Underrated Escapes: 8 Reasons to visit Kuching, Malaysia

In Malaysian Borneo’s state of Sarawak, the capital city of Kuching is a fascinating melting pot of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian cultures.  Kuching is an amazing balance of big and small – big enough to offer mouthwatering food, bustling streets and plenty of attractions that will keep your itinerary jam packed, but small enough to feel safe, friendly, and allow the luxury of walking to your destinations while soaking up the sun.  This unique mix that brings you amenities of a big city while keeping the small town vibe should put Kuching, Malaysia at the top of your travel bucket list.  Because Kuching isn’t on the mainland of peninsular Malaysia, many people mistakenly write it off because of the extra step needed to get there, but trust us when we say that it is 100% worth the trip.  Smaller crowds, sunny skies, and hidden gems are only a few of the many reasons why Kuching is a definite underrated escape:

City Overview and History

The city of Kuching can be found on the Sarawak River in the state of Sarawak in northwest Borneo and boasts a population of over 600 000 people.  The city prides itself on being the most diverse in Malaysia and you will hear, see, and experience that diversity in the languages, people, and cuisine.

The city has a fascinating past – 200 years ago, Sarawak was part of Brunei, but was awarded to British James Brooke for squashing a rebellion.  Kuching became his headquarters, and his administration was placed behind the Indian Rajs and Princes. The Brooke family ruled the state until Japanese occupation in 1941, who then ruled until the end of World War II when Sarawak was ceded to the British Crown, who didn’t give Sarawak independence until 1963.  This convoluted and tumultuous past makes the city of Kuching a place for discovery and learning about this rich history.  When you have had enough history and need to get out of the city, the ocean and surrounding National Parks offer a great home base to explore the jungle and seas nearby.

Kuching riverside esplanade Sarawak, Malaysia

Getting There and Around

If you are arriving by plane, you will get into Kuching International Airport, which offers nearly hourly connections to mainland hub Kuala Lumpur in addition to frequent flights to Singapore, Labuan, Kota Kinabalu, and other cities within Sarawak.  The airport is about 20 minutes away by taxi, or a slightly longer trip by minibus.  Express boats run on alternating days between Kuching and nearby Sibu.  Regional buses can get you to and from nearby National Parks, Orangutan sanctuaries, and cities all over Borneo.

Once you are in Kuching, you have plenty of affordable options for getting around.  Shuttle vans and taxis are your best bet (watch out for unlicensed shuttle vans) and if in doubt about fares, try asking the other passengers.  Kuching does have a local bus system which is color coded – if you are having difficulties, hopefully your bus has a conductor to answer your questions.  One of the best things about the small size of Kuching is that it is so pedestrian friendly, so try giving yourself some extra time and walk to your destination – you never know what you might find along the way!  You could also consider checking out Borneo Bicycle Hire and renting a bike for the day to cover more ground.

Sorbis / Shutterstock.com
Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

Culture

With such a rich and diverse history, you will want to learn about the culture and religion of Kuching when you are in town.  In the people and architecture, you will see the influence from the dominant religions in Kuching – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Visit Tua Pek Kong Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Kuching (and conveniently located in the centre of the city), then cross the street to check out the Chinese Museum.

Stop by one of the many mosques in town – Kuching City Mosque near the open air market, or Masjid Jamek by the State Library (just make sure you observe religious conventions – dress respectfully, take your shoes off, and remember that non Muslims should skip the mosques during prayer times to avoid disrupting people while they pray).  To learn more about the people, lifestyles, pastimes, and activities of modern and historical people in Kuching, visit the Sarawak Cultural Museum then check out the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Kuching City Mosque

Food and Drink

Thanks to the numerous cultural influences and readily available, fresh, local ingredients, the thriving food scene in Kuching will have you coming back for more.  There are plenty of affordable options which means that you’ll have room in your budget to try just about everything on the menu.  Make sure you try the famous Sarawak laksa, but remember it is actually considered a breakfast dish so try to get it early in the day or it will be sold out!  To keep it on the cheaper side, stop by Top Spot Food Court or Hui Sing Hawker Center – both options are big hits on the local scene.  Try some fresh seafood and be adventurous; order at least one dish you can’t pronounce to get the most out of the experience! For some sit down options that won’t break the bank, try Jambu Restaurant and Lounge for tapas, Pinoy Fiesta for Filipino food, or Rock Road for seafood.  If you have a bit more money to spend, consider Dayang Cafe, The Junk, or LimeLight Rooftop Lounge.

As for drinks, you absolutely must try Sarawak coffee as well as a White Lady at Ah Meng’s stall at Hui Sing Hawker Center.  Notable cafés you will want to check out are Bing!, Black Bean Coffee & Tea Company, Jase’s Tea Room, and Cafe 175.

Sarawak Laksa

Nightlife

From laid back lounges to late night clubs, Kuching has a well-rounded nightlife scene to fit your partying needs. Start your night out with a walk along the Kuching River, then join the locals at Picadilly Pub to watch a football/soccer game and get your pre-game on.

Later, grab cheap beers at Grappa and enjoy the well equipped sound system that literally shakes the dance floor and plays drum and bass, hip hop, and R&B, take in some live music at Terminal 1 Club, relax over some casual drinks at Kilkenny’s, try the signature Maui mudslide at Soho while you dance the night away, stay after dinner at The Junk and check out Junkbar – a laid back bar with karaoke. Try to take down a beer tower at Havana, and then spend whatever money you have left while enjoying 360 degree views of Kuching at the fancy and expensive Link (you will have to grab a cab since it is outside the city center).

Nightlife

Attractions

There is no shortage of attractions in and around Kuching.  Consider a day trip to the island Bako National Park, Kubah National Park and the Fairy Caves.  If you want an active escape from the city, check out Mount Santubong (consider camping on top to enjoy the vista sunrise for the full experience) or try kayaking with Semadang Kayak.  Enjoy the unique opportunity to see endangered orangutans at either the Great Orangutan Project or Semenggoh Nature Reserve.

Flower lovers will enjoy a visit to the Sarawak Orchid Garden, while history buffs will love the Sarawak Museum, the Textile Museum, and the Islamic Museum.  If you love the food in Kuching, consider taking the Bumbu Cooking Class so you can re-create those delicious flavors home.  Finally, for all the cat lovers out there, you must stop by the Cat Museum that showcases cats’ history from ancient felines to modern Hello Kitty and everything in between…

Borneo Orangutan at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve

Accommodations

From budget to extravagant and basic to over the top, Kuching has a place to sleep for every budget. Wherever you choose to stay, the staff will be able to help you organize day trips, suggest itineraries, and recommend restaurants, so pick their brains to get the most out of your stay.  For a cheap place to sleep, try a guesthouse or bed and breakfast.

Your best options are Lodge 121 for the downtown location, Singgahsana Lodge for an artsy vibe, Malibu Lifestyle for an extended happy hour, or Marco Polo for the friendly and helpful staff.  For mid-range options, try Damai Beach Resort with its private beach and 2 swimming pools or The LimeTree Hotel, a boutique hotel next to Chinatown and only a short walk from the waterfront.  If you want to splurge, enjoy the luxury at 360 Hotel, Four Points Hotel by Sheraton, Hilton Kuching, or Riverside Majestic Kuching.

Jan S. / Shutterstock.com
Jan S. / Shutterstock.com

Shopping

With markets galore and malls for days, there is some very interesting shopping to be had in Kuching. For all your craft, art, and souvenir needs, head to the Main Bazaar on Kuching’s waterfront where you can practice your haggling skills to get the best deals around.  The Main Bazaar consists of rows upon rows of shophouses that are packed floor to ceiling with merchandise, so explore before you buy and don’t get overwhelmed with all of the options!

For a market that’s popular with the locals, head to the Sunday market (kind of a misnomer – it actually starts Saturday afternoon and ends Sunday at noon) where you will find plenty of fresh food.  For shopping centers, try Plaza Merdeka for your international shopping needs or Kenyalang Park for cheap clothes and DVDs.  Sarawak is a major exporter of pepper, so consider bringing home some black or white Sarawak pepper (or pepper cookies, candy, chocolate, or perfume) as a unique gift for your friends and family back home.

CHEN WS / Shutterstock.com
CHEN WS / Shutterstock.com