Travel Features > Entertainment
Out on the Town
Wayne Tarman checks out the pubs and clubs of Kuching
So, you are in Kuching on business, or you've just returned from a longhouse visit. The day is nearly over and it's time to check out the nightlife. Now, if you're from the big smoke you'll probably be thinking, "Bummer, a night to kill in small town in Asia." But don't be deceived by the small town veneer - Kuching loves to party. Yeah, if you come looking for the full spectrum of clubbing madness you'll be disappointed. As a small town, Kuching does not have the fast moving, fast changing 'in yer face' clubbing scene that thrives so well in major Asian cities. No, Kuching's nightlife is more laid back and on the whole positively unpretentious. Your first impression is maybe that Kuching is locked in a clubland time warp (and you'd be right), but look beyond the silver glitter balls, dig further and you discover that Kuchingites know how to enjoy. Let's face it, a club doesn't have to be cool to be hot. So, take your tequilas with a generous pinch of salt and hit the town.
Drinks prices in Kuching are generally higher than in Kuala Lumpur with most clubs charging well over the odds for a drink. So a pre-club pub session is essential. Normal pubs charge RM 6-8 for a beer whilst live music pubs, karaoke bars and discos charge anything from RM 10 upwards, with some squeezing you for RM 15 for a glass of beer. Imported bottled beers are a favourite item for exorbitant profit taking by club proprietors. Expect to pay RM 16-18 for a bottle.
A rather pleasant cafe/bar overlooking the Sarawak River. Simple but stylish decor with music to match (mainly soft Jazzy tunes) and good service. Only opened recently but has become a hang out of Kuching's Corona-quaffing beautiful people, informed tourists and better behaved expats. A welcome addition.
Kuching is dotted (well, more like riddled) with dodgy Live Music Pubs. Practically all of them have third rate bands, cheap decor, expensive drinks and an all male clientele. If you like to pay over the odds for a drink, don't object to getting charged 5 bucks for 15 peanuts on a chipped plate, and like to listen to a crap band murdering your favourite tunes, then these places might just be for you. Look out for shophouses with neon, all girl bands wearing spray-on, leopard skin leggings and names such as the Bunny Pub, Mulu Pub and My Place.
The Eagles Nest, Jalan Bukit Mata Kuching.
The conveniently located block of shophouses near Permata Car Park is fast turning it an extension of Taman Sri Sarawak, Kuching's pub zone. The Eagle's Nest, the latest addition, gets my vote as one of the best pubs in town. Located in two shophouses, rather than the Kuching norm of a Pub being squeezed into one shophouse, the Eagle's Nest has upmarket decor but some of the cheapest beer prices in town. Happy hours run from lunch time until 10 pm when a glass of beer costs RM 5.90. After 10 pm the beer is priced at RM 7.80 per glass. Unusually for Kuching, the wines are quite affordable too. The Eagle's Nest serves good pub food and is spacious enough that you don't have to jostle for a seat at the bar or table. All good Pubs have must have a landlord with bags of character and the Eagle's Nest is no exception. The pub is owned by a group of people but Frank, one of the owners, is usually around. A former scientist turned businessman and now publican, Frank has a generous habit of buying customers the odd beer or sending over some free munchies.
Another shophouse pub situated in the same block as the Goal Cafe. I can't work this place out. It's packed on some nights and empty the next. There's a bar area inside and table and chairs on the pavement outside. Music policy is the usual Top 40 hits and MTV-type tunes.
TV screens everywhere showing satellite football coverage, friendly soccer-mad punters and beer. What more could a man want eh! Well, how about some 'Ryan Giggs lamb chops' from the footy themed menu of popular 'soak up the beer' dishes. Goal Cafe is an enjoyable little cafe/bar dedicated to football. It attracts a friendly crowd of unpretentious Kuchingites who just love their football. Saturday night is the English Premier League when a motley crew of informed commentators descends on the place to share their sporting passion and discuss the latest odds.
For serious drinkers this one. Don't expect much but do expect the cheapest drinks in Kuching, a few bar-stool characters (yeah, real specimens), a friendly atmosphere and the splendid Sim Kwang Yang, proprietor, former state opposition leader and well-read man of the world. The Hornbill is basically a steamboat restaurant with a bar attached. Aside from a few trophy girls glued to their boyfriends we are talking a female-free zone. Go for male bonding and rugby songs, or don't go at all. Satellite TV ensures a steady flow of punters for major sports events when everyone becomes an informed sports commentator. Watch out for Kuching's motley collection of Rugby enthusiasts (who also double up as cricket enthusiasts). They only know one song, they sing it repeatedly all night long. Sad, but if you burp a few chords you might be able to scab a free beer!
Perhaps the best hotel bar in Kuching. Take advantage of happy hours, as that's what everyone else does. Also take advantage of the endless supply of munchies that appear (perfect for lining the stomach). An after work 'fancy a beer' type rendezvous. When happy hour is over scoot somewhere else.
Don't be put off by the decor, it ain't as bad as it looks and its certainly wallet-friendly. A place for cheap drinks, the best tuak in town, darts and bar room banter. In essence a good place to sink a few before hitting the town. Ask Sali the manager for a free sample of Tuak. The first one is on the house, a shrewd move as you're sure to have another. The Tavern attracts a motley collection of locals, expats, tourists and even the odd pondan (transvestite). No-one bothers anybody else (except to buy the occasional beer for a total stranger) and everyone is made welcome. After a few rice wines you'll think you're in the bar from Star Wars.
At last Kuching can claim to have a proper pub. The Victoria Arms opened in February 1998 and is just what Kuching needs. It's a huge pub, tastefully furnished so that it looks like a Pub and not some over-designed theme bar with no atmosphere. There are endless nooks and crannies where you can sit down with friends for a quiet drink and a live band area for those who like it loud. As you'd expect from an English pub, draught beers are served in half pint and pint glasses. Local draught beers (e.g. Carlsberg, Tiger) are RM 9.90 for a half pint and RM 19 for pint which makes the Victoria arms the cheapest hotel bar/pub in town. In addition to local brews there's a whole range of imported beers and proper pub food, carefully chosen and lovingly served by Andy Law, a real English pub landlord. Satellite TV beamed onto huge screens makes the Victoria Arms an excellent place to watch big sporting events. All in all the Victoria Arms is well worth a visit.
A Blade-Runner meets shophouse pub theme with heaps of stainless steel and bare brick walls. Trying to be another Tavern but somehow doesn't quite hit it off. Pleasant crowd of regulars and the drinks are priced right which all adds up to an OK bar.
CLUBS, DISCOS & LATE NIGHT LIVE BAND BOOZERS
When it comes to clubs, well, let's just say that Kuching's Clubland could do with a good kick into gear. Choose from hotel discos and theme bars or one or two late night, low-life joints.
A late night, live band place with a bar area and huge armchairs positioned to face the stage. One of the better Live Band places in Kuching. Mostly features bands from the Philippines but seems to book the better ones. Bands that rely less on the girl's leopard skin leotards and the guy's cowboy boots and more on their ability to sing and entertain (a welcome change from the dodgy Live Music Pubs mentioned above).
The owner changes the name of this place every year or so and its amazing what a lick of paint can do for cash flow. Whether it is called 'Disco Cowboy Lounge', 'Marina Bar' or Jupiters this club-cum-pub-cum-disco retains its place as Kuching's late night 'nowhere else to go' dive. Jupiters attracts a steady flow of (young) clubbers and every gangster from miles around. Its a decidedly downmarket joint and a place for Kuching's apprentice clubbers to learn all the tricks of the clubbing trade. On Saturday nights it's packed with a bizarre mix of party dudes, drop-dead gorgeous girls, lads about town, nerds, low life and the tallest transvestites in Asia, all jostling for dance floor space. A live band plays until 1 or 2 (loud rock covers) then its disco-style until the last punter leaves and the young-pup of a DJ takes his shades off. To sum up, Jupitors plays crap music, has a dodgy band, a packed dancefloor, expensive drinks, occasional fights and totally inadequate air-con. Naturally, its a great place to head after a skinful, especially in the early hours of Sunday morning.
No wannabe version this. A longhouse-style barn of a bar decked out with the usual music-related wall hangings and a few unique exhibits. You may spot Eric Clapton's sape (the Orang Ulu guitar-type instrument that he is rumoured to have used for Tears in Heaven) and Keith Moon's set of sparkling brass gongs. The skulls suspended from the roof are believed to include those of Elvis Presley, Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix, although DNA tests have not confirmed this. Wednesday night is Men's Night. Free body-piercing and tattoos for the first ten men. Ladies Night is mobbed with young maidens who trek from as far as Kalimantan. Of course, they wouldn't bother if the management handed out the usual watered down tequilas or margaritas. No, potent rice wine served in dustbin-sized wooden drums is what attracts these well-muscled girls. The club also has a 'No Fat Expat' door policy (believed to be the first of its kind in Southeast Asia). Overweight, over-aged and over sexed, club-going Mat Sallehs are blow-piped on arrival. The most happening place in Borneo. Unfortunately it doesn't exist! It could work though . . .
In its heyday, PV's did more to get Kuching nightlife going than anywhere else. A policy of good house bands plus regular star guests kept the crowds coming. As did the set-up; PV's is situated at the beach, a nice touch that gives it a good clubby feel. Despite being a 40 minute drive from Kuching, punters used to flock to PVs, especially at weekends. In fact many people decided to stay over at Damai and make a weekend of it, a weekend that went something like this.
A theme restaurant & bar located in the Holiday Inn. Bar and dining areas around the side and a dancefloor in the middle. DJ plays chart hits and a bizarre collection of old tracks whilst the resident live band also play a few sets and requests. Tribes certainly has potential, the tribal theme and decor are great but the resident band don't really do the place justice. World Music instead of bland show band stuff would seem more appropriate. Sum Up: Tribal Decor works but music policy leaves a lot to be desired. The DJ needs to acknowledge that its the '90s and the resident band doesn't really fit in with the theme and surroundings. Could be one of the coolest world music bars in the world: alas it's not.
Warriors is basically a downmarket version of Tribes (at the Holiday Inn). Tribes came first and then Warriors copied Tribe?s concept of serving food and drinks in an outlet with a tribal theme. A downmarket joint with upmarket drinks prices, Warriors offers a live band and dark gloomy interiors to a late night crowd of zombies, desperadoes and assorted party people.
Kuching is packed with Karaoke joints, a testament to the popularity of this Japanese import. Where ever you go in town you just can't get away from a microphone and the accompanying low-budget videos. There are just too many karaokes in Kuching to list, or recommend. Many of these places are schizophrenic and don't quite know whether they are karaokes or pubs. You may walk into a place that you think is a reasonable pub, order a beer, and then lo and behold someone picks up a mike and you're in karaoke land. Fine if you like karaoke, not so great if don't.