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Sarawak’s capital, Kuching, is one of the few cities in Malaysian Borneo that escaped a hammering during WWII. Its historic buildings, multi-racial society, excellent climate and position along the banks of the Sungai Sarawak river all contribute to the city’s laid-back charms.
Kuching has an interesting history: the city was once ruled as a kingdom by British-Adventurer-come-Rajah, James Brooke, whose son, Charles, was responsible for building many of the structures that, along with its Chinese temples, mosques and waterfront, make Kuching such an appealing city to explore.
Kuching can be divided into two areas, which are more or less distinct. The Chinese dominated south is a commercial residential area, while the north shore is predominantly Malay in character, with old kampong houses lining the river.
There are many places of interest in and around the city, and while Kuching as a whole is spread out, its main center is compact and easily explored on foot. A popular base for travelers exploring Sarawak, the city also tempts travelers with its nightlife, wide-ranging accommodations and delicious Chinese-Malay cuisine.
Sarawak’s oldest national park, Bako National Park packs a lot of action into just 10 square miles (27 square kilometers) of land. Seven different ecosystems, including rain forest and mangroves, are home to wildlife from long-nosed proboscis monkeys to orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants, bearded pigs, and mudskippers (“walking” fish).
There are few places in the world with a healthier population of young orangutans than the jungles surrounding the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. This thriving population owes its success to a 30-year rehabilitation program that reintroduced hundreds of primates into the surrounding forest. Today, you can observe free-roaming orangutans during feeding times.
Sarawak Cultural Village showcases the varied cultures and customs of Sarawak’s ethnic groups. The living museum comprises traditional buildings, which include a Chinese farmhouse and several types of Longhouses, and gives you the chance to see ethnic groups going about everyday activities such as carving, sago-making, crushing sugar-cane, and growing pepper.
Located opposite the Kuching Esplanade, the Tua Pek Kong Chinese Temple serves as the focal point of the Chinese community in Kuching. Built sometime before the nineteenth century (the temple claims 1770 as its founding year), Tua Pek Kong is the oldest Chinese temple in the city and one of the most popular, thanks to its location on a busy intersection in the center of town.
The temple is dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, a Malaysian Chinese deity worshipped as the god of prosperity. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Kuching Old Court House, now officially known as the Sarawak Tourism Complex, was used as the seat of Sarawak’s judicial branch from when it was built in 1871 until 1973. The complex encompasses a series of architecturally interesting structures, like the colonial-Baroque clock tower — the complex’s most recognizable building — added in 1883 and the English Renaissance/English Colonial Pavilion Building, added in 1909 and currently home to the Textile Museum.
Other points of interest include the Round Tower, built in 1886 as a fort and later converted to a dispensary and most recently the headquarters of the Sarawak Craft Council, and the Charles Brooke Memorial, added in 1924 to honor the second white rajah of Sarawak.
Kuching Old Court House complex is situated near the Kuching Esplanade and makes for a pleasant stroll with some nice architectural photo ops. A small cafe with courtyard seating offers a place for travelers to rest their feet over a cup of coffee.
What was once a worn and weathered trading area in Kuching has been transformed into one of Malaysia’s best public spaces. The Kuching Waterfront, also known as the Esplanade, officially opened in 1993 and extends for a little less than a mile (1.3 kilometers) between the Main Bazaar and the Riverside Suites.
Once lined with wharfs and warehouses, this stretch along the south bank of the Sarawak River is now lined with cafes, souvenir shops and food stalls, along with several historic buildings and points of interest, like the Sarawak Steamship Company building and the Chinese Museum. With little road traffic, the area is ideal for strolling, particularly in the evening when the riverside lights blink on. Tiled mosaics along the esplanade depict Malaysian ethnic motifs, while placards offer insight into the area’s history.
Set just 14 miles (22 kilometers outside the Sarawak state capital of Kuching, the sandstone mountains of Kubah National Park offer some of the best day trekking and plant-spotting opportunities in the region. Swim in natural pools below waterfalls or hike along nature trails frequented by bearded pigs, arguas, and pheasants.
Sarawak Museum exhibits ethnographic and ecological artifacts relating to traditional tribal and environmental life in the state of Sarawak. Admire small scale replicas of Iban longhouses, tribal weapons, and mounted exhibits of exotic mammals and reptiles—of particular interest are the displays of shrunken heads and human skulls.
Formerly known as the State Mosque of Sarawak, the Kuching Mosque (Old State Mosque) is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. The original mosque built on the same site in 1847 — a simple structure made from wood and pitch — was renovated several times before being completely rebuilt to its present form in 1965. In October three years later, the new state mosque opened to worshipers.
Located in the center of town near the open air market, the pink and white, gold-domed mosque opens its doors to non-Muslim visitors outside of prayer times, offering an opportunity to learn about Islam and its practice in Malaysia.
Perched on the edge of Kubah National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre rehabilitates native Bornean species such as orangutans and sun bears. In addition to viewing the rock pools and three waterfalls of Kubah, come to Matang to walk nature trails and viewing platforms to observe rescued animals in habitats that emulate their natural homes.
The history of the Kuching Square Tower dates back to 1879, when it was built along the Sarawak River as a means of protecting the city against marauders. Situated toward one end of the Kuching Esplanade, the Square Tower has worn many hats throughout its history — it has served as a state prison, a dance hall and nowadays, a multimedia tourist information center, though it’s not always open to the public.
The Square Tower’s rooftop boasts panoramic views of Mounts Santubong and Serapi. Even when it’s closed to visitors, the Square Tower makes for a striking photo op, especially with the Sarawak parliament building in the background.
Built in 1870 by Charles Brooke, Second White Rajah of Sarawak, the Astana is now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak. It is a regal complex comprising three separate bungalows and a narrow system of passageways that unifies all parts of the Astana into a single palatial dwelling.
Among Kuching’s more unusual attractions are the series of kitschy cat statues scattered throughout the city. The Malay word for cat sounds similar to Kuching, and the city government took full advantage by nicknaming Kuching “Cat City.”
Perhaps the most famous of the statues is the Great Cat of Kuching. Erected in the 1990s as the first of the cat statues, this 5-foot (1.5-meter) white feline dominates city center and even gets dressed up during major festivals (think a Santa hat come Christmas).
One of the most photographed statues sits near the Kuching Esplanade and features a family of cats (parents and five kittens) lazing about in front of the Holiday Inn. At the center of the roundabout at the junction of Jln Padungan and Jln Chan Chin Ann stands the Cat Column, a Rafflesia flower-topped pillar flanked by four white cats.
Situated 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Kuching, Annah Rais is a Bidayuh longhouse settlement in the foothills of the Borneo Highlands. While the 500 or so residents of Annah Rais make a living from tourism and the settlement has long been on the tourist map, they’ve done well to preserve the traditional longhouse architecture, and visitors get a sense of what life in such communal settlements is like.
Annah Rais comprises three separate longhouses, Kupo Terekan, Kupo Saba and Kupo Sijo, which travelers can visit solo or with a guide. Each longhouse has a covered bamboo verandah, called an awah, used for communal activities. Doorways spaced along the longhouse lead to each family’s private quarters.
While some visit Annah Rais just for the day, some of the residents open their homes to visitors as part of a cultural homestay program. Visitors are paired with a local family who provide a traditional dinner and breakfast in addition to the enriching cultural exchange.
While the island of Borneo is most famously associated with the orangutan, at Gunung Gading National Park, it’s a plant that’s the star of the show. The rare rafflesia flower, the largest flower in the world (and also among the smelliest) blooms here regularly throughout the year. It takes nine months for a bloom to mature, and the flower — sometimes measuring upwards of 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter — dies after only four or five days.
Luckily, since the rafflesia has no set blooming season, visitors have the chance to spot them throughout the year, and Gunung Gading National Park ranks as the best place to do so. The park even maintains a plant walk through the area where the flowers are commonly found. Besides flower spotting, the national park features several jungle trails leading to streams, waterfalls and even the peak of Gunung Gading Mountain.
Dedicated to conserving sea turtles, particularly green and hawksbill turtles, Talang Satang National Park occupies four white-sand islands and the surrounding marine territory. Pulau Satang Besar is the only island that’s open to regular day-trippers; the other three are for researchers, conservation organizations, and volunteers only.
Completed in 1879, the whitewashed and turreted Fort Margherita was commissioned by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of Sarawak, to protect Kuching from attacks by river pirates, a common 19th-century scourge. Today, Fort Margherita is an important part of Kuching history and houses the Brooke Gallery, which illustrates the impact of the White Rajas in Sarawak.
Home to more than 2,000 exhibits, the Kuching Cat Museum details the historical role cats have played in music, theater, advertising, mythology, and ancient societies around the globe. You won’t find a museum quite like the Kuching Cat Museum anywhere else in the world—an appropriate reality seeing as kucing is actually the Malay word for cat.
A bustling market offering fruit, vegetables, herbs, and jungle produce from ferns to wild honey, plus animals, orchids, and much, much more, Satok Market (Medan Niaga Satok is Kuching’s most important market. Vendors come from longhouses far upriver to sell here on weekends, often for just one or two Malaysian ringgit.
At the confluence of the Igan and Rajang rivers sits the inland city of Sibu, which serves as the gateway for travelers wishing to explore the longhouses of the Upper Rajang River in the state of Sarawak. One of the city;s most popular attractions is Sibu Central Market—one of the biggest indoor markets in Malaysia—home to thousands of stalls.