My Borneo adventure started in the Malaysian portion of the island which actually belongs to three countries. Brunei and Indonesia join Malaysia to form the most bio-diverse place in the world. I spent my first week on the massive island in Kuching, the largest city in Borneo and the capital of Sarawak, the western Malaysian part of the island. I was astonished by the nature I encountered, giant Orangutans, divine food, and otherworldy hospitality in Kuching.
As I’m not typically amused by kitschy things I don’t have many photos of the numerous cat statues to share with you but I will tell you that they aren’t random–Kuching means cat in Malay! Animal nicknames rein strong in this land that has 185 species of mammals, 530 species of birds, 166 species of snakes, 104 species of lizards, and more. Sarawak is known as the land of the hornbills, although sadly I didn’t see any here. Too bad as it’s considered lucky to see them flying overhead. There are fifty-four species of hornbills, eight of which live in Sarawak including the Rhinoceros hornbill which is the state bird of Sarawak. I did see many more fascinating animals, discover which and where below!
WHERE TO STAY IN KUCHING
I was invited to stay at the newly opened Meritin Hotel which is centrally located in the downtown district of Kuching right along the Kuching waterfront. The prime location of the boutique hotel made it incredibly easy to stroll around Kuching to explore the historical sites and try all the local delicacies from street food hawkers. The attention to detail and design elements is apparent throughout–from luxurious modern amenities to the welcoming grey decor in the stunning lobby. Throughout artwork, traditional crafts, jewelry, and photography are on display that were sourced from local artisans. The establishment is owned and operated by a local hotelier who made every effort to localize the hotel. Even the logo is an homage to the Chinese heritage in Kuching. The M in the logo was designed to appear like the Chinese character 人人 which means people and reflects the hotel’s commitment to customer service. The courteous staff at Meritin Hotel made my stay so memorable, I was always greeted with a warm smile and bow. The receptionist was happy to suggest day trip ideas and recommended the best restaurants to try.
I stayed in the standard queen room which was incredibly spacious and had a cloud-like bed. From my window, I was able to watch the sunset over Kuching and see the bustling city life below. The highlight of the room, in my opinion, was the incredible waterfall shower. It’s no secret that I prefer jungle showers but if I have to shower indoors then I absolutely love a rain shower and the one in my room at Meritin Hotel did not disappoint. See more from my gorgeous room at Meritin Hotel on my review of Polyn Skincare, which I photographed during my stay.
WHAT TO DO IN SARAWAK
STROLL AROUND KUCHING
Downtown Kuching was within walking distance from Meritin Hotel so I took my first day in Borneo to discover the city. I headed out along the waterfront popping into museums, houses of worship, and colonial shops along the way. Kuching is dubbed the city of unity due to the many cultures and religions that coexist peacefully in the city. I explored the fascinating architecture of the State Assembly building, the Hokkien Chinese Hong San Si temple laden with dragons, the Chinese Tua Pek Kong temple and adjacent Chinese Museum.
After an afternoon spent strolling around Kuching I arrived at the rose-hued Kuching City Mosque and picked a spot along the river to sit on the fence and watched the sun dip behind the mountains as it cast a golden glow over the Sarawak River in front of me and reflected behind me on the golden domes of the mosque. As tempting as the water may look don’t you dare dive in, saltwater crocodiles reside here!
SCOPE OUT STREET ART
It wouldn’t really be a Miss Filatelista Travel Guide if it I didn’t share some of my favorite murals throughout the city. The street art in Kuching reminded me a lot of the art I saw in western Malaysia in Penang. This is due to the majority of the murals using art to capture mundane moments of daily life memorialized forever on walls. From local women going about agricultural duties, vendors hawking their goods, the fantastic local wildlife, and more. The above two murals were seen at the longhouses and the below are located in the Kuching city center.
VISIT SARAWAK TEXTILE MUSEUM
Textiles are another passion of mine. Did you know that before leaving NYC to travel the world full-time I worked in fashion public relations? My favorite courses during my studies were about costume history and traditional artisan crafts. This curiosity with fashion customs drives the majority of my travel purcahses–which are almost always wearable mementos. I was thrilled to learn that Sarawak had it’s very own textile museum. I learned about the establishment when I went to an Ikat exhibit in Penang. The women who were weaving were native to Kuching and recommended I add the museum to my travel plans. It did not disappoint and is also free to enter. The Sarawak Textile Museum is housed in a colonial-style building dating back to 1909. Within are several floors of exhibits displaying traditional Sarawakian clothing, textiles, and installations detailing the creative and creation process behind the beautiful handiwork. I had never seen seashells used as armor or men in more decadent skirts than their female counterparts. My favorite portion of the museum was the one that shows which of the symbols of the pua kumbu (known in the west as Ikat) designs represent which animals. The museum was thrilling and covered everything from village attire, tribal handicrafts, regal wedding garb, and beyond. I was quite surprised to notice how many of the traditional tops resemble the crop tops that are so popular today. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the museum.
There is a gift shop at the museum but it is a bit overpriced and no one was able to tell me if the items were made by local craftswomen. I opted to purchase my Sarawakian items from small shops around the city from vendors who are supporting local traditions and their families. I got a hand-beaded necklace traditionally worn by tribespeople in Sarawak, a tye-dye sarong, and a bamboo Bidayuh bag that is made from kasah weaving.
SEE ORANGUTANS AT SEMENGGOH
Like most travelers who have Borneo on their bucket list I was extremely excited to see semi-wild Orangutans. While it is still possible to see Orangutans in the wild they can be incredibly dangerous and are an endangered species. Instead to safely witness these spectacular creatures and support an organization fighting for their lively hood please visit the fantastic Semenggoh Nature Reserve as I did. Semenggoh serves as a rehabilitation center for our orange furry cousins. The apes, which are native to Borneo, share 96.4% of DNA with humans. The origin of the name couldn’t make it any more clear, in Malay orang means people and utan means forest. So, orangutans are people of the forest.
Semenggoh is an open-air rehabilitation area where the orangutans are free to roam. Due to this seeing one of the massive orange furred mammals is especially rare, even during feeding time. I visited the nature reserve in August during fruiting season, where wild fruits grow in abundance in the forest. The orangutans that are rehabilitated here are trained to fend for themselves and find their own provisions. So, during the fruiting season, it is less likely to see orangutans during the feeding times. In July there were 21 orangutans that came to the feeding platform for meals. Also, orangutans relocate each and every day, they never sleep in the same nest twice!
I wasn’t so lucky and waited for two hours in the sweltering heat during the morning feeding without any orangutans coming down to the platform for a fruity feast. While many of the other visitors were grumpy and upset, I was thrilled. To me, the lack of the orangutans coming in for the feeding was proof that the center was committed to full rehabilitation and had done a wonderful job training the monkeys how to find their own food in the wild. A staff member suggested that I come back again in the afternoon and noted that the last few days a few of the orangutans who were recently brought in, or new mothers, were appearing for the second feeding. The entrance ticket is good for the entire day so I was able to leave the park and return later for the afternoon feeding. In between, I went to the nearby wind and fairy caves but found them quite lackluster so wouldn’t recommend visiting them.
I came back for the afternoon feeding and anxiously awaited any sign of hungry orangutans coming down for a feeding. The keeper was howling and making a sound identical to those I could hear in the distance of the monkeys calling back. Soon in the distance, I saw the treetops begin to drastically sway from side to side, and then I had my first glimpse of the fiery orange fur flying through the air. The first orangutan was making her way down to the feeding platform. She approached cautiously, moving from one tree to the next with a grace that seems impossible for such a large animal. As she approached the ropes that lead down to the platform from the trees I noticed she was carrying a tiny orangutan with her, her baby had his arms tightly wrapped around her stomach. She somersaulted along the ropes front her front paws to her back paws like an acrobat until she was hovering above the platform where a fruit feast awaited her.
Soon after two more female orangutans and their young came to the feeding platform. Two of the mother seemed friendly and perched together in a nearby tree to have their meal of bananas and coconuts. The first mother who came, and had the youngest baby orangutan, was isolated from the others. I spent an hour watching how these creatures interacted with each other and their youth and was astonished to how similar their social graces are to ours. I loved watching the mothers signal to the children that they needed to fetch their own food and send them down to the platform to collect fruit to bring back to the place in the trees the mother had chosen to dine. More often than not the mother would take her choice of the bounty her child had brought to her. Another amazing feat was watching how the young orangutans followed their mothers lead banging the coconuts against the tree to open them and enjoy the flesh within. I saw three female orangutans, each with a baby, but did not see a male orangutan so witnessing their handsome darling cheek pads is still on my ethical wildlife bucket list!
LOOK FOR PROBOSCIS MONKEYS AT BAKO
Another wonderful ape that is sadly also endangered and is also only found in Borneo is the proboscis monkey. I was told the only place to spot these strange-looking monkeys was in Bako National Park. Perhaps it is the only place in Sarawak to view them but I saw hundreds of these amazing creatures in Brunei so if you don’t get the chance to see them at the park head across borders to the neighboring country and you simply cannot miss them! I had the rare chance to see a horseshoe crab, although sadly it was just the shell which had washed ashore.
Bako National Park is easily the most incredible natural landscape I have ever explored. The only way to reach the park is on a speedboat that zips up the Sungai Tabo river to the South China Sea. Choppy waters splash into the odd rock formations that the park is famous for, like the cobra head rock. I embarked a few feet from the shore and climbed up to the beach barefoot in the sea with my sneakers tossed over my shoulders. Unfortunately, due to torrential rains and the boat schedule (the last boat leaves around 3 p.m.), I only had about 45 minutes to explore. That short time period was enough for me to fall in love and swear that I’d be back here soon and stay in the eco-friendly cabins nestled in the park.
Bako is the oldest national park in Sarawak and home to many other fascinating looking species like the silver monkey and bearded pig, both which resemble old men. 275 proboscis monkeys live here, though I only saw two. They were nicknamed by locals as Dutchman as they resembled the European colonist who took over their land with their big noses, and bigger bellies. The two I saw greeted me immediately as I exited the speedboat. The red furry monkeys are easiest to see in the late afternoon when the weather is milder. As it had just rained for hours the cool breeze invited the monkeys to play at the treetops that line the shore. Although they were quite some distance away I could make out their odd long noses, which are traits of male probosci, and was astonished to see them swing from tree to tree using their bodies to maneuver the braches and tales to hang on from one tree to the next.
DISCOVER TRADITIONAL LONGHOUSES
Perhaps you’ve heard the legends of old world tribes in Borneo who used to hunt human heads and hang them in their homes? These stories are far from fable. The tradition of headhunting was meant to be abolished in the early 20th century but many Iban tribesmen I met in Borneo told me of times that their parents and grandparents had hunted heads as recently as the 1970s. While in Kuching I didn’t have time for the half-day trip to the Iban longhouses and instead visited the nearby longhouses where other indigenous tribes reside. I did have the chance to live like Iban in Brunei and will share those stories soon. Many Iban fled Malaysia into the dense jungles of Brunei during WWII and the Japanese occupation of the island. However, Iban people are not recognized in Brunei, more on that to come along with my insight into the tradition of hunting human heads.
Back to longhouses in Kuching. There are many tour operators that arrange visits to the longhouses but it was not clear whether or not the profits benefit the villagers so I decided to rent a motorbike and set out on my own. By doing so I had the freedom to visit several longhouses and stop to take in the incredible jungle views along the way.
I was not asked to pay an entrance fee at the Annah Rais Longhouse or the Bidayuh Longhouse. However, there are several inhabitants that are selling snacks, tea, and handicrafts and I feel that it is important to support these vendors in exchange for having a look at their lifestyle. The Annah Raise Longhouse was better equipped for tourists, although still lacking any written information. However, here you can go into a room where there are human skulls in a cage and a part of a longhouse that resembles what they historically looked like. I couldn’t find any locals to explain these places but instead just strolled around and witnessed the surroundings. The Annah Rais Longhouse is near a hot spring but I don’t recommend going as the water is murky and there is zero visibility which is a no-go for me.
The tribal longhouses today are far from traditional. They’re generally now partitioned off with each family having their own amenities like kitchens and bathrooms, and plenty of modern appliances. However, the sense of community is still alive and well. At the Bidayuh Longhouse, I was invited to one local shop where the keeper showed me the rice and famous Borneo black pepper his wife had harvested earlier in the field and was set out to dry in the sun. He took the time to explain the process to me and even invited me down to his farm.
At the Annah Rais Longhouse, I came across a group of women who were preparing a massive meal. I tried to inquire what they were cooking but lacked the communication skills. Astonished by my curiosity they invited me to sit down and brought out fresh sticky rice to taste and refused to accept any sort of payment. I was so touched by their hospitality that even though the longhouses were not as fascinating as I’d expected them to be I’d go back again purely to enjoy the company of these generous people.
WHERE TO EAT IN KUCHING
Kuching has an array of unique local dishes that are just slightly different from their counterparts in western Malaysia. These were some of my favorite restaurants where I tried the most memorable dishes. For the majority of my meals I ate at the Song Kheng Hai hawker center for Taugeh Kueh Tiaw or at roadside food stalls while I was out exploring Sarawak.
CHONG CHOON CAFE
Chong Choon Café is easily the most popular spot for breakfast among locals. They serve a delicious rendition of Sarawak laksa, the only noodles I ever want to have in the morning. Like the Singaporean laksa, which is still my favorite, Sarawak laksa is made with a thick coconut milk soup and spicy sambal. The sambal used here is made of sour tamarind, garlic, and lemongrass. Fresh strips of omelet, shrimp, coriander, and lime come together to make the most mouthwatering dish. Traditionally chicken is also used in laksa so if you’re a non-meat eater like me make sure to ask for seafood or vegetarian only. It is best to arrive at the cafe before 9 AM. Luckily Meritin Hotel was a 2-minute walk away so I was able to roll out of bed and go directly to the stall for a fantastic breakfast that kept me full and energized throughout the morning.
This local establishment is just a block away from the waterfront and serves a traditional dinner assortment with an array of Sarawakian specialties, but it must be ordered a day in advance! Out of the dozen of dishes my favorite was the Sarawak umai. Umai is a raw fish salad similar to ceviche that originates from ethnic groups, specifically the Melanaus tribe. Melanau fisherman created the dish as a meal to have for lunch while they were working. Raw freshly caught fish (never frozen) is mixed with finely chopped onions, chilis, salt and the juice of the local lime-like citrus, assam, to create Umai.
THE BARBER CAFE
This darling bar has the decor of an old-timey barbershop and the throwback tunes to match. I came here for innovative cocktails and delicious truffle fries. The staff loved that I had never tried rice wine and kept bringing different flavors for me to try. I hardly go out when I travel but I had so much fun at The Barber Cafe.
Don’t let the name of this hip cafe fool you, it is certainly the right place. At night the spot turns into a popular bar for local students to sing karaoke and let loose. That’s not exactly my scene so luckily I happened to stroll by around lunch one day and was hooked once I saw their health-conscious menu. Local dishes had a healthy flair with meals prepared with coconut oil and a delicious tea filled with chia seeds!
This upscale establishment transports diners to the Sarawakian jungles through traditional decor and delicacies. What made my meal so special here is that I was shown the ingredients prior to deciding what to eat–I had never seen an orange colored eggplant before or such a tiny squash. Both were absolutely fantastic. Le Pau was also my first time eating fern, a veggie I’ve quickly become obsessed with. The jungle ferns, locally called Midin and Paku, are typically sauteed in local rice wine and garlic, similar to water spinach.
Thank you to Meritin Hotel for collaborating with me and making my Kuching experience so memorable. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links, please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.