Tourists are beginning to return to the region’s hotspots. Keen for something quieter, the chance to see endangered orangutans in the famous Semenggoh Nature Reserve and great scenery? Or maybe you’re just keen to unwind in a pretty boutique hotel? As YIMIN HUANG discovers, Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is a great option for a long weekend in 2022. Here are some things to do in Kuching – including tips on where to stay – plus great options for exploring this part of Sarawak!
Things to do in Kuching
With a name that sounds similar to the Malay word for cat – hence its nickname, “Cat City” – Kuching is known for its amazing wildlife, cultural relics, heritage food and friendly, laid-back atmosphere. And, at only an hour or so away by plane, it’s a comfortable distance for a long weekend in 2022 or a short break.
Orangutans and dolphins!
Kuching is home to one of Borneo’s endangered species: the orangutan. Semenggoh Nature Reserve is on most travellers’ itineraries, and it’s not difficult to see why. Take a half-day trip here and you’ll witness semi-wild orangutans at feeding time. If you’re lucky, you’ll see every member of the family, from the domineering adult male to the mother with baby clinging to her body. Even the old yet alert grandmother!
Did you know that orangutans build a nest on top of a tree, like birds do? Or that when they rest and stretch their legs, they can look uncannily human? These things you’ll see in this rare glimpse into their day-to-day life in Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
To see more animals in their natural habitat, try a wildlife cruise in the Kuching Wetlands National Park. The Mangrove & Irrawaddy Dolphin Watching cruise follows the renowned Santubong River, providing close-up views of the mangrove swamp that’s home to crocodiles, otters, mudskippers, mangrove crabs and more. Keep your eyes peeled for Irrawaddy dolphins, too; this endangered species tends to frolic around fishing boats. They’re tough to spot and even more difficult to capture on camera!
For an overview of the city, sign up for the Sarawak River Cruise at sunset. Departing at 5.30pm daily, this boat travels at a slower pace so you can enjoy the golden hour. The 360-degree panoramic view of the Kuching skyline is bathed in changing colours. You’ll also catch sight of historical landmarks that dot the riverbank. These includethe Victorian-era Astana, the State Parliament, stilt homes and houseboats.
Museums in Kuching
The Ranee Museum
Five things to know
#1 The Ranee Museum was officially opened in September 2018 at the Old Court House in Kuching.
#2 Curated by the Brooke Trust, the museum centres on the colourful life and legacy of Margaret de Windt. Margaret was born in Paris in 1849, but later married the second Rajah, Charles Brooke. This made her the queen of Sarawak – at age 19! (The word “Ranee” refers to the wife of a Rajah.)
#3 The permanent exhibition provides insights into Ranee Margaret’s life through paintings, music, literature and craft.
#4 As Ranee for nearly half a century, Margaret developed a great appreciation for local crafts. Among them were traditional woven textiles and clothing. She became a patron to these crafts, and her personal collection can now be seen in the exhibit.
#5 Music was another interest of the Ranee. In fact, she composed the national anthem (“Gone Forth Beyond the Sea”) of the Raj of Sarawak.
The Brooke Gallery
Five things to know
#1 The Brooke Gallery is a museum located in Fort Margherita in Kuching, Sarawak. It opened in 2016.
#2 The museum tells the fascinating story of Sarawak’s “White Rajahs”, the British Brooke family. In the 1830s, Sarawak, a province of the Sultanate of Brunei, was ravaged by pirate raids and rebellion against Brunei rule. Adventurer James Brooke arrived there in his yacht, Royalist, in 1839, and would go on to help quell the rebellion. In return, the Sultan granted him the province of Kuching. Brooke forged a unique bond with the local people and helped to build the foundations of today’s Sarawak.
#3 The fort itself was built in 1879 by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah. He named it for his wife Margaret (more on her below!). The National Heritage Department recentyl restored the building.
#4 The museum features informative storyboards that explain details of historical documents from the White Rajahs period, along with artworks and artefacts from the Brooke family’s collection.
#5 A bonus of a visit to the Brooke Gallery is the chance to explore the ramparts of the fort. There are some great views back across the river.
Borneo Cultures Museum
The Borneo Cultures Museum is an instantly recognisable Kuching landmark, a must-visit for a long weekend in 2022, with its distinctive design reminiscent of elements of Sarawak’s traditional crafts. The five-storey building has different themes to explore; those with kids will enjoy Level 2, for example, which is dedicated to children’s arts and crafts (with a sustainability angle); on other levels, you’ll find highlights around Sarawak’s main geographical regions, plus an extensive collection of artefacts from prehistory to modern times – including shrunken skulls from the infamous “headhunts” carried out by Borneo tribes in the past.
Eating and drinking in Kuching
A must-try while you’re in Kuching is the most famous local dish, kolo mee. You may have sampled the white-noodle variety in Singapore. In Kuching, it’s more commonly red. Made of springy egg noodles tossed in shallot oil, lard, soy sauce and char siew sauce, this is a staple in the Sarawak diet. Try the open-air market in Kuching for a bowl.
Wash your food down with an “Opium” coffee, a drink with an interesting past. Traditionally served with a scoop of butter, it’s rumoured to have been used by opium addicts a century ago to smooth their parched throats after smoking.
Complete your local food tour with gula apong ice cream, a soft-serve drizzled with sugar extracted from nipa palm trees and covered in crunchy peanut flakes; try the street carts opposite the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly.
Kuching also has a surprisingly thriving café and restaurant culture, including KANTIN at The Granary, an Insta-worthy two-storey spot with a rustic interior and fairy lights. Inventive fusion-style mains include a wagyu bacon marinara pasta, and the more experimental Asian pesto pasta with smoked duck, whose strong local herbs make it an acquired taste. For a drink, try the Sarawak Teh C Special, also known as “three-layer tea”.
Commons Café at the Old Court House is just opposite the scenic Kuching waterfront, and a good stopping point for morning or afternoon tea. While the Basque Burnt Cheesecake is a classic here, with its burnt exterior pairing with a custardy centre, the Tiramisu stood out to me for its sheer richness.
Where to stay in Kuching
While there are plenty of accommodation options for a long weekend in 2022, two top locations are the Waterfront Hotel and Cove 55. Kuching’s only independent five star boutique hotel, the Waterfront is right in the heart of Kuching, amidst both decades-old heritage buildings and newer structures. Rooms have spectacular views of the Padang Merdeka and the Sarawak River, and the design of the hotel lounges and rooms has an artistic tinge that makes for an aesthetically pleasing stay.
If you have more cash to splash, go all out with an intimate hideaway at Cove 55. If the name rings a bell, this is the place where celebrity Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians got married (in real life). Resting at the foot of Mount Santubong, it offers a gorgeous view of the undulating South China Sea. There are balcony suites, bedrooms and villas with different settings, so families large or small can enjoy their stay. There’s also plenty of space to suntan and do yoga, and the area is fumigated regularly so you don’t have to worry about insect bites!
Two boutique hotels in Kuching
The Marian Boutique Lodging House
Five things to know
#1 The Marian is a heritage lodging house located on a hill in the centre of Kuching. The property looks out towards the Sarawak River and the busy Kuching waterfront. There are 40 rooms, consisting of standard and family rooms, and a two-bedroom apartment.
#2 The rooms have dark timber flooring, with charming architectural features retained from when the property served as a boarding house (1933-1967) for a nearby all-girls school called St Mary’s.
#3 Fittingly, the rooms are named after people involved in the operation of St Mary’s and the boarding house, including the founders, matrons and headmistresses: Mary and Caroline Sharp, Betty Johnson, Thelma Cook and the McDougalls.
#4 The lodging house was built by businessman Ong Ewe Hai – born in Singapore to a Chinese migrant father – as his family home in the 1800s.
#5 The Marian is within walking distance of Kuching attractions. It also has it’s own swimming pool, and is home to the aforementioned restaurant KANTIN.
Five things to know
#1 The Ranee is a 24-room boutique hotel in the heart of Kuching’s picturesque Old Town. It’s the sister property of The Marian.
#2 This is another accommodation option steeped in history. It was stylishly rebuilt from two traditional 19th-century shophouses, and named after the Ranee, Margaret de Windt.
#3 Every room and suite in the property is different, with its own individuality, charm and character. The design reflects old and new – a fusion style inspired by Sarawak’s colonial heritage and ethnic cultures. A space called the Loft is home to five grand suites – Margaret, Sylvia, Leonora, Elizabeth and Valerie. These are named after the Ranee, her daughter-in-law and her three granddaughters.
#4 The Ranee has a Reading Lounge, gift gallery, café and also Mbar & Bistro for all-day dining or a cocktail or two.
#5 Just outside the hotel is Kuching’s Main Bazaar, with other sights a short walk or water taxi away; the staff can help arrange excursions to the nearby national parks or spending a night in a traditional longhouse.
For more information on Kuching, visit Sarawak Gallery, the Sarawak Trade & Tourism Office in Singapore (80 Robinson Road, #01-02A), open on weekdays, 9.30am to 5pm. And see expatliving.sg for more stories on Malaysia travel.
This article first appeared in the August 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!