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.
One of the more accessible yet logistically interesting of the national parks in Asia, the Bako National Park is a perfect distance away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet lies smack firmly within the city limits of Kuching City. A good escape for nature and wildlife, Bako National Park is also a hiker’s paradise, with numerous hikes through a variety of terrain.
A boat-ride away
Despite being in the city limits, Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Borneo, was gazetted in such a way that the only entrance is via a boat. Not only does this uncommon method of entry reduces large-scale visitor impact, it also provides for an interesting approach to the park.
Getting the boat from the Bako Jetty in Bako Village, about 50 minutes from Kuching City Centre, is pretty easy, as schedules are pretty flexible, with frequent connections provided by the local boatmen. Get your national park entrance tickets and boat tickets at the booth, and you’ll be on your way.
Watch the world go by as you whizz past the Bako fishing village and out in to the Bako Estuary, catching sights of the bamboo stilt fishing points, mangrove fringes and crocodiles. Yes, there will be crocodiles. Do not worry, the crocodiles are too lazy basking on the mudbanks to bother.
Depending on the tides, you would either disembark on the pier at one end of the Park HQ compound, or out in the shallows close to very interesting cliff-rock formations. Trust your boatman when he says it’s safe to get out: it looks deep but it’s pretty shallow, at most knee-deep.
After cleaning your feet of sand at the Park HQ, register at the counter and let loose with the options for hikes. Don’t forget to register where you are going, even if it’s multiple hikes!
Also, look out for the wildlife at the HQ’s main building: you may spot a bearded wild boar by the toilets, or close to the cafeteria. Monkeys and macaques are, well, ubiquitous.
A Diverse Ecosystem
The beauty of hiking the numerous trekking routes in Bako National Park is the variety of fauna you will encounter on your routes. The site is both a photographer’s and biologist’s wet dream: you start off with mangroves or marshes filled with nipah or sago palms, before encountering a steep rock formation. This is just where it gets started.
While the site may look like it is on a river flatlands, the area is mostly on a plateau, and for most hikes, you will be ascending up the central Bako plateau. Here, you will see everything from typical tropical evergreens to kerangas shrubland to lowland montane trees (It has been years since I did biology. I may have butchered a few of these).
Regardless of your fitness levels, the hikes here are always pleasant. Apart from the ascent up to the plateau, which can occasionally get both steep and rocky, the views and the sights from the main plateau are worthwhile.
Hidden Beaches Galore
At the end of most of the hikes in Bako National Park, you will end up in a beach or two, a good reward after an hour or so of hard hiking and climbing. The approach to the beaches are always dramatic, with my favourite, the Telok Pandan trail, bringing you past kerangas and tropical health, before stopping briefly at a cliff and iron-eroded rock formations, and proceeding all the way down to the beach.
The beaches, located in hidden coves, are somewhat secluded, though on occasion, you will encounter, as you do, other hikers. The beach is wide enough for you to enjoy a quiet spot yet not feel too isolated.
Another good plus in Bako National Parks and her numerous coves: you will always encounter a few boatmen moored in the bay. You have some hikers who hike to the beach, or others who just take the boat direct from Park HQ. These boatmen are ready to take you back to the Park HQ for RM15, but subject to their availability. Ask nicely and they may even do a panoramic tour of the rock formations along the bay.
Rock Formations, Everywhere
Bako National Park is renowned for her rock formations: you can spot everything from a cow to a turtle’s mouth to a cobra in strike pose to a dolphin ready to leap out of the water. One of these rock formations is the item you will spot when going from Telok Pandan cove to the Park HQ.
My ever friendly boatman, as we were talking about the best angles to shoot videos and take pictures of the rock formation, proved his point, when, as we circumambulated the rock formation in the sea beyond the cliffs. At various points as we circled on the boat, I saw either a dolphin, a cobra or my cat’s tail.
One of the highlights, or might I say ‘selling points’ of the Bako National Park is its abundance and high probability of observing wildlife. This I do not doubt. One which I eagerly, desperately wanted to see, was of a proboscis monkey.
I took 2 different treks, where apparently I could spot them in the wild amidst the mangroves. While the 2 treks were really interesting, with me observing everything from various types of vegetation to hikers doing an impromptu trail run, I did not spot those famed monkeys.
That was until I was back at the Park HQ: there, in the grounds of the Park HQ’s main building, amidst the trees next to the cafeteria and on the beach, an entire troop of them, lounging in the trees, teasing us, the intrepid travellers, with, initially a tail, then an orange scruff, and then a full-on view. They, for that moment, became the models of this jungle runway, with cameras snapping away at every opportunity, as the late afternoon sun provided the perfect lighting.
These cheeky little critters knew how to tease guests before these same guests took the 3pm boat back to the city. Next time, I’ll get you in the mangrove walkways, next time!
Transport?: Either rent a car and drive to the Bako National Park Jetty at Bako. The road is very straightforward from Kuching City: follow the signs to Bako town. You can also get transport from the numerous travel agencies in the Main Bazaar.
Once at the Bako National Park Jetty, hop on the numerous Park-authorized boats to get there. The last ‘official’ boat leaves from Bako National Park at 3pm, but the local boatmen cooperatives can arrange for alternative transport if you miss the last ‘official’ ride.
If you are doing Malaysia as independently as possible, I recommend getting the Grab app, as Uber is not as popular as Grab in Kuching.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot. Good hiking shoes and a towel. You may be tempted to go for a dip.
Cost?: National Park Fee is RM 20 for foreigners/RM 10 for Malaysians, round trip Boat Fee is RM40 for foreigners/RM20 for Malaysians
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.