Things to Do in Sarawak
What was once a worn and weathered trading area in Kuching has been transformed into one of Malaysia’s best public spaces. The Kuching Waterfront, also known as the Esplanade, officially opened in 1993 and extends for a little less than a mile (1.3 kilometers) between the Main Bazaar and the Riverside Suites.
Once lined with wharfs and warehouses, this stretch along the south bank of the Sarawak River is now lined with cafes, souvenir shops and food stalls, along with several historic buildings and points of interest, like the Sarawak Steamship Company building and the Chinese Museum. With little road traffic, the area is ideal for strolling, particularly in the evening when the riverside lights blink on. Tiled mosaics along the esplanade depict Malaysian ethnic motifs, while placards offer insight into the area’s history.
There are few places in the world with a healthier population of young orangutans than the jungles surrounding the Semenggoh Nature Reserve near Kuching. This thriving population of wild orangutans owes its success to the three-decade-old rehabilitation program at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, situated within the 2.6-square-mile (6.8-square-km) reserve.So many orangutans were successfully reintroduced into the surrounding forest that the habitat reached capacity, and all rehabilitation activities were moved to the Matang Wildlife Centre inside Kubah National Park. During its years of active rehabilitation, the center cared for nearly 1,000 endangered animals, with birds, mammals, and reptiles representing dozens of species.
While rehabilitation efforts have ended, visitors to the reserve can still observe some of the program’s “graduated” orangutans—now living in the surrounding forest reserve with their offspring in tow—during twice daily supplemental feedings. Since the orangutans are free to roam, there’s no guaranteed sightings, but many of them stop by the center regularly for a free meal of fruit, eggs, and sometimes hidden vitamins.
Two trails take visitors through the primary rainforest, where it’s sometimes possible to spot rescued gibbons, crocodiles, river terrapins, or porcupines from a safe distance.
Sarawak’s oldest national park, Bako National Park packs a lot of action into just 10 square miles (27 square kilometers) of land. Seven different ecosystems, including rain forest and mangroves, are home to wildlife from long-nosed proboscis monkeys to orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants, bearded pigs, and mudskippers (“walking” fish).
With the Sarawak region of Borneo sheltering several of the world's most endangered species, Batang Ai National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the region, providing more than 3,800 square miles (10,000 square km) of habitat to both orangutans and other rare and endangered species.
Five jungle trails ranging in length from one to five miles (1.8 to 8.2 km) take visitors through pristine primary forest interspersed with a few areas of old secondary forest. With one of the highest concentrations of orangutans in Central Borneo, sightings are relatively common. Visitors might also see (or hear) gibbons, hornbills, and langurs.
Perched on the edge of Kubah National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre rehabilitates native Bornean species such as orangutans and sun bears. In addition to viewing the rock pools and three waterfalls of Kubah, come to Matang to walk nature trails and viewing platforms to observe rescued animals in habitats that emulate their natural homes.
Encompassing a relatively small area of 26.8 square miles (6,952 hectares), Lambir Hills National Park protects what might be the planet’s most biodiverse and complex forest ecosystems. This jungle-covered swathe of land is home to a staggering 1,173 species of trees, as well as monkeys, deer, flying squirrels, wild boar, gibbons and 237 counted species of birds.
While the wildlife is reason enough to visit, it’s the park’s numerous jungle waterfalls that tend to attract visitors, many with pools at their bases where trekkers can go for a cooling afternoon swim. About a dozen marked trails range from a short 20-minute walk to the Latak Waterfall to strenuous, all-day trek to the highest point in the park. A 130-foot (40-meter) wooden tree tower along the Pantu Trail gives visitors a glimpse into the jungle canopy.
While small compared to Sarawak’s other national parks, Niah National Park is one of the most unusual and archaeologically important in the world. It’s also a place of great natural beauty and biodiversity, thanks to the rainforest and vast cave system where swiftlets, bats and a host of other wildlife thrive.
Niah earned a spot on the map when an archaeological dig in 1957 led to the discovery of the oldest modern human remains in Southeast Asia inside the park’s Great Cave. A 40,000-year-old human skull, discovered a year later, gave evidence that humans have lived on Borneo for tens of thousands of years. Another cave within the park, the aptly named Painted Cave, contains ancient cave paintings as well as a few canoe-like coffins, called death ships, indicating that the cave was once used as a burial site.
Located opposite the Kuching Esplanade, the Tua Pek Kong Chinese Temple serves as the focal point of the Chinese community in Kuching. Built sometime before the nineteenth century (the temple claims 1770 as its founding year), Tua Pek Kong is the oldest Chinese temple in the city and one of the most popular, thanks to its location on a busy intersection in the center of town.
The temple is dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, a Malaysian Chinese deity worshipped as the god of prosperity. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Kuching Old Court House, now officially known as the Sarawak Tourism Complex, was used as the seat of Sarawak’s judicial branch from when it was built in 1871 until 1973. The complex encompasses a series of architecturally interesting structures, like the colonial-Baroque clock tower — the complex’s most recognizable building — added in 1883 and the English Renaissance/English Colonial Pavilion Building, added in 1909 and currently home to the Textile Museum.
Other points of interest include the Round Tower, built in 1886 as a fort and later converted to a dispensary and most recently the headquarters of the Sarawak Craft Council, and the Charles Brooke Memorial, added in 1924 to honor the second white rajah of Sarawak.
Kuching Old Court House complex is situated near the Kuching Esplanade and makes for a pleasant stroll with some nice architectural photo ops. A small cafe with courtyard seating offers a place for travelers to rest their feet over a cup of coffee.
For the best views of Miri, head to Canada Hill (or Bukit Telaga Minyak), a limestone ridge where you’ll find Malaysia’s first ever oil well, a petroleum museum, plus sweeping views of the city and beyond.
Sitting atop Canada Hill, and affectionately referred to as The Grand Old Lady, the site of the country’s earliest oil well is now a national monument and historic landmark. This 30-meter-tall monument was built by Shell and marks the origins of the petroleum industry in Malaysia and the subsequent modernization of Miri. The Petroleum Museum is located just next to the monument and traces the development of the industry since oil was first struck here back in 1910.
If you like walking, it’s a pleasant two-kilometer trek up to the top of Canada Hill. Alternatively, join a half-day sightseeing tour of Miri – taking in the city’s other sights as you go – and transport will be provided.
More Things to Do in Sarawak
Set just 14 miles (22 km) outside of the capital city of Kuching, the sandstone mountains of Kubah National Park offer some of the best day trekking and plant-spotting opportunities in the immediate region. Although myriad species of birds and mammals, such as arguas, pheasants, and bearded pigs, roam the tropical rain forest, Kubah is ultimately known for its stunning array of plant diversity, particularly palms. And if swimming beneath a waterfall sounds like the perfect afternoon, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that.
A walk down the hour-long Palmetum trail offers views of over 100 different types of palm trees, while other short walks such as the Belian Trail amble past exotic flora, like giant mushrooms, figs, durian, and rambutan. Those wanting to catch a glimpse of native Sarawak wildlife should head to the Matang Wildlife Centre located within the park boundaries. At this conservation center, where wild animals are rehabilitated for release back into the wild, visitors can observe orangutans, sun bears, and civets, a cat-like mammal with similarities to a mongoose or otter.
The Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV) portrays the varied cultures and customs of Sarawak’s ethnic groups. The village consists of authentic traditional buildings each displaying artifacts made by individual dwellers. Demonstration of arts and crafts like beadworks, wood and bamboo carvings, pua and straw weaving can be seen while visiting the Village.
The buildings – a Chinese farmhouse, a Penan Hut, a Melanau Tall House and Bidayuh, Iban and Orang Ulu Longhouses - are set amidst a scenic 17-acre (6.8hc) site. As part of the living museum, members of Sarawak's many ethnic groups can be seen throughout the Village going about everyday activities such as carving, sago-making, crushing sugar-cane, and growing pepper.
You can learn how to throw a Malay spinning top, shoot a Penan blowpipe or pick out a tune on an Orang Ulu sape. It’s a touristy set up but does give you a deeper understanding of the culture and heritage of Sarawak’s many racial groups that is not available elsewhere.
Formerly known as the State Mosque of Sarawak, the Kuching Mosque (Old State Mosque) is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. The original mosque built on the same site in 1847 — a simple structure made from wood and pitch — was renovated several times before being completely rebuilt to its present form in 1965. In October three years later, the new state mosque opened to worshipers.
Located in the center of town near the open air market, the pink and white, gold-domed mosque opens its doors to non-Muslim visitors outside of prayer times, offering an opportunity to learn about Islam and its practice in Malaysia.
Built in 1870 by Charles Brooke, Second White Rajah of Sarawak, the Astana is now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak. It is a regal complex comprising three separate bungalows and a narrow system of passageways that unifies all parts of the Astana into a single palatial dwelling.
Sarawak Museum exhibits ethnographic and ecological artifacts relating to traditional tribal and environmental life in the state of Sarawak. Admire small scale replicas of Iban longhouses, tribal weapons, and mounted exhibits of exotic mammals and reptiles—of particular interest are the displays of shrunken heads and human skulls.
The history of the Kuching Square Tower dates back to 1879, when it was built along the Sarawak River as a means of protecting the city against marauders. Situated toward one end of the Kuching Esplanade, the Square Tower has worn many hats throughout its history — it has served as a state prison, a dance hall and nowadays, a multimedia tourist information center, though it’s not always open to the public.
The Square Tower’s rooftop boasts panoramic views of Mounts Santubong and Serapi. Even when it’s closed to visitors, the Square Tower makes for a striking photo op, especially with the Sarawak parliament building in the background.
Among Kuching’s more unusual attractions are the series of kitschy cat statues scattered throughout the city. The Malay word for cat sounds similar to Kuching, and the city government took full advantage by nicknaming Kuching “Cat City.”
Perhaps the most famous of the statues is the Great Cat of Kuching. Erected in the 1990s as the first of the cat statues, this 5-foot (1.5-meter) white feline dominates city center and even gets dressed up during major festivals (think a Santa hat come Christmas).
One of the most photographed statues sits near the Kuching Esplanade and features a family of cats (parents and five kittens) lazing about in front of the Holiday Inn. At the center of the roundabout at the junction of Jln Padungan and Jln Chan Chin Ann stands the Cat Column, a Rafflesia flower-topped pillar flanked by four white cats.
Situated 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Kuching, Annah Rais is a Bidayuh longhouse settlement in the foothills of the Borneo Highlands. While the 500 or so residents of Annah Rais make a living from tourism and the settlement has long been on the tourist map, they’ve done well to preserve the traditional longhouse architecture, and visitors get a sense of what life in such communal settlements is like.
Annah Rais comprises three separate longhouses, Kupo Terekan, Kupo Saba and Kupo Sijo, which travelers can visit solo or with a guide. Each longhouse has a covered bamboo verandah, called an awah, used for communal activities. Doorways spaced along the longhouse lead to each family’s private quarters.
While some visit Annah Rais just for the day, some of the residents open their homes to visitors as part of a cultural homestay program. Visitors are paired with a local family who provide a traditional dinner and breakfast in addition to the enriching cultural exchange.
Completed in 1879, the whitewashed and turreted Fort Margherita was commissioned by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of Sarawak, to protect Kuching from attacks by river pirates, a common 19th-century scourge. Today, Fort Margherita is an important part of Kuching history and houses the Brooke Gallery, which illustrates the impact of the White Rajas in Sarawak.
Dedicated to conserving sea turtles, particularly green and hawksbill turtles, Talang Satang National Park occupies four white-sand islands and the surrounding marine territory. Pulau Satang Besar is the only island that’s open to regular day-trippers; the other three are for researchers, conservation organizations, and volunteers only.
While the island of Borneo is most famously associated with the orangutan, at Gunung Gading National Park, it’s a plant that’s the star of the show. The rare rafflesia flower, the largest flower in the world (and also among the smelliest) blooms here regularly throughout the year. It takes nine months for a bloom to mature, and the flower — sometimes measuring upwards of 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter — dies after only four or five days.
Luckily, since the rafflesia has no set blooming season, visitors have the chance to spot them throughout the year, and Gunung Gading National Park ranks as the best place to do so. The park even maintains a plant walk through the area where the flowers are commonly found. Besides flower spotting, the national park features several jungle trails leading to streams, waterfalls and even the peak of Gunung Gading Mountain.
The Satok Weekend Market, often simply referred to as the Satok Market, is the largest and liveliest market in Kuching. Beginning midday Saturday, vendors from the surrounding countryside set up stalls of produce, crafts, orchids and live fish.
But the market’s fame comes from its fresh fruit. Often the market is smelled before seen — the sweet pungent smell of durian fruit commingling with other tropical scents. Obscure fruits, like spiky jackfruit, langsats and water apples, alongside the familiar bananas. Unlike most Western produce sections, shoppers at the Satok market are faced with nearly a dozen varieties of the fruit.
While it’s perfectly possible and enjoyable to visit the market independently, it’s also included as part of the itinerary in many Kuching cooking classes, allowing travelers to visit the market with a knowledgeable guide and prepare typical local dishes using market fresh ingredients.
At the confluence of the Igan and Rajang rivers sits the inland city of Sibu, which serves as the gateway for travelers wishing to explore the longhouses of the Upper Rajang River in the state of Sarawak. One of the city;s most popular attractions is Sibu Central Market—one of the biggest indoor markets in Malaysia—home to thousands of stalls.
Home to more than 2,000 exhibits, the Kuching Cat Museum details the historical role cats have played in music, theater, advertising, mythology, and ancient societies around the globe. You won’t find a museum quite like the Kuching Cat Museum anywhere else in the world—an appropriate reality seeing as kucing is actually the Malay word for cat.
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