Find out about Kuching in Borneo, Malaysia. It has cultural diversity; a rich historical background; nearby tropical forests; orang-utans and proboscis monkeys in their natural surroundings
Kuching appears to be the Shangri-La for cat lovers. Around the city, whose name possibly derives from the Malay name for cat, giant feline sculptures compete in styles from the extremes of kitsch to Henry Moore-like creations. But this is an illusion. It is really a gateway to experiencing close contact with Borneo’s most famous animals: the orang-utan and the proboscis monkey.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre (082-442-180; entrance fee RM 10; £1=RM 4.7), a reserve noted for its successful programme of breeding and rehabilitating orang-utans, is the best place to see these animals. Located 32 kms outside the city, it was reached by a shuttle minibus (RM 35) each, easily booked through hotels. There were two main feeding sessions at 9 a.m.and 3pm, but the morning session gave the best opportunity of seeing a number of these charming animals in natural conditions.
Bako National Park
The proboscis monkey is a more elusive creature but frequently seen in Bako National Park (Telok Assam; 011-225-049). We set off on the No 6 bus and reached Bako village forty minutes later. It was easy to charter a boat with two other travellers (RM 45 for four) and the twenty minute ride took us to the Park Headquarters (entrance fee RM 10). Greeted by a family of long-tailed macaques, we set off on one of the extensive network of colour-coded trails. There was a wonderful combination of rainforest, mangrove swamps, beaches, waterfalls, which provided the backdrop to sightings of other marvellous animals. Bearded pigs, triangular-headed pit vipers and silver leaf monkeys were all exciting discoveries on our hike. Nothing though could prepare us for the proboscis monkey. A swish of foliage and we were facing this creature. Its pendulous nose and piercing eyes created one of our most unforgettable images of the holiday.
Sarawak Cultural Village
Borneo is an island with a rich cultural diversity and this is reflected in the Sarawak Cultural Village (082-846-411; www.scv.com.my ). A shuttle bus (RM 20 return) provides convenient transport and the entrance fee (RM 60 with concessions available) is excellent value for the attractions available. Seven authentic ethnic houses are sited in tropical parkland and we were invited to discover at first hand some of the tribal secrets. We took a stab at using the blowpipe, the most traditional of hunting weapons and helped to bake some sago cakes in a traditional kiln. Our afternoon’s visit culminated in a cultural performance, with high performance values, featuring dances indigenous to Sarawak. I normally think that there should be a public health warning placed on these enterprises but this experience completely swept away my preconceptions.
Kuching, the cosmopolitan capital of Sarawak, also has impressive attractions within the city. It has a stylish riverfront with a long esplanade which at night comes alive with stalls for drinks and food. Colonial buildings like the Old Court House and the Post Office with its Corinthian columns sit alongside ornate Chinese temples. The Tua Pek Kong Temple surrounded by a semi-circle of carved dragons is complemented by a nearby museum which traces the settlement of the Chinese in Sarawak. Further historical nuggets are contained in the Sarawak Museum complex (Jln.Tun Abang Haji Openg; www.museum.sarawak.gov.my 082-244-232) which has one of the best collections in South East Asia. The signage is antiquated but there are some compelling exhibits, including a watch found in the stomach of a man-eating crocodile. The Official Tourist Office based in the Old Court House (www.sarawaktourism.com; 082-410-944) was very efficient and friendly. One of their recommendations was the Sunday market, but open all weekend, at Jalan Satok. On a Saturday afternoon we discovered a conglomerate of hundreds of little stalls with a bewildering variety of clothes, fish, fruit and hot food. Vendors were keen to get into conversation and local shoppers were intrigued by our presence. This was typical of Kuching and the surrounding area. Everyone was welcoming and it was a pleasure to feel that you could stroll confidently and safely through the city streets.
Where to stay and eat
We stayed at the Harbour View Hotel (Lorong Temple) which is ideally suited in the hub of Kuching’s Golden Triangle, an area dedicated to tourist facilities. It is popular with business clients so we were fortunate to get a deluxe double room with a river view (RM 175). The reception staff were very helpful and managed to shuffle bookings in order to secure us a room for five days.
There was a variety of restaurants to choose from with many hawker centres and food courts offering appetizing dishes. At the Top Spot Seafood rooftop plaza (Jalan Padungan) we had delicious black pepper prawns, okra, barbecued squid, and pineapple juices (RM 45 for two). An award-winning Chinese restaurant, Hoi Tin Lau (Panovel Commercial Centre, Jalan Mendu 93300; 082-256-328), which had been recommended to us by some local people, proved to be a real discovery. Here we dined on pork with ginger and chicken in an orange sauce accompanied with fried bidin, a variety of jungle ferns. Back in the heart of things, overlooking the river, Khatulistiwa (Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman) tempted us with lemon grass lamb, beef pepper with rice and pineapple juices (RM36).
Kuching is easily accessible by air, from Kuala Lumpur in Western Malaysia or from Kota Kinabalu in Borneo’s Sabah state. Air Malaysia flies the routes (www.malaysiaairlines.com), but Air Asia (www.airasia.com) has the most competitive prices. We opted instead for a thrilling four hour journey in a speedboat from Sibu, along the coast to the northeast of Kuching (RM 90 for two). If you have limited time and wish to capture the essence of Borneo then this city is the best destination. To come full circle, Kuching is the cat’s whiskers.