The city gateway to Borneo

Elegant, cosmopolitan and oil rich, Kuching hugs the curves of Borneo’s Sungai Sarawak river. For all the steamy heat, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak is a diverse place: Iban tattoo parlours next to Indian curry stands, and sleek modern malls that tower over vintage shophouses. The Borneo rainforest, pristine islands and orangutans are all a hop away, while upriver, foragers still ferry jungle ferns and wild honey to the city’s markets.

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What to see and do in Kuching

After British soldier James Brooke helped the Sultan of Brunei eliminate river pirates, the Brooke family, a dynasty of Victorian adventurers known as the White Rajahs, ruled Sarawak for over a century. It is easy to see the mark they left as you stroll along the waterfront by night.

Lights deck the pristine lawns of the 19th-century Astana state house, now home to the governor of Sarawak, while the modernist sweep of the Sarawak State Assembly’s umbrella roof glistens against the skyline. With a cooling breeze rising from the river, it is magical.

Sarawak’s history of independence means Kuching boasts a cultural punch that is far above its weight. The Ethnology Museum, first opened in 1891, delivers retro charm in the downstairs natural history museum – evolution pioneer Alfred Russel Wallace contributed specimens. Upstairs, the exhibits explore the riches of Borneo’s tribes. Elsewhere, the Textile Museum spans the Borneo cultural gamut, from indigenous tree-bark fabrics to delicate Chinese embroidery (in Kuching the term ‘Chinese’ is far from monolithic: head to the Chinese History Museum to learn about the dialects, food and history of the city’s nine Chinese communities).

Kuching’s landmarks, too, are a tribute to the city’s diversity. The ornate, incense-dense Tua Pek Kong Temple dates back well over 150 years and honors a deity who was once shipwrecked on Penang. Built by Charles Brooke in 1879, hilltop Fort Margherita once served as a lookout to guard against river pirates and now houses a gallery devoted to the Brooke family.

From jungle bounty and Iban rice wine to Malay-style soups and Hokkien noodles, Kuching boasts all the food variety you would expect of a trading city. For raw jungle produce, the Satok Weekend Market remains the place to shop (to haggle for souvenirs, head to Serikin village, not far from the Indonesian border, known for its weekend market). Or visit The Dyak restaurant, where a classically trained chef works with fresh forest fare and traditional tribal recipes to create a unique fine-dining experience. Elsewhere, do not miss sour, tangy Sarawak laksa soup and kolo mee, a light noodle dish: look out for the tribal ceviche known as umai.

From trips through rarely visited caves to kayak or bamboo rafting tours of the tranquil Upper Sarawak River, it is easy to arrange your own jungle adventure but you would be remiss to visit Sarawak without exploring the Borneo rainforest. At the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, semi-wild orangutans – rehabilitated after captivity or injury – visit daily to feast on forest fruits. Endangered Irrawaddy dolphins frequent beachfront Santubong, which also hosts the annual Rainforest World Musical Festival. And at Bako National Park, long-nosed monkeys swing and whoop through the mangroves.

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