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Kuching is the Chiang Mai of Borneo

The biggest surprise of my recent trip to Southeast Asia was how beautiful and pleasant Kuching in Sarawak, Borneo is. I came to Borneo for the jungles and the wildlife; I did not think I would find a city that I connected to in such a positive way.

Kuching cat statue

One of the many cat statues in Kuching

Related: Five things to do in Borneo

Kuching immediately remindful of the Chiang Mai vibe

In fact, Kuching reminded me of the Thai travel Mecca of Chiang Mai without the hordes of foreign tourists. I had not even heard of this town before I started researching for Borneo. Now, I can’t wait to return and explore Sarawak even more.

Kuching Sarawak River

The beautiful waterfront along the Sarawak River

For those unfamiliar with Borneo, the island consists of two Malaysian states: Sarawak and Sabah, the Kingdom of Brunei, which is its own country, and the rest of the island is Indonesia. Kuching is the capital and largest city in Sarawak. The population of Kuching is roughly 600,000 people.

Chiang Mai is possibly the capital of backpacking adventure travelers in Southeast Asia. The reason for its appeal is its pleasant vibe, friendly people, and gateway to many interesting trekking and tours. Chiang Mai is famous for its hilltribe tours where you can ride elephants, hike, ride bamboo rafts, see waterfalls, and then stay in remote hilltribe villages at night.

Chiang Mai elephant

The obligatory elephant ride tour in Chiang Mai

Comparing Kuching and Chiang Mai

The characteristics that make Chiang Mai so awesome can also be found in Kuching. In fact, I think Kuching has more to offer in this realm. Kuching is also a smaller city like Chiang Mai with an equally laid back ambiance and just as safe as Chiang Mai. In my limited time in Kuching, I found the people just as friendly and welcoming as Chiang Mai.

Friendly Kuching

Friendly residents want a picture with the tourist in Borneo


The trekking opportunities in Chiang Mai are a little overblown in my opinion. They are fun, and I would do them again, but they do not compare to other world class outdoor adventure locations. The scenery outside Chiang Mai is hilly and more like Missouri or Arkansas in the U.S. Doi Inthanon, located a little farther outside Chiang Mai is a different story as it is more forested with the highest mountain in Thailand.

Related: Bako National Park photo essay

Chiang Mai scenery

Typical scenery outside Chiang Mai – Pretty but not overwhelming

Kuching is also a gateway to incredible trekking opportunities. You can see semi-wild orangutans in Semiggoh Wildlife Reserve, you can see the giant rafflesia flower in Gunung Gading National Park, and you can see wild proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park. For those that like the hilltribe experience, you can have a similar tour by visiting a Borneo longhouse.

Proboscis monkey

You will not see anything like the proboscis monkey in Chiang Mai

Temples and cats

The temples in Chiang Mai might be a little prettier than anything you will find in Kuching, but other than that, the city of Kuching is just as scenic as Chiang Mai itself. Kuching means cat, so if you are a cat lover you will love the plethora of cat statues found in the city. The capital of Sarawak has plenty of natural beauty with huge trees right in the middle of town in a couple of city parks. It is also found along the Sarawak River and another highlight of the city is a picturesque stretch found along the river front.

Kuching tree

Beautiful trees in downtown Kuching park


On the food front I have to give Chiang Mai the nod, but not by much. Thai food with its amazing flavors edges out a lot of international cuisines, but the food from Sarawak stands up well. Since Kuching is not far from the jungles, fresh tropical fruit was everywhere. I loved having laksa, a spicy tasty soup, and since the city and state is surrounded by water, fresh seafood is another specialty.

Laksa soup in Kuching

Delicious spicy laksa soup with prawns shows Sarawak is not too shabby on the cuisine front

The upshot is to visit Kuching also

The intention of this post is not a battle of two cities to see which one is better. It is only to state that Kuching has many of the positive aspects that make Chiang Mai such an international backpacking destination without the number of tourists. I recommend you put Kuching on your agenda for your next Southeast Asia trip. Over the next couple of weeks I will be featuring the adventure travel activities found in and around Kuching, so be sure to check them out.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Planet Borneo Tours during my stay in Kuching. The comparison to Chiang Mai was my own observation and my opinion of the city was not swayed by their hospitality. I highly recommend them for tours and for a great place to stay while in Kuching.

Adventure on!

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36 Responses to Kuching is the Chiang Mai of Borneo

  1. ciki January 12, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    I dunno.. i find Kuching quieter than KK, but that’s just me. Glad you had fun… when are you coming back Ted?? 😀
    ciki recently posted..The Fiery BBQ Buffet @ Empire Subang

    • Ted Nelson January 13, 2014 at 2:28 am #

      I am comparing Kuching to Chiang Mai in Thailand not KK. I have never been to KK, so I could not make that comparison. I would love to explore mainland Malaysia and Borneo more, so I hope soon.

  2. Leigh January 13, 2014 at 2:17 am #

    I’ve never heard of the place but it sure sounds interesting. The food looks delicious.
    Are both places hot and humid? So do you have Borneo in your sights again in the next year? Or some other off the beaten path adventure?
    Leigh recently posted..A Day Hike in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains

    • Ted Nelson January 13, 2014 at 2:31 am #

      Kuching is just below the equator, so it is really hot and humid. Chiang Mai is in the hills north of Bangkok and considerably cooler. That is probably one reason it is so popular that I did not even think about. I would love to return to Borneo, but it won’t be this year. I hope within a couple of years.

  3. Contented Traveller January 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    We love Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai so now we will add Kuching to a place that we need to visit. You have convinced us:)
    Contented Traveller recently posted..Turning Japanese in Takayama

    • Ted Nelson January 13, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

      That is great to hear. The point of this post was to bring awareness to Kuching not to say it is better than Chiang Mai. Glad to hear you are convinced.

  4. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 14, 2014 at 12:28 am #

    I don’t know what I love more the elephant or the monkey?

    • Ted Nelson January 14, 2014 at 4:53 am #

      I liked the monkey more since it was wild.

  5. wesley January 14, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Amassing blog post men. I love Chiang Mai

    • Ted Nelson January 14, 2014 at 4:54 am #

      Thanks Wesley,

      If you love Chiang Mai, which I do too, you will love Kuching and Borneo as well.

  6. Ronna January 14, 2014 at 3:28 am #

    I love your articles and photos. Love the waterfront shot with the mountain in the background. Great article — thank you!

    • Ted Nelson January 14, 2014 at 4:54 am #

      Thanks Ronna,

      Appreciate you visiting. I hope you are well and have had a Happy New Year so far.

  7. Casey-A Cruising Couple January 14, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    I want to see one of those monkeys!!! Kuching sounds like a wonderful place for sure.
    Casey-A Cruising Couple recently posted..The Global Kitchen: Recipes from Blue Osa, Costa Rica

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

      The proboscis monkeys sure are an odd animal, but great fun seeing. I hope you get a chance to check out Kuching and Borneo one day.

  8. Mary Anne January 15, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    Monkeys and Elephants! I am in. One of my fondest memories is riding an elephant bareback. Another great adventure. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      I actually was not a big fan of the elephant ride. I did not mind being on the very top, but I found it uncomfortable around its huge neck with it wiry hair rubbing my skin. It was an experience, but not sure I would do it again unless I had to.

  9. @mrsoaroundworld January 15, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Cant decide between the monkey or the elephant, to be honest!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..Barefoot Beach Luxury Holiday Guide

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      In this case I would pick the monkeys because they are wild. I prefer wild animals over tame ones.

  10. Charu January 15, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    Love how raw and beautiful this is. I have to make it to Chiang Mai soon!
    Charu recently posted..An Oasis in the Middle Florida Keys: Hawk’s Cay Resort

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

      I hope you make it to Kuching and Borneo too.

  11. Trips By Lance January 16, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    This whole region is so foreign to me (pun intended). I haven’t been to Asia, but here so many people talk about Chiang Mai. It’s nice to hear about other options. I like destinations that don’t get as much attention but still deserve it in their own way. Oh, and that photo of the two locals “wanting a photo with a tourist?” They were just amused by your fanny pack.
    Trips By Lance recently posted..Indianapolis Children’s Guide (A Child’s Perspective)

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

      I agree Lance. Although I loved Chiang Mai, I found Kuching a little more interesting in that it was more laid back and not so touristy.

  12. D.J. - The World of Deej January 20, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

    Careful Tedward…Keep this up and Kuching may not be too much of a secret anymore. I can hear it now… “Nobody goes to Chiang Mai anymore. Kuching is where it’s at…”
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..Bellagio Day – Exploring The New Symbol Of Las Vegas

    • Ted Nelson January 20, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

      Kuching could definitely use some tourist love. Borneo is big enough to handle some more tourists.

  13. Erin at The World Wanderer January 21, 2014 at 1:39 am #

    Gorgeous photos, Ted! I loved Chiang Mai, so I’m thinking Kuching is a must-stop on my next visit to Asia. Thanks for putting it on my radar. 🙂
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted..Music Monday: Dead Sea.

    • Ted Nelson January 21, 2014 at 1:50 am #

      I know you would love it Erin. I hope you make it there soon.

  14. Christy January 21, 2014 at 1:53 am #

    Will this likely be the new travel blogger hangout? It sounds like a fun place!
    Christy recently posted..Pristine Beaches and Warm Hospitality at Aruba Marriott Resort

    • Ted Nelson January 21, 2014 at 2:12 am #

      It could be or it just might be me 🙂

  15. lola January 23, 2014 at 12:01 am #

    why is everyone monkey or elephant? i just want the prawn soup!! 😉

    • Ted Nelson January 23, 2014 at 2:25 am #

      You would not be disappointed Lola.

  16. the lazy travelers January 24, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    ted! no elephant rides! bad! also that monkey looks like judd hirsch.
    the lazy travelers recently posted..foodie break: in the kitchen with a french master baker

    • Ted Nelson March 22, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

      I rode an elephant once in Chiang Mai. I hope that solidified my place in the elephant riding hall of fame, so I won’t have to repeat.

  17. Jon @ January 28, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Kuching is great, I spent a lot longer there than I had first planned. Very few tourists and it’s really nice down by the river!
    Jon @ recently posted..Is this the Weirdest Tourist Attraction in the World?

    • Ted Nelson March 22, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

      I felt the same way. It has a comfortable vibe to it.

  18. Anthony Horovitz February 22, 2017 at 9:07 am #

    Good job Traveling Ted. I am also a camper and love traveling to different places with my family. Your way to inspire people for adventure and outdoors is great. Your work is really appreciable. Thanks for sharing a nice post.

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