Cats of Kuching

Cats of Kuching

Cats of Kuching

Susheela Nair takes a tour of Kuching in Borneo, home to the famous cat museum, the beautiful Sarawak river and interesting wildlife. With its unique culture and small-town feel, the city is indeed a cat-lover’s paradise

As I ambled aimlessly through Kuching, the erstwhile capital of the White Rajahs of the Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, I was intrigued by cat statues on roundabouts, outside temples, inside shops.

There’s even a cat museum. Resembling a flying saucer from the outside, it’s a bizarre tribute to all things feline. On entering the building through a giant cat face, I came across figurines of every possible size, shape and colour.

From coconut-fibre cats made by local artisans, to Chinese porcelain figures, and displays charting feline history in anything from movie posters to advertising campaigns, comic books to literature. One can find almost everything that is related to cats under one roof.

I was amused to see one exhibit that displayed photographs of cat owners, sporting tattoos of their beloved pets. The piece de resistance, however, was a 1,000-year-old mummified Egyptian kitty.

Cat calls

There are many theories about the genesis of the name of the city, Kuching. Most locals refer to Kuching as the ‘Cat City’ as the word kucing, means cat in Malay.

“While there are numerous versions as to how the name came about, one explanation stems from the Indo-Chinese word cochin, meaning port, coupled with the Malay name mata kucing (cat’s eye) for the longan fruit, a popular trade item. There’s also a bizarre connection to Kochi (Cochin) in India, which possibly shares a link with the Chinese kaci or harbour,” explained my affable guide.

Other theories attribute the name from a tributary of the Sarawak river. Kuching acquired the sobriquet Cat City in 1988, and there were ample visual reminders of this dotting its urbanscape.

Apart from the magnificent cat obsession, Kuching is a city with myriad attractions. As I strolled around the bustling streets, I stumbled upon an excellent museum, dragon-festooned Tua Pek Kong Chinese temple, a 19th-century South Indian mosque, red lanterns crisscrossing the street, fortresses from the time of the White Rajahs and restaurants, all within a short walk of Kuching’s Waterfront Promenade.

It’s a city where ancient Buddhist temples stand beside Islamic mosques. As I sauntered around, I could sense the city’s small-town feel and ambience. From my hotel window I got a superb view of the river-front park, dotted with flower beds, tropical trees, and kiosks. In the evenings, the waterfront comes alive with colourful illuminations. Visitors who come here for a stroll, stop by to have a quick bite at the food stalls and restaurants.

A not-to-be-missed attraction is the Sarawak Cultural Village, a 35 minute-drive from Kuching. Spread over a 17-acre site in one vast village, this is the ‘Living Museum’, comprising traditional longhouses displaying artefacts made by the ethnic tribes of Sarawak. It provides an insight into the diverse cultures and customs of ethnic groups.

While touring the Village, I came across artisans engrossed in bamboo carving, bead work, weaving, sago-making, sugarcane crushing and straw weaving. The tour culminated with a colourful multi-ethnic dance performance in the village’s air-conditioned mini-theatre.

The wild side

Next, I decided to monkey around the nature sites including the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Bako National Park. Semenggoh acts as a rehabilitation facility for more than 20 of Borneo’s injured or orphaned orangutans, and the primates can come and go as they please within the 740-hectare forest enclosure.

The antics of the apes hopping from tree to tree, and greeting the tourists with their low hoots was indeed amusing. And watching these shy, ginger-furred creatures of Borneo during feeding time was a sheer joy.

Besides being the oldest and smallest national park in Sarawak, Bako has several other claims to its credit. The visit to Bako encompasses a broad canvas — over 100 species of birds, a profusion of other wildlife, especially monkeys, a panoramic rocky shoreline, bizarre rock formations, jungle streams and waterfalls, coastal cliffs, dramatic sweeps of a beach, and scenery ranging from rolling hills to peaks.

But the highlight of my trip was sighting the endangered, elusive proboscis monkey high up in the canopy of the dense forest. It looked quite strange with a huge pendulous nose and a large pot-belly.

On the last day of my trip, I embarked on the Sarawak river cruise, which was an incredible experience. From the main Kuching Waterfront area, I cruised past white, crenellated towers and manicured gardens of the Astana, which is the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, the Chinese Museum, the Sarawak State Assembly, with its dramatic, golden roof; and the hilltop snow-white Fort Margherita, garnished with crenellations and pot turrets.

Further down, I also got to see popular monuments, heritage buildings, the old dock traders area, fishing boats chugging past and locals taking river taxis to cross over to the other side. It is the laid-back charm of the place and the river-front people, which intrigued me.

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