The impetus for my trip to Borneo came, as it often does for me, from a casual reference or suggestion, in this case both. First was a phrase I’d seen in passing, "White Rajas of Borneo". Then the simple statement by a continual traveler, Marcus, now a longtime friend who I met at a Chiang Mai guesthouse, that he could “live in Kuching”, quite a statement from a man who knows Asia as well as anyone alive.
Sir James Brooke, First White Rajah of Borneo
The Istana, from across the Sarawak
Working in a library, where I could request any book available at any lending library in the country, I set about finding information about the White Rajas. I found out, among many things, that Kuching was the capitol of Sarawak, a Malaysian State on the island of Borneo, founded by (what else) an Englishman, Sir James Brooke, a man dedicated to seeking his fortune as an adventurer in Asia.
Failed as a trader, he sailed with one second-hand ship to Borneo, restored the Sultan of Brunei to his throne after suppressing a tribal uprising, was given Sarawak in thanks and made Rajah of Borneo, with Queen Victoria’s reluctant blessing, in 1841. With no acknowledged children of his own, he was succeeded as rajah by his nephew, Charles Brooke, and then Charles’ son, Vyner Brooke. In 1946, after Japanese occupation during World War II, the state was ceded to Britain.
Rajah Brooke’s capital is just 100 miles north of the equator, set along the Sarawak River, Brooke’s highway to the interior in his efforts to gain the cooperation of the tribal people. He built his palace, the Istana, on the north bank and the city grew up on the south. Chinese merchants were his main suppliers and shophouse-type structures still line Jalan Main Bazaar that runs parallel to the river. There’s a park in a wide space between the road and the water and the Istana still watches over the town from the opposite bank, now occupied by the current government of Sarawak.
I arrived in Kuching by air, a short flight from Sibu. I’d been in touch with local residents, Charlie & Carrie, who’d extended an invitation to stay in their home. But as so often happens, I didn’t arrive on the date I’d planned, so splurged Southeast Asian style and treated myself to a couple of nights at the riverfront Hilton, very affordable by western standards, with panoramic views of a lovely small city and I began to understand why Marcus loved the place.
Kuching falls within my definition of perfect towns, big enough and small enough, with the unusual added benefits of having a measure of sophistication without being slick, off the main tourist track and inexpensive as a result. It wouldn’t be for everyone, not a lot “happening”. But for those, like me, whose heart’s desire is an easy pace, affordable and clean, a walkable, exotic but civilized place to hang out, with good food and colonial architecture, it ticks every box. And there just aren’t many places that do.
My Kuching hosts, Carrie & Charlie on the right, Travel Pal Jim, left.
As they say in real guidebooks, suggested reading:
- Queen of the Headhunters, an autobiography by Sylvia Brooke
- Stranger in the Forest, By Eric Hansen (Go out of your way to find this one, one of the greatest adventure travel books ever written. I'm not the only one who says so.)