Kuching, Malaysia: what to see plus the best restaurants, hotels and bars

The capital of Malaysian Borneo is one of Asias most alluring cities, with fabulous food and new hotels, but little traffic and few high-rises to spoil the laid-back vibe

Just as Penang was swiftly transformed into one of Asias hottest destinations a few years ago, the buzz in Malaysia right now is all about another under-the-radar place, the little-known city of Kuching, riverside capital of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. There are several hypothesis as to how the city got its name( Kuching is cat in Malay ), but its roots are as a trading post, built up by the family of Sir James Brooke, the first of the white rajahs who ruled Sarawak for a century. When I first visited 20 years ago, Kuching was a backwater, where tourists would hardly transgress their journey on their route to trek in Borneos rainforests and national parks.

Kuching, Malaysia, map

Going there today still reminds me of a day when Asian cities were not clogged with traffic, pollution and skyscrapers. Kuchings architectural heritage and historic Chinatown are well-preserved, even though it absences Unesco protection, and there is scarcely a high-rise to spoil the skyline.

The street food has always been spectacular here, but now there are also bistros and fun bars, and a great choice of accommodation from boutique hotels to backpacker hostels. Despite its growth it retains a laid-back, small-town ambiance, with friendly locals who love to meet travellers who have made it all the way to Borneo.

What to see and do

Ji India, a popular street in Kuching. Photo: Alamy

Kuching is defined by its historic waterfront, and the perfect introduction is to take a sunset stroll along the one-mile pedestrian promenade that follows the snaking Sarawak river. Across the water lie sleepy Malay kampongs, the once-imposing colonial Fort Margherita and the White Rajahs palace, both dwarfed today by an immense modern parliament house resembling a surreal golden spaceship. There are river cruises, but the simple sampan ferry, which rows people back and forth for M$ 1 a ride( under 20 p ), is more fun.

A tambang( sampan water taxi) boatman on the Sarawak River. Photo: Andrew Watson/ Getty Images

At the end of the prom, opposite the ancient prison that is now a fashionable restaurant, is the pearl in Kuchings colonial crown, the 19 th-century Old Court House withcolonnaded terraces, which has become a culture hub since it was taken over by the people behind Penangs bohemian China House arts and leisure centre. Today the various court houses host exhibitions, theater, verse reading and live music, as well as a fashion boutique, cafe and restaurant. Parallel to the waterfront runs Main Bazaar Street, lined with stores selling tribal handicrafts. The back streets behind form Kuchings Chinatown , a maze of incense-filled temples, coffee shop, street food stallings and noisy workshops full of tinsmiths, cobblers, carpenters and tailors.

Kenyah Dayak mural in the Sarawak Museum. Photo: Andrew Watson/ Getty Images

Kuching is not big on sights, but one venue not to miss is Sarawak Museum , which has barely changed since it first opened in 1891, with an incredible collecting of local flora and fauna, and a genuine insight into the indigenous tribes of the Borneo rainforest.

Local designer Jacqueline Fong has opened T anoti Crafts , a workshop/ boutique for young weavers that produces ethnic silk songket cloth, including affordable accessories like shawl and purses.

Tanoti Crafts

No one could fail to notice the large number of tattooed people in Kuching: body art is an integral part of the indigenous culture, especially the Iban, once also known for headhunting. Today, more than 20 tattoo studios draw in travellers. The man to visit is the world-renowned Ernesto Kalum, whose Borneo Headhunter studio ( 47 Wayang Street) offers both contemporary tattoos using modern machines and tribal designs created with the traditional tap technique.

For a less invasive insight into local life, book a course at Bumbu Cooking Class ( about 28 pp ), where Joseph Jissin, from the Bidayuh tribe, takes small groups to the market to shop for ingredients from the jungle such as ferns and pineapples, colourful Malinjau nuts and fragrant pandan leaves, which everyone then cooks under his supervision before eating everything for lunch.

Where to eat

Prawn laksa, a traditional Sarawak dish. Photo: Andrew Watson/ Getty Images

Kuching is a foodie paradise, particularly the street food, where most dishes cost less than a pound. Begin at Chinatowns Seng Kee ( main dishes about 90 p, 37 Carpenter Street ), where theres a choice of fishball soup, pork satay, Sarawak laksa, Chinese rice porridge with salted egg and preserved vegetables, or the adventurous kueh chap , a feast of slow-braised pork ribs and intestines.

In nearby Padungan Road, theres always a queue for Noodle Descendents ( 188 Padungan Road) which serves an awesome bowl of kolo mee , the favourite local dish of minced pork and noodles, served by a tiny lady who has been cooking here since 1957.

Top Spot food court is on top of a multi-storey car park. Photo: BobSam

At night, the crowds head to Top Spot ( main dishes from 1.80, Bukit Mata Street ), an immense open-air food court on the roof of a car park. More than 500 diners sit at communal tables, ordering from neon-lit seafood stallings displaying live crab, prawns, razor clams, wriggling squid, grouper, pomfret and parrot fish.

There are plenty of fine dining address too, from Asian fusion cuisine at Bla Bla Bla ( 27 Tabuan Street, mains 7) to excellent pasta and pizza at Junk ( mains from 4, 80 Wayang Street ), decorated with eclectic antiques collected by flamboyant cook George Ling. He also owns a row of Chinese shophouses, the latest being the lovingly preserved Barber Cafe only up the road, serving consolation food: tangy prawn soup, chilli burgers and healthy salads accompanied by a bloody mary or dirty martini.

Kuching street food stalling. Photo: John Brunton for the Guardian

But what is really exciting in Kuching right now is the rediscovery of the cuisine of Sarawaks indigenous tribes in creative eateries such as Lepau ( 395 Ban Hock Road) and the.Dyak ( 29 Simpang Tiga Road ). Dishes include manok lulun ( chicken stewed in bamboo with tapioca leaves and herbs ); umai ( thinly sliced river fish marinaded ceviche-style ); and vegetables such as cangkuk manis ( starring gooseberry leaves) and midin ( wild ferns ).

Where to drink

The Monkeebar

For the best river views, take afternoon tea or sunset cocktails at the James Brooke Bistro ( 7 Tunku Abdul Rahman Street ), which recalls the days of the white rajahs. Locals, though, tend to prefer freshly roasted coffee from beans grown on Sarawak plantations, at Black Bean Coffee (8 7 Ewe Hai Street ). From early evening happy hour until well after midnight, the Drunk Monkey ( 68 Carpenter Street ), in Chinatown, is Kuchings latest hot spot, though easily confused with the equally popular Monkeebar ( 12 Song Thian Cheok Street ), owned by a preservation NGO that devotes a third of its profits to an orang-utan preservation project. For live reggae and heavy metal, head for The Canteen ( 7 Tun Haji Openg Street) at weekends. And 21 Bistro ( 64 Padungan Road) is a gritty bar where Filipino musicians entertain a raucous mob: its the place to try a glass of tuak , lethal home-brewed rice wine.

Where to remain

The Ranee hotel

Kuching has plenty of modern five-star hotels, but a much more original place to remain is the Ranee ( doublings from 53 B& B ), a romantic boutique hotel in two former Chinese shophouses, decorated with antiques and tribal handicraft. Just next door is a charming budget alternative, the Waterfront Lodge ( doubles 21) with a traditional interior courtyard. There are a host of inexpensive backpacker hostels, such as Singgahsana Lodge ( dorm bed 6.50 , singgahsana.com ), which has a rooftop bar with pool tables and occasional live music, or in Chinatown, the hip DIY Dorm ( dorm bed 4.60) with its popular Wrong Place cafe.

Trips out of township

Bako national park. Photo: ElenaMirage/ Getty Images/ iStockphoto

There are several destinations an hour or so from Kuching that offer an exciting savour of Borneos ancient rainforests( assure sarawaktourism.com for contacts ). Bako national park , the oldest and one of the smallest national parks, is reached by a steamy boat ride along the Santubong river( full day 55 pp ). Jungle roads weave past mangrove swamps and dense tropical vegetation, with several came to see you at quiet sandy beaches on the South China Sea. For staying overnight, there are simple two-person jungle chalets to rent( about 30) or dorm beds( under 4 ), with the chance to go on after-dark treks.

Mother and baby orangutans at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. Photo: Grant Dixon/ Getty/ Lonely Planet

A trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre ( 24) offers a rare opportunity to see orangutans in their natural habitat. Travellers need to understand though, that this is a rehabilitation centre for a species whose future is still seriously threatened , not a tourist attraction. Semenggohs 26 orang-utans wander free in the jungle and swaying through the trees when forest wardens arrive for the twice-daily feeding. Guests can respectfully watch in silence from a platform around 100 metres away.

The Night Market in Siniawan Old Town. Photo: Chee Jiun Chong

Rarely mentioned in guidebooks is Siniawan Old Town whose night market held in an abandoned 1860 s gold mining settlement makes an offbeat foodie escapade only 30 km from Kuching( about 15 pp ). On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from sunset till 11 pm, this riverside ghost township of clapboard houses comes alive as ratings of food stallings set up shop, frying noodles and vegetables, grilling fish, chicken wings and satay. Tables are set up all along the high street, under red Chinese lamps, to cater for hundreds of hungry visitors.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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