Best Buys of Borneo

Shopping in Kuching is quite a tricky thing. Modern malls are becoming a way of life but we tend to go for the other type of shopping when we’re here.

Local foodstuff and pottery are more of our kind of shopping.

First, pottery and ceramics are unique because Sarawak-made pots, mugs, lamps, decor items and vases have patterns which are distinctively Borneo.

Handmade vases from Sarawak, Borneo
Handmade vases from Sarawak, Borneo

We usually buy our table lamps when we are here in Kuching. They’re much nicer and cheaper than Semenanjung. The cool thing is you have the option of checking in your table lamps if you prefer not to hand carry them into the plane. Rest assured that these ceramic factories are old hands are wrapping up your ceramic pottery. The items are packed tighter than elephants in a phone booth and there’s nary a scratch or crack when you arrive at your destination.

Ceramic table lamps without lamp shades
Ceramic table lamps without lamp shades

Next, food. I like wandering in the aisles of local supermarkets here because by looking at what the locals eat, I get a definitive idea of the unique flavours of this verdant land.

Sago biscuits made from the pith of the sago palm tree
Sago biscuits made from the pith of the sago palm tree

Of course you cannot leave without some famous Sarawak pepper (black pepper and white pepper). You can get them in various denominations – coarse grind, fine grind, whole corns, in a sauce and in whole kilo bags.

Great gifts for everyone - famous Sarawak pepper!
Great gifts for everyone - famous Sarawak pepper!

You can also get them as pepper sweets which taste very much like peppermint sweets. Nic used to buy me pepper perfume but they smelled like regular cologne. It’s a novelty though.

Then there’s a local herb called Motherwort or what locals call Kacangma. It’s usually cooked with chicken for mothers undergoing confinement to get rid of ‘angin’ but it’s also a dish that many locals love. I’ve grown quite fond of kacangma but I only get my supply of this dried green herb when I come back to Kuching. I found some instant kacangma paste recently but have yet to try it.

Tradition goes upmarket - kacangma paste for people in a hurry.
Tradition goes upmarket - kacangma paste for people in a hurry.

Then there’s Sarawak tea. It’s not too bad though I think it lacks processing finesse. It’s not as fragrant as Boh tea but then again we cannot compare Sarawak tea, a lowland tea, to Boh which is a highland tea. It is worth a try though. (Did you know that Boh also has a lowland tea plantation in Bukit Cheeding, Selangor? Hah, betcha didn’t know that. Well it does. I wonder if what we term as Boh highland tea, with the romantic illusion of tea and scones, is actually mixed with lowland tea from the unglamorous Bukit Cheeding?)

Tea leaves grown in Borneo becomes Sarawak tea
Tea leaves grown in Borneo becomes Sarawak tea

And lastly, I never leave without buying some Sarawak laksa paste. Yesterday I saw instant Sarawak laksa paste! Cooking the laksa gravy is a tedious affair so I think having instant paste is godsend. But I also think anything that’s instant probably has MSG in it. Well, I bought some to try anyway.

Instant Sarawak laksa paste!
Instant Sarawak laksa paste!

I also saw some jelly sweets made from pegaga, another local herb. Didn’t buy that because I don’t want to load myself with too many things to carry home to Penang. After all, I still need to buy some kolo mee, kuih more-more, keropok and achar, fish chips and the list just goes on.

I’m Malaysian after all and food is my greatest indulgence!

Why The Rainforest World Music Festival Needs to Change

I’ve been a big fan of the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival for a long time now. I got to know of it in 2002 and even attended for 3 years in a row (2002, 2003 and 2004). In those early days, not even the Penang tour agencies knew what it was.

But then we stopped going.

I did say I loved it. I still do.

I came home and spread the word about this fantastic event happening in the Sarawak Cultural Village, some 40 minutes by car from Kuching city.

Many friends, upon my enthusiastic (OK, mad is more like it) response, would be so envious. I’d come home, rave about the musicians I’d met, the people I’d spoken to, the air in Sarawak, the CDs I bought, the live jamming sessions, the different cultures and languages.

Of course, I’d tell them, “You HAVE to go. It’s one of those things you must do in your lifetime because it’s so much FUN!”

And bless their souls – they did take my advice and go. And they loved it to bits too.

When I am at the Rainforest World Music Festival, I feel I am in another country. It’s not Malaysia any more. It’s laidback, it’s international, it’s cool. It’s also open air, no seats (just bring a mat), informal and come-as-you-wish.

As it’s held in Sarawak (a world totally removed from Peninsular Malaysia), there’s a lot of leeway and freedom. People strut about in bikini tops, Caucasians and locals alike hang out at the beer gardens within the festival grounds.

There’s an insouciant air, irreverent and bohemian.

But the crowd gets bigger and bigger each year, thanks to rabid fans like me. I go and tell everyone because I’m so freaking excited.

Unfortunately, the Sarawak Cultural Village grounds aren’t meant for humongous crowds.

The nearby hotels cannot accommodate the crowds either. And the prices of hotel rooms keep skyrocketing yearly. And it’s alienating the very crowd which helped popularised the festival! In the early days, the crowd was fun, looking for cool music. In fact families came with kids. I could still get a room at the Holiday Inn Damai Beach by calling up my Kuching tour agency. It was a music festival for everyone.

Over the years, I see the party crowds who are into booze are coming in packs. They get drunk, they party like crazy, they are a hazard to other festival goers. Some look like they’ve been on some substances too. They’re NOT there to appreciate the music; they just want music. I bet you they don’t even know who’s playing on the stage!

And let me talk about prices. From those days in 2002 when I could pay less than RM1000 for a 4D/3N at Holiday Inn Damai Beach which included the festival ticket for 3 days, now I have to pay lots more.

I am talking about being a domestic traveller.

I am travelling to Sarawak, another state in Malaysia, dammit. If I have to pay RM2000 plus just to attend a 3-day music festival locally, why don’t I just go to HK or Thailand? Or wait for the Singapore music festival and just take a Jetstar plane down south?

Maybe RWMF just caters to the ang mohs and the Singaporeans.

If it is about the venue, why can’t it be held somewhere centrally in Kuching city? Then the crowd control can be better and there’s no shortage of hotels.

I think RWMF is a great tourism draw but it is losing some of its appeal by alienating the very fans who have raved about it. I am lucky I can get to attend the Penang World Music Festival if I choose not to go for the RWMF.

I just wish Sarawak Tourism Board realizes that lots of die-hard fans are just appalled at the way things are done and the way prices keep going up.

Perhaps we Malaysians aren’t the target audience they want. They’d prefer US Dollars to our measly Ringgit.

More stuff you can get your hands on:

What to prepare if you are going for the RWMF 2009.

If you’re in Kuching, you might as well sample some local food.

If you’re in Penang, try Penang World Music Festival. This year, it is from 20 to 22 November.

Vote for Your Fave Sarawak Laksa Now

Now is your chance to make your favourite sarawak laksa stall in Kuching become famous.

Just got news from Stefania and Barrett, the husband and wife team and who are our clients that her cafe was one of those visited by the Sarawak Tourism Board (with a bevy of Singaporeans in tow) during the preliminary look-see for the upcoming Sarawak Laksa Escapade Tour.

She’s pretty excited and I can understand why. If shortlisted, they will be featured in a Singaporean foodie programme.

Sarawakians and non-Sarawakians are mad over their fave sarawak laksa and everyone has their fave stall in Kuching.

So if you want your stall to matter and win, be kiasu and go email in your suggestions.

All you need to do is email the stall’s name, full address and contact number (if available) to Sarawak Tourism Board by March 10. Email all your suggestions to letitia@sarawaktourism.com

Once shortlisted, these stalls will be visited by Singapore’s food ambassador Moses Lim when he arrives for the Sarawak Laksa Escapade Tour.

Check out The Borneo Post about this unique Sarawak Laksa Escapade Tour.

Helpful articles:
1.How to cook your own sarawak laksa at home
2. Snacks and food in Kuching