As you fly into Kuching you first see café-au-lait rivers snaking through dense rainforest. Then, gradually, buildings pop up, piercing the canopy before the jungle finally gives way to the city, hugging the Sarawak riverbank and spilling onto the other side of the waters.
Kuching is Sarawak’s—and arguably Borneo’s—most sophisticated city. I arrived in Kuching well after sundown on a Saturday and was surprised as my taxi drifted by a riverfront bustling with families and food-stalls, a hypermodern bridge spanning the river, and the whole bathed in spotlights that shifted from blue to purple to crimson. To some, Kuching may seem like a disappointment, if not a straight up betrayal, as it gives lie to the image of Borneo as some wild, often deadly frontier. Believe me, it is still that in parts, but Kuching acts as a sort of stronghold of culture and civility.
Kuching is also the perfect introduction to Borneo and, if on a limited schedule, serves as an excellent base from which to enjoy the region’s highlights. Only got a week to explore Borneo? You could do worse than to spend it in Kuching. From Kuching, easy daytrips will take you to Bako National Park, The Semenggoh Wildlife Center, and the Sarawak Cultural Village. With the help of tour operators, of which there’re several, you can also catch a quick flight to Gunung Mulu National Park and even Kota Kinabalu.
Upon arriving, I checked into my guesthouse, a lovely old place called the Riverfront Lodge (not to be confused with the higher-end but pricier Riverfront Hotel). My host was a pleasant old guy who looked somehow wizened and shrunken, as though he’d been left out in the sun too long, or perhaps had been put through a supersized dehydrator. His grin was easy and wide and gloriously gap-toothed. After dropping off my things I headed back out and found a place to eat, a tiny shophouse tucked in an alley and serving Chinese-style noodle soups.
Later, I strolled along the riverfront, marveling at the slow-motion light show that bathed the bridge and a massive cupcake-shaped building across the river. In a small riverside courtyard, children chased after each other and couples leaned against each other as a young girl sang. She couldn’t have been older than ten and sang in English, Malayu and Chinese. Every two or three songs, she would announce, “Thank you for your support for my future education. This next song is a Chinese song.”
There was something both calming and energizing about the nightlife that unfolded before me. These were obviously locals, just out to enjoy being out, to enjoy this quiet, clean, safe city on the edge of the jungle. There were a few other visitors, many of them older and part of organized tours, but some were younger backpacker types, often with somewhat bewildered looks on their faces.
One of the best things about Kuching is that it seems to have found that tourism sweet spot: it’s got just enough tourism infrastructure to make a visit pleasant and accessible for nearly anyone, but not so much that visitors have become a given, commonplace, or a foregone conclusion to be tolerated. People here aren’t necessarily surprised to see you, but they’re still glad to see you. Kuching is easy to visit but doesn’t seem to exist solely for the sake of tourism the way some cities seem to (I’m looking at you George Town, Penang).