Once the world of travel re-opens again, adventurous souls will be raring to explore the planet’s extremes of natural beauty and cultural diversity. Here's why you should make Sarawak your first stop...
Once the world of travel re-opens following the coronavirus pandemic, adventurous souls of all kinds will be raring to explore the planet’s extremes of natural beauty and cultural diversity. With its myriad ethnic groups, ancient rainforests and vibrant wildlife, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, delivers on both fronts – which, combined with Malaysia’s success at combating the virus, makes it a fantastic option for a post-COVID adventure.
Sarawak’s location on the island of Borneo, separated from Peninsular Malaysia by hundreds of miles of the South China Sea, confers certain advantages when it comes to infection control. At the time of writing, all visitors arriving by air into Sarawak – as well as the neighbouring state of Sabah – must provide a negative PCR test for COVID-19 before they board their flight to Borneo. For international travellers, who will be transiting via Kuala Lumpur International Airport, an additional 14-day quarantine is required before this test is taken. These two measures in combination should help minimise the risk of someone infected with coronavirus travelling to Sarawak. Many airlines are also taking steps to combat the spread of the disease. Malaysia Airlines, for example, has introduced measures such as mandatory face mask use at airports and on board planes, as well as social distancing and strict sanitation protocols, so you can relax into your flight knowing that every step has been taken to ensure passengers’ safety. Malaysia also has a cutting-edge contact tracing system, with everyone who enters the country required to download the MySejahtera contact tracing app onto their phones.
Although Sarawak is home to some 2.6 million people – ranking fourth among Malaysian states for population size – they are spread over a very wide area. Sarawak is the largest Malaysian state, almost the same area as the whole of Peninsular Malaysia, and the result is that Sarawak has the lowest population density of any state in the country. In fact, there’s only around 20 people per square kilometre here, which means Sarawak is ready-made for social distancing. Of course, in bigger cities like Kuching you’ll have less space to yourself, but even there the population is around ten times less densely populated than in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Simply put, it’s easy to get away from the crowds in Sarawak. Go to lesser visited national parks like Talang Satang or Similajau, and there may not be another soul in sight – which means the beautiful plants, animals and landscapes are all yours to enjoy. Even in the busier parks, there is plenty of space to keep yourself to yourself – Gunung Mulu is home to some of the largest caves in the world, so keeping two metres away from others shouldn’t be a problem!
Interacting with local people is an essential part of travel in all corners of the globe, but particularly in Sarawak, where the ethnic and cultural diversity is especially rich. When done right, cultural tours of tribal villages can benefit both the traveller and the local communities, fostering understanding and cultural exchange. This Responsible Travel tour of Borneo, for example, sees you visiting the Sarawak Cultural Village in Damai Beach, a ‘living museum’ where members of indigenous tribes showcase their arts and culture – far from being exploitative, this supports local communities and keeps their traditions alive. You can also stay in the villages themselves, sleeping in an Iban longhouse, dining with local families on rice and game cooked in bamboo tubes, and admiring their beautiful wood carvings. You might also get the chance to try traditional pursuits, like using a blowpipe. After the slump in tourism due to the pandemic, it’s not just travellers who will be desperate to get exploring again; the locals themselves will be keener than ever to welcome you into their communities, too.
Let’s face it: for all the bread baking, language learning, home workouts and everything else that social media tells us we should be doing during lockdown, the reality is that many of us are seriously yearning for adventure. When we’re able to visit the wider world again, we’ll be itching to satisfy those seriously built-up appetites for exploration – and where better than Sarawak? The very name of Borneo evokes a spirit of wild adventure, and intrepid souls will find endless activities to divert them here. In Gunung Mulu, climbers can test their mettle on the razor-sharp Pinnacles rock formations, while the famous Headhunters’ Trail takes you along vine-strewn jungle pathways and across murky rivers in the footsteps of Kayan warriors. The trekking in the rainforests of Bako National Park and Batang Ai is among the finest in the world, while kayaking down the Sarawak River, soundtracked by the cacophonous sounds of gibbons, hornbills and macaques, is an unforgettable way to immerse yourself in the jungle.
Travelling sustainably, whether in relation to the environment or local communities, should be an essential consideration wherever we’re going. In Sarawak, where both the beauty and fragility of the natural world loom so large, the importance of sustainability is particularly stark; happily, it’s also made easy, thanks to the plethora of hotels and tour companies that operate with a sustainable ethos. These include the likes of the Permai Rainforest Resort at the foot of Mount Santubong, which is committed to the preservation of the jungle that surrounds it through initiatives like recycling, composting, buying local furniture made from recycled timber, and selling locally made handicrafts to support rural and tribal communities. Indeed, sustainability is as much a cultural issue as an environmental one, and travellers’ interactions with local communities can help rather than harm. The key is to ensure you organise your activities through an ethical company, like Borneo Eco Tours, which is committed to empowering communities rather than taking advantage of them
Malaysia is a country famed for its cultural diversity, but Sarawak is a glorious patchwork of cultures and ethnicities even by the national standard. According to the state government there are some 27 ethnic groups here, but even within that large number there is great variety when it comes to dress, cuisine, music, dance and folklore. The capital, Kuching, is a good place to start your cultural explorations. Head to the restaurants which line the attractive waterfront to try classic Malay dishes like laksa (noodle soup) and nasi lemak (coconut rice), and visit the Chinese History Museum to learn about the important role people of Chinese descent have played in Sarawak over the last two centuries. When you’ve had your fill of the city, head into the immensely beautiful countryside to learn more about indigenous Bornean people. A visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village living museum will give you a good overview of the various indigenous groups, but there’s no better way to really immerse yourself in local culture than to spend a night in a longhouse, experiencing traditional Dayak music, dance, and cuisine.
Being locked down during the pandemic has made many of us realise just how important nature is to our physical and mental wellbeing, with city dwellers spending more time in parks and people escaping where they can to the countryside to commune with the great outdoors. Sarawak’s vast tracts of pristine rainforest and its untrammelled diversity make it a must-visit for any lovers of the natural world. The chance to see orangutans up close – whether in the wilds of Batang Ai or at sanctuaries like Semenggoh Nature Reserve – ranks among the most heart-stopping wildlife experiences on earth, while birdwatchers could spend a lifetime spotting hornbills, banded kingfishers, babblers and bulbuls in parks like Kubah. It’s not just the animal kingdom that’s in show-off mode in Sarawak, though; there’s some seriously strange plant life to be found here, too. Carnivorous monkey cup plants lie in wait in the highland forests, the bizarre ‘corpse flower’ blooms once a year in Gunung Gading, and rare orchids thrive where nothing else can on the jagged peaks of Gunung Mulu.
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