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.
Sarawak is the largest and, certainly in terms of visitors per square kilometer, least touristed state of Malaysia. 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.
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) 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").
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").
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 from.
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. 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. There are also a few direct international flights from Indonesia (Pontianak, Bali and Jakarta), Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei and Macau as well as Singapore flying in twice or thrice weekly. China's Xiamen Airlines offers direct connections from Xiamen.
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 has also announced that it will fly nonstop from Singapore to Miri starting from September 2009.
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).
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 aircrafts. 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 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 Biaramas.
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.
Visit the 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).
Rainforest World Music Festival  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 are RM250, or RM90 for daily entry.
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.
Alternatively, you can visit to one of the very old Bidayuh longhouse (namely Annah Rais Longhouse), which is nearer to the Kuching. Visit Longhouse Adventure website for more details about their full-board longhouse homestay program.
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.
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.
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 waring tribes and peace-making.