Selamat Datang. Welcome! To Borneo, and a Borneo Travel Adventure.
We’ve had a fantastic time with Borneo Ethical Adventures and Sarawak Tourism in Sarawak and Sabah on a magical travel adventure in Borneo, and I can’t quite believe that we did all the things we did!
It was a tour of Borneo which provided thrills, excitement, meaningful engagement with local communities, volunteering with NGOs, beautiful scenery, and memories in abundance.
It’s a tour that is flexible and especially geared for mature women, and single women.
Anyway … It all started in Kuching.
Borneo Travel Adventure – We’re Off!
Kuching is capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo just north of the equator.
Arriving in Kuching at night was like being transported to a magical place of fairy lights and colour. We walked along the lazy riverside and took in the scene, knowing that this city was going to captivate our imaginations.
After 12 hours delay at Kuala Lumpur airport and kicking our heels at a slightly dodgy hotel that seemed trapped in a 1980s time warp, we arrived in Borneo after a short 2 hour flight.
We walked out into the arrivals lounge at Kuching airport and instantly the adventure began.
The artistic director of the jazz festival Asif Pishori, greeted our new found beautiful friends Nat, Elliott and Dave ( the Natalie Gillespie Band) with a huge warm welcome and all the delays and frustrations were expunged in an instant as we walked out chatting under the Welcome to Sarawak banner and then out into the balmy tropical evening.
I was back in my happy place, back in the tropics.
Walking into the blanket of thick fragrant air was like a switch being flicked on and so many memories of our time working in the Far East came flooding back.
My soul felt happy and free. Corny but true!
The drive from the airport was through Kuching’s glittery night sprawl and we craned our necks to see more of where we are going to be staying.
Then we arrived at the river and there was a big “Ooh” from everyone as we saw the pagodas and pergolas and small night lit open sided restaurants and colourful lights that adorned Kuching’s waterfront.
Shortly afterwards we arrived at The Grand Margherita, Kuching, Sarawak right by the river.
We booked in and settled quickly into our comfortable room overlooking the waterfront before heading to meet Sarah who is co-ordinating the Sarawak media team for the festival.
Walking along the waterfront we passed many street stalls, and hawkers were still cooking up delicious meals – it was 10.30pm!
Brightly coloured plastic tables and chairs of the food stalls were set along the picturesque sinuous curve of the waterfront. They were colourfully lit by overhead coloured globes, while on the other side trees shone neon under their different coloured lighting beside old buildings.
We heard the strains of what seemed like a Chinese street opera emanating from a gaudy, but picturesque temple.
Then there were the smells of the Far East which are ever present – evocative, slightly rank, musty.
Old buildings that have perhaps seen better days and speak of stories past lined the adjoining road and my writerly mind started thinking up Somerset Maugham type tales.
It was humid and balmy, and glorious smells of fish paste and spices mingled with the musty smells of the tropics.
The next morning we revelled in the fantastic view from our hotel room at The Grand Margherita, and before breakfast watched the water taxis (traditional roofed wooden sampans called Tambang) ferrying people across the river.
The Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival
Invited by Sarawak Tourism to attend a press conference on the first day meant we were privileged to mingle with some of the local and international media who would be covering the event. More importantly we got to meet some of the talented musicians and artists who would be performing at the festival.
The Perth based Natalie Gillespie Band we had already met – the flight we were all on was delayed in Kuala Lumpur and so we had had plenty of time to chat with these gorgeous people – Nat, Dave and Elliott were super friendly, and we couldn’t wait to hear them play and watch them perform, which later on we did 🙂
Fourteen bands would be performing over the next two evenings on a large stage at the waterfront below the Grand Margherita Hotel where we were staying. There would be singers from Malaysia, Portugal, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, France and Sarawak.
Talking to the local artists after the press conference we were inspired to hear their excitement and enthusiasm for the event. It was contagious. They were excited to perform the music they love alongside international artists.
Why Kuching we asked?
Asif Pishori, the artistic director, a jazz musician himself said : “Kuching has some great festivals including the Rainforest Festival and it’s a fantastic location to hold an event. This is the second Jazz Festival, we had 4,000 attendees last year, and got to know lots of the cool, up and coming jazz talent.”
Gracie Geikie, Director and one of the main organisers explained :
“Kuching has been coined ‘city with a soul’ and the objective of the festival is to have fun and showcase the Kuching waterfront, make it fun for families and help nurture local musicians too. We are pleasantly surprised that there are so many local musicians around, and via this platform we really hope to nurture local musicians, and give impact to the local community, as well as social enterprises selling crafts and culinary heritage who do not have shops of their own.”
Gracie was right. Apart from the music there was so much more: tasty street food, market stalls, and big screens set up if you couldn’t see the stage – and the hotel had a wonderful al fresco buffet going on if you wanted to ramp things up a bit on the food and wine front while listening to the jazz.
Things to do in Kuching – City Tour
After a very fine lunch in the hotel we were whisked away on a city tour courtesy of Sarawak Tourism.
The temperature had ramped up to truly hot (about 32 degrees celcius) and it was steamy, but our tour guide was bright and breezy and captivated us with her commentary and knowledge over the next three hours.
We found Kuching was bustling, but not too busy, with a diverse selection of old colonial buildings and modern sky rise buildings.
We thought it blended old world colonial charm with cosmopolitan convenience, without the crazy crush and rush of other SE Asian cities we’ve visited, and we soon began to realise that Kuching is a city with a quiet soul situated on the doorstep of ancient rainforests where, among other things we would shortly encounter orang-utans and proboscis monkeys.
Along the Sarawak River waterfront we enjoyed the street stalls; food vendors and handicraft sellers, and looking further along the esplanade we had views of The Astana, (the previous palace of the White Rajahs), and Fort Margherita (originally built to deter pirates).
We visited museums, temples and a mosque, as well as just taking in the colourful but gentle vibe of Kuching.
Kuching was founded in the 19th Century as an outpost of the Malay sultanate of Brunei and as you explore deeper you find a warren of streets and hidden gems.
Kuching is the Malay word for “Cat” and we saw lots of cat statues and lots of kitties roaming the streets, as well as cat museums, cat themed public art and cat souvenirs.
It may appear gentle in many ways but we were left in no doubt that there are echoes of a more violent past.
Headhunting was once an all too real part of Sarawak’s history and during WW2 it was under Japanese occupation.
During our tour we also learnt about the White Rajah, James Brookes and about how Chinese immigration has shaped Kuching’s history.
We visited the Chinese museum which depicted the history of Chinese immigration and together with other pieces of the immigration jigsaw we began to understand more about the fabric of this interesting country.
Meeting the Borneo Ethical Adventures Crew
We met other members of the Borneo Ethical Adventures tour at the Top Spot hawkers seafood market later that evening.
Our generous tour leader, Alison Pritchard, ordered a compilation of the most delicious fresh seafood and veggie delights.
It was out of this world.
Quite literally! For a start, if you don’t know how to get to this market eating place you might walk half way around the world to find it!
For it’s set on an old rooftop parking lot. You’d never know.
With her intimate knowledge of all things Borneo, we were privileged to have Alison talk us through the dishes, and we experienced some of the more exotic offerings which otherwise we may not have chosen. Everything was really fresh and there was a big emphasis on sea food bounty.
Later on the jazz festival preview held in the Grand Margherita hotel bar was a sophisticated and enjoyable soiree, headed up by the Natalie Gillespie Band who were joined later by other talented guest artistes.
What an amazing introduction to Kuching and Sarawak it had been!
Up next on the Borneo Travel Adventure
Join me in the next blog post when we visit the Semongghoh Wildlife Sanctuary to see Orangutans, and go on a not so lazy kayak down a river to a traditional longhouse for lunch.
Borneo Ethical Adventures
Borneo Ethical Adventures is about much more than having fun, although we had a lot of that on the tour too. The varied tours also give travellers a chance to contribute to the people and places they visit. Borneo Ethical Adventures partners with several non-governmental organisations and provides 10% of its profits to these groups.
For more information about Borneo travel you might also like to visit Sarawak Tourism.
What people are saying
“I have had the fortune of travelling on two Borneo Ethical Adventures and both have been amazing experiences. Alison Pritchard leads an exceptionally well-organised, fascinating and rewarding trip through Sarawak and Sabah; leaving you with warm memories of beautiful people, food, wildlife and new friends. I highly recommend Ali and her company Borneo Ethical – every day provides new learning and new experiences. And at the same time, giving back to community all the way. Do yourself a favour and book a trip of a lifetime.” Alison M
Disclaimer: My trip to Borneo was sponsored.