Lucky to be here
This is the view from my room in the Hotel Pullman Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia. I can hardly believe that I’m here. It’s my first time in Sarawak.
At one stage, I didn’t think I’d make it to Kuching. My first flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur (KL) was cancelled and I was worried I’d miss out on part or all of the trip. The original flight was due to take off at 1.25am, so I had planned to sleep on the plane. After waiting at the terminal for several hours before we were told the flight was cancelled, I tried to sleep for a few hours at home before returning to the airport for my rescheduled, very full late afternoon flight to KL. I arrived late at night in KL, had maybe three more hours sleep overnight, then caught an early flight from KL Airport to Kuching, arriving a whole day later than originally scheduled.
At Kuching International Airport, a driver is waiting for me, holding up a sign (I feel like a celebrity!). We step outside to a cloudy day. It’s rained recently and it’s warm and muggy. My t-shirt clings to my back and the air feels thick and hard to breathe. I’m grateful to ride in air-conditioned comfort to the hotel.
I check in, go upstairs to my room and quickly freshen up, reluctantly ignoring the bed that I ache to lie on. I’m sleep-deprived and sleep-interrupted, which can sometimes be worse, but I’m not going to let that stop me enjoying myself. Sleep must wait until tonight. I head back downstairs to meet the others.
Our little group from Australia includes three bloggers, two journalists and our lovely chaperone Anna. I also meet our hosts from MATRADE and our Kuching guide, Joseph. I’m the only one from Western Australia and the last to arrive. Everyone is so friendly and makes me feel very welcome. I’m so thankful and excited to be here at last.
All I’ve missed is the first hotel breakfast with the rest of the group, but I feel pretty good having eaten a very tasty chicken rice on the flight to Kuching.
Da-Light Food Court
We get into our little tour bus and drive into town to visit Da-Light Food Court. When we arrive, stalls are setting up for lunch and there aren’t many customers about.
At the back of the food court, there’s a supermarket. Hanging from the ceiling are puffy novelty balloons like the kinds you find at carnivals and hospital gift shops. There are also paper lanterns decorating a tall pot plant. The balloons and lanterns give a festive and kitchsy feel to what would otherwise be quite drab surroundings. But let’s face it, no one comes here for the decor.
We’re all hot and thirsty, so our MATRADE host Trra orders a round of layer tea. I stay to watch our drinks being made. The steaming hot black tea is poured from jug to jug, then poured into glasses which are then filled to the brim with ice.
Condensed milk is poured over the ice. Like magic, we have layer tea!
I mix the layers to form a beautifully refreshing milky sweet iced tea drink.
Our guide Joseph introduces us to Pat, owner of Patz Dayak Home Cook Special, which serves traditional Dayak dishes. The Dayaks are the indigenous people of Borneo. Joseph is himself Iban, one of the main ethnic groups of the Dayak peoples.
Pat speaks in Malay and Joseph translates. On this trip I’m thrilled to discover that I remember quite a lot of Bahasa Malaysia from my primary school days – I got up to Standard 4 in Malaysia before my family moved to Australia. I can’t speak fluently but recognise and understand many of the Malay words spoken by Pat.
Pat’s homestyle Dayak dishes feature traditional local ingredients such as tapioca leaves (“daun ubi”), cucumber leaves (“daun timun”), wild ginger (“tepus”) and lemongrass (“serai”). The dishes include fish grilled in bamboo, flavoured with wild ginger and lemongrass; pork with ginger, lemongrass and oyster sauce; “manok pansoh” – the Iban delicacy of chicken cooked in bamboo with tapioca leaf, lemongrass and wild ginger; and “kacang ma” chicken – cooked with ginger, Chinese rice wine and pounded kacang ma, a member of the mint family found only in Sarawak. Joseph tells us kacang ma is considered very good for the blood and kacang ma chicken is a dish often served to Iban women after giving birth.
I smile at Pat’s little daughter but she watches us with a mixture of shyness and suspicion. I suppose we must look like a strange group to her, crowding around the stall, taking pictures and writing notes.
As we learn about Dayak cuisine, we make way for the customers getting lunch at Pat’s stall. It’s clearly one of the most popular stalls in the food court. We’re now invited to try Pat’s food ourselves. I try my best not to appear too grabby and greedy.
I start with pork and snake beans with prawns. The pork is succulent, cooked with ginger, lemongrass and oyster sauce, each juicy piece topped with rind and a layer of fat. I suck the prawn meat out of its shell and devour the snake beans. It’s all delicious.
The fish is wonderfully tender, in a flavoursome yellow broth.
The others are quite content to sit and chat but I’m itching to look around and take more pictures. As I walk around the food court, camera in hand, I see some interesting sights, including these bright red Taiwan sausages on skewers.
At the same stall, more things on skewers, including (I think) crispy fried chicken bums!
Besides the Patz Dayak Home Cook, the other stall that seems very popular is the one selling ABC (which stands for “air batu campur”, meaning “mixed ice”). The ABC man works non-stop making variations of ice kacang/ABC using a collection of multi-coloured syrups (I see bright pink, yellow, blue and palm sugar) and other ingredients including red beans, sweet corn, tinned fruit, condensed milk and a medley of mystery jellies.
The ice machine is constantly in action, shaving ice.
Meanwhile, the BBQ meats man is setting up his stall, hanging the glistening meats on steel hooks – barbecue pork and roast chickens, and a slab of roast pork.
He chops up barbecue pork as I chat to a man who’s here on his work lunch break to get takeaway barbecue pork and steamed rice.
More people are arriving for lunch, many pulling up on motorbikes and scooters.
I feel my heartbeat speed up a little as a car pulls up at the front of the food court and two young men wearing gloves begin unloading fresh durians from the boot.
They’re setting up a durian stall in front of the food court. They work quickly, each carrying multiple durians at a time. The air fills with the whiff of durian. Imagine what the inside of their car smells like!
I’m not sure what their system is, but they quickly organise the durians into groups (looks like it’s by size). I can’t take my eyes off the spiky fruits on the ground. I’ve loved durian ever since I was a child and feel so happy to be standing here smelling their pungent scent mingled with the aroma of the Chinese barbecue meats.
It is at this precise moment I feel a rush of emotion as I think to myself: I’m in Malaysia!
I haven’t been back for 26 years and feel a strong sense of homecoming even though I now proudly call Australia home. Throughout my short stay in Kuching, I find myself reflecting on my life in Australia and the one I left behind in Malaysia. I feel lucky, yet I feel loss. I wonder what would my life be like if my family had never moved to Australia.
One thing I know for sure is my diet would include a lot more durian. We can get imported durians from Thailand in Asian grocery shops in Australia, but nothing like this, and with just a fraction of the distinct durian smell. It’s just not the same.
Our group is on the move. We don’t eat any durian right now as we have to leave for our next planned activity – but don’t worry, I get to eat durian more than once over the next couple of days!
Hotel Pullman Kuching
No.1A Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Telephone: (+60) 82 222 888
Da-Light Food Court
Jalan Wan Alwi
Kuching, Sarawak 93350
More Kuching posts
Where is Kuching, Malaysia?