Sarawak, ‘The Land of the Hornbill’s, has 27 ethnic groups, a capital city named after cats and more than 80% of its landmass covered in rainforest. From ecotourism and hiking to caves and the rainforest music festival, here are our favourite things to see and do in Sarawak.
Heading to one of Sarawak’s 25 national parks to experience the rainforest, wildlife and beaches is always a favourite activity. Bako National Park, 37 kilometres (23 miles) from Kuching, is one of the smaller but most accessible reserves in Malaysia. Visitors can trek along jungle trails, see the unusual coastal rock formations and relax on deserted beaches. Proboscis monkeys, wild boars and a plethora of other animals call Bako National Park home.
Within a few hours of Miri, Niah National Park often features as one of the best things to do in Sarawak for day-trippers. Apart from its vast network of caves, the region also contains cave paintings and important archaeological sites. Scientists discovered human remains believed to date back almost 40,000 years inside. Local Penan tribesmen still follow ancient practices to collect and harvest swiftlet’s bird nests as a local delicacy. Visitors can see paintings of early humans, boat–shaped coffins and explore the deep cavities and passages.
At the foothills of Mount Santubong near Kuching, the Sarawak Cultural Village offers tourists the chance to experience the rich heritage of the state’s indigenous tribes. Activities include strolling through traditional houses, photographing locals donned in tribal costumes, learning how to cook ethnic food and having the chance to use a deadly blowpipe. Expect to find exhibits covering their customs and practices and an evening cultural show. Spending a day at the village, less than 45 minutes from Kuching, is one of the fun things to do in Sarawak for all types of tourists including families.
Gunung Mulu National Park officially became a World Heritage Site in 2000 for its geological importance, natural beauty and unique ecology. Precarious rock pinnacles, sheer cliffs and a vast network of caves and chambers form its interior. The Sarawak Chamber holds the title as the most voluminous cave room while Clearwater Cave is believed to be the eighth longest in the world. Superlatives aside, bats, hornbills and primates live in Gunung Mulu’s forest. Other activities include boat rides through the caverns, canopy walks, caving adventures and jungle trekking.
Sarawak’s capital Kuching translates as ‘cats’ in English. The small city is often the first port of call for tourists to the state and as such deserves at least a few days. With a range of British colonial and heritage buildings as well as colourful Buddhist temples, mosques and statues of cats littered around the city, the town-sized city rarely disappoints. Tourists can visit the cat museum, photograph floating fishing villages and sample some of Kuching’s famous food.
Miri, the second city in Sarawak, is among the state’s eco-tourism hotspots. Located within a short drive are national parks, Niah Caves and Gunung Mulu. Miri provides a convenient base for easy access to the best of Sarawak’s nature. But the birthplace of Malaysia’s petroleum industry has other allures too, including coral reefs, temples and proximity to Brunei, tempting a day trip. Spend a few days in Miri and enjoy nature activities or hike up the city of 300,000’s Canada Hill (Bukit Telaga Minyak) for the best views.
Not usually included in the top things to do in Sarawak, Lambir Hills provides a refreshing eco-retreat without the tourists. The national park, just 32 kilometres (20 miles) south of Miri, has jungle trails, emerald green waterfalls, bird watching viewpoints and diverse flora and fauna. Consisting of mixed dipterocarp rainforest and having trees that appear to reach the clouds, dinosaurs wouldn’t look out of place in this hidden section of Sarawak’s jungle. Treks range in difficulty and intensity from short easy hikes to strenuous climbs to Bukit Lambir’s summit.
Borneo has a few orangutan rescue centres including Sabah’s famous Sepilok. But Matang Wildlife Centre provides a unique service found nowhere else on Borneo Island. Matang is a rehabilitation centre for all kinds of wildlife and not just orangutans. Deforestation and aggressive palm oil plantations destroy vast areas of habitat. Young critters are left orphaned and lack the necessary jungle skills; Matang takes care of them until they’re ready to return to the wild. The centre is 36 kilometres (22 miles) west of Kuching and consistently gets recommended with the top things to do in Sarawak. Volunteering opportunities are available too.
Sibu is a modest-sized town with a sizeable Chinese population that’s famous for its food and boasts an impressive list of temples, parks and heritage buildings. Stroll around Malaysia’s largest indoor market at Sibu Central Market or head to the confluence of the Igan and Rajang Rivers near the waterfront. Sibu Town Square is also Malaysia’s largest square.
Picture a music festival held in the middle of the jungle. Now combine this with artists and musicians from around Borneo and Malaysia as well as the rest of the world playing traditional instruments and singing folk songs. Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival is a three-day event with performances and concerts near Mount Santubong in Kuching. Everything from workshops and dance classes to traditional melodies give an unforgettable cultural experience. Attending this event should be on anyone’s list of things to do in Sarawak if visiting in July.