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Sarawak

Introducing Sarawak

Sarawak is situated on the Northwest coast of Borneo, home of the world’s oldest rainforest. Bordered by Indonesian Kalimantan in the south and Brunei and Sabah in the north, Sarawak is the largest state in the federation of Malaysia.

With its network of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, its ethnic diversity and rich cultural heritage, and its enormous scope for nature-based recreational activities, Sarawak is the perfect destination for anyone with an interest in Nature, Culture, or Adventure. 

Climate

The climate is hot and humid throughout the year with cooler temperatures in highland areas. Temperatures range from 21C to 32C. Average annual rainfall varies from 3,300mm to 4,600mm and humidity is high all year round.

Visitors should bring light comfortable casual clothes. A jacket and tie or evening dress may be required for formal wear, but only in an air-conditioned venue.

Culture

Sarawak has culture in abundance. With its 2.3 million population made up of 30 different and distinct ethnic groups, the visitor can expect a host of different lifestyles, a great diversity of traditional arts and crafts, and a whole calendar full of religious and cultural festivals.

What is unique about Sarawak is the way that its many different tribes and races have taken the 21st century in their stride. This is one place where development and encroaching western cultural values have had little impact on ethnic identity. It doesn’t matter whether you are a rocket scientist or a rice farmer – an Iban remains an Iban, a Malay remains a Malay, and so on. But Sarawakians are as proud of each other’s cultures as they are of their own –  Sarawak rejoices in its ethnic diversity.

Sarawakians’ greatest strength is their cultural duality – the ability to be both thoroughly modern Malaysians, and at the same time retain their cultural traditions. The groom performing the ngajat dance at an Iban wedding is just as likely to be a lawyer or a scientist as a farmer, and the efficient businesswoman with her cellular phone can probably weave beautiful rattan mats every bit as well as her grandmother in the longhouse.

The most famous of Sarawak’s ethnic groups are the Iban or Sea Dayaks, fearsome headhunters and pirates of yesteryear, but a whole host of other traditional societies awaits the visitor; the enterprising Melanau fishermen of the Rejang delta; the Muslim Malays, who traditionally lived in the coastal areas; the Bidayuh, formerly known as Land Dayaks, who won the heart of the first White Rajah with their gentle ways; the multitude of upriver tribes who collectively form the Orang Ulu (people of the headwaters); the nomadic Penan, guardians of the deep rainforest. This fascinating mix of indigenous people is further enhanced by the Chinese. With their wide range of dialects and their vibrant and colourful culture, they have made a remarkable contribution to the State’s cultural and artistic heritage. 

Although a large number of indigenous people are nowadays urban professionals and technologists, many of Sarawak’s rural inhabitants still live in over 4,500 villages and longhouses, following a largely traditional way of life. Longhouse visits offer an insight into fascinating lifestyles, and the chance to see some of Sarawak’s exquisite arts and crafts being created. All of Sarawak’s ethnic groups have their own unique cultural and religious ceremonies. Hospitality is something Sarawakians take very seriously, and they are always ready to roll out the red carpet for guests, particularly during major cultural festivals. Many visitors acquire a mild sense of guilt at the generosity of their hosts, but Sarawakians wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sarawak’s temporary citizens have also left their cultural mark.  The reign of the White Rajahs had a profound impact on Sarawak’s society and culture. Their despotic but benevolent rule ended inter-tribal warfare, and laid the foundations for the peace, the inter-racial tolerance and the low crime rate that everybody in Sarawak enjoys today. The Brookes also left a legacy of fine colonial-style architecture, an ever present reminder of their relatively brief but historically unique rule. 

History

Sarawak’s fascinating and romantic history is a good example how truth is sometimes a great deal stranger than fiction. Opulent Malay Sultanates, fierce headhunters and pirates and a dynasty of White Rajah’s all play their part in this strange tale. 

The full story of the settlement of Sarawak and the history of conquest and inter-tribal warfare has still not been fully researched. Chinese seafarers report visiting the Kingdom of Po-Ni (probably modern-day Brunei) as early as the ninth century AD, and archaeological finds suggest that Chinese merchants were trading with the locals as early as the 7th century. The sultanate of Brunei became important from the 10th century onwards, as a major outpost of the Srivijaya empire, and reached the peak of its power during the 15th century, with the arrival of Islam in Borneo. At this time Brunei controlled most of Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago. 

Brunei’s influence declined between the 16th and 19th centuries, and when in 1839 a wealthy English adventurer, James Brooke, arrived at the small settlement of Kuching in his armed yacht, the Royalist, he found the area in a state of rebellion against the Bruneian Governor.  Brooke saw his chance to gain favour with the Sultan of Brunei, and used his well-armed ship to put down the rebellion. Brooke’s reward was the principality of Sarawak. And he was appointed Rajah in 1841. 

Brooke was a very ambitious ruler, and set out to pacify and expand his new kingdom. His methods of dealing with piracy were severe, and he involved the British Royal Navy and a locally-recruited army in a number of punitive expeditions to the interior. He also had a Chinese gold miners’ rebellion to contend with in 1857, and nearly lost his life. Yet when he died in 1868, Sarawak had become relatively peaceful and much larger, stretching from Tanjung Datu to Kuching. 

Although James Brooke founded the dynasty of White Rajahs, his nephew Charles, who succeeded him, was the one who left his mark. He may not have been cast in the same adventurous mould as his uncle, but he was an excellent administrator and politician. He immediately set up a proper system of government and started to develop the economy. Using the same “divide and rule” policy that the British had used in India, he gradually expanded and pacified his area of control until it reached Sarawak’s present borders, mostly at the expense of the Sultanate of Brunei, which was forced to accept British Protectorate status. Charles Brooke was the architect of modern Kuching. During his long reign he replaced many of Kuching’s wooden structures with fine stone or brick buildings, and built churches, courthouses, and forts to guard the town against pirates. 

Upon his death in 1917, Charles was succeeded by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke. The third White Rajah built on his father’s achievements, improving the government of Sarawak and setting up the first representative government, the State Council, in 1941. The State Council’s success was very brief, as the Japanese invaded at the end of the same year. The Japanese were harsh rulers, and many people died, either in internment camps or through food shortages.

After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, Sarawak came under Australian military administration. Vyner Brooke was in favour of making Sarawak a British Colony (at a time when the anti-colonial movement was at its peak worldwide!) and persuaded the State Council to pass (by a small majority) a bill ceding Sarawak to Britain. This caused deep resentment and led to the assassination of the Governor, Duncan Stewart, in 1949. Yet tempers eventually cooled, and the colonial administration concentrated on preparing for an independent Sarawak.

In 1963, Sarawak and Sabah gained independence by joining with the Malay Federation to form the new state of Malaysia. This was immediately opposed by Indonesia, who started a low-level guerrilla conflict known as “Confrontation.” This ended in 1965 with the fall of Sukarno and heavy defeats for the Indonesian forces at the hands of Malaysian and Commonwealth troops. Some communist insurgency continued into the 1970’s, but since the communist surrender, Sarawak has been at peace.

Nature

There is no better place than Sarawak to view the wonders of the rainforest and its inhabitants. Two-thirds of the state’s total land area is covered in rainforest, and a significant proportion is given over to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. These areas are primarily conservation zones, protected by Malaysian law, but facilities have been developed so that visitors can experience and enjoy one of the world’s oldest and most diverse natural environments.

The parks and wildlife sanctuaries provide protection for unique eco-systems, giving the visitor the opportunity to get close to nature, to breathe the fresh air, to listen to the sounds of the forest, to view some of the world’s most unusual plants and perhaps catch a glimpse of some of the world’s rarest animals. 

Many of the national parks are long established, which means that animals are less wary of humans, and visitors stand a good chance of seeing some of Sarawak’s wildlife in their natural habitats. For example, Orang Utan can be viewed at Semenggok, whilst at Bako, Sarawak’s oldest national park, you can see long-tailed macaques and wild boars from your resthouse verandah, and silver-leaf monkeys and monitor lizards close to the park HQ. If you are lucky, you should be able to see the rare proboscis monkey feeding near the coastal mangroves. 

Sarawak’s plant life is equally interesting and unusual. From the giant dipterocarp trees of the rainforest to exotic luminous fungi, the Borneo rainforest has the greatest variety of plant species in the world. The world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, can be seen at Gunung Gading. There are many species of carnivorous pitcher plant at Bako and Mulu, and rare ferns and orchids at Kubah. 

Of course, nature does not confine its riches to the rainforest. The coastal peat swamp forests and vast tracts of mangrove swamp have their own unique ecosystems and attractions, whilst Sarawak’s long and gently sloping coastline is home to a fascinating array of marine creatures, including various species of turtle which lay their eggs on the beaches, and Asia’s largest reptile, the estuarine crocodile.

Sarawak also has some of the finest birdwatching opportunities in Asia. A journey upriver provides excellent opportunities to see some of the birds of the forest, and a chance of spotting one of Sarawak’s many species of hornbill. The national parks are also excellent places for seeing ornithological rarities. For example, bird-watchers have recorded over 150 species at Bako, whilst Mulu is home to 262 types of bird, including eight species of hornbill.

Some of Sarawak’s greatest natural attractions are located underground. The spectacular limestone cave systems of Mulu and Niah are both justifiably world-famous. The world’s largest cave passage, the world’s largest natural rock chamber and the longest cave system in Southeast Asia are all found at Mulu, whilst Niah has great historical importance. The oldest modern human remains in Southeast Asia were found at Niah’s Great Cave.

Entry Formalities

Sarawak has its own entry formalities. Unless your nationality means you need a visa to enter Malaysia, you will usually be issued with a 60 or 90-day visit pass, which can be extended at Immigration Department offices in Kuching or Miri (at the Department’s discretion). Overseas visitors arriving from West Malaysia or Sabah will also be issued a Sarawak visit pass, which replaces and supersedes your previous pass. If you are planning an extended stay in other parts of Malaysia after leaving Sarawak, you should check with the Immigration Department.

Time Zone

Sarawak is 8 hours ahead of GMT and 16 hours ahead of the U.S.Pacific Standard Time.

Map of Sarawak

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