The Battle between Kota Kinabalu and Kuching

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When contemplating a trip to East Malaysia, both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu vie for attention. Pat Fama takes the cities head to head to see which will emerge as the top spot for a taste of the best of Borneo.

When people think of Borneo, first to spring to mind is the island’s incredible biodiversity, awesome beauty, and fascinating mix of indigenous peoples. And while these features are all true of Sabah and Sarawak, both of these Malaysian states also have another key selling point: their respective capitals.

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Kota Kinabalu (generally known as KK) and Kuching are both sprawling, modern, multicultural cities, each with charms as well as some less pleasing aspects. So, in a head-to-head contest between the two, which is the best for a short break? Let the battle commence!

See Also: Wildlife Tragedy in Kota Kinabalu

Kuching 1 – KK 0

Kuching was founded in 1827 as the capital of Sarawak, but only took its present name in 1872. For more than a hundred years, this city was at the heart of the personal fiefdom of the Brooke family, the so-called “White Rajahs.” KK’s story is rather less romantic, starting life as a small British trading post in 1899 by the name of Jesselton. The name was ditched in 1968 as part of the city’s seeming determination to forget its colonial past.

Kuching 1.5 – KK 0.5

Through no fault of its own, KK has only a handful of historic buildings left, due largely to the devastation suffered during World War II. One of the few exceptions is the colonial-era Atkinson Clock Tower. By contrast, the old part of Kuching is filled with characterful pre-war buildings, although this heritage is gradually being overwhelmed by some of Malaysia’s ugliest modern architecture.

Kuching 1.5 – KK 1.5


KK has a stunning location, nestled between the South China Sea and the verdant Crocker Range. While not quite so dramatic, Kuching’s location is none too shabby either. Both have lovely waterfronts, and compete favourably with their magnificent sunsets and tropical rainstorms.

Kuching 2.5 – KK 1.5

Kuching wins out in this category largely thanks to the superb Sarawak State Museum, which first opened back in 1891. Its founding patron was Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah. Sabah State Museum in KK is somewhat disappointing by comparison. Kuching also has a selection of independent museums and galleries, as well as the wonderfully kitschy Cat Museum.

Kuching 3 – KK 2

It should come as no surprise, this being Malaysia, that you can eat very well in both places. KK edges Kuching when it comes to hawker fare, particularly if you like your seafood, but for something more sophisticated, Kuching is the place to go to check out a growing selection of characterful eateries.

Kuching 4 – KK 2

Kuching lays good claim to having Malaysia’s best nightlife outside Kuala Lumpur. As well as a host of funky bars and pubs, it also has a thriving clubbing scene. KK can appear rather provincial by comparison, although it does have a selection of pleasant waterfront drinking holes.

Kuching 4.5 – KK 2.5

The superb Rainforest World Music Festival, which takes place about 35km from Kuching, is hard to beat thanks to the quality of the artists and its beautiful location. Every year, thousands of music-lovers come to Sarawak just to attend the three day event. KK may lack a blockbuster like Rainforest, but it makes up for it with a whole range of festivals throughout the year.

Kuching 4.5 – KK 3.5


KK not only has easily accessible town beaches such as Tanjung Aru, it is also a short boat ride from the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. As well as several gorgeous stretches of sand and sea, the snorkelling can be good here, too. The nearest beaches to Kuching (in the Santubong Peninsula) are a tad disappointing by comparison.

Kuching 5.5 – KK 3.5

Sabah has some of the best places in the world to spot wildlife, from world class diving at Semporna to the wonders of the Kinabatangan River. Unfortunately, most are a long way from KK. By contrast, Kuching is an easy day trip away from two wildlife centres (Semonggoh and Matang) where orang utans can be seen up close. There’s also a good chance to observe rare proboscis monkeys at Bako National Park.

Kuching 5.5 – KK 4.5

Located 80km from KK, Mount Kinabalu is one of Southeast Asia’s undisputed natural wonders. The highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago, it is recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Also within easy striking distance is the spectacular Sinsuron Pass through the Crocker Range. By comparison, Kuching is a long way from Sarawak’s greatest natural wonder; Gunung Mulu World Heritage Area.


Overall, it’s a narrow victory for Kuching, but KK has plenty of going for it too. In the end, both cities are great all-round spots for an enjoyable and affordable weekend break in Malaysian Borneo.

This article was written by Pat Fama for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012

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