Handicrafts make great souvenirs from Sarawak; not only are they a change from mass-produced knick-knacks but, when bought from a local community, you are supporting their economy and can ensure the producer gets their fair share of payment. Sarawak has a plethora of indigenous communities and each have their own handicraft tradition. From beaded jewellery to rattan baskets, you will not fail to find something suitable to stir your memories of Borneo when you finally arrive home.
Handicrafts made from rattan and palm leaves are the most popular but do be mindful that if you’re from Australia, you may have difficulty taking any organic material back there.
Rattan baskets come in many shapes and sizes; some might be dyed black and some might be in their natural light beige colour. Expect to pay more for intricately designed baskets but no more than 100 ringgit per basket; the average price is around 50 ringgit.
Rattan mats make great wall hangings, especially patterned ones; you should pay anything between 200 and 600 ringgit depending on size. It’s also possible to buy smaller versions of the mats which can then be used as table dressings. Bangles and bracelets made of rattan, some woven and some simply split with designs burnt into them are another favourite. My personal favourite is a black rattan bracelet made by the Penan; these are worn on the wrist and on the calves to signify strength and power. Be sure to wear more than one — you can usually get a bunch of 10 for 20 ringgit.
There is a lot of traditional bead craft in Sarawak. Although nowadays beads come in all colours, the more ‘authentic’ colours are black, yellow, white and light blue. If you are particularly taken with bead craft and have some extra space in your luggage, invest in a traditional Iban women’s beaded collar; it is possible to buy these made of antique beads but it will set you back 1,000 ringgit or more. For the traveller with less space and less cash, a necklace worn during celebrations which is characterised by its bulbous red-beaded pendant will cost around 50 ringgit.
It is possible to buy traditional weapons, such as machetes and blow pipes as souvenirs in Sarawak, but check with your local customs laws to confirm that you are not taking anything back that is illegal. Blow pipes are still used in the interior for hunting and if you travel deep into the forest you will find master craftsmen who can create beautiful yet pragmatic blowpipes using dark hardwoods; here you should be paying 400 to 700 ringgit per blowpipe. You can, however, buy cheaper, shorter versions for around 100 to 200 ringgit in the cities.
Failing buying anything on the road, there’s always the Handicraft Centre in Miri, which is a decent place to buy souvenirs due to its huge variety of produce, however stuff might not be of the highest quality here.
Miri Handicraft Centre
Jalan Brooke, Miri, Sarawak
By Hollie Tu.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.