Dun Petra Jaya at night, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia

Kuching, Malaysia

Labelled as one of the most liveable cities in Southeast Asia, Kuching is the capital of Sarawak state, located in Malaysian Borneo. With a population of around 800,000 people (and countless cats), Kuching has long been shaped by colonialism and immigration, creating a fascinating blend of cultures, ideas and philosophies. While modernity has certainly reached this small metropolis, Kuching has clung to its past too, making it an amazing place to learn about Sarawakian culture and traditions.

Most travellers spend less than a week here, but if you really want to get under the skin of this under-visited gem, you’ll need far longer! 

My first visit to Kuching was a passing trip on the way to Bako National Park but upon returning, I spent more time exploring the city. When it came time to leave, I was desperately sad. Kuching has etched itself into my heart thanks to the kind people who call it home!


Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo Backpacking Guide 🇲🇾

Kuching Map & Resources

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Best Time to Visit Kuching, Malaysia 🌦️

Wet and dry seasons in Sarawak are more defined than in the northern Malaysian state of Sabah. December and January tend to experience the most precipitation but it can rain any time of year. 

March to September tends to see the least rainfall in Kuching. While it’s hot year-round, the dry season is less humid, making outdoor activities less draining! 

City Streets, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Exploring Kuching’s streets is more comfortable in the dry season!

July is a great time to visit if you’re interested in the Rainforest World Music Festival. Held at The Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong, this is one of the largest music festivals in Southeast Asia! It includes daily workshops as well as action-packed nightly shows and concerts – all courtesy of a wide range of renowned performers from across the globe.


Where to Stay in Kuching, Malaysia 🛏️

As the city of Kuching grew, waves of immigrants congregated together, creating a series of distinct districts. Each has a unique look and vibe, depending on the nationalities and religions of the original settlers. After spending some time in the city, you’ll easily be able to tell where you are based on the architecture, buildings of worship and food available!

  • Padungan – AKA Chinatown. This is the best place to stay for travellers on a budget. Hostels and cheap hotels are plentiful and the main roads of Jalan Padungan and Jalan Abell are lined with budget-friendly eateries! There’s some interesting nightlife around here too! 
  • Petra Jaya – The extensive Petra Jaya district is north of Padungan and is the beating heart of Malay culture in Kuching. While mostly made up of residential areas, there are still plenty of activities and attractions along the riverfront, including the impressive Dun Petra Jaya state government office and the joyous Darul Hana Musical Fountain. Accommodation here is a little more pricey due to its proximity to the waterfront. 
  • Santubong – Santubong is the place to stay in Kuching if you want to be near the beach! The most popular stretch of sand here is Damai Beach, which is surrounded by hotels, cafés and restaurants. Again, prices are a little higher than in Padungan but you can find some novel accommodation options that won’t break the bank. It takes around 30 minutes by car or bus to get into the centre of Kuching from Santubong. 

Best Accommodation in Kuching

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1. Marco Polo Guesthouse

A vibrant and sociable hostel aimed at budget travellers, Marco Polo Guesthouse offers everything you’ll need from your stay in Kuching. Dorms and private rooms are on offer, all with shared facilities. The owners can help arrange tours and onward transport and offer luggage storage if you’re planning to embark on an overnight adventure to one of the nearby national parks for a couple of days!

If you’re looking for luxury, you won’t find it here but it’s a clean, comfortable place to stay and offers a tasty free breakfast buffet – a must-have for budget backpackers! 

Marco Polo Hostel, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Marco Polo is simple but offers everything budget travellers need in Kuching!

2. Kuching Riverine Resort 

Just three kilometres from Kuching’s main waterfront area, the Riverine Resort is an excellent choice for those who want a little more privacy than a hostel or hotel offers. You’ll get your own apartment, complete with kitchen and living area. There’s also a beautiful outdoor pool and a small grocery store onsite. 

3. The Culvert 

A unique place to stay not far from Damai Beach, rooms at The Culvert are aesthetically pleasing long, concrete cylinders. They’re little more than a bed and bathroom with very little space but offer a memorable stay. If you’re used to spreading out when you arrive at your accommodation, consider opting for one of the larger rooms instead of the standard! 

4. Check In Lodge 

Another budget offering in Padungan, Check In Lodge offers dorms and private rooms with either shared or ensuite bathroom options. The staff are super friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, constantly providing tips and advice on things to do and where to eat in Kuching. There are good communal spaces too, making this an excellent spot for meeting fellow backpackers! 

5. Hilton Kuching Hotel 

Let’s face it, sometimes we want a little luxury from our accommodation and the Hilton Kuching delivers just that! It’s expensive by Kuching standards but compared to Hilton offerings in other parts of the world, this is a bargain! Located right on the riverfront, it boasts fantastic views of the giant Sarawak flag that flutters lazily over the Dun Petra Jaya building. There are several onsite restaurants at the Hilton, providing everything from local Sarawakian cuisine to Western and Cantonese – whatever tickles your fancy, you’ll find it here! 


Things to Do in Kuching, Malaysia

Visit the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary 🦧

Approximately 24 kilometres from Kuching, this nature reserve is famous for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Programme and is a great place to spot these lovable primates. 

It’s all monkey business at Semenggoh!

With fewer visitors than the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Semenggoh is less touristy than its counterpart. Don’t expect it to be an unvisited gem though, it still sees its fair share of foot traffic! 

Be sure to visit during one of the two feeding sessions: 09:00-10:00 and 15:00-15:30. This is when the semi-wild orangutans emerge from the rainforest to claim their free meal. 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 (taking from 3-5 minutes to complete) and a plank walk – all of which allow you to explore the various gardens.

Volunteering with Orangutan Rehabilitation In Borneo 

If you want to do more than just see orangutans near Kuching, consider volunteering at the Heart2Heart project. While you won’t be working directly with orangutans, you’ll have a hand in ensuring their long-term well-being by cleaning and doing maintenance tasks. 

The most cost-effective way to get to Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary is by using the free electric bus that runs past all Kuching heritage sites. The bus has a set route and times that are well adhered to – make sure you arrive at the bus stop on time or you’ll miss it! It takes around 90 minutes to get from Kuching to Semenggoh. 

Entry to Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary costs around 10MYR (approx. $2USD). 

“You can catch a free electric bus from the city centre to the orangutan national park, pay a small entrance fee, walk 15 minutes and see a wide variety of orangutans. If you time it well, it may be feeding time”

Antuan, South East Asia Backpacker Community member

Borneo Cultures Museum

Famous throughout Borneo, the Borneo Cultures Museum is a must-visit when in Kuching. Only opened in 2022, this five-floor museum shows off the culture, history and ecology of Sarawak and wider Borneo. 

The whole building is clean and the exhibits are well organised. Nothing feels cramped and you don’t feel rushed as you learn about the fascinating history of Sarawak. 

“Expect to spend hours exploring the museum. Each floor features interactive exhibits which can take a while to get around!” 

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

The first floor features a huge children’s area, so if you’re not visiting with little ones, just head straight on past. After that, the displays get progressively more impressive and culminate on the fifth floor with the ‘Objects of Desire’ exhibit, which showcases the most impressive artefacts in the museum’s collection, some of which are believed to hold special powers! 

Hunt for Monkeys in 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).

A female Proboscis Monkey at Bako National Park!

You can visit for just one day, or stay overnight in the jungle lodges. We recommend doing the latter, as it gives you plenty of time to explore different trails, see plenty of wildlife and enjoy the park! To do so, you need to book accommodation in advance via the Sarawak Forestry e-booking website. The whole system is a bit wonky but it works. Don’t expect a confirmation email though! 

Entry fee for the park is 20MYR (approx. $4USD) per person and staying overnight is surprisingly cheap at around 15MYR (approx. $2USD) for a dorm room and 50MYR (approx $10USD) for a two-bed bungalow. 

Although it’s connected to the mainland, there are no roads accessing the park, so you’ll need to get a boat from Kampung Bako. You can read more about getting there in our comprehensive guide to Bako National Park here.

Seek Adventure in 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 spot, as they head straight to Bako. While we highly recommend Bako, if you want a more off-the-beaten-track experience, Kuching Wetlands is equally, if not more impressive! 

 “The Kuching Wetlands National Park was a sure-fire highlight of Borneo; that’s where we saw a crocodile snap up a banded krait (about five 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!”

Kate Reynolds, Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker

The Cat Museum 🐈

Kuching translates to ‘cat’ in Malay. Legend has it that the city got its name thanks to British colonists who were amazed at the number of felines in the city when they arrived! And, the city has really leaned into it, with plenty of statues, artwork and mythologies based around our favourite four-legged companions. 

Cat, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Cats are everywhere in Kuching!

The city’s love for cats culminated in the Kuching Cat Museum – a bizarre but entertaining exhibition of all things cat. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cat or dog person, this museum offers a couple of hours of good amusement! 

Whether it’s teapots, paintings, terrible taxidermy or the history of cat food, the only rule of the cat museum is that the things on display relate to felines! The Kuching Cat Museum costs around 3MYR (approx. $0.60USD) to enter and is well worth the negligible fee. Come with a sense of humour. 

Cat Museum, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Some of the taxidermy is interesting, to say the least!

Sarawak Museum 🐬

The splendid Sarawak Museum offers a less eccentric history lesson. It houses a fascinating collection for all those with an interest in ethnography and natural history. There are many other museums too, 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 (of which there can be a lot in Kuching!).

The Sarawak Museum costs around 20MYR (approx. $4USD) to enter.

Explore the Fairy Caves 🦇

Just 45 minutes from Kuching, this deep, dark, magical, and somewhat creepy cave, formed some 100-150 million years ago, is worth a visit, mainly 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 unless you visit the summit path, and the entrance fee is a mere 5MYR (approx $1USD). Expect a long climb into the cave via a narrow tunnel and steep staircase – don’t forget your torch! The Fairy Cave is also a great place for seasoned rock climbers (NOT beginners though – some of the hardest climbs in Southeast Asia are located here!)

If you’re not ‘caved’ out by the end of your visit, head another half hour to the Wind Cave Nature Reserve! 

Watch the Nightly Water Show 💦

Kuching waterfront plays host to a beautiful water display every night at 20:30 and 21:30. Grab an ice cream and park yourself next to the railings opposite the Dun Petra Jaya state government building for the best view. The Darul Hana Bridge also offers a great vantage point to see the show – plus, it’s a great spot for sunset, so you can combine the two! 

Water show outside Dun Petra Jaya, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Grab an ice cream and settle in for the water show!

Get Your Groove On at 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 musicians, 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 in its own right. It includes examples of all longhouses from the various ethnic groups that live throughout the state, plus activities to take part in. There’s also a nightly dance show that’s worth sticking around for, plus an onsite restaurant if you get peckish. The Sarawak Cultural Museum costs around 20MYR (approx. $4USD) to enter. 

Visit Fort Margherita 🏰

Built in 1879, Fort Margherita is an English-style castle built to defend Kuching from pirates and raiders who used the river as their highway. Inside, the castle houses a museum about the Brooke family – the English rulers of Sarawak for three generations. If you want to know more about the era of The White Rajahs of Sarawak, this is the place to go! 

Entry to the fort costs around 20MYR (approx. $4USD) per person. 


Food and Drink in Kuching, Malaysia 🍜

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.

Much of the food on offer in Kuching, you won’t find anywhere else in Borneo, let alone the rest of the world! Don’t miss the opportunity to try Sarawak laksa. Generally considered a breakfast food, this version of laksa is made from a combination of chicken and prawn stock, as well as local spices. The noodles used are a unique rice vermicelli, slightly chewier than regular vermicelli noodles! Expect a spicy yet aromatic flavour. 

Umai might not sound appealing to everyone but this raw fish dish is similar to Peruvian ceviche. Expect small chunks of seafish, cured in lime and served with salt, onions and a sprinkling of chilli, this is a must-try when in Kuching! 

Umai, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Umai in Kuching is delicious!

Ice cream lovers will be in heaven in Kuching. Gula Apong ‘Ais Krim’ is a local speciality made from nipah palm sugar. It comes in various flavours and is generally made fresh at each shop or stall. It’s a real treat! 

There are plenty of places to try these amazing treats in Kuching, I’ve listed a few of my favourites below!

R.G Ais Krim Bergula Apong

Home to the original ‘ais krim’ in Kuching, Bergula Apong is a true local institution. Found in the open-air wet market and hawker centre, this is the perfect way to cool down in Kuching’s roasting climate! The flavours change daily and there is a huge range of toppings to try! 

Ais Krim, Ice Cream, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
Bergula Apong is the oldest ‘Ais Krim’ stall in Kuching!

Mom’s Laksa 

This small chain of laksa restaurants is popular in Kuching and one of the best places to try the famous Sarawak laksa. Almost every laksa joint offers some slight twist on the dish with some being spicier than others but Mom’s Laksa’s delivers a slightly thicker, more peppery option! 

Lau Ya Keng Food Court 

A variety of hawker stalls call this food court home, our favourite being Mum Xin – another excellent spot to sample Sarawak laksa. It’s slightly lighter in flavour than other locations around the city and offers plenty of customisation options! 

Borneo Delight 

An excellent budget-friendly spot to try a range of classic Sarawakian dishes! I wholeheartedly recommend the Umai – it’s one of my favourite dishes in Kuching! 

Fairland Hidden Bar 

That’s the wrong door! Fairland Hidden Bar isn’t the most well-hidden bar I’ve ever visited but there’s always a great novelty in having to find your way in. The bar itself is a bit grimy, so if you’re hoping for an upmarket cocktail experience, you won’t find it here. Instead, expect budget-friendly beers and cheap spirits – and cheap alcohol isn’t too common in Malaysia, so make the most of it! 

Fairland Hidden Bar, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
The door isn’t where you think it is!

But it’s not all drinks on offer at Fairland Hidden Bar – it’s out back where the real magic happens. 

A range of street food stalls selling everything from burgers and pizza to laksa and local dishes have set up shop in the alley. Grab a beer from the bar, order your food at your stall of choice and pull up a chair! I recommended heading up to the raised seating area for a spot of people-watching while you wait for your food!

Food stalls, Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia
There are several food stalls to choose from behind Fairland Hidden Bar!

Getting Around Kuching, Malaysia 🚕  

Kuching is a relatively compact city, so if you don’t mind walking a few kilometres at a time, there is little need for taxis or public transport. If you’re in a rush, Grab, the Malaysian ride-hailing app, works well. 

You may need to arrange a ferry to cross the river if you’re not near a bridge but these are easy to find. 

To get out to Bako National Park, buses run from next to the wet market and hawker centre. You can also pick them up on the street – just ask at your accommodation, and they’ll be able to tell you where the nearest stop is. As with most of Southeast Asia, the stops aren’t marked and feel pretty informal! 


How to Get to Kuching, Malaysia 🚌

Kuching is well connected by road and air. Buses from Miri run every day taking 12-15 hours depending on the time of day you opt for. They cost around 90MYR (approx $20USD). Be aware, that if you get an overnight bus, it’ll likely drop you off very early in the morning! 

Bus tickets can be booked in advance using 12go.asia and EasyBook or can be arranged on the day. 

“We got an overnight bus from Miri to Kuching. It was supposed to arrive at 09:00, giving us time to find breakfast and explore a little before heading to our accommodation. However, it got in far earlier, leaving us at the bus station at around 05:00. We arrived in the middle of a storm, (I’d left my waterproof jacket on the bus), and we had nowhere to go – it wasn’t the best introduction to Kuching! Luckily, the city won me over later!” 

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker

Flights from Sabah or mainland Malaysia are frequent and cost-effective. It’s also possible to fly from Singapore and Brunei, although flights from Brunei cost far more! 


Where to Go Next: 🛫

Miri – Miri itself doesn’t offer too much for travellers but is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the Niah Caves or for onward travel to Gunung Mulu National Park. You can also travel overland from Miri to Brunei. 

Bandar Seri Begawan– The often-overlooked country of Brunei offers travellers a bit of a break from the hectic Borneo travel experience. The capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB for short) is like a miniature Singapore. It’s a great place to slow down and relax for a few days! 

Kota Kinabalu – The gritty capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu (KK) gives great access to Mt. Kinabalu as well as Kinabalu National Park and other popular destinations in Sabah! 


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Nikki Scott | Founder of South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Sheree Hooker |
Editor at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Kate Reynolds |
Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Sam & Jane
| Owners of Marco Polo Hostel

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

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