Guide to Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

A pair of colorful toucans. Aren't they beautiful? Sarawak  

Updated July 7th, 2018.

  • EAT! – Bario Rice! Grown from the Bario Highlands, this has a gorgeously nutty flavour and is delicious eaten with chicken.
  • DRINK! – Tuak (homemade liquor) with the locals at an Iban Longhouse.
  • WEAR! – Mosquito repellant at all times!
  • BEWARE! – Never wanting to leave this unique part of Southeast Asia.

Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia and is an excellent destination if you’re looking for extreme adventure.For backpackers, there are loads of things to do in Sarawak! Jungle trekking, mountain climbing, caving and rock climbing are all possible here, as are trekking trails through unspoilt highlands and visits to remote longhouses.

History of Sarawak, Borneo

A fort with turrets is not what you might expect to see as you cruise gently downstream by Sampan on the Sarawak River, but Fort Margherita built in 1879 by Charles Brooke the second White Rajah, is just one of the many charms you will find here.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sarawak was under the control of the Sultan of Brunei. After the appointment of an unpopular governor, the locals revolted. In 1839 English explorer, James Brooke arrived in Kuching in his yacht, put down the rebellion and became the ‘White Rajah’ of Sarawak in 1841.

His nephew Charles, though not quite the adventurer, was an excellent administrator expanding his rule to encompass all of Sarawak. After the Japanese occupation during World War II, Sarawak came under colonial rule until 1963 when independence was granted and it formed part of Malaysia. Christianity is now the most practised religion in Sarawak.

Ethnic Groups of Sarawak

Today, Sarawak has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups (with half the population is either Chinese or Malay, the other half are tribal including the Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulu) each with their own customs, language, rich cultural traditions, handicrafts, hand woven textiles, beadwork and wood carvings.

Just 23% of the population is Malay. The most populous group is the Iban, which make up 30% of the Sarawak State total population, and are said to have settled in Sarawak from Indonesian Borneo’s Kalimantan in the 15th century.

The Iban are famous for their headhunting past and were once Borneo’s most fearsome warriors. Nowadays, they’re said to be the most enthusiastic entertainers of all Sarawak’s indigenous tribes! Stay overnight at an Iban longhouse (organise from Kuching, Sibu or Miri) and expect to partake in more Tuak (homemade moonshine!) than you ever could have bargained for!

The Penan are the only semi-nomadic tribe left in Sarawak, with many of them still concentrated in the depths of its dense virgin jungles. However, times they-are-a-changing, and more and more Penan are beginning to eschew their old ways in order to make lives for themselves in nearby towns and cities.

Places of Interest in Sarawak

As well as fascinating indigenous cultures, for nature lovers – there is a huge array of wildlife species to try and see during your visit to Sarawak, also known as ‘Land Of The Hornbills’ – no prizes for guessing why! Wild and untamed National Parks are in abundance, with many just a short day-trip from pretty Kuching, the state capital.

Kuching

Sarawak’s riverside capital, Kuching (meaning Cat City), is one of the most charming cities in the whole of Southeast Asia. With quiet streets, great hostels and delicious, unique street food, you’ll want to linger longer in this city than most!

Bako National Park

A day trips from the capital, Kuching might include Bako National Park to check out the weird long-nosed Proboscis Monkeys and bearded pigs. There are several treks that you can do here.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Sarawak Cultural Village makes an interesting day trip from Kuching that’s just an hour away. In Santubong, you might also want to laze about on the beautiful beach, or even attempt a climb to the summit of the very steep Mount Santubong! The spot is home to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival.

Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre just an hour outside of Kuching to see one of our closest ancestors in the wild (semi-wild). The centre was established to rescue orangutans from captivity and it’s one of the best ways to see orangutans in Borneo.

Gunung Gading National Park

You can go in search of the world’s largest flower the Rafflesia at Gunung Gading National Park when they’re in bloom, go kayaking, hiking or caving.

Wind Cave and Fairy Cave

The famous Fairy and Wind Caves are also accessible from Kuching, as are a multitude of longhouses in the vicinity (overnight trips include a stay with the Iban and the Bidayuh tribes).

Sibu

Another popular stop-off is Sibu, which is the main tourist gateway to the Upper Rajang River. You can do a long, multi-day trip by boat down the river, visiting the towns of Kapit and Belaga, many other small riverine towns in between, and a number of longhouses of the Orang Ulu (river) tribes as you pass by.

Gunung Mulu National Park

Miri is a must, mainly because of its proximity to the famous Gunung Mulu National Park and the incredible (and enormous) Niah Caves.

Niah Caves Miri
The Niah Caves of Miri.

Niah National Park

Go trekking, visit amazing caves and stay in Iban longhouses in the incredible Niah National Park in Miri, Borneo. Niah Cave is home to over 40,000 years of ancient human history and the archaeology museum here is a must for ancient history buffs.

Kelabit Highlands

Miri is also a very short plane ride (in a 16-seater otter – great fun!) to Bario, which resides at the core of the utterly beautiful Kelabit Highlands. Aside from the plane journey alone, you shouldn’t miss out on the Kelabit Highlands – especially not if you’re into remote wilderness.

There are trekking opportunities aplenty amidst the rolling hills of this beautiful region: you can trek from village to village through jungle and virgin rainforest, staying in homestays or longhouses as you go – or opt for shorter adventures that include the two-hour trek from Bario up Prayer Mountain (particularly good for sunrise and sunset) and the hike up to the Bario Gap.

Visit during July for the annual Bario Food Festival if you can One important nugget of advice, though – book your seats on that plane early. They sell out quickly.

Read Traveller Article: 5 Reasons to Travel Sarawak, Borneo.

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