Kuching, Malaysia: What's Expensive and What's Not

by  Will McGough | Feb 6, 2014
Kuching, Malaysia
Kuching, Malaysia / chaolik/iStock

Borneo, the world's third largest island, has seen significant portions of its rainforest cut down by logging companies over the years. Still, it remains one of the premier jungles in Southeast Asia, offering adventure travelers the sort of inspiring jaunts that are more typical in South America or Africa. Borneo is home to the endangered Bornean orangutan, the world’s largest flower, and is shared between three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

We hunkered down on the Malaysia side for two weeks, using Kuching as a home base for exploration. While the upfront cost to get there hurts (approximately $1,400 round-trip from New York City), visitors will be pleased with how cheaply they can feed and entertain themselves once on the ground. Here's a breakdown of where you'll spend – and where you won't – next time you plan a trip to this southeast Asian island.

What’s Pricey

The Flight: There’s no getting out of this one – your flight is going to be over a thousand dollars, for sure. From the west coast of the U.S., most routes go to Tokyo (Narita) and then continue on to Kuala Lumpur before heading to Borneo. Those on the east coast can go the other way, through Germany or Singapore.

Gear: Don’t think you’re going to trek into one of the world’s largest rainforests unprepared. You won’t freeze to death in Southeast Asia, but between the hard rains, leeches, snakes (both black cobra and pythons), bugs, thick vegetation, slippery trails, and the need to stay hydrated, you’ll want to be properly outfitted. Be sure to bring all you would for any wilderness activity, including a day pack, first aid kit, bug guard, quick-drying long pants and long-sleeve shirts, water shoes, a poncho, and plenty of backup dry clothing and socks. A dry sack is a good idea, as you will most likely get rained on, and last thing you want is a full bag of wet clothes. There are several tour outfitters that run day or overnight jungle trips, depending on what you'd like to see. One such recommended operator is Planet Borneo, which offers everything from cave tours to river cruises. Half-day trips start at about 50 to 100 ringgits, or about $20-$35, and then it goes up from there with longer day trips or overnights.

What’s Not

Hotels and Hostels: We found rooms available in February at one of the city’s most modern hotels, the Pullman, for around $68 plus tax. Rooms at Batik Boutique, whose name should give you a good idea of its atmosphere, start at $74.

Food: You’ll find plenty of cafes in and around Kuching that offer large and cheap servings of local favorites. You'll want to try laksa,  a spicy noddle soup made with coconut milk and prawn paste that's actually eaten for breakfast. Kolok mee is a plate of dry noodles topped with mincemeat, typically beef in the Malaysian recipe and pork in the Chinese version. Both can be found for 3 to 6 ringgits ($1-$2) on the streets and in cafes.  (They're more expensive at traditional sit down restaurants, of course.)

Daily Activities: While Kuching is a diverse place that's slowly developing from a small town to a small city, visitors often end up here because of the natural paradise that surrounds it. Entrance into the parks is typically between $5 and $10. In all, there are about a half dozen parks within a two-hour drive, including Gunung Gading National Park, where you can find the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia; the Semenggoh Nature and Wildlife Center, where orangutans are rehabilitated to be released back into the wild; and the aforementioned Kubah National Park, where roller-coaster trails, pitcher plants, the roof-building ekor buaya palm, and secluded waterfalls await.

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