Rainforests and rivers overflowing with life, a legacy of adventure, and friendly local people, Borneo is the favorite destination of many visitors to Malaysia. The city of Kuching is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak and the usual entry point into Borneo for travelers coming from mainland Malaysia.
Despite being the largest city in Borneo and the fourth largest city in Malaysia, Kuching is surprisingly clean, peaceful, and relaxed. Billed as being one of the cleanest cities in Asia, Kuching feels much more like a small town. Tourists are met with very little of the usual hassle as they stroll the spotless waterfront; locals instead pass with a smile and a friendly hello.
The tourist scene in Kuching is mainly centered around the meticulously maintained waterfront and adjacent bazaar in Chinatown. The wide walkway is free of touts, hawkers, and hassle; simple food stalls sell snacks and cold drinks. A small stage is a focal point for festivals and local music.
The waterfront stretches from near India Street — a shopping zone — and the open-air market (on the west end) to the luxurious Grand Margherita Hotel (on the east end).
Across the Sarawak River, the impressive DUN State Legislative Assembly Building is highly visible but not open to tourists. The white building is Fort Margherita, constructed in 1879 to guard the river against pirates. Farther to the left is the Astana Palace, built in 1870 by Charles Brooke as a wedding gift to his wife. The current Head of State to Sarawak currently resides in Astana.
Note: Although taxi boats offer rides across the river, Fort Margherita, the state building, and Astana are all currently closed to tourists.
Unlike Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching's Chinatown is small and surprisingly serene; a decorated archway and a working temple welcome people into the heart. Most businesses and many eateries close in late afternoon, making the place very quiet in the evenings.
The bulk of Chinatown is comprised of Carpenter Street (pictured above) which turns into Jalan Ewe Hai and the Main Bazaar which parallels the waterfront. Most budget accommodation and eateries exist on Carpenter Street while the Main Bazaar is focused on shopping.
Things to Do
Although many travelers use Kuching as a base for day trips to the coast and rainforest, the city has thoughtfully accommodated tourists that are interested in the local culture.
A cluster of four small museums is located in the northern part of the city's Reservoir Park within easy walking distance of Chinatown. The Ethnology Museum showcases Sarawak tribal life and even has human skulls that once hung in traditional longhouses. An art museum contains both traditional and modern work from local artists and shares a space with the Museum of Natural Science. An Islamic Museum exists just across a footbridge that crosses the main road. All museums are free and open until 4:30 p.m.
The Sunday Market in Kuching is less about the tourists and more about the locals who have come to sell produce, animals, and delicious local snacks. The Sunday Market is held just west of Reservoir Park near Jalan Satok. The name is misleading — the market begins late on Saturday afternoon and finishes around noon on Sunday.
The Sunday Market is held behind a shopping strip just off Jalan Satok. Ask around for the "pasar minggu". The Sunday Market is a cheap place to try great food in Kuching.
Most people staying in Kuching make a day trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre — 45 minutes from the city — for a chance to see orangutans roaming freely within a wild refuge. Trips can be booked through your guesthouse or you can make your own way by taking bus #6 from the STC terminal near the open-air market.
Getting Around Kuching
Three bus companies have small offices near India Street and the open-air market on the west side of the waterfront. Antiquated buses run all over the city; just wait at any bus stand and hail buses going the right direction.
Long-haul buses run to destinations such as Gunung Gading National Park, Miri, and Sibu from the Express Bus Terminal located around Batu 3. It is not possible to walk to the terminal, take a taxi or city buses 3A, 2, or 6.
Travel to Kuching
Kuching is well-connected to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other parts of Asia from the Kuching International Airport (KCH). Although still a part of Malaysia, Borneo has its own immigration control; you must get stamped in at the airport.
Upon arriving at the airport, you have the option of either taking a fixed-rate taxi or walking 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop to hail a local bus into the city.
To take the bus, exit the airport to the left and begin walking west on the main road — use caution as there is no proper sidewalk. At the first intersection, go left then follow the road as it splits off to the right. At the roundabout turn right, cross the road to the bus stop, then flag any city bus going north to the city. Bus numbers 3A, 6, and 9 stop just west of Chinatown.
When to Go
Kuching has a tropical rainforest climate, receiving both sunshine and rain all year long. Considered the wettest, populated area in Malaysia, Kuching has an average of 247 rainy days a year! The best times to visit Kuching are during the hottest — and driest — months of April to October.
The annual Rainforest Music Festival is held every year in July just outside of Kuching and the famous Gawai Dayak festival on June 1 is not to be missed. Read about other festivals in Borneo, Malaysia.