Twenty reasons to visit Kuching, Malaysia

1. DISCOVER THE WHITE RAJAHS

Presiding over a  100-year rule, James Brooke, a former soldier in the East India Company's army, was installed in 1841 by Brunei's viceroy as Rajah of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. This began an extraordinary and wholly unorthodox dynastic reign that many Sarawakans still revere. Historical buildings from this period survive to this day, helping to make Kuching, capital of the now Malaysian state of Sarawak, one of south-east Asia's most appealing and relaxed smaller cities. See sarawaktourism.com

2. SEE THE SQUARE TOWER

Built in 1879, this unusual white building now sits alone on the riverfront opposite the Courthouse complex and across the river from the imposingly modern state legislature building. It was once part of a wooden fort that was burnt down during a rebellion by local Chinese in 1857. Used as a prison, mental asylum and even as a dance hall, it, now houses a restaurant. 

3. VIEW THE ROUND TOWER

Not far from the Square Tower and the Courthouse, the Round Tower served as the former government dispensary. It boasts walls that are, for reasons unknown, half a metre thick in sections. The Round Tower is next to the decorative, three-storey former home of the health department and one-time hospital, which in turn is next to an unlovely modern hotel.

4. VISIT CHINESE HISTORY MUSEUM

Built as a small and attractive riverside courthouse for Sarawak's Chinese citizens in 1912 during the reign of the White Rajahs, this building now houses a small though impressive museum. It details the colourful history of the Chinese community in Kuching.

5. EXPLORE THE COURTHOUSE

This landmark Sarawak River waterfront complex, consisting of a series of single-storey colonnaded buildIngs divided by a main grassed courtyard, is one of the finest pieces of architecture in Kuching. It dates to the days of the White Rajahs and was once the World War II headquarters of Kempeitai, the feared Japanese secret police who used to conduct executions there.

6. VISIT SARAWAK MUSEUM

Built in 1891, the small, dusty yet fascinating Sarawak Museum houses the ethnographical and natural history collection of the erstwhile Rajahs. It features some fearsome attractions including head-hunter battle shields decorated in the hair of multiple victims. A modern new museum is being constructed across the road with an opening date set for 2020. A bridge linking the old and new museums for visitors is included in the bold design.See museum.sarawak.gov.my

7. EAT SARAWAK LAKSA

It was Anthony Bourdain, the American celebrity chef, author and broadcaster, who, in one of his television programs, bought new-found fame to the distinctive laksa from this far-flung Malaysian state. Sarawak laksa, available for nix all over Kuching from classic street stalls and food markets, consists of vermicelli rice noodles cooked in a shrimp-based broth thickened with coconut milk. It is served with generous amounts of bean sprouts, boiled prawns, shredded chicken and egg omelette. Add thick sambal paste to your liking as well as a squeeze of lime juice.

8. SPOT CAT SCULPTURES

Kuching roughly translates as "cat" in Malay and all over the city you'll find touristy references to it, mainly in the form of sculptures and murals in high-traffic locations, including beside the waterfont. If you're really keen, there's even a cat museum and the inevitable souvenirs. It's all a bit kitschy, to say the least, but also a bit of fun and feline-fanciers will be tickled pink.

9. EAT CHINAHOUSE

An accomplished expatriate Australian, Narelle McMurtrie, last year opened this cultural and dining complex at the Courthouse. A sequel to the highly-successful ChinaHouse in George Town, Penang, elsewhere in Malaysia, the centrepiece Australian-style cafe, serving the best coffee in town, is open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. There's also a restaurant, a performance space and a gift shop. Kuching has never seen anything like it.  See chinahouse.com.my

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10. SNACK THE MUSEUM CAFE & SHOP

Opposite the charming Chinese History Museum (see above) on Jalan Main Bazaar, one of the best aspects of this pleasant and friendly cafe is not just the excellent casual food and drinks but the fine selection of books about Sarawak and Kuching as well as tasteful souvenirs and artefacts. It's also a good place to pause and get your bearings on arrival over a cooling drink. See facebook.com/sarawakmuseumshopandcafe

11. DRINK DRUNKEN MONKEY OLD STREET BAR

One of the best bars in Kuching, Drunken Monkey is located on Jalan Carpenter, just a short stroll from the waterfront. Grab a table and chair in the pleasant outdoor seating area in the pedestrianised laneway that runs next to the bar. The laneway leads to Bishopsgate, so named because it was an entrance to an 18th and 19th century Anglican mission complex. Fashioned from ironwood, the gate was shut at night to keep out locals, including the then many opium addicts. See facebook.com/drunkmonkeyoldstreetbar

12. STROLL WATERFRONT ESPLANADE

One of Kuching's most attractive features, the nearly kilometre-long esplanade is dotted with benches, food stalls, cafes and restaurants. You can get across to the opposite bank of the river, dominated by the modern Sarawak state parliamentary building, by taking a cheap sampan, though a pedestrian footbridge is under construction. One of several preserved heritage buildings along the waterfront is the Sarawak Steamship Building, built in 1930.

13. EAT LEPAU RESTAURANT

This unusual restaurant, on Ban Hock Road, is at the forefront of a revival of interest in Sarawak's indigenous Dayak tribal culture. It serving Dayak-inspired cuisine. You may want to secure a table in the pleasant al fresco courtyard space, though inside musicians regularly perform. Outside Kuching it s possible to visit and stay in traditional Dayak longhouses. See facebook.com/lepaurestaurant

14. TAKE A SUNSET RIVER CRUISE

A relaxing 90-minute sunset cruise along the Sarawak River, which runs through Kuching, is a good way to get a sense of the city as well as a closer look at some of its main attractions, such as the 19th century Astana (or palace) and Fort Margherita. One drawback is that the river has been rendered a little lifeless since it was closed to the major traffic that made it a bustling port during the White Rajahs era. The on-board guides enjoy pointing out the ostentatious waterside mansion of politicians that line part of the river. See sarawakrivercruise.com

15. SEE THE ASTANA

An unusual castle-like building with beautifully-manicured gardens on the north bank, of the Sarawak River, the Astana was built in 1870 by Charles Brooke (the second "White Rajah" of Sarawak) as a bridal gift to his wife, Margaret. Today, it is the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak. 

16. STAY RANEE BOUTIQUE SUITES

Kuching, which remains an emerging south-east Asian destination, at least for Westerners, has few standout accommodation choices, with Ranee Boutique Suites by far best place to stay in town. Brilliantly located right on the waterfront and a short walk from the Courthouse, this affordable, though immensely comfortable, 24-room hotel has excellent rooms, decent food and is decorated with tribal flourishes. See theranee.com 

17. VISIT FORT MARGHERITA

Built in 1879 to guard Kuching from pirate incursions via the river, the fort was named after White Rajah Charles Brooke's wife, Margaret. A major landmark along Sarawak River, Fort Margherita's design was inspired by an English castle. It is now home to the newly opened Brooke Gallery, which features historical documents, artefacts and art from the White Rajah era. 

18. SEE THE MAIN BAZAAR

Facing the waterfront, the Main Bazaar consists of a series of classic Malay-style shophouses. Most of them are standard art and crafts and souvenir shops but the local tourism authorities have plans to transform the street into a livelier area of restaurants, cafes and bars reminiscent of George Town in Penang.

19. VISIT THE INDIAN MOSQUE

Dating from 1837, this centrally located mosque is nowadays largely concealed behind surrounding buildings, which can make finding it a bit of a discovery. It was built by Indian muslims who migrated to Sarawak from southern India. A new mosque is being built beside the waterfront. 

20. ESCAPE TAKE A TRIP OUT OF TOWN

Kuching is the perfect base from which to explore other parts of Sarawak, with one of the most popular destinations being the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gunung Mulu National Park, a one-hour flight from the capital. It is famed for its extraordinary collection of caves, some of which are among the world's largest and longest. Be sure to book a room at the excellent five-star Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa,  built in the middle of dense jungle. See mulupark.com; marriott.com

Anthony Dennis visited Kuching as a guest of Tourism Malaysia (malaysia.travel) and Sarawak Tourism (sarawaktourism.com). Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Singapore Airlines all operate regular flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to Kuching. See malaysiaairlines.com; airasia.com; singaporeair.com

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