Sarawak Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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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.

Central Sarawak

For travellers, central Sarawak offers rather slim pickings compared to Kuching’s hinterland and the north of the state. Those visitors who venture here tend to be drawn by the prospect of travelling into the interior along the Rejang (also spelled Rajang), Malaysia’s longest river. All such trips start from the bustling city of Sibu, some 50km inland near where another major river, the Igan, splits away from the Rejang. Express boats depart daily to zip up the Rejang to Kapit, beyond which, through the Pelagus Rapids and on to the sleepy town of Belaga, eight hours from Sibu, the Rejang becomes wild and unpredictable and the scenery spectacular. There’s not much to do in either Kapit or Belaga though, and while there are longhouse communities near both, as well as east of Kapit along the Balui River, public transport is thin on the ground, so it’s best to regard the Rejang journey as an end in itself or else fork out for (pricey) local guides to arrange trips for you.

With Sibu being so far from the sea, and the coast here dominated by mangrove swamp, the main trunk road runs deep inland until it finally hits the coast again at Bintulu. Halfway along, a side road leads off through a chink in the vegetation to the coastal town of Mukah, which has an appealing museum-cum-guesthouse nearby. Bintulu itself is a nondescript but (thanks to oil and gas) prosperous town, whose main attraction is as a base for Similajau National Park, easily reached yet appealingly quiet.

The Bakun Dam

The massive Bakun hydroelectric dam (wsarawak-hidro.com), 37km east of Belaga on the Balui tributary of the Rejang, has been dogged by controversy since the project got the go-ahead in the 1990s. The 200-metre-high dam was designed to generate 2400 megawatts – much more power than Sarawak could use – but construction would flood an area of rainforest the size of Singapore, displacing ten thousand Orang Ulu and destroying many thriving longhouses.

Furious environmentalists and human-rights campaigners asked what was the point, and for years their concerns seemed vindicated as the dam was beset by delays. First, the Asian economic crisis of 1997 put the project on hold, but even so the government continued to resettle local communities to Asap, two hours’ drive along the logging road connecting Belaga with the coast. When construction resumed it lumbered on until, in mid-2011, the dam finally began operation. However, it will not run at anything near capacity, since there is still no obvious market for the surplus power (one idea, to lay a submarine cable to Peninsular Malaysia, would be technically challenging and prohibitively expensive). Despite this, yet another dam is already being built just upriver at Long Murum, and there’s talk of building yet more dams on the Rejang and Baram rivers.

Attempts have already begun to create tourist facilities at the dam lake, as has been tried with limited success at Batang Ai and Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu. Sibu’s tourist office has details of a Kenyah longhouse that accepts guests, and whose inhabitants have a fishing lodge on the lake itself.

Up the Batang Rejang

Even though it’s a much diminished experience compared to even ten or fifteen years ago, a journey to the upper reaches of the Rejang should still engender a little frisson of excitement. This area was, after all, once synonymous with remoteness and with mysterious warring tribes. Even a century ago, conflict persisted between the Iban and the Orang Ulu, particularly the Kayan. Things had been much worse before the arrival of the Brookes, who wanted to develop – and therefore subjugate – the interior. To that end, James Brooke bought a section of the Rejang from the Sultan of Brunei in 1853, while his successor, Charles, asserted his authority over the Iban and Kayan tribes and encouraged the Chinese to open up the interior to agriculture and trade.

Thus began the gradual pacification of the Rejang. Even today, despite development and modern communications, it’s still possible to glimpse something of that pioneer spirit in these upriver towns, while forts at Kanowit and Kapit hint at the lengths taken by the Brookes to get the region under their thumb. The furthest boats go upriver is the nondescript town of Belaga, reached by a thrilling ride through the Pelagus Rapids. There is, however, another exciting route into or out of Belaga – by 4WD, the road connecting up with the main trunk road near Bintulu. Unfortunately longhouse visits can be difficult to pull off – notable exceptions are a family-friendly longhouse near Kanowit and possible excursions from Belaga – unless you are willing to pay often steep sums for guides to make the arrangements.

Belaga

Belaga-bound boats make frequent stops upriver from Kapit, and some passengers decamp to the roof for views of longhouses as the Rejang narrows. Forty minutes from Kapit, the Pelagus Rapids is an 800m-long, deceptively shallow stretch of the river where large, submerged stones make the through passage treacherous. According to local belief, the rapids’ seven sections represent the seven segments of an enormous serpent that was chopped up and floated downriver by villagers to the north. Further upriver, the population shifts from being largely Iban to featuring a mix of other tribes, including the Kayan and Kenyah.

Five hours on from Kapit, the boat finally reaches tiny BELAGA, 40km west of the confluence of the Rejang and the Balui. The town started life as a small bazaar, and by 1900 pioneering Chinese towkays were supplying the tribespeople – both the Kayan and the then-nomadic Punan and Penan – with kerosene, cooking oil and cartridges, in exchange for beadwork and mats, beeswax, ebony and tree gums. The British presence in this region was nominal; Belaga has no crumbling fort to serve as a museum, as no fort was built this far upriver.

The first sight that confronts new arrivals climbing the steps from the riverbank is the town’s slightly shabby tennis and basketball court. Next door a small garden serves as the town square, containing a hornbill statue atop a traditional-style round pillar bearing tribal motifs. There are only half a dozen streets and alleys in the centre, and while quite a few shops sell provisions, there’s no market, though Orang Ulu traders may arrive at weekends to sell jungle produce in the streets.

Having made it all the way here, the best thing you can do is luxuriate in Belaga’s tranquillity, a welcome contrast from Kapit. Short walks lead through the Malay kampung just downriver or along the start of the logging road at the back of town (head away from the river till you hit the street with the town’s bank, turn left – south – and keep going), head out this way and you’ll spot quite a few surprisingly smart modern houses. In the morning, picturesque mists settle on the Rejang, while in the evening you can play pool with the local youths (there’s a small venue on the main street, Jalan Teo Tia Kheng, facing the square).

Kapit

KAPIT is the main commercial centre upriver from Sibu, and it looks it too, trapped in an architectural no-man’s-land between the modern town it could become and the rustic backwater it was a generation ago. New municipal buildings and even a small shopping complex springing up right on the riverbank are pulling focus from the nondescript concrete blocks of earlier decades, and the place feels like an utter jumble, despite a certain appealing energy. If you do end up in Kapit, you may well stay the night – either because you can’t face the journey to Belaga in one go or because this is as far as you intend to get – so it’s just as well that it holds a couple of minor sights, notably the old fort. Although the town holds several banks and a couple of internet cafés, there’s not much else to do beyond wandering the riverbank or having a look around the town’s market.

The Kayan and Kenyah

The Kayan and the Kenyah are the most populous and powerful of the Orang Ulu groups who have lived for centuries in the upper Rejang and, in the northern interior, along the Batang Baram. The Kayan are more numerous, at around forty thousand, while the Kenyah population is around ten thousand (with substantially more Kenyah over the mountains in Kalimantan). Both groups migrated from East Kalimantan into Sarawak roughly six hundred years ago; they were pushed back to the lands they occupy today during the nineteenth century, when Iban migration led to clashes between the groups.

The Kayan and the Kenyah have a fair amount in common: their language, though of the same family as the other Bornean tongues and Malay, has a singsong quality that sounds like Chinese, and they have a well-defined social hierarchy, unlike the Iban or Penan. Traditionally, the social order was topped by the tuai rumah (chief) of the longhouse, followed by a group of three or four lesser aristocrats or payin, lay families and slaves (slavery no longer exists). Both groups take pride in their longhouses, which can be massive.

Kayan art

Artistic expression plays an important role in longhouse culture. The Kayan especially maintain a wide range of musical traditions including the lute-like sape, used to accompany long voice epics. Textiles are woven by traditional techniques in the upriver longhouses, and Kayan and Kenyah woodcarvings, among the most spectacular in Southeast Asia, are produced both for sale and for ceremonial uses. One artist, Tusau Padan, originally from Kalimantan, became much revered. He used mixed media of vibrant colours to create the flowing motifs he applied to painting and textiles – adorning burial poles, longboats and the walls of many Ulu Sarawak chiefs’ homes. Some Kayan still drink potent rice wine, although now that nearly all the communities have converted to Christianity, alcohol is harder to come by.

Rejang boats

One explanation for the nickname “flying coffins” – formerly attached jokingly to the Rejang express boats – is that they are indeed long and narrow, and feature aircraft-like seating. Otherwise they are serviceable, if not massively comfortable or user-friendly: boarding means stepping off the jetty onto the boat’s rim or gunwale and walking around until you reach the entrance hatch. You may also have to fling your luggage atop the roof yourself, although sometimes staff are on hand to help load and unload.

Several companies operate the boats, but look out for people selling Bahagia and Husqvarna tickets at the boat terminal; both stand out for having more comfortable boats that are also more likely to leave on time and to have windows through which you can see clearly – though the jungle views get monotonous after a while. Otherwise you’ll have to be entertained by the onboard DVDs of Hong Kong soaps or gory Hollywood action flicks.

The coast from Sibu to Bintulu

The drive from Sibu to Bintulu is mundane, the roadscape lacking the grandeur of southwest Sarawak’s mountains, with occasional glimpses of (usually modern) longhouses by the highway to perk up your spirits. The chief point of interest on this coastal stretch is Similajau National Park, a strip of forest with isolated beaches half an hour’s drive beyond the industrial town of Bintulu. With plenty of time, you could also get a dose of the culture of the largely Muslim Melanau people by diverting off the trunk road to the small coastal town of Mukah. While not of huge interest in itself, it’s a potential base for the Melanau village of Kampung Tellian, which has an interesting heritage centre, Lamin Dana, that you can also stay at.

Bintulu

Forty years ago, BINTULU was little more than a resting point en route between Sibu (220km to the southwest) and Miri (210km northeast). Since large natural gas reserves were discovered offshore in the 1960s, however, speedy expansion has seen Bintulu follow in Miri’s footsteps as a primary resources boom town. Today some quite prosperous neighborhoods can be seen on the outskirts, though the old centre remains as unassuming as ever. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Sibu – lacking Sibu’s few sights, but with somewhat better eating. There are only two reasons why you might want to stop over: to use Bintulu as a base for the excellent Similajau National Park or, if you’re heading south from Miri, as a springboard for Belaga and the Batang Rejang. You can also reach Niah National Park from Bintulu, though it’s easier from Miri as backpacker lodges there organize trips, while any express bus headed to Miri can drop you at Lambir Hills National Park.

Similajau National Park

With its sandy beaches broken only by rocky headlands and freshwater streams, the seventy-square-kilometre Similajau National Park has something of the appeal of the highly popular Bako, near Kuching. Enjoyable trekking makes for a great day-trip, and there’s even good, reasonably priced accommodation – if only the place were served public transport, it would figure much more in visitors’ itineraries. Though wildlife is not a major highlight, the park is well known for its population of saltwater crocodiles (signs along the creeks pointedly warn against swimming), with a few dolphins also sighted each year off the coast outside the rainy season. Birdlife includes black hornbills and, in the mangroves, kingfishers.

Sibu

From its humble 1850s origins as a tiny Melanau encampment, SIBU has grown into Sarawak’s third largest city and its biggest port. Nearly half its quarter-million population are ethnic Chinese. Unusually for Malaysia, many are Foochow, descended from migrants from what’s now Fuzhou in southeast China. Their diligence is often credited with helping the city become the commercial centre it is today. Its Foochow flavour aside, Sibu is also identified with Sarawak’s controversial logging industry, which helped the city recover from the Japanese occupation, when many Chinese were forced into slave labour. Sibu subsequently became, for a time, the centre for timber processing in Sarawak. Investors, many drawn from long-established Chinese families, made large fortunes as a result.

Today the city retains one glaringly obviously link with the timber industry – its tallest building, a downtown office and shopping development, is the headquarters of the major logging concern, Sanyan. More interesting for visitors are an excellent though small history museum and the city’s waterfront, with its Chinese temple nearby. Boasting a huge central market, too, Sibu has enough to keep you occupied for half a day, which is just as well as most travellers en route to or from the upper Rejang spend at least a night here.

Sarawak's northern coast

North of Bintulu, the scenery along the main trunk road is increasingly dominated by oil-palm estates; if you’re driving, the quiet coastal highway is a more scenic option for the 210km drive to Miri, Sarawak’s second largest city. Though boasting no important sights, Miri is nearly as important a gateway to Sarawak as Kuching, thanks to good flight connections and its location amid the riches of northern Sarawak, mostly deep inland and requiring days to explore properly. A couple of national parks lie close to the coast south of Miri: Niah is noted for its formidable limestone caves, while Lambir Hills offers more predictable jungle trekking.

Sarawak’s northern coastal strip is also home to Lawas, near the Sabah state boundary. It has an air connection to Ba Kelalan that’s useful if you want to see the Kelabit Highlands immediately after or before visiting Sabah.

Lambir Hills National Park

If you haven’t had your fill of classic rainforest elsewhere in Malaysia, then Lambir Hills, the closest national park to Miri, is especially worth considering. Popular with day-trippers at weekends, it holds some pleasant trails – though leeches can be annoying – and also good accommodation. Mixed dipterocarp forest makes up over half the park, with giant hardwood trees such as meranti, kapur and keruing creating deep shadows on the forest floor; there’s also kerangas forest, with its peat soils and scrubby vegetation.

The trails

The park’s most popular trail, the short Latak trail passes three waterfalls. The furthest – Latak itself, 1.5km or 30min from the park office – is the nicest, its 25m cascade feeding an alluring pool, but is inevitably busy at the weekends.

The Inoue trail from the park office joins the Lepoh–Ridan trail half an hour along, which leads after about an hour to three more falls, Dinding, Tengkorong and Pancur; swimming isn’t allowed at the last two as their pools are deep. The end of the Lepoh–Ridan trail marks the start of the trek to the top of Bukit Lambir (2hr 30min one-way from here; set off by 10am from the park office to be back by sunset). It’s a tough but rewarding climb with a wonderful view across the park.

Miri

Before oil was discovered in 1882, MIRI was a tiny, unimportant settlement. While production has now shifted offshore, the petroleum industry largely accounts for the thriving city of today, with a population of 300,000. Some of Miri’s earliest inhabitants were pioneering Chinese merchants who set up shops to trade with the Kayan longhouses southeast along the Batang Baram, and the city retains a strong Chinese flavour, though the Iban and Malays are also well represented, along with a significant number of Orang Ulu.

Now blandly modern for the most part, Miri makes a surprisingly pleasant base from which to see northern Sarawak; visitors generally wind up staying longer than expected, sometimes in several stints interspersed with trips into the interior. In terms of sights, it holds one museum focusing on – guess – the oil industry, plus a few markets and an okay stretch of beach – in short, nothing compelling. Where Miri shines is in its great restaurants, accommodation and air connections. The hub for MASwings’ services to the tiny settlements of the interior (see Twin Otters), Miri also has flights to Kuching, KK, KL and Singapore.

Niah National Park

NIAH NATIONAL PARK, ninety minutes’ drive south of Miri, is practically a compulsory visit even if you’re already caved out from visiting Mulu. Yes, its main attractions are massive limestone caves, but there any similarity with Mulu ends. Whereas almost all excursions at Mulu are regimented and chaperoned, visitors at Niah simply wander the caves at will, in places stumbling along tunnels – lightless but for your own torch – like questers from The Lord of the Rings. Elsewhere the caves are alive, with not just bats but people, who harvest bat guano and swiftlet nests for much of the year. This potent combination of vast caverns, communities at work, the rainforest and Niah’s archeological significance – it’s famous for prehistoric cave paintings and early human settlement – makes even a day-trip to Niah a wonderful experience. It is indeed possible to see much of Niah in a day: allow two to three hours to get from the park offices to the most distant caves, with breaks along the way.

Sarawak's northern interior

For visitors who take the time and trouble to explore it, Sarawak’s northern interior often ends up being the most memorable part of their stay. Some of the wildest, most untouched parts of Sarawak are interspersed, sometimes in close proximity, with badly degraded patches, thus putting everything you may have read about the state’s environmental problems into sharp relief. The timber industry has been systematically logging here since the 1960s, with tracts of land already under oil palm or being cleared to grow it, yet the rugged terrain still offers fabulous trekking – something most visitors only experience at Gunung Mulu National Park, with its limestone Pinnacles and extensive caves.

As central Sarawak has the Rejang, so the north has its major river system, the Batang Baram. There the resemblance ends, for only the lowest part of the Baram – from Marudi, 50km southeast of Miri, to the river mouth at Kuala Baram near the Brunei border – has anything like a proper boat service, and that stretch is any case devoid of sights. Further upriver, the days of being able to just turn up and find a longboat and someone who can pilot it have long since gone. Much travel is therefore by small aircraft or 4WD, using the spider’s web of logging roads, which adds to the outback feel. Anyone wanting to get off the beaten track will most likely have to talk to the Miri tour operators, who have contacts with boatmen and drivers and can arrange accommodation in towns with hardly any formal places to stay. That said, it is possible to visit remote Penan settlements in the upper Baram using a homestay programme, though this doesn’t come cheap.

Mulu aside, the highlight is the lush Kelabit Highlands, accessible by air, where the pleasant climate is ideal for long treks in the rainforest. Of much lesser significance unless you’re an avid birdwatcher is Loagan Bunut National Park, some distance off the Miri–Bintulu road and difficult to visit independently.

Gunung Mulu National Park

GUNUNG MULU, Sarawak’s premier national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is named after the 2376m mountain at its heart. Modern explorers have been coming here since Spenser St John in the 1850s, who didn’t reach the summit of Gunung Mulu but wrote inspiringly about the region in Life in the Forests of the Far East. A more successful bid in 1932 saw Edward Shackleton, son of the Antarctic explorer, get to the top during a research trip organized by Tom Harrisson.

The park’s best-known feature, however, is atop another mountain, Gunung Api – the dozens of fifty-metre-high razor-sharp limestone spikes known as the Pinnacles. It is to catch sight of them – a three-day trek, there and back, from the park offices – and of the park’s incredible network of caves, that visitors stream into Mulu (as the park is generally known) year-round. The park contains the largest limestone cave system in the world, formed when surface water eroded vast amounts of material, dividing the limestone belt that runs southwest–northeast across the middle of the park into separate mountains as well as carving cave passages within. Most people see some or all four of the dramatic show caves, though other caves are accessible on adventure packages and yet more are still being explored (wmulucaves.org).

Attractions aside, Mulu is a national park like no other in Sarawak, for the simple reason that it has been privatized. While the Sarawak Forestry Corporation remains in overall charge, most things to do with tourism, including the accommodation, is now run by Borsarmulu, the firm that owns the Royal Mulu Resort a few kilometres away. Now Mulu feels more Singapore than Sarawak: tours are timetabled and formatted, and you can explore few parts of the park unaccompanied. The tours are certainly well run, the guides are better communicators than at any other Sarawak park, and close supervision has helped prevent the poaching of valuable plants – but if it were possible to make the jungle somehow corporate, this is it. The only way to avoid taking the tours is by having your own registered guide, which enables you to book boat charter and accommodation on the trails separately, though this only makes sense if you are in a group.

The caves

The show caves – Clearwater, Wind, Lang’s and Deer – are a must, though the interest can begin to wane if you see all four. If you’re doing a Pinnacles trek, the cost will usually include a tour of the Clearwater and Wind caves. If not, and you don’t want to spend ages underground, opt for the Lang’s and Deer caves – the last is the most impressive of the lot – then hang around for the incredible “changing of the guard”, when the bats leave Deer Cave at sunset. Tours of these caves fill up quickly, so book as soon as your plans are fixed. It’s also possible to do tours of Lagang Cave, where obscure cave-dwelling fauna is the highlight, plus more challenging caving trips.

The Pinnacles

Five million years ago, the splatter of raindrops gradually dissolved Gunung Api’s limestone and carved out the Pinnacles – fifty-metre-high shards, as sharp as samurai swords – from a solid block of rock. Erosion is still continuing and the entire region is pockmarked with deep shafts penetrating far into the heart of the mountain: one third of Gunung Api has already been washed away, and in another ten million years it might all be gone.

The chance to view the Pinnacles draws many visitors to Mulu, and the trek offers exactly that, by heading not to the Pinnacles but to a ridge across the way from where you can take everything in. It’s a three-day, two-night hike, but only the ascent of the steep final ridge and the awkward descent are genuinely demanding; you will ache afterwards in places that may never have ached before. That said, if you’re reasonably fit and suitably equipped, you should cope fine, and the guides put safety first and make allowances as appropriate for the slower members of their group. With whomever you arrange the trek, book or make enquiries at least a week in advance; base camp, Camp 5, sleeps fifty people, so there’s a firm ceiling on the number of climbers per day. The park itself charges RM325 for the trek, including accommodation but no food; tour operators offer similar packages, as well as the Headhunters’ Trail north of the Pinnacles.

Gunung Mulu

The route to the summit of Gunung Mulu (2376m) was first discovered in the 1920s by Tama Nilong, a Berawan rhinoceros-hunter. Earlier explorers had failed to find a way around the huge surrounding cliffs, but Nilong followed rhinoceros tracks along the southwest ridge trail, and thus enabled Lord Shackleton to become the first mountaineer to reach the summit in 1932. It’s still an arduous climb, a 48km round trip that usually takes four days. Few visitors attempt it, but with enough notice, the park office can usually arrange it for groups of three or more. Expect to pay around RM400 per person, including accommodation and a guide, though you’ll have to bring provisions and sleeping bags; a porter costs around RM100 extra.

Day 1, for most groups, is usually spent heading to Camp 3 roughly midway along the route, passing Camp 1 en route (there is no Camp 2). The trek takes you from the limestone belt that most tourists associate with Mulu into sandstone terrain that dominates the southeast of the park. On day 2 you spend the night 1800m up at Camp 4. Most climbers set off well before dawn on day 3 for the hard ninety-minute trek to the summit, if possible arriving there at sunrise. Big clumps of pitcher plants dot the final stretch, though it’s easy to miss them as by this point you are hauling yourself up by ropes onto the cold, windswept, craggy peak. From here, the view is exhilarating, looking down on Gunung Api and, on a clear day, far across the forest to Brunei Bay. Once again you spend the night at Camp 4. Day 4 is a very full day as the aim is to get right back to the park HQ by nightfall.

The Kelabit Highlands

Right up against the Kalimantan border, 100km southeast of Gunung Mulu, the long, high plateau of the Kelabit Highlands has been home to the Kelabit people for hundreds of years. Western explorers had no idea this self-sufficient mountain community existed until the early twentieth century, and the Highlands were literally not put on the map until World War II, when British and Australian commandos, led by Major Tom Harrisson, used Kelabit settlements as bases during a guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese. Before Harrisson’s men built an airstrip at Bario, trekking over inhospitable terrain was the only way to get here – it took two weeks from the nearest large town, Marudi, on the opposite side of Mulu. When missionaries arrived and converted the animist Kelabit to Christianity after the war, many traditions, like burial rituals and wild parties called iraus (where Chinese jars full of rice wine were consumed) disappeared. Many of the magnificent Kelabit megaliths associated with these traditions have been swallowed up by the jungle, but some dolmens, urns, rock carvings and ossuaries used in funeral processes can still be found, so the region draws archeologists and anthropologists from far and wide. The Kelabit are not the only inhabitants of this part of the state, however; there are also populations of Penan and Lun Bawang (formerly called the Murut).

Despite logging in the Bario area, the Highlands remain generally unspoiled, with occasional wildlife sightings and a refreshing climate – temperatures are only a few degrees lower than in Miri by day, but at night they can drop to an untropical 15°C (60°F). As such the region is a great target for walkers, and it is easily accessible by air, with three villages served by MASwings. Most visitors head to Bario or Ba’ Kelalan as they have formal accommodation, but the real point of being here is to get out into the countryside, doing day-walks or longer treks through the jungle, on which you can be hosted in little settlements or longhouses en route. It’s also possible to do more challenging treks up to the peaks of the Pulong Tau National Park (which has no facilities and no one to collect the entrance fee), notably Gunung Murud. There are no banks, so bring enough cash to cover board and lodging plus guiding/trekking fees.

Gunung Murud

Barring the way between Bario to the south and Ba’ Kelalan to the northeast, Gunung Murud is the highest peak in Sarawak at 2423m, and is part of the Pulong Tau National Park. It presents a challenging but rewarding trek, with spectacular views across the Highlands to Batu Lawi and even Mulu. From Ba’ Kelalan, it takes six days there and back; from Bario, allow one day extra.

Leaving Ba’ Kelalan, trekkers generally head to Lepo Bunga (8hr) on the first night, traversing some steep hills. In the past, people saved a day by using a 4WD on this leg, but the logging road has fallen into disrepair; check whether it’s once again usable. On day 2 the target is Church Camp (4–5hr) – a wooden shelter built by local Lun Bawang evangelical groups for a three-day Christian meeting held once a year, and otherwise deserted. The next morning sees the haul up to the summit (3hr) via the Rock Garden, an exposed area of stunted trees and sharpish boulders. After another night back at Church Camp, you retrace your steps back to Ba’ Kelalan.

If you’re starting from Bario, the first day is spent reaching Pa’ Lungan, where you stay the night. The next day brings a trek to a simple wooden shelter at Long Rapung (7hr), with about half an hour’s worth of climbing en route. On day 3 some guides head to Church Camp (7hr), others to the slightly nearer Camp 2 at Long Belaban, with hammocks to sleep in (5–6hr), though you have to ford a few streams en route and climb for a couple of hours at the end of the day. If you start from Camp 2, day 4 is gruelling, the climb up to the summit beginning at dawn (6hr); the descent usually means heading to the Rock Garden and Church Camp (4hr). On day 5 you head back to Camp 2 for the night; it’s then possible, with some effort, to get all the way back to Pa’ Lungan on day 6.

Loagan Bunut National Park

Loagan Bunut National Park, best visited on an overnight trip, is a good spot for the dedicated birdwatcher, boasting stork-billed kingfishers and hornbills among many other species. Many live around the park’s lake, Tasik Bunut, tucked away on the upper reaches of the Teru River, a tributary of the Tinjar, which in turn flows into the Baram. During prolonged dry spells, when the lake level drops drastically, a peculiar form of fishing, which the local Berawan people call selambau, is carried out. Just before the lake dries out, fishermen use giant spoon-shaped wooden frames to scoop up any fish that haven’t escaped down the lake’s two watercourses.

For birds, these dry times are a perfect time to feed too, and in May and June the surrounding peat-swamp forest supports breeding colonies of such species as darters, egrets and bitterns. Initially the lake can appear huge, its edges hard to detect as the sunlight is often hazy; however, it’s only around 500m wide and 1km long. Small cabins built on rafts house Berawan fishermen, while around them lies an intricate network of fishing plots, with underwater nets and lines tied to stakes pushed into the lake bed. The best times to drift by boat across the lake are early morning and dusk, when the birds are at their most active.

Twin Otters

One entertaining aspect of travel in the northern interior is the chance to fly on Twin Otters, 19-seater propeller planes. More formally known as the de Havilland DHC-6, the Twin Otter can turn on the proverbial dime and take off from a standing start in around ten seconds, making it ideally suited to the tiny airfields hereabouts. As such, the plane forms the backbone of the Rural Air Services operated by Malaysia Airlines subsidiary MASwings, mostly out of Miri (though it’s not used for Mulu, where the airport can take larger aircraft).

As the Twin Otter isn’t pressurized – you can see daylight around the door rim – it doesn’t fly above 3000m, and affords great views of the north’s mountain ranges. That MASwings’ Twin Otters are 30 years old and slightly shabby (though perfectly serviceable) only adds to the experience; the cabin will be fan-cooled and the cockpit door may well be open, letting you see what the pilots are up to.

On a practical note, passengers sit where they like, and luggage is limited to ten kilos per person (you may well have to weigh yourself at check-in so staff know the laden weight of the plane). At some airfields, departing passengers are slapped with a “service fee” of RM10–15 atop the taxes included in ticket prices. Levied by the small private concerns that run the airfields, these fees appear to be condoned by the authorities. Finally, while flights are seldom cancelled except in very gusty or stormy weather, note that the planes get booked solid during public and school holidays and over Christmas and New Year, when you may have to reserve weeks in advance.

The Ulu Baram

The Baram river system so dominates northern Sarawak that you could consider virtually all the interior here, excepting Limbang division, to be the Ulu Baram – practically every river, including the Melinau and Tutoh at Mulu, the Tinjar at Loagan Bunut and the Dapur and Kelapang at Bario, ends up flowing into the Baram. The Batang Baram itself, however, wends its way more or less constantly southeast from the town of Marudi, 80km from Miri, occasionally passing little confluence towns such as Long Lama and Long San, before approaching the border with Kalimantan. Here it swings east to peter out beyond Lio Matoh, 200km southeast of Miri. This Ulu Baram, due south of Mulu and southwest of the Kelabit Highlands, is definitely outback territory, rugged and lushly forested, though not spared the attention of the logging companies, whose roads penetrate even here. There are, of course, no specific sights; the reason you might venture here is to trek through virgin rainforest and stay in remote settlements as part of a homestay programme.

The Penan

For some travellers, the Penan have a mystique beyond that of any of Sarawak’s many Orang Ulu groups, as a kind of poster child for the ongoing struggle for native peoples’ rights. That status is largely thanks to the high-profile campaign waged on their behalf by the Swiss activist Bruno Manser in the 1980s and 1990s. Manser lived with the Penan for many years and became a thorn in the side of the Sarawak government, successfully drawing the world’s attention to the destruction of their traditional forest habitat, though his PR successes had little impact on the juggernaut that is Sarawak’s logging industry. The Penan lost their champion when Manser disappeared in 2000, having trekked alone from Bario to meet the Penan in the jungle; he was never seen again, but the campaign he founded soldiers on (wbmf.ch).

Most of Sarawak’s twelve thousand Penan live in the upper reaches of the Baram and Belaga rivers. Their language is of the same family as Iban and Malay. Traditionally they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but these days the vast majority live in tiny villages – thanks not simply to habitat loss but also to the inescapable embrace of the outside world and the cash economy. Their old staple of sago has often been supplanted by rice, which the Penan grow like the Iban, in jungle clearings using shifting cultivation. Many Penan still struggle to make ends meet, both in towns where they may be in poorly paid work, and in their villages, where food is in reasonable supply but cash hard to come by. Another perennial problem is the lack of formal identity documents, without which many Penan cannot access services, education and jobs.

Penan homestays

It’s possible to visit Penan settlements near Lio Matoh (see map), such as Long Kerong close to the Selungo River, and Long Lamai on the Balong, as part of a scheme calling itself Picnic with the Penan (picnicwiththepenan.org). The experience is similar to visiting tiny villages in the Kelabit Highlands, but much more cut off from the wider world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come cheap. As this area has, to an extent, resisted the blandishments of the logging industry, logging roads and bridges are fewer and further between, and expensive boat charter is required to reach the villages. Furthermore, while MASwings flies to Long Banga near Lio Matoh, until (and if) the logging roads there are repaired, you will have to fly into Long Akah or Long Lellang, 50km away, and then head in by 4WD – another major expense. For more information on flights, see Arrival By plane. For these reasons a group of three is ideal, the most the longboats can carry with luggage.

When you finally arrive, however, the rewards can be considerable. There are ample chances to trek through dense, unspoiled jungle, using “trails” hacked out by your guide with a machete, spending the night perhaps in a simple hut of the type the Penan erect near their fields, or in a makeshift shelter that your guide might build using branches and leaves. From the Selungo River it’s also possible to climb Gunung Murud Kecil (“Little Murud”; 2112m), at the opposite end of the Tama Abu Range from its larger and more famous sibling. Bring similar gear to what you’d need in the Kelabit Highlands.

Village life can itself be a highlight. Local people can teach crafts such as basket-making, and then there’s the simple pleasure of bathing in the river with the villagers, or the spectacle of being at the simple village church on Sunday (many Penan belong to the evangelical Sidang Injil Borneo or SIB movement, which has churches throughout Sarawak); it’s great to witness hymns sung in Penan with the village youths showing off their self-taught skills on guitar, keyboards and drums. After the rice is planted (June) or harvested (February), you can even accompany the men as they hunt wild pig, aided by dogs, blowpipes and the odd antique rifle.

On the downside, the usual caveats about Malaysia homestays are especially valid here. One key point is that villagers take turns to put up guests, so quite how adept your hosts will be is a matter of luck. You may have your own room or space, or sleep alongside everyone and their screaming babies; meals can be meagre and there may be little to drink other than tepid, weak and sickly sweet coffee. Communication is another problem as few villagers speak good English.

Sarawak place names

As you travel through Sarawak, you’ll notice certain terms cropping up repeatedly in the names of places, longhouses and other features. You’ll seldom encounter them elsewhere in Malaysia, so it pays to know what they mean:

  • Ulu From the Malay hulu, meaning “upriver”; when used before the name of a river, it indicates the region surrounding the headwaters of that river – for example, the Ulu Ai is the upriver part of the Ai River and its tributaries there
  • Batang “Trunk” or “strip”; used before a river name, it denotes that the river is the central member of a system of rivers
  • Long “Confluence”; used in town names in the same way as the Malay “Kuala”
  • Nanga “Longhouse” in Iban; many longhouses are named “Nanga” followed by the name of the river they are next to
  • Pa or Pa’ In the Kelabit Highlands, denotes a village
  • Rumah “House” in Malay; some longhouses are named “Rumah” followed by the name of the headman (if there’s a change of headman, the longhouse name follows suit)

Sarawak’s ceramic jars

The status and wealth of members of Sarawak’s indigenous tribes depended on how many ceramic jars they possessed, and you can still see impressive models in longhouses as well as in the Sarawak Museum. Ranging from tiny, elegantly detailed bowls to much larger vessels, over a metre in height, the jars were used for such purposes as storage, brewing rice wine and making payments – dowries and fines for adultery and divorce settlements. The most valuable jars were only used for ceremonies like the Gawai Kenyalang (the rite of passage for a mature man of means, involving the recitation of stories by the longhouse bard), or for funerary purposes. When a member of the Kelabit people died, the corpse was packed into a jar in a foetal position to await rebirth from the jar, its “womb”. The Berawan did the same, and as decomposition took place, the liquid from the body was drained through a bamboo pipe, leaving the individual’s bones or clothing to be placed in a canister and hoisted onto an ossuary above the riverbank. It’s said that the jars can also be used to foretell the future, and can summon spirits through the sounds they emit when struck.

Southwestern Sarawak

Visitors flying in from Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore are treated to a spellbinding view of muddy rivers snaking their way through the jungle beneath lush peaks. It not only just about sums up Borneo, but also sets the tone for what the southwest of Sarawak has in store. The area is home to several of Sarawak’s national parks, notably Bako, with its proboscis monkeys and excellent trekking. It’s also a good place to get a grounding in Borneo’s tribal cultures, which you can do at the museums in the likeable state capital Kuching. Among other top draws are the orang-utans of the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and the Sarawak Cultural Village, a brilliant collection of tribal houses near the beaches of Damai. To see proper longhouses, though, head east to the edges of Batang Ai National Park, home to many Iban communities.

Visiting Sarawak’s national parks

Sarawak’s two dozen or so national parks vary enormously, not just in terms of terrain and habitats – some boast accommodation for various budgets, well-marked trails and other amenities, while many others have nothing more than a ranger post and require a minor expedition to reach. All are managed by the state-owned Sarawak Forestry Corporation (wsarawakforestry.com) with the notable exception of Mulu, where tourist facilities have been privatized. You can pick up information about park conditions and accommodation at Sarawak Forestry’s downtown offices in Kuching and Miri. Informal accommodation bookings can be made by calling the park concerned, while the Kuching office can confirm reservations – with payment up front.

A park permit costs RM10, and an RM40 pass valid for five visits (or one visit by a group of five) is also available. Those park offices that exist are open between 8am and 5pm (sometimes with a 1–2pm lunch break), so aim to arrive during these times. Guides can be engaged at just a few parks for around RM80 per day, though they may well not speak good English. Contact knowledgeable, licensed guides for parks in the Kuching area through the Tourist Guide Association.

Batang Ai and the Iban longhouses

The Iban longhouses of the Ai headwaters, both 150km due east of Kuching beyond the lake of the Batang Ai hydroelectric dam, and also to the north along the Lemanak river system, are the best excuse for anyone travelling between western and central Sarawak not to catch the fast Kuching–Sibu ferry. Despite being on the tourist trail, the longhouses continue to offer a glimpse of a semi-traditional lifestyle in a remote corner of the state, much of which is protected as a national park and wildlife sanctuary.

Batang Ai dam and lake

Around three and a half hours’ drive from Kuching, a couple of kilometres beyond the village of Jelukong, a signed 38km turning branches southeast off the main trunk road, passing a few modernish longhouses en route to the small border town of Lubok Antu. Some 12km short of that, another small road branches east towards the Batang Ai dam, a necessary though impressive way station en route to the upper Ai. Built in the 1980s as Sarawak’s first hydroelectric venture, the Ai dam created a lake covering 90 square kilometres. Though now dwarfed in scale, generating capacity and controversy by the much-delayed Bakun dam, it’s an impressive sight and the road up gives good views of the narrow valley downriver that must have made the site seem ideal to the dam’s planners. No parts of the dam are open to tourists, though, and once you get there you’ll head to one of the jetties to continue east by boat to an Ai longhouse or the Hilton Batang Ai.

The Ai river system

An hour east from the dam, longhouse-bound boats leave the lake and head up the Ai. As is clear from the tall trees that come right to the water’s edge, the initial stretch is still a drowned portion of the river. Further up you’ll observe a transition to the true riverbanks, the vegetation more open and compact. Also visible sporadically to either side are the odd school and clinic in simple metal-roofed timber buildings, and areas of hillslope cleared for traditional rice cultivation. The Iban leave paddies to the jungle once the soil is exhausted and move on to clear new areas. As the river narrows, you also begin to see the occasional longhouse lurking in the vegetation. Among those that take tourists are Nanga Delok (also called Rumah Ipang, on the Delok, a tributary of the Ai) and the more distant Nanga Sumpa (the Sumpa being a tributary of the Delok). Wherever you stay, will offer opportunities for additional longboat trips to areas where you can make short treks or local beauty spots such as waterfalls.

The Iban

Easily the most numerous of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, the Iban make up nearly thirty percent of the state’s population. Their language is from the same family as Malay, and any Malay speakers will notice considerable overlap in vocabulary as well as predictable changes in word endings – datang (come) and makan (eat) in Malay, for example, become datai and makai in Iban.

Origins and conflicts

Having outgrown their original home in the Kapuas river basin of west Kalimantan, the Iban migrated to the Lupar River in southwest Sarawak in the sixteenth century, and came into conflict with the Melanau and Malays. With the Brunei sultanate at its height, the Malays pushed the Iban back inland up rivers such as the Rejang, into interior areas dominated by the Kayan. Great battles were waged between the two groups; one source recorded seeing “a mass of boats drifting along the stream, [the combatants] spearing and stabbing each other; decapitated trunks and heads without bodies, scattered about in ghastly profusion”. Although such inter-ethnic conflict stopped as migration itself slowed, the Iban were still taking heads as recently as the 1960s during the Konfrontasi, when the Indonesian army came up against Iban who had thrown their lot in with Malaysia.

Society

The Iban figure prominently in the minds of visitors, thanks to their traditional communal dwelling, the longhouse. Each has its own tuai (headman), who leads more by consensus than by barking orders. For details see longhouse architecture,.

Traditionally, young men left the longhouse to go on bejalai, the act of joining a warring party – essentially a rite of passage for a youth to establish his independence and social position before marriage. Nowadays, to the extent that bejalai has meaning, it may translate into going to university or earning a good wage on offshore oil rigs or in a hotel or factory in Singapore.

Further complicating the bejalai tradition, of course, is that women are now much more socially mobile, and can pursue education and their own careers. Traditionally, however, women had distinct duties. They never went hunting, but were great weavers; indeed, an Iban woman’s weaving prowess used to determine her status in the community. The women are most renowned for their pua kumbu (blanket or coverlet) work, a cloth of intricate design and colour. The pua kumbu once played an integral part in Iban rituals, hung up prominently during harvest festivals and weddings, or used to cover structures containing charms and offerings to the gods.

Development and urbanization

More than half of Sarawak’s Iban have moved permanently to the cities and towns in the west of the state, or may spend the working week there and weekends back in their longhouse. Most rural Iban no longer live purely off the land but also undertake seasonal work in the rubber and oil industries. By no small irony, logging – the business that most devastated their traditional lands – also long supplied plentiful and lucrative work; these days oil-palm cultivation and production provide more employment.

Iban tattoos

For the Iban, tattooing is not just a form of ornamentation, but also an indication of personal wealth and other achievements. Many designs are used, from a simple circular outline for the shoulder, chest or outer side of the wrists, to more elaborate motifs (highly stylized dogs, scorpions or crabs) for the inner and outer thigh. The two most important places for tattoos are the hand and the throat. The tattooing process starts with a carved design on a block of wood that’s smeared with ink and pressed to the skin; the resulting outline is then punctured with needles dipped in dark ink, made from sugar-cane juice, water and soot. For the actual tattooing a hammer-like instrument with two or three needles protruding from its head is used. These are dipped in ink and the hammer is then placed against the skin and tapped repeatedly with a wooden block.

Kuching has become a magnet for people wanting to have a Bornean tattoo, and guesthouses may be able to introduce you to practitioners. The leading light of the scene, however, is the Iban artist and musician Ernesto Kalum, whose studio, Borneo Headhunter, is upstairs at 47 Jalan Wayang (wborneoheadhunter.com). He offers traditional motifs done either the traditional way or by machine (as in any Western tattoo parlour), and can also do modern designs (always by machine). Prices depend on size and complexity.

Longhouse architecture

Longhouses can be thought of as indoor villages, housing entire communities under one roof. Although several indigenous peoples build dwellings that are sometimes called longhouses, the definitive article is the Iban longhouse. This has a long veranda or tanju at the front where rice, rubber and other produce can be laid out to dry; it’s accessed by steps or sometimes a log into which notches are cut. Behind the front wall, running the entire length of the building, a corridor or ruai serves as a sort of main street where the community can socialize. Multiple doors (pintu) open on to the ruai, behind which lie each family’s quarters (bilik); locals describe a longhouse not in terms of its length or the number of inhabitants, but by how many bilik or pintu it has. Above the living quarters, a loft space (sadau) is used for storage.

Traditionally longhouses were built of hardwood timber and bamboo, perhaps with ironwood shingles on the roof. Even though recent longhouses may feature plenty of unsightly concrete, they still retain their characteristic ruai inside, and most continue to be sited close to rivers or streams, where people enjoy bathing even when piped water supplies exist.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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