Category Archives: Malaysia

KL Confidential: 10 local experiences in Kuala Lumpur

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ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY live it up like locals as they take in the signature experiences of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur

The evolution of an old mining town to a centre of trade and commerce is the stuff of dreams. However, here are a few leads to help you discover and get under the skin of Kuala Lumpur, a cultural cauldron of diverse communities and traditions and one of Asia’s most beautiful capital cities.

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Learn how to make pewter at the Royal Selangor factory
As you fly into Kuala Lumpur, you spot large brown swathes cutting across the greenery. These are relics of the tin mines that made Malaysia the world’s largest tin producer in the 20th century and established KL as a mining town. No visit to KL is complete without a trip to the Royal Selangor Pewter factory, set up in 1885 by a young pewtersmith Yong Koon who came from China to British Malaya in search of fortune.

On a guided tour, watch workers engaged in casting, hammering, polishing and finishing products. Learn how pewter is made using 97% tin, with a little copper and antimony added for strength. After platinum, gold and silver, pewter is the world’s fourth most precious metal.

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In the old days, it was used as currency, shaped into animal figurines like crocodiles, elephants and tortoises! With time, craftsmen found its low melting point and relative softness ideal for designing artefacts. Soon household, decorative and religious objects were in demand for the burgeoning Chinese population.

Don’t miss the old tin mining dredge, a replica of Petronas Towers, the hand imprints of former workers and the world’s largest pewter tankard – measuring 6½ ft, weighing 1.53 tons with a capacity 2796 litres. A master craftsman also teaches you how to fashion molten metal into your own pewter artefact. If it’s a fiasco, there’s always the souvenir store! www.royalselangor.com

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Grab some ‘Mud’
It was at the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers that the frontier town of Kuala Lumpur first developed – kuala literally means estuary in Malay while lumpur is mud. And the most enthralling way to get to know KL is to watch a musical based on its origin. Set during the 1880 tin mining boom, ‘Mud’ traces the journey of three friends – Mamat, a Malay, Meng, a Chinese and Muthiah an Indian, who come to the town in search of opportunity.

Here, they meet a host of colourful characters and their shared stories and strange encounters are an apt portrayal of this diverse, multi-cultural city. The historic venue is Panggung Bandaraya at Merdeka Square, a Mughal style building, where town planning meetings were held in the past. Cost RM60, Timings 3 pm and 8:30 pm www.mudkl.com

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Follow the Tamil temple trail to Batu Caves
As you trawl the streets around China Town, the top of a Dravidian temple spire catches your attention from afar. Founded in 1873 by local Tamil leader Thamboosamy Pillai, the Mahamariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. During Thaipusam in mid-January, a massive silver chariot transports the statues of Lord Murugan and his consorts Valli and Teivayanni across KL’s streets, before reaching Batu Caves in a procession of 8 hours that covers 15 km.

The devout throng the 140 ft high gilded statue of Murugan, the largest in the world, after climbing the 300 odd steps to his hilly abode set in a knotted outcrop of limestone caves. At the base of the steps, volunteers hand out wraparound lungis to be suitably attired. The area bears a distinctly Indian flavor with a clutch of banana leaf restaurants like Dhivya and Rani serving coconut water and North-Indian, South-Indian or Jain meals to tired pilgrims. Stalls sell garish sweets, souvenirs, ‘Call India’ SIM cards and Tamil literature alongside titles by Nietzsche and Camus!

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Learn to appreciate the durian
Love it or hate it, the spiky tropical fruit with sticky sweet flesh wears its laurels like a crown of thorns, often drawing extreme reactions. British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described durian as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”, though others have been less charitable. Novelist Anthony Burgess compares it to “eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”. Chef Anthony Bourdain described its taste as ‘indescribable’. “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Travel and food writer Richard Sterling dismisses its odour as ‘pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock’, which can be smelled from yards away.

For this reason, durian is forbidden in hotels, subways and airports. But if you visit KL between June to August, the streets are lined with stalls selling durian and exotic fruits like rambutan and mangosteen… You’re handed out plastic gloves to avoid getting your hands messy. The durian craze is so much, you also find fried durian, durian ice-cream, cakes, crepes and pancakes. To the locals, it is the ‘King of Fruits’, which smells like hell, but tastes like heaven.

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Catch a local festival
Though Malaysia hosts several big-ticket events like Malaysia International Gourmet Festival, Citrawarna (Colours of Malaysia), Malaysian Moto GP at Sepang, 1MYES or 1-Malaysia Year End Sale, its charm lies in smaller festivals. Home to diverse ethnicities, Malaysia hosts an event or festival in some nook every day! Whether it is Deepavali, Christmas, Thaipusam, Hari Raya (Ramadan) or Chinese New Year, each festival is celebrated with equal fervor.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, people make food offerings and burn paper money to keep the ancestors in the spirit realm happy! During the Mid-Autumn Mooncake festival, a lunar harvest celebration of the Chinese community, people make an array of small round cakes with exotic sweet fillings like lotus seed paste or durian. The annual Merdeka (Independence) Day at KL’s historic Merdeka Square is a good opportunity to witness the cultural diversity displayed in colourful parades and floats.

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Go shopping in Central Market or Chinatown
In 1888, Chinese kapitan (community leader) Yap Ah Loy developed the wet market by Kuala Lumpur’s riverfront into Central Market, which was later given an Art Deco facelift by the British. Today a vibrant cultural and craft centre, it is a great place to buy batik clothes, Javanese masks, Bornean beadwork, Petronas tabletops, wood carvings, sculptures and other souvenirs. There are shopping avenues dedicated to various communities – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Portuguese and Baba-Nyonya.

Drop by at the ARCH store for heritage gifts – 3-D miniatures, bookmarks, magnets and made-in-Malaysia products representing the world’s greatest heritage landmarks. Pick up traditional kites like wau bulan (moon kite) or wau burung (bird kite) also available in miniature size, besides bunga berbaling, a Malay batik motif of a twining vine. Drop by at the Tenmoku store for exquisite glazed pottery like vases and decorative artefacts. Or if you’re up to some haggling, head to Chinatown for t-shirts and street shopping.

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Try local street food at Jalan Alor
Malaysian cuisine is truly a melting pot of diverse flavours, a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and colonial influences of the British and Portuguese. The best place for street food is undoubtedly Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang where stalls dish out ethnic Malay specialties like Kajang satay, Sarawak laksa, Mee Foo (fried noodles) and popular Chinese fare. Tamil settlers run banana leaf restaurants and serve Roti Canai (like a Kerala paratha, but derived from the city of Chennai).

Another popular genre is the South Indian Muslim cuisine of Nasi Kandar – biryani rice served with assorted non-veg curries and fries. In the old days, hawkers often carried all the dishes in baskets strung over their shoulders (kandha) and would set it down on street corners to open pop-up restaurants. One of the most successful of these is Pelita Nasi Kandar. Chinese traders who settled centuries ago and speak Malay specialize in a genre called Nyonya cuisine – a combination of Chinese ingredients cooked with Malay herbs and spices. At Precious Old China, try Nyonya delicacies like beef rendang, asam fish fillet, ayam pong teh, lady’s finger kerabu, chui pei tofu, coconut rice and sago gula Melaka, sago pearl pudding dunked in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar.

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Make a ‘scared face’ at Aquaria KLCC
Easily the most popular attraction at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre Complex, the 60,000 sq ft oceanarium is a maze of delights. Spread over two levels, Aquaria traces the journey of water from land to sea starting in the misty highlands, through rivers, rainforests and mangroves to coral reefs. Be awestruck as you walk past the Piranha Tank and Electric Zone to the Riverbank Jungle with Asian small-clawed otters, Coral walks and shipwrecks, and observe over 250 different species besides over 5,000 land and aquatic animals from Malaysia and around the world.

The 300 ft underwater tunnel is fascinating, as are the interactive information kiosks on fish and turtle conservation. If you’re lucky, you can watch the sharks and rays being fed. Before you go, pose for photographs with dramatic and thrilling backdrops, which are quickly Photoshopped before being printed instantly as a framed souvenir.
Cost RM64 Ph +603 2333 1888 www.aquariaklcc.com

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Experience Petronas Towers
Built at the site of Kuala Lumpur’s race track Selangor Turf Club, the Petronas Towers held the record for the world’s tallest building between 1998 to 2004 and are still regarded as the highest twin towers in the world. With an upmarket retail space called Suria KLCC at the base and the KLCC park with fountains and jogging track, it is more than a landmark. Experience the spectacular cityscape as you go up to the Skybridge and Observation Deck on the 41st and 42nd floor – limited tickets for the first thousand people every day!

Cost RM35-85 Timings: 9am-9pm (Closed on Monday and 1-2:30pm on Fri)
Ph +603 2331 8080 Email skybridge@petronas.com.my

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KL By Cycle Tour
If you think a Hop On-Hop Off bus tour is too sedate for your liking, try their new initiative in partnership with Visit KL. KL By Cycle is a fun way to tour the city – from the oldest park Perdana Botanical Gardens built in 1888 to heritage structures like Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Royal Selangor Club. Pick up a rented cycle from the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery at Dataran Merdeka for a solo Free and Easy Ride or a Guided Group Tour. It’s the most eco-friendly and relaxing way to explore the city, its alleys and heritage buildings.

RM 30-45 Ph +603 2691 1382 Email inquiry@myhoponhopoff.com

Malay Chinese street food on Jalan Alor IMG_4266_KL-Anurag Priya 

FACT FILE

Getting there
Jet Airways and the national carrier Malaysia Airlines Berhad fly direct to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 50km south of the city. www.malaysiaairlines.com

Where to Stay
Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur Ph +60-3-27826000 http://www.ihg.com
Seri Pacific Ph +60-3-4042 5555 http://www.seripacifichotel.com

For more info, visit http://www.tourism.gov.my

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

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Malaysia: Festive spirit

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend Malaysia’s Merdeka Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur and discover bits of India in a land of festivals and cultural diversity 

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“Merdeka, Merdeka!” (Free, Free), the crowds in Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) roared, proudly waving Malaysian flags. Invited for the National Day celebrations, we had prime seats next to the royal pavilion and watched colourful floats, performers, troops, a mock SWAT operation and a spectacular costume extravaganza representing Malaysia’s ethnic diversity. The word Merdeka comes from the Sanskrit maharddhika meaning ‘rich, prosperous and powerful’. Ironically, the term was corrupted by the Portuguese and the Dutch to mardijker and referred to former slaves from India. The Malay meaning of ‘free/freedom’ is derived from the same word.

Malaysia’s ancient links with India were palpable – from the influence of Sanskrit, presence of Tamil seafarers since Chola and Pallava times to the advent of Islam through Arab and Indian trade. We sat in the shadow of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, its domed architecture inspired by Mughal designs. The KL Tower looming over the city was called Menara (after minar). Kuala Lumpur’s premier shopping destination Suria KLCC was named after the Malay word for ‘sun’. And the head of Government among other dignitaries attending the parade was the Perdana Mantri (Prime Minister)! The very word for Malay language is Bahasa, derived from the Sanskrit bhasa. There was an air of familiarity about Malaysia, the way one recognizes a relative through a shared genetic trait.

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In 1398, when Parameshwara, the last Hindu King of Singapura (or Singapore, literally ‘Lion City’) was defeated by the Majahapit kingdom of Java, he embraced Islam as Iskandar Khan and sought newer pastures in west Malaya. One day, a mouse deer outsmarted his hunting dog and escaped into the river. Impressed by its bravery, he laid the foundation of a new kingdom, naming it Melaka or Malacca after the amalaka (gooseberry in Sanskrit) tree under whose shade he rested. Even today the mouse deer is part of Malacca’s royal emblem.

Like Melaka 150km south, KL too originated on the banks of a river, in fact two! Behind the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the frontier town first developed at the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak. Kuala means estuary in Malay and lumpur is mud. Besides an avenue for riverine trade, the waters brought in alluvial deposits rich in tin. With the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1820s, the tin mining and pewter industry took root. By the end of the 19th century, Malaysia supplied 55% of the world’s tin, making it the largest producer.

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Such lucrative booty resulted in frequent wars between Chinese miners, Malay sultans and regional chiefs; a situation ripe for imperialist pickings. After the Portuguese and the Dutch, the British joined the fray and by 1874, key tin mining Malay states were under colonial control. This ushered in a period of stability and the first road and railway networks linked the mining towns, injecting much needed development.

Built in 1897, Sultan Abdul Samad Building was the first all-brick and electrified structure in Malaysia. Signifying the start of Kuala Lumpur’s modern era, this iconic colonial landmark, served as the administrative headquarters of the British and currently houses the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Arts. It was the most photographed building in KL till the Petronas Towers upstaged it in 2004. The ground floor houses a Tourist Information Centre, which runs excellent city tours –Heritage Walks, KL Horse & Carriage Ride and KL ByCycle, covering heritage monuments and key attractions like KL Bird Park and National Museum.

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After the parade, we clicked photos with performers backstage and walked to Jami Masjid, one of KL’s oldest mosques. Strangely, it was built by the British! Located at the confluence behind their headquarters, it was a strategic ploy to mediate between warring trade factions after Friday prayers. Plans are afoot to renovate the historic waterfront with a river cruise and an entertainment quarter. Our guide Badrillah Jeevan explained that Jalang Ampang, where our hotel InterContinental was located, was once the legendary Millionaire’s Street, home to the who’s who and towkays (tin magnates).

While a visit to Royal Selangor Factory is essential to see how pewter is made, the perfect window to Kuala Lumpur’s early years is the musical ‘Mud’. Set during the 1880 mining boom, it traces the journey of three friends who come to the frontier town in search of opportunity. Their encounters with a host of colourful characters mirrors the cultural mosaic that’s Kuala Lumpur. The venue is Panggung Bandaraya, another Mughal inspired building, site of important meetings that shaped early town planning.

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Colonial vestiges are everywhere – the old fountain and Clocktower gifted by the British. The large padang (ground) once served as a cricket green for The Royal Selangor Club, discernible by its Tudor façade. British lifestyle entailed an evening game of cricket after work, drinks at the club and Sunday mass at St Mary’s Church.

Jeevan elaborated that since women and animals were not allowed into the premises of this white gentlemen’s club, the Commissioner’s wife often dropped by to check on her husband. She would leave her two Dalmatians outside and passersby would know that she was on the lookout. And that’s how the club acquired its local nickname, ‘The Spotted Dog’!

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In the old days, railway tracks came right up to the riverfront. Passengers and goods from the port were brought in smaller boats before heading to the ‘wet market’ nearby, which was developed into Central Market in 1888 by Chinese kapitan (community leader) Yap Ah Loy. The place gained notoriety as a hub of opium, gambling and women – three things that kept Chinese workers happy. The market has come a long way since its shady antecedents.

Given an Art Deco facelift by the British, it is now a buzzing cultural and craft hub with shopping avenues dedicated to various communities – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Portuguese and Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese settlers who speak Malay! At Precious Old China, we enjoyed delectable Nyonya cuisine, a combination of Chinese ingredients cooked with Malay herbs and spices.

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By 1940, as Malaysia’s tin reserves dwindled, the pewter industry declined. Before Kuala Lumpur could be forgotten as a boomtown, once again, its magical mud came to its rescue. The alluvium at the confluence was used to make bricks and the place where it dried was called Brickfields. Today, the area is known as Little India, dotted with banana leaf restaurants. Over time immigrants to KL got centered around different pockets. Bukit Bintang became Arab Street and Petaling Street was called China Town.

We tried durian and satays at roadside stalls in Jalan Alor, haggled with vendors in China Town, watched worshippers burn incense at the Taoist Guan Di temple and witnessed the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Amid prayers and food offerings, people burned ‘Hell Money’ (fake currency) to appease ancestors and wandering spirits so they could live more comfortably in the afterlife.

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Elsewhere, sounds of a temple festivity rang out from the Mahamariamman shrine. Home to a large Tamil population, Malaysia celebrates festivals like Deepavali with great pomp and thousands throng Lord Murugan’s hill shrine at Batu Caves during Thaipusam (Jan-Feb). Wherever we went, a festival was in full swing. Malaysia did seem like a land of endless celebrations…

Fact File

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines Berhad flies direct to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 50km south of the city, in Sepang district of Selangor. www.malaysiaairlines.com

When to Go
Malaysia’s national day Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) is celebrated on 31 August. The Chinese New Year in Jan-Feb is held across 15 days with decorations, fireworks and lion & dragon dances. Thaipusam too is celebrated in Jan-Feb in the Tamil month of thai. Hari Raya (Eid-ul-Fitr) marks the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) in August and is considered as the most important Muslim festival in Malaysia. For a detailed calendar of events, visit www.myfest2015.com

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Where to Stay
InterContinental Kuala Lumpur
On Jalan Ampang close to Petronas Towers & Convention Centre, the 473-room hotel serves excellent Malay, Indian, Tao & Tatsu cuisine Ph +60-3-27826000 http://www.ihg.com

Seri Pacific
Opposite the new Sunway Putra Mall on Jalan Putra and 10 min from KL’s business district Golden Triangle
Ph +60-3-4042 5555 http://www.seripacifichotel.com

For more info, visit http://www.tourism.gov.my

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 31 January, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

The Curious Case of Cat City Kuching

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a feline trail in Malaysia’s Cat City Kuching, home to the world’s first cat museum

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There’s something about cats that has captured human imagination more than any other animal. Why else would we have so many cat idioms in English? Cat nap, cat’s whiskers, cat’s pajamas, cat burglar, catcall, copycat, hell cat, fat cat, bell a cat, raining cats and dogs (or fighting like them), curiosity killed the cat, a cat has nine lives, cat o’nine tails, cat on a hot tin roof, let the cat out of the bag, set the cat among the pigeons, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, not enough room to swing a cat, looks like something the cat dragged in, when the cat’s away the mice will play, there is more than one way to skin a cat… or use it in a phrase! And there’s no place in the world where cat mania is more apparent than Kuching in Malaysia.

The story of Kuching, capital of Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, is inextricably linked to British adventurer James Brooke. After a stint in the Bengal Army, Brooke fought piracy in the Malay Archipelago, quelled an uprising against the Sultan of Brunei and was crowned Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. The dynastic reign of the ‘White Rajahs’ lasted till 1946 when it was ceded to the British. As per folklore, when Brooke first arrived in Kuching on his schooner Royalist, he asked his local guide the name of the town. The guide thought that Brooke was pointing towards a cat, and replied ‘kucing’, Malay for cat.

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It was this miscommunication that is believed to be the origin of the city’s name. Other theories derive the name from a tributary of the Sarawak River or a local fruit called mata kuching (cat’s eyes). Some even draw a strange but bizarre connection to Cochin in India, which possibly shares a link with the Chinese kaci or harbour. Whatever be the root, Kuching acquired the sobriquet Cat City in 1988 and there are ample visual reminders dotting its urbanscape.

The legendary riverfront is lined with historical sites like Astana, Fort Margherita, the Square Fort, the Courthouse, Charles Brooke Monument and the new legislative complex, but it’s hard to miss the feline motif across the city. A Cat Fountain (opposite Hotel Grand Margherita Kuching), a Cat Column capped with Rafflesia flowers (on the roundabout at the corner of Jalan Padungan and Jalan Chan Chin Ann), statues of a Cat Family at North City Hall (at the intersection of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Padungan & Jalan Abell); Kuching seems to be suffering from cat fever!

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The lone 2½ m tall, waving cat statue at the city boundary of Kuching North and Kuching South (on a traffic island outside the Chinese ceremonial gate) is hailed as the Great Cat of Kuching. The white cat with wire whiskers called Nick is dressed up in traditional attire during major festivals – red during Chinese New Year, green during Eid ul Fitr, Santa clothes during Christmas and a traditional Iban vest during the local harvest festival!

There’s cat graffiti sprayed on the walls, shops lined with cat souvenirs, catty t-shirts on sale, a Quiik Cat B&B and even a Meow Meow Cat Café! And just when you think Kuching might have taken the cat theme too seriously, along comes Cat Museum, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world… Located on the ground floor of the Kuching North City Hall on a 60 m high hill, it’s literally perched like a cat on a high wall.

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At the officious entrance, you wonder if you’ve come to the right place until a tiny line of pugmarks on the floor leads you into the yawning mouth of a cat. Entering through the weird gateway past a souvenir shop and a giant feline photo cutout, you feel like Alice about to meet the Cheshire Cat as you go around the bend.

The museum’s four galleries are a tribute to the species with everything you wanted to know about cats. From their lifespan to veneration in ancient civilizations, famous cat owners, private collections of cat figurines and 4,000 cat artifacts! The museum also showcases cats as a theme in art, sculpture, literature, music and film.

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Posters, stamps, greeting cards, folk tales, games like cat’s cradles, Garfield, Felix, Hello Kitty, Puss in Boots, TS Eliot’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat, Andrew Llyod Webber’s musical Cats; you’ll find them all here. Even if you are not a cat lover, it’s worth a look for its quirky appeal. And if you’re overwhelmed and at a loss of words, maybe the Kuching cat got your tongue!

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Fact File

Getting there
Kuching International Airport, 11 km from the city, has direct flights to Kuala Lumpur connected by Malaysia Airlines Berhad. www.malaysiaairlines.com

Kuching Cat Museum
Ground Floor, Kuching North City Hall (DBKU Building), Jalan Semariang, Bukit Siol, Petra Jaya
Timings 9 am – 5 pm, except Monday. Admission Free. Camera fee 4RM.

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Where to stay
Hilton Kuching
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Ph +60 82-223 888 www3.hilton.com
Located on the historic riverfront overlooking the Sarawak river, Fort Margherita and Legislative Building, the 15-storied hotel is the best place to stay in Kuching with excellent local spreads and ‘live’ laksa counter

Hotel Pullman Kuching
1a Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Ph +60 82-222 888 www.pullmankuching.com
A cosmopolitan stylish 5-star hotel in the heart of the city atop Mathies Hill

For more info, visit www.tourism.gov.my and www.sarawaktourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 September 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/curious-case-kitten-town-kuching/