I never intended to go to Kuching. In fact, I had never heard of it, and I had only vaguely heard of Borneo. I didn’t realize Borneo was an island divided between Malaysia and Indonesia, famous for headhunters who still collect skulls and eat hearts, rare long-nosed monkeys called Proboscis monkeys, and countless tribes and languages on one of the largest islands in S. E. Asia. The only thing I knew was that I had to buy an ongoing ticket from Manila to be let into the Philippines, so I bought a ticket to the nearest place on the map with an international airport: Kota Kinabalu.
Three weeks later I landed in Kota Kinabalu, a small town on the northeastern tip of the large island of Borneo, in a prefecture called Sabah. I learned an important lesson in Kota Kinabalu – never travel as a budget backpacker to a small town that has a large international airport. Aside from a night of karaoke with a local Couchsurfer, I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t driving me to reach deep into my pockets and cross out a good month or so from my longterm travel plans. I had to get out – FAST!
Buses across Borneo are unreliable and indirect – an adventure in itself, but I wasn’t in the mood for that after a few days of fighting off tour operators, so I bought the cheapest ticket I could get out of KK with Air Asia – a flight to Kuching, on the opposite side of Malaysian Borneo.
The tourist information center in the airport had little black&white flyers from countless B&Bs advertising 15 Ringgit/night for a dormitory room, with free wifi and breakfast included. At about $5, I had stumbled across a budget-minded, technically-inclined backpacker’s paradise! I sifted through the flyers and found one for the guesthouse I had booked with called Threehouse B&B (yes – with a 3, not a tree) and gave it to the taxi driver.
I had sent an email out to Bindi, one of the three owners of the Threehouse B&B, a few days earlier and told her I’d be coming in early. As I stumbled down the street trying to find the right place, I heard a friendly Swedish voice call out, “Philip?” Bindi was out in front of the guesthouse having her morning coffee and a smoke, and I could tell by the way she slowly enjoyed the last of her cigarette before punching the security code to open the front door that I had arrived at a place much slower paced than Kota Kinabalu. It was just the right speed for me.
Despite its relaxed pace, Kuching has more than enough to keep any adventerous traveler busy throughout the huge untouched jungles of Sarawak. But the highlight of my trip there was Bako National Park, a wildlife reserve about an hour from Kuching by bus and then a quick boat trip through crocodile infested waters and past cliff faces jutting out of the sea leading into a mysterious jungle.
I had some leftovers in a plastic bag when I arrived – bad idea! The macaque monkeys soon made it completely clear that I had wandered onto their turf now. The whole canteen was standing up and enjoying the show as I tried in vain to ward off the monkeys before tossing my food off to the side, finally giving up on my lunch. I passed a couple wild boars before making it up onto the canteen patio, relieved that the monkeys were now too busy eating my lunch to bother me anymore.
The respite didn’t last very long though. I sat to chat with a girl eating her lunch on the patio.
“Is it always like that here?”
“Yeah – the monkeys get into everything. HEY!!”
She slapped the table to make a loud noise, trying to get back at the macaque that had just made off with a sausage from her plate. The macaque didn’t blink – loud noises don’t bother them. I learned after a few hours that they’re smart enough to know what is genuinely dangerous for them: the staff who show no mercy with their slingshots, a big stick swung as though you know how to use it, and large rocks (crack-a-skull big…small rocks don’t phase them).
The second day in Bako was a downpour and there were knee-high puddles everywhere, but by afternoon it was clear enough that we decided to brave the jungle and see what we could find out there. Aside from passing one tour group that had obviously paid a lot of money to come just to Bako, we were mostly alone in the jungle. The focus it took to step through the puddles and new rivers made by the rain distracted us from the monkeys, snakes, flesh-eating plants, and boars that were around us everywhere in Bako. But they let us peacefully trudge through their territory until we found ourselves at the edge of a deep cliff leading into a ravine and a beautiful deserted beach. Only the rugged stairway down the cliff reminded us that we were in a national park.
I won’t call Kuching an unknown paradise because the number of travelers in town clearly shows that somebody knows it – but it was a sweet discovery for this budget backpacker. The muslim influence in town makes it a lot less of a party-spot than the backpacker hideouts in Thailand and other parts S.E.Asia. In fact, I only had one beer the whole time I was there, and I was surprised that no-one else in the group wanted to join.
Kuching is the place to be for budget adventure, relaxation, connectivity, and a welcome respite from some of the frat-boy party style of S.E. Asia. It’s a must-hit spot for any longterm traveler passing through this part of the world!