Published: July 8th 2013July 1st 2013
Such the cat lover, it was only natural that I visit the city named after a cat - Kuching, which in the Malay language means... cat. Cats actually had nothing to do with my return to Kuching. It was where I was going to start my third trip to Borneo (first 2 in 2006) after leaving Sumatra and stops in Kuala Lumpur, Pulau Tioman, and Singapore. I'm currently in Miri, close to Brunei, from where I'll fly tomorrow to the Kelabit Highlands close to the Indonesian border. I'm going to try for Gunung Murut, the highest peak in Sarawak which I skipped last time around.
Warning: blog contains an unnecessarily high number of unedited orangutan photos and not many other pictures.
$US ≈ 3.2 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ≈ 1.27 Singapore dollars (S$)
In 2006 there was exactly one backpackers type of accommodation. How times have changed. There are many now and a concomitant massive increase in the number of tourists. This is understandable as there is a lot to do in the surrounding area and Kuching makes a great base from which to explore. Accommodation and food
I stayed 5 nights at Wo
Jia Lodge in a small dorm of dubious hygiene. The price on hostelbookers was 20RM/night and included the usual breakfast of toast and kaya
(local specialty spread made with sugar, eggs, and coconut milk) as well as real coffee (normally Nescafe all over Asia when "free coffee" is one of the perks) available all day. Free WiFi and a PC were available but Kuching's occasionally stormy weather wreaked havoc with the internet connection. The dorm was on the ground floor but because of the close packed building construction it seemed (and smelled) more like a basement. In any case, the hostel's atmosphere, price, location (one block from the info-packed visitors center), and friendly, helpful staff made the stay very pleasant. The hostel is close to the open air market which actually has a roof, lots of noodle stands, and at night there is an abundance of fresh seafood cooked to order. I checked out Top Spot as I had been on the prior visit but the prices have gone way up and the exact same seafood is available at the market for about half the price. Also at the market are ice cold cans of Tsingtao beer for 3.50RM, about
$1. Cha-ching! There are many places all over town to get a bowl of laksa
- another Malaysian specialty with the Sarawak variety consisting of shrimp, chicken, noodles, and sprouts in a spicy coconut curry base - for 4-5RM. Huge breakfasts at After 2 am for 5.50RM but can get breakfast there all day. They were also one of the few places to get a nice glass of cold, fresh squeezed OJ for 5RM. Much to my chagrin, fresh juice has been rather difficult to find in Malaysia. Transport
First order of business was to get to town from the airport after my flight from Singapore. There used to be a city bus straight from the airport terminal to the city center. That has been discontinued, also much to my chagrin, leaving a coupon-based 26RM taxi ride as the only option from the terminal. For the thrifty such as myself, it is possible to walk to the main highway in ~15 minutes where city buses pass every ~20 minutes between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm for 2RM. The long distance bus terminal is also located there and that is when I bought my bus ticket leaving Kuching for Miri.
Prices are more or less fixed for all the companies, figure 80-90RM for the long 15-16 hour trip in air conditioned comfort. Plenty of stops along the way to grab a bite or use the facilities. While waiting for the Miri bus to leave, I had to use the restroom in the bus terminal which cost 0.20RM but more importantly ended my 14+ long month streak of never having to pay to use a toilet anywhere on this trip since I left the U.S.A.
In addition to getting to Semenggoh and Santubong, there is decent public transport to Bako Nat. Park, Gunung Gading Nat. Park (for blooming rafflesia, although a long trip by bus to see a flower albeit the largest on the planet), and Kubah Nat. Park although I do not have first hand knowledge of the latter two trips. Semenggoh Nature Reserve (Orangutan Rehabilitation Center)
Great afternoon trip to see the red-haired apes up close in a semi-wild environment. Absolutely no need to do a pricey tour as city bus 3A (3RM each way, no change given) leaves town at 1:00 pm (get there early for a seat) and will drop you at 2:00 pm right
at the entrance gate where a 10RM entrance fee is collected from foreigners. It takes 15-20 minutes to walk to the staging area from where it is another short walk to the feeding platform although there will probably be orangutans milling about before chow time. The feeding technically takes place at 3:00 pm (9:00 am in the morning necessitating a 7:00 am departure by bus, no thanks) but if the orangutans show up early (as is often the case) the park officials will begin early because if there is no food when the animals arrive then they will head back into the jungle hungry and dejected. An early feeding time is key because the bus returns to the city at 4:00 pm although there may be another at 4:15 pm but the bus schedules are notoriously unreliable. Gunung Santubong
Super stout hike up a snotty little 810 meter peak that is not for those with a fear of heights. There are numerous, sketchy rope ladders ascending vertical cliffs of varying elevations, most short but a couple that were more than 10 meters high. Get to the trailhead by the Damai shuttle bus (10RM one way) which should be booked
in advance. Best to reserve a seat for the first shuttle leaving Kuching at 9:00 am which will allow you to start the hike ~10:00 am after paying the newly implemented 8RM hiking fee. The last 2 shuttles return to Kuching at 3:00 and 5:00 pm but only the speedy will make the 3:00 pm departure (I would have had I not cadged a lift back to the edge of town from where I caught a cheaper van for 2RM). Bring as much water as you can stand to carry. Took me 2:10 to get to the top at an unrelenting pace and nearly as long to descend. Great workout which I desperately needed.
Utterly boring capital city as it was 7 years ago. The city is short on sights but not a bad place to spend 4 days waiting for an Indonesian visa. Visit KL for the visa or have a desire to shop til you drop. The visa takes 2 business days including the drop off day, costs 170RM, and requires a copy of the passport photo page, 2 additional photos, a copy of the Malaysian entry stamp, and proof of a
ticket out of Indonesia. Can walk to the embassy from Bukit Bintang in ~15 minutes but there are no buses, only taxis which I avoid as much as possible. No shorts, sandals, or t-shirts allowed on the embassy grounds as is also the case for other Indonesian consulates in Malaysia (the embassy in Bangkok did not enforce this odd rule). Accommodation and food
amiGOs KL Guest House behind Berjaya Times Square Mall (everything is behind one mall or another in the Bukit Bintang area) was 30RM in an air conditioned 4 person dorm including WiFi, cold purified water, and the aforementioned Nescafe, some fruit, and toast but without the delicious kaya
. I headed to the great Indian restaurant up the street towards the mall for a proper ice coffee and a roti
anyway for ~4RM. The hostel was clean, quiet, and I got the dorm to myself for one of the 4 nights while the other 3 nights only had one or 2 others. The same Indian restaurant also served up incredible naan
sets for 2RM (bread plus curried lentils and mint chutney). Add the best tandoori chicken you ever had for an extra 5RM. Nice dosas
KL International Airport is quite far from the city center but easily accessed by the express train for a pricey 35RM. That is the quickest mode of transport. The cheapest are the Aerobus or Skybus services for 8-10RM but taking slightly more than one hour to KL Sentral Station (also the terminus for the express train). Most accommodation is not near the train station which necessitates another form of transport. Monorail is best to Bukit Bintang but the single carriages are tiny. There are also city buses between KL Sentral and Chinatown/Puduraya. Figure a bit more than 1RM to your final destination in the city center. Leaving KL, I headed to Mersing on a Transnasional bus for 30RM departing at 11:30 pm and arriving at 4:30 am which was in plenty of time to catch the first ferry to Pulau Tioman at 8:00 am. With the recent construction of the new bus station in the southern reaches of the city, many services (mostly south from KL) formerly departing from the convenient Puduraya bus terminal now leave from TBS, a 20 minute ride from the Bukit Bintang area on the LRT.
Last time I
visited Tioman mostly for the diving. I wasn't diving this time around but hung out for a few days just to relax and attempt the hike over to Juara's fine beach. Unfortunately at the beginning of the hike I was confronted by a savage troop of monkeys who were not too thrilled to see me and let me know it. I seem to remember the monkeys previously being very shy and wary of humans. Not any more... Accommodation and food
I didn't want to stay at Johan's since it had been heavily promoted in Lonely Planet for years and as such I suspected the prices had gone up and quality gone down. I was right on both counts but I did not sleep at all on the short night bus ride from KL so I took one of the first places I looked at. All the bungalows at Air Batang Coral (ABC) are of similar quality (fan, mozzie net, bathroom with cold water "shower") and price ~30-50RM depending on number of guests, season, day of the week, and bargaining skill. Johan's was 35RM/night and was OK. All the restaurants serve nearly identical menus - noodles, rice, fresh grilled fish.
Can't go wrong but prices do vary quite a bit. Moktar's seemed to be one of the more inexpensive places. Transport
Ferries make the trip between Tioman and Mersing 2 or 3 times a day for 35RM each way exact times dependent upon the tides. No need to buy in advance unless leaving the island or Mersing on a busy summer weekend. I left Tioman on a Saturday and the boat wasn't completely full but there was a problem trying to get from Mersing to Singapore via Johor Baru. The next departing bus (conveniently from the bus stop adjacent to the ferry terminal) was full meaning a wait of over 3 hours in deadly dull Mersing. Contrary to what many locals will say, there is no Causeway Link bus (CW, local Johor public bus company) direct to Singapore. There is a change at Johor then 2 more changes at the border where all luggage has to be carried through both countries' checkpoints. The price all the way from Mersing to Singapore is a low 14.20RM with several departures throughout the day. There is in fact one direct bus on Transnasional departing Mersing at 1:30 pm for 28RM which I
tried to buy in KL at both Puduraya and TBS to no avail. Apparently this bus ticket must be bought in Mersing (or online, foreign credit cards ineligible) but the ticket office did not open til 8:00 am which is when the ferry departed. CW2 buses from Johor terminate at Queen Street Station in Singapore which is convenient for most travelers.
Ultra modern, efficient, and clean oasis in normally chaotic Southeast Asia. Like KL, it's a bit boring but for some reason I like it more. Just have to watch the jaywalking and spitting in the street for which it is purportedly possible to be issued citations. The unrelenting heat and insanely high humidity are the only issues I have with the city. However, I was lucky in that regard because of the recent forest fires in Sumatra which had previously blanketed the city in unhealthy levels of smoke. There was an effort at cloud seeding to induce rain so it was fairly overcast during my stay and not terribly hot. Even after Penang, Sumatra, KL, Singapore, and Borneo, Bangkok has still been by far the hottest place I've been on the entire trip. Accommodation and food
To buck the Nescafe free coffee scam, I stayed at Green Kiwi solely for the fact that one cafe americano was served with breakfast along with fresh fruit and as much toast, kaya, and nutella as desired. Additional americanos available for S$1. Nice deal for Singapore. Plus I stayed in this area before and would be arriving fairly late so didn't want a mini epic looking for accommodation. The 10 person dorm was clean but cramped and S$20/night (S$24 Friday and Saturday nights). Free WiFi and PC use was nice but the location is a bit out of the way, several blocks north of Little India but only a 10-15 minute walk there. However, the fantastic Lavender Food Court hawker center is across the street from Green Kiwi meaning dirt cheap (for Singapore) grub is close at hand. All eating to be done at hawker centers or shopping malls in Singapore where the variety and low prices of food courts is staggering. Transport
While Singapore is quite large, most of what is relevant to travelers is walkable as long as it's not too hot. For long distances or laziness, the metro has to be one of
the best in the world. Like eating at shopping malls, mass transit is also one of the few inexpensive activities in Singapore with most fares maxing out at S$1.50. To the airport from my hostel was S$2.20 and a quick 45 minutes but involving 3 transfers on crowded trains. There is an airport shuttle that will pick up at lodgings for S$9 one way but it has to be booked over the phone and I couldn't be bothered.
There are more photos below