Although most travelers arrive interested in the island of Borneo's many natural attractions, all inevitably end up spending some days in the "big" city of Kuching before going farther afield. Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak in Malaysia, is pleasant and has interesting things to do.
Walking around between sights in Kuching, you slowly become aware that something is missing: the hassle. Unlike some other places in Asia where travelers get plenty of sales pressure, the vibe in Kuching is friendly. Those smiling and greeting you with a "good morning" are genuine.
A handful of interesting museums in the Kuching area—along with cultural villages, limestone caves with bats, and a chance to see endangered orangutans and proboscis monkeys, among other attractions—will keep you entertained.
Bako National Park is the quickest and most accessible way to enjoy a taste of Borneo's rainforest without going too far. After an approximately 45-minute drive from Kuching, the park is then a 30-minute boat ride from Kuching. Sarawak's smallest and oldest national park includes secluded beaches, jungle streams, numerous walking trails, and waterfalls.
Even travelers who aren't up for any serious trekking will enjoy the abundance of flora and fauna in Bako, including the endangered, strange-looking proboscis monkeys, famous for their big noses. If you traverse the boardwalk trails around the park headquarters, you'll be treated to a lot of wildlife. Bako can be visited with or without a guide on a day trip.
Located only 45 minutes outside of Kuching in the 1613-acre Semenggoh Nature Reserve, the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is the easiest way to see Borneo's endangered orangutans who roam freely in the green forest canopy.
Morning and afternoon feeding times provide visitors with chances to photograph semi-wild orangutans that come out of the forest for offerings of fruit. There aren't any guarantees the orangutans will show up, but some almost always do.
The rangers at Semenggoh are highly trained, and signboards explaining the plight of the orangutans aim to inspire visitors to work toward a brighter future for these highly intelligent creatures.
Kuching has some interesting museums on art, natural history/science, textiles, women, and other subjects. You can easily visit a few museums in a day; some are located within walking distance of Chinatown and the waterfront.
- The Chinese History Museum: This museum details several Chinese communities who set down roots in Sarawak around 1830. See musical instruments, photographs, costumes, and more.
- The Sarawak Museum: Built in 1891, Borneo's oldest museum is an excellent place to learn about the former headhunting indigenous tribes and native crafts, artifacts, and beyond. The museum is closed until sometime in 2020 due to an expansion, so confirm schedules before you go.
- Cat Museum: Kuching means "cat" in the Malaysian language; since you are visiting the cat city, don't forget about the world's first feline museum with various photos, exhibits, art, and thousands of kitty souvenirs.
Kuching's waterfront is pleasant—and safe—to stroll at night, particularly around sunset as the call to prayer reverberates across the river. The walkway has some restaurants, carts selling snacks and drinks, plus benches for taking in the view and doing some people watching. Local buskers and street musicians sometimes perform along the way.
You can cross the river by boat or take a sunset river cruise available at stations along the waterfront.
While in Kuching, visitors can make arrangements for some highly memorable adventures by staying in an Iban longhouse—the farther from the city, the more authentic the experience. Learn about indigenous culture staying in a Sarawak longhouse where several families live, and see a local dance and music performance. At night, you might sip on some tuak, the local rice whiskey. The next day may entail a jungle hike or a garden tour.
Before leaving Sarawak, try these local dishes in Kuching that won't all be available elsewhere. At the famous Topspot open-air food court at the end of the waterfront, you'll find a plethora of fresh seafood at reasonable prices.
Along with local seafood, sample some of these specialties while in Kuching:
- Laksa Sarawak: Spicy, slightly fishy, and filling, Sarawak's version of laksa noodle soup is different than that found in other parts of Southeast Asia.
- Midin: A local fern that grows wild in the rainforest, midin is healthy, delicious, and remains crunchy even after being cooked (try it prepared in garlic).
- Kolo Mee: The default noodle soup for many locals, kolo mee, made from egg noodles, is an inexpensive dish best enjoyed in Chinatown.
- Kek Lapis: The colorful, multi-layer cakes seen around town are a local treat known as kek lapis; they are as heavy as they look.
- Empurau: This type of carp from Sarawak eats only fruit, and is the most expensive fish in Malaysia and perhaps all of Asia.
Anyone who loves a perspective from above must stop at this landmark in Kuching: the prominent Civic Centre. You'll get a 360-degree panorama of the area from the platform on top of the tower. On a clear day, the city and the mountains in Kalamantan are visible. Look for the unique building on Jalan Taman Budaya with the umbrella-shaped roof.
Visit a Living Cultural Museum
Just 22 miles (35 kilometers) out of Kuching is Sarawak Cultural Village, an award-winning living museum on 17 acres of land where tourists can learn about the state's diverse ethnic groups whose members dress in traditional costume, create music, engage in beadmaking, and perform other typical activities for visitors. Enjoy a multicultural dance performance as well.
Kuching gets busy during the annual Rainforest World Music Festival held at the Sarawak Cultural Village for a few days each summer. A variety of world music is honored through workshops and concerts by artists from around the world as well as indigenous musicians from Borneo. Look for arts and craft displays and food vendors adding to the fun.
To see lovely limestone caves, head to the Wind Cave and Fairy Cave Nature Reserve in Bau. The two caves are about 5 miles (8 kilometers) apart and a 30-minute drive from Kuching.
The always-breezy Wind Cave on the banks of the Sarawak River is home to stalagmites, stalactites, and thousands of bats; bring a flashlight.
The Fairy Cave (under construction through 2020, so confirm before going) features a stalagmite structure at the entrance that looks like a Chinese deity, and green moss adds to the mysterious beauty. Rock climbers love the cave's outer surface.