Postcard-pretty Kuching ranks as one of the most liveable and visitor-friendly cities in Malaysia
Straddling the mighty Sarawak River at the southwest tip of the Malaysian state of Sarawak (on the island of Borneo), Kuching is a unique holiday destination with lots to see, experience and eat – wonderfully complemented by friendly locals who call the city their home, welcoming visitors with grace and warmth. Probably the best part about visiting the well-preserved and compact Kuching is the fact that pretty much everything worth seeing can be reached on foot – or by a boat!
Despite its status as the administrative and economic hub of Sarawak, Kuching has been spared the congestion of most major cities. Recent years have seen a spurt in development but this has been tempered by excellent planning, making it one of the most liveable cities not only in Malaysia but in Southeast Asia.
Kuching’s history can be traced back to 1827 when it served as the third capital of Sarawak under the Bruneian Empire. From 1841 to 1941, Kuching remained as the capital under the British-backed Brooke family rule and maintained that status when the state joined Malaysia in 1963.
Kuching’s storied history is reflected in its architecture, with many buildings many dating back to the heyday of the Brooke dynasty in the late 19th and early 20th century. The city is also one of the most ethnically diverse in Malaysia with the majority made up of Malays and Chinese, while there are sizeable indigenous numbers consisting mainly of Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Melanau. There is also a small Indian population.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO
Kuching Waterfront: This well-conceived one-kilometre esplanade along the south bank of Sarawak River is the ideal place to get a feel of the Kuching vibe.
In the day, enjoy postcard-pretty views of the English manor-styled Astana Kuching (built in 1870 as the third residence of the ‘White Rajahs’ and now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak), Fort Margherita (built in 1879 as a defence against pirates) and picturesque Malay kampung (village) houses.
The riverside walkway is nicely-landscaped and is lined by food stalls, restaurants and other facilities. While many defunct warehouses have been removed, some old buildings have been maintained and restored such as the Sarawak Steamship Building and Chinese History Museum.
In the late evenings, the Waterfront explodes in a kaleidoscope of colours and activity as throngs of folk come out to stroll or just to take in the views and chill. Tourists can indulge in a jetty-hopping experience in Penambang boats, enjoying the stunning scenery on both sides of the river.
The centrepiece of the Waterfront is the spectacular Darul Hana Bridge, a colourfully-lit pedestrian bridge which allows you to stroll across the river to the Astana. A 15-minute musical fountain show livens things up even more each night at 8.30pm and 10pm.
Carpenter Street: Carpenter Street and the parallel Main Bazaar in the heart of the city boast rows of old Chinese shophouses, some dating back to the 19th century and many of which have been occupied by the same families for generations.
Here, you can view age-old businesses such as carpentry (hence the name, Carpenter Street) and tin-smithing. There are numerous antique shops as well as handicraft and souvenir outlets, along with rustic cafes and restaurants with marble-topped tables that will take you back in time.
Carpenter Street is the venue for the annual Kuching Intercultural Mooncake Festival in September, where visitors get to enjoy nightly performances and shows over a week-long stretch.
Fort Margherita: This impressive fort was constructed in 1879 by Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah, to protect Kuching against river encroaches by pirates. In colonial times, the end of the working day was marked by a cannon shot from the fort.
Named after Brooke’s wife Ranee Margaret, the fort also houses the Brooke Gallery which opened on September 24, 2016 in conjunction with the 175th anniversary of the founding of Sarawak. The gallery houses ancient documents, artefacts and other invaluable items from the Brooke Dynasty.
Sarawak Museum: A visit to the Sarawak Museum (museum.sarawak.gov.my) will give you get a good overview of the rich historical, cultural and natural heritage of the state.
Located in the city centre along both sides of Tun Abang Haji Openg road, the sprawling museum has one of the best collections in the region. Various sections display ethnographic relics, indigenous handicraft and natural history displays. There is even a section dedicated to the oil industry in Sarawak. An aquarium, botanical garden and Heroes’ Memorial are located within the grounds.
The museum opens on weekdays from 9am to 4.45pm and on weekends/public holidays from 10.00am to 4pm. Admission is free. Note: The old wing is currently closed for refurbishment and is scheduled to reopen in March 2020.
Satok Weekend Market: This is a must-do if your stay in Kuching stretches over a weekend. Located at Medan Niaga Satok near the popular Kubah Ria hawker centre along Sarawak River, the market is best- known for the stalls where indigenous folk from the hinterland sell jungle produce such as the popular Midin vegetable and Sago worms. This is also a good place to buy the local delicacy known as Ikan Terubuk Masin or salted herring.
Operating from 6am to 10pm every Saturday and Sunday, the market also boasts countless stalls selling meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, handicraft, pets, flowers as well as local snacks.
There’s much more to see and do while in Kuching if you have the time, including day excursions to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve (semenggoh.my) where you can feed and cuddle baby orangutans, and the sprawling Sarawak Cultural Village (scv.com.my) which is the venue for the internationally-renowned Rainforest World Music Festival (the 2019 edition takes place on July 12-14 featuring an eclectic ensemble of indigenous musicians and world music performers from all over the globe).
TOP 3 THINGS TO EAT
Sarawak Laksa: The late Anthony Bourdain’s favourite, this aromatic noodle dish consists of rice noodles immersed in a thick broth of sambal belacan (shrimp chilli paste), coconut milk, tamarind, lemongrass and garlic. The noodles are topped with chicken slices, omelette strips, prawns and coriander leaves, served with a side condiment of lime and sambal belacan.
Manok Pansoh: This Iban staple is chicken with ginger, lemongrass, tepus (an indigenous plant related to ginger) shoots, bunga kantan (ginger flowers) and a dash of salt cooked slowly over a fire in a bamboo stuffed with tapioca leaves. The meat cooks in its own juices and becomes extremely tender and flavourful.
Oyster Omelette: The Sarawakian version of this popular Chinese dish differs vastly from the Peninsula in that the egg/starch base is fried until it becomes crispy on the sides, while the centre – where the huge, juicy oysters are – stays most and soft.
WHERE TO STAY
Kuching has a host of hotels ranging from five-star to budget, many located along or close to the Waterfront which puts you within walking distance of many of the city’s attractions. Rustic bed & breakfast establishments in the city centre are plentiful as well, while homestays are becoming increasingly popular. If you’re looking for top-end city hotels, options include Grand Margherita, Riverside Majestic, Pullman Kuching, Hilton Kuching and Merdeka Palace.
WHEN TO GO
While Kuching is a year-round tropical destination, the city gets quite a lot of rainfall especially during the landas season (equivalent to Peninsula Malaysia’s monsoon season) from November to February. That season aside, the rain does not usually last very long and you can expect to be up out and about within an hour or two.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
CThere are numerous daily flights to Kuching International Airport via Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air (from KLIA), as well as Air Asia (from klia2). From the airport, it’s just a 20-minute drive to the city centre if traffic is clear.
For those with time on their hands while at the Kuching International Airport, there’s an array of stores to check out as it houses 43 outlets (comprising 26 retail and 17 F&B outlets).
All in all, Kuching makes for a great holiday destination and an excellent base to explore the rest of the great state of Sarawak.
Photos © iStock by Getty Images (unless otherwise specified)