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KUCHING is the perfect gateway to Sarawak – and not just because it’s the state’s oldest, largest city. This is simply one of Malaysia’s most charming and laidback cities, revelling in a picturesque setting on the Sarawak River, with Mount Santubong looming on the western horizon. Despite central high-rises, much of the recent development has been confined to the bland but burgeoning suburbs, and the historical core remains appealingly sleepy and human in scale, its colonial architecture redolent of a bygone era. Kuching’s blend of contradictions – of commerce alongside a sedate pace of life, of fashionable cafés rubbing shoulders with old-fangled kedai kopis – makes it an appealing place to chill out for several days while exploring such museums as the Sarawak Museum, showcasing the state’s ethnological heritage, and making excursions out to the numerous national parks and other sights in the vicinity.

Most of Kuching lies on the south bank of the river, its core an easily walkable warren of crowded lanes. The area sandwiched between Jalan Courthouse to the west, Jalan Wayang to the east and Reservoir Park to the south, usually referred to as old Kuching, includes several colonial churches and administrative buildings. Chinatown occupies the same general area, incorporating what were once the main shopping streets of Main Bazaar, facing the river, and Carpenter Street, and Chinese businesses and restaurants also dominate Jalan Padungan to the east. The traditional Malay district is dominated by the domes of the Masjid Negeri, with several Malay kampungs north of the river too. The Chinese and Malays together make up nearly two-thirds of Kuching’s population of just over 600,000, though there are also substantial communities of Bidayuh and Iban.

Brief history

When James Brooke came up the river in 1841, he arrived at a village known as Sarawak, on a small stream called Sungai Mata Kuching (“Cat’s Eye”), adjoining the main river; he probably shortened the stream’s name, which came to refer to the fast-expanding settlement. However, a much-repeated tale has it that the first rajah pointed to the village and asked its name. The locals, thinking Brooke was pointing to a cat, replied – reasonably enough – “kucing” (“cat”). Either way, only in 1872 did Charles Brooke officially change the settlement’s name from Sarawak to Kuching.

Until the 1920s, the capital was largely confined to the south bank of the Sarawak River, stretching only from the Chinese heartland around Jalan Temple east of today’s centre, to the Malay kampung around the mosque to the west. On the north bank, activity revolved around the fort and a few dozen houses reserved for British officials. It was the prewar rubber boom that financed the town’s expansion, with tree-lined Jalan Padungan, running east from Chinatown, becoming one of its smartest streets. During World War II Kuching escaped relatively lightly, since Japanese bombing raids largely focused on destroying the oil wells in northern Sarawak.

In recent decades the city has sprawled south, but perhaps the most significant transformation in the centre has been the closure of port facilities and warehouses as new shipping terminals and industrial estates have been created downriver, to the northeast. Robbed of waterborne traffic, downtown’s riverside was reinvented in the 1990s with partial success as a leafy, pedestrianized recreation area, its quaint panoramas spoiled only by the bizarre oversized hulk of the State Assembly building, completed in 2009 on the north bank.