We used Kuching as a base to explore Sarawak mainly venturing out in the mornings and evenings to avoid the scorching midday heat. The main sites of Kuching can be easily explored on foot in a couple of mornings, starting with a stroll along the waterfront where we sampled some of Kuching’s famous layer cake, the chocolate orange was delicious.
The word “kuching is Malay for “cat” and, despite a noticeable lack of the real living breathing creatures, the town has bought in to the kitty city theme with gusto. It seemed that every single t-shirt for sale in the enormous number of souvenir shops featured cats but the biggest nod to all things feline are the cat statues dotted around town.
We took in the Brooke memorial, the fort and the old courthouse. This took about 15 minutes because you don’t actually go inside any of the buildings, just tour around the outside. Almost directly across the river is the striking State Legislative Assembly Building, which was surrounded by diggers when we were there as work continues building up the waterfront. We had read that the best view was from the south side of the river in any case so we admired it from where we were without bothering to cross the bridge.
We were very eager to visit the Sarawak State Museum which Lonely Planet raved about and which had just received an upgrade. When we arrived 15 very sweaty minutes later we discovered that the upgrade hadn’t yet been completed and the museum was closed, what we could see of the building was lovely though.
Fortunately, there was an exhibit on in an adjoining building. We don’t know if it housed a sample of the museum’s collection or if we just lucked out but the Orang Sarawak exhibit was fantastic, a perfect intro and overview of Sarawak’s history.
Our walking tour took us through Old China Town and India Lane, the latter is a pedestrianized market of colourful houses and questionable shopping opportunities.
Kuching also has a smattering of street art.
We spent quite a bit of time in Kuching eating and tried some local favourites with Sarawak laksa for lunch at Borneo Delight and dinner at Topspot Hawker Centre which is far from glamorous, perched on top of a building in the middle of town, but has every type of seafood imaginable on offer. The place is a foodie must for Kuching and was busy when we arrived and positively heaving by the time we left. All of the stalls are more or less the same; seafood, seafood, seafood and a side of local veg and rice. We wandered the stalls before choosing the place which had the freshest looking fish to our untrained eyes.
Whilst the food was tasty, for us it was more about the overall experience and there was a wealth of people watching on offer amongst the feasting locals and slightly lost looking foreigners.
We had a delightfully mad Grab driver take us to the ferry terminal the next day on our way to Bako National Park. He gave us a mini-guided tour of town in between taking calls for his real job as an architect, he just does the odd Grab trip for fun. We hadn’t noticed the haze blanketing the area until we got out of the city but it was obvious once our driver had pointed it out. He explained that it was caused by annual slash and burn activities in Indonesia, the smoke often engulfs areas of Sarawak for days or even weeks and is a cause of further contention between Malaysia and Indonesia. We debated changing our plans and trying the following day but he said that it would likely be the same, we stuck to our plans and in the end it was probably worse the next day.
To get to Bako National Park you have to take a small, supremely over powered speed boat from Bako village. The village is pretty a collection of colourful stilted houses on the edge of the water.
The whole system is completely crazy; when you buy your boat ticket you get assigned a boat driver who takes you there and brings you back later at a pre-arranged time. The man who sold us our tickets pointed vaguely at a man in a bandana and turned to the next people in the queue. Captain bandana gave us a nod and then proceeded to chat to various people, wandering around the room and ignoring his charges entirely. The key, it seemed, was to follow him around so that we didn’t lose him. Several others decided that we were on to a winning tactic and he had a group of 6 people awkwardly tailing him until he decided it was time to leave. The jetty is also home to an evil looking cat that receives lavish attention from anyone passing through.
Bako National Park is home to an array of wildlife but sadly we saw most of it around the main park complex, including boar and silver leaf monkeys, clearly used to getting fed there. We signed in and set off on our first stomp to Telok Pandan Besar. Most of the walks in the park start with a very sweaty climb and this one was no exception. The climb is a combination of slightly ropey steps and natural tree root steps. We mainly had it to ourselves and were lucky enough to see a lone Proboscis.
The top of the hill was a wide flat expanse that reminded us a bit of the scrubland of the Northern Territory, it was also baking hot.
We traipsed across and back down the other side to reach a viewpoint over the beach.
It was quite lovely despite the haze but perhaps not worth the sheer volume of sweat that it took to get there. We retraced our steps back down to the bottom and with about 90 minutes to spare decided to tackle the popular short walk, Telok Paku, around the edge of the island to a beach about a kilometer away. Unfortunately, this time we only made it about 500m before turning around and heading back. It’s supposed to be one of the best walks for spotting wildlife but there were so many people making a fair bit of a noise and any sensible creature would have been miles away or hiding. By this point James was comically sweaty, his clothes were sticking to him and literally dripping.
We retreated to the cafeteria at park headquarters where we devoured rice and noodles and drank about 15 litres of water. Fortunately, we were able to nab a spot on an earlier boat back to the jetty rather than waiting another hour for our pre-arranged boat. Our driver made a detour at one of the local fishing nets to pick up his dinner.
The tiny old man who worked the net showed us his wares including a horseshoe crab which was a new one on us.
Back on the jetty we couldn’t face waiting for the bus so shared a taxi with an Italian couple, got back to the hotel, loaded up on isotonic drinks and lay beneath the air conditioning. So, in conclusion, there’s some nice stuff to see in Bako but be prepared to sweat for it. We had been feeling the need to do some walking and it definitely served that purpose, we just wouldn’t put it on a must-see list. Having rehydrated, the obvious thing to do was to have a curry for dinner. We had a sensational meal at Ceylonese Restaurant, the lamb shank curry was absolutely delightful but the true star was the cheese naan which Caro went in to absolute raptures over and was determined to have for lunch and dinner the next day as well.
We spent the next morning with the orangutans at Semeggoh Nature Reserve and we will write about that separately. We will shoot straight ahead to the afternoon once we’d made it back to town. We’d only scratched the surface of Kuching’s museums and we tackled the Natural History Museum and the Museum Gardens, right next door to the Sarawak State Museum. The gardens are the definition of crumbling grandeur, the grass is kept short and the whole place is tidy but the paving is coming up, the steps are losing a battle with various tree routes and the fountain was spurting water in different directions in a rather lacklustre manner. It’s a nice spot to sit and chill between museum visits but not a place to make a specific visit to.
Directly opposite an enormous construction project is ongoing to build what we assume will be another wing of the museum. Given the small amount that we had seen in the Orang Sarawak exhibit we are sure this museum will be worth a visit once it is up and running. The Natural History Museum isn’t usually open to guests but because of the renovation works some of the State Museum’s exhibits have been moved in and you can do a quick tour. Unfortunately, they didn’t move any of the signs with the exhibits so you wander around a room filled to bursting with stuffed animals for a bit, walk through a truly depressing collection of fish and then exit again. Despite its obvious flaws we liked it for some reason, it was just our kind of crap and the whole place smelled powerfully of mothballs.
Feeling that we hadn’t exactly been overwhelmed culturally we popped in to the Textile Museum as well. It is housed in a beautiful building which is just crying out for a bit of TLC. As the name suggests, the museum is full of textiles from all over Sarawak and has interesting information on their fabrication and ceremonial uses. We were particularly impressed with the Pangolin scale armour and the collection of traditional head dresses.
Throughout the month of August Kuching hosts the Kuching Festival with shows and sporting events etc., sadly we missed the rugby match by one day. A key component is the food festival which runs every evening and through the night for the full month. On our last night we doused ourselves in insect repellent and set forth to sample its culinary delights. The festival is held a short distance from the town centre, and we chose to walk rather than do battle with the traffic. We arrived at what is essentially Kuching’s answer to Winter Wonderland; there were games and rides and stalls selling everything from fidget spinners to mops, a stage was set up for Kuching’s Got Talent (no we are not joking), hundreds of food stalls and thousands of people. The place was jumping.
We braced ourselves at the gates and ploughed in to the crowds, sticking our noses over the occasional food stall to get an idea of what was on offer, which was a lot. The vastly popular multi-coloured cheese toastie stall stood next to one that sold every single part of a duck, fried. Burgers, curry, doughnuts, satay, spring rolls, dumplings and so much durian. Lurking down one of the quieter alleys was a shark fin soup stall that we glared at and then gave a wide berth. Dumplings and spring rolls made up our dinner accompanied by cheap cans of cold Tiger.
We made our way around to the stage where they seemed to be having an open-mic night and 12 people were listening a chap who made up for his serious lack of talent with a huge amount of energy.
Drinks carts circulated and balloon salesmen were doing a roaring trade. It was essentially a sweaty funfair with double the food. We loved it and if you are there in August you must give it a go one evening, just prepare to overeat and sweat!
One final note; Kuching’s pavements were laid by someone who either does not possess a spirit level or has a cruel sense of humour. A stretch of pavement 20 metres long will have at least 4 different levels, each only a few centimetres different to the ones either side of it. We spent four days stumbling our way around town.