Serving as the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo, this clean and compact city has all the urban conveniences you could need before heading out on adventures into the dark heart of the Borneoan jungle, but is still small enough in size to walk around comfortably. Kuching, the base of operations of operations in this largely rural state, used to be part of the sultanate of Brunei, but about 200 years ago, a British adventurer by the name of James Brooke helped the sultan put down a rebellion that was brewing within his kingdom. As his reward, Mr. Brooke was granted this territory to rule over as a protectorate of the British crown, and he chose to run the matters of this state from the old port city of Kuching, guaranteeing the relevance that this medium sized city of 600,000 enjoys today.
Apart from dealing with a brief but brutal occupation by the Japanese in World War II, and a “secret war” versus an expansionist Indonesia in the early 1960’s, this sometimes forgotten city in Malaysia has had a peaceful existence. This easy going pace of life has tended to lure in backpackers that have happened upon this place, making it a favourite hideaway among many in the scene.
This city is a perfect introduction to Malaysian Borneo, or a fitting ending. Whatever stage of the journey you place Kuching, you need to experience this place for yourself to see what the buzz is all about.
One of Malaysia’s most evenly blended multi-racial cities, with equal parts Chinese to Malay, and smaller populations of native Borneoans and Indians, there are plenty of culturally significant attractions to see and experience.
The best place to experience the pageantry of Chinese Buddhism in Kuching is at the Tua Pek Kong Temple, the oldest one of its kind in the city. Be sure to time your trip to catch celebrations of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which seeks to appease the spirits of the lower realm (aka Hell), which escape their detention once a year for a few weeks to roam the Earth. Offerings are made and prayers are said to appeaser them and to ease their suffering, so that dire consequences do not befall them or their family members.
Those that are interested in Islamic mosques have two major venues to check out in Kuching, as Kuching City Mosque and Masjid Jamek both have qualities that make them interesting to religious enthusiasts. The Kuching City Mosque is noted for its distinctive architecture, blending the styles of both traditional Islamic and Italian designs. Masjid Jamek is popular with locals and visiting Muslims, and with a popular wedding hall attached, frequently has happily married couples and their families milling about on the most joyous days of their lives.
Those looking for a market where the local residents shop for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to new fun toys for their young ones will find it at the Sunday Market. Despite the moniker of this event, this massive weekly outdoor exposition of commerce gets started on Saturday, and runs on Sunday through to sunset. Do watch your step through the wet market however, as the floor tends to be covered with water, grease, and guts of freshly butchered animals.
Fancy yourself a feline person? Then you must pay homage to your cat by visiting Kuching’s Cat Museum. The founder felt compelled to open this institution since the name of this city is the Malay word for cat (despite popular wisdom claiming the name’s origins from a Chinese expression that means something completely different), and today, you can find exhibits, photos and art dedicated to the superior pet species in the world (sorry dog lovers 😛 ).
While there are a bevy of attractions that will hold your attention for a good while in Kuching, it’s the activities that are available in the city and in the immediate surrounding area that keep backpackers here for extended stays (not to mention the low cost of living, relative to the rest of the country).
There are multiple outfitters in town that offer kayaking trips, from leisurely paddles on the Sarawak River in town, to trips out in the ocean, or deep in the Borneoan jungle. On the ocean trip, dolphin encounters are not unheard of, so if you want to meet one of the friendlier sea mammals out there, try to fit this into your schedule!
A sweet treat that you will quickly learn is one of Kuching’s famous culinary creations, learning how to create Sarawak layer cakes is a fun day of baking that cooking buffs should be sure to sign up for. Offered by guides who know locals that are masters in this craft, this day trip outside the city will not only supply you with the knowledge to create this delicious confectionary treat, but it will also get you out into the Sarawak countryside, further removed from the modern urban influences of Kuching.
Those willing to take matters a little further can sign up for a homestay at a tribal longhouse, most of which are located within an hour’s drive of downtown Kuching. During your overnight stay with the rural residents of the Borneoan jungle, you will get to try out homemade rice wine, eat jungle fresh cooking, and even get shown surprises known only to people out here, such as hot springs without another tourist in view!