The mystical land of Borneo is renowned for its rare hornbills, exotic mix of ethnicity, and rainforests. Yes rainforests – gosh, the lush, verdant rainforests of Borneo.As the gateway city to all that natural treasure, Kuching, Sarawak is a great place to start exploring Borneo. Kuching is often referred to as “the cat city”, presumably because kucing is the Malay word for cat. But my guide informs me it was more likely from the abundant berries that grew by the rivers – mata kucing – that the first colonial explorers saw as they cruised up the river.
Things to do in Kuching, Sarawak
1) Walking down Kuching’s Esplanade
The river is where your exploration should start. With wide boardwalks and plenty of attractions along the waters, Kuching’s Esplanade is an enjoyable stroll – sometimes scenic, other times bustling – depending on the time and stretch that you are at.
Legislative Assembly Building
I suggest heading to the Legislative Assembly Building in the evening when the sunset transforms the Insta-famous architectural wonder into a golden beacon iconic to Kuching.
Darul Hana Bridge
Every evening, the Darul Hana Bridge, also casually known as the S-bridge, comes alive in light and colours. Opened in November 2017, the spectacular light show spans the 336-metre structure and connects the north and south of Kuching.
CC 2.0 Jan Remund / Flickr
Local food and a bit of shopping
Only a few minutes away, you can find a night bazaar offering bargain buys, such as antiques, ceramic or Sarawak tribal handicrafts — perfect souvenirs for your loved ones. Once you are done, head to Carpenter Street to satiate your hunger with some local food. You can easily spot a popular 24-hour food court along the road, but that’s not where I would recommend you to go.
Go deeper in, and before the Teochew Temple, you can find Lau Ya Keng. The shop is well-known for some of the best local food in Kuching such as Laksa and Kway Chap. I took the opportunity to try the famous Sarawak Kolo Mee. For those wanting a bit more party vibes, the nearby Ethnic Tribal Cafe is renowned for their live band music.
The last defence – Fort Margherita
Along the waterfront, in the north, you can see a glimpse of a white building obscured by some trees. This is Fort Margherita, Kuching’s river defence built in 1875 by the “white rajahs”.
Paws for the furry friends
Even if a cat might not have been the reason for its name, Kuching locals have gamely adopted the feline as their mascot. Dotting the city are many cat statues, including the main family along the river, ready to stamp your photos with their signature blasé looks.
If that’s not enough, walk up a hill to the Kuching Cat Museum, and get your fill of over 4,000 cat-related items. And that’s not all! After browsing, and probably buying another bag of souvenirs, take a look outside the museum and enjoy the city view from the vantage point.
2) Deepdive Sarawak’s ethnic culture
CC 4.0 Yeo Jiun Tzen / Wikipedia Commons
When I visited Sarawak Museum, it was clear from the musty halls and exhibits that the museum was due for improvement works. The building is now closed for renovation, but once reopened, you can explore the rich natural history and various fauna in Sarawak besides the local artefacts and handicrafts.
In the meantime, culture fiends can delve into their passion at the Sarawak Cultural Village. This elaborate recreation is both an immersive and authentic venue to experience the many tribal influences of Borneo.
CC 2.0 Peter Gronemann / Wikipedia Commons
A boardwalk links the 14-acre compound and brings you around the “living museum” where you can experience and interact with the local ethnic people, such as the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, and Melanau.
3) And then there’s that famous musical event
Kuching has undoubtedly impressed us with its vibrant local culture and yet laid-back atmosphere around the city. If you want to see the other side of Kuching, visit the quaint city during the Rainforest World Music Festival.
The annual event garners tens of thousands of international visitors from everywhere around the world. Set against the backdrop of the tropical rainforests at the foot of Mount Santubong, the Rainforest World Music Festival is a vibrant musical phenomenon showcasing almost 30 talents from across the globe.
The festival is not only about music! I went there during the day to join some of the forums and workshops, getting to know more about the diverse arts and music landscape around the world. If you are looking for another round of souvenir shopping, head to the craft markets to purchase more unique handmade items.
As the night fell and the lights lit up, the performances took over all the buzz and attention from the booths. It was an infectious atmosphere in the exotic and natural compound. Not to worry about getting thirsty and hungry after all the screams and wild dance moves, plenty of stalls nearby are selling food and drinks. Just relax and soak in the festival vibes!
I came in just as Naygayiw Gigi Dance Troupe, an Aboriginal Australian band, was performing. Decked out in their tribal gear, they led the crowd into a wild adventure of beats, whoops, and thumps, while swinging their headgear like an exotic beast.
Happy to say I scored a selfie with one of the friendly members!
The Rainforest World Music Festival happens in the mid-year period, usually July or August. 2018’s edition is happening from 13 – 15 July.
4) For the green adventurers
And of course, we’re back to the natural splendour Sarawak has to offer.
If you can’t get enough of lush green parks in Sarawak, be happy to know that there are 14 enormous reserves, each with their own unique features. Here’s one:
Kubah National Park
For some Jurassic Park vibes minus the dinosaurs, Kubah National Park offers monstrous palms and exotic breeds of frogs that dot the forest like jewels. The chorus of frog calls at dusk is a strangely beautiful symphony.
Those wanting other wildlife options can catch the intelligent Orangutans at the Matang Wildlife Centre in Kubah. You can also find sun bears, civets, ambar deer and native bird species there. As nature doesn’t always operate on schedule, park chalets and dorm-style accommodations are available for those who want to extend their safari visit.
Bako National Park
For something a little closer to Kuching, Bako is a perfect option as Sarawak’s oldest national park.
Sarawak’s oldest national park, Bako National Park has plenty of coves and cliffs in the seaside area. The crashing waves, rain, scorching sun and wind have sculpted these rocks into unique figures, making them an iconic photo spot in Sarawak.
Venture deeper into the forests and uncover Bako National Park’s hidden wildlife and flora. From the amusing Proboscis monkey and leopard cats to the infamous stinking Rafflesia arnoldii, Sarawak’s natural gems are incredible to behold in person.
5) Other worthy mentions
Not just a thick rainforest, Sarawak also has plenty of marine animals at Talang Satang National Park. The conservation efforts keep wild turtle viewings alive and real.
For some rare coral reefs, as well as refreshingly clear streams and beaches by the sea, head to Tanjung Datu National Park. Here, you can enjoy a traditional Malay fishing village stay under the Telok Melano Homestay program.
A river safari and cruise is available at Maludam, where you can take a trip down the peat swamp forest. Loagan Bunut features a boat ride that showcases how local Berawan people have created their lifestyle around the swampy ground when the lake dries up.
Reach the Pinnacles
For the adventurous souls, Gunung Mulu National Park offers rigorous trekking (rope and ladder climbing involved) through the expansive cave and mountainous area as well as a breathtaking view of the rock formation (bring a drone to capture the bird’s eye view of the park).CC 2.0 Paul White / Wikipedia Commons
Where to Stay in Kuching
With a fantastic view of the Waterfront area of Kuching, this hotel is everything I am looking for in excellent accommodation. Its strategic location means it’s only 10 minutes away from popular attractions like the Sarawak Museum, Kuching City Mosque and Tua Pek Kong.
If you’re on a budget, I will recommend you to stay at Tune Hotel. Right by the waterfront, the hotel is close to so many shops and eateries. It also has a Cat Statue nearby for that ultimate Kuching shot!
How to Get There
Fly directly to Kuching!