Inspired living

Join WellBeing as we travel to Malaysia's beautiful riverside town of Kuching

Join WellBeing as we travel to Malaysia's beautiful town of Kuching

Credit: David Bristow

Ducking out of the rain into a tiny Chinatown alcove, we follow the heady scent of incense up a staircase and discover, by sheer chance, Hin Ho Bio — Temple of the Queen of the Heaven — high on a rooftop, ablaze in candlelight.

Chinese lanterns colour the red-and-gold ceiling and the hopes of early morning worshippers linger in bunches of fresh lotus flowers and joss sticks burning by the altar. We light joss sticks of our own and pray for safe travels then sit afterwards taking in a surprising view, high above Kuching’s irresistibly unhurried riverfront.

If there is any place that’s the antithesis of a frenetic southeast Asian city, it’s Kuching: Malaysia’s most beautiful riverside town with a remarkable wilderness right on its doorstep.

If there is any place that’s the antithesis of a frenetic southeast Asian city, it’s Kuching: Malaysia’s most beautiful riverside town with a remarkable wilderness right on its doorstep. Wandering around this hassle-free city, tourists crisscross the Sarawak River on tambangs to see Fort Margherita at sunset, slurp fiery Sarawak laksa at lunchtime and daytrip to unearth the world’s biggest flowers, watch orangutans feed and hike past rare proboscis monkeys to a secluded pool above Tajor waterfall.

Kuching’s best escapes demand only a day, returning you to this quietly intoxicating city to navigate its cool Chinatown bars and stroll the easy, breezy waterfront where locals come to snack.

Uncrowded and mellow, Kuching treats travellers to classic Chinese-Malay hospitality: plenty of attention and no hassling. And while it might seem a distant destination, seamless budget airline connections via Kuala Lumpur make it more accessible (and affordable) than you might think.

Of all the amazing experiences you can have in Kuching, these favourites are difficult to beat.

Great apes

At Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, less than an hour’s drive from Kuching, travellers and orangutans meet deep in the forest over a feast of tropical fruits. On any day, up to 20 orangutans might visit the reserve’s fruit feeding station or none at all: mothers carrying wide-eyed infants; playful adolescents swinging hand-over-hand and shimmying down tree trunks to the forest floor.

On our visit, the arrival of an enormous 120kg male kept the females hovering on the fringes while we watched, mouths agape, until he had sated his appetite and moved on. Only then did the smaller orangutans sidle closer, including one that trooped casually right through the crowd, panicking rangers, before climbing swiftly away into the canopy.

On our visit, the arrival of an enormous, 120kg male orangutan kept the females hovering on the fringes while we watched, mouths agape, until he had sated his appetite and moved on.

One of two sanctuaries that safeguard the world’s largest tree-dwelling animals on the Malaysian side of Borneo, Semenggoh is the site of a rescue-and-release orangutan centre operated for 20 years before the number of orangutans freed into the surrounding forest reached full capacity. Today, the park serves as a place to study orangutan behaviour and biology and to protect the habitat of those semi-wild apes still living within park boundaries.

There is some debate about the authenticity of watching semi-wild orangutans at feeding centres such as Semenggoh (or Sepilok in the neighbouring state of Sabah) versus trekking jungle trails in search of truly wild creatures. The merit in visiting a place like Semenggoh is that it makes the plight of these endangered creatures more real to more of us. Once you’ve eyeballed an orangutan in the forest, fighting for their survival becomes personal.

Semenggoh’s twice-daily feeding sessions (9am and 3pm) are usually attended by a handful of orangutans except during forest fruiting season (November to March) when orangutans tend to stay in the forest. If you go, aim for the morning session.

Bako’s beach monkeys

On the northern tip of Muara Tebas peninsula and accessible only by boat, Sarawak’s oldest national park provides sanctuary to one of the strangest monkeys on the planet. Rare proboscis monkeys — found only in Borneo — congregate to feed at the beach at Paku Bay, luring wildlife lovers who come for the monkeys and stay for Bako National Park’s stunning limestone scenery.

Day trippers will easily spot the elegant proboscis monkeys feeding on mangrove leaves by the sea and undeterred by the walkers trekking past in search of secluded swimming holes, waterfalls, jungle lookouts and more remote beaches.

Bako’s best beach, Teluk Pandan Kecil, is also one of the easiest to reach: a perfect arc of pure white sand nestled between towering cliffs and a bright blue bay (3hrs/5km return).

Other trails push further to the hidden rock pool above Tajor Waterfall that drains onto a blissfully deserted beach (5hrs/7km return). From November to January this is sure to be a hot and humid endeavor, so get an early start and carry more water than we did!

While it can be done, Bako is too luminous a destination for a fleeting visit. If you’ve ever wondered what moves in a Borneo jungle after dark, book an air-con lodge room, pack a torch and follow the bearded pigs into the jungle on a spotlight walking tour.

At dawn, stroll down to the sand to catch Bako’s enormous bearded pigs foraging along the high tide mark and, in the trees overhead, lovely silver leaf monkeys breakfasting in silence. Bako’s simple air-conditioned rooms and basic noodle-and-rice menu are just enough to see you back to Kuching where sunset beers on the beach are a terrific antidote to a day of hot hiking. If you go, pack plenty of sunscreen and comfy walking shoes and keep a keen eye out for the carnivorous pitcher plants that grow trackside as you walk.

Smelling flowers

When the world’s biggest flower blooms in Kuching’s Gunung Gading National Park, great crowds rally and we do too. There’s no time to waste: the Rafflesia opens its metre-wide petals for just a few days but it’s the fact that it emits an odour akin to rotting meat that we find impossible to resist, so we jump a bus to the national park and hike into the forest.

We smell the Rafflesia long before we see it: one enormous, orange flower blooming right on the forest floor. Its scent is like a smack in the face, powerful enough to lure not only us but also the carrion flies which, while flying around the forest looking for a rotting carcass or two, land on the Rafflesias by mistake and pollinate it.

It’s a wonderful trick of nature and it works. Single Rafflesias may bloom up to a kilometre apart but the carrion flies find them and transport pollen all over the forest, thanks to that heady scent. We crisscross the forest too in search of more and more blooms, each one a startling, slightly different version of gorgeous. Indigenous Malays once used the Rafflesia as both a post-natal tonic for women and an aphrodisiac for men — two rather incongruous uses — but this simultaneously alluring and repulsive flower is quite the paradox.

As it turns out, they are only the beginning. Beyond the muggy Rafflesia forests that flank the mountain, we follow the Lundu River upstream towards Gunung Gading’s distant 965 metre-high summit. Berkubu Cave lies beyond, four hours’ walk away — but we never find it, distracted instead by deep, sandy waterholes where we bathe beneath waterfalls that drop down the mountain.

Rafflesias may bloom at any time of the year in Gunung Gading National Park but blooms are more common over the wet season from November to January. If you go, pick up a picnic of fresh tropical fruit from Kuching’s excellent Sunday markets.

Relaxing riverside

After a long day on the mountainside we manage to make it back to Kuching for sunset, joining a crowd gathered riverside blowing giant bubbles in the breeze. Kids go crazy and ours does too, running and jumping and chasing bubbles as they blow away with the wind. It’s happy, feel-good fun and everyone wears a smile.

We buy lemon icy poles pulled straight from their steel moulds for a couple of coins and, when a boatman beckons us into his wooden tambang, we jump aboard and cross the Sarawak River to watch the day’s dying light fall on Fort Margherita.

Few people seem to enjoy food more than Malays and in Kuching we find it at every turn. In one long, delicious day we wander through Chinatown’s narrow, cafe-filled streets, leapfrogging lazily one from meal to the next, eating and drinking and chatting with locals who wouldn’t dream of rushing us on.

We are craving bowls of rich, fiery Sarawak laksa but, since this is strictly lunchtime fare in Kuching, the chilli-hounds in our midst have to warm up first with thick, sweet coffee and steaming, sunny buns stuffed with sweet, eggy custard.

Kuching coffee is rather an acquired taste: strong and bitter after being roasted with sugar and, once brewed, poured over a thick layer of sweet condensed milk. The more you stir, the sweeter the brew, so I dunk my spoon just a little and drink the coffee off the top. It’s delicious and addictive and, while I’d never drink it like this at home, I crave it in Kuching.

We eventually leave the bakery behind, following the sound of locals slurping laksa two shops up the street. The city’s favourite lunch is indulgent and fishy and utterly delicious and we team it with iced lemon tea and more chats once the deep bowls have been emptied.

Appetites sated for now, we wander on, ambling past noisy food courts that smell of Chinese five spice and noodle soup, past tourists sipping chilled Tiger beer in tiny cafe courtyards. We follow the breeze to the river once again where vendors tempt us with kek lapis: luminous slabs of bright butter cake stacked in thin layers of blueberry, raspberry, melon and more.

Undeniably tasty (despite the excess of food dye), the cakes are quintessentially Kuching: rich, bright and fun and, despite my best efforts, impossible to resist.

There might be wild adventures far beyond the city limits — famous limestone caves and secluded, little-visited swathes of sand — but Kuching keeps us close, revelling in unhurried adventures that return us riverside at the end of each wondrous day.

Escape Route

Getting there

Malaysian Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) flies to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from most capital cities (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin). Air Asia travels the same route with departures from Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast (airasia.com). Australian travellers get a free three-month visa on arrival in Kuching.

When to go

March to October.

Where to stay

Agoda lists double air-con rooms with ensuite from as little as $25 a night. Stay riverside if you can. In Bako National Park, book a forest lodge room ($50/double) at ebooking.sarawak.gov.my.

Getting around

To reach Bako National Park, take a taxi to Bako village and a boat to the park (sarawakforestry.com). Tours to Semenggoh can be booked at any hotel (allow 3 hours, entry costs $3.50/adult, half-price for kids). Take a taxi (and a picnic) to Gunung Gading National Park, two hours from Kuching.

Don’t miss

Kuching’s world-famous Rainforest World Music Festival (July).

More info

sarawaktourism.com, wildtravelstory.com


Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.