments

Why Kuching should be your next travel adventure.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images SARAWAK TOURISM BOARD

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The Darul Hana Bridge stands proud against the backdrop of the New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building.

 

The “Urang Sarawak: An Exhibition About Us”, presently being held at the Art Museum wing of the Sarawak Museum, is an apt title that reflects the vast and rich tapestry of Sarawak’s peoples and culture. It traces the state’s early history with significant sections on Niah Caves; highlights the works of Tom Harrison, one of the museum’s colourful yet devoted early curators; traces Sarawak’s development from WWII through the Brooke era and the formation of Malaysia; and provides a window to the various ethnic groups through religion, cosmology and arts.

It is compact – perhaps due to space constraints – but the interactive nature of the exhibition was not lost on the visitor. In fact, this is the kind of cultural investment many have come to expect from Sarawak, and to have Kuching host it speaks volumes of this city as an oasis of culture in a landscape of modernity.

Unfortunately, most travellers to Sarawak have their bucket-list of big hits to score – Mulu Caves, Bako National Park, Batang Ai longhouse – and often times, Kuching is merely a means to justify the end. But Kuching can be eminently worthwhile if you were to be patient with it.

Food is perhaps the best way to discover the complex and layered identity of the more than 40 sub-ethnic groups found in Sarawak. Lepau is a well-blazed restaurant among locals and in-the-know visitors for a taste of the indigenous Orang Ulu and Dayak cuisines. The menu reflects many of the traditions of the two ethnic groups that, apart from sustenance, is a mirror of their identities, memories and families. Its most popular dishes are ayam pansuh, chicken steamed in bamboo and stuffed with tapioca leaves that could not have been more authentic, and terung asam and ikan salai soup, using native yellow eggplants slow-cooked with smoked fish, a dish that will make you want to swap that chicken soup for the cold with its delicate tartness and subtle smoky flavour.

About 45 minutes away from Kuching, an immersive look into the lives of Sarawak’s major tribes awaits. Thirty years after it opened, the Sarawak Cultural Village remains deeply invested in leaning on its mosaic of people to provide more than just preservation of its heritage and traditions. Within the showcase of tribal houses belonging to the Bidayuh, Iban, Penan, Orang Ulu, Melanau, Malay and Chinese people, the village is transformed into a “living museum” with activities that feature local craftsmen, artists and storytellers. From one tribal house to another, the architecture becomes the language in which to engage guests, while the village’s “living” element draws guests in to experience the tactile, visceral and sensorial.

Visitors come face to face with a warrior elder at the barok of the Bidayuh house, a male-only congregational space traditionally used as a lookout for enemies, filled with gongs, weapons, wooden masks and other personal effects. A raised smoking platform sits in the middle, because the Bidayuh also traditionally use the barok to smoke as well as a repository to store the skulls of their enemies after a headhunting raid. In the verandah of the Orang Ulu house, the soft acoustic rumblings of the sape welcome guests against a backdrop of intricate murals and woodcarvings. Similarly, in the apartments and communal spaces of other dwellings, the “residents” portray the typical everyday tasks that take place such as making traditional sweetcakes, weaving cloths or doing beadwork, all of which present plenty of opportunities for guests to join in and experience.

Of course, Kuching still thrives on the tourist architecture whose appeal appears to be insta-worthy. Case in point: the steel, curved Darul Hana Bridge that connects this southern city to its sister north, completed in 2017. But, its overall development is, thankfully, restrained, which allows for the city’s past to thrive and subtly co-exist. At Kuching’s waterfront, a popular place for evening strolls and gatherings, the most well-known landmark of the city is the row of houses on Main Bazaar. Here, fine examples of Chinese architecture, a relic of a time when Sarawak River was a prominent trading harbour in the 19th century, remain standing as souvenir hunting grounds and abodes for local crafts. A walking distance away, buildings that testify to the Brooke’s three generations of colonial rule in Sarawak, such as the Old Courthouse, The Pavilion, The Roundtower and the Central Post Office, create a beautiful collage of Kuching’s rich past.

There is a fierce drive for Kuching to connect and strengthen its communities through its history while re-imagining its role for the future. The temporary closure of the Sarawak Museum has no doubt left a void in the arts and culture scene, hence why last year’s launch of the exhibition on Margaret de Windt, wife of the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke, was timely. Held at the Old Courthouse and entitled simply “Ranee: Margaret of Sarawak”, the exhibition encourages conversations about how Margaret’s time in Sarawak and the city’s legacy intertwine. The exhibition is an extension of the Brooke Trust project that now houses the permanent Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita.

It would be a mistake to stop exploring Kuching. As it continues to inject vitality in its landscape, Kuching remains steadfast in harnessing the threads and interconnectiveness of its peoples, past and the land to claim back its colourful narrative.

Muhibah was hosted by Sarawak Tourism Board.

 

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Kuching 2x weekly, and 4x weekly effective 3 February, 2018.Discover things to do in Kuching in www.muhibah.com.bn

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