On the quest for exotic wildlife and laksa stalls in the east Malaysian city of Kuching

A gorgeous sunset over Kuching River. Pic: Peter Gronemann/flickr

LITERALLY translating to ‘cat’ in Malay, Kuching –  the capital of Malaysia’s biggest state of Sarawak – is the embodiment of charm. The city – rich in colonial history – is distinct in its multi-ethnic population, and is possibly the most diverse in all of Malaysia.  

Chinese, Malays and Indians live harmoniously with many other races including Ibans, Bidayuhs, Melanaus, Javanese and Orang Ulu settlers. All of this leads to a cacophony of spoken languages, from Hokkien to jaku Iban.

But Kuching is not a city that stops for tourists. Unlike more commercial sites in cities like Kuala Lumpur or Melaka, Kuching goes about its business with little attention, unknowingly exuding charisma along the way. Here are a few things you can do in the east Malaysian state.

Encounter proboscis monkeys at Bako National Park

Spot rare proboscis monkeys at Bako National Par. Pic: Lennart Tange/flickr

Without having to trek to the nature and wildlife goldmine that is Borneo, you can make up for it at the Bako National Park, a rainforest park set amidst coastal cliffs and rolling hills. It’s both jungle and beach in one setting, ticking off those two boxes quite nicely.

You can cop sightings of endangered species like the rare proboscis monkey, and witness just about every kind of vegetation found in Borneo, including interesting carnivorous plant species.

Plus, you can boat through the mangrove plantation, the peat swamp forest and the grasslands vegetation, all which are home to unique wildlife and plants.

Beginners can trek up the color-coded trails for full-day jungle hikes and camping expeditions, or simply take a relaxing stroll in the woods. There are 16 trails to choose from, some which lead to gorgeous views of the South China Sea, and others that bring you to troops of swinging monkeys.

Slurp Sarawak laksa at an old kopitiam

Sarawak laksa is a must-try when in Kuching. Pic: The Food Police

Sarawak’s version of laksa is one the most-loved for of its balance of sour, salty and spicy notes, largely owing to the punchy broth the noodles are submerged in.

It’s all down to the Sarawak laksa curry paste, a thick, dangerously red concoction made of tamarind, chilies, galangal (blue ginger), lemongrass and ginger. The vermicelli noodles are blanched, the hot broth is poured over, and the ensemble is topped with prawns, shredded chicken, sliced egg, bean sprouts and fresh coriander sprouts.

One of the most reliable spots to tuck into a bowl is Chong Choon Café, an old kopitiam that pulls in the crowds at breakfast time. The noodles run out by 11am, and table-sharing is common practice.

Meanwhile, Choon Hui Café on Jalan Ban Hock is also a favorite among locals. Similar to Chong Choon, it’s difficult to get a seat on weekends, and you might find hovering over other customers for a table. There’s a reason this kopitiam remains one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites.

If the laksa runs out, you won’t be disappointed with the roti kiap or kahwin, charcoal-toasted bread with kaya (coconut jam) and butter. The popiah too is in high demand, fresh rolls filled with fried shallots, bean sprouts, peanuts and carrot, and brushed with a blend of hoisin and soy sauce.

Pick up colorful textiles along Jalan India

Shop for textiles and jewelry along Jalan India. Pic: Sarawak Tourism

Shop for textiles and jewelry along Jalan India. Pic: Sarawak Tourism

Trawl through reasonably priced textiles on Jalan India, where lots of Indian Muslim-owned shops are lined. Marked by a big arch that leads into its commercial site, the street is a colorful stretch of clothing, costume jewelry, and goldsmiths.

Mid-way down the street is narrow alley that leads to Jalan Gambier, and if you follow it, you’ll find a small Indian mosque with a modest arch entrance. According to Sarawak Tourism, the mosque has undergone several changes since it was built by the Indian Muslim community in the mid-19th century.

Soak in the best of nature in Santubong

Santubong is a nature paradise away from the city. Pic: Hidayu's Journal

About 35 kilometers from Kuching is the peninsula of Santubong, an absolute treat for nature lovers. On the rainforest slopes of Mount Santubong are mangroves, rivers and mudflats, all of which are home to a range of exotic wildlife such as Irrawaddy dolphins, Indo-Pacific humpback whales, and finless porpoises.

If you’re putting up a night at Santubong, it’s worth a stay at Cove 55, a stunning retreat villa with white, minimalist décor and unique Iban accents. The villa is surrounded by lush rainforest and a glimpse of the mystical Mount Santubong’s peak.

Step into a local home at Sarawak Cultural Village

Explore the various houses of Sarawak in the Village. Pic: Arienne Parzei/YouTube

The village – sometimes known as the “living museum” – is a fantastic primer to the local cultures, houses and lifestyles. Replica houses have been set up to represent every major group in Sarawak from Iban longhouses and Chinese farm houses to Melanau tall-houses and Penan settlements.

In each house, you’ll find artefacts from the groups they represent. Plus, the residents of the village will take you through their cultures and lifestyles, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to drink tuak (fermented rice wine) in their homes.

The annual Rainforest World Music Festival is also held here, a yearly gathering of some of the best world music performers from around the globe. The three-day festival is known to pull in fans for the range of electic music on display, enlightening world music workshops, as well as its lively party atmosphere.