What’s the best way to plan a holiday when the whole world is on offer? Many travellers pick a country: they decide to ‘do’ Japan, visit Vietnam or travel round Thailand. Or else, they opt for an experience: amble round Angkor Watt, full moon party in Phuket, laze on the beach in Bali, or meditate in Mysore. So what of Malaysia – famously multi-cultural and only relatively recently made in the flurry of decolonization that came about in the 1960s? What’s the big draw in this slice of Southeast Asia and how can you select the experience that will set you up for a year of work ahead?
When it comes to landmass, Malaysia has three distinct and distinctive areas – the Peninsula (Semenanjung, as we say here), Sabah and Sarawak, the first detached from the two Borneo states by the wide expanse of the South China Sea. So how to choose? Tourists understand the mainland – it is part of a trail, joined up to Thailand and the rest of Asia beyond. Sabah, on the other hand, has its own brand of tourism all sewn up – unmatched dive spots, a truly massive mountain, genuinely virgin jungle and pygmy elephants!
Of the trinity, Sarawak is perhaps the least known, separated from the mainland by miles of sea and nestled secretively to the south of Sabah. It gets significantly fewer tourists. There, it’s been said! It gets significantly fewer tourists and, for many, that is its biggest draw: a hidden gem, an undiscovered destination, off the beaten tourist track and, therefore, the ultimate travel treasure. Many of the visitors who end up here have either come on a special mission or with a personal connection and therein lies its charm. It’s harder to get to and so, like many things in life, it gives a bigger reward. It can be a stop on the way through Malaysia, but it is also Borneo and still Sarawak itself.
After all, for those looking for a Malaysian experience, Sarawak also offers it. The melting pot of people, cuisines and practices is well and truly stirred here. It is perhaps an older era of Malaysia, away from the sci-fi skycrapers of Kuala Lumpur, where people still know their neighbours and greet each other in the street. It is also massive jungle, miles of coastline, underwater treasures and peerless mountains. Whatever you are looking for in a Malaysian adventure, Sarawak can supply.
But Sarawak doesn’t stop there. It also offers its own unique character, born of a separate history, and a place on an island in the middle of the South China Seas. It is a place of singulars and superlatives. It holds the world’s largest cave chamber by area in Mulu, the longest river in Malaysia in the Rajang, the planet’s oldest rainforest with the greatest bio-diversity and is even home to the world’s smallest fish (Paedocypris Progenetica). It boasts a history of Rajahs, held in place by a level of local agency unheard of elsewhere in the world, and when it comes to mixing the melting pot, Sarawak comes up swinging. It even offers access to a giant, swinging, ginger ape.
But, with multiple indigenous groups, most of them unique to the state, alongside important and long-term immigrant populations, this is an experience in itself. The longhouses, the handicrafts, the music, the movement, the cultures and the cosmologies have fascinated adventurers and anthropologists for eons. But in the end, it is the blend that has made all the difference. Sit in a Sarawak coffeeshop and hear multi-cultural groups conversing in multiple languages, sharing a glass in true Sarawak style. Celebrate Hari Raya, Gawai, Chinese New Year, Wesak Day, Christmas and every other festival on the calendar, from making music to marking yourself with ink, in the kind of mixed company that simply cannot be seen elsewhere.
It might be a hard journey to get here, but Sarawak repays the long stay. Away on its island, all you can do is expect the unusual and the unexpected; Sarawak offers that in spades. We look forward to the company and every chance for a fresh blend of friends to add to our already mad mix. Whether you are on a special mission to go deep underground or meet the people, or just looking to immerse yourself in a whole new world, it is just a short hop over from the mainland. So travel the extra mile to Sarawak and Sarawak will go the extra mile for you.
Written by: Karen Shepherd