Borneo Bound: Exploring Kuching
The East Malaysian state of Sarawak is known for its adventure holidays – trekking in rainforests, exploring huge caves, journeying by river into Borneo’s interior. For older travellers who are seeking something a little more leisurely but still absorbing, the state capital, Kuching, has a lot to offer.
Visitors who spend a few days in this attractive city of around 600,000 people on the Sarawak River can explore it at their own pace, as well as taking day trips to experience nearby forests and wildlife reserves.
Kuching has a rich colonial history and, unlike some other Malaysian cities, is happy to embrace it. Sarawak was once ruled by Brunei as part of an empire stretching across northern Borneo. Brunei’s rulers gave Sarawak to British adventurer James Brooke in 1841 after he helped them put down a rebellion. He became known as the first White Rajah, the name deriving from an Indian word for a monarch or ruler. The Brooke family ruled Sarawak for more than 100 years and Kuching was their home.
For almost four years during World War II, the city came under Japanese rule. It was fortunate to escape allied bombing during the war, unlike Kota Kinabalu, the capital of neighbouring Sabah, which came under heavy attack and had to be largely rebuilt. The lucky outcome is that many fine old buildings in Kuching remain intact.
The main part of Kuching, including the old town, stands on the south bank of the river. The north bank is less developed but worth visiting because of the significant old buildings there. The city limits extend to the South China Sea but the city centre is some distance inland.
Among the best things about Kuching is its ethnic and cultural makeup. Its inhabitants include Chinese, Malays, Indians, Ibans – once famous as headhunters – and other indigenous groups, among them Bidayuhs, Melanaus and Orang Ulu. The indigenous groups are known collectively as Dayaks.
Intermarriage is common. By some accounts, about 30 percent of all marriages in Sarawak are mixed, and the figure is probably even higher in the city itself.
The name Kuching means cat in the Malay language. Kuching happily promotes this and has adopted the animal as its symbol. There’s a museum devoted to cats – visitors enter through a giant cat’s mouth - and statues of cats in several parts of town. Some may be a little kitschy but visitors seem to like them. The best known depicts a family of seven cats at a roundabout in the centre of town.
The accommodation available includes comfortable hotels alongside or near the river – a Holiday Inn, Hilton and Crowne Plaza among them - as well as excellent boutique hotels and a choice of beach resorts for those who prefer to be a little out of town.
Kuching began life as a fishing village and the river is its lifeblood. Among the city’s pleasures is taking a slow walk along the esplanade that lines the south bank. After extensive restoration, the Kuching Waterfront runs for almost 900 metres and has restaurants, food stalls, places to sit and shops selling clothes and souvenirs. It’s at its liveliest in the evenings.
While out strolling, visitors enjoy fine views across the river. The buildings on the other side include the Astana or governor’s official residence near the river. Built in 1870 by the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke, it was home to him and the third White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, for more than 70 years.
Nearby is Fort Margherita, built by Charles Brooke in 1879, in the style of an English castle, to protect Kuching against pirates. Since 2016 it has housed the Brooke Gallery, a small museum that tells the story of Sarawak under the White Rajahs.
The Astana is not normally open to the public but Fort Margherita is a popular attraction. And near the Astana is the well-maintained Sarawak Orchid Garden. Entrance is free and it has an excellent selection of tropical plants and flowers.
Towering above everything else on the north bank is the huge Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building, which opened in 2009.
Visitors wanting to cross the river can use a pedestrian bridge, the Darul Hana Bridge, which opened in November 2017. Another way to get across is by water taxi; there are several landing points along the waterfront.
Sunset cruises on the river are available, with cultural dance performances on board. The trip gives a glimpse into Kuching’s traditional way of life: dockyards, moored fishing boats, Malay villages or kampongs with jetties for water taxis.
A short distance from the south bank is Kuching’s old town, centred around Carpenter Street and Main Bazaar Street. It’s fun to explore on foot, with its handicraft shops, restaurants, food stalls and old Chinese-style architecture. Old buildings such as the Sarawak Steamship Company office, built in 1930, have been converted into shops.
Kuching has an extensive range of eating places to choose from. Visitors may want to try the city’s signature dish, Sarawak laksa. It’s a broth of noodles, shredded omelette, cooked prawns and strips of chicken, along with a spicy paste known as sambal.
The city has a number of Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques and churches of interest, as well as several museums. Unfortunately, the main building of the city’s premier museum, the Sarawak Museum, is under renovation and closed until 2020.
Among the trips available from Kuching, one of the most popular is a half-day visit to Semonggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The sanctuary helps orangutans that have been saved from captivity or injured in the wild. Visitors can watch them feeding and moving about in the forest. It’s considered one of the best places in the world to see them up close. The trip involves a short rainforest walk but no lengthy trekking.
Another day-trip destination is Bako National Park on the coast outside the city. Visitors can follow a network of trails through various types of forest including mangrove, and see monkeys and other wildlife. The park’s coastline is dotted with bays and coves.
Kuching is about one-and-a-half hours by air from Singapore, and slightly longer from Kuala Lumpur.
Header image: Tan Kian Yong | Dreamstime