Thanks to its laid back atmosphere, fast internet, low cost of living and idyllic location between the sea and the Borneo rainforest, Kuching is quickly becoming a nomad hub. In this article, I explain why it should be on your itinerary and provide some practical information.

 

Some background

Kuching is the commercial center and largest city of the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Under the direct control of the British for nearly two hundred years, the city is now part of Malaysia. It enjoys year-round warm weather, excellent air quality and is considered the cleanest city in south east Asia after Singapore. Access by air is easy and cheap and the city is an Air Asia hub. English proficiency is very high, in fact, it is as high as in Singapore. Also widely spoken are Chinese and Malay. Kuching’s economy has been growing quickly over the last decades and its residents enjoy a high standard of living. To control population growth, residents from other Malaysian states have to apply for a permit before moving to Sarawak.

Access

Getting to Kuching is easy and cheap especially if you are flying in from South East Asia. There are direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Labuan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Its central location within the region means that flights are never longer than two hours. Kuching is on the same time-zone as China and Singapore, GMT+8.

 

Visa situation

The visa situation is pretty much ideal: most visitors get 90 days visa-free. There is no hard limit to how many times you can enter in a given year so it is possible to stay for a long period of time. The easiest way to visa-run is with a day trip to Brunei, a small country only a few hundred kilometers away. Acquiring residency in Malaysia is very easy and offers great benefits as Malaysia has a territorial taxation system similar to that of Singapore and Hong Kong.

 

Cost of living

Food is as cheap and maybe even cheaper than in Chiang Mai. Expect to pay anywhere from 0.50$US to 3$US for a local meal and from 5$US to 20$US for an international meal. The main cuisines are Chinese, Malay, Western and Indian. To learn more about the local cuisine, check out Thanis Lim’s Kuching food guide. Hotels are crazy cheap in Kuching, in fact, it is possible to live at the Hilton or Pullman for less than 1500$US per month all-in (including the buffet breakfast, gym and lounge if you do a status challenge with Hilton or Accor). International-grade serviced apartments can be had for as low as 500$US and local apartments for as low as a hundred dollars. If you plan to rent an apartment, I strongly recommend booking a hotel for a few days using a site like Booking.com and then visiting the main apartment buildings in person once you are in Kuching. The price difference is usually worth the hassle. Gas is around 0.50$US per liter and it is possible to buy or rent a motorbike quite cheaply. It is absolutely possible to live on 1000$US per month in Kuching (the figure often used for Chiang Mai).

Internet

The internet in Kuching is fast and very cheap. LTE is available from multiple providers and it works well all around town. To give you an example of the prices, Hotlink currently offers a 9GB plan including unlimited Spotify premium for 15$US.

 

Cafe scene and coworking

Kuching has one of the best coworking space in Asia, it is called iCube Innovation and it is located in the city center. It is also one of Asia’s cheapest at only around 30$ per month. There are also multiple cafes in the city including the usual Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

 

Nightlife

There is a lot of live music in Kuching in the evening. There are also many bars and restaurants that stay open late. A few bars play loud music but there are no real “nightclubs”. There are multiple festivals including the Kuching Food Fair and the world famous Rainforest World Music Festival.

 

Transportation

There are cheap public buses connecting most parts of the city. It is also possible to walk to most places especially if you live in the center. If staying for an extended period of time, I recommend renting a bicycle or a motorbike. Overall Kuching is a well-planned city and traffic jams are not usually a problem. The roads are also very safe and sidewalks are not cluttered like they are in most other Asian cities.

Nature

Things do not get much better than in Kuching. On one side of the city you have the Borneo rainforest, one of the three most biologically diverse forest in the world. On the other side, you have the south China sea and a coastline of beaches (see the photos on this page, taken by me). There are also multiple mountains nearby as well as several national parks. It is possible to see monkeys in the wild and many other rare species. Frankly, I have been all over the world and nothing compares to the Borneo rainforest, it is a magical place.

 

Language and communication

English is the official language of Sarawak and is present everywhere, even in government. Everyone in Kuching speaks it so communicating with the locals is not an issue. The Malay language uses the Latin script so it is possible to read nearly everything written in it. Chinese is also widely used although it is not usually standard mandarin.

 

Near Kuching

There are several national parcs near Kuching, the most famous being Gunung Gading. There are also several caves, villages and mountains within easy reach of the city. I also recommend visiting the Semenggoh Natual reserve and its Orangutan.
You can find more information about Kuching at kuchingborneo.info.

Kuching as the next Chiang Mai

Whether this will happen or not is completely out of my control. That being said, I think the idea will appeal to many and I am convinced that those who give Kuching a chance will not regret it. Think about it, a city as cheap as Chiang Mai but right next to the sea and the mythical Borneo rainforest. A city where the air is clean and where the are no traffic jams. A city with delicious healthy food. A city with festivals and a live music culture. A city where you can stay for a long time without having to worry about doing visa runs. A city where you can live tax-free, legally. A city where sports are a big deal. A city that is multi-cultural and where you will not be treated as an outsider. Sounds pretty good eh?

  • lordfedjoe

    You are right, except for the transport system. best advice is for one to rent a car, or use a Cab. walking is absolutely a bad idea, because you are likely to be walking alone under a hot sun.
    Above all, it’s a friendly city with low crime rate.

  • PiKa

    Yeah, and actually the traffic jam is on critical level.

  • Not in the city center though, at least during my last visit. The jams seemed mostly in the suburbs (I remember seeing some near Spring mall).

  • I’m glad I found your article, I’m looking for a base, haven’t checked Thailand yet, but I lmy experience in Malasya so far. Actually I’m writing from Cameron Highlands, Great weather but I don’t see this area as a base.

  • Kuching is a lot more suitable as a base than Cameron Highlands. It’s a relatively large city with all the services you can expect from one. The big difference with other Malaysian cities is that it’s a lot cleaner, less polluted and it’s only a few minutes drive from beaches, mountains and the Borneo rainforest. It also is quite cheap.

  • JanPaul999

    Hi Simon, this article of yours really peaked my interest…

    I have a question:

    How do you compare Kuching vs Kota Kinabalu?

    And are there particular reasons why you feel Kuching is a better choice for living then Kota Kinabalu?

  • JanPaul999

    “only a few minutes drive from beaches”

    Hi again, I was doing some research and read somewhere else that the nearest beaches in Kuching are 45 minutes away. So now I’m confused.

    Are the beaches really just a few minutes away from places where you can affordably live on a 1K budget in Kuching? Or are they further away and do I need to take some travel time into account?

  • The beach at Damai (there is a photo of it on this page) is around 30km away from Kuching. There is a shuttle going there every day from downtown at a cost of 22 MYR (return, around 5 USD). There are also beaches at Bako national park, also around 30km from Kuching. It’s not walking distance that’s for sure but very doable as a day trip.

  • In my experience, Kuching is a lot more livable than KK. It’s a lot cleaner, it is walkable (if you live in the center), it has more culture, the architecture is much better, the nature surrounding it is fantastic and the locals are more pleasant. It “feels” more developed, kinda like a small Singapore (like SG, it has a large population of Chinese and this helps).

  • JanPaul999

    Ok sounds good, thanks.

    Is it possible to rent a secure and decent apartment with small kitchen in the center of Kuching for $200-$300 per month?

    I’m living in Boracay, Philippines at the moment but I’m looking to diversify home bases.

  • Most apartments are in the 500-1500 MYR range (120-350 USD). They usually have kitchens but the Asian-type kitchens, not the American type. Outside the center (if you have a car), you can get a nice house with a pool and large kitchen for 1200-2000 MYR. Driving in Kuching isn’t as crazy as it is in the Philippines, Vietnam etc so this might be an option.

  • JanPaul999

    Ok great, thanks for sharing your knowledge about the place. I’ll probably be visiting Kuching within a couple of months to have a look around and get a feel for the place.

  • You’re welcome 🙂 If you have some time, check out Gunung Gading National Park and the Borneo Highlands. Both are within driving distance of Kuching and both are fantastic. The Highlands are especially nice if you want to escape from the tropical heat (they are +-1000 meters above sea level so temperature is 20-25 celcius). Great golfing there.

  • JanPaul999

    Ok thanks for the tips 🙂 Sounds good to be able to escape to 20-25 celsius periodically.

  • JanPaul999

    Hi Simon, I have one more question, about the rain in Kuching.

    I did some more research and read that there’s 4000mm rainfall per year in Kuching, which seems like a lot to me. And from what I read it seems that even in dry season there still falls quite a bit of rain.

    My questions about that are:

    Have you experienced Kutching over a longer period of time and do you have a good feel for its weather pattern?

    If yes:

    1. Are the rains in the form of brief but heavy downpours once or twice a day? Or are they lighter and spread out over the whole day?

    2. Once the rains stops, does the sun appear again? Or does it stay cloudy a lot during rainy days?

  • I spent an entire winter in Kuching a few years ago. I’ve been back a few times since, to visit friends.

    It does rain often but rarely “non-stop”. On most days you’ll see the sun in the morning then the clouds will build up through the afternoon until late afternoon when all hell breaks lose. The downpour lasts for 1-2 hours at most then around dinner time it stops and the clouds start disappearing. There are also rainy days (when it rains all day) and sunny days (with no clouds in the sky) but on most days its as described above.

    Personally I grew to enjoy the late afternoon rains, after they end the air is much cooler and this makes the evenings more pleasant.

  • JanPaul999

    Ok, I’m used to the climate in Boracay Island. During rainy season there it also rains 1-2 hours per day. But sunny days are sparse during that time, I’d say about 80-90% of the time it’s cloudy.

    I don’t mind the rain, and even the clouds too much, because when dry season comes around in Boracay it’s almost always dry and sunny, so it’s great for variation. I just hope that Kuching doesn’t have too much rain year round, a.k.a. like rainy season in Boracay year round.

    The very convenient thing is though, rainy season in Boracay is the dryer season in Kuching, so in that’s sense it seems to be the perfect pair.

  • JanPaul999

    I just found this page which gives a detailed month by month breakdown of the weather in the Kutching area (Borneo): https://www.audleytravel.com/borneo/best-time-to-visit

    Found it really useful so thought I’d share it here for others that might be interested in more detail about this.

  • Simon, thanks for the article!

    Could you share more info on residency and taxation please?

  • Rafiki Cai

    It’s probably worth mentioning n this article, that there’s a ferry to Kuching from Singapore. Probably a great way to meet and mingle, versus a plane ride.

  • Temi Lasade-Anderson

    Hiya,

    Thanks for writing thia – heaps of info! Just wondering if you had any leads on acommodation in Kuching?

  • If staying short-term, I’d recommend booking a hotel. There are some amazing deals (Hilton at 50$ for example). Otherwise your best bet is to book a hotel for 2-3 nights and look for an apartment in person. There are some websites showing short term rentals but they are either in Malay / Chinese or the prices are inflated.

  • redape

    Hi Freedom Surfer,

    I too have fallen in love with the laid-back ambiance of Kuching and Sarawak. It’s modern but has a small-town friendliness, most people speak English, it’s accepting of multiculturality, and has lots of nature activities (from hiking, caving, kayaking, jungle trekking to diving). You can do visa runs to Brunei, Singapore or to Indonesia (Kalimantan) if necessary. Some fly over to Palawan in the Phillipines from Sabah (the other Malaysian state in Borneo). You must stay 24 hours outside the country (Malaysia).

    Longer term accomodation within the 90-day visa can be arranged with several hostels. I stayed for over a month at one place on Jalan Abell for under $150/month (single room with shower, bathroom). Lot’s of backpacker places as well. If you are hopping out to the nearby parks regularly a series of short-term stays might make better sense. The parks (several within 2 hours of Kuching by local bus) have self-catering hostels for under US$5 night and during the weeks these are largely empty and have great kitchens and lounges.

    I know of many people who visa-hop but if you can arrange a teaching visa you can arrange a year lease in a condominium or even rent a house. There are 3 BR luxury apartments for about US$500!!!

  • redape

    I’d like more information on this. I’ve visited Sarawak annually for almost two decades and never knew of a ferry to Singapore. There’s an occasional visit by a tour line cruise ship that visits.

  • redape

    Hi Igor,

    Malaysia has a variety of visas. Work visas are somewhat hard to obtain, especially in Sarawak (even for Malaysians from the peninsula) unless one has “special skills”. But there is a program called Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) that allows one to “retire” and obtain up to a 10-Year Multi-Entry Vis and allows one to purchase land/apartment if one wishes. It also exempts one from any taxes on foreign income or if you work abroad. Sarawak has a similar program that is even less expensive in terms of income requirements – the problem is that it’s more definitely a program for those 50+ (exceptions are for those with children who are enrolled in school or receiving hospital treatment). The mainland/Sabah version allows under 50’s…but at higher income requirements.

    Here’s a comparison of the two programs.

    http://www.sarawak.gov.my/web/home/article_view/221/279/

    I’m not pushing the program, BTW. Sarawak doesn’t allow a paid agent to get involved, unlike the mainland that will allow an intermediary who will charge a fee.

  • redape

    Damai also has some resorts, hostels and long term stay apartments (though on the pricier end). There are a few other beach communities (Lundu) with chalets. But as Freedom Surfer mentioned everything is pretty close to Kuching. The main view in Kuching is the river waterfront (see his top photo…and yes it DOES look like that at sunset almost every other evening!!!)

    The beaches really don’t have great surfing, though.

  • redape

    Uber is about US$1 for most of the city…about $2-3 to the suburbs or airport. There is a free bus downtown. Public buses have improved though stop at about 7 PM…so if you go out to the more suburban malls and have to come back in the evening it’s by taxi/Uber.

    Crime is so rare that they report snatch grabs in the paper as if they are major crimes. Unlike Sabah there is almost no risk of kidnapping, the per capita murder /violent crime rate is lower than any other region in SE Asia.

  • redape

    The rule on taxation is that you must live 182+ days or more to qualify for the 0-25% graduated tax rate on Malaysian earnings. If under 182 days and you make income in Malaysia it’s a flat 25%!!! In Sarawak you can’t legally work on a tourism pass, and even getting a local bank account can be next to impossible (though there are lots of ATM’s where you can withdraw money via the many international networks). Work visas are given only if you have a local sponsor and your position cannot be filled by a Sarawak citizen (not even other Malaysians escape this restriction). There’s a little over and under-the-table work – as English tutors, specialist teachers at local international schools, if you speak a foreign language (Japanese, Thai, Hungarian) and they can use you at the Rainforest Music Festival, hotels, etc. Lots of mixed couples are involved in the hostelry business.

  • Thanks for sharing all this valuable information. If we are ever in Kuching at the same time, would be fun to meet.

  • aberdeen52

    Kuching is fantastic! For me, it’s probably the cleanest and one of the safest cities in Asia. It’s THE place to live! Few people live condo/apartment here, most of them live houses like Detached house, semi-detached house, terrace houses. I was like WOW when i see big houses are everywhere. Compared to the other South-east Asia cities, the living standard and culture are more modern and laidback with some GORGEOUS cafes around!! The property price is cheap, and with a car, it feels like a dream!!
    Also do visit Sibu!! I felt like i had been in a city of China. Chinese culture is really strong there. I was told that Sibu has the most churches in Asia.

  • Sesame M

    yeah i agree that Sibu is a nice little city to see and most importantly, it is a food heaven not known by many but thanks to this blogger who has, until now, introduced and tasted every single food across the city. https://suituapui.wordpress.com/ Many people thought Penang has the best food in Malaysia, probably not after you have experienced it in Sibu

  • Sesame M