A quick word of introduction. My name is Stuart McDonald and this is Couchfish—the perfect tub of ice-cream for the traveller stranded on the couch.
Yes, I’m back, thanks for your patience. The break was just what the doctor ordered, and I spent a not insignificant amount of it at my shack in West Bali. It’s the perfect spot for a bit of mental and physical recalibration and as an added bonus, served as a bit of fodder for today’s post.
Before I get into the post, a quick administrative note. I’m switching Couchfish around a bit as a bit of an experiment. So, for the next four weeks, all posts will go to all readers—free and paid. However, each destination-focused piece will have a “travel tips” section at the end for paid subscribers only. So, as today’s piece is kind of Kuching related, for paid subscribers, at the end there is another 500 odd words on where I reckon are good places to stay and why. In tomorrow’s piece I’ll use the same treatment for food, and so on.
I realise not all free subscribers will be into this, so if you’d rather just receive the free pieces that are opinion related, please email me and let me know. I’ll then mark your address so you don’t receive the itinerary ones, but do get the others. Yes, I know this is a bit confusing, but I hope it will make sense over time. It is a bit of an experiment I’d like to run for a month, so please bear with me!
Frequency-wise, they’ll be in total, three to four posts a week. Now, back to the post—thanks all for your support, and suggestions, as always, welcome.
1. Bali cyclists desperately not seeking dude in sarong
I see very few foreign faces out by my plot by the sea, perhaps a dozen all up over the last twelve months. Almost all have been cyclists, on a group bike ride, “discovering” Bali’s “undiscovered” west coast. While in all seriousness I don’t spend my entire day wearing naught but a sarong as I sweep the leaves from the front yard, on almost every occasion I’ve spied these foreign faces, their ruddy foreheads glistening with sweat, I’ve been doing just that. As has happened in the past, they pull up, and as we chat, more often than not they ask “what are you doing here?”
Sorry, no photos of me in a sarong with a broom available. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
It’s a funny thing to ask. I mean, I’m sweeping, there’s a house right behind me, with a scooter parked by the deck. What am I supposed to say? On more than one occasion, as was the case this most recent time, they’ve turned to their guide and said “you said we wouldn’t see any foreigners.” The guide and I have come to recognise each other, and we play out our roles. Everyone laughs and they ride off towards the temple on the hill.
Me? I go back to sweeping leaves.
2. It is too expensive here so we drink 600 beers a night
I’m in Kuching, Sarawak at the moment. On a two-week or so break over school holidays with my son. It’s a fab little town, far earlier on the gentrification curve than say Ipoh or Penang’s Georgetown. Well-aged shophouses line many of the streets in Padungan, the town’s “Chinatown” district, but unlike in Ipoh and Georgetown, car parts merchants, medicine shops and whatever-else shops still fill them. The town is still shaking itself of the pandemic’s hangover, so there’s still closed-up aplenty, but it still feels like a locals’ town waking up.
One must always have a cat photo in a Kuching story it seems. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Over on Carpenter Street though, you can see what is coming. There’s a scattering of boutiquey cafes and bars over there near what passes for the town’s historic quarter. Over there, snazzy is pushing out surplus car parts, and the lanes are popular with the Instagram crew. It’s early days though, but give it another five pandemic-free years and it’s easy to see the end game.
We spend our first two nights at a touch the earth old school hostel. The owner chats off my ear over an 11pm check-in while Will and I can barely string a sentence together. The hostel has over a decade in the trade—with the shared bathrooms to prove it—its got that social vibe that makes a good place great.
The next morning, I get chatting to a bleary-eyed guest who holds their porridge bowl with too-many-beers-the-night-before hands. They’re Malay, from the big smoke, in town for the music festival, and they plan to burn through the hangover with a mountain hike. A professional, I’ve got a few, though not many, years on them, and I’m curious why they’re staying at the Euro-dominated hostel. I go to ask, then the cyclists’ question pops into my head, and I bite my tongue.
A lane off of Carpenter Street, expect more boutique whatevers here soon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
At the next table, a late twenties English guy has been sitting alone, eavesdropping. When the KL-ite bails, we go through the standard traveller stuff. He says he’s been in Kuching most of a week, and with me fresh off the boat, I go to grill him. It turns out though, he’s done little and has even less to share. He says it’s all too expensive, so him and his two pals have spent the last week getting hammered and sleeping in.
When I suggest it’s a long way to travel to drink beer, he at first takes me literally, then explains Kuching is a part of a bigger trip. The cost of the tours took them by surprise, and with an onwards flight booked, they’re biding—or drinking—their time away. He likes the town, and says Sarawakians are a friendly bunch and fun in the bars. That said, apart from a few walks down the waterfront they’ve done nothing.
I ask would he come back, and he says yes without skipping a beat, but then adds, “I’d come back with more money.” He says Kuching is the wrong place for this trip, but he knows it would be perfect for another.
3. Traveller love is a beautiful thing
A couple of days later I run into him at the park headquarters at Bako National Park. His mates are nowhere in sight, but he’s clasping the hand of a new friend he met at one of the bars the night of the morning we met. She’s also English, similar aged, and the three of us chat for a bit. I say smiling that I thought everything was too expensive, and she answers before he can.
Bako National Park. I sweated 18 laksas to get here. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
She’s in Sarawak—and only Sarawak—for a month. She’s here for the wildlife, for the national parks, and yes, clearly a few nights on the beers. She’s been on the ground but a few days more than Will and I, and rattles off her hit-list. It’s a greatest hits of Sarawak’s natural wonders—and Sarawak has plenty on this front. Doing the math in my head, I know there’s a few thousand easy in spend to cover what she has planned, so I look at him, and ask, laughing, what happened to penny pinching and slumming it. Again before he can answer she says she’s paying—and he’s coming, ”you said you’d come,” she says, staring at him.
Traveller love I tell ya—and I see a missed Kuala Lumpur flight on your horizon dude.
4. Can’t have a Couchfish post without me running into a random odd dude
This morning, on a trip into the upcountry, I get button-holed by a guy, well older than me, travelling with family. He asks me something off the bat, and I say I don’t know, why not I guess. I go to leave, but he’s a sticky guy and I can’t get away without seeming rude.
Some things are best left in Georgetown. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We go through the pleasantries—his kids studied in Sydney, do I know them? He asks me what I do for a living, I tell him. He asks me my name, and I tell him. He asks me my age and again, I tell him. Then he gets his phone out, and tells me—mind you tells me, doesn’t ask me—to enter my phone number so we can keep in touch.
This is weird, but as it feels like it will be weird to refuse, he does seem fairly harmless and all, I accept his phone. I tap in “Stuart” and my number, but I don’t add the country code. I make my excuses and leave.
Twenty minutes later, he corners me and tells me his phone says I’m not on WhatsApp. He hands me his phone and I see my name, followed by “Travel Writer, 52, Australian, Kuching, Wednesday.” He’s entered the Australian country code, so as I’ve been dobbed in by Whatsapp, I correct it to the Indonesian code. Then I flee.
About ten minutes before I sit down to write this, my phone beeps. It’s the older guy, sending me the phone numbers for his two sons, with a note I should contact them. I wonder what the sons think of all this. I delete the messages and block him.
That first thing he asked me? “What are you doing here?”
PS: I recorded the wrong title for the podcast—it’s been a long day—and have only just figured out how to do a separate podcast for free listeners, so that’s coming from tomorrow onwards. Apols!
Couchfish paid subscribers can read on for a wrap on where to stay and why, with some of my favourite picks across most budgets.