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Sarawak - Borneo, Malaysia


The land of the fabled White Rajahs, the hornbill and the orang utan. Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia and by far the most exotic. Often described as Borneo’s “Hidden Paradise”, its rainforest, the size of Austria, houses the world’s richest and most diverse eco-system. It is also home to the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, the size of a coffee table, squirrels and snakes that fly, deer the size of cats, plants that eat insects (and small mammals), and a myriad of species of flora and insects still waiting to be discovered.

The principal river that surrounds this city is the Sarawak River. Apart from that, one can also find rivers like Luper, Saribas, and Rajang. Sarawak's diversity lies in the natural features starting from its coastal areas to the hill regions. Mountains such as Kelabit, Murut and Kenyah have adorned its outskirts.


The history of Sarawak could have been lifted straight out of a Hollywood epic box office hit. In the 19th century, a cast of several thousand headhunters and pirates set into action a swirl of events peppered with enough adventure and intrigue to satisfy any action movie enthusiast.

The Brooke era chronicles the time ruled by three generations of an English family whose first foray into Sarawak came with James Brooke, the first White Rajah. The dynasty of the White Rajah was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. In 1839, when the English swashbuckling adventurer James Brooke docked in Kuching to deliver a letter to the governor of Sarawak, Rajah Muda Hashim, Sarawak was in the throes of a rebellion against the Brunei sultanate. As a token of appreciation to James Brooke for quelling the uprising, the grateful Pengian Mahkota of Brunei granted Brooke the territory between Tanjung Datu and Samarahan river in 1841. James Brooke ‘crowned’ himself ‘Rajah’, becoming the first white man to rule such a large territory in the East in his name and not on behalf of a European monarch. James Brooks’ eldest son, Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke acceded in 1917 and ruled Sarawak as absolute potentate though he granted Sarawak a written constitution in 1941.The Japanese arrived the same year, putting events on hold and during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945) Charles and his family fled to Australia. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 Charles Brooke returned to Sarawak and resumed his role as the White Rajah.

British pressure and his belief that the state could not recover and progress on its own, led to Sir Charles’ announcement to relinquish Sarawak to Britain. Sarawak’s colonization by the British on 1 July 1946 caused a division amongst the people and hundreds of government officers and teachers resigned from the government service in protest.

As a British colony, Sarawak’s economy expanded and oil and timber production increased, which funded the much-needed expansion of education and health services. Following Malaysian independence in 1957, Britain was keen to give Sarawak and British North Borneo (Sabah), independence also. To this end Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, proposed the formation of a federation to include Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, as well as the peninsula. In the end, Brunei opted out, Singapore left after two years, but Sarawak and Sabah joined after being offered a degree of autonomy, allowing their local governments control over state finances, agriculture and forestry.

Population: Sarawak, with 2,399,839 people altogether is the one of the most inhabited states in Malaysia, though not so densely due to its enormous area. And moreover the population growth in Sarawak is not too high like the rest of the Malaysian states.


One of the most attractive features of the State of Sarawak, and one which sets it aside from many of the other Malaysian states is its cultural diversity. With 27 distinct indigenous ethnic groups that speak 45 different languages and dialects, Sarawak can be proud to boast racial harmony amongst a population of 2.1 million who adhere to a variety of traditions, practices and religions (see section on ethnic groups). With such a melting pot of customs and cultures, Sarawakians enjoy a variety of colourful festivals throughout the calendar year (see section on Festivals). The cultural diversity also accounts for why Sarawak is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.

Arrive in Sarawak and you step into adventure. How much adventures is up to you. You can stroll for a morning in a national park, or trek for days through pristine jungle. If walking is not your style why not try a river safari, or white water rafting on Rejang, the longest river in Malaysia. Want to get out of the sun? Spend days exploring the world’s most extensive cave system, 310 kilometres of passages with more waiting to be found. If history thrills you, visit caves that were inhabited 40,000 years ago and learn how Indian and Chinese merchants traded for Sarawak’s exotic products centuries before the first Europeans came here. Hear stories of princes and pirates, of head hunters and explorers. But if that is more excitement than you need, relax on one of the beaches by the South China Sea, or scuba dive off reefs, or just enjoy a round of golf at the Damai Golf & Country Club. Sarawak has something for everyone and a welcome for all.


The Malays

The Malays make up 21% of the population in Sarawak. Traditionally fishermen, these seafaring people chose to form settlements on the banks of the many rivers of Sarawak. Today, many Malays have migrated to the cities to take up various professions in the public and private sectors.Malay villages (Kampungs) – a cluster of wooden houses on stilts, many of which are still located by rivers on the outskirts of major towns and cities, play home to traditional cottage industries. The Malays are famed for their wood carvings, silver and brass crafts as well as traditional Malays textile waving. The Malays are Muslim by religion, having brought the faith to Asia some 1000 years ago. Their religion is reflected in their culture and art and Islamic symbolism is evident in their local architecture.

The Melanaus

The Melanaus have been thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak. Originally from Mukah, the Melanaus traditionally lived in tall houses. Nowadays, they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in kampong-type settlements. The Melanaus were believed to originally worship spirits in a practice bordering on paganism. Today, many of them are Christian and Muslim, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.

The Chinese

The Chinese first came to Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th Century. Today, they make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and comprise of communities built from the economic migrants of the 19th and 20th centuries. The first Chinese migrants worked as labourers in the gold mines at Bau or on plantations. Through their clan associations, business acumen and work ethnic, the Chinese organised themselves economically and rapidly dominated commerce. Today, the Chinese are amongst Sarawak’s most prosperous ethnic groups. The Sarawak Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all the major cultural festivals, most notably Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and Christians.

The Iban

The Iban form the largest percentage of Sarawak’s population, making up some 30%. Reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo, the Ibans of today are a generous, hospitable and peaceful people. Because of their history as pirates and fishermen, they were conventionally referred to as the “Sea Dayaks”. The early Iban settlers migrated from Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo south of Sarawak) and set up home in the many river valleys. The Ibans dwell in longhouses, a stilted structure compromising many rooms housing a whole community of families.

The Ibans are renowned for their Pua Kumbu (traditional Iban weavings), silver craftings, wooden carvings, beadwork, and high-quality rattan baskets and mats.  The Ibans were also famous for their tuak (rice wine) which is served during big celebrations and festive occasions. Today, the majority of Ibans practice Christianity.  However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still hold strong to their many traditional rituals and beliefs.  Sarawak is unique to colourful festivals such as the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Gawai Kenyalang (hornbill festival), and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead).

The Bidayuhs

Originally from West Kalimantan, the Bidayuhs are now most numerous in the hill country of Bau and Serian, within an hour’s drive from Kuching.  Historically, as other tribes were migrating into Sarawak and forming settlements, the meek-natured Bidayuhs retreated further inland, hence earning them the name of “Land Dayaks”.  The traditional Bidayuh abode is the “baruk”, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground. The Bidayuhs speak a number of different but related dialects.  Whilst some of them still practice traditional religions, most modern-day Bidayuhs have adopted the Christian faith.

Orang Ulu

The phrase Orang Ulu means ‘up-river people’ and is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak’s vast interior.  Such groups include the Kenyah tribes, and the smaller neighbouring tribes of the Kejang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, and Penan.  Nowadays, the definition also includes the down-river tribes of the Lun Bewang, Lun Dayeh, Murut and Berawan as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabits.  The various Orang Ulu groups together make up roughly 5.5% of Sarawak’s population. The Orang Ulu are artistic people with longhouses elaborately decorated with murals and woodcarvings.  They are also well-known for their intricate beadwork and detailed tattoos.  The Orang Ulu tribe can also be identified by their unique music – distinctive sounds from their sape, a stringed instrument not unlike the mandolin. A vast majority of the Orang Ulu tribe are Christians but old traditional religions are still practiced in some areas. Some of the major tribes making up the Orang Ulu group include: KayanThere are approximately 15,000 Kayans in Sarawak.  The Kayan tribe built their longhouses in the northern interiors of Sarawak midway on the Baram River, the upper Relang River and the lower Tabau River, and were traditionally headhunters.  Although many Kayan have become Christians, some still practice paganistic beliefs. Kelabit With a population of approximately 3,000, the Kelabit are inhabitants of Bario – a remote plateau in the Sarawak Highlands, slightly over 1,200 meters above sea-level. The Kelabits form a tight-knit community and practice a generations-old form of agriculture.  Famous for their rice-farming, they also cultivate a variety of other crops which are suited to the cooler climate of the Highlands of Bario.

Kenyah There are few findings on the exact origin of the Kenyah tribe.  Their heartland, however, is Long San, along the Baram River.  Their culture is very similar to that of the Kenyan tribe with whom they live in close association. The typical Kenyah village consists of only one longhouse and people are mainly farmers, planting rice in burnt jungle clearings.
Penan The Penan are the only true nomadic people in Sarawak and amongst the last of the world’s hunter-gathers.  The Penan make their home under the rainforest canopy, deep within the vast expanse of Sarawak’s virgin jungle.  Even today, the Penan continue to roam the rainforest hunting wild boar and deer with blowpipes. The traditional Penan worships a supreme god called Bungan.  However, the increasing number who have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle for settlement in longhouses have converted to Christianity.


The timing of Islamic festivals is an art rather than a science and is calculated on the basis of local sightings of various phases of the moon.  Muslim festivals move forward by around nine to ten days each year.  Chinese, Indian (Hindu) and some Christian holidays are also moveable.  To make things more exciting, each state has its own public holidays when shops close and banks pull down their shutters.  This makes calculating public holidays in advance a bit of a quagmire of lunar events, assorted king’s birthdays and tribal festivals. Besides those festivals celebrated throughout Malaysia:  Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Hari Raya – Sarawak and Sabah have their own festivals, although exact dates can vary.  For details of what festivals are held and when go to the official Sarawak Tourism website:

Language of Sarawak: The maximum number of people in Sarawak speak Iban as majority belong to this community. Although like all other places in malaysia, Malay is the official language of Sarawak, but folk speaking English and Chinese are also to be found in this large island. Iban might seem quite similar to the indigenous Malay language but some colloquial words have brought the difference. Just like the other cities of Malaysia, people with Cantonese or Filipino tongue may also be found in Sarawak.

(Illustrated: Chinese New Year celebrations at the Holiday Inn, Damai Beach).


Batang Ai National Park: covers 240 sq km, and the park’s rainforest features wildlife such as orang-utans, gibbons and hornbills. Some travel agencies in Kuching can arrange accommodation in nearby longhouses and treks into the park, but most tourists stay at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort (featured above) from which quality longhouse tours, jungle treks and fishing trips can be arranged.

Sibu and Kuching are the Yin and Yang of urban Borneo. A river town, Sibu was once known as New Foochow. It was so named after Chinese migrants who came from the Foochow province in the early years of the 20th century. The Melanu, then Malays and Iban were the first inhabitants.

Kanowit: This small riverside settlement is the last stop on the Rejang that’s connected to the coast by road – it’s boat only from here to upstream. A White Rajah fort Fort Emma sits to the right of the wharf, and there’s also a colourful Clock tower decorated in Iban ‘tree-of-life’ style and a brightly painted Chinese Temple.

Kapit: is another Rejang river town dating to the days of the white raja – historic Fort Sylvia still stands on the riverbank.

Similajau National Park: occupies a narrow coastal strip 30km long but only a few kilometres wide. A 45 minute drive northeast of Bintulu, this park’s deserted sandy beaches are among the best in Sarawak. Similajau’s coastal rainforest is a haven for wildlife. A recent survey recorded 230 bird species, making it one of the diversely inhabited areas in Sarawak.

Niah Caves National Park: This small national park (32 sq km) near the coast between Miri and Bintulu protects one of Sarawak’s most famous attractions, the Niah Caves. Niah Caves National Park is about 115km south of Miri and its centrepiece is the Great Cave, which is one of the largest caves in the world.

Miri: Sarawak’s most northerly city, evolved from a small and humble fishing town to a major commercial centre, exporting petroleum, palm oil, coconut oil, timber, pepper and rubber. The city is also an important service centre for the river towns in northern Sarawak.

Marudi: is situated upriver from Miri. Its main attraction is yet another of the Brooke outposts. Fort Hose, was built in 1989 and named after Charles Hose, who became administrator of the district in 1891.

Gunung Mulu National Park: Gunung Mulu is the most heavily promoted of Sarawak’s national parks and one of the most popular destinations in the state. The park is an unspoilt wilderness offering caving trekking and wildlife-watching. Mulu’s most famous attractions are the Pinnacles – a stone forest of razor sharp limestone peaks towering 45km above the rainforest – and the so-called Headhunters’ Trial, which follows an old tribal war path.

How to get into Sarawak:

Among all the states of Malaysia, Sarawak is the only state that has its autonomy over the immigration control process. Those who live in the mainland will not be allowed to sneak into this place. Even though a person is coming from within Malaysia to Sarawak, they require carrying their identity documents and cannot stay longer than 90 days at a stretch. The foreign residents have to fill up a second form of immigration other than the one filled up for Malaysia itself. One needs to specify whether they want to visit Sarawak to the Malaysian embassy when they are making their Visa.

One can either choose the airways or the land to get into this state. Most foreign visitors enter this state by plane through Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. If travelling from Indonesia, there are direct flights too. To enter by land, one has to choose the ways that run through Brunei, Indonesia and Sabah.

How to get around Sarawak:


One cannot roam around the entire state in one day as Sarawak is too big for that. And moreover the roads being too uneven makes it difficult to go on food or by car. So, in that scenario, flight is the most convenient mode of transport is Sarawak. There are frequent flights available between Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Bintulu at Malaysia Airline as well as Air Asia and these are quite affordable too.

Water ways:

In Sarawak, express boats are easily available that are even faster than the cars and much more reasonable than the flights. The Kuching to Sibu and Sibu to Kapit routes are quite popular among the other waterways.


Buses are also a favourable mode of transport but it may take a lot of time to travel in bus as the distance is too long between one place to another.

What to shop for:

Sarawak is well-known for the tribal folk artefacts like the Pua Kumbu or the twice-weaved fabrics made by the Iban women or the Bidayuh baskets and floor mats crafted with rattan known as Kasah.

Basic Dishes of Sarawak:

There are various dishes in Sarawak that will satiate the taste buds of a gourmet. There is Manok Panosh, a dish made with chicken that is usually consumed with white rice. Other dishes include Umai (raw fish mixed with salad), A green fern dish called Midin and so on. Some dishes have also found its recipes from the Chinese cuisines. The two most popular beverages are Tuak and Langkau that are made in the crude Sarawak style and leave intoxicating effect.