Like many cities, Kuching is a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts. There are a few interesting museums and historical attractions to keep you occupied, but the main attraction is the city itself. Leave plenty of time to wander aimlessly - try our walking tour to unveil the city's hidden treasures or pick up the baby-blue Heritage Trail pamphlet at the visitors information centre.
Note that the Astana and Fort Margherita, both on the northern banks of the Sungai Sarawak, are not currently open to the public.
Kuching's Chinatown is centred on Jin Carpenter and runs roughly from Jin Wayang to Jin Tun Abang Haji Openg. This area forms part of our Walking Tour . It's a collection of beautiful colonial-era shophouses and Chinese temples that is conducive to strolling (if you can take the heat). At the western end you'll find Harmony Arch, an ornate arch that marks the official entrance to the district. Continuing east along Jin Carpenter, you'll see Siang Ti Miao on your right. Take some time to enter the spotless main hall of this temple to soak up the gaudy brilliance (across the way you'll find a good Chinese hawker centre in case you need to fuel up).
At the very eastern end of Chinatown you'll find the Hong San Si Temple, which is easily Kuching's finest Chinese temple. Thought to date back to around 1840, this Hokkien Chinese temple was fully restored in 2003. The new stone carvings, done by stonemasons brought in from mainland China, are superb, as is the Buddhist altar.
There is a big celebration at this temple in April, with a long procession of floats, lion and dragon dancers and other groups winding their way through town following the altar of Kong Teck Choon Ong (the deity at the temple).
Finally, be sure to have a look at Tua Pek Kong, the temple on the red wedding-layer-cake structure on Jin Padungan at the end of Main Bazaar. It's the most popular temple in town for local Chinese residents.
The south bank of the Sungai Sarawak has been tastefully developed with a paved walkway, lawns and flowerbeds, a children's playground, cafes and food stalls. It's a quiet, pleasant place to walk or sit and watch the tambang glide past with their glowing lanterns. In the evening it's full of couples and families strolling by or eating snacks. While you're strolling, be sure to have a look at the Brooke Memorial, in front of the visitors information centre.
Established in 1891 the Sarawak Museum( 082-244232; www.museum.sarawak.gov.my; Jin Tun Abang Haji Openg; admission free; S 9am-4.30pm) has a fascinating collection of cultural artefacts and is a must-visit for anyone who wants to learn more about the region's indigenous peoples and natural environment. It consists of two wings connected by an ornate footbridge.
On the eastern side of the road is the old wing, opened in 1891, which currently contains the Ethnology Museum. Despite the name, displays touch on everything from natural history and geology to archaeology and anthropology; the most interesting exhibits are those dealing with the customs of Borneo's tribal peoples, including Melanau sickness images, Iban tattoos and the infamouspalang
Upstairs in the Old Wing you'll find a recreated traditional longhouse display that you can enter and explore. Nearby are good wooden models of the different types of longhouse found in Sarawak. In the basketry section you'll find a beautiful Bidayu door charm, which was used to keep evil spirits out of the longhouse.
While you're at the Sarawak Museum, be sure to have a look at the Art Museum and Natural Science Museum, both of which are just down the hill from the museum's Old Wing. The former houses both permanent and tem-porary exhibits, some of which are very good. The latter was not open at the time of writing, but it is expected to open soon.
Over the hill from the Sarawak Museum, the Islamic Museum (Muzium Islam Sarawak; © 082-244232; Jin P Ramlee; admission free; (3 9am-6pm) is well worth the walk. It's divided into seven thematically based rooms: weapons; decorative arts and domestic utensils; Qurans; Islamic architecture; science, technology, economy and literature; music and costumes; and the coming of Islam to the Malay Archipelago. Of particular note are the fantastic wooden and metal boxes in the decorative arts section and the fine carved panels in the architecture section.
Kuching's best and busiest market, known locally as Pasar Minggu, sits along Jin Satok, west of the town centre. The market begins late on Saturday afternoon, when villagers bring in their produce and livestock and start trading. They sleep at their stalls and resume trading at around Sam on Sunday Things start to wind down at around noon. The air is heady with the smell of fresh coriander, ginger and herbs, which are stacked among piles of bananas, mangoes, custard apples and obscure jungle fruits sold by the local farmers' association. In the Chinese section of the market you'll find freshly cut-up boar and stinky durian when it's in season (November to February).
Perched at the eastern end of Jin Padungan, the large white pussycat with the blue eyes, burgundy bow tie and wire whiskers is known as the Great Cat of Kuching. Other kitsch cat statues are opposite the Hotel Grand Margherita and on the waterfront. Yet another, at the roundabout at the east end of Jin Pandungan (once considered the centre of the city), features four cats on the bottom and four rafflesia flowers near the top.
Kuching's kitsch one-of-a-kind Cat Museum ,llkm from the city centre, pays homage to the origins of the city's name. It's all pretty light-hearted, with plenty of trivia, photos, children's art and movie posters featuring cats.
The Cat Museum is in the UFO-shaped DBKU building, north of the river. It's too far to walk, so take a taxi (RM20) or the Petra Jaya bus 2B (RM1).
Kuching reveals its charms quite quickly, making the city an instant fave among travellers. Charming Chinese shophouses beckon the click of a camera, rickety tin street stalls attract lunching locals with thick plumes of aromatic steam, and trendy nightspots bounce with the city's giddy glitterati as they sip imported wines. That said, the best thing about this catty capital is the fact that the longer one stays the better things get. We know you don't have oodles of time to let the hidden gems reveal themselves, so we teamed up with Jeremy Tan, a local history buff and photographer, to show you the real Kuching - Borneo's multicultural nexus of hot-blooded politicos, outspoken youths and trendsetting artists, all hiding under a glossy holiday veneer.
Start in the morning and skip the jam and toast at your hotel - you're in for the ultimate Bornean breakfast. Head to 43 Jin Carpenter (1) and grab a seat at one of the rickety tables. Locals call this place Lau Ya Keng (in Hokkien) or Shang Di Miao (in Mandarin), which takes its name from the temple across the street. The stalls in this open-air food court serve up an eclectic assortment of native bites. There's noodles, laksa and, for the adventurous, a 50-year-old stall dishing out kueh chap - broth with pork entrails.
Cross the street to check out the colourful Siang Ti Miao Temple. The temple was completed in 1889 as a shrine to Shang Di (the Emperor of Heaven) and serves a Teochew congregation. The temple is currently under renovation (or restoration; the local Chinese have a hard time differentiating between the two, making preservation a bit tricky round these parts), perhaps to remove the garish figurines put on display in the late 1960s... The temple's most interesting celebration is the Hungry Ghost Festival, held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (around midgust or early September). The Chinese believe that the gates of hell swing open for the entirety of their seventh month and the spirits of the dead are free to roam the earth. On the 15th day, offerings of food, prayer, incense and paper money are made to appease the spirits. A priest blesses the offerings and promptly burns an enormous effigy to the Hell King in a dramatic bonfire. In the evening, parcels of food are doled out in a chaotic lottery, which is undoubtedly the most interesting part of the festival for a tourist to witness.
After leaving the temple grounds, head west down Jin Carpenter ,which locals called Attap Street. Attap is the Malay word for roofs made from nipah palm fronds. The street was once lined with attap-topped timber structures, all of which were incinerated in the Great Fire of 1884. At the end of Jin Carpenter you'll hit the Old Court House , which was the main administrative centre around the time of the Great Fire. Today this unique architectural relic serves as the Sarawak Tourism Complex (stop in and grab some handy brochures!). Don't miss the Brooke Memorial, built in 1924, standing in the middle of the courtyard.
Across the road is the SquareTower(S), which guarded the lazy river against marauders along with its companion bastion, Fort Margherita, across the river (currently closed). Both structures were erected around 1879, and over the last century the tower has served as a prison, a mess and dance hall.
From here, move on towards Jin Gambler , named after the ubiquitous vine used for tanning, dyeing, betel chewing, and herbal medicines. After sampling a selection of Indian spices and Chinese herbs, have a look at the empty buildings across the street - this used to be the Old Market, a trading centre that pre-dates the reign of the white rajas. In 2008 the local venders were contentiously evicted to an area outside the city centre after the local government decided to extend the waterfront. Locals are fighting against the redevelopment as it would mean the demolition of several historic structures like the Cheko Market (1924), the Fish Market (1924) and the First Sarawak Museum (1889).
Still on Gambier Street, pay particular attention to a row of shops with distinctive Moorish facades. Don't miss the entrance to the Indian Mosque - Kuching's oldest, built before the Brooke Era. Visitors may enter the mosque during non-prayer hours. Duck down the tiny passageway beside the mosque, hid-den behind a profusion of spices, to reach Jin India , once the main shopping district for imported textiles, brassware and household goods. Converted into a pedestrian mall in the 1980s, it's a charming place for a stroll, especially Fridays when the young Muslim congregation emerges from their midday prayer.
There are several buildings ot historical interest at the intersection of Jin Barrack (no relation to Obama) and Jin Carpenter; the Round Tower is perhaps the most intriguing. Constructed in 1886, the building was used by the dreaded kempeitai (Japanese military police) during the Occupation. Today the structure hosts the Sarawak Craft Council, although most locals dare not step inside - its haunted (all buildings used by the kempeitai are haunted...).
Continue down Jin Carpenter, past your starting point, and head to Hong San Si Temple , also known by its Hokkien name, Say Ong Kong, at the corner of Jin Wayang. Remember the Great Fire of 1884 that destroyed the attap roofs? Well, according to legend, as the flames roared down the street, onlookers spotted a mysterious boy waving a black banner. Suddenly, the wind changed directions and the fire stopped just short of the shrine. Today the Hokkien people worship this child-god with a yearly procession -the largest in Kuching. For a bird's eye view of the city's colonial core, hop on the elevator to the top floor of the Star Cineplex across street.
Swing around the corner on to Main Bazaar and reward yourself with some retail therapy . Turn on Jin China and pass the faint clinking of the remaining tinsmith workshops before returning to our starting point - the colourful Siang Ti Miao Temple on Jin Carpenter. By now (around 11am) a nondescript cart on wheels will have set up shop dispensing scrumptious banana fritters, which are undoubtedly the best in town. Let your nose guide you - you can't miss it!
There are several places around town that offer Malay and Bidayuh cooking courses. Try Bumbu Cooking School or ask about the tailor-made cooking classes at Rom Orchid Garden.
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