Located 600 mi/965 km east of Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak is a land of many mysteries, from seductive tales of horrifying headhunters to the legend of the first White Rajah, an Englishman named James Brooke who settled there in 1839 and united the warring indigenous tribes under his family's rule until just after WWII.
This land of thick tropical rain forest on the island of Borneo gives you the feeling that you've just walked onto a too-perfect jungle-movie set.
To get to Sarawak, first fly to Kuching. The Sarawak River runs through town, which has several interesting sights. We liked the Sarawak Museum, with displays of local animals and anthropological exhibits. Unfortunately, the Astana (formerly the Palace of White Rajah), which was built by second Rajah of Sarawak Sir Charles Brooke, and Fort Margherita (named after Sir Charles' wife and now a police museum), both touted in all the tourism brochures, are not open to the public.
In the port area, the people, shops and atmosphere are fascinating, so allow a few hours to stroll around. Main Bazaar, opposite the waterfront, is the oldest street in the city and is home to some superb examples of Chinese shop architecture. Kuching has a large concentration of antiques and handicraft shops, and the bazaar is great for inexpensive shoes and clothing materials.
In the Malay language, kuching means cat, and a large monument of a group of cats can be found in the city center. More intriguing is the Cat Museum, devoted to all things feline.
Don't miss the enormous Niah Caves, the home of thousands of sea swallows—the delicate swallow nests are the chief ingredient in bird's nest soup, a Chinese delicacy. Three nights would be the minimum visit to the Kuching region, unless you wish to extend your stay with a jungle excursion.
Within a short drive of Kuching are two attractions not to be missed. The Sarawak Cultural Village contains replica buildings representing every major ethnic group in Sarawak. It is staffed by tribespeople dressed in traditional costume carrying out traditional activities, and visitors can watch an excellent multicultural dance performance in the theater. The Sarawak Cultural Village is also the venue for the hugely popular annual Rainforest World Music Festival. The three-day international event is usually held in late June and daily draws around 8,000 visitors who enjoy fun workshops during the day and an eclectic line-up of top acts in the evening, all framed by the backdrop of Mount Santabong.
At the Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, visitors can watch young, orphaned orangutans being trained to survive in the wild before they are released.
Experienced tour operators can take small groups upriver from Kuching and into the interior for visits to several villages inhabited by different tribes of indigenous people, known collectively as Dyaks. Certain tribes live in longhouses that are up to 600 ft/180 m in length, accommodating the entire village. Your tour operator will inform you of all etiquette and customs to observe before you head out.
A splendid couple of days can be spent at Lake Batang-Ai, and trips into authentic Iban longhouses can be organized from there.
Wildlife excursions from Kuching include a trip to Bako National Park to see odd flora and fauna, including carnivorous plants and the unusual proboscis monkey, and the Gunung Gading National Park for jungle and mangrove forest trekking. The National Parks Board in Kuching will help you book your trip.
If you're really up for a close encounter with a primeval forest, try Gunung Mulu National Park. This isolated area of rain forest close to Mulu in northern Sarawak contains an incredible collection of caves, including the 32-mi/50-km Clearwater Cave (one of the longest cave passages in Southeast Asia) and the 7,000-ft-/2,100-m-high Deer Cave. The park also has one of the world's largest caves, the Sarawak Chamber, but it's often closed for safety reasons.
The caves at the Niah National Park, located close to Miri, which is also in the northern part of the state, have been excavated to reveal artifacts as old as 40,000 years, plus cave paintings from the Paleolithinc era. To travel to each of these parks, permission must be obtained through the National Parks Boards located in Mulu and Miri.
For more information on Sarawak, visit http://www.tourism.gov.my.
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