Straddling the equator and dominated by luxuriant rainforests, Borneo is the third largest island in the world, its territory apportioned unevenly between the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. A tropical paradise with unspoilt, endless white sandy beaches, the oldest and most bio-diverse rainforest on Earth, and an abundance of natural wonders. The two states of Sarawak and Sabah make up the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, and are separated from West Malaysia by the South China Sea. Sarawak stretches some 800km along the northwest coasts and directly adjoins the State of Sabah to the north-east, where the sultanate of Brunei forms a double enclave. Inland, the State borders with Kalimantan, Indonesia.
As can only be expected, 21st-century Borneo is a fast-changing place, but despite the fast pace of change, indigenous culture remains ingrained in the various lifestyles of Borneo’s inhabitants. Beyond the Malay-dominated town and cities, life still revolves around the longhouse and the river. For the visitor, it is the legendary hospitality of Borneo’s tribal peoples, as much as the magnificent rainforests themselves, that make the island such a magical place to encounter.
Borneo has a typical equatorial climate with sunshine all year round. Temperatures are fairly uniform, averaging 25-33 degrees Celsius during the day and rarely dropping below 20 degrees Celsius at night, except in the mountains where they can drop to below 20 degrees Celsius. Most rainfall occurs between November and January during the northeast monsoon, and is characterised by sharp cloudbursts which are short in duration. The dry season runs form May to September.
As the official language of Malaysia, the Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia) is still very much used by official government agencies for official correspondence. Most school teach Bahasa Malaysia as the primary language with English taught as a subject. However, with the major towns and cities fast becoming economic centres, English is widely used and spoken in Sarawak. With the large Chinese settlement in the major towns and cities, a variety of Chinese dialects are used such as Hokkien, Hakka, Foochow, Teochew and Manadrin. Most Sarawakians bridge the communication divide between the various ethnic groups with “Bahasa Sarawak” (literally meaning ‘language of Sarawak’) sometimes known as local Malay.
The unit of currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM) which is divided into 100 cents or sen. Bank notes come in denominations of RM 1, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 sens. Sterling is very strong against the ringgit, averaging RM 6.80 to every UK pound.
Except in the larger fixed-price stores, bargaining (with good humour) is expected; start bargaining at 50-60% lower than the asking price. Do not expect to achieve instant results; if you walk away from the stop, you will usually be followed, with a lower offer. If the salesperson agrees to your price, you should feel obliged to purchase – it is considered very ill manner to agree on a price and then not buy the article.
The traditional handicraft industry is flourishing in Sarawak, and Kuching is full of handicraft and antique shops selling tribal pieces collected from upriver, and the best pieces are to be found in the tourist shops along the Main Bazaar, opposite the waterfront.
Practically every dish offers fresh insight into the history and culture of this colourful region. Forget potatoes – rice (nasa) and noodles (mee) rule in this region. Rice is either steamed or fried, and noodles can be made from wheat, wheat and egg, rice or mung beans, and are used in a bewildering number of dishes either fried or boiled.
Malays generally prefer their fish fried (ikan) whole and stuffed with spices, or chopped into chunks or steaks and served with a spicy (tamarind) sauce. In Malaysian Borneo in particular hinava (raw fish marinated with lime juice and herbs) is very popular. Chinese prefer to cook larger fish either steamed (when the fish is extremely fresh), fried or braised. Fish is also served in a variety of other ways, such as otak (rectangles of fish wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over charcoal), or with noodles in a spicy soup. Shellfish (karang) and crustaceans (unam) are also highly popular.
Apart from fish, chicken (ayam) is possibly the most consumed meat in the region. Beef (daging lembu) and mutton (daging kambing, which also refers to lamb as well as kid and goat) are common in Malay dishes such as beef rendang (beef in thick coconut-milk curry sauce); daging masak kicap (beef in soy sauce), and gulai daging (beef curry).
While pork (babi) is considered haram (forbidden) amongst Muslims, the Chinese (but not so much the Indians) revel in its flavour.
Protein-rich soya bean (dao, also called tau) is present in many dishes, whether in the form of bean curd, fermented beans or soy sauce. Pulses, dried beans, peas and lentils – form the basis of many an Indian vegetarian dish, including dhal (lentil, pea or bean, also called daal) curry and dosa, paper-thin rice-and-lentil crepes served with coconut chutney and curry.
Sago palm is the main starch component of some tribal meals. Sago-based boar and deer are Sarawak favourites, and vegetable dishes made with jungle ferns and paku (fern shoots) are not to be missed.
It is impossible to conceive of a Malaysian dish without chilli. Blended and ground with other spices, it adds depth to a curry. Chillies blended on their own form the base for many a sambal (relish) and chilli sauce.
Considered the heart and soul of Malay curries and sauces, rempah is a mix of spices created by pounding a combination of wet (including shallots, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and ginger) and dry (items such as candlenuts, cinnamon, coriander, seeds, cumin, cloves and peppercorns) ingredients to form a paste. These pastes are then used to form the basis of many Malay dishes.
Fruits are usually served raw, ripe and sliced in a big, mixed fruit platter. They are sometimes use in salads, such as rojak (salad with shrimp-paste based dressing), or kerabu tau geh (bean-sprout salad). The red, leathery and hairy skin of rambutans conceals a sweet, succulent, semi-translucent white flesh. Also not so attractive on the outside is jackfruit, but its bright yellow flesh is sugary sweet and very fragrant.
Telecommunications in the state have developed at quite an amazing rate, and Telekom Malaysia Berhad, Malaysia’s telecommunication provider has set-up an infrastructure enabling telephone facilities in even the most remote villages of the state. Most of the areas in Sarawak also receive cellular telecommunications coverage via the various service providers in the country.
The past 5 years have seen an increasing awareness in Sarawak on using the Internet as an alternative means of communication. Through the two major Internet Service Providers in the country, most Sarawakians in and around the major towns and cities are going on-line. The recent introduction of broadband Internet access has seen an even sharper increase in the number of Internet users in the state, and Internet Cafes have sprung up all over the place.
International Telephone and Fax facilities
It is possible to make IDD calls from any Telekom pay phone marked ‘international’ (with which you can use coins or Telekom phonecards). Alternatively go to a Telekom office where you can make IDD or operator-assisted international calls; all the large hotels will offer this service also. Telekom offices and hotels can also provide fax facilities upon request.
Malaysia has an efficient postal system and there is a main Post Office in the centre of Kuching, which opens from 08.00am to 4pm. Alternatively you can post letters or cards in the boxes provided at the reception desks of the Holiday Inns Damai Beach Resort, and Damai Lagoon. DHL and a number of other international swift postal service operators have offices in Kuching.
The main religions in Sarawak are Islam, Christianity of a variety of denominations and Buddhism. Like the rest of Malaysia, Sarawak is blessed with a population that practices mutual tolerance and respect for the various religious beliefs, and freedom of religion is guaranteed (see ethnic groups for more information).
Hospitals and Clinics
There is a good range of both public and private hospitals in Kuching and health care in general is very good. Sarawak General Hospital is situated at Jl Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui. Private health care is very reasonably priced certainly as compared to the UK. The Normah Medical Centre is situated across the river on Jl Tun Datuk Patinggi Hj. The majority of doctors have either undertaken their training in the UK or part of their residence, and all speak excellent English.
Apex Pharmacy is located on the 1st floor in the Sarawak Plaza in the centre of Kuching; YK Farmasi is located at 22 Main Bazaar