Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Kuching In Borneo
Sophisticated, elegant, and full of charm, Kuching is a city poised to capture the attention of the world.
Nowhere else boasts the same heady blend of old-world colonial charm and cosmopolitan modern convenience, on the doorstep of rainforests populated by orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and the rare Rafflesia flower.
Located on the Malaysian part of Borneo, adventure activities in the nearby jungles abound, but the pace of life along Kuching’s waterfront remains relaxed, as little wooden boats taxi people back and forth from villages to the contemporary city centre.
But it’s the multi-ethnic people that make Kuching a true delight – people who’re as proud of their diversity and their identity as they are welcoming of curious foreigners.
It’s something really special.
Kuching Is The City Of Cats
Kuching is the Malay word for “Cat”, and you’ll see no shortage of kitties roaming the streets. The people here like cats, and even strays are well looked after.
There’s no agreement on exactly why the city came to be called “Cat”, but the name has stuck for nearly 200 years, and the people are fond of playing up to it, with cat museums, cat statues, cat-themed public art and galleries dotted with cat souvenirs.
In fact, it’s more likely that the name comes from the old Chinese word cochin meaning trading harbour. The name was already in use when the Sultan of Brunei gave Kuching and the surrounding lands to British explorer Sir James Brooke in the early 1800s. The Brooke family ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak until World War II.
This colonial history shows itself in the elegant old-fashioned buildings and graceful waterfront along the Sarawak River. The wide brown watery expanse snakes its way down to the ocean, and connects the modern city centre to dozens of kampungs or villages along the riverbanks.
There’s also some spectacular museums that explore local culture, including Sarawak Museum founded by the famous botanist Alfred Wallace, who was a mate of Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin). This is definitely a place for imagining yourself in a glamourous version of a colonial past.
It’s Multi-Ethnic And Totally Unique
Sarawak became part of Malaysia in the ’60s, but the state has its own proud identity. You’ll need an extra stamp in your passport to enter Sarawak for one, and the people are largely Dayak and Iban, though there are also many Malay and Chinese people.
The people of Kuching are proud of their diversity, showing visitors the Christian churches, Islamic mosques and colourful Taoist temples that sit side by side throughout the city. On any given day, visitors might witness street parades of Chinese dragons, Christian hymns, or Indigenous dance. It’s all part of the Kuching rhythm.
Outside the city, it’s easy to visit longhouses, the traditional homes of the Iban people. A single, rambling structure with additions and renovations added for generations, a longhouse is more a village than a single home, and many gladly welcome tourists to share their way of life. Guides are happy to demonstrate the ways traditional life blends with modern changes, and relaxed residents mind chickens and, yes, a number of cats.
Venture Into The Wild
It wouldn’t be Borneo without the wilds of jungle rainforests beckoning, and Kuching is a perfect base to explore.
Just 20km from Kuching, the Semenggoh Nature Reserve is home to a large group of semi-wild orangutans who visit the centre regularly, to the delight of tourists. Unlike some wildlife operations, this is a place that puts orangutans first – human visitors are only permitted at certain times of day in restricted areas, and there’s a strict behaviour code.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it’s like to gaze at a giant boss male orangutan casually smashing a coconut and taking a sip, or seeing a cheeky infant clamber over his mother’s back as she gracefully descends from a high branch. These beauties of the forest are our cousins, and seeing them is a real delight.
Beyond the reserve, there’s true wild places to explore. Go trekking in spectacular Bako National Park, and kayaking the glorious Sarawak River past limestone karsts topped with jungle mists. Cycling tours, caving, boat trips and serious expeditions are all available, with great guides easy to come by.
It’s really a choose your own adventure sort of place.
(Lead image: Lenny K Photography / Flickr)