Sarawak: Snapshot of Malay village life

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid goes off the beaten trail to find seafood, a view and quiet company in Sarawak.

Lunch at the Lim Hock Ann seafood restaurant in the town of Buntal in Sarawak, near the capital Kuching. Photo / Graham Reid
Lunch at the Lim Hock Ann seafood restaurant in the town of Buntal in Sarawak, near the capital Kuching. Photo / Graham Reid

Most people would concede there's not a lot to recommend the fishing village of Buntal in Sarawak, about 20 minutes' drive from the capital Kuching.

An amble around its few streets reveals a small, clean town with a nice mosque and some quaint little houses, but mostly it's unmemorable.

The locals are friendly and - aside from protected Irrawaddy dolphin in the waters - it does have a chief attraction, the seafood.

Of course, in Kuching there's the must-visit top spot, an open-air market of diverse harvests from the sea, but Buntal has a special ambience.

Kuching is up the Sarawak River but in Buntal you can sit outside at the popular Lim Hock Ann Seafood restaurant in the late afternoon and gaze at the estuary with its limp nets, a few fishing boats puttering around it, and see the sea beyond. The warm air has a salty tang.

So aside from the food which is fresh, copious, tasty and cheap, you get that ambience. It feels "authentic" in a way where the word means "this is just how we do it.

For us".

The Lim Hock Ann not being a place for tourists, you take it as you find it. And you'll perhaps find the outside wooden deck protruding across the mudflats and river has rotted in places so a wire fence has been erected. You'll also sit on cheap plastic chairs at large round tables or long family-sized affairs with well-used tablecloths.

But it's the food you're here for, and that you can't fault.

My bottle of beer in a cap arrived unopened and the kid who brought it was probably no more than 11. I asked for an opener, he went off and got one, then looked at me helplessly and said, "But I don't know how to ... "

The crab wasn't available but they had cuttlefish, jellyfish, oysters, fish heads, about half a dozen different styles of fish, lobster and soups. Oh, also bamboo snails, sea cucumber and - under vegetables on their whiteboard just below "big tofu" - lemon chicken.

In the late afternoon, I sipped my beer and watched fishermen clear their nets and scrub down colourful sampans, local Muslim families order Sprite and Coke, and the restaurant kids tend tables while the adults prepared food and handled the cash.

I suppose the cash adds up, but for a dish of huge prawns in a "special sauce", a large cut of delicately fried fish, a plate of the local vegetable midin (ubiquitous in the region, like steamed fern fronds), a plate of rice and two large bottles of Tsingtao my bill was less than $25.

I ate and enjoyed the unhurried atmosphere and a little boy came up twice and asked if everything was all right. They probably weren't used to someone eating by himself.

But I wasn't alone. There were birds singing and the hum of small trawlers, muffled laughter from nearby homes and the soft murmur of conversations.

It was a reminder that travel is not always about the big picture. Sometimes it's just small snapshots.

When I stopped at the kitchen to say thank you, a teenage girl in a T-shirt with an American flag on it asked me to take her picture. Two others arrived and they posed with all the cool sophistication of young teens from Oakland or Auckland.

I walked into the late dusk at small town Buntal, happy to have made the effort to come, their giggles echoing behind me.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies six times a week from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

Graham Reid flew to Kuching in Sarawak with assistance from Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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