Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the semi-independent Malaysian state that spans most of Borneo’s northern coastline. I didn’t know much about Kuching; but with super cheap, frequent flights leaving from Kuala Lumpur, it seemed like a great alternative to the city.
We arrived in Kuching on a late-night flight, and I professed my love for the place before the sun even rose on our first day. A big part of this is down to the fact that Kuching reminded me so much of Brisbane. Sprawling suburbs with fenced-in backyards reach almost all the way to the airport, and the low-lying, humble city centre is wrapped around the banks of the Sarawak River, just like at home.
We only spent 48 hours in Kuching, so there are plenty of things we are saving for next time. We will definitely be back to do a more comprehensive Borneo itinerary in the future.
For now, here are nine reasons I think you should visit the capital city of Sarawak.
No matter where you’re headed in Malaysia, street food is bound to be a drawcard. While I wasn’t all that impressed with the food scene in Penang, the dishes we sampled in Kuching blew my mind. Choon Hui Cafe is by far the city’s most famous local eatery – and for good reason. The prawn laksa and popiah are both must-try dishes. Kuching also converted us into big fans of gula apong (nipah palm) ice cream, kaya (coconut jam and pandan) spread on thick slabs of white toast, and Nyonya dishes such as deep-fried Hainanese Chicken with buttermilk sauce.
Kuching is a gateway into the heart of Malaysian Borneo and an ideal city to base yourself for trips down the river or into the rainforest interior. We didn’t have enough time to get too adventurous, but we did make it to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a zone of protected habitat for a dozen semi-wild orangutans. Located on the outskirts of Kuching, it’s easy to reach the park by public bus or taxi and the entrance fee is small enough that you can visit multiple times.
Any city with a council policy to beautify it street facades with bright blocks of colour is ok by me! India Street and the laneways that unfurl off the pedestrian mall are particularly vibrant spots. We saw lots of paint cans and workers touching up some of the buildings too.
Kuching has more than it’s fair share of batik sellers and haberdashery stores packed with imported fabrics. If you want to see or buy more authentic textiles, the Textile Museum Sarawak and Tun Jugah Collection are two of the finest institutions of their kind in Southeast Asia.
As with Penang, Kuching’s streets are heavy with layers of history, emergent plant life and relics of urban life. Majestic temples mixed in with dilapidated shophouses, grand colonial offices and ancient-looking apartment blocks – the streetscape is a lesson in the region’s history and multiculturalism. You can find some of the most beautiful buildings located along the waterfront and on the smaller streets that lead away from the river.
Being semi-independent from Malaysia, Sarawak has a distinct cultural and heritage that is showcased throughout it’s capital city. I loved the tiled footpath murals on the esplanade that echo the patterns of Sarawak’s famous woven rattan mats.
Arts & crafts
Kuching’s Main Bazaar is crowded with stores selling everything from longhouse antiques to contemporary crafts. The most popular souvenirs include anything woven from rattan (especially floor mats and bags) and wooden artifacts.
Festivals & celebrations
Another virtue of Kuching’s ethnic mix is that the city’s calendar is packed full of religious and cultural festivals. There were no less than three festivals happening during our visit – a food festival, a pop-up craft bazaar on the waterfront, and a Chinese spirit festival that involved a huge bonfire in front of the main temple.
Follow your nose along the narrow laneway, Mosque Lane, off India Street for a look at some of Kuching’s busiest spice markets. After a year in Thailand and Cambodia where most wet markets are dominated by the smell of fish paste, it was invigorating to experience the colours and scents of Kuching’s Middle Eastern-style spice markets.
BONUS– The street art
George Town might hold the title of Street Art Capital of Malaysia, but Kuching’s sweet orangutan murals definitely give Penang a run for its money! You can find the first mural around the corner from the India Street pedestrian mall.