Sarawak is Malaysia's largest state. It lies in East Malaysia and shares the island of Borneo with the eastern state of Sabah, the separate country of Brunei and the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan.
- 1 Kuching - Sarawak's capital, the City of Cats is located at the western tip of the state.
- 2 Belaga - Jumping point to many of inner Borneo's indigenous tribes and long houses.
- 3 Bintangor - former name is 'Binatang' meaning animal. Famous for greenish skin orange.
- 4 Bintulu - dreary oil and gas industry base.
- 5 Kapit - one of the stopover along the Rejang and gateway to interior Sarawak. Only accessible using express boats from Sibu.
- 6 Miri - Sarawak's northern city, capital of the state's oil industry.
- 7 Mukah - a coastal town in Central Sarawak where the sago-eating tribe (Melanau) are found.
- 8 Sarikei - "food basket" for the Land of the Hornbills.
- 9 Sibu - gateway to the hinterland of the Rejang River, Sarawak's and Malaysia's longest river.
- 10 Simunjan - a tiny town located between Serian and Sri Aman, site of some colonial era coal works.
- 11 Kota Samarahan - the new "education hub", especially known for Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).
- Bario and the Kelabit Highlands - the vast highland plateau in the interior popular for trekking and serene Orang Ulu villages.
- 1 Rejang River - the mighty Rejang River, Malaysia's longest river, is the main "highway" connecting little towns and longhouses in Sarawak's hinterland.
- 2 Santubong Peninsula is home to Sarawak's finest beach resorts and its famous Cultural Village
- 3 Bako National Park - home to the bizarre, obscene-nosed proboscis monkey. Easily reached from Kuching.
- Batang Ai National Park - part of the region’s largest trans-national protected area for tropical rainforest conservation
- Bukit Lambir National Park - approximately 30km from Miri city. Known for its beautiful waterfalls and tranquility.
- Gunung Gading National Park - where you can try to spot a Rafflesia, the world's largest flower
- 4 Gunung Mulu National Park - with mighty Mount Mulu and some of the world's largest cave system. Easily reached by air.
- 5 Kubah National Park - massive sandstone ridge with its three mountain peaks – the 911m high Gunung Serapi and the slightly smaller Gunung Selang and Gunung Sendok
- Loagan Bunut National Park - home to the friendly community of Orang Ulu people known as the Berawan whom are mostly fishermen in this part of Sarawak. The largest freshwater lake in East Malaysia.
- Niah National Park - one of Sarawak’s better known national parks, important for its archaeological remains such as a 40,000 year old human skull, prehistoric cave paintings, and the birds nest industry. The caves are home to large colonies of bats and swiftlets.
- Similajau National Park - its coastline, a chain of golden sandy beaches, punctuated by small rocky headlands and jungle streams, and bordered by dense green forest
- Tanjung Datu National Park - smallest of Sarawak’s National Parks, at just under 14 sq km, but it is also one of the most beautiful
- Talang-Satang National Park - was established with the primary aim of conserving Sarawak’s marine turtle population
Sarawak is the largest and, certainly in terms of tourist density, least visited state of Malaysia. Nearly as large as peninsular Malaysia, the interior is covered in a thicket of impenetrable jungle and mountains. The great majority of the population lives near the coast or along rivers leading to the sea.
One of the stranger episodes in Malaysian history began in 1841 when James Brooke — an English adventurer armed only with a single ship (the Royalist), diplomatic skills, and devotion to the idea of eliminating at least some of Borneo's many pirates — was made Rajah of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei. An interesting portrait of Brooke can be found in the historical novel Flashman's Lady. James and his nephew and successor Charles expanded their private colony to cover much of what is now the state of Sarawak.
The third Rajah, Vyner, continued to develop the colony but fled from the invading Japanese in 1941 during the Pacific War, ending the Brooke dynasty after precisely 100 years. After the end of the Japanese occupation, Vyner returned to Sarawak in April 1946, but ceded the colony to the British crown in July of the same year. Sarawak joined together with Singapore, Malaya and North Borneo (today Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. This federation was opposed by Indonesia, who claimed Sarawak as their own territory, and launched a policy known as konfrontasi, in which the Indonesian government sponsored terrorist attacks in Malaysia. Indonesia abandoned their claims on Sarawak and ended their konfrontasi policy after the overthrowing of Sukarno by his successor, Suharto in 1968, and the peace has held ever since.
Even by Malaysian standards Sarawak has an extraordinary mix of peoples: the largest ethnic group is neither Chinese (26%) nor Malay (21%), but the Iban (29%), who gained worldwide notoriety as the fiercest headhunters on Borneo. Back in the bad old days, an Iban lad couldn't hope for the hand of a fair maiden without the shrunken head of an enemy to call his own, and bunches of totemic skulls still decorate the eaves of many a jungle longhouse. Fortunately for visitors, headhunting hasn't been practiced for a while, although some of the skulls date from as late as World War II when, with British support, Iban mercenaries fought against the occupying Japanese.
During World War II, many Ibans were recruited into an elite para-military unit called the Sarawak Rangers, which specialised in jungle guerrilla warfare and contributed significantly to the Allied war effort in Borneo. In the postwar Malayan Emergency they fought against Communists. When Sarawak joined Malaysia, the Sarawak Rangers became part of the Malaysian Army, renamed the Royal Ranger Regiment, which is the second most decorated regiment in the Malaysian Army after the Royal Malay Regiment.
Other tribes of note include the Bidayuh (8%) and the Melanau (5%), as well as a smattering of Kenyah, Kayan and a group of tiny tribes in the deep heartland known collectively as the Orang Ulu (Malay for "upriver people").
Speaking Malay in Sarawak
Some basic communication terms in Bahasa Melayu Sarawak:
Malay and English are the two official languages of the state, but various Chinese dialects are widely spoken. The Iban language is the largest linguistic group, with many local variations. The majority of Sarawakians are multilingual, a necessity in such a multicultural society, and Malay or English will stand you in good stead in most places. Knowing some phrases in Iban, Chinese or other local dialects however will greatly impress your hosts wherever you go. For travels to the Upper Baram region, some knowledge of Penan may be useful.
The Iban Language: This mostly and widely spoken language of Sarawak is quite similar to Malay, but while the two languages share some vocabulary in common, Iban slang is totally different from Malay. It is also known that the Iban community in Sarawak is divided into various different divisions ranging from Kuching to Sri Aman, Betong, Sibu, Bintulu and all the way up North to Miri. These divisions are represented by different Iban accents and dialects. Some useful Iban Words: English-Iban You-Nuan/dik/kuak I-Aku/kami (also stands for plural form of us) Eat-Makai/empuk Not yet-Bedau/apian speak-jaku cheers (drink)-ngirup nice-nyamai beautiful-bajik (bajiek)
While standard Malay is well understood, the local dialect, known as "Bahasa Melayu Sarawak", is different enough to be legally categorized as its own language. Malays from the coast of Sarawak, especially those from Sebuyau, Kabong, Saratok, Betong, Sri Aman and the surrounding areas speak a different dialect called "Bahasa Orang Laut". Malays from Sibu and Miri speak a language similar to Kuchingites' Malay, but they have some terms unique to their dialect, for example "Pia" in Sibu (in Kuching, they called it "Sia", which means "there"), "Cali" in Miri (in Kuching, they called it "Jenaka", which means "funny").
The Chinese community in Sarawak mostly originated from Southern China, especially Fujian province. Therefore, the most widely spoken Chinese dialects in Sarawak are different from the Cantonese you hear in most Chinatowns in the world. The main dialects here are Hokkien, Fuzhou Hua, Hakka and Teochew, though most ethnic Chinese locals speak Mandarin as well.
Like neighboring Sabah, Sarawak maintains autonomy on immigration control, mostly so mainlanders cannot freely immigrate and swamp the thinly populated state. Even if coming in from elsewhere in Malaysia, Malaysians need to bring along their ID and are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time.
Still, for most travellers this is just a formality and an interesting extra stamp in their passport, as anybody who does not need a visa for Malaysia can get a free 90-day visit permit on arrival. It is recommended to have a return ticket as immigration office may ask for it.
Most visitors arrive in Sarawak by plane. The largest gateway is Kuching (KCH IATA) the state capital, which is about 1.5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, and also has flights to numerous other cities in Malaysia. It is also served by international flights to Singapore and Bandar Seri Begawan.
Other airports served by flights from Peninsula Malaysia and Sabah are Miri (MYY IATA), Sibu (SBW IATA) and Bintulu (BTU IATA). MASWings serves flights between cities and rural areas in East Malaysia, including Sarawak and Sabah. Miri and Sibu are each served by an international flight to Singapore on AirAsia several times a week.
Brunei. There are several land crossings between Sarawak and Brunei. They are at Sungei Tujuh (on the road between Miri and Bandar Seri Begawan), Tedungan (on the road between Limbang and Bandar Seri Begawan), Pandaruan (a ferry crossing on the route between Limbang and Brunei's Temburong district) and Labu (along the route from Temburong district to Lawas).
Indonesia. The main crossing between Sarawak and Indonesia is the Tebedu-Entikong checkpoint which lies along the Kuching-Pontianak road. There are many other crossings between the two countries although the legality of these crossings are questionable and are mostly used by locals living in those areas. It is also possible to legally cross the border in the Kelabit Highlands between Bario and Long Bawan. See the Kelabit Highlands and Pontianak to Kuching pages for details.
There are direct international buses from Pontianak, Indonesia to Kuching, a direct express bus service between Lawas in northeastern Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah as well as bus connections between Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei and Miri.
Sarawak is big and its roads are poor by Malaysian standards, making air travel the most convenient way of getting around. For example, it's about 1 hour from Kuching to Miri by plane (full fare RM164, but can be as low as RM60), but a butt-numbing 14 hours by bus (RM80).
Cars can by hired for as low as MYR 100/per day, with discounts for long-term hires. Don't hesitate to ask for some free parking tickets from the car rental company. Petrol is around MYR 22/litre. The main highway, Route 1, is 1077 km long and runs the full length of Sarawak. The highway is only one lane in each direction and the condition in many sections of the highway is poor with many potholes so drive carefully.
The rural air service is operated by MASWings, which took over the network from FlyAsian Express (FAX) on October 1, 2007. Flights use Fokkers and Twin Otter aircraft. Fokkers flight cover Kuching, Sibu, Miri, Limbang and Mulu National Park while Twin Otter planes link Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Lawas with rural towns and longhouses like Mukah, Marudi and various settlements in the Kelabit Highlands like Bario, Bakelalan, Long Seridan, Long Lellang, Long Banga and Long Akah.
Most cities in Sarawak are now linked by express buses although trip times can be long due to the distance. Companies include EVA Express and Bintang Jaya Express.
Express boats run from the coast inland along Borneo's larger rivers. They are generally faster than buses and cheaper than planes. Popular routes include Kuching-Sibu (4 hours) and Sibu-Kapit (3 hours).
Most cities have local buses and taxis serving not only the city centres and their surrounding suburbs but also adjacent rural districts.
Sarawak's highlights include the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park, which are some of the largest in the world, and the orangutans of Semengoh. A visit to the longhouses and indigenous tribes in the interior of Sarawak is a must.
Sri Aman - little town along the Batang Lupar, popular among local and foreign tourists especially during the annual tidal bore phenomenon 'benak' in April.
- Semengoh - home to a famous orangutan sanctuary and rehabilitation center
- Wind Cave Nature Reserve and Fairy cave - is part of the Bau Formation, a narrow belt of limestone covering about 150 sq km of Southwest Sarawak
- Sama Jaya Nature Reserve - the first multipurpose urban forest park in Sarawak
Visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, some 45 minutes' drive from Kuching. It is a living museum of different tribes and architecture spread over a lovely green area at the foot of Mount Santubong. You will be able to see how Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh, etc. tribes live, work and cook in the longhouses, each with its own identity. It is also best to visit this place during the annual Rainforest World Music Festival which happens each July.
Rainforest World Music Festival is a three-day world music festival in Kuching that brings together some of the best world musicians for workshops and nightly live concerts.
Iban Longhouse. Take a tour to an Iban Longhouse. One longhouse provides accommodation for visitors. The facilities are very basic, but tolerable for one night and an interesting insight into the Iban culture.
- Bidayuh longhouse. Visit one of the very old Bidayuh longhouse such as Annah Rais Longhouse, which is nearer to the Kuching.
Various tribal handicrafts are the most popular souvenirs from Sarawak. Particularly notable are pua kumbu, double-woven fabrics woven by Iban women and illustrated with hypnotic, surreal patterns, wood carvings and bead handicraft by the Kayan and the Kenyah tribes, and Bidayuh baskets and floor mat or kasah, woven from rattan. Black pepper from Sarawak (far more potent than the bland stuff sold in the average supermarket) is also a worthwhile buy.
Information about Eastern Malaysian dishes can be found at Cuisine of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei#East Malaysian and Bruneian cuisine.
The local firewater, served up in prodigious quantities if you stay in a longhouse, is known as tuak and is distilled from rice, sago or any other convenient source of fermentable sugar. For those who want a stronger dose, langkau or Iban whisky can be sourced from longhouses in the interior. You can buy commercial tuak (The Royalist) at most supermarkets in Kuching, and is a good souvenir. The commercial rice wine/tuak is rather pleasant to drink, and with none of that home-brewed murkiness.
Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are very common in certain parts Sarawak, especially brackish areas like Batang Lupar. A visit to Jong's Crocodile Farm is recommended. Active headhunters have not existed in Borneo for 50+ years, thanks largely to the Rajah Brooke's effort to pacify warring tribes and peace-making.
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Overland to other parts of Borneo: