One of my favourite small cities in South East Asia is Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Not only is it compact and charming, with its riverside walk, historic buildings and colourful street art, but it’s easy to do self-guided trips to nearby attractions, utilising convenient (and cheap!) public buses.
Of course there are also plenty of guided tours on offer at the many tour shopfronts in town, and compared to western prices the charges are quite reasonable. But for those on a budget and stretching out their ringgit, the self-guided options are nearly as easy and significantly cheaper. Here are three trips that I took from Kuching, with everything you need to know.
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1. Hang Out at Semenggoh Nature Reserve
There’s one reason everyone visits Semenggoh Nature Reserve: to see up-close the orangutans that were rehabilitated at the centre and have been returned to the wild, but regularly return for the twice day feedings. While there is no guarantee of seeing these magnificent semi-wild creatures, there’s a good chance outside of fruiting season (December and January).
The feedings occur from 9:00-10:00am and 3:00-3:30pm (or earlier if the orangutans show up early). Your best chance is to visit for the morning session, when there’s a greater chance of more orangutans visiting. Plus, its cooler in the morning and if no-one shows up (like occurred during my visit), you can return the same afternoon. Entry costs 10 ringgit for foreigners, per day.
From Kuching, catch the local bus #6 from Masjid Street. It leaves at 7:15am (arrive early, as it departs promptly or even a few minutes early), costs 4 ringgit each way and takes about an hour, with the final stop at the entrance to Semenggoh. There’s still a pleasant 1.5km walk from there to the feeding area (part of the reason a morning visit is better). After the feeding, return to the bus at the same spot, and it leaves at 11:00am.
For the afternoon feeding session, the same bus departs again at 1:00pm. The return bus leaves exactly at 4:00pm, leaving you less time to watch the orangutans and explore than in the morning. The rangers will let you know when it’s about to leave, and in our case we were lucky to get a lift to the bus when we were running late. If you’re visiting for both the morning and afternoon session, you’ll need to leave the park in between (because it closes), but get off at the first town to have lunch, instead of riding the bus all the way back to Kuching.
TOTAL COST: 18 ringgit per person ($4 USD)
2. Day Tour to Bako National Park
Bako National Park is located on the coastline near Kuching. It’s the best place in the area to spot Proboscis Monkeys (the ones with the long, funny noses), or to spend some time hiking and exploring the natural scenery, ranging from jungle to mangroves to limestone cliffs. There are basic lodges available to stay the night, but they usually book out well in advance, so unless you are prepared to camp, a day trip is the best option.
From Kuching, take local bus #1 that leaves from Masjid Street on the hour, each hour, or flag it down as it drives along the waterfront. (We caught it at 9:05am, across the road from the old courthouse.) The cost is 3.50 ringgit one-way and it takes less than an hour. Get off at the final stop at Bako Market, next to the pier. Before getting off the bus, check what time the final bus back to Kuching is leaving that day.
At the pier, you need to buy two tickets: the national park entry fee (20 ringgit), plus a return ticket on the shuttle boat to and from the national park (40 ringgit). Previously you had to take an individual boat to the park, that held up to 5 people, with the cost varying depending on the number of passengers. However, now it’s much simpler with a set fare on larger boats that leave when there are enough passengers (usually after each bus has arrived and everyone has bought their tickets, about 1/2 hour later).
The shuttle boat takes about 20 minutes and deposits you at a small wharf, a short distance from the national park headquarters. Head over here to the walker registration, before leaving on your walk. There’s also a restaurant, with buffet food, snacks and drinks (even beer!)
For the return journey, drop by the wharf and register for a return boat, in case there is a queue of passengers. Use the waiting time to head back to the walker registration point and sign off from your walk, and perhaps enjoy a refreshment. After getting back to the pier at Bako Market, walk through the market to the bus stop. Ideally a bus will already be waiting for the return trip, with it’s aircon running.
TOTAL COST: 67 ringgit per person ($15 USD)
3. Day Trip to Damai Beach and Sarawak Cultural Village
For the best swimming beaches close to Kuching, head to Damai Beach, situated beneath the looming peak of Gunung Santubong. The village is also home to a few resorts if you would like to stay for longer than just the day, and the highly regarded Sarawak Cultural Village. The Cultural Village features examples of houses from the different tribes of Sarawak, demonstrations ranging from firing blow-pipes to cooking, and a very professional dance performance. Entry is 40 ringgit per adult.
The best beach at Damai is located next to the Pura Damai Resort (an interesting run-down oddity), with access possible through the Rainforest Resort, if you pay 12 ringgit per person entry fee. Alternatively there is another beach right next to Damai Central shopping complex, across the road from the Cultural Village, with no fee charged. At Damai Central you’ll also find a food court, with excellent priced meals and drinks (at far cheaper prices than the Cultural Village and the resorts).
To get to the Damai Beach and the Cultural Village, the easiest and cheapest option is to catch the shuttle bus that leaves some of the major hotels in Kuching, including the Grand Margherita Hotel. Check at the hotels for the schedule. (The latest information is that the bus departs from the Grand Margherita Hotel at 9:15am, 10:20am, 12:20pm and 2:20pm, then returns at 1:15pm, 3:15pm and 5:15pm.) The bus costs 12 ringgit per person each way.
TOTAL COST: From 24 ringgit per person ($5 USD)