3 Reasons to Get Off the Beaten Track in Sarawak
Featured destinations: Malaysia
Published 22 June 2016
Until a few months ago I had never heard of Sarawak – one of the two Malaysian states of Borneo. To be perfectly honest, I think I would have even failed to locate Borneo on a map. So when I got the chance to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Sarawak for a whirlwind four-day trip of the region, I apprehensively and excitedly said yes!
Sarawak, known locally as the ‘Land of the Hornbills,’ is a truly off-the-beaten-track destination situated in the northwest of Borneo. Unlike its other Southeast Asian counterparts, it is relatively unknown by western tourism, despite being almost the same size as the whole of Peninsular Malaysia and over half the size of the UK.
Its lack of mass tourism though is one of Sarwak’s charms, leaving it to be a lush and tropical paradise where beaches are crowd-free, foreigners are welcomed with respect and kindness by friendly locals and wildlife watching isn’t limited to zoos.
In the short time I spent there, I managed a jam-packed itinerary including the capital city Kuching (its name derives from the Malay word for cat, "kucing"), the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, the Santubong National Park and the coastal villages around Damai Beach. During this time I found many reasons to return to Sarawak for a longer trip.
Here are just three of them:
Fresh and full of flavour, Sarawakian cuisine draws influences from traditional Malay, Chinese and Indonesian food. Compared to the food in Peninsular Malaysia, the dishes in Sarawak are lighter and simpler, typically featuring a lot of seafood and unique wild ingredients such as jungle fern (midin), wild ginger and torch ginger buds (bunga kantan). Bamboo stalks and banana leaves are often used for cooking.
My favourite dish that I tried was the Sarawak Laksa, a creamy fish soup made from fresh shrimp, clams, scallops, fish balls, sambal (chilli paste), lime, local Sarawak pepper and other Malaysian spices.
Another highlight was the chicken and pork satay, a Malaysian specialty of skewered marinated meat, chargrilled over mangrove wood charcoals and served with a traditional spicy peanut sauce. Kolo mee (a broth of egg noodles, garlic and minced pork), tomato kueh teow (stir-fried flat noodles in a tomato soup) and Chendol (shaved ice with coconut milk, palm sugar and rice flour jelly) are other popular local dishes.
For the best and most authentic Sarawakian food in Kuching I recommend visiting the Satok Weekend Market and Carpenter Street temple food court.
With thick rainforests bursting with wildlife, Sarawak is definitely a place for animal lovers. To get the full and authentic wildlife experience, I recommend visiting the Damai Beach area for a sunset cruise along the Santubong and Salak Rivers. Not only can you see an incredible sunset, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to spy Sarawak’s diverse wildlife including Irrawaddy dolphins, saltwater crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and hornbills.
Sarawak’s most famous inhabitants of the forests though are orangutans. These great apes are native to Indonesia and Malaysia, but nowadays can only be found in Borneo and Sumatra. I was lucky enough to see them at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a sanctuary located 16 miles southwest of central Kuching. The reserve was established in 1975 to rehabilitate ex-captive orangutans and return them to the wild. Watching these incredible creatures - including Ritchie, a 34-year-old alpha male, Sadamia, a 14-year-old mother and her baby Ruby - in their habitat was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While I loved the food and adored the wildlife, my most beautiful memories of Sarawak are the ones connected to the local people, who are incredibly warm, friendly and hospitable.
Sarawak is home to an incredible range of diverse ethnic groups (40 in total), each with their own distinct culture, language and lifestyle. The Iban people claims the largest population, followed by Chinese and Malay. Other main ethic groups include the Orang Ulu, who live mostly in the uphill areas of Sarawak; the Bidayuh, whose name means “People of the Land”, are found in southern Sarawak; and the Melanau (thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak) are a tribe of sailors and fishermen.
Sarawak’s biggest festival is Gawai, which takes place at the end of May to celebrate harvest, particularly rice. It’s an Iban celebration and if you visit a long house during Gawai you will need to drink a shot of 'tuak' rice wine before entering the Iban’s homes.
A great way to understand the region’s incredibly diverse culture is to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, a large site populated by members of the different ethnic groups, located 45 minutes’ drive from Kuching. At the village you can explore the heritage of Sarawak’s tribes, visit the traditional longhouses, admire local artifacts such as weaving, tattoos and bamboo carvings, learn how to shoot a Penan blowpipe and watch Iban dancers perform the traditional ngajat.
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