The state capital
Kuching is the capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak. Situated in eastern Sarawak, it is the most populous of all the cities in the state and, arguably, also the best place to be a tourist in the whole of Malaysia, due to its size, quality of accommodation, daytrips and museums.
There is a very distinctive colonial feel to Kuching that can often whisk you away to a balmy night walk along the Seine in Paris when, in fact, you are walking along the waterfront on the banks of the Sarawak River. Okay, we’re exaggerating slightly, but there is a definite colonial cosmopolitan charm to Kuching that is different to anywhere else in Malaysia, due in part to the diverse ethnic population of Kuching. You will often find Chinese shops sitting nicely next to Iban tattoo parlours, while a vendor with his hawker stall outside serves up an Indian curry.
The history of Kuching is really the history of Sarawak as a state, as prior to the era of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, it was part of the Sultanate of Brunei. It was really the Brooke era that saw Kuching comes into its own, and this can be seen everywhere in the architecture. The Old Courthouse reminds us that it was Brooke who brought the rule of law to Sarawak and outlawed headhunting and piracy, to some effect.
The Brooke dynasty continued its rule over Sarawak until the Japanese occupation in World War II and during this time they improved municipal services and laid the foundations for the charming, quaint city that we see today. As a testament to the Brookes’ achievements in Sarawak, locals still often look back on that time of prosperity as a bit of a golden age -- but as per usual, this should be taken with a heavy dose of salt and we should be mindful of the rose-tinted glasses effect of history.
During World War II, Kuching was a place of strategic importance as it boasted an airstrip, which gave planes easy access to Singapore, and it was heavily defended until it fell to the Japanese in December of 1941. The Japanese occupation ushered in a time of hardship for the people of Sarawak and many a story can be heard from indigenous communities about how their ancestors fought bravely alongside Allied soldiers to stave off the Japanese onslaught -- some of this is documented in the Sarawak Musuem. Kuching retained its title of state capital after World War II and to this day remains the seat of state government.
Kuching is a very walkable city and if you ever find yourself lost, just make your way back to the waterfront and you’ll be able to work out exactly where you are. The Sarawak River separates the State Parliament on one side and Kuching proper on the other. On the weekend, you’ll see street performers and buskers along the waterfront as well as stalls selling brightly lit knick-knacks.
The street that runs opposite to the waterfront is the main bazaar, where some touristy shops sell handicrafts and postcards. On the eastern end of the main bazaar you’ll find the Old Courthouse, which today houses the Tourism Information Office and the booking office for Bako National Park. If you walk further up this road, you’ll eventually hit the Sarawak Museum but not before you see the Old Post Office on your left -- this is actually still the post office.
If you head back north towards the waterfront and take a right at the post office, you’ll hit Jalan Carpenter; here you’ll find quite a few backpacker lodges and hostels, as well as some great Chinese cafes with surly Chinese waiters. Walking west down Jalan Carpenter, you’ll come face to face with Tua Pek Kong Temple. Swing a right and there’s Jalan Green Hill, which is another great place to go if you’re in search of some sustenance.