Owing to the state’s abundance of eco-lodges, responsible tour operators, and knowledgeable local guides, it’s easy to visit Sarawak sustainably and make sure your trip helps more than it harms...
Nowhere evokes wild adventure quite like Borneo, and Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on the island, offers it by the bucketload. It’s crucial, though, that we enjoy it responsibly and sustainably – this is the case everywhere, but Sarawak, with its wealth of natural resources, mind-boggling biodiversity and plethora of minority ethnic groups, is particularly at risk from rapacious development and tourism. Thankfully, owing to the state’s abundance of eco-lodges, responsible tour operators, and knowledgeable local guides, it’s easy to visit Sarawak sustainably and make sure your trip helps more than it harms.
Wildlife watching should be top of the agenda for any trip to Sarawak. The Semenggoh Nature Reserve in the west of the state is just 20km south of the city of Kuching, and is home to a population of orangutans, perhaps Malaysia’s greatest wildlife icon. The reserve’s expert guides will tell you all about the ‘people of the forest’ as you watch them gather for feeding time, swinging from the branches for a feast of fruit before they disappear back into the trees. It’s not just orangutans that Sarawak is famous for, though. Head to Kubah National Park and embark on a birdwatching tour, spotting Bornean banded kingfishers and rhinoceros hornbills in the rainforest canopy, or seek out pot-bellied, big-nosed proboscis monkeys – surely the state’s most curious-looking creature – in the verdant forests of Bako National Park. If you’re extremely lucky you might even spot a clouded leopard, though sightings of this elusive creature are rare.
Exploring Sarawak’s protected parklands is a delight, but it’s important to know that you’re doing so with responsible companies who will help, rather than hinder, conservation efforts in the state. There is no better symbol of Borneo’s fragile wildlife than the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower: this bizarre parasitic plant only blooms once a year, and is known as the ‘corpse flower’ for its odour of rotting flesh. It is endangered, and sadly its future is only made more perilous by tourists who, however well-meaning, accidentally trample the sensitive plants while posing for pictures. On a tour with a company like Amansar, expert guides take you to see the plants responsibly, showing you where to tread and teaching you about the rafflesia’s unique life cycle. Borneo Adventure also offer responsible tours, taking guests on hikes through the otherworldly pinnacles of Gunung Mulu and the steamy rainforests of Tanjung Datu National Park.
Sarawak’s possibilities for wild adventure do not end at the shoreline – in fact, they’re only just beginning. Beneath the ocean waves lies a technicolour world of alien creatures, vibrant coral gardens and underwater forests, which you can get to know on a tour with a responsible dive operator. Kuching Scuba Centre lead unforgettable muck diving adventures at the paradisaical Satang Island, where you can hope to spot colourful angelfish, butterfly fish and nudibranchs. Sematan Scuba Dive and Watersports, meanwhile, offer trips to the tiny Talang Talang Islands, which are important sanctuaries for green and hawksbill turtles. These gentle amphibians are not only beautiful, but they have an incredible life cycle. Only a tiny proportion of hatchlings make it to adulthood; those that do will travel thousands of miles at sea in their lifetimes before, remarkably, returning to the same beach they were born to lay their own eggs.
Sarawak’s pristine rainforests offer unparalleled opportunities to stay in eco-friendly lodges, where you can sleep easy knowing that your stay is doing good for the local wildlife and communities. Permai Rainforest Resort is perched on the slopes of Mount Santubong, in the untamed national park of the same name; the hotel operates according to strict eco-friendly principles, and the programme of activities will see you channelling your inner naturalist as you spot wildlife on night walks and mangrove cruises. For some respite from the humid rainforest, Borneo Highlands Resort sits in the cool mountain air of the Penrissen Range, blending in seamlessly with the surrounding jungle and hills. For an unforgettable night, stay in a Lemanak Longhouse in Batang Ai National Park – a traditional Iban dwelling, where the carbon footprint is so low there isn’t even artificial light. Just remember to bring a torch for the night time!
The 27 ethnic groups of Sarawak are as many and varied as the state’s landscapes and wildlife, speaking 45 languages and dialects and each having their own rich traditions of history and culture. Perhaps the most famous are the Iban, once known for their fierce headhunting tradition – this is now a thing of the past, but some of the old men still bear tattoos representing some of their prized scalps. Get to know the Iban with a stay in one of their traditional longhouses, which is a great way to support the community while enjoying an authentic taste of their way of life; expect to dance, feast on wild meat and forest vegetables cooked in bamboo tubes, and partake heartily of the local rice wine. Get a feel for the diversity of the state’s ethnic groups at the Sarawak Cultural Village, where you can discover cultural traditions from blowpipe shooting to sago biscuit baking.
One consequence of Sarawak’s richly diverse ethnic groups is an abundance of vibrant arts and crafts traditions. This diversity is illustrated in microcosm in the arts of batik and songket, which involve weaving together dyed threads to create beautiful textiles. Every group have their own styles and patterns, and you can see some of the artisans in action, pick up a fantastic souvenir, and support local communities at the same time by visiting a workshop. The Tanoti House in the state capital Kuching, for example, was founded with the direct aim of making weaving a viable career option, protecting the artistic tradition while supporting members of the local ethnic groups; their woven shawls and leather bags make a perfect souvenir. There are several other great places to pick up handicrafts in Kuching, such as Juliana Native Handiwork, where rattan baskets, beads and jewellery are all available courtesy of local artisans.
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in Sarawak’s vibrant culture than by attending the Rainforest World Music Festival, held yearly over three days in July. This is an extravaganza of world culture, with musicians and dancers performing from across the globe, but it offers a particularly special chance to experience the musical traditions of Borneo’s traditional tribes. Of course, there’s plenty of opportunity to try out traditional foods, too, with stalls selling everything from Ibanese delicacies to Caribbean twists on that Malaysian classic, nasi lemak (coconut rice). Besides food and music, there are workshops and presentations which shed light on traditional Sarawak culture and ethnic groups, and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, which showcases ingenious uses of the unique and varied flora to be found in Borneo’s rainforests – from medicinal plants to sustainable body oils and beauty products.
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