Sarawak is a playground for adventure seekers, wildlife watchers, cultural enthusiasts and foodies. If this sounds like you, then this corner of Asia won’t disappoint. Here’s my beginner’s guide to this beautiful Malay state, located on the island of Borneo.
The capital city of Sarawak, Kuching, is a refreshing change from the fast-paced mega cities of Asia. Instead of swathes of high rise buildings and concrete, you’ll find crumbling colonial architecture, pungent spice markets, grand mosques and a shady riverside promenade ideally suited for watching the sun set with a cold drink.
Kuching is the starting point for most international travelers in Sarawak. Only a short flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, the city has a sleepy stride which is easy to navigate. Most travelers stay on the riverside in old Malay shop houses that have been converted into quirky, comfortable guesthouses.
A good way to get your bearings is to join a walking or cycling tour. We join the bubbly Farha from Wayang Tours on a culinary and heritage tour of Kuching. We start by wandering the old streets of Chinatown, popping our heads into the lavishly decorated temples that seem to adorn every corner. The Indian market is next with its kaleidoscope of brightly colored buildings brimming with vivid fabric shops, spice displays, colorful fruit shops and a vegetable market. We find a dark alley leading to a tiny mosque where worshippers sit quietly in the shadows. It is an oasis of calm and cool in the midst of the bustling market place. We can’t help but notice the burgeoning population of cats. Kuching is also known as ‘cat city’ because of the cats bought in by the original Malay traders. Now there are giant cat statues, piles of kitschy cat souvenirs and even a cat museum; a must for cat lovers of the world.
Brunch is enjoyed at the central food market amongst the welcoming locals. Our favorite dish is Sarawak laksa – a delicate blend of rice vermicelli, tender chicken and fried shrimp in a spicy coconut broth topped with crunchy bean shoots. A sweet coffee served with a generous dollop of condensed milk fills our bellies nicely. With our energy restored, we hire a couple of bikes and hop on a wooden sampan to cross the Sarawak River to explore the quieter Malay villages on the northern bank. Here the locals smile and wave while lazy cats sprawl on shady bougainvillea-covered verandas to escape the muggy heat. It takes some serious stamina to ride uphill from the river to the whitewashed Fort Margherita.
The fort was built in 1879 to protect Kuching from pirate attack and to lockup criminals. You can still explore the sombre gallows tower, jail cells and canons as well as a gallery showcasing the fascinating history of Sarawak; everything from tribal warfare and headhunting to the rise of the Malay traders, Chinese shopkeepers, White Rajahs, Japanese occupation, Australian liberation, and Muslim immigration. Back in town, if you still have time to spare then pop into the fascinating Sarawak Museum which showcases cultural artefacts gathered from many of Sarawak’s indigenous tribes.
The colonial Old Courthouse is worth a visit – it has a cool café with sprawling wide verandas, and often displays photographic and art exhibitions, live performances and tourist information. At the end of the day make time to wander along the riverside promenade where you can mingle with local families while you watch the sun set and nibble on street food. You need a good couple of days to appreciate Kuching in depth. Then you can consider venturing into the jungle or onto the beaches to explore the wild and wonderful natural world. Kuching’s biggest asset is that it’s within an hour of stunning natural sites. Perfect when you have limited time. Here are some of the best activities close to Kuching:
If you can’t do without some beach time, then head to the enticing beaches of the Damai Peninsula. Lush jungle tumbles onto sandy beaches and the sparkling South China Sea. Several eco-resorts offer jungle trekking, sea kayaking, wildlife spotting and cultural shows.
Sarawak’s biggest drawcard is the orangutan which has suffered at the hands of the wildlife trade and destruction of its rainforest habitat. Fortunately the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, forty minutes south of Kuching has a population of 28 semi wild orangutans that have been born there or rescued. At the twice daily feedings at 9am and 3pm you can wander the jungle trails to the feeding platforms where tropical fruits are left out for hungry orangutans to eat.
At Kuching Wetlands or in Bako National Park you can get up close and personal with the pot-bellied proboscis monkey. The proboscis monkey is one of the world’s most endangered primates. The nose of the male proboscis monkey keeps growing throughout its life, so the older they get, the bigger their noses become – they look almost like cartoon characters! Deep in the rainforest you can search for even rarer animals including the clouded leopard, civet cat, bearded pig, scaly anteater and hornbill.
There is no shortage of jungle treks, kayaking trips and caving adventures in the rainforest of Sarawak. Trips can be arranged from Kuching or from where you are staying. Accommodation options range from the traditional longhouse to rustic rainforest camps and luxury eco-lodges with all mod cons. The rainforest can get wet, so pack some sturdy shoes and rain gear. June to September are the driest months. Temperatures hover around 30 degrees C (86F) year round.
The simple, rustic nature of Sarawak is ripe for exploring. If you want unforgettable adventures within easy reach of a beguiling capital city, then put it on your must-see travel list.
This is a guest post by Liz Noble.
Liz Noble is a Sydneysider with a passion for photography and a love of nature, dogs and adventure. Her favorite trips include exploring Africa, caravanning around Europe, backpacking in India, sailing the Aegean and immersing herself in Asia. Despite traveling to more than 50 countries, Liz is always planning her next escape – usually somewhere hot and exotic!
She runs a blog,