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.
Map of Sarawak in Malaysia
- Rejang River - Malaysia's longest river, is the main "highway" connecting little towns and longhouses in Sarawak's hinterland.
- Kuching - Sarawak's capital, the City of Cats is located at the western tip of the state
- Belaga - Jumping point to many of inner Borneo's indigenous tribes and long houses
- Bintangor - former name is 'Binatang' meaning animal. Famous for greenish skin orange.
- Bintulu - dreary oil and gas industry base
- Kapit - one of the stopover along the Rejang and gateway to interior Sarawak. Only accessible using express boats from Sibu
- Miri - Sarawak's northern city, capital of the state's oil industry
- Mukah - a coastal town in Central Sarawak where the sago-eating tribe (Melanau) are found.
- Sarikei - "food basket" for the Land of the Hornbills
- Sibu - gateway to the hinterland of the Rejang River, Sarawak's and Malaysia's longest river
- Bau - a small town surrounded by beautiful limestone mountains, caves, homestays and Bidayuh culture.
- Simunjan - a tiny town located between Serian and Sri Aman, site of some colonial era coal works.
- Sri Aman - little town along the Batang Lupar, popular among local and foreign tourists especially during the annual tidal bore phenomenon 'benak' in April.
- Bako National Park - home to the bizarre, obscene-nosed proboscis monkey
- 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 water falls and tranquility.
- Gunung Gading National Park - where you can try to spot a Rafflesia, the world's largest flower
- Gunung Mulu National Park - with mighty Mount Mulu and some of the world's largest cave system
- Kelabit Highlands - the vast highland plateau in the interior popular for trekking and serene Orang Ulu villages.
- 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.
- Matang Wildlife Centre
- 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
- Talang-Satang National Park - was established with the primary aim of conserving Sarawak’s marine turtle population
- 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
- Sama Jaya Nature Reserve - the first multi-purpose urban forest park in Sarawak
- Semengoh - home to a famous orangutan sanctuary and rehabilitation center
- Wind Cave Nature Reserve - is part of the Bau Formation, a narrow belt of limestone covering about 150 sq km of Southwest Sarawak
Sarawak is the largest and, certainly in terms of visitors per square kilometer, the least visited Malaysia region by tourists. Nearly as large as peninsular Malaysia, the interior is covered in a thicket of impenetrable jungle and mountains and the great majority of the population lives near the coast or along rivers leading to the sea.
James Brooke, the first White Rajah
One of the stranger episodes in Sarawak history began in 1841 when James Brooke, an English adventurer armed only with a single ship (the Royalist) and diplomatic skills, was made Rajah of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei. James and his nephew and successor Charles expanded their private colony to cover much of the state. The third Rajah, Vyner, continued to develop the colony but fled from the invading Japanese in 1941, 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 in July of the same year. Sarawak joined together with Singapore, Federation of Malaya and North Borneo (today Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
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. 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
Please notice some basic communication terms in Bahasa Melayu Sarawak.
- Kamek - I
- Kitak - You
- Auk - Yes
- Sik - No
- Igek - Piece
- Kamek Mauk Pergi Jamban Dolok - I Would Like To Go To The Toilet
- Kitak Dari Siney? - Where Are You From?
- Nyaman Juak Makanan Tok - This Food Is Quite Tasty
- Kamek Ngupok/Mupok Dolok - I'd Like To Make A Move
As elsewhere in Malaysia, Malay is the official language, but English, various local languages and Chinese dialects are widely spoken. The Iban language is the largest linguistic group, with many local variations. The majority of Sarawakians are multi-lingual, 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, Bidayuh or another local languages however will greatly impress your hosts. The multi-lingual Borneo Dictionary is a great place to find such phrases and to appreciate the sheer diversity of languages spoken in Sarawak. 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 a very unique language which is quite similar to Malay. With some of the vocabulary which is totally the same as Malay, but it is hard to understand as the slang is totally different. It is also known that the Iban community in Sarawak is divided into various different division ranging from Kuching to Sri Aman, Betong, Sibu, Bintulu and all the way up North to Miri. This also trigger the different accent of the dialects.
Some useful Iban Words:
I-Aku/kami(also stand for plural form of us)
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 coastal part of Sarawak, especially the one from Sebuyau, Kabong, Saratok, Betong, Sri Aman and the surrounding areas speak different dialect called "Bahasa Orang Laut". Malays from Sibu and Miri speak similar language with 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 origin of most of the Chinese community here in Sarawak is Southern China, in particular Fukkien province. Therefore, the most widely spoken Chinese languages here in Sarawak are totally different from those one hears in most of the Chinatowns in the world, which is Cantonese. The languages used here are normally either Fukkien, Foochow, Hakka or Teo-chew. Don't bother trying to speak Cantonese here, as there is only a small Cantonese community here. Mandarin Chinese,the official language of China, has been introduced over the years through the educational system and is now widely used.
Alone among Malaysia's states, Sarawak maintains an 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. Other foreigners need to fill out a second immigration form.
Still, for most travelers 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. If you do need an advance visa for Malaysia, you'll need one specifically for Sarawak, so be sure to state this when applying at the Malaysian embassy.
Most visitors arrive in Sarawak by plane. The largest gateway is Kuching the state capital, which is about 1.5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. The international flight operated from Kuching International airport are Singapore and Pontianak.
Other airports with domestic connections to Peninsula Malaysia on both Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia include Miri, Sibu and Bintulu. MASWings serves flights between cities and rural areas in East Malaysia, including Sarawak and Sabah. AirAsia also operates an international flight from Miri to Singapore four times a week.
Sarawak has land borders with Brunei, Indonesia and the Malaysian state of Sabah.
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).
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 page for details.
As Sarawak controls its own immigration matters, there are checkpoints at border between Sarawak and Sabah at Merapok (Sindumin on the Sabah side) near Lawas.
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, by otherwise high Malaysian standards, its roads are poor, making planes the most convenient way of getting around. For example, it's about 1 hour from Kuching to Miri by plane (full fare RM164), but a butt-numbing 14 hours by bus (RM70).
Malaysia Airlines and budget airlines such as AirAsia provide frequent flights between Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri.
The rural air service is operated by MASWings, which took over the network from FlyAsian Express (FAX) in 2007. Flights use Fokkers and Twin Otter aircraft. Fokker 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 travelling times can be long because of the distance. Companies include Vital Focus Transportations Sdn. Bhd., which operates Suria Bas, PB and Borneo Highway express buses, and BusAsia.
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.
- 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.
- Sarawak Cultural Village, some 45 minutes' drive from Kuching. Entrance fees are RM60 per person. 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. The festival is held on the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village, hence you don't need to pay the entrance fees (festival fees include entrance to the Village).
- Bidayuh longhouse, . Visit one of the very old Bidayuh longhouse such as Annah Rais Longhouse, which is nearer to the Kuching. edit
- 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. edit
- Rainforest World Music Festival, . It has been around since 1997 and its popularity is growing from year to year. Accommodation around the festival grounds are snapped up as soon as bookings open so be quick. Good places to stay are Holiday Inn Damai Beach and Damai Lagoon, both a few minutes' walk away from the festival. Alternatively, you can stay within the heart of Kuching city and take the daily shuttle to the festival (RM10 each way). The three-day world music festival brings together some of the best world musicians for workshops and nightly live concerts. Tickets for the three-day festival in 2010 are RM300, or RM110 for daily entry. edit
- Tattoo, Borneo Head Hunters Tattoo Studio. Sarawak Borneo is also well-known for it's artistic tribal tattoo design. Minimum charge is RM 350. A three to four hour tattoo cost RM1500). edit
Various tribal handicrafts are the most popular souvenirs from Sarawak. Particularly notable are pua kumbu, double-weaved 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.
Variety of Sarawak delicacies
While the Malay, Chinese and Indian favorites covered in Malaysia#Eat are widely available in East Malaysia as well, there is also a broad selection of local ethnic cuisine.
- Manok Pansoh. Manok Pansoh is the most common dish among Iban. It is a chicken dish which normally be eaten with white rice. Chicken pieces are cut and stuffed into the bambo together with other ingredients like mushrooms, lemongrass, tapioca leaves etc and cooked over an open fire - similar to the way lemang is cooked. This natural way of cooking seals in the flavours and produces astonishingly tender chicken with a gravy perfumed with lemongrass and bamboo. Manok Pansoh cannot be found easily in all restaurants and coffee shops. Some restaurants require advanced booking of Manok Pansoh dish prior to your arrival.
- Umai. Umai is a raw fish salad popular among various ethnic groups of Sarawak, especially the Melanaus. In fact, umai is a traditional working lunch for the Melanau fishermen. Umai is prepared raw from freshly caught fish, iced but not frozen. Main species used include Mackerel, Bawal Hitam and Umpirang. It is made mainly of thin slivers of raw fish, thinly sliced onions, chilli, salt and the juice of sour fruits like lime or assam. It is usually accompanied by a bowl of toasted sago pearls instead of rice. Its simplicity makes it a cinch for fishermen to prepare it aboard their boats. Umai Jeb, a raw fish salad without other additional spices, is famous among Bintulu Melanaus. However, it is rarely prepared in Kuching. You can try umai when you eat 'Nasi Campur' during lunch hours in Kuching. Most coffee shops, especially Malay or Bumiputera-owned one, served umai daily for 'Nasi Campur'.
- Midin (originated from Sarawak). The locals greatly indulge in jungle ferns such as the midin (quite similar to pucuk paku that is popular in the Peninsular). Midin is much sought after for its crisp texture and great taste. Midin is usually served in two equally delicious ways - fried with either garlic or belacan. You can try Midin when you eat 'Nasi Campur' during lunch hours in Kuching. Most coffee shops, served Midin daily for 'Nasi Campur'.
- Bubur Pedas (originated from Sarawak). Unlike many other porridge that we know, Bubur Pedas is cooked with a specially prepared paste. It is quite spicy thanks to its ingredients, which include spices, turmeric, lemon grass, galangal, chillies, ginger, coconut and shallots. Like the famous Bubur Lambuk of Kuala Lumpur, Bubur Pedas is exclusive dish prepared during the month of Ramadan and served during the breaking of fast. So don't expect to eat Bubur Pedas at anytime you want!
- Nasik Aruk (originated from Sarawak). Nasik Aruk is a traditional Sarawakian Malay fried rice. Unlike Nasi Goreng, Nasik Aruk does not use any oil to fry the rice. The ingredients are garlic, onion and anchovies, fried to perfection with very little oil and then the cook will put the rice in. The rice must be fried for longer time (compared to frying rice for Nasi Goreng) for the smokey/slightly-burnt taste to absorb into the rice. It is a common to see Nasik Aruk in the food menu list at Malay and Mamak coffee shops and stalls.
- Linut/Ambuyat (originated from Brunei, but widely consumed in Sabah and Sarawak). Linut (in Sarawak) and Ambuyat (in Sabah) is a sticky porridge-like type of food, made from sagu flour. It can be eaten raw, or dipped into spicy sambal belacan. Normally, linut or ambuyat is eaten during high tea or night supper.
- Sarawak laksa is the local spin on the ubiquitous noodle dish. It has a unique zing from heavy spices (notably sambal belacan, a mix of chili and shrimp paste) and usually cooked with Santan (coconut milk) plus toppings of prawns, chicken and egg.
- Kolo mee is a simple but popular Sarawakian noodle dish, consisting of dry egg noodles tossed in oil and served with slices of roasted pork.
- Tomato kueh-tiaw is a variation of the popular fried kueh tiaw (thin, flat rice noodles), with tomato gravy, meat (usually chicken pieces), vegetables and seafood (usually prawns). It is particular to Kuching.
- Foochow bagel (Kom-pia). This pastry was originally found in Sibu where ethnic Chinese of Foochow clan formed a majority.
- Kek lapis Sarawak or Sarawak Layered Cake is an elaborately baked cake with multiple & oftten multicoloured layers which has a unique and delicious taste.
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. Great as a souvenir for friends! The commercial rice wine/tuak is rather pleasant to drink too, and none of that home-brewed murkiness either.
Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are very common in certain parts of this region and great care and caution should be taken when entering water, especially brackish areas like Batang Lupar. A visit to the local crocodile farm; Jong's Crocodile Farm is recommended. Active headhunters no longer exist in Borneo and have not for at least 50 years, thanks largely to the Rajah Brooke's effort to pacify warring tribes and peace-making.