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Truly cool Kuching

The Kuching Esplanade has a number of open green spaces housing conserved structures or cafes like this named after the white rajah — James Brooke.

We share a lot of things with our Malaysian neighbors. Borneo, which holds the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and is just a stone’s throw away … physically, culturally and linguistically. The two Malaysian states are familiar territory for me. I used to frequent them in the ’80s and ’90s as a site planning and landscape architectural consultant for real estate and resort developments there.

I flew in from Singapore, where I was based for over a dozen years. I remember having to take small planes from there to Kuching and from there hop across Sibu, Bintulu and to Miri, where I had most of my projects. I felt like an Indiana Jones, albeit without the bullwhip and sidearm.

Kuching’s cool cats are used for all of the city’s major monuments.

Times have changed and that was two decades ago. I visited Kuching recently and was impressed with the extent of development. First, the airport has transformed from a utilitarian box into a well-designed terminal with distinctive Sawarakan touches (something we could learn from). The City of Kuching has grown, too, but from all indications, its growth has been well managed.

The ride into the city is bereft of billboards and the creeping blights that line most of our provincial destinations. The cityscape, though obviously not as dense as our provincial cities, is rational, consistently clean, tree-lined, and green. We also got to our hotel within 15 minutes (compared to the hour or two required in major destinations in the Philippines).

Kuching’s name comes from the Malaysian word for cat similar to ours. The actual etymology is that the name comes from the fruit mata-kuching (whose seeds look like cat’s eyes). The city uses this name and theme consistently, a branding exercise that we can again learn from.

Our hotel was one of several comfortable accomodations lining the city’s picturesque Kuching River. The river, like our Pasig, was and still is the lifeblood of the city. It is used to connect the city to the lush tropical hinterlands and the sea.

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Most of the city is built on the southern side of the river, much like Iloilo city. The historic core is a mainly a pre-independence colonial city, when the white rajahs ruled Borneo; a long story we don’t have space for here, but a colorful one that makes the city’s story a compelling one.

Kuching’s crocs are a lively bunch — this one in bronze guards the Esplanade plaza.

In the boom of the ’80s, the city (and the State of Sarawak’s Development Corporation) made a decision to rationally plan for growth … both from the overall context of the economy and from a specific goal of developing tourism.

The direction taken was to conserve the city’s historic resources of architecture and culture, as well as to revive the waterfront. The riverside had deteriorated into a parking lot and the city turned its back to it. A new esplanade was planned, incorporating existing structures but also improving the urban design and landscape architecture to accommodate spaces for modern life and to make it attractive to visitors.

The modern Kuching esplanade was completed in the early ’90s and immediately caught the attention of tourists regionally and internationally. The esplanade also helped to link one side of the city with the other and improved real estate value immensely.

The esplanade provided venues for community and state-wide events. The central plaza at one end provided a front door to the city from the river. Two view towers also marked this plaza and allowed boarding points for river boats (which increased in operation into today’s regular tourist cruises).

Kayaking is super kool in Kuching.

The espalanade’s success is seen in its popularity with locals. It is used for early morning jogging and tai chi. Children frequent it on weekends and food kiosks make it a rendezvous for teenagers.

The Kuching River has also been cleaned up (not that it was dirty). Kayaking is a growing sport and local schools hold competitions. The cleaned-up river and waterfront also led to the general sprucing up of the rest of the city and I saw little in the way of garbage or unkempt sites anywhere we went.

We (a bunch of international journalists and I) also came to Kuching for their world-renowned Rainforest World Music Festival. The festival, which started in 1997, is now a key date in the festival circuit world-wide.

The Rainforest Festival was a short bus ride into where else but the rainforest. The festival featured what else but world music by groups from Africa, South America, and Asia …thank God, there were no pop groups, Beiber or Gaga wannabees. And yes, beer flowed freely (if you’re wondering). A wonderful time was had by all. We went home quite satisfied with the festivities’ overflowing menu of music, food, and spirits (the locals have also apparently taken to western (mostly Australian) wine … with good chardonays, shirazs, cabernet sauvignons available from kiosks.

Cool Kuching river cruises are available every day.

I spent the last day in Kuching walking up and down the one-kilometer esplanade. It is now being extended to allow for more (coordinated) development as the city expands. One hotel, in fact, the 360 Hotel, used a Filipino consultant, architect Yolly Reyes. It has wonderfully modern interiors (embellished in the lobby with a fantastic mural by Robby Mananquil). The city, the capital of Sarawak state, is also the jumping point for adventures into the state’s vast nature preserves, mountains, falls and coastal destinations.

The city museum was built in 1851 and modeled after a European town hall.

I do have friends, too, in Kuching. Juan Lacsamana, or Johnny, is a colorful character whose wedding in Kuching I attended in the early ’90s. He married a local princess and the ceremony, which lasted into the wee hours of the next day, was a classic tale filled with cake fights (started by the best man, his brother Joel), head-banging music and wild dancing, capped by a wild chase around the city ending at the airport. But that’s another story entirely! Regardless of the adventure you’re looking for, from natural to not-the-ordinary, Kuching is truly kool!

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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