Sarawak, also known as the "Land of the Hornbills", is the largest state in Malaysia and lies in the northwest portion of the island of Borneo. Known for its national parks and multitude of indigenous communities, it is often said that Sarawak is the perfect partner to Sabah, which although has fewer indigenous communities, is abundant in wildlife.
Sarawak's cities tend to be quite far apart but a good bus system -- running across roads that can often be quite bumpy -- links them all. The capital, Kuching, sits in the southwest. It is perhaps Malaysian Borneo's most liveable city; you could stay here for a few weeks just soaking up the diverse atmosphere and enjoying the old colonial charm of its waterfront. The Chinese influence can be seen almost everywhere, from the intricately designed temples to the charming old Chinese shop lots that line the streets in Chinatown.
That is not to say that Kuching's population is not ethnically diverse; here traditional Iban tattoo parlours sit side by side with authentic north Indian curry houses. Culturally diverse and exuding old-world charm not found anywhere else in Malaysian Borneo, Kuching is a must-see for those interested in Borneo's indigenous culture. To top it off, just outside Kuching is Seminggoh, an orangutan sanctuary, and even further out is Bako National Park.
Sarawak's second city, Miri, is situated in the northeast, about 12 hours overland from Kuching. Although the city itself lacks the charm of Kuching, Miri is simply unavoidable if you are planning to go to Gunung Mulu National Park or anywhere else in the interior, as it's a transport hub for all flights heading in that direction. There is a seedy feeling to Miri, with massage parlours and love hotels dotted around, but if you stick to the central main strip it's entirely possible to ignore this underbelly.
Between Kuching and Miri are a few notable cities that have not really opened to tourism. As such you'll find little in the way of tourist amenities but you may find yourself with invites to longhouses for a cup of rice wine. The most notable of these is Belaga; like Miri, this is more of a gateway into the interior than somewhere you will want to spend time, but it's here that you'll be able to find guides and transport to visit indigenous communities and the interior.
Another city on the same theme as Miri is Sibu, known as the wild west of Sarawak; it too has a seedy feel, although it's much more amplified here and best to avoid the bars. Come here to change buses and get on the express boat to Belaga, Kapit or Miri -- try not to stay too long. The last notable stop-off point between Kuching and Miri is Kapit, much like Belaga, and a transit point if you want to head into the interior.
Although much of Sarawak's forests have been developed for logging, there are still pockets of jungle to be found and the easiest of these to get to are national parks. Sarawak has many national parks, each with its own draws.
The most popular are Bako (near Kuching) and Gunung Mulu (a short flight from Miri). Bako is known for its wildlife, which often appears around human meal times around the park canteen, while Mulu is famed for its breath-taking limestone pinnacles. Although both should feature on any travel itinerary it is worth noting that they can get quite crowded during peak season, which runs from June to September.
A more isolated experience can be found at the other national parks of Simalajau, Niah, Loagun Bunut or Lambir Hills. Lambir Hills and Niah can be done as day trips from Miri, whereas Simalajau and Loagun Banut are slightly further out and will require an overnight stay at the relatively inexpensive park accommodation.
For those who have more time and a less restricted budget, the interior of Sarawak is a viable option. The easiest way to get here is by flying from Miri or taking a 4x4, but often roads are unpaved and journeys can last for up to 15 hours. The interior offers a more 'authentic' experience than the national parks as you will more than likely be staying in a homestay surrounded by some forest.
While national parks can boast conservation status lacking in indigenous human activity, they can seem somewhat sterile when compared to staying with indigenous communities in the interior, especially if you have an appetite for getting off the beaten track. This type of travel is not for everyone as travel days are long and facilities (including healthcare) are basic, but the pay off of wandering around primary jungle with an indigenous guide is more than worth it.
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