Do you ever feel like you’ve already been to a place before you’ve actually gotten there? Because everyone on the planet seems to saturate our Instagram feeds with the best surf spots in Bali, their road trip to the west coast of the U.S. or great hiking in New Zealand. While we are definitely keen for all of those things, we recently had the chance to experience a part of the world that’s not yet overrun with tourists. A place that is truly off the beaten path. Backpackers will absolutely love Sarawak Borneo because this remote and wild destination has a lot to offer adventurers.
Rainforests, waterfalls, exotic animals and crazy foods are just a few of the things Sarawack Borneo has no shortage of. This Malaysian state is better known by the island it sits on, Borneo, which is famous for its rare Orangutans. You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them in any number of the island’s national parks. Or you can always take a bus or quick flight over the border to the Indonesian part of Borneo to visit the Orangutan Sanctuary.
Sarawak has four cities you can fly into – Kutching, Miri, Bintulu or Sibu. AirAsia the region’s best budget airline can fly you there on the cheap from Kuala Lumpur. Or even from Australia just with a short layover in KL.
(Pro Tip: If you want to check out the famous caves Malaysia is known for you’ll have to look into renting a car because there’s no easy way to get there from any of island’s cities. It’s also a bit of a trek.)
The RAD team was lucky enough to check out the charming coastal city of Miri. It has a lot of history in the oil industry which they proudly share in a museum (and very cheap petrol prices). Once a year the city comes alive with internationally renowned musicians who come to perform in the Borneo Jazz Festival. It takes place at a beautiful, ornate and wooden outdoor music venue called Coco Cabana. The venue is right on the water making for the perfect vantage point for a beautiful Southeast Asian sunset.
The Sarawak city also makes for a great place to start your rainforest trekking adventures, especially if you want to experience what life is really like for Borneo locals. There’s quite a few old school hotels and guest houses, but the city is not developed enough to have an overpriced menu for Westerners at the local restaurants or a street full of drunken backpackers like Thailand’s Patong Road. Instead, you can live like a local enjoying an outdoor meal of nasi goreng, a famous Malaysian noodle dish for just MRY8. That’s only $2 USD, by the way.
(Pro Tip: Definitely carry cash. There’s not many shops that take credit cards and of the ones that do, you’ll definitely get hit with surcharges.)
If you think $2 is cheap head on over to EMart markets. The sights, smells, sounds and colors will get your adrenaline pumping – and definitely make you hungry. The markets are open every day from 7 am to 8 pm, sometimes extending to 10 or even midnight. Here you can sip on fresh coconut juice or purchase an infamous, stinky durian fruit. You’ll see vendors selling all kinds of plants, often handpicked straight from the jungles to use medicinally.
We tried a leafy green that’s good for your digestion. But if you’re keen for a little indulgence there are fried goodies as well. Filled with everything from chicken or chickpeas to lotus paste. We snagged 3 delicious treats for mere pennies. Fish lovers will enjoy the ability to try local delicacies. A bag of small minnows covered in chilli paste or you can even buy a few fish that are still alive. And you haven’t really experienced the markets yet if you don’t try some famous locally made rice wine.
(Pro Tip: EMart is a great place to get rid of pesky, small change. Your coins will have a lot of value here. An entire bushel of bananas only costs 2 MRY.)
(Pro Tip #2: If you consider yourself a sweet tooth you have to try Kek Lapis. It’s a delicious specialty that’s intricately made in 8-10 layers of colorful and flavorful sponge cake.)
There are 6 national parks within driving distance from Miri alone. Including 1 that’s just an hour outside of the city – Lambir Hills National Park. Here you can walk across suspension bridges and take a dip underneath a few waterfalls, hoping to spot flying squirrels, lemurs or if you’re really lucky even a leopard. There’s over 200 kinds of birds just within this park, 100 kinds of fruit and nearly 50 waterfalls to keep you busy.
Not to mention this is Sarawak’s smallest national park – so make sure you give yourself enough time to experience them all. You can arrange to spend a night camping out under the canopy and walk the trails at dusk to find some of the nocturnal animals too.
(Pro Tip: Don’t forget bug spray and your umbrella. Aptly named it does rain quite often in the rain forest. And you will be eaten alive by mosquitos so maybe wear some loose long pants if you can!)
Right by Lambia is another cultural must, the Entulang Long Houses. These are colorful and massive homes that showcase the simplicity of life in the countryside. Each long house is home to about 20-30 families and each individual home within them fits about 7 or 8 people depending on the family. We went inside the cool dark interiors to meet a few locals families who were hiding from the hot sun. It’s an easy spot to observe the local lifestyle, with kids smiling from ear to ear lounging out in hammocks and elderly women sitting in a circle laughing or men smoking cigarettes out on the porch.
The Entulang Long House neighbourhood is marked with a sign that welcomes guests. Back in the day the sign was adorned with human heads. The forest dwelling tribe and many others in the region would proudly showcase their conquests as a sign of their strength – adding literal meaning to the word head hunter.
Water lovers can also find heaps of aquatic adventures in Sarawak. While you can’t go swimming at the beaches in Miri itself (as they’re crock infested, much like those around Darwin), there are loads of rivers to choose from.
Off shore there are a lot of untouched and unknown coral reefs that are consistently ranked among the world’s best, given an 8/10 rating by international marine life preservation companies. Here, they have a few reefs to choose from, including an abandoned oil ship called the Sri Gadong Wreck and another site often filled with hundreds of barracudas, aptly named Barracuda Point. The island state also plays host to a deep sea fishing contest every year. You can also find kayaking spots and canyoning sites all over Borneo. If you’re really keen to get off the grid, try getting over to Sematan, a small Malay fishing village in the remote South West part of the island.
Getting There: AirAsia has some cheap flights on offer from Kuala Lumpur. You can get there from KL round trip for less than $55.
Where To Stay: In Miri there’s a ton of old school, giant hotel complexes. If you want to spoil yourself for a night with a king sized bed in your own suite it’ll only cost you $60 a night (including a breakfast buffet) at a place like Mega Hotel. Otherwise, look into renting a car so you can camp out in the forests.
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