Resort holidays are fabulous but after more than four years of organised luxe my feet had started itching for adventure that didn’t involve cocktail hour and a breakfast buffet.
As soon as Emmie turned five I locked in some leave, booked flights to the Malaysian island of Borneo and started planning a three week adventure in the jungles of Sarawak. Excited, yes! Nervous, a little. This trip would be my first experience in a long time without resort staff to rely on should things go wrong, and a big test of my traveling skills – would my backpacking nous return? Could I take myself and a five year old on an adventure and come home unscathed? If this trip worked, it was the final sign I needed that our year in Asia was the right thing to do.
So with slight trepidation, a Lonely Planet guidebook and my 20 year old Mountain Design backpack we set off from Sydney, Australia, and 36 hours later after three flights and a 12 hour transit spent racing around Hong Kong landed in Sarawak’s beautiful capital, Kuching.
Sarawak is Borneo’s northwest state, home to lush tropical rainforest, stretches of coastline, meandering rivers, mountain ranges suffocated by steamy jungle and abundant and fascinating wildlife - from inquisitive macaques, big-nosed proboscis monkeys, wild boar, fluroescent vipers and everyone’s favourite, the orangutans.
I’d booked a room at the Tune Hotel and at $25 a night our budget accommodation was an absolute bargain. Our room was clean and tidy with an attached bathroom and toiletries, and the rate included wifi and breakfast packets of chicken, sambal, rice and tea. It was also conveniently located on the Sarawak River, a five minute walk to the centre of town, and even more conveniently opposite the Hilton Hotel which, to our absolute delight, offered a $10 day pass to its swimming pools – absolutely necessary in the heavy Kuching heat.
The city of Kuching has a rich history of rajahs, occupation, colonisation and federation and is a vibrant cultural combination of indigenous ethnicities and immigrants. Built on the Sarawak River which carries cooling breezes along the foreshore to counter the steamy humidity, the beauty of the city is obvious. Hues of gold and bronze colour each bank, amplified through the glorious setting sun which bursts off the surrounding buildings and reflects on the water. Each night the riverside comes alive with market stalls selling trinkets and food, buskers’ voices floating through the air and boats waiting to take you along the river to watch the setting sun.
The riverside esplanade is perfect for children and Emmie loved watching the boatmen push their wooden sampans along the river as they patiently waited for customers, and hunting out the cat statues and beautiful public artworks that dot the walkway. Kuching is the self-appointed cat capital of the world, and cat statues proudly occupy the riverside and key locations around the city. Children will love spending time at the Kuching Cat Museum - a fascinating couple of hours amidst 4,000 pieces of kitsch and absurd memorabilia including ceramic cats, newspaper articles about cats, cats in films, cemeteries, music and stamps, and dedicated Garfield and Hello Kitty galleries!
Kek Lapis, a traditional Sarawak multi-coloured layer cake, is sold on most corners and is a delicious treat. Kuching has a well-deserved reputation for its culinary excellence and delicious laksa, however our favourite dinner was at Top Spot, a fresh seafood hawker market on the top floor of a carpark. We ate freshly cooked lobster, calamari and fish dishes, washed down with coconut water and sugar cane juice for around $20. We were the only non-locals there and Emmie did her evening journaling while we waited for our food to be cooked.
Once of the best things about Kuching though is its location. It is a veritable gateway to the rainforest, jungles, beaches and mountains of Sarawak, giving you and your family the chance to experience Borneo’s incredible wildlife and natural beauty before returning for a dip in your hotel – or the Hilton - pool.
Emmie and I spent each day heading out into the jungle and the experiences we had are unforgettable. Traveling together was so much fun, and sharing experiences with my daughter made each of them even more special. This trip made it very clear to me that traveling with your kids is not only good for their education and development, it is so very good for the soul.
Here’s our top five activities in and around Kuching:
1. Semmangoh Rehabilitation Centre
Just a 30 minute drive from Kuching, this well-managed park is home to semi-wild orangutans, and one infamous, dominant male called Richie. If you’re lucky you will see them swing down from the jungle to eat bananas, milk and other snacks at the twice-daily feeding sessions. Viewing areas put you only metres from mothers and babies, young playful organutans and if you’re lucky, Richie. An incredible opportunity to see these endangered beauties in their natural environment and learn about how we can protect their habitat.
2. Bako National Park
Another highlight of our visit, Bako is a stunning national park only accessible by boat. Walk steamy jungle trails searching for the fascinating proboscis and spot vipers, wild boar, lemurs and other incredible wildlife, gaze over the wild shoreline and jagged cliff-faces. Look out for the cheeky macaques who will pull your shoelaces and try to steal your food.
3. Sarawak Cultural Village
A great day out learning about the nine ethnicities that make up the Sarawak culture from descendants of each tribe who live at the Village. See dart blowing and traditional performances, visit longhouses, learn historical dance and try traditional food. Set in beautiful grounds, the Sarawak Cultural Village is a lovely morning activity.
4. Kuching city
Spend a day wandering the city - check out the Chinese History Museum, the Sarawak State Museum and the Cat Museum, take an evening sunset boat cruise along the river and see the city as it lights up, walk along waterfront and enjoy riverside food and performances.
Unfortunately these giant flowers were not blooming while we were there but do check in with tour operators/hotel reception in case one flowers while you’re there. The rafflesia in Sarawak are found at Gunung Gunung National Park, a 90 minute trip by car/bus from the city.
*We flew on points with Qantas and Cathay Pacific and used AirAsia and MASwings for internal flights. In Kuching we stayed at the Tune Waterfront Hotel. Prices in Australian dollars.