Kuching, 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.
Labelled one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in Southeast Asia, Kuching offers a glimpse of what other Asian cities were once like; laid back, gracious and friendly with a population of just 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 British 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, which goes down great with Borneo’s famous three-layer tea, Teh C Peng.
There are also some very interesting museums and city sights, including the Sarawak Museum (lauded as the best historical museum in Southeast Asia), and the majestic Fort Margarita and Astana, once home to the White Rajahs. (The White Rajahs belonged to the Brooke family, a British Dynasty which ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak from 1841-1846.)
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 one of the largest 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.
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.
OUR PICK: 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).
Singgahsana offers a shuttle service to most of the attractions in and around Kuching (including Semenggoh Wildlife Centre). Read our full review here.
Things to do in Kuching:
The Cat Museum:
Kuching means ‘cat’ in Malay – and somewhat appropriately, the city boasts a Cat Museum, which houses just about everything you’d want to know (and a whole lot of other things you don’t need to know) about cats in the entire universe!
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), as well as the Islamic Museum. Perfect for rainy days.
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.
Approximately 24 kilometres 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 orangutans 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.
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.
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.
Kuching Wetlands National Park:
Book an afternoon/twilight river cruise through the Kuching Wetlands National Park and you may find it’s one of the highlights of your entire trip! Many people miss this national park, as they head straight to Bako (above), but we’ve heard reports from travellers that it’s equally, if not more impressive.
Kate Reynolds, author of the article ‘5 Reasons to Travel Sarawak Borneo’ claimed: “The Kuching Wetlands National Park was a sure-fire highlight; that’s where we saw a crocodile snap up a banded krait (about 5 metres from us!), plus fireflies, dolphins and proboscis monkeys up close from the boat…
…We were given dinner, humble noodles that might just have been the best meal of the trip just because of where we were, heard the Muslim prayers at sunset echo out across the water from a little fishing village with stilted houses and saw a lovely sunset before the fireflies graced us with their presence to end a perfect afternoon!”
Just 45 minutes 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 Rainforest World Music Festival (July):
The annual Rainforest World Music Festival is one of the most exciting musical events in Southeast Asia. With artists from all around the world, including local Sarawak indigenous music, the festival is a cultural phenomenon set in the atmospheric heart of the Borneo Jungle.
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.
Air Asia fly into Kuching from Kuala Lumpur. New airline, Maswings, now offer internal flights throughout Borneo.
Where to go next?
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.
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.
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 well worth it… 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).