Over the Rainbow in Big-City Borneo
By Dave Fox
Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Borneo, like Botswana, Tahiti, Timbuktu, and Kalamazoo, is one of those places whose name has an otherworldly, almost fictitious ring.
“I used to think I’d never actually go here,” Kattina said as our plane was landing.
That’s how she felt when we lived in faraway Seattle. But now, based in Singapore, getting to Borneo was an easy, 90-minute, 80-dollar flight.
Maps of Borneo are full of fantasy-inspiring names. We flew to Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We would then head to Bako National Park, Mulu National Park, Brunei, and Kota Kinabalu, whose name begs for prominence in a Dr. Seuss book or a Lewis Carol poem.
It all feels very brillig here. I can’t wait to see the slithy toves.
Actually, what it really felt when we landed was chilly. We worried we hadn’t brought enough warm clothes.
“I’m freezing,” Kattina said, as an evening breeze swept into the city. “I’m going to put on my sweatshirt.”
I checked the weather on my iPhone. Current temperature at 8 p.m.: 26 degrees Celsius / 79 Fahrenheit. A heatwave in North America’s Pacific Northwest. Frigid by Singapore standards.
“Toto, I don’t think we live in Seattle anymore.”
* * *
Kuching is the capital of Sarawak. It’s a chilled-out city with no pretenses about being something it isn’t. Its charms crept up on me slowly. I liked it right away, but it took me the better part of a day to figure out why.
In the evening, we wandered along a waterfront promenade that flanked the Sarawak River. Strings of colored lights stretched along the walkway for maybe a kilometer. We had a mediocre dinner at a riverside restaurant, stopped for a drink at a pub run by a guy from… (well… this is to be expected in Borneo…) Texas… and then slipped into exhausted comas back at our hotel.
The next day, we ignored the “must-see” sights. (Dear travel editors: Please stop using the term, “must-see.” There is no such thing as a “must-see” sight. I’ll see what I feel like seeing, thank you very much.) Instead, we wandered aimlessly – my favorite thing when traveling – with multiple stops at travel agencies to sort out upcoming non-urban activities.
“I like it here,” I said to Kattina just before lunch. “But it’s not a particularly aesthetic city, is it?”
Kuching felt comfortable but drab, with dirty-white, tired buildings. It was as if the city had overslept and dressed itself in whatever it could find, a place with a nice enough personality, but one that was having the architectural equivalent of a bad hair day.
We found lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place where we overdosed on too many skewers of charcoal-grilled pork satay. Perhaps the peanut sauce was magical. Leaving the café was like that moment in the “Wizard of Oz” when everything turns from black-and-white to color.
We found new neighborhoods with shophouses painted vibrant shades of turquoise, magenta, blood red, and purple. They sold carved wooden masks, musical instruments, antiques, and batiks. In a market, spice sellers hovered over aluminum bins of dark-yellow curry and orange chili powder. A century-old dry dock poked inland from the river.
Strangers said hello. They asked where we came from, introduced themselves with no ulterior motives. They asked if we needed any help. That doesn’t happen much in Singapore. It felt good.
Temperatures climbed, as did the humidity, and the climate felt familiar again.
Around 5 p.m., the sky grew spooky. Rain began to spatter, then bulleted down. Seeking shelter, we discovered a café with dairy-free ice cream made from tuak, Bornean rice wine. We scarfed some down as we waited out the storm. It was sour and refreshing.
When the downpour and our ice cream were finished, we got up from our table to head to our hotel. And as we stepped out of the tuak ice cream café, we were greeted by a double rainbow arching over the Sarawak River.
Recently fallen rain sparkled on the brick-paved promenade. Sun rays crept beneath a layer of dark clouds and shimmered off the bricks, making everything just a little too bright. Charcoal-and-white clouds billowed in a confused sky. Everything was dark and shiny and multicolored, like a psychedelic dream.
Sarawak’s capital had taken its time revealing its colors. But now, even in this urban speck of wild Borneo, the island was living up to its otherworldly name.
More Photos: The Colors of Kuching