Revisiting my old backpacking days: My sweaty visit to Kuching

Today, I like decent hotel rooms and charming restaurants with delicious local specialities, and splashing out some money on cool activities. Back in 2012, I was on a shoestring budget, staying in mosquito-ridden hotel dorms and eating cheap pineapple curry from local diners. My electronics didn’t work, and my bag packing skills were atrocious.

When I disembarked the plane in crazy humid Borneo in 2012, all I had was an old iPod, and no internet. I had loaded it with Lonely Planet pdfs that I was hoping to use for all my travel needs in Kuching, the fun and lively capital city of Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo. It was the olden days. And I was going to get reeeeally lost.

Sketch of kuching's colourful rows of houses on the island of borneo

Travelling from the comforts of Kuala Lumpur to Kuching

I had just spent a week in Kuala Lumpur, the very first city and my very first stop on my epic 18-month round the world journey. I had been enjoying night markets and slurping bowls of cheap cheap noodles on wobbly red plastic chairs. I bought freshly sliced mango, and ate them with a bamboo skewer as I chatted with Dutch and German travellers at my hostel near Petaling Street.

Sketch of a malaysian durian street market stand

I soaked in the spine-chilling air conditioning at shopping centres under the Petronas Towers, went shopping for T-shirts, and tried to figure out those little blue tokens to board the MRT. There were dazzling thunderstorms, temples to explore, and great transport. Now, it was time for a different Malaysia.

Wandering the streets of Kuching

My backpack was ginormous. It was a black 80 litre Kathmandu backpack, with straps and clips and belts protruding in all directions. It was the biggest one I could buy, and it was packed with so much useless stuff.

Sketch of a bronze crocodile shaped cannon in Borneo

I brought a bulky sleeping bag that occupied almost a quarter of the space I had available (barely used it). There was a winter coat, which I intended to use in 6 months, when I eventually travelled to Europe and Canada. I packed jeans, books, and a huge sketch pad with pencils.

Oof – it weighed a ton.

Hey, I was naive – it was my first time backpacking!!

If I could only go back in time and give myself advice to lighten the load!

The iPod full of Lonely Planet maps was useless. There was a road map of Kuching, but it was extremely limiting, and I couldn’t identify where I was in relation to anything. I couldn’t lock the screen, the the maps rotated annoyingly every time I turned my hand.

It took an hour, and my shirt was dripping through with sweat when I finally arrived at the Nomad Hostel in Kuching.

The hostel experience in Kuching

Nomad Hostel was run by Chris, a jovial Borneo local who had a tendancy to walk around shirtless, displaying giant displays of traditional Borneo tribal tattoos. They were solid black ink floral and tribal tattoos, on his shoulders, back and stomach.

In a fish tank near the kitchenette, a grumpy snakefish headbutted the glass every time a guest walked near. A small pot of sugar was in the centre of the breakfast table, sitting in a dish of water to keep the ants away. A pair of backpackers were enjoying free pineapple jam on toast.

I found my dorm room, and hefted my bag onto the top bunk. A figure on the far side of the room groaned and rolled over to say hi. Shirtless, he had a back covered with painful sunburn. He was Anthony from the United States. When I asked how long he’d been in Borneo, with a grin he replied “Way too long, man!“.

Exploring the streets of Kuching

With the monkey off my back (I mean, heavy backpack), I set off in the direction of the Sarawak River, which crosses through the city of Kuching. It’s a major city in the region, but there’s a very sleepy feeling to the whole place. I was somewhere near the Sarawak Museum, a popular tourist zone.

I bought a drink just because of the funny name – Kickapoo, and sipped it as I walked. The walk around the area was not long, and I passed some pretty tempting noodle shops that balanced hot soup on top of wobbling tables.

There, I ran into some cool sights in Kuching. The organutan painted mural was cute, with a bunch of great apes painted sitting in a real life wheelbarrow. Historic buildings such as the Round Tower and the Square Tower, the City Mosque and the Old Courthouse were all reminders of a British colonial past.

By the riverfront, I discovered a charming riverside path, the Jalan Main Bazaar, that traced the length of the river. There were souvenir shops selling wooden carvings, and one restaurant there served bird’s nest soup, a rare and valuable delicacy.

Crossing the Sarawak river

On the far side, there was some kind of gigantic yellow Jedi temple, with a flaired pointed roof (actually the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building). Next to it, I also saw the historic Fort Margherita.

Sketch of coloured lights reflected in the water in kuching

Along the riverside, there were a series of beautiful bronze crocodile-shaped cannons lined up along the shore called lantaka. Further down, a musician with the same Borneo tribal tattoos I saw earlier was playing a sapeh, a form of traditional lute.

At the time I visited, there was no pedestrian bridge across the river. Since then, the Golden Anniversary Bridge has popped up to help people cross to the other side. So, I took a little ferry craft over to My Village Barok, an open air restaurant where I tucked into a nice meal of stingray and rice.

What is up with all the cats in Kuching?

After an afternoon exploring, I had one burning question…

What’s up with all the cats?

And not real ones – I mean statues of cats. There were statues of cats everywhere! They were on street corners, in the centre of roundabouts. There were little steel cats leaping around in gardens. In fact, the very name Kuching is thought to be derived from the Malay word for cat.

The obsession for displaying cats comes about from an apocryphal tale, when the English ruler of the city, Charles Brooke, who misinterpreted the name as the city name, when a local actually pointed to a cat. But, although theories abound, nobody is quite sure where the cat obsession came from.

There’s a cat museum too, packed with paintings and memorials dedicated to cats, as well as a mummified cat from Ancient Egypt!

Going to visit the Orangutans in Semenggoh Nature Reserve

Kuching had two amazing side trips I was looking forward to. The first was the chance to see orangutans living in a sanctuary called Semenggoh Nature Reserve.

I took a beat up old bus 3A from Kuching bus terminal, and chatted with an old lady on the journey. Arriving at the nature reserve, it was a humid hike through the access roads and visitors centres to finally reach the orangutans.

They were rescued from deforestation areas, and live in the nature reserve in a semi-wild environment. The orangutans are still dependant on the nature reserve for most of their food, so they drop by several times a day to pick fruits off the feeding platforms.

They were amazing to watch, and very dextrous and graceful as they cartwheeled and rappelled down the tree trunks!

Visiting Bako National Park from Kuching

The most exciting place I visited was Bako National Park, an awesome day trip or multi-night stay. Just like visiting Semenggoh, I jumped on a local bus to reach Kuching Bazaar.

Kuching Bazaar to Bako National Park

Kuching Bazaar is a historic market town on the banks of the river Sungai Tabo. From there, it’s a fast speedboat to reach Bako National Park, and I watched in amazement at the perfect glass-flat water reflected the sky perfectly in blue, as the speedboat engine thundered towards the national park. It was gorgeous!

At Bako National Park, I hopped off the speedboat onto a rickety wooden boardwalk, and posed for a photo in front of the park sign.

Bako National Park was a sweaty, smelly experience, and I loved every second.

I stayed in the dorm room, and spent the evenings on the verandah, watching spectacular rainstorms shred through the jungle canopy as I read a book.

I did a few jungle hikes, the best part of Bako National Park. From the visitor’s centre, I did uphill climbs through humid hills, admiring flycatcher plants and crazy swarms of soldier ants.

I visited the beaches, watching bearded pigs shuffling and snuffling through the sand to locate crabs. I spotted a green viper, curled up near my dorm room, and a troupe of proboscis monkeys leaping clumsily from rooftop to rooftop.

Sketch of an orange monkey jumping between trees

The start of my backpacking adventures!

Borneo was the first stop on my epic round the world travels. I had more stops to make, but Kuching, Semenggoh and Bako National Park forced me to strip down my backpack, live cheap, savour showers, meet new people and try new foods. Kuching and Bako National Park have extra special meaning for me, because it was there in the dorm that I met my future wife, Cindy!

There we have it, a look at my first, and probably sweatiest, solo adventure. It will always be a big part of me, and helped shaped me as a person and as a traveller. How have your travel habits evolved since your first ever trip overseas? What do you miss, and what are you glad to have moved on from? Let me know in the comments!