Come for the Kite festival

Miri, although seemingly quite small, is the second largest city in Sarawak after Kuching. Most of the shops and nightlife are clustered in the city centre and Miri proper can be walked around in about two hours. Miri itself is not a typical tourist destination, unless you are on the prowl for oil, booze or women of the night.

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It lacks the colonial charm of Kuching but is a necessary stop-off due to its close proximity to the national parks of Mulu, Lambir Hills, Niah and Loagan Banut. It is also the hub of the rural air service run by MasWings, so again, it’s unavoidable if your travel plans include heading into the interior of Sarawak.

On the surface, Miri looks like a newly developed city with its concrete buildings and lack of old architecture, and in fact it only gained city status in 2005. However, it was once a place of strategic importance in the Brooke era and going back further than this, the geographical area surrounding Miri was thought to have supported human civilisation from as far back as 35,000 BC.

Miri first gained modern historical significance in 1910 when its first oil well was discovered and drilled. Suddenly the sleepy, part-jungle, part-shantytown was transformed into a place where migrant workers from China, Singapore, India and West Malaysia would flock to for work. Many of them stayed after their contracts ended, thus creating the ethnic make-up of Miri that we see today.

Miri’s oil boom and expansion went on well into the 1920s and the period leading up to World War II was a destabilising one. The Brooke regime, naturally siding with the Allies, realised that it would be a strategic mistake to let the oil resources of Miri fall into the hands of the Japanese, and so embarked on a scorched earth policy. When the Japanese occupied Miri on December 16, 1941, nine days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, all the machinery and expertise needed to extract oil from the ground had been shipped to Singapore. Unfortunately, for the Allies, when Singapore fell so did their plan. All machinery and expertise were shipped back to Miri and oil extraction continued apace.

The problem with war is it tends to breed resentment and revenge, and none would be more resentful and revengeful than those who had had two atom bombs dropped on civilian cities. As such, before Miri was liberated from Japanese occupation by the Australian Allied troops, the Japanese dug trenches around the oil heads and filled these with oil and set them alight. It took six weeks to put these fires out and resume oil extraction.

Miri, along with the rest of Sarawak, was ceded to the British Crown after the war, much to the chagrin of the Brooke family and some locals. After independence and joining Malaysia in 1963, more oil was found offshore and a second wave of development ensued with the buildings of hotels. Not long after this, there came a timber boom and much of the modern Miri that we see today was built on the back of timber wealth.

Today, Miri is an ordinary Asian city built almost entirely of concrete, and consequently it does get very hot during the middle of the day. The evidence of its past is well buried under years of regeneration and development. However, if you walk down a few central streets, you can still spot some old-style Malay houses fading under the sun, sweating out the history of Miri with each passing day. Truly, they are the last vestiges of old Miri.

Miri is locally known as a party place, with most (legal) vices catered for here, and as a result of this, Miri does have a bit of a seedy feel to it. Relaxation centres should be avoided if you actually want a massage and some of the bars further out of town should be left well alone for your own safety. However, the drinking establishments of the main strip are perfectly fine to go to and there is little trouble to be found there.

Miri offers little to do for tourists, though there is a petroleum museum on the top of Canada Hill, a few Chinese temples to wander around and a good local pool; it’s advisable to use Miri just as a base while you explore the national parks. Two of the closest national parks, Lambir Hills and Niah Caves, can be done as a daytrip out of Miri but Mulu and Loagan Banut are further away, so these should be done as standalone trips lasting around two to three days. The accommodation for the national parks surrounding Miri can be booked through the Visitors Centre in the centre of Miri.

Food is actually very good in Miri, with a good mix of Indian, Malay, Chinese and indigenous food on offer at relatively cheap prices. Be sure to try some of the cafes, which have lots of different stalls. These will offer a variety of small eats and it’s possible to while away many an hour eating small bowls of mee kolok or glassy domes of Sarawak laksa. Desserts are hard to come by but a small search of the area will reveal some local deserts such as cendol.

Most of Miri’s useful stuff is located in its centre, where you’ll find shop, restaurants, inns and malls. The road that runs through the centre of Miri is locally known as the main strip; at the east end this is Jalan Merpati but it turns into Jalan North Yu Seng as its heads West. Along this main strip you will find most of the bars, restaurants and guesthouses, as well as two laundrettes.

At the east end of this strip, you will find the Imperial Mall, where in the basement there is quite a big supermarket selling all sorts of groceries. South of the Imperial Mall (about 30 seconds), you will come to the post office for both domestic and international post. Not surprisingly this road is called Jalan Post. If you carry on south down this road, you will hit Bintang Mall, with lots of Western shops, and on the top floor, a huge electronics section. Heading back north towards the main strip, you will pass the Miri Handicraft Centre, which is worth popping into to peruse the selection of locally made goods.

A large proportion of the east side of Miri city centre is taken up by the Miri City Fan, a municipal park containing a public pool and a public library. Both are well worth a visit. Be warned that the public pool will only allow men to enter if their swimming shorts are skin tight. This is not a joke. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday, 09:00-21:00.

If you go further east, you will come to the suburbs of Krokop and Pujut. Pujut is where you’ll arrive if you have come by long distance bus; don’t attempt to walk into Miri, as it’s far and you’ll probably die of heat exhaustion. Krokop is marginally more interesting that Pujut in that it houses the largest Taoist temple in Southeast Asia.

West of the strip is Chinatown, where you’ll find markets and shoe shops. Miri has three markets of note. The one closest to the river is the fish market, while the central market is normally only for vegetables, but next door to this sit a pork market. Even further West, there is another market called Tamu Muhibbah (opposite the visitors’ centre), and this sells a mixture of fresh herbs, fresh meat and fruit and veg. There’s nothing too special about these markets but they are worth a wander if you want to buy some local delicacies, such as jungle fern, Bario salt and local honey.

Also in this part of town is the local bus terminal, where buses leave to various local destinations; be prepared to wait as buses don’t always run according to schedule, especially at weekends. Next door to the bus station is the visitors’ centre; it’s not all that helpful but a good place to pick up literature about local destinations.

Further out west, you will come to the more high-end hotels and even further out, you’ll find Esplanade beach, where the water is of a varying quality and it isn’t advisable to swim.

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