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Footloose in Kuching

Malaysia River Trip Offers High Adventure

May 24, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

KUCHING, Malaysia — If you ever get the uncontrollable urge to swap places for a while with Crocodile Dundee, braving primal forests, eerily beautiful rivers, a native boatman boasting three tattooed fingers for three heads taken during combat, just book passage for this country's Sarawak state on the island of Borneo and bring along a venturesome spirit.

Kuching, a pretty town on the Sarawak River, is relatively modern and has a few comfortable hotels and nearby resorts. Yet native houses on wooden stilts along the river bank never let you forget that you're not all that far from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" country of loin-clothed natives, blowgun hunters, dugout canoes and longhouses with blackened heads hanging from the rafters.

So a trip to the northwest strip of this vast island holds the possibility of two distinct adventures. Kuching, the capital--split by the river into modern and historic Asian sides, both teeming with shops and the bustle of an energetic city--is highlighted by a museum many consider Asia's finest, filled with laughing skulls and 2,000-year-old carvings.

Or the stout-of-heart visitor may elect to tackle a trip up the Skrang River for an overnight or longer in a remote native long-house, living the centuries-old life of the Ibans, once Sarawak's most feared warriors and headhunters.

Here to there: Malaysian Airlines gets you to Kuala Lumpur without plane changes; JAL, Singapore, Korean Air and Philippine airlines with one. Malaysian will fly you the 1 1/2 hours on to Kuching.

How long/how much? One to two days for Kuching, another two if you elect for an overnight in a longhouse on the Skrang. Lodging prices are moderate, dining the same.

A few fast facts: Malaysia's ringgit was recently valued at 42 cents to our dollar. Temperatures near the 90s almost all year, some respite during winter, November until February seeing most rain during northeast monsoons. English widely spoken in Kuching and other population centers of Sarawak.

Getting settled in: Best choice in Kuching is Holiday Inn (Box 2362, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman; $65 to $78 double), by the Sarawak with lovely views from rooms facing river. Every amenity here: good dining, pool terrace over river, several bars, walking distance to shopping areas. Fitness types will like the workout room, sauna and lighted tennis courts.

Aurora (Box 260, McDougal Road; $48 to $59) is a considerable step down, but acceptable and super-convenient opposite Sarawak Museum. Modern room decor, choice of Malay, Chinese, Western or Japanese dining. City lodging gets a bit iffy below the Aurora.

Iban-longhouse accommodations on the Skrang River are offered for an all-inclusive cost of $189 per person, which includes transportation and everything mentioned later.

Regional food and drink: In addition to the varied, colorful, imaginative and very toothsome Malay dishes, some Iban specialties have been handed down for four centuries by that strong cultural group. They stuff bamboo with meat or fish and rice, then boil the whole shebang for a feast. Dark mountain rice, considered Malaysia's best, is grown here and served often.

Tuak, the Ibans' homemade rice wine, was undrinkable to us, while lang kau, liquor strong enough to remove the bark from your canoe, was even worse. Friends along had great quantities of the latter and then danced a lot.

Then there are the delicious Malaysian staples of hokkien mee, a spicy prawn soup with many variations; gulai daging, curried beef with potatoes, garlic, ginger and grated coconut, and goreng pisang , a dessert of bananas deep-fried whole in a batter.

Moderate-cost dining: One wouldn't expect to see excellent Sichuan food in Borneo, but we found it at Holiday Inn's Meisan restaurant. Duck prepared 10 ways, the same with beef, pork, prawns and shark fins, a bigger selection of fish and chicken.

Do try some of the hawkers' food at the Sunday open market at Jalan Satok. And for Japanese dishes and a steak bar, complete with Benihana swordplay, head for Aurora Hotel's Japanese room.

Most visitors go to the town of Serion, about 37 miles from Kuching, for its colorful street market brimming with exotic fruits and vegetables. Near the market you'll find Chein Hion Cafe at 19 Main St. You wouldn't look twice at this place, much less go in, unless you'd been told that it serves the best noodle soup in Asia, a popular opinion locally. There's a full menu of other Chinese dishes, which you won't be able to read, so much looking and pointing is called for.

If you're on the Skrang River jaunt, this is the town where they stop for last-minute provisions such as bug repellent and sweets for the Iban children.

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