Sarawak’s national parks are undoubtedly among the state’s main draws. There are thirty in all, spanning teeming jungles, dramatic mountain ranges, and gorgeous beaches. Here are 12 of our favourites...
Sarawak’s national parks are undoubtedly among the state’s main draws. There are thirty in all, spanning teeming jungles, dramatic mountain ranges, and gorgeous beaches – all home to some of Malaysia’s most diverse and unusual wildlife. There’s so much to choose from, in fact, that it can be hard to know where to start when planning your adventures – learn more with this rundown of Sarawak’s best national parks...
Mention Bako National Park to any Sarawakian and it’s likely that one creature in particular will come to mind. The round-bellied, long-nosed proboscis monkey is among the strangest and most charming of Malaysia’s animals, and it can be found lounging in the forests and mangrove swamps of Bako. These guys make an early start, though, so the best time for viewing them is at dawn or early in the morning. Wild boar, macaques and silver leaf monkeys are among the other large mammals you can spot in Bako, while casting your eyes to the rainforest canopy will allow keen-eyed birders to spot mangrove blue flycatchers, oriental bay owls, and the striking black-and-red broadbill. Bako is Sarawak’s oldest national park, and it is home to some of the state’s most varied landscapes – thick rainforest suddenly clears to reveal the shoreline, where murky mangroves are punctuated by pristine beaches.
Fringing Malaysia’s eastern border with Indonesia, Batang Ai is a wild national park with dense rainforest set around a lake formed by a reservoir. This is one of the best places to spot orangutans in Sarawak – and unlike those at the wildlife sanctuaries, these ones are completely wild. That means that sightings aren’t guaranteed, but if you’re lucky, the experience of seeing these magnificent apes in their natural habitat is unforgettable. Gentle and tree-dwelling, orangutans are one of the wildlife symbols of Southeast Asia and feature heavily in Bornean folklore. They are highly intelligent, using tools and possibly displaying cultural differences between their populations – their name means ‘person of the forest’, and if you have the chance to look into their near-human eyes, you’ll understand why. Despite Batang Ai’s wilderness atmosphere and lack of facilities, human habitation here is long established, and on guided treks through the forest you can spot ancient burial grounds and other remnants of human civilisation.
Around 85km west of Sarawak’s state capital of Kuching, Gunung Gading National Park is famous as a sanctuary for the rafflesia flower. Growing up to one metre in diameter, this is the largest flower in the world – and one of the strangest. It’s pollinated by flies, which it attracts by emanating the aroma of rotting flesh (hence its epithet, the ‘corpse flower’), and it has no roots or leaves, surviving not from the earth but as a parasite within a host plant. The plant’s beautiful red leaves and strange life cycle make it a fixture on the lists of wildlife watchers, but its rarity – it only blooms once a year – has been compounded by habitat loss, and the plant is endangered. Guided walks in Gunung Gading will see you following the trail of the rafflesia with a park ranger in a safe way which does not damage the plant’s environment – and, if you’re lucky, will culminate with a sighting of this strangest of flowers.
What could be better than hiking through the jungle, spotting rare and beautiful flora and fauna, and cooling off with refreshing swims in photogenic waterfalls? That’s exactly what’s on the agenda at Kubah National Park, an oasis of wilderness just outside Kuching. City dwellers naturally love to seek refuge in the park, which is just half an hour’s drive from the state capital, but its convenience and great facilities don’t mean the park has been spoiled. On the contrary, Kubah is home to some of Borneo’s most diverse plant life, from gorgeous orchids to carnivorous pitcher plants, which catch live prey in their jug-like bodies. Beginning at the park headquarters, follow the Waterfall Trail through towering dipterocarp trees, along raised jungle boardwalks through the forest canopy, for one and a half until you reach the perfect reward: a natural swimming pool at the base of a tumbling waterfall.
Another slice of the natural world within easy reach of Sarawak’s capital city, the Kuching Wetlands sit on Borneo’s north coast and are a haven for watchers of birds and other wildlife. The park comprises a network of mangrove forests which extend inland from the coast and are a home for all manner of unusual creatures, including proboscis monkeys, storks, and river dolphins – as well as less friendly critters like saltwater crocodiles. A relaxing boat trip is the perfect way to explore this unique mangrove habitat, which in addition to its biodiversity also forms an important barrier against tidal waves. Inland, hikers will love exploring Mount Santubong, where hornbills flit in the trees and rope swings and suspension bridges ford jungle rivers – this is not for the faint-hearted, but the adventurous will find plenty to reward them. The wetlands are around 45 minutes’ drive from Kuching, so it’s easy to stay in town and visit on a day trip.
On Sarawak’s northern coast, near the border with Brunei, sits Lambir Hills National Park, a region of protected forest extremely rich in biodiversity. Just half an hour’s drive from the city of Miri, the hills offer a green escape from urban life, and the interconnected network of waterfall trails are particularly popular with day trippers. The shortest trail is just 20 minutes through the jungle, ending at an extremely tempting natural swimming pool at the foot of a waterfall – there are even changing rooms and bathrooms, so it’s a place as convenient as it is scenic to take a refreshing dip. Venture deeper into the park, though, and you’ll be rewarded with some diverse wildlife watching opportunities, particularly in terms of birds. Among the 237 avian species which make their home here are the mighty rhinoceros hornbill, recognisable by their cheerfully coloured bills, and the follicularly challenged Bornean bristlehead. Look closely and you may even see non-avian life jumping through the trees, like flying squirrels and long-limbed gibbons.
Loagan Bunut is Sarawak’s largest naturally occurring lake, but remarkably, it completely disappears during the dry season as the rivers which feed it dry up, leaving behind large mud flats and peaty, swampy forest. This unusual environment becomes a seasonal home for all kinds of unusual wildlife, including barking deer, flying foxes, and langur monkeys. During the rainy season boat trips on the lake are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, but visit during the driest time of year – late May to June – and you can walk across the dried-up lake bed, a unique experience in an otherworldly landscape. The attractions of Loagan Bunut are not all natural, though – humans have long made their home in this fertile region, and the receding waters of the lake reveal towering lejeng, large carved totem poles which once supported coffins used in the burial rituals of the Berawan, the ethnic group native to this area.
Notable for its swampy peat forest, Maludam National Park is an atmospheric place best explored on a boat ride organised from the sleepy town of Maludam. The park is noteworthy for another, more pressing reason, however: it is the last home of the critically endangered red banded langur, also known as the Sarawak surili. This striking monkey, with orange fur and a blue face, is under threat, so sightings are by no means guaranteed, but some companies offer a three-day, two-night itinerary in search of the beautiful creatures. This is by no means a luxurious affair – you’ll be staying in simple but comfortable guesthouses in Maludam and spending the days on a traditional fishing boat – but the chance to meet the locals, enjoy sunset cruises on the river, and try traditional foods like kuih sepit (egg rolls) makes it an unforgettable experience. You’ll also visit a fish processing factory, and even enjoy a traditional drumming performance from the villagers.
The prize for the most eye-catching of Borneo’s national parks is fiercely contested, but Mulu National Park stakes a strong claim for the title. In addition to Mount Mulu itself – Sarawak’s second highest peak after Mount Murud – the park is home to razor-sharp limestone pinnacles, which pierce through the rainforest like craggy karst needles. It should be said that the hiking and climbing here can be slippery, tough and tiring (not to mention sharp on your hands), but if you’re the adventurous type, you’ll absolutely love it. The park is also famous for its subterranean landscapes, and cavers of all ability levels will find guided tours through the caverns an intensely rewarding experience. The caves here deal in superlatives: Deer Cave, named for the deer who head inside to shelter from the rain and lick salt from the rocks, is one of the largest cave passages in the world; Clearwater Cave is the longest cave system in Southeast Asia; and the Sarawak Chamber is the largest cave chamber in the world by area.
Turtle conservation is the name of the game at Talang Satang National Park, which is one of the best places in Borneo to observe the incredible life cycle of green and hawksbill turtles. Owing to the sensitive nature of the turtles and their reproduction cycle, it is forbidden to stay overnight in the park, and visitors are only allowed with 2.8km of certain nesting islands. Day trips can be organised, however, from Kuching to the largest island, Pulau Satang Besar. Here, you can visit a turtle hatchery, where park wardens will give you an insight into their work collecting eggs from the beach, nurturing them at the hatchery, and releasing the adorable hatchlings to the ocean once they are born. Remarkably, the female turtles return to the same beach on which they were born to lay their own eggs, despite often having travelled thousands of miles over the course of their lives in the meantime.
Tanjung Datu may be small – just 12 sq km – but it packs a punch when it comes to natural beauty and variety. A crest of limestone mountains rise spikily from the green jungle, which gives way suddenly to the South China Sea. In fact, Tanjung Datu is only accessible from the ocean, which only adds to the park’s sense of splendid isolation. Once you’ve made the journey, though – a 20-minute boat ride from the village of Telok Melano – you’ll be glad you did. A range of easy walking trails will take you from the beach through the rainforest, past strange plants like the poisonous putat tree and eye-catching animals including peacocks, gibbons and hornbills. If you’re a scuba diver or snorkeller, there’s a whole world to explore in the pristine waters off the beach – just look out for venomous sea snakes, stonefish and cone snails. There are basic forest huts, a campsite and a hostel, so you can stay overnight in the park if you wish – an unbeatable way to immerse yourself in the environment. Make the most of your time with a night walk through the forest, keeping an eye out for fireflies and bug-eyed slow lorises.
Easily reached from the coastal town of Bintulu, half an hour’s drive away, Similajau is another gorgeous coastal national park. The marine life here is particularly rich; book a boat tour from the park headquarters and keep an eye out for dolphins, turtles, who lay their eggs on the park’s beaches, and dugongs – famous as a potential inspiration for the mermaid myth. Back on dry land, follow suspension bridges and walkways over the mangrove forest to a beautiful viewpoint over the island, spotting wild boar and macaques as you go, and admire the Selunsur Rapids, particularly impressive in the rainy season. There’s no better way to end your adventures in the park than with a night cruise along the Likau River, keeping an eye out for saltwater crocodiles and gharials lurking in the depths; there are basic but comfortable chalets and hostel beds at the park headquarters, so you can stay in the park overnight for the full jungle adventure.
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