A bustling city with affordable delicacies, the capital of Sarawak warrants repeat visits, writes Nova Renata
THEY say the closer you are to something or someone, the more you tend to take it for granted.The saying holds true for Kuching and I.
A lifelong Bornean, Kuching is two hours away by flight from Kota Kinabalu. Thanks to budget airlines like AirAsia, flying to Kuching need not break the bank. However, no matter how much I had heard about the yummy (and affordable) food, scenic attractions and friendly locals, it took me years to finally step foot in Kuching.
One of the most iconic places in Kuching is the Kuching Waterfront, a 900m-stretch of esplanade surrounding the south bank of the Sarawak River.
The waterfront overlooks the majestic New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building that is easily recognisable from its unique umbrella-like roof. The waterfront also offers scenic views of rustic Malay village houses across the river, as well as a view of the Astana and Fort Margherita.
Kuching Waterfront is lined with pop-up stalls that often make their appearance from late afternoon, selling knickknacks, food and drinks. You can also find buskers, caricature artists and street performers lining the waterfront, especially during weekends.
Being one of the most touristy areas in the city centre, the Kuching Waterfront is a great place to watch the sunset. You can sign up for the Sarawak River Cruise, which runs daily from 5.30pm to 7pm, at RM60 per person.
For a more vibrant cultural experience in Kuching, a visit to Chinatown is a must! Chinatown Kuching comprises the Main Bazaar and Carpenter Street. Both are, in my opinion, Kuching’s answer to Armenian Street in George Town, Penang.
Located just opposite the Kuching Waterfront, the Main Bazaar is the place for local handicrafts and souvenirs, ranging from beaded accessories to the Pua Kumbu tapestry. You can also find stalls selling Kuching’s famous kek lapis (layer cake) along the street -- all with attractive designs, colours and flavours.
The oldest street in Kuching, the Main Bazaar features old Chinese shophouse architecture. Some of the businesses occupying the Main Bazaar shoplots have been around for decades, being passed from one generation to the next.
The Main Bazaar is an attraction for art and antiques aficionados in Kuching, home to some of Sarawak’s most prominent art galleries, such as local artist Ramsay Ong’s ARTrageously Ramsay Ong at 94 Main Bazaar.
For a great night in the city, head on to Carpenter Street, parallel to the Main Bazaar. A narrow street with clusters of old coffee shops, bars and pubs, Carpenter Street’s quaint old-world charm is a hit among photographers and tourists. In recent years, Carpenter Street has also seen a rise in budget backpacker accommodations along its otherwise quiet alleyways.
Getting anywhere from Carpenter Street is relatively easy. Just getUber or a GrabCar from the grand street entrance. Carpenter Street is also a five-minute walk from Plaza Merdeka Shopping Mall and Little India (yes, Kuching has it too!).
One of the most popular hangout venues at Carpenter Street is the lima.tujoh Cafe & Guesthouse at 57 Upper China Street. With a cosy, hippy vibe and delicious food and good coffee, lima.tujoh occasionally hosts live bands.
If you’re looking to check out the local indie music scene, this is a great place to enjoy good music and meet travellers. The guesthouse just above the cafe makes a great choice for a stay too. I booked my stay for only RM60 a night on Airbnb -- the facilities offer great value for your ringgit!
Compared to most places in Malaysia, Kuching offers some of the most inexpensive foods. Even if you’re on an RM10 food budget a day, you can order kolo mee at RM3 per bowl.
One of Sarawak’s signature dishes, kolo mee is a dry noodles dish served with slices of meat, be it chicken or beef and is topped with minced meat and/or vegetables. Kolo mee is served with soy sauce for flavouring, though a Sabahan would ask for bowl of clear soup to accompany it.
Another one of Kuching’s famous delicacies is the Sarawak laksa. Some argue that the dish is inappropriately called laksa as it bears no resemblance to the assam laksa of its West Malaysia counterparts except for it being a noodle dish served in broth.
In fact, the Sarawak laksa looks andtastes more like curry noodle soup. It is prepared using a paste of sambal belacan, lemongrass, tamarind, coconut milk and smidgens of other herbs and spices. However, Sarawak laksa is served differently depending on which part of the state you are in.
Another lesser known but equally scrumptious dish is manok pansoh (pansoh chicken). It is a traditional Dayak festive staple --chicken in broth cooked in bamboo, with lemongrass and ginger for flavouring.
It is served with a plate of steaming hot rice and tapioca leaves, which are usually mixed together in the broth.
One of the best souvenirs is Sarawak kek lapis. While the kek lapis can be found virtually in every shop in Kuching, you can find a wide array of freshly baked kek lapis at a row of shops located across the Kuching Waterfront.
The best way to get across is by taking a wooden boat from the Kuching Waterfront. From here, you will find several kek lapis shops, such as Kek Lapis Dayang Salhah and Mira Cake house. These cake shops have an array of samples so you can taste before you choose the flavours you like.
If you’re willing to pay slightly more, go to Kek Lapis Q-Cake at 9A Jalan Muhibbah. This home-based kek lapis enterprise is said to produce the best kek lapis in Kuching, with a following among Malaysian celebrities andanendorsement by popular TV hostDatuk Aznil Nawawi.
Another unique Kuching delicacy that’s usually not available anywhere else is the aiskrim gula apong (palm sugar). This popular dessert is a mixture of crushed ice andpalm sugar, topped with any condiment of your choice: crushed Oreos and peanuts, corn flakes, chocolate sprinkles and more. Bear in mind that the crushed ice itself is a sweet, so youmay not want to add a sweet topping.
The most popular place for aiskrim gula apong is at the DP Ice Cream Gula Apong, which has one outlet on Jalan Chan Chin Ann and another at 11 Jalan Setia Raja.
Pictures by Nova Renata