Endowed with rich biodiversity, fascinating indigenous cultures and spectacular natural beauty, the East Malaysian state of Sarawak has seduced explorers and thrill-seekers for centuries. Here’s a sampling of the state’s regional offerings.
Words: Kerry Ann Augustin Images: Sarawak Tourism Board, Chew Win Win, Albert Wong, 123RF, Jeephotography
You could spend millennia exploring Sarawak and still discover something new. Breathtakingly beautiful, the state in Malaysian Borneo is a jewel among Asia’s gems. Its pristine coastlines, lush rainforests, abundant wildlife, natural parks and extraordinary caves are all woven into the cultural tapestry of the many indigenous communities who call it home.
Nicknamed ‘Land of the Hornbills’, the state is the largest in Malaysia, almost equivalent in size to the mass of land that makes up the entire Peninsular Malaysia. Because of its sheer size, the state is split into 12 divisions across three regions – its dynamic capital, Kuching, lies in the south; port and river towns thrive in central Sarawak; while the cool highlands are found in the north – all of these possess an abundance of wealth in different forms.
There are myriad ways to explore the magic and mystique of Sarawak, but here are some of our favourities – from the state’s most renowned spots to places slightly off the beaten track. Either way, you’ll wish you had millennia to see it all.
Kuching Urban Sketch Crawl
Kuching’s Urban Sketchers facebook.com/groups/USkKuching community welcomes people of all backgrounds to get to know their city, by sketching it. Pioneered by Seattle-based journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario in 2007, the global Urban Sketchers movement encourages storytelling through sketching on location. Groups meet, explore and sketch different parts of a city – sometimes traversing neighbourhoods, abandoned buildings and local haunts that may not pop up on tourist maps or tours. Travellers who have tried it swear by it; sketching allows a person to capture a moment through personal perspective, offering a deeper sense of a place. Unlike photographs, sketching by hand forces people to slow down and live in the moment, capturing details a person may not notice through the lens of a camera. Kuching Urban Sketch Crawl sessions take place on the first Sunday of every month, and you are welcome to join the group even if your best artwork is that of a stickman!
Sarawak Cultural Village
The Sarawak Cultural Village scv.com.my is undoubtedly one of Kuching’s most popular attractions. Apart from playing host to the globally-renowned Rainforest World Music Festival every year, this living museum has bagged multiple awards since it first opened in 1989. Stretching over seven hectares, with the majestic Mt Santubong as its backdrop, the cultural village houses seven different traditional dwellings – the longhouses of the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu; a Melanau tall house; a Penan hut; a Malay townhouse; and a Chinese farmhouse. Each dwelling is inhabited by members of these communities who proudly don their ethnic attire and carry out traditional activities, giving visitors a glimpse into Sarawak’s rich history and culture. The site is also equipped with a theatre where guests can enjoy spectacular cultural performances, a handicraft shop, a herbal plant garden, and a restaurant serving up indigenous fare, as well as local favourites such as Sarawak laksa (rice vermicelli in an aromatic broth topped with shredded chicken, omelette strips and prawns) and kolok mee (noodles tossed with shallot oil).
Batang Ai Iban Longhouse
Batang Ai in the Sri Aman district has long been considered one of the oldest Iban settlements in Sarawak, and the best place to experience the Iban way of life in its most authentic form. This remote area is a five-hour journey by road from Kuching, but to get to this Iban heartland, visitors need to travel the old school way – by narrow wooden boat. En route to the longhouses of Ulu Ai and Nanga Sumpa, visitors are treated to lunch by cascading waterfalls. Upon reaching their destination, visitors can learn firsthand about life in a longhouse. The Iban are proud to share their heritage and way of life, and tours often include fishing trips, where fish is caught the traditional way, as well as a sampling of Iban fare prepared with jungle produce.
The sleepy port town of Sri Aman comes alive during the biannual Pesta Benak when villagers and visitors ride wild waves as high as 8m. Benak (tidal bores) are an enthralling, natural phenomenon that occurs when there is a constriction of tides entering narrow, shallow inlets like Batang Lupar. During the festival, many make their way to Taman Panorama Benak, the main vantage point, to observe the power of the waves. Considered to be one of the top 10 tidal bores in the world, Batang Lupar’s waves attract visitors from across the globe. Activities include the traditional sport of longboat paddling, standup paddle surfing and tidal bore surfing.
Measuring a massive 6m in length, Sarawak’s infamous and once elusive crocodile Bujang Senang terrorised communities living along the banks of Batang Lupar for decades before it was finally captured in 1992. Its skull is now displayed at the Sarawak State Museum in Kuching.
Sibu Central Market
No trip to Sibu is complete without strolling along the alleys of Sibu’s Central Market. Prior to the market’s completion in 1996, Sibu’s wet and dry markets were scattered across town, some operating from shacks lining the Sungai Lembangan. But a fire in the early 1990s razed these stalls, prompting the Sibu Municipal Council to rebuild a market over the river. Measuring a mammoth 18,704sqm, this six-storey building is Malaysia’s biggest indoor market. The upper three floors are occupied by the Urban Transformation Centre (UTC), while the second floor serves as a hawker food paradise. The draw of the market, however, rests on the ground floor. Here, more than 1,300 stalls sell myriad items from indigenous crafts to Sibu’s best produce, which includes local delicacies such as umai (raw fish salad), si’et (sago grub) and popular snacks like tebaloi (sago biscuit).
Fuzhou Food Heritage
When Fuzhou revolutionary leader and educationist Wong Nai Siong landed on the shores of Sibu in 1900, he realised that the area’s vast tracts of undeveloped land and a scarce population made it perfect for resettlement. Later that year, he brought with him migrants from his hometown of Fujian, China, and by 1902, Sibu became one of the biggest Fuzhou settlements outside China, earning the town the moniker ‘The New Fuzhou’. The Fuzhou have been an integral part of Sibu’s boom, pioneering many industries over the last 117 years. Part of their legacy also lies in Sibu’s culinary heritage. Fuzhou favourites like kompia (bagel biscuit); kampua mee (handmade dry noodles tossed in pork lard oil); richly herbal red wine mee sua (wheat flour vermicelli); delectable sour and savoury preserved vegetable noodle soup; prawn noodles with gigantic fresh river prawns; light yet flavourful dian bian hu (seafood soup) and addictive stir-fried sticky rice cake can be found in Sibu. As dusk sets in, foodies can trawl through Sibu’s lively night market sandwiched between Jalan Lintang and Jalan Bengkel for Fuzhou-style meat dumplings, steamed buns and muffins.
The World Fuzhou Heritage Gallery in Sibu, which features a collection of items such as rice barrels, straw raincoats and iron kettles brought by the original Fuzhou settlers in the early 1900s, is touted as the biggest gallery of Fuzhou heritage in the world, in terms of the number of exhibits.
Lamin Dana lamindana.com, a cultural boutique lodge in the Melanau heartland of Mukah district, rests along the banks of Sungai Telian – the cradle of Melanau civilisation and the lifeline of the community, who are mostly sago producers and fishermen. It is here that former journalist and Lamin Dana owner Diana Rose has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to build one of Sarawak’s most immersive cultural experiences. Crafted in the style of the traditional Melanau tall house, the lodge sits in the centre of centuries-old Kampung Telian, a village connected via wooden bridges over meandering waterways, and framed by sago palms. Boat tours downriver, visits to sago processing homes, and the array of Melanau specialties served at Lamin Dana offer visitors a glimpse into the history and heritage of the community.
Sago Processing, Kampung Medong
Sago is the main staple of the Melanau community, who use it to make soups, desserts and a host of savoury offerings. However, there’s no better way to appreciate this starch than by watching how it is processed the traditional way – something of a rarity in this era. A little wooden house in the scenic township of Dalat is where you will find the ladies of Kampung Medong tending to the long, labourious process of making sago pellets from scratch – from sieving sago powder to creating perfect tiny orbs, and roasting them on an open wood-fire oven made with clay and bricks. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to bite into sago pellets (considered the most refined in the state) fresh from the oven when they are still warm and crunchy, and with a wheat biscuit-like flavour. And if the heat in the house gets a little too overwhelming, pop out to enjoy the gentle breeze, and take in views of Sungai Oya, a river that meanders through the village.
Mulu National Park
Sarawak’s biggest national park – one of only four UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites in Malaysia – is a haven for adventure seekers. The 52,864-hectare Mulu National Park mulunationalpark.com features a spectrum of flora and fauna, spellbinding limestone karst formations, mega-sized caves, seemingly endless cave networks and razor sharp rock pinnacles. While it is home to the Mulu Canopy Walk (one of the longest in the world at 480m), and three mountains, the park is most famous for its incredible caves. At 2km wide and more than 120m high, the Deer Cave is said to be one of the world’s biggest cave passages, while Clearwater Cave has one of the longest cave systems in Southeast Asia, spanning an incredible 222km. Of all the jaw-dropping sites at the park, the highlight is the Sarawak Chamber, which holds the distinction of being the largest natural rock chamber on the planet, said to be able to fit 40 Boeing 747 aircraft!
Mention diving in Miri and you’ll be greeted with a confused look, unless of course you are one of the few who have discovered the district’s best-kept secret. The Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park is a sprawling 186,930 hectares of pristine waters with close to 40 dive sites. With a visibility of anywhere between 10 to 30 metres and teeming with dazzling marine life, Miri is considered one of the foremost places for diving in the region – this is also where divers can swim alongside whale sharks, a rare sight in Malaysian waters. For the more adventurous, Miri’s old oil rigs and WWII shipwrecks offer exhilarating dive experiences.
The district of Limbang turns into a hive of activity every year in June, as the Bisaya community celebrates their harvest festival called Pesta Babulang. Over two days, the Bisaya from Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei congregate to enjoy a feast of traditional food, colourful cultural performances, traditional games, and the most anticipated part of the event: water buffalo races – a tradition that began as a form of entertainment for villagers after a long day of toiling in the paddy fields. There are no such things as saddles, boots or helmets; the Bisaya hop onto their water buffalos and ride them to the finish line amid cheers from spectators. The kerbau (water buffalo) carries deep cultural symbolism for the Bisaya – these gentle creatures have played a significant role in this agrarian community for centuries and are also part and parcel of important Bisaya traditions, such as welcoming births, and are gifted as dowry.
Bakelalan, home to the Lun Bawang people, comprises nine villages that sit in a remote valley situated 914m above sea level. With emerald paddy fields, crystal-clear streams and mist-shrouded hills, the Lun Bawang settlement in the north of Sarawak is rich in natural beauty, but its greatest asset is its salt springs and licks that provide the Lun Bawang their trade and treasure. Even after hundreds of years, the garam bukit or hill salt found in abundance here remains the main source of income for the highlanders. Known to be rich in iodine, the white-powdery salt produced here is still made the traditional way: salt water is collected from the springs, then boiled in an iron drum over a wood-fired clay oven for a few days till the salt crystallises. You can find Bakelalan hill salt in bigger towns like Miri, where it remains popular among the more health-conscious, but there’s nothing quite like heading to Bakelalan yourself to experience this age-old cottage craft.
Grain of Life
Bario rice, which grows in the Kelabit highlands in the north of Sarawak, is cultivated by hand and grown without pesticides. The Slow Food Foundation – an international grassroots organisation established to protect agricultural biodiversity and food traditions and culture – lists Bario rice as a product under The Ark of Taste, a catalogue of endangered heritage foods.
A BIG THANK YOU travel360 wishes to thank the Sarawak Tourism Board, Evangeline Thian of Into The Wild Borneo, Patrick Ling of Greatown Travel and Albert Wong for their invaluable support in producing this story.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri from various destinations. airasia.com