Exploring Kuching, Sarawak’s culturally cosmopolitan capital

Sunset in Kuching. (Shutterstock)
Updated 03 October 2018
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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.

(Shutterstock)


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.

(Shutterstock)


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.

(Shutterstock)


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.

(Shutterstock)

 


Malaysia seeks to attract more Arab tourists

Updated 17 June 2019
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Malaysia seeks to attract more Arab tourists

  • Tourism minister tells Arab News how his country plans to do so

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is on a mission to welcome more tourists from the Arab world, establishing itself as a cosmopolitan, halal paradise.
With pristine beaches and diverse cultures, the Southeast Asian country has become a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists.
“Malaysia enjoys good relations with the Middle East. Arabs will always feel welcome in Malaysia. We have mutual respect for each other,” Malaysian Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi told Arab News.
“Malaysia has a multicultural society. There are a lot of ethnic groups that live happily and peacefully in this country.”
Colonized by the British, migrants from China and India were brought to Malaysia as laborers. “The country is a mix of people … such as the Malays, Chinese and Indians,” said Haji Ketapi.
“Malaysia has countless places to visit besides the capital Kuala Lumpur,” he added, citing Penang, Melaka, the Langkawi islands and Sabah.
“In the Middle East, most of the visitors are from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, the UAE and other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries,” he said.

Malaysia's Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi.  (AN photo)

In 2018, nearly 33,000 Arab tourists visited Malaysia, up from 27,000 the previous year. “We want to have more Middle Eastern tourists,” said Haji Ketapi, adding that the majority of Arab tourists are from Saudi Arabia.
The number of Arab tourists is expected to rise further as Malaysia continues to position itself as a Muslim-friendly, halal haven.
Saudi tourists spend the most when holidaying in Malaysia, at $257 per capita, more than visitors from the UK, the US and Australia, said Haji Ketapi.
“Recently, we were in Dubai promoting Malaysia to attract more Arabs. They’re considered high-end tourists,” he added.
“When they come to Malaysia, they can spend up to six or seven nights, or even more. They stay longer in Malaysia than some other tourists.”
Saudi tourists spent on average 10.1 nights holidaying in Malaysia. “They come to Malaysia for health treatments, shopping and holidaying,” said Haji Ketapi.
“Some of them even come here for business. They have restaurant businesses. That’s why you can easily find Arabic restaurants.”
This year, Malaysia was ranked by the Mastercard-Crescent Rating Global Muslim Travel Index as the top travel destination for Muslim travellers for the ninth year in a row.
“Halal food can be easily found in the country. The majority of the population are Muslims,” said Haji Ketapi.

Malaysia's Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Haji Ketapi speaking to Arab News journalist Nor Arlene Tan. (AN photo)

Muslim tourists “can go anywhere in the country without difficulty,” he added. “Mosques are everywhere for them to perform prayers. During Ramadan, there are a lot of Middle Eastern tourists visiting Malaysia.”
In every hotel, shopping mall and airport, Muslim travellers can find prayer rooms with signage pointing to Makkah, said Haji Ketapi.
Air Arabia “will be flying soon from Sharjah International Airport to Kuala Lumpur International Airport to bring more tourists from Arab countries,” he added.
“Arabs can easily learn about Malaysia with just a click of a button,” he said. “If I want to go to Dubai, I can just go on the internet and get information about Dubai. I can easily search for the name and cost of hotels and food.”
Some 30 percent of the population in the Middle East are aged 15-29. As such, Malaysia’s government hopes to attract younger tourists through its Visit Malaysia 2020 tourism campaign, which will include digital marketing, social media, influencers, hosted media and other online platforms.
“These people will cover Malaysia through social media and the internet, and bring the news to their country,” said Haji Ketapi.
“We hope to do more such connectivity to get more … tourists from everywhere to visit Malaysia.”