Travel and Local Information Guide
Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak lies 600km from the mainland. Occupying a slice of Borneo Island’s northern flank, the state is as different from Peninsular Malaysia as night and day. Sarawak’s gorgeous landscape is its biggest draw – clear rivers spill down the rainforest-clad mountains to become wide, muddy arteries close to the sea. Meanwhile, the forest and highland plateaux merge to form one of the most intricate and diverse ecosystems on earth.
Monkeys, deer and lizards abound as well as endangered species such as orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, rhinoceroses and the state’s emblem, the hornbill. Perhaps the most convincing reason for coming here is the possibility of contact with the indigenous peoples that call this region home. They fall into groups known historically either as Land Dyaks, Sea Dyaks or orang ulu (people of the interior); these natives live in massive longhouses and journeys to visit them often take days rather than hours.Read More
Sarawak’s got a decent range of top-end hotel establishments, mid-range lodging houses and cut-price rumah tumpangan (guesthouses). Budget travellers often head to the longhouses of the interior to soak in true Borneo culture as well as to score rock-bottom lodging rates. Sometimes longhouses merely accept gifts in lieu of cash – the more remote the longhouse, the more basic goods are appreciated. Additionally, camping options in Sarawak are pretty thin on the ground – there are no campsites and locals seldom, if ever, sleep out in the open.
No matter where you’re travelling from, Kuching will almost certainly be your first port of call. Sarawak’s capital can be reached by air from Singapore, Brunei, Pontianak (West Kalimantan) and Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru in Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS) flights to Kuching are the most straightforward approach – there are pricey flights from Kuala Lumpur or those from Kuantan that are a shade less.
The only overland route to Sarawak is via Kuala Belait in Brunei, by bus or taxi to Miri – this involves taking a ferry across the Belait River. Another route is to Lawas by passing through Sipitang in Sabah, either by local bus, taxi or by the daily Lawas Express which starts off in Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu.
There are also daily express bus, boat and speedboat services from Brunei to both Lawas and Limbang – the furthest northern divisions of Sarawak. Alternatively there are an increasing number of routes into Sarawak either approaching from Brunei or Indonesia’s Kalimantan via the Kelabit Highlands.
Getting around Sarawak
The advent of cheap air fare has made travel around the world easier and Sarawak is one of the places that has benefited immensely with this development. If you scout around beforehand, you can find plane tickets priced similarly to bus fares. If you’re looking to reach the Gunung Mulu National Park or the Kelabit Highlands, there are MAS flights that depart from Miri in the morning. To get to Miri, in the north, you’ll have to take an MAS internal flight from either KL or Kota Kinabalu.
Boats have traditionally been the main mode of transportation in Sarawak; unfortunately of late the usage of these crafts has decreased as road systems improve. Boats come in three sizes and operate on a fairly reliable timetable – the pricier longboats (recently motorised) are usually used to traverse to the more remote tributaries. Travelling in a group can ease the burden of the cost.
Overland travel in Sarawak has been improving over the years – the road from Kuching to the Brunei border is generally smooth plus traffic is a laughably non-existent ‘issue’. And compared to the speedy ways of Kuala Lumpur drivers, Sarawak is a welcome reprieve. Cars can be hired from the usual places particularly the airport, but be sure to check for better prices online to get cheaper rates. Express buses that traverse Sarawak’s landscape travel at sensible speeds allowing you to snap plenty of photos of the beautiful landscape at opportune moments. The Kuching-Brunei route is served along with many others; however it should be noted that the Kuching-Sibu path is faster when traversing via ferry.
Good to Know
Sarawak’s an unusually expensive region – most accommodation options come with high price tags and flights will have you digging deep into your pocket. Yet it can easily be explored on a budget as long as you plan ahead – the region has got a lot of character – the weather’s beautiful with steady rains to cool down the humid rainforests and the monsoon season doesn’t seriously affect the area. Food and drinks can be had at good bargains, plus ethnic artifacts purchased are great bargains in comparison to the mainland.
Besides national holidays, many states in Malaysia have their own public holidays usually in association with its respective sultan’s birthday or a Muslim celebration. Holidays indigenous to Sarawak include Good Friday (April 22), Hari Gawai (June 1 & 2), the Dayak Festival (June 1 & 2) and the birthday of Sarawak’s Governor on October 23. National holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1), Labour Day (May 1), National Day (August 31), Malaysia Day (September 16) and Christmas Day (December 25). Sarawak, along with Labuan, is one of the only regions in the country that doesn’t celebrate Deepavali.
School holidays from state to state vary dramatically – generally Sarawak’s school breaks take place in January for one week, March for two weeks, May for three weeks, August for three weeks and October for four weeks.
Sarawak’s got a hot and humid climate and temperatures rarely fall below 27 °C (except in the Kelabit Highlands) and sometimes may even climb higher than 34 °C. The northeast monsoon runs from November to February.
Theft & Violence
With a landscape that features more greenery than development, the region’s law and order has never really come under close scrutiny. Major crime tends to be almost non-existent in the area and travellers usually don’t have to worry about petty crimes. However it pays to always be safe rather than sorry and most Sarawakians will caution you to be careful with your belongings especially passports and travel documents.
Internet, Time & Phone Calls
If you’re looking for internet access, many larger hotels will be able to provide you with a Wi-Fi connection. Alternatively, there are Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Malaysia’s version of Starbucks) ventures throughout the region that offer free wireless connectivity – check out the one in Sarawak Plaza.
Bear in mind that Sarawak is 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time – phone calls can easily be made utilising the numerous pay phone banks that are sprinkled across Sarawak’s landscape. You can direct dial long distance using coins or simply purchase a pre-paid calling card from TM offices, post offices or convenience stores.
The three main phone providers in Malaysia are Celcom, Digi and Maxis and as long as your home cell phone provider has global-roaming services they’ll lock onto these networks. However, if you’d like to simplify things, simply purchase a pre-paid SIM card upon arrival in KL – once you insert the SIM card into your cell phone, you should be able to get network access – Celcom has the best network coverage for the Borneo region
Money & Taxes
Coinage in Malaysia is referred to as the Ringgit Malaysia (RM) – each unit of currency is broken down into 100 sen and denominations come in RM1, RM5, RM10, RM50 and RM100. The most convenient and safest way to carry your funds around is as travellers’ cheques – alternatively major credit cards such as American Express, MasterCard and Visa can be used at most upscale hotels, restaurants and shops in Sarawak.
You can find licensed moneychangers in the city – there’s an RHB money-changer counter at the airport. Mahammed Yahia & Sons inside the bookshop at the basement of the Sarawak Plaza offers good rates and they’re quite friendly. If you’re visiting the orang asli longhouses, it’s a good idea to carry a fair amount of cash as there are no banking facilities in the interior. You’ve got to bargain to get good rates for rooms at downmarket ventures.
If you shop at Sarawak’s many street markets, bargaining is de rigeur; additionally hotels and restaurants impose a five percent government tax and a five percent service charge.
Malaysia’s official national language is Bahasa Malaysia. Also known as Malay to the international community, you need not worry about language barriers once you’re in the country. Almost everyone in Malaysia speaks English – unless you’re heading to the interior where the indigenous peoples dwell; nevertheless you’ll be fine with English as your lingua franca as long as you’ve got a tour guide with you.
As in the rest of the country, minority languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil are largely spoken by and wide in Sarawak; yet for the most part English is the primary language used in most businesses. In a nutshell, in Sarawak you’ll often come across those who speak their native language quite fluently and English very awkwardly but you’ll be able to get by.
Visas & Permits
Sarawak’s got its own immigration controls – these regulations exist to protect its indigenous population from being crowded out by migrants from the peninsula. Also the region’s strict rules exist to guard its unique wildlife – protected exotic flora and fauna have been smuggled from the state in the past, so the region has cracked down on errant travellers.
Each time you cross a border, you will have to clear immigration – be it from travelling to or from the peninsula, Sabah, Brunei and Indonesia. Upon arrival within the state, you’ll be given a three-month stay visa, but there are certain land crossings that will only grant you a one-month stay. Since Sarawak’s such an extensive region with more than a few attractions (particularly protected national parks) you’ll certainly need more than 30 days to explore, so it’s good to know that extensions can be granted at the immigration office in Kuching.
When you arrive at most national parks, you’ll have to register using your passport. If you’re planning to visit any on the longhouses in the interior you’ll need permits – though it’s usually a straightforward matter to obtain one; to visit the longhouses above Kapit on the Rejang or Baleh Rivers, you can obtain a free permit in Kapit.
Customs & Local Culture
- As with the rest of the country, public displays of affection are considered taboo – even holding hands is considered inappropriate. Sarawak adheres to Malaysia’s Muslim-dominated conventions but there are no hard-and-fast rules; non-Muslims and outsiders are given leeway.
- If you’re visiting houses of worship – especially mosques – it’s important to remember to dress modestly. Women are particularly expected to be dressed in clothes that are not revealing.
- Many of Sarawak’s cafés and hawker stalls close early at approximately 19:00; even the top eateries put up the shutters at about 22:00 – don’t leave eating out too late. Kuching steamboat – meat and vegetables cooked fondue-style – is one of the best in the country.
- Sarawak’s only got one main road and southwest Sarawak is the most densely populated of the state. The Kuching airport is 10km south of the city.
- In bygone days, Sarawak played host to head-hunters but with the advent of Christianity, happily this practice by the indigenous tribes died down.
- As with the indigenous communities of the rest of the country, you’ll need an invitation to visit Borneo’s longhouses – the best way to view them is to sign up with a tour outfit. • English is widely spoken throughout the state but the elders of indigenous tribes in the interior sometimes require translators.
- Wearing your shoes into someone’s home – be it indigenous longhouses or regular Sarawakian homes – is considered bad manners.
- Be careful of the cheeky macaques when you’re trekking through jungles or come across some – they’re brave and will make off with anything that they can carry.
- Home to 10 of the world’s 46 species of hornbills, Sarawak is known as ‘The Land of the Hornbills’.
- Sarawak plays host to the one-metre-wide rafflesia flower – the world’s largest flower and one of the greatest wonders in the botanical world. Living entirely by stealing water and nutrients from the roots of grapelike vines of specific plants, the flower only survives for two weeks after blooming. There are a total of nine species that call Borneo home but only six have been spotted in the last 60 years.
- Sarawak’s got its own version of the Loch Ness Monster. Known as Nabau, this 30m-long snake ‘lives’ in the plains around the Batang Rejang. Despite the hubbub, the actual existence of this slithery creature has never been proven and Borneo’s largest officially recognised snake remains the 10-metre-long reticulated python.