With its beguiling tribal cultures and jungled highlands, Sarawak would seem to epitomize what Borneo is all about. By far the largest state in Malaysia, it packs in a host of national parks which showcase everything from coastal swamp forest to vast cave systems, and help preserve some of the world’s richest and most diverse ecosystems. There are numerous opportunities for short or extended treks both inside and outside these protected areas, and it’s also possible to visit remote longhouse communities, some of which can only be reached by venturing far upriver.

Would that the reality were so blissfully perfect. For all its attractions, Sarawak encapsulates the bitter dichotomy between development and conservation more clearly than anywhere else in Malaysia. Many of its forests have been degraded by logging or cleared for oil palm, putting wildlife and the traditional lifestyles of tribal communities under severe pressure. The state government has repeatedly won electoral mandates for its policies, but critics complain it has opened up Sarawak’s resources to corporate exploitation in a way that’s at best not transparent and at worst mired in corruption. While much of this will have little practical impact for visitors, it’s as well to be aware that the changes you will see throughout the state have a subtext in the ongoing struggle for Sarawak’s soul.

The lie of the land is complex on many levels, not least demographically. Malays and Chinese each make up almost a quarter of Sarawak’s two and a half million people, but indigenous tribal peoples account for nearly half that figure. They’re sometimes subdivided under three broad headings, though it’s nowadays much more common to refer to the tribes by name. The largest tribe by far, the Iban, constitute nearly thirty percent of Sarawak’s population. They, along with the Muslim Melanau and other tribes, comprise the so-called Sea Dyaks, a slightly odd name given that these groups historically lived along river valleys. Then there are the Land Dyaks, who live up in the hills; chief among them are the Bidayuh of southwestern Sarawak, representing almost a tenth of the population. Finally, the Orang Ulu include disparate groups of the northern interior such as the Berawan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Kayan and the traditionally nomadic Penan. They’re grouped together in that they live in the “ulu” or upriver regions of this part of the state.

While this cultural mosaic is a huge highlight of Sarawak, it would be a mistake to regard the state as some kind of ethnic menagerie full of exotically dressed peoples leading a rustic jungle lifestyle. Classic multi-doored longhouses do survive and can be superb places to visit, and some peoples still subsist semi-nomadically in the forest, but social and economic change, along with widespread conversion to Christianity, mean that the old ways are fast dying out. So while there’s no shortage of indigenous people pursuing careers in Sarawak’s cities, you’d be hard-pushed to find Orang Ulu aged under 50 still sporting, say, the once-prized distended earlobes that previous generations developed by wearing heavy earrings, and teenagers are more likely to be downloading Western pop than playing folk instruments. There are fears, too, for the future of indigenous languages, as only Malay and English are used in much state-run education.

For visitors, the most popular attractions are concentrated at either end of the state. In the southwest, Kuching, the understated, attractive capital, makes a perfect base to explore the superb Bako National Park, with its wild shoreline of mangrove swamp and hinterland of kerangas bush teeming with proboscis monkeys. The Kuching area also packs in lesser national parks, an orang-utan sanctuary and substantial caves. Although Sarawak is not noted for its beaches, there are beautiful ones in Bako and decent ones nearer Kuching at the family-friendly resorts of Santubong. A handful of longhouses are also worth visiting, notably east of Kuching at Batang Ai.

In terms of pulling power, Bako is exceeded only by Gunung Mulu National Park (just “Mulu” to locals) in the far northeast. Most tourists fly in, either making the short hop from nearby Miri, Sarawak’s second city, or direct from Kuching, to trek to the park’s limestone Pinnacles and see its extraordinary caves. Miri itself, though a bland affair that thrives on the proceeds of Sarawak’s oil and gas industry, has good accommodation and is the hub for Twin Otter flights to interior settlements, most notably Bario and Ba’ Kelalan in the Kelabit Highlands. Here, close to the Indonesian border, you can undertake extended treks through jungled and mountainous terrain, overnighting in Kelabit villages. Other Twin Otter flights head to settlements in the upper reaches of the Baram river system, from where it’s possible to reach isolated Penan villages offering homestays and yet more treks. Another major draw, visitable on a day-trip from Miri, is Niah National Park, its extensive caves a site of major archeological significance as well as a centre for the harvesting of swiflet nests and bat guano.

Visitors who overland between Kuching and Miri tend to breeze through central Sarawak, but the region is worth considering for the state’s most accessible river journey – the popular route along the Batang Rejang. The boat ride, beginning at the city of Sibu, is its own reward for making it up to nondescript Rejang towns such as Kapit and Belaga, though it’s possible to arrange longhouse trips from either. Also noteworthy in this region is Bintulu, a coastal oil town like Miri that’s conveniently placed for the beachside forests of Similajau National Park.

Brief history

Cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers were living in Sarawak forty thousand years ago. Their isolation ended when the first trading boats arrived from Sumatra and Java around 3000 BC, exchanging cloth and pottery for jungle produce. By the thirteenth century Chinese merchants were dominant, bartering beads and porcelain with the coastal Melanau people for bezoar stones (from the gall bladders of monkeys) and birds’ nests, both considered aphrodisiacs. In time, the traders were forced to deal with the rising power of the Malay sultans including the Sultan of Brunei. Meanwhile, Sarawak was attracting interest from Europe; the Dutch and English established short-lived trading posts near Kuching in the seventeenth century, to obtain pepper and other spices.

With the decline of the Brunei sultanate, civil war erupted early in the eighteenth century. Local rulers feuded, while piracy threatened to destroy what was left of the trade in spices, animals and minerals. In addition, the indigenous groups’ predilection for head-hunting had led to a number of deaths among the traders and the sultan’s officials, and violent territorial confrontations between powerful tribes were increasing.

The White Rajahs

Just when matters were at their most explosive, the Englishman James Brooke took an interest in the area. A former soldier, he helped the Sultan of Brunei quell a rebellion by miners and, as a reward, demanded sovereignty over the area around Kuching. The weakened sultan had little choice but to relinquish control of the awkward territory and in 1841 James Brooke was installed as the first White Rajah of Sarawak. He had essentially created a new kingdom, not formally part of the British Empire.

Brooke built a network of small forts – many are now museums – to repel pirates or tribal warring parties. He also sent officials into the malarial swamps and mountainous interior to make contact with the Orang Ulu. But his administration was not without its troubles. In one incident his men killed dozens of marauding tribesmen, while in 1857 Hakka Chinese gold miners, based in Bau near Kuching, retaliated against his attempts to eliminate their trade in opium and suppress their secret societies. When they attacked Kuching, Brooke got away by the skin of his teeth. His nephew, Charles Brooke, assembled a massive force of warrior tribesmen and followed the miners; in the ensuing battle over a thousand Chinese were killed.

In 1863 Charles Brooke took over and continued to acquire territory from the Sultan of Brunei. River valleys were bought for a few thousand pounds, the local tribes either persuaded to enter into deals or crushed if they resisted. The sultan’s territory had shrunk so much it was now surrounded on all three sides by Brooke’s Sarawak, establishing the geographical boundaries that still define Brunei today.

Charles was succeeded by his son, Vyner Brooke, who consolidated his father’s gains. However, the Japanese occupation of World War II effectively put an end to his control. Vyner escaped, but most of his officials were interned and some executed. Upon his return in 1946, he was compelled to cede Sarawak to the British government. The Brooke dynasty was effectively at an end, and a last link with its past was severed in 2011 when Vyner’s nephew Anthony Brooke, his designated successor who had briefly run Sarawak before World War II while Vyner was in the UK, died.

To the present

With Malaysian independence in 1957, attempts were made to include Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, but Brunei declined at the last minute to join the present-day Federation of Malaysia, inaugurated in 1963. Sarawak’s inclusion was opposed by Indonesia, and the Konfrontasi broke out, with Indonesia arming communist guerrillas inside Sarawak. The insurgency continued for three years until Malaysian troops, aided by the British, put it down. To this day, many inhabitants of the interior remain displaced.

Since then, Sarawak has developed apace with the rest of Malaysia, though at some cost to the environment. Politically, the state today is closely identified with the policies of its veteran chief minister, Taib Mahmud, a Melanau, who has been in power for thirty years. The support of his PBB party and allied parties has helped prop up the ruling coalition in general elections, and the PBB is often viewed as a proxy for UMNO (Sarawak is the only state where Malaysia’s main Malay party has no presence). There are signs of a backlash, however, brought on perhaps by the rising cost of living, economic disparity and allegations, from international environmental groups as well as Taib’s opponents, that Sarawak’s administration is tainted by corruption. The 2011 local elections saw an unprecedented swing to the opposition in the cities, though the PBB and allies still won through comfortably with the help of rural voters – despite their supposedly being at the sharp end of the government’s liberal attitude to exploiting the state’s natural resources.

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