Exploring Kuching, Sarawak’s culturally cosmopolitan capital

Sunset in Kuching. (Shutterstock)
Updated 03 October 2018

Exploring Kuching, Sarawak’s culturally cosmopolitan capital

  • Sarawak’s cosmopolitan capital Kuching is a stew of ethnicities
  • Kuching rests poised amid a veritable goldmine of natural wonder

KUALA LUMPUR: Kuching’s compelling cultural patchwork might be easily explained by the city’s colorful origin story, but that doesn’t make a visit to the capital of Malaysia’s semi-autonomous Sarawak region in northwest Borneo any less captivating.

Once a part of the Bruneian Empire, the settlement was handed to British buccaneer James Brooke in 1841. Brooke gradually came to rule ever-vaster swathes of land, until Brunei was reduced to its current compact confines. Brooke bolstered the population of his personal fiefdom by inviting Chinese immigrants over to work the mines and farms, and his family remained in control until the Japanese invasion in World War Two. Following Allied liberation, the province became a British colony, until 1963, when it became part of the newly independent Malaysia.




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Today, Sarawak’s cosmopolitan capital Kuching is a stew of ethnicities broadly split between the large Malay and Chinese communities, and the native Iban, Bidayuh and other indigenous people, with English a widely understood second official language.

The result is a charming, chilled urban center where dialects, cuisines, architecture and celebrations bleed into one another, while allowing space for each community to honor its individual traditions. And to collectively create their own — it is presumably because the Malay word “kucing” means “cat” that local authorities have kookily dotted roundabouts with towering kitschy statues honoring feline friends, earning Kuching its “City of Cats” moniker.


You can learn about the ebbs and flows of these cultural currents by visiting the Islamic Heritage Museum and Chinese History Museum — just two of around a dozen exhibition spaces in the city (including the twee Cat Museum) — or you can wander through bustling Chinatown or frequent the Top Spot Food Court, a rowdy locals’ hangout sitting incongruously atop a car park and see, and feel, them for yourself.




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While Sarawak holds no official religion, with 68 percent of Borneo identifying as Muslim food is typically halal and public prayer rooms readily available, while the spirited Al-fresco karaoke showdowns which drift down the Sarawak River halt twice nightly for prayer times.

This body of water splits the city into two distinct halves, each with their own administration and mayor. But it is just a 30-second, one Ringgit ($0.24) ferry ride separating the calmer, quieter northern settlement from the hotels and craft stalls along the southern bank, which electrifies after dark as families gather around the lively food hawkers lining the waterside.




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The newest addition to this quaint skyline is the Riverside Majestic Hotel Astana Wing, opening earlier this year to offer comfy five-star rooms for prices as low as $36 a night.

With chilled cafés, smatterings of street art, minimal traffic, a languid pace of life, plus copious live music and cultural events — including the compelling Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival and the month-long “What About Kuching,” which wraps this year on October 28 — it’s easy to see why travelers passing through get stuck; my three-night stay soon unraveled to a week.

But we all have an excuse. Beyond its easy charms, Kuching rests poised amid a veritable goldmine of natural wonder, with at least five national parks a handy daytrip away. The most famous of which, Bako National Park — home to Bornean bearded pigs, proboscis monkeys, and long-tailed macaques, among others, offers a range of easily marked trails catering for all fitness levels, over a jagged peninsular jutting dramatically into the South China Sea. However, taking a dip was banned some years back following a crocodile scare.

If you make just one trip outside the city though, your destination should surely be Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a laughably easy way to see lumbering, lovable orange orangutans swinging in from jungle trees to line up on cue twice daily for feeding time. Because while Kuching may be on sketchy foundations with its City of Cats claim, Borneo is most definitely the Island of Orangutans.




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Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

Updated 16 August 2019

Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

  • Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons
  • The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation

UPHAM, New Mexico: Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.
Earthen tones help ground visitors on the first floor. The social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility Thursday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.
There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.
“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?’” he said.
Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as anchor tenant.
At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.
Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.
There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.
Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.
Branson will be among them. About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.