Ernie goes to Kuching pt. 2 (Apr 2014)

Kuching 2014-164

The next morning, Beatrix picked us up at the hotel to grab some local breakfast eats. We had first met Beatrix a few years back, when she came to visit Shing in Hong Kong. At the time, she was attending medical school in Russia, but she had since moved back to Kuching to start her doctor’s career. Choon Hui Cafe is a local landmark, serving up the best of Kuching cuisine to the crowds of early risers that occupy its open-air tables and chairs. Getting there from our hotel took less than ten minutes on foot, but even that was enough of a walk to work up an appetite. The star of the show would be a big bowl of piping hot Sarawak laksa, the regional iteration of one of southeast Asian cuisine’s culinary gems.

Laksa is a mainstay of Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian, and, to a lesser extent, Thai kitchens, and it consists of rice noodles and either chicken, fish, or prawns in a spicy soup. There are two main families of laksa, however, depending on the type of soup used in the dish. Curry laksa uses a coconut milk-based broth, and the flavours are more rich and spicy. Asam laksa, on the other hand, has tamarind and fish as its flavour base, resulting in a fresher, albeit more sour, taste. Sarawak laksa is unique in that it combines aspects of both curry and asam laksa, using a soup base known as sambal belacan, which includes coconut milk, tamarind, garlic, lemongrass, eggs, chicken, prawns, coriander leaves, and lime. I’ve never had laksa for breakfast before, but the fresh flavours of the Sarawak laksa were surprisingly refreshing, and washing it down with an ice cold milk tea was heavenly.

The rest of the day slipped right on by, with the only interruption to our carefree afternoon the arrival of Jessie from Singapore. Jessie had arrived in Hong Kong at around the same time as Shing, in early 2010, and work kept her in the city for the next half a year. I last saw her when I visited Singapore in the fall of 2010, sharing an obscenely delicious (and all-time great drunk food) roti john together, but most of us were seeing her for the first time since she moved back home.

As the evening hours approached, the weather took an ominous turn for the worse. The tropical storm lashed our hotel windows and thunder rumbled in the dark skies above, as car after car came by the front entrance to pick up guests and literally drive them across the parking lot, so close was the venue to our hotel. The reception itself was lovely, mostly made up of Shing’s family and assorted childhood friends. Many of the cues were familiar for those of us who had attended a lifetime of Chinese banquets, though the way they do wedding toasts is incredible. After dinner, the lot of us, including Shing and Ivan, went out for a truly excellent karaoke session, singing into the early hours of the morning.

Breakfast the next day was kolo mee, a Sarawakian comfort food made of flash-boiled noodles, shallots, garlic, and barbecued pork. It got mixed reviews from our gang, but I got love for cheap noodles and meats. I’m not above appreciating the merits of, say, a fancy cup noodle, and, after all, it really is just comfort food. Then, it was off to Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Sarawak. Located on the twisted shores and white sandy beaches north of Kuching, millions of years of weathering and erosion have resulted in unique rock and cliff formations along the South China Sea. To even get to the park requires a twenty-minute boat ride from the village of Kampung Bako. After passing by secluded beaches and towering rock protrusions, the small, wooden boat dropped us off on the beautiful sands of Teluk Assam Beach.

From the beach, we began to hike uphill and inland, until we arrived on a broad plateau overlooking the ocean. The trail then continued into the jungle, though, for long stretches, the tree line receded and thinned out, leaving us quite exposed to the unrelenting sun. There was little wildlife, although we maybe saw glimpses of a few monkeys hiding out in the trees near the end of the hike. We actually saw more animals after we had finished, while waiting for the ferry to take us back to the village. There was a visitor centre set up by the pier, and the cafe and food waste was probably quite attractive to the monkeys and wild boars roaming the premises. For whatever reason, Derek felt compelled to run after the boars, though he never succeeded in touching one.

We said our goodbyes to Shing and Ivan at the airport the next day. Our gang would be flying back to Hong Kong via Kuala Lumpur that afternoon, while Shing and Ivan were heading off on their honeymoon. It had been a fun few days exploring Kuching and Borneo with our friends, and even without the good food and the jungle adventures I think it would have been just as memorable. Reunions between old friends are a special thing, especially on foreign soil, and I have fond memories of this trip for the company alone. Ashley and I, along with Grace and Derek, would see Shing and Ivan again the following summer for another friend’s wedding in Vancouver (Pam from my Toronto 2012 trip). More immediately, Derek, Will, Alex, and I would be heading back to Taiwan the following weekend to do another 300KM charity bike-a-thon, and this time, Ashley would be joining us.

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