Bristol vs the world

A travel (and sometimes fashion) blog about exploring Bristol and the rest of the world, one post at a time.

Tag: malaysia

Bako National Park, Sarawak

Bako beach

I have mixed memories of Bako National Park. On the one hand, it was probably the most beautiful place I’ve been lucky enough to visit. On the other, it did give me a distrust of monkeys – or at least macaques – after one made a leaped onto our table and made off with my much-needed chicken leg dinner.

One thing’s for certain: it knows how to make – and leave – an impression (generally for the right reasons).

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Getting to Bako

First thing’s first, you need to get to the Park. Although quicker to grab a taxi or hire a mini-bus with a group, the public buses are by far the cheapest way to get there at RM3.50 one way (around 65p) – and they still only take 35-45 minutes from Kuching (catch it towards the end of Jalan Bazaar/further from the bus station and you’ll save yourself a bit of time). They come once an hour.

However road transport can only take you so far and you’ll be dropped at Kampung Bako. From there, visit the ticketing office to charter a boat to take you on the 30-minute journey to the National Park, past stilt-houses rising out of the water, fishermen, foliage-covered mountains (I told you Bako knows how to make an impression).

Boats cost just under RM50 – about £9 – return. They can fit up to five people so the cheapest thing to do is club up with others on your bus to share one. However your boat driver will ask you for a return journey time so you need to make sure the others on your boat have similar plans for their trip to you. For a bit more flexibility, go it alone (or at least, alone in your group).

Also check the tides before you go – or at least take some waterproof sandals. Although we got dropped off at the National Park’s jetty, the time we wanted to go back happened to be low tide, so the boats couldn’t get up to it. Instead we were picked from the park beach – well, the sea by it. Trousers rolled and bags held above us, we waded back to our boat through the (Singapore bath warm) water and dried our legs in the sun as we were taken back to the bus stop – it may not be glamorous, but it was certainly a memorable way to leave!

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To stay or not to stay

If you’re short on time – or not too bothered about undertaking lots of treks – Bako can be done in a day. Get one of the earliest buses from Kuching and ask your boat driver when the latest is that they’ll pick you up.

But I’d highly recommend an overnight stay. The accommodation is basic and the food isn’t anything to write home about (and that’s if it doesn’t get stolen by cheeky macaques). But it really allows you to make the most of your time in the Park. You can relax with a drink in-between walks, watch the sun set over the beach at park HQ or get up early and enjoy one of the trails before the next day’s visitors really get going.

You can also go on their night trails for a small fee, where a guide will point out wildlife you might not see during the day.  We were exhausted and didn’t, but part of me regrets that decision now.

We booked our accommodation online and confirmed our reservation with the Kuching tourist office when we arrived in the city. Despite this, we did have some problems on checking in, the people working at the Park HQ reception seemingly not being able to find our reservation. However they did honor it. So I’d recommended taking a print-out of your reservation and also phoning to confirm – at least then you know a room should be allocated to you, even if they’re not sure quite where you’re supposed to be saying. This all said, it looked like we were the only people having trouble so I don’t think ours was a common experience – don’t let it put you off!

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Treks and trails

On arriving at the Park headquarters, you receive a paper map detailing the 17 walks on offer. This includes a list of how long they are and a rough idea of how long they should take to complete one way. I’ll admit it, we had a good chuckle at that at first. 45 minutes to go 1km? Maybe for someone who’s seriously out of shape…

Turns out, the people who put that map together know what they’re talking about. The trails may not be particularly long, but on many of the routes you’ll find yourself clambering over, up and down steep paths laden with tree roots and rocks. You’re also in the middle of a hot, sticky jungle. And let’s not forget that occasionally you might want to stop to look at some of the plants, wildlife or stunning views (or just to catch your breath and have some water – though I highly recommend a Platypus or similar).

Don’t be put off by this though – we’re of average fitness and probably found the heat and humidity the hardest element to deal with, rather than the treks themselves being hugely difficult. If you’re not a confident walker, you could pack a walking pole (I am a huge fan of walking poles). But there were plenty of people do the trails in flip flops and – in some cases – swimming costumes. I wouldn’t recommend following their example, mind.

There are also some slightly easier trails too; the first one we undertook, to Telok Delima, was often along boardwalk and mostly flat. The park guides at reception should be able to offer advice if you’re not sure what will suit your fitness levels.

And the trails may have been tiring, but absolutely worth it. I’ll let the photos in this entry speak for themselves as to why.

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Telok Delima trail, Bako

What else is there to do

Not content trekking through mangroves and spectacular jungle or relaxing on stunning, secluded beaches? The Park also has an abundance of wildlife. As well as the macaques, we also saw Proboscis monkeys (best looking animals ever?) and silver leaf monkeys also call the area their home. The Park HQ and nearby beach are home to bearded pigs, who you might see snuffling around the cabins or snoozing in the shade. And then there’s the many other insects and small mammals that you might spot. We saw some groups on trips with guides who were pointing out these animals to them, so if you’re a wildlife buff then this could be a worthwhile investment.

Macaques near Bako Park HQ

Wild boar, Bako

In short…

If you’re visiting Kuching, Bako National Park is a must-visit. It’s hard to describe how visiting here makes you feel. I haven’t made it sound like a hugely relaxing experience and yet, despite the sweat, the stickiness, the tricky trails, it somehow is. Probably something to do with getting to the end of a trek and being greeted by almost-empty beaches surrounded by tropical trees, with views of endless water or mountains rising from the sea. Simply breathtaking. (I told you it left an impression!)

Just make sure you eat your dinner inside – or at least away from the sides of the canteen!

Bako Park HQ beach

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Telok Paku trek

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Food Friday: James Brooke Bistro & Cafe, Kuching

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A double post today – I spoil you, I know. But I wasn’t organised to get my last post up before today, and I felt I had to give you a sense of Kuching’s waterfront before telling you about James Brooke bistro, a pavilion-style, open-sided restaurant which overlooks the river from the Chinese History Museum end of Jalan Bazaar.

After spending two days eating in Singapore’s – tasty, but not hugely relaxing – hawker centres, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a ‘proper’ restaurant. In my last post, you might have got an idea of how electric Kuching’s waterfront promenade is, especially after dark. So a restaurant overlooking it – close enough to observe some of the hustle and bustle, but set back enough to feel out-of-the-way – was immediately appealing.

The restaurant’s decor itself was equally attractive. The tables are surrounded by plants and an array of what looked like traditional crafts pieces, big and small.

Although you’ll probably find more authentic recipes in some of the city’s hawker centres, James Brooke bistro offers a Malaysian menu featuring typical rice and noodle dishes – which come as generous portions. These include their ‘special’, a Wild Borneo Laksa, as well as the traditional Sarawak Laksa; I can highly recommend the latter – rich, creamy and slightly spicy, but not overpoweringly so.

james brooke sarawak laksa necessary indulgences

(There are also more Western-style food options on offer, but these were more expensive. But as we both tried the – excellent – Malay dishes, I’m afraid I can’t offer an opinion on these.)

Although the restaurant was relatively busy, it wasn’t full. So we could eat and drink at a leisurely pace, enjoying the flavours in our food and drink and taking in the sites around us.

From memory, two main courses, a lime juice (the obsession continued…) and a beer came to about £10 – so while not cheap for Asia, it’s certainly good value for us Westerners.

If you don’t mind being a bit of a tourist (most of our fellow diners were also clearly holidaymakers. Or should that be ‘travellers’?), James Brooke bistro is the perfect place to try some Malay dishes while soaking up the magical Kuching nighttime.

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PS. Wandering about the name? Find out more about James Brooke here

The Details
James Brooke Bistro & Cafe
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Kuching – at the end of the waterfront promenade
Phone: 0145204007 (no website)
Booking: I’m not sure if it’s an option, but it didn’t seem to be necessary

Photographs
First interior photo, Sarawak Laksa: Necessary Indulgences
Exterior shot: Emre Bennett on Flickr
Second interior shot: Asia for Visitors

Kuching Waterfront

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Being a bit of a feline fanatic, it was inevitable that I’d feel a certain fondness for a city whose name – coincidentally, rather than intentionally – means ‘cat city’. They don’t let you forget it either – Kuching has so many cat statues that Lonely Planet lists them as one of its top sites of interest.

But there’s more to Sarawak’s capital than novelty roundabout decorations. And although many use Kuching just as a base for exploring the many nearby nature destinations, it’s worth spending a few days exploring the city itself. This is the first of a few planned posts about our time here, starting with the first place we (admittedly, probably like most visitors  to Kuching) really visited here, the Waterfront.

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This stretch of pedestrianised pavement along Jalan Bazaar has multiple personalities. Until mid-afternoon, it’s restrained and gentle, in contrast to the strains of karaoke that, even before lunch, float across the river. The ideal spot for a quiet stroll and, at lunchtime, to sample some (cheap, tasty and, for some pieces, freshly made – we watched ours be chopped up) spring rolls, chilli sauce and fried bananas from the food carts.

Waterfront food

Sunset casts a spell here. The river is surrounded by mosques and their hauntingly beautiful Calls to Prayer collide on the breeze as sampan (boat) drivers glide across the water.

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As darkness falls, a different kind of music takes over. Buskers playing every kind of instrument invade the pavements and draw huge crowds. Behind them, families, friends and couples promenade, while others line the walls and steps, chatting.

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And that’s all without mentioning the changing view as you walk along – colourful stilt houses become the distinctive Astana government building which becomes mountains rising in the background.

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All in all, not a bad introduction to the Bornean leg of our adventure.

waterfront view

All photos my own – please credit if using

Where to stay Wednesday: Village House, Santubong

dsc_6365From sweaty sightseeing in Singapore to monkeys stealing our dinner post-trekking in Bako National Park, Borneo (more on that later): after a fantastic, but hectic, first week in Asia, we decided a change in pace was in order.

Dominated by the eponymous mountain, the Santubong peninsula is less than an hour from Kuching – the capital of Sarawak, Borneo – by mini bus. But it feels a world away. As we drove, concrete shops and mid-rises gave way to jungle and stilt-houses. The only traffic we encountered was caused by a seemingly constant stream of guests in beautiful outfits going to a wedding, which even mid-morning appeared to already be in full-swing. (Does anyone know the customs of traditional Malay/Borneo weddings? I’d love to read about them). Kuching isn’t particularly fast-paced, especially compared to a lot of Asian cities (or cities in general), but after spending a few days there you really appreciate how peaceful this surrounding countryside is.
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Tucked away down a gravel track, the idyllic Village House is the perfect place to stay in the area. We felt at home from the minute we walked into the frangipani-lined courtyard and were handed our ‘Welcome’ iced teas.

Comprising of just 14 bedrooms, this u-shaped hotel is built in traditional stilt-house style around a stunning pool/courtyard area. Underneath the bedrooms you’ll find the small restaurant, and seating and loungers for the pool. There’s also a bar, fancier upstairs ‘dining room’ type area (featuring a stunning wooden-carved table) and a living room full of books, television and dvds and – most importantly – board games. All of the rooms are decorated in traditional Sarawak style, with local craft pieces dotted throughout.

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We stayed in a Village Double, the standard private room, which are priced from 250 ringitt (about £50) a night (twins cost the same). Although a bit on the small side, we found it perfectly suited our needs: traditional Malay sarongs provided, enough space to dump our rucksacks, a decently-sized, modern bathroom and – most importantly – a four poster bed. To be honest, we spent most of our time relaxing by the pool anyway.

However if you want something a bit more luxurious or somewhere a bit more private to relax, the two Rajah Rooms have a sitting area, private veranda and mod cons like a television and Nespresso coffee machine. These start from 460 Ringitt a night (about £90).

At the other end of the spectrum, those just wanting a bed can book into the plainer dorm-style rooms, which sleep up to six people in bunkbeds. A night here costs 93 ringitt (just under £20).

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Arguably the real stand-out of this hotel is the staff and service. Not only helpful – they’re full of recommendations and there’s a number of trips they can help you to plan such as to the nearby Cultural Village and firefly cruises – they’re also very friendly, stopping to chat and ask about your day. Just little touches, such as bringing your drink to you at the pool, really makes this place feel luxurious. Admittedly so far this is all in a good day’s work – especially by Asian hospitality standards (which are generally amazing). But they really went above and beyond for us: one of the girls stayed late to print our plane boarding passes. Another came in extra-early on our last day to unlock and make sure we got our taxi to the airport, even providing us with sandwiches to take with as we were missing out on breakfast.

Talking of food, if there’s one downside to the Village House, it’s that the eating here is little costly (by Sarawak standards). Also, if you want dinner then you have to make your mind up about it quite early: you have to pre-order by mid-afternoon. Understandable considering the size of the hotel, but perhaps not ideal for the more fleet of foot. You could probably organise to eat elsewhere – I’ve read good things about some seafood restaurants in a nearby village – but you’d have to plan that too unless you had your own car. However everything we ate here was pretty tasty so, so long as you accept that you’re paying the Sarawak version of hotel prices, we didn’t find being confined to the hotel for mealtimes too much of a problem. And breakfast is included in the cost of your stay, so that’s one meal you don’t have to worry about budgeting for.

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If you can bear to drag yourself away from the beautiful hotel, the surrounding area is worth exploring. Although a bit too rocky for sunbathing, the quiet beach – just down a sandy path – is the ideal location to watch the sun set. We also enjoyed walking into Santubong Village itself: an older lady sitting outside a shop, chopping coconuts ready for the next day. Roadside food stalls. Families going for a spin round the roads on their mopeds. John got chatting (sort of) to football-playing children, bonding over Manchester City. Later on, the call to prayer from the local mosque echoed through the village.

Stunning, entrancing, relaxing, we felt utterly spoilt for the entirety of our two nights here. Our only regret is that we didn’t stay longer.

The important details
Website: http://www.villagehouse.com.my/villagehouse/
Pricing: Range from about £20 p/night for a dorm bed to around £90 for the Rajah Rooms. Standard doubles/twins are around £45/£50. Price includes breakfast.
Location: Near Santubong Village, 20 miles from Kuching.
Any other extras?: Welcome drinks. Board games, dvds and books can be borrowed.
Recommended?: Absolutely. This was by far and away our favourite hotel of the trip.
Any reason not to?: If you like to be able to get around easily without a car then you could feel a little claustrophobic – you’ll be relying on wheeled vehicles to get most places from here. Not recommended if you don’t like to ‘stop’; this is strictly a ‘getting away from it all’ kind of hotel. Though if anywhere can convince you to take an unplanned break, it’s here.
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