Five-star beach resorts and trendy nightclubs might be a fun way to spend a holiday, but I always gravitate towards the more adventurous, off-the-beaten-track places that beckon to be explored. Less than a two-hour flight from Singapore, Sarawak is close to home, yet for the intrepid traveller looking for somewhere unusual, it’s gloriously remote and virtually untouched by the trappings of commercial tourism.
Located just east of Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia, the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah are in northern Borneo, the world’s third largest island, which is also home to Indonesia’s Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei.
A vast expanse of dense rainforests, meandering rivers and sprawling caves, Sarawak’s allure lies in its raw natural beauty as well as in a fascinating cultural legacy of warring headhunters and exotic customs.
I booked our Sarawak adventure with Pandaw River Cruises, which included five days cruising on Sarawak’s mighty and muddy Rejang River (Malaysia’s longest) and two days trekking in and around the enormous caves in Sarawak’s Mulu National Park.
We boarded Pandaw’s 60-passenger Orient Pandaw in Sibu, relieved to leave the gritty port town and head into the jungle. A charming replica of the steam boats that plied Myanmar’s Irrawady River a century ago, the Orient Pandaw has attractive wood panelled, air-conditioned cabins that open right up onto promenade decks facing the river, affording great views of the rainforest landscape and life on and along the Rejang.
The spacious open-air top deck is the other prime viewing area and the place where passengers gather for lectures as well as drinks before and after dinner. The windowed restaurant downstairs offers western standards like fish and chips as well as plenty of dishes typical to Sarawak, from delicious salads made of fiddlehead ferns, pumpkin and wild mushroom, to curried vegetables and prawns, nasi goreng, fried rice and fresh fruits including pineapple and durian.
Every day we anchored mid-river to go ashore via a small launch to visit villages and small towns along the way, with a local guide who sails aboard all Pandaw River Cruises leading the way.
On our trip, guide Louis Yap was excellent, shedding light on the multi-faceted culture of Sarawak’s more than 30 ethnic tribes, including the Iban who practiced headhunting up until about 80 years ago, and who, along with several other groups, still follow traditions like body tattoos and hunting deer and wild boar with blowpipes.
He led us into a traditional and still used “long house,” a row of 10, 20 or more attached apartments with a common area that runs the length of the entire complex. We were treated to a traditional Iban folk dance there and were intrigued by clusters of old dusty human skulls hanging from the ceiling: tribal battle booty that was once the ultimate symbol of power.
Louis talked about the influence of the Chinese community in Sarawak and the historical significance of the White Rajahs, three generations of the British Brooke family who ruled Sarawak in the mid 19th century. We learned about the logging industry in Sarawak as well as the state’s Christian missionary boarding schools. He explained that most Sarawakians relate more to their tribal heritage than to being Malaysian – you’ll rarely hear a Sarawakian saying “I am Malaysian”.
The week’s excursions also included a picnic set up along an isolated clearing on the river’s edge where we were treated to chicken, rice and vegetables cooked in the traditional Iban “bamboo pot” method – inside hollowed out sections of bamboo. Another day Louis led us on a vigorous hike through the rainforest that took us through streams and down muddy slopes, and on the lookout for hornbills, wild pigs and deer (we didn’t see any; something to do with 30 people tramping through the jungle maybe). Though many passengers were over 60 years of age, Pandaw attracts a well-travelled and adventurous lot eager to get their feet wet – the oldest hiker, for instance, was a spry 83 years old. The youngest were seven- and nine-year-old sisters cruising with their parents.
As much as we learned and did each day, there was still plenty of time to relax and drink in all the natural beauty from the cosy comfort of a padded teak deck chair, a refreshing glass of local Meister beer in hand.
We disembarked in Sibu after five nights to begin the second half of our Sarawak adventure, two nights in Mulu National Park that we also booked through Pandaw. It was an hour’s flight from Sibu to the coastal town of Miri (where Malaysia’s first oil well was drilled by Shell in 1910), then another 30 minutes in a small propeller plane from Miri to the remote and beautiful Mulu National Park to explore one of the world’s largest limestone cave systems. Some caves are accessible by plank walks through the rainforest and others via scenic long boat trips up the Melinau River, which flows right next to the rustic and sprawling Royal Mulu Resort where we stayed.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mulu National Park is set in lush equatorial rainforest and its thick green canopy is pierced by jagged limestone pinnacles, sheer cliffs and the enormous caves created over millions of years from water slowly draining from Mountain Mulu towards the sea.
We visited five caves with our guide and marvelled at their size, including the Sarawak Chamber, considered the largest underground cavity in the world. (It’s said that forty Boeing 747s could fit inside without overlapping their wings). The nearby Deer Cave is another giant to explore, this one home to millions of bats that leave the cave at dusk most days in thick undulating bands in search of food. We also walked into the Clearwater, Lang and Wind caves, penetrating the ancient darkness of the giant underground rooms via concrete pathways, packed dirt trails or wooden planks. The caves are rigged with minimal lighting, but you should bring your own flashlight as well.
While the super adventurous can sign up for off-trail cave exploring and rock-climbing expeditions, we were very content with the standard walk, a thrilling enough way to see a spectacular piece of natural history.
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