Sarawak is located on the world’s largest island of Borneo, and with a total area of some 125 000 square km., it is the largest state in Malaysia. It is as large as the whole of England, and with Sabah, comprises what is known as East Malaysia.
Contrary to what a lot of the Western media would have you believe, much of the state is still virgin jungle, however, there is certainly evidence of logging.
Sarawak is a tourist destination poised to take its rightful place among the preferred destinations for those seeking culture, nature and adventure tourism. Visitors will leave Sarawak having enjoyed a host of memorable experiences.
In Sarawak, thick jungles are only a few steps from the luxurious resorts. Modern amenities are readily available, even deep in the jungle. Sarawak offers a fresh alternative than can be visited either on its own, or as a perfect complement to a trip to West Malaysia, Sabah or other Asian destinations.
Sarawak is riddled by rivers. In Sarawak, to travel up river by boat and watch the changing panorama of longhouses, forests, towns and farms is to catch the essence of travelling in the Borneo of old. Sarawak is one of the oldest areas settled by man in South-East Asia, with evidence being found at Niah Caves in the Northern Central region of Sarawak, of human occupation some 40 000 years ago. Trade and archaeological evidence indicates that Borneo was part of the ancient Asian trade routes. Antique Chinese and Indian artefacts can still be found throughout Borneo today.
In Sarawak, you can enjoy trips to the various tribal areas of the Iban, Bidayuh, Dayak and Orangulu. Borneo was the home of some of the last of the world’s headhunters. It is only about forty years or so since the last heads were taken by some members of the Iban tribes of Sarawak. Relics of the headhunting days can still be seen in some of the villages. The tourist can participate in a visit to the longhouse – the original condominium, where the population of entire villages live together in one long building which has separate sleeping, living and eating quarters. You will enjoy a meal or a drink with the local people while they show you some of their culture. Hospitality to visitors is a way of life in the longhouse.
The capital of Sarawak is Kuching which is derived from the Malay word meaning cat. It is one of the region’s best kept secrets, being small enough to be seen in its entirety at a leisurely stroll. Many of the old colonial buildings dating from the time of the “White Rajahs” (1841-1941), can be found mixed with Islamic and Hokkien Chinese architecture throughout the city. Like many towns in Borneo, Kuching grew along the river (in this instance, the Sarawak River), the artery of traffic and trade in the days of sailing boats. It is still possible to hire a sampan and drift along the river to soak up the atmosphere. One of the favourite meeting places in Kuching is the recently completed waterfront promenade which has been beautifully landscaped with gardens, restaurants and entertainment facilities.
Aerial View of Kuching
Kuching’s oldest street, Main Bazaar, is composed of perfectly preserved traditional Chinese shophouses. One of the finest examples of Colonial architecture is the Sarawak Museum building which reputedly houses one of the best collections in the whole of South-East Asia. The collection includes a superb ethnographic section and gives an outline of Sarawak’s history. A visit to the museum will give the visitor an important insight into life in the villages of Borneo, the various tribes of the region and wonderful displays of the region’s flora and fauna.
Kuching is possibly the best place in the whole of Borneo to purchase artefacts and handicrafts from the entire region, particularly in the shops along Main Bazaar. Prices are not fixed – bargaining is considered normal practice.
From Kuching, access is possible to a number of nearby National Parks, including the oldest National Park at Bako, located less than an hour’s drive from the city. Bako offers nearly 3000 ha of stunning coastal scenery and a great diversity of plant and wildlife. It is said that it is possible to see almost every type of vegetation in Borneo in the park. It is one of the best places in Sarawak for a wild life experience. The park is home to approximately 150 Proboscis Monkeys, while Long-tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, common monitor lizards, plantain squirrel, bearded pigs and mouse deer are all found in the park, as well as the Borneon Bearded Pig, various otters, and reptiles such as monitors, pythons and snakes. There are also over 150 species of birds recorded in the park.
Proboscis Monkey at Bako National Park
Within a two hour drive of Kuching are other National Parks at Gunung Gading with its rugged mountains, waterfalls and flora, including the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia; and Kubah with rolling sandstone hills, crystal clear streams and waterfalls, and a rich dipterocarp rainforest.
From Kuching, tours can be easily undertaken to the interior of the country to visit longhouse villages, travelling by bus and longboat. One of the popular longhouse trips from Kuching is to the villages on the Skrang River, approximately 250 km from Kuching, and not far from the town of Enkilili near the border with Kalimantan. En route, you will pass by numerous pepper and oil palm plantations, and of course the ubiquitous rice paddy fields. Pepper is a very important cash crop for the villages. The 45 minute trip up the Skrang River by longboat is a highlight of the trip.
Batang Ai Resort
For those with more time to spare, it is possible to venture to one of the most interesting resorts to be found in the world. The Hilton hotel chain has constructed a resort on the shores of the Batang Ai reservoir in the style of the local Iban longhouses. It is the only Hilton resort of this type anywhere in the world. The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is reached after a four hour drive from Kuching, and a 15 minute boat trip across the lake. Access is only possible by boat. The resort is located in the chain of mountains which form the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan. The resort has its own secondary growth rainforest adjoining the property which can be explored at your leisure. Beyond the lake, visitors can see wonderful dipterocarp forests with drooping trees overhanging the river. In this area, the primary means of transport is by boat. You will be able to join in one of the many boat tours from the resort to nearby longhouses or venture further upriver to Batang Ai National Park, about two hours from the resort.
Batang Ai National Park is a fascinating place to find wildlife, such as the orang-utan, hornbills and gibbons. Part of the adventure is getting there. The park is located more than an hour upriver from the Resort. The trip up the river by longboat is a worthwhile trip on its own. You will be amazed as the skilled boatman manoeuvres the longboat through the rapids of the Batang Ai River. If there is sufficient water in the river, you will travel up the rapids. When the water level is low, you may have to get out to help to push the boat upstream. The best time for a trip to the park is during the fruiting season in October/November, however, it is possible that you will see, hear or smell orang-utan at any time of the year.
Boat trip to Batang Ai NP
Close by to the park are a number of less visited longhouses which are happy to receive visitors. As with all longhouses, you will be able to look at, and purchase, locally made handicrafts and artefacts, and experience a little of the life in the longhouse as the traditional lifestyle is still, today, practiced by the longhouse dwellers.
One of the most impressive national parks in Borneo is the Gunung Mulu National The park is a World Heritage Area, covering an impressive 52000 ha. dominated by the spectacular peak of Gunung Mulu. It has an exceptional level of biological diversity with over 3500 species of plants recorded, including specialised orchids, pitcher plants, palms and gingers. local fauna includes deer, monkeys, giant porcupine, civets and all of Borneo’s hornbills. Mulu is also known for its system of over 300 km of limestone caves – four of which (the show caves) are open for inspection. Mulu has some of the largest and most spectacular caves in the world. The Sarawak Chamber in the Clearwater Cave is the world’s largest single cave chamber, while the Deer Cave has the world’s largest cave corridor from which a flight of bats exits each evening around sunset.
Gunung Mulu dominates the area
Mulu Resort on the Melinau River
The park is accessed by air with direct flights from Kuching and Miri in Sarawak amd Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Located on the banks of the Melinau River, the Royal Mulu Resort has been open since the late 1990s, and offers resort style accommodation. The resort is built on 3 metre high stilts and designed in the style of the local longhouses. The river wraps around the resort like a moat, and is visible from most rooms.
The “show caves” – Deer Cave, Langs Cave, Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave, are truly spectacular and form part of the largest limestone cave system in the world. The Deer Cave boasts the world’s largest cave passage (over 100 metres high and 120 metres wide), while the Clearwater Cave boasts the longest cave in South-East Asia.
The park has an exceptional level of biological diversity with over 3500 species of plants recorded, including 170 species of wild orchid and 10 species of pitcher plants, as well as palms and gingers. The park contains 15 different types of forest – including mixed dipterocarp rainforest, heath, peat, swamp, moss forest and montane vegetation – and thousands of species of ferns , fungi, mosses and flowering plants.
Mulu’s wildlife is as impressive as its flora, and is inhabited by an impressive variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and other invertebrates, including deer, monkeys, giant porcupine, civets and all of Borneo’s hornbills.
A note about visiting Longhouses (this applies to any Longhouse in Borneo)
Longhouse Dos and Don’ts
Observing a few simple rules will ensure that your hosts enjoy the visit as much as you do.
- Never enter a longhouse without asking permission first.
- If you arrive unannounced, always ask for the Tuai Rumah or headman’s apartment.
- Always remove your shoes when entering a longhouse.
- Never push away food or drink offered to you. If you wish to decline, touch the plate or glass gently with your right hand.
- The Tuai Rumah, or headman, is a person of considerable importance. Always treat him with the respect his position deserves.
- If invited to bathe in the river, always wear a sarong or a non-revealing swimming costume. Never bathe where members of the opposite sex are bathing.
- If on an organised tour, always follow your tour guide’s instructions.
- Never distribute gifts to individuals, especially children. Always present gifts to the Tuai Rumah, who will ensure that they are distributed fairly throughout the community.