Family Travel: Kuching, Malaysia

By 2018-12-20 23:26:08

Head to this quirky city, nestled between tropical rainforests and rivers, where East meets West.

By Lisa M. Mulvey

Kuching City, capital of the Malaysian State of Sarawak, is a festive family-friendly destination – be it simply a weekend of quirky fun or an eccentric in-between when traveling on to Borneo. As an ever-evolving Malaysian city, plan your visit before the painted orangutans fade and the delicate balance of old-world charm and modernization is no longer. Accented by a unique passion for cats, it’s both colorful and quirky – the perfect setting for an out-of-the-box family-friendly exploration.

With no direct flights to Kuching from Shanghai, you'll need to change, usually in Kuala Lumpur, before heading onto Kuching International Airport (KCH). It takes around 10 hours and can cost from ¥1,400 to ¥2,500 (although this could change, depending on when you book and/or flight times). On arrival grab a taxi to your hotel, or venture out of the airport and take a walk to the bus stop, catching a bus heading north to the city center. 

Surrounded by rainforests and rivers teeming with tropical life, Kuching city abuts the Sarawak River – an essential transportation route – and is the usual entry point into Borneo. A living oxymoron, Kuching is emphasizing its stance as an evolving international city; East meets West, quaint, yet bustling. Mega-malls adjoin 19th century architecture as ancient trees are viewed via Starbucks. With the riverfront as the heart and soul of the city, all roads meander towards water with no clear logic – streets were simply carved through the land upon necessity with narrow cobblestone pathways and dual-carriage roads intricately intertwined closest to the river.

As evening falls, lamplights are lit along the riverfront as tranquil “tam-bang” boats ply the river and the pungent spices of traditional Malay foods fill the air. Humidity dips to a respectable measure creating the perfect opportunity to enjoy a moonlit scavenger hunt in search of painted orangutans. The glow of local shops, rows of food stalls and ten-table bars obviate the need for flashlights. Hanging around India Street, a main shopping area deep within the urban center, you find the elusive great apes playfully painted into a packed wheelbarrow and swinging about.

Snap away and capture these iconic murals before time has its way. As you stroll down India Street, keep an eye out for a mysterious narrow passage. In a city filled with hidden gems, this passage leads to a tiny mid-19th century Indian mosque. Made of ironwood by Muslim traders in 1863 and revered as the oldest mosque in Kuching, the modest building is nonchalantly kept an eye on by locals. Ask politely and the “guard” may very well indulge you with a personalized tour.

The city reigns as the most populous in Borneo and proudly the most multi-racial city in Malaysia. From Chinese, to Malays including Ibans (a densely populated native Bornean tribe), to original Indian migrants and other indigenous races, Kuching is a colorful patchwork quilt of culture and heritage. The tropical wet climate of this colonial capital means constant year-round temperatures of around 79 degrees (F) as well as consistently moist air. Though many of Kuching’s attractions are within walking distance to one another, the steamy weather may require some pre-planning and appropriate pacing for families with kids. The eccentric nature of the city can make for some pretty entertaining thematic adventures.

Local folklore proposes several theories as to the origin of the city’s name. The most beloved tale is a cat-lover’s delight – a feline in the right place at the right time. In 1841, James Brooke arrived to newly ceded Sarawak via boat accompanied by a local guide. With an aimless gesture towards the shore, Brooke inquired about the riverfront town’s name. The local guide mistook Brooke’s hand gesture as merely pointing to a cat. He uttered the word, kucing, a Malay word for cat. “Cat City” was therein born and an empire of cat-loving tourism began. Short stumpy-tailed cats wander the city with an air of majesty and spotting them roaming about can certainly make for a game, in and of itself, but they quickly become too numerous to count.

However, for kitschier fun, earn points for scouting out the three gigantic cat statues towering around town. If you’re not felined-out, take an Uber over to the Cat Museum, an entire museum dedicated to – you guessed it – felines! With over 4,000 cat-related artifacts to pore over and free admission, it’s worth a lively jaunt as well as for an incredible panoramic view of the city. Don’t leave Kuching without a cat-themed t-shirt – no less than 27 different varieties can be found. Even the locals wear them.

Kuching’s oldest and most cherished street is the Main Bazaar – a row of 19th century Chinese shop house offering antiques, spices, and handicrafts as diverse as Kuching’s population. Since the 1800s foreigners and locals barter and banter like a rhythmic dance. Beyond the Sarawak Pepper (a must buy), intricately carved musical instruments (a kids’ must buy) and cheeky t-shirts, lay hidden back rooms filled with antique treasures, premium spices and authentic Sarawakian pottery. Head across the street to the riverfront where you can climb aboard a “bot tambang,” Kuching’s iconic small wooden boats that serve as water taxis.

Once aboard, you may want to watch your step as coins (like gold doubloons!) are often strewn across the floor. Traditionally, passengers toss fare onto the floor and are welcome to pick up any necessary change from the established collection. More modern boat captains may simply have a gold plate to stack your coins upon. For around 0.40 MYR (approximately ¥0.5, ¥1 between 10pm-6am), you’ll disembark on the adjacent side of the Sarawak River, where the imposing Fort Margherita stands rigid and white.

Built in 1879 to repel pirates, it’s now home to a Police Museum and a gallery dedicated to the Brooke Family’s rule. With free entry, explore the impressive collection of historical artifacts, police weaponry, lock-ups and confiscated objects that will mesmerize any kid (or adult, for that matter). Be sure to save time for an excursion to the roof! Have the kids look out for pirates as you savor this incredible view of Kuching.

In addition, just outside of Kuching City (within an hour), more kid-centric Borneo experiences emerge such as a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village – a “living museum” of Sarawak heritage (adults /50 MYR (¥79), children/25MYR (¥40)), the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre – an orangutan orphanage and rehabilitation preserve, the Kubah National Park – a noted favorite spot for night frog tours, and the Wind Caves – tunneling caves notorious for stinky bat droppings, but also incredible swiftlet nests. There is an entry fee for the Sarawak National Parks where each attraction is located.

Good to Know

  • Foreign money is not accepted. Use local money changers in Sarawak Plaza, India Street and Padungan Street, though ATMs are also convenient.

  • Taxis have a standard fare but, red-and-yellow taxis are less expensive than the (larger) blue taxis. If you like a driver, ask for a card and become a repeat customer.

  • Kuching’s wet tropical climate can creep up on you, so stay hydrated in the notorious humidity.