The capital of Sarawak is a great place to base yourself during your stay in Sarawak – at least, for the first leg of your visit – there is so much to see and do here, with a whole load of interesting places to visit that are typically just an hour away. Some say, that the real appeal of Kuching is the many day excursions you can go on.
One of the most delightful cities in South-East Asia, Kuching offers a glimpse of what other Asian cities were once like. Laid back, gracious and friendly with a population of 600,000, a walk along the streets, the most atmospheric being Jalan Gambier, India and Carpenter, will reveal dragon festooned Chinese temples and shop houses, a 19th-century South Indian mosque and historic colonial architecture.
The city is clean, modern and attractive. Situated on a beautiful waterfront, it’s home to a whole host of restaurants and bars. Restaurants and open-air hawker stalls sell a variety of Asian cuisines, including the multi-layered rainbow coloured sponge cakes known as Kuih Lapis.
There are also some very interesting museums and city sights, including the Sarawak Museum (lauded as the best in South East Asia), and the majestic Fort Margarita and Astana, once home to the White Rajahs.
A great time to come to Kuching is July – if only to get yourself to the much-acclaimed Rainforest World Music Festival. Held at The Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong, this is the crème de la crème of large-scale music events in this part of the world. It includes daily workshops as well as action-packed nightly shows and concerts – all courtesy of a wide range of renowned performers from all over the globe.
The Waterfront of Kuching
Places to Stay:
There are a number of budget places in and around the Chinatown area, which you’ll find just behind the Waterfront and Main Bazaar.
Singgahsana Lodge – A great choice, super friendly atmosphere and a range of dorms and private rooms available. It also has a sister lodge, the (more expensive) Village House in the beach area of Santubong (approximately one hour away). Both are excellent choices if you’re looking for a place to stay during the Rainforest World Music Festival – but book early! Singgahsana also offers a shuttle service to most of the attractions in and around Kuching (including Semenggoh Wildlife Centre); there is also a shuttle service that operates between Singghasana and The Village House.
Things to do in Kuching:
- The Cat Museum: Kuching means ‘cat’ in Malay – and somewhat appropriately, the city also boasts a Cat Museum, which houses just about everything you’d want (and a whole lot of other things you don’t need to) know about cats in the entire cosmiverse.
- Sarawak Museum: The splendid Sarawak Museum has a fascinating collection for all those with an interest in ethnography and natural history. There are many other museums including the Textile Museum with displays of songket or hand woven fabric made with gold or silver thread, an Islamic Museum and a cat museum, since Kuching means cat in Malay.
- Shopping and markets: The road that runs along the river has long been known as Main Bazaar. This is the best place to shop for traditional tribal handicrafts including blowpipes. A highlight is the chaotic Sunday Market at Jalan Satok with open-air stalls, many run by tribes-people, selling an exotic array of fresh produce including okra, ginger, red chillies, jungle herbs, spices and bananas of all sizes and colours from yellow to dark red.
- Semenggoh National Park: Approximately 24 km from Kuching, this National Park is famous for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Programme, and is a great place to spot those loveable ginger relatives of ours. Less well-known and therefore less touristy than Sepilok in Sabah, all tour operators from Kuching aim to get you there for either one of the two daily feeding sessions: between 9 am and 10 am, and between 3 pm and 3.30pm. (If you choose to make your own way here, then make sure you do the same, otherwise it’s doubtful you will spot any). This is when the semi-wild orangutan emerge from the rainforest to claim their free meal (whilst you snap your camera in raptures – and silence! – from one of the nearby viewing platforms). There are also other endangered species to be found here, including gibbons, porcupines, crocs, lizards, wild birds and river terrapins, and in addition to the Rehabilitation Centre, there is also a Botanical Research Centre at Semenggoh, where you can choose from five short nature trails (ranging from 5 – 3 minutes) and a plank walk – all of which allow you to take in the various gardens, and those all important photos.
The friendly orangutans of Semenggoh
- Bako National Park: Bako is Sarawak’s oldest National Park (gazetted in 1957), one of the smallest, and also one of the most popular. You can find virtually every type of vegetation typical to Borneo here, as well as a diverse range of nature trails from easy strolls through the forest to full day jungle treks. Finally, it’s home to the ‘comedian’ of the rainforest (as it’s commonly labelled) – the large-nosed proboscis monkey – as well as a whole host of other monkey species (and other wildlife to boot). Only slightly further away from Kuching than Semenggoh at 37 km, this is definitely one to be recommended.
- Fairy Caves – 45 minutes away from Kuching City Centre: Just an hour or so away from Kuching, this deep, dark, magical, and somewhat creepy cave, formed some 100-150 million years ago, is definitely worth a visit, partly because it’s deliciously off on the tourist map – in fact, some locals don’t even know about it! You don’t need a guide, and there’s no entrance fee. Do expect a long climb into the cave via a narrow tunnel and a steep staircase, though – and don’t forget your torch! The Fairy Cave is also a great place for seasoned rock climbers (NOT beginners – some of the hardest climbs in South East Asia are here!) If you’re not caved out by the end of your visit (we’re told you’ll need about 2 hours to explore it properly), then another half hour journey onward will take you to the Wind Cave Nature Reserve.
- The Sarawak Cultural Museum, Santubong: Aside from being the venue for the Rainforest World Music Festival, the Sarawak Cultural Museum (the only Living Museum in Sarawak), is worth a visit for itself alone, and includes examples of all the longhouses from the various ethnic groups that live here in the State, plus activities to watch and take part in. An excellent introduction to the cultural diversity of Sarawak’s indigenous people! There’s also a nightly dance show that’s worth sticking around for, plus an onsite restaurant if you get peckish.
- The annual Rainforest World Music Festival is one of the most exciting musical events in South East Asia. Forget Glastonbury and Burning Man – this is South East Asia Style! With artists from all around the world, including local Sarawak indigenous music, the festival is a cultural phenomena set in the atmospheric heart of the Borneo Jungle. Read our article about 2012’s event here!
Air Asia fly into Kuching from Kuala Lumpur. New airline, Maswings, now offer internal flights throughout Borneo.
Where to go next?
- Sibu: From Kuching, you can bus it (8 hours), boat it (4 ½ hours) or fly using Malaysia’s own boutique airline MASwings. There’s not a great deal to write home about Sibu in general, but it’s the main tourist gateway to the Upper Rajang River. Spend endless lazy days floating past small villages, and staying in one of the many Iban and Orang Ulu longhouses en route to the other main towns of Kapit and Belaga.
- Miri: The archaeological wonders of Niah Caves is a couple of hours away from Miri, although most people are drawn here with the aim of visiting the famous Gunung National Park with its proliferation of trails, hikes and caves. The best option is to fly with MASwings. Read more about Miri here.
- Tanjung Datu National Park, (the tip of Borneo): The smallest of Sarawak’s National Parks, Tanjung Datu is located at the very south-western tip, where it meets Indonesia. Expect secluded, remote beaches, crystal clear waters, beautiful coral reefs (so great for snorkelling and diving), and of course, close proximity to the jungle, with a number of easy to medium jungle trails to follow. Tanjung Datu’s wildlife is equally impressive, being home to at least three types of Hornbill, as well as peacocks, gibbons, Bearded Pigs, Mouse Deer, Barking Deer, and a number of different species of monkeys, including Pig-Tailed Macaques. This is also a well-known Turtle Rehabilitation site. Not the easiest place to get to (but worth it if your main aim is to chill out!) – you’ll need to get a boat from Sematan to the nearby fishing village of Telok Melano, then another boat to Tanjung Datu (the bus to Sematan from Kuching takes around 2 ½ hours). The boats are infrequent and unscheduled, however, so best would be to join an organised tour from Kuching. Further details can be found from Kuching’s National Parks Booking Office; they can also provide details on the Homestay programme in Telok Melano (overnight stays are currently not permitted in the Park).