Kuching is one of those really random destinations, where there is quite a lot to do if you really dig around, and a lot in sheer proximity to the city centre. From challenging mountain climbs and hikes looking for proboscis monkeys, to chic watering holes in the old city and a quaint late afternoon river cruise in this confluence of Borneo.
Former Royal City
The city has been, more often than not, been overshadowed by her more well-promoted counterpart at the north-eastern end of Borneo. This capital of Sarawak has seen a bit of a renaissance, with accoutrements linked to her illustrious past as the capital of the Brooke Dynasty’s Kingdom of Sarawak being both overshadowed, outdone or restored to royal splendour.
Within the square mile, reminders of her interesting past remain. Once an oddity in international law, with a line of kings both sovereigns of their private kingdom, yet subjects to Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Kuching was, for a moment, described as a slice of Somerset in the east. From the Corinthian colonnades of the General Post Office to the wide verandas of the Old Court House, the Tudor detailing of the Bishop’s House and Norman inspiration of Fort Margherita, the constructions during the reigns of the 3 White Rajahs created a unique atmosphere to the city.
While one can only admire the Bishop’s House and Astana, the former royal palace and current governor’s official residence (both working residences), from their grounds, the General Post Office, Old Court House and Fort Margherita are open to the public.
The General Post Office still retains its function as a post office, though the Old Court House is now a hip dining destination with a unique array of cafes and restaurants around the elegant courtyard, while the Fort Margherita is now the Brooke Gallery, a monument housing the regalia and paraphernalia of the former Kingdom of Sarawak. Both have a special place in my family, being offices of generations before me.
Old City Jaunts
There are three ways to appreciate this quaint river-side city: one is walking along the Kuching Waterfront, a landscaped walkway that stretches 1.5km from the Old City and Main Bazaar towards the more modern commercial heart and towers of modern Kuching. Bronze plaques line every 100ms, recalling the history of Kuching and modern Sarawak.
The second option would be along the Main Bazaar, done in a circuit along the Main Bazaar frontage, where you will encounter shops selling priceless antiques and traditional Borneoan art to stalls selling Sarawak Layer Cake; and then through the parallel Carpenter Street, where active carpenters work their trade next door to hip bars and cafes.
For a more unique way of seeing the city, get on the tambangs, small water taxis that ply routes along the Sarawak River. Use your best negotiating skills, and you can rent the boat for an hour, seeing the city through a different lens. That, or get on any of the other tourist boats or evening cruises for dinner and a show.
Tired of culture, architecture and urban comforts? Well, as short as 30 minutes away from the city centre, the city’s natural playground is yours to enjoy. Want to go caving or rock climbing? Neighbouring Bau, almost a suburb of the city, as three caves for you to choose from.
Or maybe hiking is more your thing. Santubong, about 40 minutes away, is both a beach destination and a seaside nature retreat, where you can hike up the challenging Mount Santubong, or just enjoy the 2 waterfalls by her foothills.
Or if nature watching is more your thing, then Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary or Bako National Park might interest you, both easily accessible from the city centre. Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary, unlike the more popular Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, is purely a sanctuary, where the orang utans come out only during 2 feeding times: one in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Bako National Park has one of the more dramatic entrances to a national park, with access via boat only. You will be assured of visits by proboscis monkeys, macaques and bearded wild boar.
Wining and Dining
Kuching is known for a wide array of food, and is particularly noted for both Sarawak Laksa and Kolo Mee, both easily obtainable in the city centre. Most places sell pretty good dishes, and if you are along Carpenter Street, options of food are very pork-heavy. The Open Air Market, now a hawker centre in the middle of the old city, has a unique array of vendors selling all kinds of local dishes, from noodles to pork dumplings to a particular Kuching speciality: gula apong ice cream.
If something a bit more classy is what you’re after, then the dining establishments in the Old Court House would satiate your appetite. Common is a favourite, located in the former Council Chambers of the Old Court House, with nice café fare in cozy environments. For something more interesting, try Zinc’s Sarawak Laksa Pizza, which is really, really heavy and should be shared. The Junk has a list of comfort food if you suddenly have a need for lamb shanks.
Or maybe you are on a liquid diet. Drunk Monkey, located along Carpenter Street, is idealy suited by Bishopsgate, with a hard to beat perfectly framed view of the State Legislative Assembly and good happy hours. For something a bit more lively and dressed down, then Monkee Bar, located in the (relatively) newer part of Padungan, has cheap beer, a lively band and a riotous atmosphere.
A neat secret?
As a destination that brands itself as the ‘gateway to adventure,’ Kuching has both the creature comforts of a travelling urbanite that wants both cosmopolitan comforts with rugged nature within easy access.
While the city has limited international flights, with international connections through Singapore and Shenzen, or via Kuala Lumpur, this destination is still relatively untouched by mass-tourism and large tour busses. At least for now. Might as well enjoy it before the secret leaks out.
The Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita
Entrance fees: RM 10 locals, RM 20 non-locals, RM 5 concession (free for children under &)
Opening hours: 0900 – 1645 daily
Flights: international connections via Kuala Lumpur, with many flights by Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Malindo Air; via Singapore with Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Scoot, via Shenzen with Air Asia. The city is well connected to other Malaysian destinations and hubs.
Out and About: Rent a car, or download the Grab App to hail rides. While Uber is present, Grab is more convenient. Taxis and buses are not as readily available for a city of this size for some unknown reason.
Stay: I like the Kuching Hilton. Strategically located, and ask for the river view rooms. They are worth the premium.
Best time: all the time, and since this is a tropical city, it will rain regardless. However, Christmas, Chinese New Year and June are times when the city gets most festive, and the Rainforest World Music Festival in July and the Sarawak Regatta in November sets the stage for the city in a hyper light.
While Kuala Lumpur may not be known as a party hotspot like Bangkok, or have the sheer concentration of an iconic skyline like Singapore, this Muddy Confluence (if one were to translate the city’s name in to English) has a confluence of both: iconic rooftop bars like Bangkok and an unforgettable skyline like Singapore.
Helipad @ The Heli Lounge
This spot has been around for quite a few years, and it still has one of the most iconic views of Kuala Lumpur. Smack in the middle of the financial district, this bar on top of a working helipad has the best 360* view of Kuala Lumpur.
Highly ranked in my opinion from the sheer view, you can easily see all the iconic landmarks of the city from this spot, without being blocked (too much. The new Equatorial Place may obscure, but only slightly). On one angle, you get the Petronas Twin Towers, formerly the world’s tallest structure but still the world’s tallest twin towers, the elaborate telecommunications structure that is KL Tower and the various other skyscrapers.
In years to come, this spot will still have the best views of the skyline, as new, taller, ‘iconic’ towers take shape in this tropical metropolis, as the existing crop are focused on one landmark or another.
The atmosphere is relaxed, the drinks reasonably priced compared to her peers, and you get a bizarre feel of tourist hotspot and neighbourhood local bar. This is after all, in the middle of an inner city residential and financial district.
Insider’s tip: the lounge opens from 5pm and the helipad is accessible from 6pm. Get in before 9pm if you are wearing shorts: you may be required to wear long trousers after, and for guys and girls, proper shoes. Also, if you have to wait for a table, just tell them you’re fine with standing only. After 9pm, there is a minimum purchase, either a bottle of wine of a few cocktails.
View: 360* view of Kuala Lumpur, with all the landmarks clearly visible. Stay for sunset after 7pm.
Drinks: decent selection of drinks, reasonably priced.
Price Point: Agreeable prices for a posh destination. MYR 30/+ drink
Feel: Lounge opens at 5, Helipad open from 6. Relaxed atmosphere with a good mix of tourists and locals
Address: 34th Floor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
Nearest Station: Raja Chulan Monorail Station
Marini’s on 57
When this spot first opened, I saw this as one of those posh, pretentious places. At times, it does feel like it, but it has come back down to earth despite its height (pardon the pun). Located on the 57th floor of Tower 3 KLCC, this rooftop bar is literally next to the Petronas Twin Towers: so close, you can see office workers and taunt them with your drinks.
Now, this particular spot has a really good happy hour deal from 5pm till 9pm, after which, it can get a bit pricey. However, this spot does have a good view of the towers of KLCC during sunset hours, and especially the fountains in KLCC Park when the evening show is on.
The spot is somewhat relaxed, with a resident DJ spinning relaxed house music from 6pm. However, this is not so relaxed that you can get away with shorts and slippers: long trousers and proper shoes are required.
Want a nibble? The adjacent restaurant serves Italian fare, and the nibble menu at the bar is not too bad. For something a little more posh, Marble8, just downstairs, is perfect for carnivores who don’t mind splurging, or for something more Japanese-fusion, Nobu is right next door.
View: Unobstructed and up-close view of the Petronas Twin Towers, and the KLCC district. The park below will make you think you are away from a major metropolis for a few moments.
Drinks: Pretty good spirits selection. Have not tried their cocktails yet.
Price Point: Come in for happy hours after 5pm and before 9pm for drinks starting from MYR 20/+. Otherwise, look at MYR 30/+ for a drink.
Feel: After-work office crowd, professional setting and the occasional tourist. Very white collar.
Address: 57th Floor, Menara 3 Petronas, Persiaran KLCC, 50088 Kuala Lumpur
Nearest Station: KLCC LRT Station
I am still not too sure where to bucket Elysium. This rooftop terrace is both a lounge, nightclub, after-hours bar and a rave venue, happily squeezed in 2 floors of Menara Goldhill, down the road from the Helipad.
The terrace is small and intimate, with very comfortable sofas that can easily double as day beds. You get pretty good views of the Kuala Lumpur skyline, from the Petronas Twin Towers, the tower which houses the Helipad and KL Tower.
The happy hour is pretty good, from 5pm till 10pm, one of the longest happy hours in town. The cocktails are pretty decent, and for the prices, I wouldn’t complain too much. You are here after all, for the view.
If you are a night owl and want to really let your hair down as the other bars and clubs close for the night, then this spot may just be your after-hours haunt. I have been told they on occasion close at 7am when there is a big party on…
View: 90* view, from the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Tower and Maybank Tower
Drinks: Decent cocktail selection. Come in after 5pm and before 10pm for one of the city’s longest happy hour.
Price Point: Pretty decent at happy hour, MYR 20/+ drink, but MYR 40/+ drink after happy hours.
Feel: Outdoor terrace of a confused lounge/bar/nightclub/rave.
Address: Leve 32, Wisma Goldhill, Jalan Raja Chulan, 50200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +60-03-2022 3818
Nearest Station: Raja Chulan Monorail Station
Thirty8, Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
Now, as of writing, there are 2 rooftop bars in hotels in this city. One being the (personally) overrated ‘original’ SkyBar at the rooftop pool area of the Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur, which admittedly has the best view of the Petronas Twin Towers, and this. It should be pretty obvious which one I am partial to.
Thirty8 is a restaurant and lounge located in the second highest floor of the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, right below the stunning sky lobby, and has a pretty good 360* view of the city. Granted, this is the third highest rooftop bar in this list, but it is the most comfortable. The Helipad is exposed to the elements while Marini’s can be crowded. This one is, well, perfectly suited for a relaxing drink with friends.
Unlike the other perches in this list, there is no happy hour. However, the drinks are pretty decent, and they make one of the better Classic Martinis in town. Floor-to-ceiling windows ensure an unobstructed view of the city below, the perceived poshness will ensure you a quieter environment to have an intimate chat and the glass staircase will give you quite the entrance, if you are so inclined.
View: Immediately in front of the bar are the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower, but 360* view of the city throughout the lounge/restaurant
Drinks: Good cocktail and wine selection
Price Point: Pretty decent by any standards. MYR 30+/drink.
Feel: Outdoor lounge on a rooftop, yet relaxed in the late afternoons. Perfect for a chill.
Address: 38th Floor, Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, 12 Jalan Pinang, Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +60-03-2182 1234
Nearest Station: KLCC LRT Station, access via KLCC Pedestrian Tunnel
What is my criteria?
-View: do I get a unique insight to the city? And is the view majorly obstructed?
-Drinks Selection: Beer? Wine? Cocktails? Variety helps with the view.
-Price Point: Rooftop bars are known to charge a premium, but is it reasonable?
-Feel: Now this is hard to quantify, but a fantastic view can be spoiled by that intangible thing called ‘feelings’
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.