Travel

Cats, Caves and Culture – Touring Sarawak

THE EAST MALAYSIAN STATE OF SARAWAK OFFERS TOURISTS A WEALTH OF CULTURAL AND NATURAL ATTRACTIONS. CHRIS PRITCHARD EXPLORES THE WONDERS OF THE “LAND OF THE HORNBILL”

Thoughts about cats come easily in Kuching. Kitsch cats, fat cats, stylish cats – all manner of cats (but very few strays) are part of the landscape. Kuching means “cat” in Malay and Sarawak’s state capital trumpets its cat craziness as often as possible. Nowhere else will you see so many cat statues. I count a dozen across this fast-growing city, home to 580,000 people. There’s even a museum dedicated to felines, Kuching Cat Museum.

Contemporary Kuching is a modern port city. Steel-and-glass high-rise offices, retail malls and upscale hotels sit cheekby-jowl with quaint shop-houses. The Sarawak River’s refurbished waterfront is now a restaurant precinct. Development came later than to nearby Asian cities. So, a desire to preserve the past while embracing the new was important. Pride in “old Kuching” is powerful. Sarawak and Sabah, Borneo’s other Malaysian state, are rivals in offering tourists jungle experiences. Both do it well. British adventurer James Brooke arrived in Sarawak in 1839. He found himself enmeshed in a dispute between the ruling Sultan of Brunei and local chiefs. Brooke negotiated a Sultan-favouring settlement and was rewarded in 1841 by being titled “Rajah” of Sarawak.For three generations the Brooke family governed autocratically as so-called “White Rajahs of Sarawak”, yielding after World War II to direct British colonial rule. Sarawak gained independence in 1963, joining Malaysia as the federated nation’s biggest state.

Multi-racial Malaysia’s main races are Malays, Chinese and Indians but none of these is a majority in Sarawak. Instead, almost half of Sarawak’s people are from indigenous tribal groups (mostly Iban) with Chinese comprising 26 per cent and Malays 21 per cent. Aside from the Iban, Sarawak’s tribes include the Bidayah, Penan, Melanau and Orang Olu. An Iban longhouse stay is the most memorable of Sarawak experiences. Many tribesfolk continue living in traditional longhouses – even if, nowadays, age-old ways often merge with modern convenience. A smooth highway takes me deep into Iban heartland with oil palm and pepper plantations on each side of the road, interspersed with rice fields. Brickand-cement longhouses, sprouting TV aerials, resemble apartment rows. My destination, however, is deeper in Sarawak’s jungles where traditional timber longhouses survive. While some communities shun visitors, others welcome them. A few let tourists stay overnight.

Longhouses are often over 100m long, with as many as 24 doors to self-contained dwellings. Longhouses taking overnight visitors generally have exclusive arrangements with travel agencies whose guests stay in purpose-built longhouses alongside those housing the community. Longhouse family dwellings open onto a communal ruai, an enclosed balcony running the length of the longhouse and shared by residents. The ruai is where much of each day’s activity happens. Men and women gather outside front doors to chat, hunched over handicrafts (such as intricately-patterned hand-woven cloth, musical instruments, carvings, baskets and blowpipes). Teenagers and young people are notably absent: they’re either at government-funded boarding schools or working in Kuching or other towns. To get here, my guide drives 225 km, with a lunch stop at Serian, a busy market town. We transfer to an outboard-powered longboat for a one-hour Lemanak River trip to reach Rumah Jampang longhouse in an area called Nanga Kesit. The longhouse, home to 150, is named after its chief, Jampang, and its title changes whenever a new chief is chosen.

Accommodation, in the guest longhouse, is in cubicles for two (walls don’t quite reach the ceiling). The building holds 50, allowing for package tours, but three of us are the only guests on a quiet day. Freshly-laundered linen covers comfortable mattresses on the floor. A cluster of 150 year-old blackened skulls hangs in a bunch from the ruai ceiling. Human, they’re reminders of a head-hunting era which died out in the early 1900s. Before an early-morning blowpipe demonstration, elders explain the skulls keep the spirits happy and ensure the community’s good fortune. After breakfast comes a jungle trek. Options include lazy 10-minute ambles and challenging half-day hikes. I choose a 90-minute trudge, passing burial mounds with Chinese porcelain pots and simple crucifixes (the Iban are Christian) before crossing pepper and cacao plantations. In dense jungle, a machete clears our path. We loop back to the river, stopping at a clearing where villagers have cooked lunch in hollowed bamboo over a fire.

Later, I cruise across a man-made lake to reach Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, which replicates Iban architecture. Its canopy walkway offers treetop-level glimpses of these remote environs. Half-day diversions include kayaking on Batang Ai Hydroelectric Lake, fishing or short visits to longhouse communities. But there’s more in the self-styled “land of the hornbills”. From Kuching, Sarawak’s famous orang utans are observed in a natural environment at Semengoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre (allow a half-day). Bako National Park (reached by boat) can be visited as a day trip but overnight stays are less rushed. I’ve come to eyeball the park’s skittish proboscis monkeys, other apes and pythons – along with hornbills, Sarawak’s state bird.

I fly to another of Sarawak’s cities, Miri about half Kuching’s size. It’s a pleasant place deserving more visitors. Downtown impresses: broad streets, mid-rise office towers and surprisingly good restaurants. Miri, which has good beaches, is also becoming known as a diving destination. But my reason for coming has more to do with taking another flight – a 45-minute commuter hop to Mulu. From Mulu’s airport it’s a short drive to Gunung Mulu National Park. The park’s boardwalks, through dense rainforest, take me to Deer Cave – one of several caverns in these parts – which is big enough to accommodate London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and where, at dusk each day, one of Malaysia’s most memorable spectacles occurs: five million small bats fly out to feed. Near Lundu, Gunung Gading National Park is an easy place to see the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia – often 1m in diameter -which is known both for its great beauty and hideous aroma, like supremely rotten meat. The smell attracts flies upon which the flower feasts.

For anyone with limited time, Sarawak Cultural Village (Kampung Budaya Sarawak) on Kuching’s outskirts offers a sampling of the state’s highlights -including tribal houses in which a 160-strong community lives. Word has spread about Sarawak’s attractions. This no doubt accounts for a dramatic increase in visitor numbers in recent years.

GETTING THERE:
Both low-cost carrier Air Asia (03.2171 9333, airasia.com) and Malaysia Airlines (1 300 88 3000, malaysiaairlines.com.my) fly between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching. Fly from Miri to Gunung Mulu National Park. Many travel agents offer Sarawak packages. More information: Tourism Malaysia (tourism.gov.my) and Sarawak Tourism Board (sarawaktourism.com).

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Source: The Expat November 2011 Issue

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This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com




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