When I told friends and family that my next adventure was to Kuching, Sarawark, East Malaysia, Borneo, they inevitably responded with:
“Kuching? But why? What’s in Kuching?”
The answer I gave them then was ORANGUTANS!! But the real answer is SO MUCH MORE!
I don’t know how long I initially intended to spend there, but I ended up staying for almost two weeks – Kuching really captured my heart.
A bit of background about Kuching. It’s the capital of Sarawak, an East Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. It’s a quaint little city, with delicious food options (Sarawak Laksa and Kolo Mee being the more famous), and a wonderful, laid-back feel. I definitely did not feel like I was in Malaysia at all, and the locals I met were super friendly. There were also a decent cafes (with WiFi!) and several bars to hang out at, if you fancy a drink. My hostel was also pretty great and had all the necessary information for getting around Kuching. Another thing that makes Kuching so special is that there are several major national parks within an hour or two’s distance from Kuching, so it’s the perfect little base for your trip. Here are some of the highlights of my trip – maybe you’ll be inspired to visit this gem of a city too!
Despite being top of my list, visiting Semmengoh Nature Reserve was oddly enough, the last major activity I did during my stay in Kuching, but it was a good half-day excursion. Orangutans are rare apes only found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, and this is one of the few places to see semi-wild orangutans at relatively close range.
Easy enough to get to by public transport – simply catch 7am from the bus terminal at the Mosque to get there in time for the 9am feeding session. We arrived slightly after 8am and it’s a 15min walk to the feeding area where we got briefed by the keepers before they started calling for the orangutans. We were lucky enough to see a large male (he was massive), a juvenile, and a mother and her newborn infant (only a few days old). These were semi-wild orangutans, having been released into the wild after years of rehabilitated at the center. It was a pretty amazing sight.
The entrance fee is only 10RM for non-Malaysians, and for 200RM you can sponsor / adopt one of the orangutans in rehab. The park is open from 8-10am and 2-4pm, with feedings at 9am and 3pm. There are some trails within the park, but most were closed when I visited.
Bako National Park is one of the key attractions to visit if you’re ever in Sarawak or Kuching. The smallest and oldest national park in Sarawak, it’s one of the few places to see proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, silver leaf languors and other flora and fauna endemic to the region.
Getting to the park on your own is doable – clearly marked public buses leave from Open Air Tower Market from 7am onwards and drop you right at the dock where you have to sign in / pay for the return boat trip (40RM round trip) and conservation fee (20RM). From there, it’s another 30 minutes in the boat before arriving at the National Park.
We were lucky enough to spot some proboscis monkeys right away – one even jumped off the tree he was sitting on and went for a swim! Such funny creatures, with their giant noses, pot-bellies and white bums.
There are plenty of trails in Bako that can be walked with relative ease – ask for a map at the Visitor Center, and they’ll even recommend a few depending on what you’re interested in. Some of the views overlooking the sea stacks and the beach are quite spectacular.
I stayed the night at the hostel in the park – accommodation is pretty basic, but there are no other alternatives. Besides, for one night, it was manageable (I met a girl who was staying for FIVE nights, so imagine that). Food and drinks are available at the park for a reasonable price.
If you stay the night, there is an option to go on a guided night walk (RM10) to try to spot some creatures that aren’t easily spotted in the day. We weren’t very lucky, and only saw a few spiders, frogs, and stick insects.
I also got a chance to see the silver leaf languor, the bearded pig (and piglets) and a green pit viper so it was well worth the effort.
There are a couple of beaches at Bako, but swimming is strongly discouraged due to the presence of crocodiles, so swim at your own risk.
Home of the elusive, world’s largest flower – the rafflesia. Apparently, it has never been successfully cultivated out of the wild, so your only chance of seeing it is in the wild in one of four countries: Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. It also takes 8-9 months to bloom, and the bloom lasts a mere 4-5 days before dying, so catching a glimpse of this rare flower is a lucky treat indeed.
My hostel staff kindly informed me that there was a rafflesia flower in bloom while I was in Kuching, so obviously I had to go see it. The national park is quite some distance away from the city (about 2hours by public bus) and buses leave from Kuching Sentral (the bus station out of the city) at 7.30am or 10am and cost 12RM, check what time the buses return with the bus drivers.
The rafflesia I got a chance to see wasn’t the biggest, measuring 50cm across (only!), but was such a delightful, curious and strange flower! And no, it did not smell like a corpse. Neither I nor a couple of the other people around at the time could smell anything.
Gunung Gading is also worth a visit, even if the rafflesia isn’t in bloom – there is a trail leading to three waterfalls along the way, and then up to the summit. It was raining on the day I was there, so I only went up to the waterfalls, and not to the summit (good thing too – the trail was quite muddy, steep and slippery), but it was a good hike!
Matang Wildlife Center receives some flack and bad publicity on the internet (read: Tripadvisor reviews), so it was a bit of a toss up for me about whether to go or not. I decided to go in the end, because I had company (a guy I met at my hostel was really eager to go) and well…
So Matang is a rehabilitation center for wildlife that has been rescued, and houses some pretty rare species of animals that you’d be unlikely to ever set eyes on otherwise – clouded leopard, binturong, Bornean gibbons, porcupines, as well as orangutans, sunbears and hornbills. But obviously, Matang receives far more animals than they have resources to care for, which leads to rather sad conditions for the animals there. This wildlife center does not receive much funding: partially because the state doesn’t have enough resources, and partially because Matang isn’t part of the tourist circuit both because of poor accessibility and bad press.
The result of all of this is – some of the animals are kept in cages, sometimes far too small for them, and while we visited, some of the animals did seem distressed and agitated at being kept in such confines. That said, I still think Matang deserves more credit than it’s given – there is some information about the situation of some of the animals before they were rescued and some of them were really heartbreaking. Orangutans that had been kept chained to a toilet bowl, gibbons and sun bears kept as “pets”, a crocodile kept in a box so small that its snout started growing upwards and remains permanently turned up at a horrific angle. Given the conditions that they came from, their situation at Matang, while not ideal, is far better. We also saw few keepers and staff at the wildlife center – I imagine the current staff (and volunteers) are doing the best they can with the resources they have, and I commend them for their work. Read more about volunteering at Matang here.
So there’s no public transport that goes to Matang Wildlife Center – your best bet is a Grab taxi (about 30ish RM), and go early so you can kinda get the place to yourself (although I doubt it ever gets crowded). Conservation fee is 20RM. After visiting the animal exhibits (we spent about an hour or so), we decided to do the hike over to Kubah National Park.
It was about 2-3hours of sweaty jungle walking, and we did have a minor leech incident at one point, but the trail is clearly marked, and wasn’t too difficult. Leave your information with the rangers – they can call ahead to the rangers at Kubah to tell them to expect your arrival. Bring plenty of water – there’s nowhere to buy water along the way. There’s a fantastic little viewpoint almost at the end of the trail where you have a spectacular view of the sea, rivers and mountains of Sarawak all laid out before you.
From Kubah National Park, there are other trails that you can walk (including one to Frog Pond/ Lake) but we didn’t do any of the other trails. There are public buses passing the entrance of Kubah National Park heading back to Kuching (I think the last bus is as 2 or 3pm), or alternatively, a Grab taxi back will set you back about 20RM.
The first “tourist attraction” I visited in Kuching, and it’s an attraction most people skip unless they have a bunch of time. And fair enough, if you’ve visited other caves elsewhere, these may be a bit underwhelming, but it was still a nice journey for me there and back to explore a bit of the more rural bits of Sarawak.
Getting there is not particularly easy – public buses to Bau (pronounced ba-ooh, 2 syllables) Town leave from the Mosque (Masjid) Bus Terminal, but the schedule is erratic and difficult to predict. It takes at least 1.5hrs to get there from Kuching, so leave early because otherwise you won’t be able to make the connecting bus service to the caves, which is what happened to me.
I arrived in Bau Town only to be told that the bus to the caves had just left, and the next one wouldn’t leave me enough time to wander around, and to take a taxi. I couldn’t find any taxis unfortunately, so I started walking (Fairy Cave is about 12km away from Bau Town, Wind Cave maybe about 2-3km) and trying to hitchhike. Got picked up by a lovely gentleman who gave me a ride to Fairy Cave, and ended up driving me back to Bau from Wind Cave as well at the end of my exploring. I hitched a ride from a Chinese family from Fairy Cave to Wind Cave, since they were headed in the same direction.
So the caves themselves:
Fairy Cave – involves a walk up a bunch of stairs (165 of them?) to the entrance of the cave, and a bit of climbing up some dark bits, but the cave itself is big, bright and well lit with tonnes of natural light. I was told you can climb out of the cave to get to “the top” somewhere, but didn’t think it was a good idea to attempt that on my own. If you have a flashlight, you can explore further into the cave (it gets dark pretty quick), but again, I wouldn’t advise doing this alone. Entrance fee: 5RM.
Wind Cave – not sure why it’s named as such; should be called Bat Cave or Swiftlet Cave instead. It’s completely dark inside, so a flashlight is a must. Wear a hat, because bats and swiftlets are plentiful and likely to poop on your head. Speaking of which, the whole place smells like guano, a fancy name for bat droppings. Walking in the cave is very easy – simply follow the board walk within the cave and you can’t get lost. What’s more interesting in this cave is the sounds, and if you can manage it – turn off your lights and stand for a couple of minutes in complete darkness listening to the bats and swiftlets. It’s quite eerie. Entrance fee: 5RM
I would probably not recommend the caves if you’ve a) been to other caves in your life, b) don’t have private transport and don’t fancy having to wait around ages for buses and possibly not ever get to the caves. Be sure to check the bus timings for buses leaving Bau Town to Kuching – if you’re too late, you may find yourself stranded in Bau for the night.
Other Attractions in and around Kuching
Housed in a strangely shaped building (not of a cat), this museum has a bunch (over 4000) exhibits on…Cats. Kuching is known as the city of cats (Kuching means cat in Malay), but it isn’t actually true that the city of cats. Locals tell me the name Kuching either comes from the trade of the fruit mata kuching, a longan/lychee-type fruit that used to be grown in that area, or the old word cochin which means port. Anyways. Cats galore in this (free!) museum – fyi, no live cats. There was also a separate exhibit about the history of Kuching, which was interesting to learn more about the local history.
Didn’t manage to do this, but it seems really cool. Climbing it is meant to be more difficult / technical than Mt Kinabalu, so how’s that for a challenge. Something to try out when I go back to Kuching.
Museums, temples, cafes and nightlife
There are a bunch of museums, temples and cafes in Kuching downtown area. I didn’t visit any of the museums (apart from the Cat Museum), but some good cafes/ restaurants are Museum Cafe, Kai Joo Cafe, Indah House Kuching, and Borneo Delights. The nightlife is a bit lacking in Kuching, but Carpenter street, or Jalan Green Hill are your best bets for some evening drinks and possibly even hardcore partying (I didn’t attempt this). The Waterfront is also always worth an evening stroll to take in the local vibe, and there may even be some live music performances going on.
And that’s about all I have to say about Kuching, which was quite a lot. Hope this handy-dandy guide has been useful in helping you plan your trip to Kuching, or just convinced you that there is actually something to do in Kuching! I’d love to hear about some of your favorite places in Kuching too, so leave a comment! (: