Kuching was in my exit strategy all along. I had spent a year living in the Bornean rainforest, and had been meticulously planning my escape back to civilization in my head for months. Kuching was step one.
After spending a year living in the rainforest, my first experience back in civilization came in the form of Kuching Malaysia, the cat capital of the world. Kuching lies just north of the border between West Kalimantan Indonesia and Malaysia. When I learned that there was an overnight bus that took me accross this border, I was immediately convinced that this bus ride was in my future. I am a bit frugal when it comes to transportation expenses, so I sometimes sacrifice comfort for saving money. That way, I get to spend it on food and adventures, which is the main attraction of traveling for me. So instead of taking the direct flights to Pontianak tand then to Kuching, I took the long way around:
First I had to take an express boat from Ketapang (the town I lived in when I wasn’t in the rainforest) to Pontianak (the capital of West Kalimanta). Then, the overnight bus from there to Kuching. All in all, it totaled to around 490 miles (according to google earth). It was definitely not the most convenient way of reaching Kuching, but perhaps one of the more adventurous ways, and definitely the cheapest. On the bus, I found out Malaysians like their A/C way too cold…if it wasn’t for the micro-down jacket I had with me, I probably would have frozen to death on the way. After an annoying midnight visa check at the border crossing, I finally made it. The bus ride left me with a well-deserved sore ass, and some intense hunger (a 10-hour overnight bus journey is no picnic).
Kuching means “cat” in Malay/Indonesian, and this city definitely lives up to its namesake. There are cat statutes EVERYWHERE. Strangely enough, I didn’t see any actual cats wandering the streets. But in one way, that makes sense…in a city that reveres cats, perhaps the kitties here are a bit more of the aristocratic type, and they are found in people’s homes rather than wandering the streets.
Kuching is a very eclectic city, with a blend of Malay, Chinese, and native Dayak inhabitants and their cultures. On one side of town, you have the old district of Chinatown…on the other, modern high-rise hotels and restaurants. As opposed to the other cities I visited in West Kalimantan, in which would-be pedestrians run the risk of contracting a severe case of “hit by motorbike” due to the lack of sidewalks, this city was pleasantly walkable.
One street in Chinatown, Jalan Carpenter, is the perfect blend of backpacker goodness and local flavor. There are lots of backpacker hostels and homestays, and good places to eat. Originally, the street was the skilled worker district of Kuching, and you can still find lots of carpenter shops still in operation…so the street lives up to its name. I stayed in a couple hostels on this street…I like to change it up too see how the different places compare. They were all pretty comfortable, and really cheap. I stayed in a place called Backpacker Stay, and then switched to Berambih Lodge (which sports traditional Dayak longhouse decor on the lobby floor).
North of Kuching, you can find the DBKU (Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara). It’s also called the North City Hall (but really, the ‘North Kitty Hall’ would be a better name). While you can see its imposing architecture right from the middle of the city, I decided to take a bus there for a closer look. But really, I just went to see the Cat Musuem that’s found inside. I mean, I can’t go to a city named after cats, and NOT go to the cat museum. It’s a bit kitschy, but hey – it’s free, and something to do.
Kuching was a cool place, and definitely a huge change of pace from life in the rainforest. I was basically thrust back into first-world civilization in 24 hours, so it was a bit of a culture shock. I’m definitely making another stop there when I return to Indonesia. It’s a great home-base for all the awesome places to explore in Sarawak. I’ve found the National Park system in Malaysia to be very well run, and worth a visit. There are a few of them within driving distance of Kuching, and it’s even possible to get there by bus to a few of them. Definitely recommend.