Kuching: Why your travel memories should be sketchy

Kuching in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is one of Malaysia’s hidden gems. While it’s not a major transport hub, like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, it is well worth seeing – and as I was to find out, it is worth seeing through a sketchbook. You see, I was there as part of the Urban Sketchers AsiaLink meetup. For those who may not have encountered them, the Urban Sketchers movement has around 140,000 members worldwide, and each country has their own groups. Their aim is “to see the world, one sketch at a time”. And it is open to all ages and skill levels – which is just as well, as I consider myself pretty much a novice at drawing.

So why should a novice sketcher take a sketchbook and pencils to an international meet-up of sketchers? I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not about the drawing. It is all about the looking. Just as using a camera has taught me to see the world in a particular way, sketching takes this to a whole other level. A photograph might take a couple of minutes to get a good composition and an appreciation of some elements of the subject, but sketching means you are looking in detail at the subject for perhaps an hour or two. Photography has taught me to see, sketching has taught me to see deeper. For example, when I photographed the Kuching Legislative Assembly building (Parliament House), I completely failed to notice the pink inner wall behind the outer pillars. Yet when I sat to sketch it, I found myself taking in that detail. And yes the sketch is pretty rough, but I gained a new appreciation for the building.

Legislative Assembly Building, Kuching

If I could miss something as obvious as the colour of the wall, what else do we miss when we stop for a quick ‘selfie’? Sometimes we see more by seeing less. By that I mean, it is sometimes better to slow down, see fewer sites in more detail, and in the process see more and understand more about those things we do see.

Kuching has a vibrant art scene, reflected in the brilliant and creative wall murals. I love how they’ve incorporated a real wheelbarrow for this barrow of monkeys 🙂

wall mural, Kuching

The word ‘Kuching’ is the Malay word for ‘cat’ so the cat theme permeates the town, including a Cat Museum filled with cat-themed sculptures and popular culture references to cats.

And just next to the James Brooke Cafe and Bistro there is a wonderful cat sculpture – which is itself a playground for some of the local cats

cat sculpture Kuching

We ate at the bistro several times – great food and wonderful ambience looking out over the river. Here is the view from our table in the evening

View from James Brooke Bistro

The name James Brooke comes up frequently in Kuching – it seems he was quite a character. Born in India to British parents, briefly educated in England, he returned to India with the Bengal Army. He was wounded in Burma during the uprising, subsequently resigning his commission. With a £30,000 inheritance, he bought a 142-ton schooner – The Royalist – and set off to make his fortune in the Malay Archipelago. The timing was fortunate, just in time to use his ship to help crush a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, who in his gratitude, made him Rajah of Sarawak. So James Brooke became the first white Rajah of Sarawak – where he ruled until his death.

The historic Brooke Dockyard, begun in 1907 and completed in 1912 – the year the Titanic sunk – was important in keeping the Rajah’s boats in good repair. The dry dock and associated engineering works are still in use today. On the sketch-walk with the Kuching Urban Sketchers, we were given some limited access to the dock, which is normally closed to visitors.

Brooke Dockyard, Kuching

A group of us hired a traditional Sampan/Tambang to take us up the river, from which we could see the vibrant fishing industry and local fishing villages along the river bank. It was quite something to see the jungle reach down to the river so close to the town. Our boat trip took us up the river some distance, and we were taken to sample the delights of a traditional Sarawak cake shop. The cakes were delicious, though some appeared to be a triumph of chemistry over nature…

Sarawak cakes

I think the blue and yellow ones were called ‘Michael Jackson’ cakes. We saw variations of these all over Kuching.

fishing village kuching

Later we were taken on a sketch-walk through a fishing village on the opposite bank, and on to Fort Margherita built in 1879 – named for James Brooke’s wife. The people live simply, growing vegetables in the village garden and fishing on the river. I don’t know how they reacted to the sudden arrival of some 30 sketchers, but the children happily pointed out which houses they lived in, and took great interest in the drawings.

fisherman, Kuching

Fort Margherita was built to protect the town from pirates – which plagued the reign of James Brooke and his dynasty. It was subsequently used as a police station. In 1971, it was handed over to the local government and is now a museum – well worth a visit. There is also a wonderful view over the river and the town of Kuching.

Fort Margherita, Kuching

A further sketch-walk along India Street provided a colourful shopping experience along the shop-houses and beneath a spectacular modern glass shade

India Street, Kuching

But for me, the charm lay in the traditional shop-houses and the range of goods, both modern and traditional available. It is a feast for the senses – literally – as the smell of spices mingles with that of polished timber, and bright colours and the sound of motorbikes and people and bustle. It is a vibrant town.

India Street

And of course, you are never too far from the wet market where you can buy fresh fish caught that morning and brought in by small boat and barrow.

fish market, Kuching

It was great to see the place through the eyes of the locals – they know the best eating places for Laksa and satays, and it was pretty special being led on sketch-walks through different parts of the town, with details large and small being pointed out. And so we got to see the place through the eyes of those who draw it, and in the process, learned to see with fresh eyes, and with greater depth than we would ever have done if we had gone as a tourist, rather than as a sketcher.

Do you have sketchy memories? Why not contact the Urban Sketchers in your local community and see for yourself the delights of seeing a place through your own sketchbook!

Urban Sketchers in Kuching

Practicalities: Direct flights are available from Singapore and KL. Bring tropical strength (DEET) mosquito repellant, and dress for heat and humidity. Currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). Power is 230V with English power sockets. Language: Malay, though English is widely spoken. Dialling code is +60.

Things to do: Visit the textiles museum, the Cat Museum, the Chinese Kuching museum, see Orangutans (means humans of the forest) at the Orangutan Sanctuary, take a Sampan/Tamban ride up the river, visit Fort Margherita.

Favourite foods: Laksa, Satay.

I stayed at the Hilton Kuching – but have no affiliation with them and received no free benefits from any of the places or groups mentioned in this post.

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The systems of a city – look down to find them

When you enter a city – perhaps the one you are in right now, you probably spend quite a bit of time looking up at the architectural details above the shop level. I do that a lot and often find that that is where the history is, where the story reveals what shaped the city into what it is today. And often it is where I find the most interesting things to photograph.

But how many of us take the time to look down at our feet too? Imagine, for a moment, the city as a giant living organism – it has to sustain all those people in order that they can live and work within a few square kilometres of each other.

People need water – and lots of it, and air handling systems so that enclosed buildings can sustain the lives within, as well as heat for food and light and power and communication systems as part of a great social network, and the waste systems so that the city doesn’t become clogged with unspeakable filth and grind to a halt.

Fountain at Versailles

Fountain at Versailles

These necessities are so essential that the Ancient Greeks distilled them down to four fundamental elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Plato was possibly the first to record these elements in his Timaeus, where he talks about the nature of the cosmos.

Ironically, these also map onto the fundamental services that keep a city alive. The services are embedded in the earth beneath our feet.

We have gas mains (air) that provide heat for our fast and slow food, and keep the city warm in winter.

French gas main

French gas main

We have electricity cables (fire) that supply our lights and cool our air conditioners and increasingly are starting to power our transport systems.

French electric car charging station

French electric car charging station

And we have water mains and sewers to bring us fresh potable water and remove our waste.

Tokyo water main cover

Tokyo water main cover

Korean water main cover

Korean water main cover

You can check out a glossary of Japanese manhole covers here if you are in Japan you will find they are very varied with some great designs on them.

If any of these systems breaks down for more than a few hours or days, the city stops functioning.

Pont dy Gard Roman aqueduct

Pont du Gard – Roman aqueduct

Ancient Rome wasn’t destroyed by Hanibal, but by the destruction of the nine or so aqueducts that supplied the city with water. From that point on the city was finished – and halved its population within months and within a decade was falling into ruin.

Tokyo fire hydrant cover

Tokyo fire hydrant cover

And so it is today. When the Great Fire of Canberra (2003 Bushfire) unleashed its firestorm, the biggest threat was not the visible one, but the combination of a contaminated water supply and the burning of the electricity substation that powered the sewage treatment plant. It was a race against time to restore power there. Without it, Canberra had only ten days before the sewer storage system backed up into people’s houses.

French water spout

French water spout

Cities look so permanent, don’t they? Yet beneath all that concrete and glass, everyone is reliant on a few fundamental systems to keep everything and everyone alive and functioning. Earth, Air , Fire and Water.

So next time you are out in a city, or town, take a moment to look down at all the manhole covers and service access points – many have unique designs – and consider how they help sustain life within the urban landscape. And let me know what you find in the comments below 🙂