Monday, October 21, 2019

Kuching: Following the Opium Coffee Trail, Satok and Other Stops

Kuching's iconic Darul Hana bridge at sunset
Our guide, Margaret on India Street
I've been to Malaysia several times but this marks only the second time I'm venturing further east to Sarawak (the first was to Miri about five years ago).   Then, as now, it's a trip about finding more of what's familiar and similar to Pinoy culture and stuff than looking for differences.   It seems almost everywhere I turn in Kuching, I find something that reminds me of home.     

The morning before the Kuching Waterfront Music Festival, we were taken on a morning city tour by the Place Borneo team along with our Hokkien city guide, Margaret.    Our first stop was the Satok weekend local sellers market, about 20-25 minutes drive away from the waterfront area.  It's bustling with sellers and buyers as it was still early on a Saturday.  Well, we wouldn't go hungry here as most of the items on sale are familiar not only in appearance but oftentimes in names (and flavors).  Occasionally, some vowels would be different but phonetically, they're similar to the ones we use back in the Philippines.  Members of the garlic family are called bahwang (Pinoy bawang).  Noodles used in Chinese and Malay cooking?  Beehon (Pinoy bihon).    A stack is called tempok (Pinoy tumpok).   So pardon me if I used the local colloquial expression, "Sounds family?"
Satok weekend market
Largely a collective of produce sellers from different states and provinces in the Sarawak region, Satok offers a smorgasbord of sights and flavors of the tropics.   I think I've read a foreign guest review it in Tripadvisor, saying it's just another local market.  Personally, I think it's more than that as I see local markets as a window to how the locals really live and eat.  Maybe, if you're not accustomed to eating durian or partaking of food with coconut in it, the place selling them could be uninteresting or even strange.  Not for me.   Incidentally, Satok is also the place where we caught sight of our first few domestic cats (for isn't it a bit strange that the city of cats do not have stray cats around?).  After that, we seem to be spotting more of them, one or two from our window over at the Riverside Majestic Hotel.
Fort Margharita museum
Having a van at our disposal means we can zip through the tour if need be.  There's the blur of the different temples; the sort of Catholic district; the area where most of the government officials are housed;  then over to the other side of the river onto Fort Margherita where the ashes of the last white rajah was buried.   I'm not much of a fan of city tours but I must admit, Margaret is one very engaging guide.  I've been having trouble sleeping early so I was sleepy going into the city tour but Margaret kept me rapt with her insights as well as answers to my queries -- ranging from Chinese herbal medicine to local history factoids.   We would find out later on that she's a retired policewoman after 30 years of service.   She draws deep not just from her city smarts but also her blended multi-racial household so her Chinese background and Malay tenure mix in well with her exposure to Indian and Filipino influences (her children are married to an Indian and a Pinoy).

Oldest shop along India Street
Slipping through the alleys to India street, we come across another side street, the place where Chinese migrants used to butcher their pigs right next to a Muslim temple.  How that came to be is an interesting thing to discover by itself.  In another alley, what was formerly a row of Chinese coffin makers turned into row of Chinese food and coffee shops.  This is where we find an interesting stop -- a shop where the hot coffee is served with a pat of butter.  

For the curious, here's the reason why:  in the olden days, Chinese clients used to take their opium chased down by coffee laced with butter to make the sticky, irritating substance go down the throat more easily.  The shop wears the patina of age, from the wooden cabinets to the framed pictures, from the tables and chairs to the front kitchen fixtures, so much so that the story (or tale, depending on what you believe in) doesn't sound so far-fetched at all.
Place Borneo's Jas and Sarah posing with the "opium" coffee shop owner, Og and Ironwulf
As no visit to Kuching is complete without wending in and out of the Old Market, we ogled the Indian and Muslim sellers as well as their various wares (including the ubiquitous cat merchandise and crafts of course).    If ever you wander into Kuching, book a tour or two with Margaret (+60) 16-8950125); you won't regret it.  Given more time, we would've loved to explore more (also eat more of the local fare).  It would only be after coming back from Mulu when we'd get to taste more food apart from what our hotels are serving but that's another story for another day.

Acknowledgments:  Many thanks to Place Borneo and the Sarawak Tourism Board for letting us experience the sights, sounds, flavors, music of Kuching.


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