Take it to the streets

Guy Wilkinson discovers Sarawak's quirky capital is best explored with an old-fashioned walkabout.

IT'S dusk on the Sarawak River. Crouched in a longboat, a fisherman unravels his tattered nets, his lined face lit by the flickering flame of a paraffin lamp. The ropes cause scarcely a ripple as they hit the water's surface and from across the river, the call to prayer echoes from a nearby mosque. Tonight, the fisherman could be in for a long wait but in these parts, no one seems in too much of a hurry.

Despite its status as the capital of Sarawak, a visit to Kuching is a reminder of a time when Asian cities were far less hectic. Until about 150 years ago, Sarawak was the name of the tidal river cutting through a province initially ruled by the Sultan of Brunei. In 1872, the city earned its present name under the second white Rajah, Charles Brooke.

Kuching literally translates to "cat" and while there are numerous theories as to how the name came about, the most likely explanation stems from the Indochinese word cochin, meaning port.

Mistranslations aside, to this day, Kuching retains a vaguely unhealthy obsession with cats. There are cat statues on roundabouts, outside temples, inside shops. There's even a cat museum. Resembling a flying saucer from the outside, it's a bizarre tribute to all things feline - there are figurines of every conceivable size, shape and colour, as well as displays charting their history in anything from movie posters to advertising campaigns, comic books to literature. One exhibit even displays photographs of owners who have tattooed their bodies with portraits of their beloved pets.

Cat obsessions aside, Kuching is a city with many attractions. Undoubtedly, one of the main drawcards is the Semenggoh wildlife centre, 24 kilometres south of the city. Though not as famous as the Sepilok centre in Sabah, Semenggoh acts as a rehabilitation facility for more than 20 of Borneo's injured or orphaned orangutans and the primates can come and go as they please within the 740-hectare forest enclosure. The centre comes across as a decently run enterprise where the animals' welfare takes precedence over the tourist dollar.

Within Kuching itself, there are numerous attractions. For an overview of the history, geology and wildlife of the region, the Sarawak Museum is a good bet.

Though stately from the outside, the interior - which dates to 1891 - is a little jaded but among the chipped cabinets and fading glass, some exhibits shine through. Some of the best include the gruesome headhunting history of the region and the origins of oil pioneering in the 1800s.

Also worth a look is the recently restored Fort Margherita on the banks of the Sarawak River. Built in 1879 to guard Kuching from pirates, it now houses the Police Museum and showcases interesting artefacts such as old cannons and a collection of "laughing skulls".


Other popular attractions include the much-lauded (though vaguely kitsch) Sarawak Cultural Village, with its daily dance routines and traditional longhouses, the Astana, which is now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, and the Chinese Museum.

While all these sights have merit, the best way to experience Kuching is simply to go walkabout. With a population made up of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribal people, this is a city rich in cultural diversity. Its compact centre also means most areas of interest are easily accessible on foot.

Leaving the guidebook at home, I stroll aimlessly through Jalan Carpenter, Chinatown's main artery where red lanterns criss-cross the street between old shop houses and restaurants. Inside a food court frequented by dozing cab drivers, I order a bowl of kolok mee, a regional specialty made of egg noodles, barbecued pork, shredded chicken, tofu, chilli and soy. Rounded off with a hot, crispy banana fritter from a stand outside, it's the best meal I've eaten for less than $5.

A block closer to the riverfront, the Main Bazaar is the oldest street in town and a popular spot for picking up antiques, woodcarvings and souvenirs. Most shops are piled to the ceiling with knick-knacks and although the items are a little touristy, the locals aren't pushy, making perusing pleasant enough.

The riverfront itself has a modern, cosmopolitan feel, with a revamped promenade stretching a kilometre west towards downtown. Dotted with kiosks, manicured parks, food stalls and restaurants, it's an ideal place to watch the fishing boats chug past or even hop on a longboat to the opposite bank.

If you follow the promenade west you'll come to Little India and the colourful Kuching State Mosque. On Saturday afternoons at nearby Jalan Satok you'll discover the city's famous weekend market, where locals sleep at their stalls and resume trading at dawn the next day.

Even on weekdays, the surrounding area is a good spot to sample a variety of hawker food. Kuching is a city greater than the sum of its parts. Though it's worth exploring the more obvious attractions, the real intrigue lies with its laid-back charm and the people who inhabit the place. It's a city where ancient Buddhist temples stand beside Islamic mosques, where locals watch soccer on TV in packed coffee shops at night, and rooftop food courts offer seafood fit for a king.

As local celebrity tattoo artist Ernesto K Umpie told me, "Kuching has a special energy and vibe that you can't find almost anywhere else in the world. It's charming and romantic and the people are genuinely friendly. Its status is a city but it still has that small-town mood."

The writer was assisted by GTI Tourism/Borneo Adventure and the Pullman Kuching Hotel.

Trip notes

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, with convenient onward connections to Kuching. Return fare from $1304. +603 7843 3000, malaysiaairlines.com.

Staying there

Pullman Kuching offers five-star luxury in the heart of Kuching with views over the Sarawak River and city. Rates start from $70 a room a night. accorhotels.com, pullmankuching.com, 1300 656 565.

See + do

Semenggoh wildlife centre, feeding times 9am-10am and 3pm-4pm daily. +6 082 618 325, sarawakforestry.com.

Sarawak Cultural Village, open 9am-5pm. +6 082 846 411, scv.com.my/main.asp.

Sarawak Museum, Jln Tun Abang Haji, +6 082 244 232. www.museum.sarawak.gov.my.

The cat museum is on the ground floor of the Kuching North City Headquarters at the Bukit Siol, Jalan Semariang, Petra Jaya.

More information