Buntal, Sarawak: The small things in life

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Buntal, Sarawak: The small things in life

If they were brutally honest, most people would concede there's not a lot to recommend the small fishing village of Buntal in Sarawak, about 20 minutes drive from the capital city of Kuching.

Understandably then the place is not on many people's radar and even just an amble around its few streets reveals a small, clean town with a nice mosque and some quaint little houses tucked away, but mostly it is unglamorous when it isn't downright ugly.

But 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 are many decent seafood restaurants – notably the must-visit Top Spot, an open-air market of beautiful and diverse harvests from the sea – but Buntal has a special ambience.

Kuching is up the Sarawak River but in Buntal you can sit on the large patio at the popular Lim Hock Ann Seafood Restaurant in the late afternoon and look at the estuary with its limp nets, a few fishing boats puttering up and down, and see the sea beyond. The warm air has a tang of salt about it.

So aside from the food which is fresh, copious, tasty and cheap, you get that ambience. It feels “authentic” in a way which renders the Western use of the word redundant, as in the phrase “authentic flavours”. Here “authentic” means "this is just how we do it. For us".

And that's "authentic" for me.

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

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

Amusingly my Tsingtao beer in a cap arrived frustratingly unopened, but the kid who brought it was probably no more than 11. When, after five minutes or so, I wandered towards the kitchen area and asked for an opener he brought one, looked at me helplessly and said, “But I don't know how to . . .”

buntal_foodFortunately I do and so, in the late afternoon heat I sipped my beer and across the top of the froth watched fishermen clear their nets and scrub down colourful sampans at low tide, local Muslim families order their Sprite and Coke, a table of Chinese couples giving me a friendly wave and the restaurant kids tending tables while the adults went about the busy work of preparing food and handling the cash.

I suppose the cash does add up but it seemed I offered pitifully few ringgits for what I had which was 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) and rice.

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.

You are spoiled for choice, and with two large bottles of Tsingtao my bill came in around $25.

For that I'd eaten my fill and enjoyed the restful ambience where people spoke quietly, and a little boy came up twice and asked if everything was alright. They probably weren't used to seeing someone eating by themselves.

buntal_girlsBut I wasn't really alone. There were birds singing and the hum of small trawlers, muffled laughter from nearby homes and the soft murmur of conversations which I couldn't understand. It was a lovely soundtrack, and reminder that travel need not always be about the big picture. Sometimes it's just there in small snapshot moments.

I made to leave and noticed above the exit the sign read, “Thank you, please come again”. When I stopped at the kitchen to say a quick thank you, a teenage girl in a t-shirt with an American flag on it came out and asked me to take her picture.

As soon as I pulled out my phone two others arrived and posed with all the cool sophistication of young teens from Oakland or Auckland.

I walked into the late dusk of small town Buntal, very happy to have made the effort to come, with their giggling echoing behind me.

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