Kuching has got to be one of Southeast Asia’s most underrated cities. While many use it as a starting point to explore Sarawak’s numerous national parks, it’s worth sticking around in for at least a few full days. Kuching, a city of 325,000, has a lot more to offer than first meets the eye. And in the following guide, we’ll be covering 5 of the Sarawak capital’s top highlights.
There are a few items missing from the list, however. In addition to the activities mentioned below, you can do things like explore the old architecture of the Brooke dynasty, check out the city’s colorful street art, and visit the nearby national parks. These will all be featured in their own individual articles.
1. See Orangutans at the Semmengoh Nature Reserve
Orangutans are only native to two islands in the world: Borneo and Sumatra. As such, many visitors come to places like Borneo’s Sarawak hoping to see these exotic creatures in their natural habitat. And for those basing themselves in Kuching, wild orangutans are just an easy bus ride away.
Well, they’re technically ‘semi-wild.’ Founded in 1975, the Semmengoh Nature Reserve rescues animals that were once held captive or orphaned. Then, they go through a period of rehabilitation. They’re finally allowed to roam free when rangers decide that they can fend for themselves in the wild.
The animals are not confined in any way, but they do get regularly fed each day by park rangers. However, they’ll only bother to show when it’s not fruiting season. As they usually live deeper in the jungle, there’s no reason for them to come out for the free food when there’s an already an abundance of fruit growing where they live. With that in mind, you’ll want to come during the ‘non-fruiting’ season between April – November.
Each day there are two feeding times – the first between 9 and 10am, while the afternoon session starts at three. Though I got there before nine, I arrived to see that the ‘show’ had already started, in a sense. A female orangutan was there chilling in the viewing platform designated for the human visitors.
This was a real to be able to see a wild orangutan so close up without any barriers. But as these are incredibly strong and potentially dangerous animals, park staff are there to remind everyone to keep a safe distance. (Sadly, they actually did need to scold a few people who thought they could go up and pet a wild orangutan!)
As the rangers brought out bananas, more and more orangutans began to appear. They playfully swung on the ropes and through the tree branches as if to put on a show for the small crowd.
Later on, more orangutans gathered in the viewing platform to enjoy their lunch of bananas and coconuts. One of them ate so much that she even entered a ‘food coma’ right then and there on the floor.
Though it took awhile to coax him out, the rangers finally got the alpha male to appear, enticing him with a huge bunch of bananas. Not only was this orangutan much larger than all the others, but he had much longer fur and big flaps of skin on either side of his face. Supposedly, these flaps, called ‘flanges,’ can take up to 20 years to grow. That’s quite impressive considering that the animal’s average lifespan is between 35 and 45 years.
While female orangutans consider the flanges attractive, giving these older males the most mating opportunities, ‘alpha male’ is perhaps a misnomer. Orangutans don’t form larger social groups like other primates. While mothers sleep together with their children, male orangutans are largely solitary creatures. The large male that appeared at Semmengoh appeared to have no interest whatsoever in interacting with his fellow orangutans.
All in all, the Semengghoh Nature Reserve is a must-visit for those traveling in Sarawak and Kuching, provided you’re there during the non-fruiting season. Elsewhere at the site is an information center, some crocodiles in captivity, and some scenic nature trails. The local staff are also very friendly and knowledgable should you have any questions. Entry costs 10 ringgit.
GETTING THERE: There’s no need to book a tour to get to Semenggoh. A public bus there departs from Jalan Masjid street, just near the Kuching City Mosque. Take bus number 6, and to make it to the morning session in time, take the 7:20am bus. It costs just a few ringgit each way.
The buses, however, are often a little late. If you’re traveling with multiple people, you might be better off hiring a Grab car. The nature reserve is about 20km outside the city, and a Grab round trip should cost around 60 ringgit.
2. Cross over to The North side of the River
While most of the action is on Kuching’s lively south side of the river, visitors should take the time to explore the quieter north bank. There, you can find enough to do and see for at least half a day. To get there, either walk across the new pedestrian bridge or take a boat for 1 ringgit per ride.
New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building
Constructed in 2009, the New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building has since become the city’s most recognizable landmark. From a distance, its unique shape resembles an umbrella or some type of flower. But supposedly, the shape is meant to resemble a hut of Sarawak’s indigenous Bidayuh tribe.
Note that the building is inaccessible to the public, and you can still get great views of it from the Kuching waterfront. Nevertheless, it’s still worth walking across the Darul Hana Bridge to get a closer look at both the assembly building and the Astana (sadly, also inaccessible). The modern S-shaped bridge, just opened as recently as 2017, is a landmark in its own right.
Orchid Park Kuching
Relatively close to the Astana is the Orchid Park. While, as the name suggests, the main attraction here is its collection of colorful orchids, there are over 75,000 plants here in total. The well-manicured garden takes up a space of over 15 acres.
It’s a bit of a trek from the Astana, but entrance is free. If you plan to walk over there, pack a small foldable umbrella. As this is Borneo, a downpour could occur at any moment. And as opposed to the city center, the north bank has very few places under which to take shelter.
The Astana & Fort Margherita
The Astana, just across from the Assembly Building, was built as a royal residence in 1870 by Charles Brooke as a place to live together with his newlywed wife. Unfortunately, as the building now functions as the residence of the current Sarawak governor, it’s normally off limits to visitors. You can, at least, get a nice view of it from the outside, especially from the Darul Hana bridge.
Fort Margherita, meanwhile, is now home to the Brooke Gallery. Spread across three floors, the Brooke Gallery is a comprehensive museum dedicated to the reign of the White Rajas and Sarawak’s history in general. You can learn more about both here.
3. Discover Kuching's Rich Cultural Heritage
Kuching is home to a wide range of ethnic groups – some native to the land, and others descendants of those who came over centuries ago. For such a small city, Kuching’s cultural variety is really quite impressive.
Tua Pek Kong Temple
One of the city’s most famous landmarks, Tua Pek Kong Temple has been serving the local Chinese community since the 18th century. Built facing the water, it’s said to be an ideal spot in regards to feng shui.
And good fortune really does seem to be on its side. It was one of the few buildings to have survived the Great Fire of Kuching in 1884. And it also managed to survive Japanese bombings in World War II, despite the devastation that occurred all around it.
But what kind of temple is it? In a broad sense, it’s labelled as Taoist, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, a Chinese Hakka sailor who got shipwrecked on the Malaysian island of Penang centuries ago. Ever since, there’s been a cult around him within the Chinese community in Malaysia. In addition to Penang, Tua Pek Kong temples have popped up all over the country.
Oddly, descriptions of who Tua Pek Kong was in a historical sense, or is in a religious sense, are incredibly vague. Rather than a traditional god, he’s seen as some kind of protective spirit. But just specifically for the Chinese community in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. In fact, many mainland Chinese have never even heard of him!
Kuching’s Carpenter Street is also considered the city’s Chinatown. Like many Chinatowns around the world, there are Chinese-style gates at the entrance of the street. Along the road you’ll come across old Chinese shophouses, street stands selling snacks and even another temple.
The Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple didn’t survive the 19th-century fire, and had to be rebuilt in 1889. Another big restoration project took place in 1968, during which all deity statued were covered in gold foil. It’s worth popping into for a few minutes as you stroll down Carpenter Street.
Jalan India, or India street, is a walking street catered to Kuching’s small Indian community. This is a good place to come for Indian food, textiles or handicrafts.
Meanwhile, Sri Srinivasagar Kaliamman Temple is the city’s main Hindu temple, but it’s at the opposite end of the city from Jalan India. Dedicated to the goddess Kali, it’s not really a tourist attraction, but worth a quick look anyway if you happen to be in the area.
Kuching Central Mosque
Though most people in Malaysia overall are Muslim, Muslims are actually a minority in Sarawak Province (Christianity has the largest following). Nevertheless, the Kuching Central Mosque is one of the grandest structures in the city. First built in 1852, its current form dates back to a 1968 renovation.
4. Visit Kuching's Museums
Kuching’s museums are a good way to learn more about its fascinating history and local culture. The Brooke Gallery (in Fort Margherita) could also fit here, though we’ve already covered it in depth.
One thing missing from the following list is the Cat Museum, a museum dedicated to cat paraphernalia of all kinds. Reviews seem to be mixed, but if you have some free time and really love cats, go for it.
Chinese History Museum
In 1912, Rajah Charles Brooke established the Chinese Court House for the growing Chinese community in Sarawak. It was here that things like marriage and divorce could be decided upon by a judge from a similar background. Today, the same, building is home to the Chinese History Museum.
While the Chinese were coming to Sarawak even before the era of the White Rajahs, Charles Brooke is largely credited for the growth of the Chinese community. During his reign, he encouraged Chinese families to come and cultivate the land, even offering them property and homes for free. He hoped to make rice a staple crop of the (at that time) country. But many Chinese have also thrived in Kuching as businessmen.
This modern and well-organized museum is free to enter. In addition to some basic history, you’ll learn about prominent members of the Chinese community and there are some interesting displays like a model home. It’s appropriately located just across from Tua Pek Kong temple.
Charles Brooke opened the Sarawak Museum at the behest of Alfred Russel Wallace. It functions as a museum to this day, and is one of the best places in town to learn about local culture, nature and wildlife. Unfortunately, the main portion was being remodeled during my visit, but the smaller exhibitions remained open to visitors.
While there, don’t miss this pair of elephant skulls in one of the side buildings. While alive, the elephants were owned by the state-run Borneo Company. Acquired from Thailand, they were used for timber extraction. And upon their death, the skulls were placed at either side of the museum entrance.
While there are some elephants in Borneo, they’re confined to one region and many had never seen such a creature before. When members of the local Iban tribe saw the skulls, they were convinced they were they belonged to some kind of giant. Members of the tribe passing through the country would then make regular visits to the museum just to see these ‘giant’ skulls. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that they were painted by members of another tribe called the Kenyah.
Sarawak Cultural Village
Located in the Santubong Peninsula, the Sarawak Cultural Village is widely regarded as one of the region’s top attractions. It’s an outdoor museum dedicated to pretty much all of the province’s native ethnic groups. You’ll find recreations of Bidayuh huts and longhouses, traditional Chinese houses, and a lot more.
The large 17-acre museum is very well put together and maintained. And an entry ticket (60 ringgit) also grants you access to a dance performance, which is a lot more entertaining in person than it may sound at first.
The Sarawak Cultural Village markets itself as a ‘living museum’ although that statement isn’t really accurate. While each individual structure may be staffed by actual members of that community, it’s not as if anybody lives here once the museum closes for the day. For a real longhouse experience, check the next item on the list. And we’ll be going into much more detail about this museum in a future article on Santubong.
5. Explore The Annah Rais Longhouse
Located about an hour outside the city, the Annah Rais Longhouse could be considered a true ‘living museum,’ given the fact that people actually live here. But what exactly is a longhouse? Longhouses are long wooden compounds that are built on stilts to prevent flooding. Typically, entire tribal communities share longhouses, though each family has its own private dwelling area.
When living deep in the jungle, sticking together was vital for safety and security. Should one family live far away on their own, they’d be more vulnerable to attack, whether at the hands of wild animal or rival tribe. And groups such as the Bidayuh, which Annah Rais belongs to, have always been very community-oriented to begin with.
Annah Rais is the most visited longhouse in Kuching due to its proximity to the city. That means it’s also the most ‘touristy.’ But, as mentioned, people do still live here. Don’t expect to come across an isolated tribe without access to basic amenities, though. Yes, the residents have electricity, running water, television, etc. And some of the houses have been built with modern construction methods. Be that as it may, their communal way of living still remains very close to that of their ancestors.
If you’re hoping to see something straight out of a National Geographic documentary, Annah Rais is not what you’re looking for. Such longhouses supposedly do still exist in Sarawak. But you’d have to travel for hours through the deep jungle to get there.
Most people visit Annah Rais as part of a group tour. That’s ideal if you want demonstrations, explanations and perhaps a performance of a traditional dance. As I prefer to explore places at my own pace, I decided to hire a Grab car to take me right there (public transport is not an option).
As a lone visitor, locals were friendly but I was largely ignored. Nobody went out of their way to explain the couple of show rooms they have at the compound, but I was free to take a look on my own.
One of the main highlights of Annah Rais would have to be its skull collection. Though banned since the 19th century, the practice of headhunting was prominent among the Bidayuh and other tribes. According to ancient belief, the skull of another person killed in battle had to be presented to the spirits in order for a family to mourn their own dead. (Learn more here)
While the practice is long over, tribal communities like this one still keep their collections of old skulls that were acquired by their ancestors.
There’s still more to do and see as you wander around the compound. Surprisingly, Annah Rais is home to a number of ‘street’ murals painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, Also on site, you can buy handmade items like baskets, as well as a local rice wine called Tuak, which they give you a free sample of upon entry. Entry costs 8 ringgit.
Nearby is the Annah Rais hot springs, while those who wish to stay longer and get to know Bidayuh culture can arrange a homestay.
Note on getting there: Using Grab to hire a driver, I typed in Annah Rais into the app, chose what came up, saw the price and then had my driver take me there. My driver knew the location, so he didn’t rely on the app’s GPS.
As we got along, I ended up hiring him again a week later for a different excursion. That’s when he told me that he later realized Grab’s price estimate was way off. The actual location was really much further away than the one in the app. (He wasn’t scamming me, as he even said not to worry about it.)
This is something you should be aware of if you hire a Grab car, and it’s best to confirm everything with your driver before setting off. With that in mind, a group tour may end up saving you some confusion.
As exotic as a trip to Borneo may sound, Kuching is fairly easy to get to. There are plenty of flights between Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, which itself is reachable from all over the region thanks to being the main hub of AirAsia.
There are also direct flights between Kuching and Penang and Kota Kinabalu. Internationally, you can also fly between Kuching and Singapore as well as Pontianak, Indonesia.
Coming by bus, Kuching Sentral Terminal is very well connected to the rest of Sarawak.
One of the great things about Kuching is its size. If you’re staying in a relatively central part of the city, you can pretty much get everywhere on foot. Aside from the bridge, you can also take a boat for just 1 ringgit to get across the river.
If you’re in a hurry or need to get somewhere a little farther out of town like the central bus station, just download the ridesharing app called Grab. (Uber no longer exists in Southeast Asia, as Grab recently bought them out.)
Considering the city’s size, location isn’t incredibly important, as you’ll still be able to get most places on foot. Basically, aim for anywhere in between the Kuching City Mosque and the Cat Statue.
One popular place to stay is the Riverside Majestic Hotel, which is right across the street from the bus stop that takes you to Bako National Park. Otherwise, there are all sorts of options in Kuching, from luxury hotels to budget youth hostels.
When visiting places like the Semmengoh Nature Reserve or Bako National Park, you’ll most definitely want some shots of the exotic wildlife you came all the way to see. But considering the distance of the animals along with jungle lighting conditions, your smartphone or basic digital camera is not going to cut it.
Wildlife photography is one case where you’ll absolutely need a zoom lens. Even with a DSLR, you shouldn’t expect to get clear shots of monkeys high up in trees with anything less than a 200mm lens.
Personally, I’d recommend looking for something at least 200mm, though 300mm or higher is ideal. If high-end lenses like the Canon L series (or whatever brand you use) are out of your budget, consider an alternative by a brand like Tamron.
The Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD XLD (intended for full-frame cameras) is what I used for the orangutan shots above, and you can find both Canon and Nikon versions of it. While not incredibly cheap, it’s only a fraction of what the elite lenses cost.
If you don’t have a DSLR, you might want to consider investing in a cheap one with a cheap zoom lens just for this trip. Even that would be better than relying on your phone. During my time in Borneo, I came across a lot of people with smartphones or point-and-shoots who were very disappointed that none of their shots of the animals were coming out.
When bringing a camera and gear to such a humid and rainy place like Borneo, there are a few other accessories you’ll want to bring along. One is a large packet of silica gel, which you can keep in your camera bag to prevent your lens from getting too fogged up in the humidity.
You also want to get some kind of dry bag in case you get caught in a downpour. And if you still want to snap some photos in the rain, definitely get a plastic sleeve covering to place over the camera for protection.