Sarawak is a diverse, fascinating region of Malaysia with plenty to offer, from the huge stretches of thick jungle and the various towns to the heady mix of different cultures. Kuching, the state capital, provides a great stepping stone into exploring the region while also having plenty to offer in its own right. Here are some of the highlights.
Admire the Astana: Residence of Sarawak’s White Rajahs
The Astana (palace) always features on lists of the must-visit attractions in Kuching. Sitting elegantly on the banks of the River Sarawak, the 1870 colonial palace exudes grandeur. Formerly the residence of Sarawak’s White Rajahs, it’s now the Governor of Sarawak’s seat and isn’t open to the public. Manicured lawns and a fence surround the palace with Astana spelled out in giant white letters. Stand on the opposite side of the river for the best photographs. Return after dark when the palace lights up.
The Kuching Waterfront hugs the southern banks of the Kuching River which divides the capital. The walkway provides views of the river, access to hotels and restaurants as well as vendors hawking snacks and street food. Stretching for almost one kilometre (0.6 miles), you can watch the sunset, snap a photograph next to the First White Rajah of Sarawak and visit Kuching’s oldest Taoist temple at Tua Pek Kong.
Learn about the White Rajahs at Fort Margherita and Brooke Gallery
The prominent Fort Margherita stands on the northern banks of the Sarawak River. The Second White Rajah Charles Brooke built the fort in 1879 to defend the city against pirate attacks and named it after his wife, Margaret. Today, it houses the recently opened Brooke Gallery with relics, artefacts and historical documents detailing Sarawak’s early statehood under the White Rajahs. Fort Margherita sits inside the police barracks, so you might need to show ID before entering.
Dating back to 1843, Tua Pek Kong holds the title as Kuching’s oldest Chinese temple. Located in the heart of the city centre near the Waterfront and Chinese Museum, the colourful façade welcomes curious visitors. While the Taoist temple might not be an obvious entry on the list of the must-visit attractions in Kuching, it does provide cultural insights into the city’s past and hosts several annual festivals.
Sitting 35 kilometres (21.7 miles) north of Kuching in Damai, Sarawak Cultural Village gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in Sarawakian tradition. The open-air museum features a collection of longhouse replicas such as ones that the infamous former headhunting Iban tribes inhabited, as well as Malay kampung-style dwellings and Chinese farmhouses. Stroll through the village and see traditional instruments inside the Rainforest Music House or follow jungle trails to the foot of Mount Santubong. Families and tourists interested in Sarawak’s rich cultural and ethnic heritage rate this as one of the must-visit attractions in Kuching.
Tour the oldest museum in Borneo: Sarawak State Museum
Borneo’s oldest museum first opened in 1891. The White Rajah at the time, Charles Brooke, had a passion for natural history and commissioned the Sarawak State Museum. Several displays cover all aspects of Sarawak from ethnographic exhibits and traditional longhouses to Neolithic artefacts, natural specimens and both Chinese and Islamic art. The grand three-storey colonial building housing the museum is a masterpiece in itself.
Approximately 21 kilometres (13 miles) south of Kuching sits the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The orangutan rehabilitation centre has been taking care of baby and orphaned orangutans since opening its doors in 1975. Orange-haired primates roam semi-wild inside the protected area. Visit during either the morning feeding time between 9am and 10am or in the afternoon at 3pm.
Sarawak’s name translates as cat in English, giving it the nickname City of Cats. The world’s first cat museum covers four galleries inside the City Hall buildings. With over 4,000 items covering everything related to felines, this is a must-visit attraction in Kuching for cat lovers. Since opening in 1988, the Cat Museum has received thousands of annual visitors. Expect to find figurines, photographs, posters and a rare Egyptian mummified cat.
Take a river cruise through Kuching Wetlands National Park
Park, Natural Feature
Although it requires you to travel 15km (9mi) outside of the capital, Kuching Wetlands National Park is one of the area’s crown jewels and certainly justifies the extra distance. The maze of waterways connects the Sibu Laut River with the Salak, and on arrival you simply jump in a tour boat and away you go, spotting fish, crocodiles, monkeys, birds and even the strange-looking and increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
Holding the title as Sarawak’s oldest and one of the state’s smallest, Bako National Park can be reached within an hour to the northeast of Kuching. After taking a boat to the park entrance, you can hike along colour-coded trails, visit beaches and go wildlife-spotting in the many habitats. Highlights include its resident population of endemic proboscis monkeys, slow loris and pangolins, as well as 190 species of birds, lizards and mammals. Bako National Park is an ideal place to see wildlife and experience Sarawak’s rainforests.
Given the city’s name, it’s quite fitting that Kuching has several cat statues decorating public spaces. The Kuching South City Council Cat Statue, a white feline posing in front of Little Chinatown, became the first of many sculptures in the city. A favourite activity for visitors is to stroll along the streets in search of the statues and pose next to the giant felines.
Visible as you enter Kuching, Mount Santubong is one of the highest mountains in the area, at 810m (2,657ft) above sea level. The mountain lies within a national park, and can be reached from Kuching in about 30 minutes. The hike to the summit takes around four hours, and leads you through thick jungle and up to one of the best panoramic views of Sarawak anywhere in the region. A slightly easier two-hour hike will take you to a nearby waterfall, a perfect spot to sit and relax.
Having opened in 2009, the Sarawak Orchid Garden is a relatively new addition to the Kuching tourist roster. It sits next to the Sarawak River, accessible either by using the Darul Hana footbridge or taking one of the jetty rides. In either case, you can easily spend hours walking through the gardens, observing and learning about the hundreds of orchid species on display and the various ways they hoodwink insects into pollinating for them.
Like the rest of Malaysia, Kuching (and Sarawak at large) has a significant Muslim population, and as the state capital, Kuching sports the largest mosque in the area. Originally built in 1847, completion of the work on the version you see today occurred in 1965. The opulent pink and gold building is open to visitors, although non-Muslims cannot enter during prayer, and appropriate dress is requested for those who do visit (legs covered, shoes removed).
This one actually involves taking a day trip out of Kuching, but most of these are organised within the city. Travelling to Pulau Satang Besar, you are given the opportunity to see the turtle conservation centre and hatchery where baby turtles are released into the sea in order to boost the local population. The beach itself is also a great snorkelling spot.