What do you mean there isn’t anything to do in Kuching?
Prior to our trip, whenever I mentioned our short weekend getaway to Kuching, many people insisted, “But there’s nothing to do there!”
While Kuching isn’t an unusual place to visit in the country, it isn’t as popular as other cities especially those in West Malaysia. It is no surprise that Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh and Malacca tend to steal the limelight as Malaysia’s top urban holiday destinations.
Meanwhile, this city in the state of Sarawak, East Malaysia remains wrapped in the fantasy and shadow of a tropical paradise. Sure, people know about the beautiful national parks, wildlife reserves and the Rainforest World Music Festival – but is that really all there is?
If you look carefully, you’ll see that Kuching has its share of historic and urban charms. It has a laid-back vibe, arrested in time by colonial-style architecture and the cultural diversity formed over centuries. There are emerging eateries that are likely to shape the modern culinary scene. Given our country’s love for food, this is a sign of good things to come. I believe that Kuching has the potential to become the country’s next heritage city. It’s getting there.
Until then, here are 10 adventures you can enjoy now in Kuching. Note that this list only concentrates on the city centre; there’s plenty to see and do beyond that!
Walk along the Waterfront
Kuching is divided by the Sarawak River into two parts, the North bank peppered with traditional Malay villages and the South bank with its vibrant commercial district. As you stroll along the South bank, you’ll be greeted by two of the city’s major landmarks: Astana, the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak and the Sarawak State Assembly.
I suggest heading over early in the morning before the city stirs to life, as the weather is cooler, the streets are quiet and the sunrise adds a golden sparkle to the riverbank. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Go crazy with local delights
The Malaysian way to travel is to indulge in the best food wherever you are. Ask any local for recommendations and they will lead you to the kopitiams or hawker centres, because that’s where the best ones would be. Don’t be afraid to order several dishes in one sitting. You won’t be alone.
Some of the must-haves are the Sarawak laksa, kolo mee, tomato mee and the Teh C special (sweet three-layered tea). Yummy!
Find kek lapis at Kampung Boyan
If you live on the South bank, crossing the river on a boat costs between RM0.50 to RM1.00 per person each way. There you can stroll around Kampung Boyan, a pristine and peaceful Malay village.
Most head here to buy kek lapis, easily found in many converted shophouses and roadside stalls. Colourful and intricately designed, the layered cakes make sinfully delicious gifts. Since every layer must be baked individually, each cake takes at least 5 hours to make. It’s practically a craft of its own.
We went to Dayang Salhah Kek Lapis, the most well-known of the lot. A cake costs RM20 or RM25 if it’s made with butter, and RM10 if it’s made with margarine. And there are all sorts of unique combinations to choose from!
Climb up Fort Margherita
Once a fortress to protect Kuching from pirate attacks, Fort Margherita has been turned a museum dedicated to the Brooke family, who ruled Sarawak during the “white rajah” dynasty. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of Sarawak, this is a good place to start.
The courtyard was where prisoner executions took place during the Japanese occupation. You’ll notice a door with a huge skull on it; apparently there are real human skulls from back when headhunting was practised. If you’re squeamish about such things, rest assured there is nothing to be afraid of. All we saw was an underwhelming basket which I suppose contains the heads.
Embark on a cat-venture
Kuching sounds the same as the Malay word for cat, kucing. Although it’s probably just a coincidence, that didn’t stop cat statues and street art from popping up around the city. Kitty puns, how can you not love them, right?
The biggest cat statue in the city is the Great Cat of Kuching at the end of Jalan Padungan, which would occassionally be dressed up to fit the holiday. Of course, there are kucings everywhere! If you are fanatic about felines, you might be interested to know that there is a Cat Museum. I can’t tell you what it’s like though; we gave it a miss in the end.
Shop at the Main Bazaar
Stretched along the Waterfront, the Main Bazaar buzzes with travellers who are looking for gifts and hagglers out to get the best deal. Forget magnets and key chains; go for lovely sarung cloths or scarves designed with Borneo motifs, masks, timbre home decorations, jewellery or bags made from multi-coloured beads, laksa paste, sambal, instant noodles, dried kolo mee noodles and Sarawak pepper.
If you’re flying within Malaysia, you’re allowed to carry the foodstuff in your hand luggage. What a relief for us! If you’re travelling internationally, you might want to check the airline and customs regulations.
Step into the old world at Jalan Carpenter
It’s truly a different world. The colonial shophouses, bright Chinese temples and red lanterns hanging above the street lure you into a bygone era. Passing the Harmony Arch onto Jalan Carpenter, you’ll enter the Old Chinatown and oldest part of Kuching.
This is my favourite part of the city centre. Locals hang around in kopitiams. Shopkeepers sit patiently as you browse through the stores filled with antiques, rattan furniture, bicycles and books. The Tua Pek Gong Temple, Hong San Si Temple and Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple welcome visitors each day and burst with excitement during popular Chinese festivals. Unlike the Main Bazaar, Jalan Carpenter isn’t as touristy. Great for people-watching!
If you enjoy a good caffeine fix, be sure to check out Black Bean Coffee for a taste of 100% pure Sarawak gourmet coffee. They normally use their house blend if you don’t have a preference, but they can add in your choice of arabica beans to create a bespoke cuppa. Definitely worth a stop if you appreciate a local cafe hopping experience!
Get cultural at The Old Courthouse Complex
Home to the antique Clock Tower and Charles Brooke Monument, this historical monument once served as the administrative centre of Sarawak. Today it is a community hall and popular venue for cultural festivals as well as events organised by the Sarawak Tourism Board, such as local craft workshops. As it happened, we were there just as an independent Malaysian clothing fair was taking place.
Visit a free museum
One great thing about the museums in Kuching is that most of them are free! We picked the Sarawak Textile Museum, which details how textiles were made, the dyeing methods and the different ethnic patterns. The mannequins were quite realistic and frankly creeped us out a little.
The souvenir shop downstairs belongs to Juliana, a local bead work artisan who was happy to introduce us to her native handicraft business. You can check out her fine collection of bead embroidery and weaving, some of which has garnered attention from clients abroad! If you plan to say hi, she’ll be working on her next order at Juliana Native Handwork.
Got more time to kill? You can head to the Chinese History Museum, Sarawak Museum, Art Museum or the Islamic Museum, amongst others.
Wander down the colourful alleys of Jalan India
Further down from the Main Bazaar, there is Jalan India, a lively commercial area where handwoven textiles are much cheaper and brightly-coloured walls trigger the photographer or Instagrammer in you.
In the middle of the pedestrianised street, there is a tiny pathway called India Mosque Lane. While you are there, make a detour to pass through a hidden world dominated by traditional spice merchants and a fragrant aroma.
Do you think Kuching could be Malaysia’s next top destination?