Siniawan Travel Guide: Attractions and Things To See & Do In The Cowboy Town Of Borneo

When it comes to travel these days, ‘hidden gems’ don’t stay hidden for very long. All it takes is one viral photo, and suddenly the hordes are descending upon the place like a swarm of camera-toting, Instagram-obsessed zombies. 

Siniawan in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, however, has largely remained ‘off the beaten path’ – although its popularity has also been on the rise. Having never heard of the place prior to my trip, I did not know what to expect. By the end of it I was absolutely taken by its rustic charm, the warmth of its people and the town’s extraordinary story of resilience and perseverance. This is, truly, a gem that needs to be seen and experienced – so I recommend visiting before it gets too commercialised.

With that, here is a list of things to see and do in Siniawan. I hope you’ll find it useful!

20190525_184850

Tucked by the banks of the Sarawak River, Siniawan is about 30 minutes away from Kuching and was once a thriving trade town, thanks to the region’s gold mining activities.  At its peak in the 1870s – early 1900s, it even had opium dens, theatres, hotels and brothels.

After Sarawak became part of Malaysia, improved infrastructure meant shorter travelling times – but roads had been built bypassing Siniawan, and the town lay forgotten. Refusing to give up, the townsfolk (some of whom have lived here for over FIVE generations!) decided on a revival plan – a night market. Started in 2010, the pasar malam became a success, and is now a must-visit for many travellers to Kuching, who come to dine and bask in its unique old-world atmosphere.

20190525_143401

Siniawan during the day. The difference is, pardon the pun, like night and day. lol. 

The main street is comprised of two rows of wooden shoplots. The buildings were constructed during the height of the town’s glory days in the 1910s. Unlike Sino-Portuguese buildings in West Malaysia, which typically sport colourful facades and elaborate decorations, the architecture here is Javanese, since it was easier to get carpenters from there via Singapore). The double-storey shops look rustic, with vertical wooden panels and unpainted fronts, earning the town it’s nickname “cowboy town”. (Doesn’t it look like the perfect place for a showdown at high noon? All it needs is a couple of tumbleweeds rolling in the wind).

1. HAVE A KOLO MEE BREAKFAST AT YONG TAI CAFE 

20190525_103617

Start the day with breakfast at Yong Tai Cafe, one of the few kopitiams in town that are open during the day. The shop has been in operation since 1971, and specialises in a well-loved Sarawakian Chinese dish – kolo mee (literally dry noodles). With deft movements, the shop owner expertly cooks and tosses the bouncy egg noodles dry, before placing into a bowl and topping it off with fragrant fried onions in oil and lard, a serving of minced meat and charsiew (sweet barbecued pork).

20190525_103723

Dine ‘al fresco’ on the walkway. Most patrons are locals and have been eating here for generations.

20190525_105501

There are two types of kolo mee, the original (plain) and the one in red sauce which is actually a sweet charsiew sauce. Personally, I prefer the red as I found it more flavourful. The version at Yong Tai came topped with a few pork balls, veggies and charsiew slices. The noodles were bouncy and al dente, and everything just came together really well.

Can I just say that the PORTIONS HERE ARE HUMONGOUS ? And it only costs RM3 (USD 0.72!?) per bowl what in the actual eff. I know it’s a small town and everything but you can’t even get nasi lemak for RM3 in Kuala Lumpur these days (average bowl of noodle in KL = RM6.50 – RM10, depending on area).

2. VISIT SHUI YUE GONG TEMPLE

20190525_120124

Walk a few hundred metres down the road and you’ll come to the town’s Chinese temple, Shui Yue Gong (Water Moon Temple) which is dedicated to the Goddess Guanyin. The temple is almost as old as the town itself, with a Qing dynasty sign hanging from one of the doors that dates back to 1886. While parts of the temple such as the compound are new and modern, the interior of the main shrine looks pretty old. The Guanyin statue on the altar was brought over from China over a century ago.

20190525_120214

While small, the temple is well maintained. A fresh coat of pink paint hides the temple’s age, while the beautiful gold dragons coiled around the pillars look like they were carved just yesterday.

20190525_120448

One of the town’s major festivals happens during Chap Goh Mei, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, where a grand parade takes place. Departing from the temple to the town centre, the deity is taken on a procession accompanied by lion dances, music, firecrackers and performances.

20190525_121821

I was fortunate enough to be in town close to Gawai (Harvest Festival / Thanksgiving for the Dayak people of Sarawak), and there was a small activity going on nearby – a blowpipe contest! These weapons were used for hunting game in forests, such as squirrels, birds and wild boar, for hundreds of years. While less used today, communities in the area still practice the art, with blowpipe associations and blowpipe competitions.

The ones they used for the competition were extremely long – around 7 or 8 feet. I was amazed at how accurately they could hit the balloon targets which were about 30 metres away. Some of our group tried at the line where the asphalt ended (like what, 5 metres?) and still failed miserably lol.

20190525_121603

Traditional beads for sale. It was hard for me to tell them apart, but they were sorted according to colour and style – eg beads from the Bidayuh ethnic group would have a certain colour, while beads from the Iban typically featured red, black, yellow and white.

4. TAKE A STROLL AT THE SINIAWAN BUDDHIST VILLAGE (AKA KBS BUDDHIST VILLAGE) 

20190525_131458

The Siniawan Buddhist Village surprised me, because I had not expected to find such a beautiful place so far away from the city. The place was abuzz several months ago when Hollywood star Steven Seagal (is he a star anymore though? lol) came to visit, but otherwise, visitors can take their time wandering the massive, tranquil grounds – home to a crematorium / columbarium, function halls, rooms where you can book a night’s stay (for meditation activities, talks, etc.) and a nine-storey pagoda, easily the tallest building for miles around.

20190525_131659

Surrounded by greenery, the grounds feature several Chinese-style gazebos and gardens peppered with stone statues of Buddhist deities; it even has a small pond stocked with fish.

20190525_134705

Thankfully, we did not have to climb nine storeys to the top of the pagoda, as it had a lift (whew!). At the top, there was a beautiful statue of a thousand-hand guanyin facing four directions, while the roof was painted to look like the sky.

5. DROP BY LIU SHAN BANG SHRINE 

20190525_141351

There’s not much to see at Liu Shan Bang’s shrine, but it’s worth a visit for the sheer history.

So who was Liu Shan Bang? 

Liu Shan Bang was a gold miner from nearby Bau who founded the 12 kongsi (companies) that would operate the Bau gold mine, effectively making it a self-governing entity. Unhappy about taxation laws imposed by the ruling British ‘White Rajah’ James Brooke, Liu led 600 miners to attack Brooke’s mansion in the capital. Brooke escaped and his nephew Charles led an Iban force to quell the rebellion. Liu was killed. Many years later, a mining company came to the area looking to establish their operations, but the story goes that staff had horrible dreams about Liu’s restless spirit. Eventually they built a shrine over his grave, and the nightmares stopped. Today, Liu is worshipped as a local deity and has been recognised as a Sarawakian freedom fighter.

6. INDULGE IN STREET EATS AT THE SINIAWAN NIGHT MARKET

20190524_203946

Head back to town as the sun sets to see it literally coming to life. Stalls are setup, shutters are opened, and traders bustle about preparing for the night. The decorative red lanterns hanging from one end of the street to the other are lit, providing a picturesque backdrop for photos. With the rustic buildings flanking both sides of the street, one might almost think that they’ve taken a step back in time, if not for the plastic tables and chairs.

20190524_203456

20190525_184914

Here, visitors will find all sorts of delicious and mouthwatering street food, be it Chinese, Bidayuh or Malay – the three major ethnic groups in the area. You’ll also find typical street food stuff like fried chicken, grilled seafood, grilled meats, satay, and more.

One of the must-tries here is the pitcher plant stuffed with glutinous rice – a Bidayuh specialty – but after walking up and down the street I couldn’t seem to locate it. 😦

20190525_185502

I did get to try the kompiah, a Fuzhou specialty which came highly recommended by the locals. It’s basically like a fluffy Chinese-style burger stuffed with tender pork and various fillings, overflowing with juices. You can easily polish off half a dozen in one go!

20190524_203810

A ‘stage’ where you can choose a song to karaoke to for just RM1. Cue aunties and uncles belting out power ballads at the top of their voices out of tune.

20190524_211111

The Chinese vibe is pretty apparent in town, seeing as how 99% of the shops are owned and run by Hakka Chinese.

7. GRAB A DRINK AT THE BIKALAN

20190524_204413

The only non-Chinese shop in town is The Bikalan, or ‘The Jetty’ in the Bidayuh language, which is run by a husband and wife team, Andy and Grace Newland (super nice people – I stayed at their place during my visit). Quaint and cosy, the bar-cum-bistro serves a good selection of traditional Bidayuh food, a few Hakka dishes, Western fare as well as alcoholic drinks.

20190524_224650

PS: RIDE A SAMPAN ACROSS THE RIVER 

20190524_202850

While Siniawan can be reached by car from Kuching, villagers from the surrounding areas who live across the river commute to town by sampan, a traditional boat. It was quite the experience for a city girl like me! The fare is just 0.50 cents per ride.

GETTING TO SINIAWAN 

The best way to get to Siniawan from Kuching is by car, as public transport only services town during the day, with the last bus leaving Bau at 3.20PM. Grab is the only other choice if you intend to visit the night market, costing around RM30+ one way.

Bus schedule (Bau Transport Company. Tel : 082 – 763160) :

Departure from Kch – Bau : 7:00am, 8:20am, 10:20am, 12:20pm, 1:40pm, 4:00pm, 5:10pm
Return from Bau – Kch : 5:45am, 6:40am, 8:40am, 10:20am, 12:00pm, 2:20pm, 3:20pm

ACCOMMODATION 

There is a homestay in town called Tian Xia Homestay, which is affordable but very basic. Rooms start from RM65.

 

 

 

Exploring Karon, Phuket After Sundown

Some cultures might find it disrespectful to have a market selling food / knick knacks / random items at a holy site. Not in Phuket though! Held on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Karon Temple Night Market is located within Wat Suwan Khiri Khet at Karon, and is a great place to explore if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the local culture and nab yourself some tasty street food, snacks and souvenirs.

20190412_121157

The temple itself is beautiful, with a main shrine sitting on an elevated platform, guarded by two nagas (mythical serpents). The architecture is distinctively Thai, featuring a tiered roof and intricately carved golden motifs.

20190412_174320

The market offers visitors a bit of everything – from trinkets and cheap T-shirts to handmade crafts and souvenirs, such as these lovely soap carvings. There were also many stalls selling snacks and local products, such as coffee, biscuits and other snacks. There’s also a food section with both halal and non-halal food options. If you’ve never been to a night market in Southeast Asia, then definitely visit to experience the sights, smells and sounds !

 

20190412_174723

An assortment of snacks on skewers – fishballs, hotdogs, meat balls, crab meat sticks, dunked into a sweet and spicy hot sauce. There’s also pad thai fresh from the wok, and local favourites such as stuffed squid, barbecued moo ping (pork on skewers – a must try!), sausages stuffed with glutinous rice, mango sticky rice, fried oyster omelettes and many more.

20190412_175136

We found a stall selling fried insects and decided to give it a try. We got the mix (50 baht) of three: crickets, grasshoppers and silkworms. They also had scorpion but these were pricey at 200 baht each (about RM27).

20190412_180004

I think the hardest part about eating something ‘exotic’ is that your brain simply isn’t used to it. I remember eating balut (duck embryo) for the first time and was grossed out by the fact that it had feathers on – I felt like gagging when I bit into it – but once it was in my mouth it didn’t taste bad at all lol. 😀

The same thing with these fried insects: my first instinct was to gag, but after popping one in, it didn’t taste all that bad. The texture was very similar to eating small, crispy fried fish, like whitebait. There wasn’t much flavour except for salt and whatever spices the insects had been tossed in. I actually preferred the silkworms because they had a slightly chewy skin and a little bit of mushiness on the inside.

20190412_183815

After exploring the market, head on out to the streets of Karon, which are lined with plenty of restaurants and bars, as well as massage and beauty parlours.

20190412_184609

Walked all the way to the roundabout to see the gorgeous sunset.

20190412_190403

Back to the beach in front of our hotel, there was a game of volleyball going on between locals and some foreign visitors.

While Karon is not as ‘happening’ as Patong, it’s a nice place for families and those who aren’t part of the party crowd. Consider booking a stay in the area if you prefer a more subdued, relaxing atmosphere.

What To Eat At Taman Connaught Night Market, Cheras

Has it been FIVE years since I last went to the Taman Connaught Night Market ?  

Yeah. I find it hard to believe myself, lol.

It’s not that I don’t like the place; it’s just not compelling enough to justify being stuck in rush hour traffic, since the market only opens on Wednesday nights. But since the Boy was in town and he had never been to a local night market, or as we locals call it, pasar malam, the fam and I thought it would be good to have him experience it at least once.

20180912_200713

The night market is one of the longest/largest of its kind, with well over 700 (!) stalls! Just walking from one end to the other (a distance of about 1km) would have been a good workout… if only we weren’t stuffing our faces all along the route lol.

20180912_200647

If you love street snacks, you definitely won’t want to give this night market a miss! It’s a great place to discover the latest ‘trendy’ snack foods from Japan, Taiwan, China and South Korea. (Above) Spiral potato chips on skewers. 

20180912_200839

Good ol’ fried stuff, a staple of any night market around the world.

20180912_200938

Food isn’t the only thing you can find here, as there are also stalls selling everything from cheap clothes and shoes to perfume, cosmetics, phone accessories and trinkets. You might even find things like (above) scented crystals, which you can mix and match to your liking.

20180912_201402

Endless variety of designs!

20180912_201039

Apam balik – crispy peanut and corn-filled pastries. You have to eat these on the street as the thin pastry crumbles all over!

20180912_201620

A hawker scooping soup for noodles from a large metal vat.

One thing about night markets is how visual everything is: the smell, the sounds, the sights – they entice your senses before your palate.

20180912_201828

Assorted fried goodies like oyster mushrooms, chicken and seafood, coated in salted egg sauce, which is all the rage these days.

20180912_202034

Hello Kitty-shaped buns with sweet filling.

20180912_202508

More fried goodies on skewers – wonton, fried chicken, fishballs, hot dogs, bean curd, seafood tofu, nuggets.

With so much to eat, it’s best to come here on an empty stomach! 🙂

20180912_202550

Steaming hot dimsum in baskets.

20180912_203503

A vendor making Chinese pancakes on a hot grill.

20180912_204914

The mushrooms on the grill looked delish so we got some to go. Not sure what kind they were but boy were they juicy and humongous; seasoned with garlic seasoning.

Boy also tried stinky tofu for the first time. He took it well!

Writing about this has made me hungry lol. Should probably pay another visit soon! 🙂

TAMAN CONNAUGHT PASAR MALAM (Night market) 

Jalan Cerdas, Taman Connaught, 56000, Kuala Lumpur

Open Wednesdays from 5PM onwards

Eating Stinky Tofu (and a bunch of other stuff) @ Raohe Night Market, Taipei

 

Taiwanese people love to eat, and they love to eat at night. So what do you get? Dozens of night markets peddling all sorts of goodies until the wee hours of the morning. These are very much like our Malaysian pasar malam, occupying streets and sidewalks that are otherwise normal thoroughfares during the day. You’d have read about my visit to Fengjia Night Market, the largest of its kind in Taichung City, in a previous blog post (link here)

In Taipei, there are also loads of spots to check out, from the ever popular Shih Lin Night Market to the Keelung Temple Night Market, each with their own specialties. For this trip, we were headed to Raohe Night Market in Songshan district.

Popped into a pharmacy and saw this – took me awhile to figure out that they were face masks lol.

Just a short walk from the Songshan subway station, we came to the street which was bustling with activity, sights and smells. One of the oldest night markets in Taiwan, it measures 600m from start to end, with Ciyou temple (built in the Chinese Qing Dynasty) at its northern entrance.

Food isn’t the only thing you’ll find – there are stalls selling cheap electronic goods, gadgets, phone accessories, clothing, souvenirs, decorations, and more.

Food displays to entice customers. What with the close quarters, food being placed out in the open and people milling about, it’s not exactly hygienic…but I guess that’s part of eating at a night market. 😀 It’s fascinating to see snacks being grilled on an open fire and served up piping hot on the spot.

The ubiquitous Taiwanese sweet sausage. I tried something called ‘Dachang bao Xiaochang’ or Small Sausage wrapped in Big Sausage (literal translation lol), which is a Taiwanese favourite consisting glutinous rice stuffed into sausage casing. Like a giant sausage/rice dumpling.

Fried shrimp looked good so I got some too…but they lied. Tasteless.

Colourful candy on sticks and in jars.

Assorted braised goodies. Braising in dark sauce (lou) is like a thing in Taiwan.

And finally… the famous (or infamous?) stinky tofu. I’ve tried it once (read on my first experience here), and I was curious as to how different it would be in Taiwan, which is like, the home to stinky tofu lol. Despite its awful smell, it has a weird addictive quality. As my bro puts it, the more you eat it, the more pleasant you find it. Which is true tbh.

We got one from a stall (you can smell it from a mile away), which was deep fried and served with pickled vegetables, a dash of chilli oil and seasoning. Fluffy and crispy on the outside, the tofu was soft and spongy on the inside, with a distinct, fermented taste. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m actually missing its taste as I write this, haha!

Pretty lantern displays outside the market.

Getting to Raohe Night Market is easy; just hop on to the Green line and alight at Songshan station.

Taiwan : First Impressions / FengJia Night Market

Growing up, I listened to Taiwanese music from Energy/F4/Jay Chou/ F.I.R and watched Dao Ming Si on Meteor Garden like everyone else – but I’ve never thought of setting foot in Taiwan. Partly, it’s the language barrier, since I speak elementary Chinese and it’d be difficult to get around. So when my cousin suggested that we go for a fam trip there (and that he’d be planning the itinerary!), I thought it’d be a good idea to see what the island nation had to offer.

20170212_102134-tile

We departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on a four hour Cathay Pacific flight to HK, where we’d then switch to Taipei. Seats were cosy and spacious, with lots of inflight entertainment. Alternated between watching Dr Strange and falling asleep. Also a nice brunch of egg omelette, beef sausage and tomatoes, fruit, bread and yoghurt.

20170212_131122-tile

Rushing to make the connecting flight at HKIA. The place is huge, we literally ran past dozens of boarding gates.

20170212_161334-tile

1.5 hours later, our plane touched down in Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei. The airport had impressive, uniform designs that were simple yet elegant. Since it was end-winter, weather was cold, hovering just below the 20s.

20170212_164515-tile

Coming from Malaysia where we get alot of different races, it was a little weird coz everywhere I turned were Asian faces, be they Chinese/Taiwanese/South Koreans/Japanese/Malaysian-Chinese or Singaporeans.

20170212_165118-tile

Had to wait for our coach to Taichung (which would take another two hours) so I popped into a convenience store for some snacks. I like how their 7-11s and minimarts have a section for hot food, featuring various snacks on skewers (fish cakes, fish balls, meat balls, sausages) as well as the mandatory herbal eggs.

20170212_214454-tile

Our bus ride to Taichung, a bustling city in the middle of Taiwan, was uneventful. Upon arrival, we hopped into a cab and made our way to our hostel, located right smack in the middle of Taichung’s biggest night market – Feng Jia Night Market. ‘Busy’ is an understatement. The place was packed with people looking for supper – and boy oh boy, were they spoilt for choice. Steamed and fried dumplings, stinky tofu, grilled meats, boba tea, fried ‘popcorn’ chicken.. the market was a snack lover’s wet dream. It’s actually quite similar to the Malaysian pasar malam. 

20170212_214727-tile

Large, colourful banners advertising each stall’s specialty hung overhead, fluttering slightly in the wind. The smells of food wafted into the cold winter air. We had to keep an eye on each other in the group so we wouldn’t get lost, as the interconnected streets were quite confusing. There weren’t too many street signs in English and the Taiwanese aren’t good at speaking it either, so if you don’t know Chinese you’re screwed lol.

20170212_214906-tile

Apparently Taiwan gets a significant number of Malaysian-Chinese tourists. We were tickled to find a Teh Tarik (Malaysian pulled tea) stall all the way here.

20170212_214919-tile

Assortment of grilled and braised meats. Taiwanese cuisine is often grilled, braised or fried.

20170212_222610-tile

Freshly grilled scallops.

20170212_215103-tile

Food stalls weren’t the only thing on sale. There were also lots of shops selling phone and camera accessories at overinflated prices – as is common with tourist spots.

20170212_215155-tile 20170212_215308-tile

One of the storefronts had two large vats with fishballs swimming in them, and the smell was super appetising so we stopped there for dinner. 🙂

20170212_220445-tile

Glutinous rice dumpling, which was quite similar to the bakchang we have in Malaysia. Its usually steamed with goodies inside; salted egg yolk, mushrooms and pork/chicken.

20170212_220700-tile

Mention Taiwanese food and chances are ‘Oyster Mee Sua’ would pop up. Meesua is a thin, silky noodle and the version here is cooked in a starchy broth with juicy oysters, then drizzled over with vinegar. A warm bowl of this just warms you up in cold weather! Also had a platter of braised pork intestines – chewy, salty goodness. Yes, I’m aware of the cholesterol levels, but one has to live to eat.

More of Taiwan to come soon!

Ben Thanh Night Market, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

We are in Ho Chi Minh City, a bustling city that (almost) never sleeps! Unlike Hanoi, which is much quieter at night, HCMC is alive and thriving with activity after the sun sets with clubs, pubs, massage parlours and night markets operating until the wee hours of the morning. One such place is Ben Thanh Night Market located in District 1.

SAM_2151-tile

Very similar to Malaysia’s pasar malam, the market offers everything from cheap clothing to fake designer goods/perfume, street food, handbags, souvenirs and other touristy items. Bargaining is a common practice. Me, being absolutely terrible at it, let my travelmates have a go at it lol.

SAM_2148-tile

Colourful steamed glutinous rice snacks. Most of the stalls are lit up by makeshift generators with noisy hums and smelly fumes. A couple of bikes weaved up and down between the throng of tourists. I was actually quite surprised to see a lot of Malays from Malaysia/Brunei here. The shops even sold tudung (head coverings) and jubah (robes) for cheap prices, while some eateries had ‘halal’ signs on them.

SAM_2155-tile

We stopped by one of the shops for souvenirs to bring home. The instant 3-in-1 coffee mix costs only VND100,000 (about RM30) for three packs. Vietnam is also famous for it’s jackfruit chips, which were sweet and crunchy. We bought bagfulls of these as well. (VND100k for 1kg). They also had grind coffee, but I figured it would be harder to pack into my luggage so no go.

The sellers here are multilingual,speaking a combination of both English and Mandarin Chinese. One guy even spoke fluent Malay to us when he found out we were from Malaysia.

SAM_2157-tile

DVD seller peddling his wares on a bike. He had a speaker on and was playing 90s love ballads, which could be heard a good way down the street.

SAM_2158-tile

Another peddler selling roast peanuts cooked over a wooden fire.

SAM_2169-tile

SAM_2159-tile

Paper cut out souvenirs. They seemed to feature random stuff from all over the world…. spot Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers in there?

SAM_2163-tile

Local hawkers in front of a selection of fresh seafood items which will be cooked on the spot.

SAM_2168-tile

JQ and I tried the street iced-coffee prepared by a very good looking Viet guy. The coffee was strong flavoured but very sweet and sugary.

SAM_2164-tile

Ben Thanh Market is a fun place to visit if you’re into shopping and stuff. It also operates as a wet market of sorts in the day. We went there twice since our hotel is just a 10mins walk away. Just remember to be mindful of your belongings when you’re here, and always bargain for the best price. Happy shopping!