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The Kuching Bubble

Backpacking is often reasonably quick. You go to a new place, stay for one, two nights and move on. The bigger cities or more important places usually get a day or two extra, but more then 4 nights in the same place isn’t very usual. Due to a programming project though, I decided to camp down in Kuching, Borneo for a while (it’s been a week now), and the experience has been very interesting. I’m not sure if the story below can be categorized as a travel story, but what I like about it is that it’s real, that it actually gives an insight in “how the locals live”, and that it’s pretty messed up.

 

Kuching; enough around but not too busy

Kuching is a large city (700k people), but spread out over a large area. This makes it large enough to have everything you need, but small enough to give it a laidback, relaxed vibe, and barely any traffic jams. Getting around used to be a pain: public transport is next to not available (there is no way to take a bus from the aiport for instance) and taxi’s are expensive (the minimum is about 15 (MYR, 5 ringgit is about 1 euro) ), though Uber is saving the day. The 15 MYR trip now can be done for 5 or 6. And while everybody (except the original taxi drivers) is very pleased with that, nobody seems to realize that a 25% cut is going directly out of the malay economy, into Uber’s pocket. And the fact that Uber might be a bit of an evil company, but that’s besides the point.

 

Hanging around a place for a while give you the opportunity to connect a little more with people that live here, and you get to peek behind the curtains of the tourist facade that’s usually conveniently put over all the misery . For instance, it turns out that the block where all the hostels are is run by the local maffia and gangsters; as a tourist you don’t see it until someone points it out. Just by sleeping at a hostel and having food close by, you directly fund the maffia, mostly without ever knowing. Internet connection is terrible here; many companies tried to deliver faster speeds, but they had to bribe so many people that they simply turned around and left.

 

The story get’s worse from here though. House prices are hugely inflated; a typical new (though not very solidly constructed), average house about a 25min drive from the center costs about 700k MYR. To relativate:  the minimum wage is 920 MYR, the average for a just-out-of-university bachelor student about 1500 MYR, and someone with a very well paid salary in KL gets about 5000 MYR. That house is 761 months of minimum wage (and that’s more then a 40 hour work week). Compare that to the Netherlands, where the same house might set you back 300.000 euro’s (but, without a doubt, of better quality), which is 193 months of minimum wage.

 

Remember the malay prime minster, that has more then a billion dollars in his private banking account that appeared from nowhere [1]? Welcome to corruption at the highest level. Useless construction projects are handed out to friends and family, and billions (yes, with a “b”) are yearly being spend building useless stuff. At the co-working offices a settled down for a couple of days, I met the owner of ilovekch.com, who was friendly enough to drive me around town and show me how bad it actually was. It’s bad. Within a 10km radius of the center, there are at least a dozen sites with “foodshop” buildings: 3 story, office like looking buildings with the lower floor being meant to be food and drink courts. Some of them are filled, a sporadic pizza hut, 7-eleven, perhaps a local diner. Most of them are empty though. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of food-court places not being used; the market had no demand, but they were built anyway. Never mind the office spaces above: I think I saw 3 of those actually being used, there may have been close to a thousand empty. The city is covered with deserted shopping malls. And they continue to build; at leasts two super-shopping malls and 2 more foodshop sites are being constructed as we speak. New sites don’t even bother to clear rubbish and piles of sand from the parking spaces; nobody is going to use them anyway. Construction companies keep building, trying to sell to over-shore (Chinese) investors, and if it doesn’t work out, the government will bail out the project. The bubble keeps inflating, but nobody is expecting the pop.

This is one of THE new hotspots in Kuching to work. Notice all the deserted offices? Renting an office her is about 600 MYR a month. The government thinks that’s too much and the place is overcrowded; a 30 million MYR coworking space is being built nearby soon!

Almost a ghost town: completely new, and completely deserted

Ah and Malysia is currently in a fight with north-korea [2], as the brother of the supreme leader was killed in a Malaysian airport. Stuff is happening here!

 

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