KUCHING SHOULD BE THE ULTIMATE TOURIST DRAW though sometimes it seems the road less travelled, which really is what should make it the ultimate tourist draw! with our unparalleled narrative of historical mashups from the Brookes to the Baba Nyonya, it is sad to see how few tourists actually make the short step across the South China Seas. Yet still, those who do, find very little in the way of tourist fodder, only the tourism holy grail – the authentic experience. Locally, our best venues are often the ugliest and our best crowds are often in the worst areas, so a visitor might find it hard to know where to go. But here is the list of the top picks with tourism potential, from morning to midnight (a break from KINO tradition), for visitors to locals alike!
Choon Hui Kopitiam – Jalan Ban Hock
Anthony Bourdain was here. Twice. Need we say more? Of all the Sarawak foods, Laksa is likely the most famous and Choon Hui has one of the best in town. A short stroll from the centre of town, it is nevertheless better on foot as parking is famously difficult though the locals, of course, will inevitably attempt to plonk their cars as close as possible. A typical hawker centre in a stand-alone house, the venue is not known for its beauty; the food is the star with other specialties including popiah and roti kawin. It is invariably packed so expect a wait but one that is worth it. Day-time only, you’ll have to get up early for your morning fix. But for the chance of a bowl of laksa with your buttocks nestling the same seat as a famous TV chef, Choon Hui is really the only stop on the trail!
James Brooke Bistro – Waterfront
Named for the first Rajah and sitting on a prime spot on the waterfront overlooking the heart of the Rajah’s historic stomping grounds, this place is designed for tourists and almost exclusively populated by them, perhaps largely due to the price which many locals would baulk at. Laksa is the specialty with a multitude of different types – the Sarawak special, the Wild Borneo, the list goes on – though the Charles Brooke Laksa is, in fact, known to us locals as Mee Jawa. Nevertheless, the food is delicious and the flavours authentic, even if the names aren’t. It is the décor that really draws them in – a pretty pondok with open shutters all round and Dayak carvings artfully placed – it is the ideal spot to sup and sip and watch the river drift by.
China House – Old Courthouse
The Old Courthouse is the jewel in Sarawak’s heritage crown and has recently been converted into a veritable lifestyle destination featuring food, drinks, shopping, gallery space and evening entertainment in the various rooms – local bands and Cuban jazz have been among the featured players with presumably many more to come. The concept is from Penang where the original China house is a popular destination and Kuching is reveling in the imported cachet. The food is Western with a vast array of cakes but it is the venue that is really the Sarawak star. With its wonderful courtyards and courtly rooms, this is genuinely a place for courting and being courted!
Black Bean Coffee – Ewe Hai Street
Perhaps the world’s smallest coffee shop with only four tiny tables, Black Bean Coffee is always packed. On one of the most historic streets in Sarawak, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee fills the air with the big draw of local brew, announced in big letters. While once Sarawak grew an abundance of the bean, including a large coffee estate under the Rajah at Matang, the crop has largely disappeared from these shores commercially, with most ‘local’ coffee with its distinctive taste sourced from Indonesia. So, Black Bean may be the only place in town specifically selling truly local coffee and the tourists love it, perhaps particularly because they can have their local brew in the Italian style from Cappucino on upwards. Truly the best of both worlds.
My Village Barok – Kampung Boyan
A short hop across the river by sampan – a tourist delight in itself – is the traditional Malay Kampong Boyan and at its heart is a rambling wooden structure confusingly called My Village Barok – confusing because a barok is a Bidayuh space, but that is Sarawak for you! The food is a fusion of Sarawak favourites – from Ayam Penyet to Pansoh and Umai and the décor is a mix of Malay kampung house with longhouse combined, leading to a warren of wooden walkways and balconies to sit on and enjoy the river breeze. Certainly worth the trip, especially as you can pick up a kek lapis on the way.
Zinc – Tabuan Road
Zinc has just hit the top spot on Tripadvisor. On the surface, this place might not seem like a tourist draw – Mediterranean food made by a Spanish chef, run by a local lawyer and his French wife. Housed in a classic Chinese shophouse, renovated with old world charm, the menu and the venue reflect a love of Sarawak and its quirks. They actually have a laksa pizza, probably the first of its kind in the world, as well as tuak cocktails with local fruits. The live music is a big draw with even a newly launched classical evening to back up their already popular jazz night. But Zinc offers a true worldwide melting pot with a varied Kuching crowd and you will even get personal service from the owner. Really quite Sarawak after all!
Monkee Bar – Jalan Song Thian Cheok
Monkee Bar (sic!) is another hole-in-the-wall place from the same stable as many other establishments in town, including last issue’s Five Foot Way. Painted a dark, jungle green with stylized versions of Borneo’s flora and fauna in gold (similar but different to its sister bar) trailing across every wall and pillar, the main difference is in the ethos – the orangutan statue outside might give you a clue. For this is a bar with a conscience, with 50% of all the proceeds going to fund the Orangutan project, improving the lives of our own great, ginger apes (not monkeys) and greatest tourist attraction. Every tiger you buy adds to the goodwill! So if you want a hangover without the remorse, then this is your destination.