Written by Mona Omar
21 July 2023
Sarawak, a Malaysian state located on the Island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is home to some of the world’s most biologically diverse rainforests and wildlife, remote tribal communities, and the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF).
This iconic three-day festival, which is now in its 26th year, is held annually on the serene grounds of the award-winning Sarawak Cultural Village, a living museum, based at the Mount Santubong foothills, some 35 kilometres north of Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching.
This year’s festival, which attracted over 19,000 visitors from across the world, showcased an equally diverse lineup including 20 bands from 12 countries and four continents. We were invited on a one-week trip to explore and experience a connection not only with the music but with the region’s cultural heritage, land and people.
During the day there were a myriad of activities, workshops, cultural displays, food stalls and pocket performances scheduled, including Art Sculpture displays, the Sound Bath in the Shaman Tea Room, Yoga classes and fashion style tips provided by presenter Allison Jong in the Spinning Hut.
By nightfall the rainforest came alive with music from around the world. The first night showcased the diversity of music across East and West Malaysia, with Iranian contemporary folk music group Rastak, the only exception.
The second and third nights featured an international line-up including, Russian throat singer Olena Uutai, Maldivian rock music group Fasylive and Safi Theatre, a traditional African drumming and dance group from Tanzania. Legendary French band Gipsy Kings with Tonino Baliardo and American reggae band Big Mountain, this year’s headliners, were a definite drawcard.
There are over 65 national parks, reserves and wildlife sanctuaries in Sarawak, 16 of which are open to the general public. On day three we visited the Bako National Park, the trip began with a private tour bus ride to the Bako Terminal, before travelling by boat to reach the park.
Although we were informed wildlife sightings weren’t guaranteed, we were welcomed almost immediately, by a Bornean Keeled Pit Viper Snake relaxing in one of the trees near the park’s entrance.
Shortly afterwards we encountered all three species of monkey that Bako National Park is famed for, including the Long-tailed Macaques, the Silvered leaf Monkeys and the Borneo native Proboscis Monkeys, instantly recognisable by their reddish-brown coat and uniquely distinctive noses.
Our lunch at the park canteen was interrupted by a visit from a family of bearded pigs roaming the park grounds in search of their own lunch. We concluded our day trip with an 800m trek through the jungle to reach the beach where our boat was waiting to take us back to the Bako Terminal.
The following day we went to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which was established in the mid-1970s to serve as a rehabilitation facility for injured and orphaned wild animals, most notably, orangutans. Semenggoh is open to the public twice a day, in the morning (8 to 10 am) and afternoon (2 to 4 pm), to coincide with the orangutan feeding time.
We opted for the afternoon session, and arrived at 2 pm, an hour before the 3 pm feeding time, allowing us time to walk through the information centre to discover more about the orangutans we hoped to see on the feeding platforms shortly. We were once again informed that wildlife sightings are not guaranteed. However, a ranger shared with us that seven orangutans came down for the morning feeding earlier that day.
We heard one of the rangers begin his daily feeding time call to the orangutans, at 2.45 pm while another ranger placed a variety of fruit on the platforms. We were told to keep an eye out for movement in the trees, and within five minutes we noticed flashes of orange amongst the green leaves in the distance.
We watched excitedly as the sound of the rustling leaves grew closer and the first of two orangutans, 10-year-old Ruby and an unnamed newborn that clung to her, emerged.
Ruby collected a coconut that was offered to her, by hand, from one of the park rangers, knocked it against the tree and proceeded to drink the juice within it. We were told that typically the younger orangutans stay in the trees for safety reasons, while the older ones are brave enough to stay on the ground.
And there to prove the ranger’s point was Seduku, who was born in 1971, and is known as the Grand Old Lady of Semenggoh. Seduku casually made her way towards to our small group, apple in hand, and proceeded to find a comfortable spot within touching distance of us, to enjoy her apple.
We spent about 30 minutes with the Grand Old Lady before visiting time was over. We saw six orangutans in total during our two-hour visit and left feeling well and truly grateful for our good fortune.
Our wildlife spotting adventures concluded with a trip to the Satang National Park’s Santang Island, which serves as a hatchery and nesting ground for green turtles and the rare hawksbill turtle. On the way there we spent a few hours Irrawaddy dolphin and crocodile spotting.
Once we arrived on the island, local guides informed us about the conservation work being done to help these highly endangered sea creatures; and introduced us to baby turtles that were born the night before and were destined to be released later that night.
Sarawak provides a number of accommodation options to suit one’s tastes and budget. Accommodation during our one-week stay included the family-friendly Damai Beach resort and the award-winning and luxuriously private, Cove 55, a boutique 28-room hotel near Mount Santubong run by the charismatic General Manager, Christoph Leonhard.
Every aspect of Cove 55 emphasises luxury and tranquillity.
“Whether it’s for a relaxing weekend getaway from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, spoiling yourself at the end of a rugged discover-Borneo-holiday or simply to celebrate a special occasion – reasons to come to Cove 55 are multiple, as are the nationalities of our guests,” says Leonhard.
There are a variety of dining options in Sarawak. Modern western cuisine at The Junk restaurant, known for its quirky interior, and native Sarawakian and Asian cuisine at Cafe Borneo Delight are but only two options on the Sarawak Food Trail, which is a deliciously fun way to explore this vibrant city (see here).
The Annah Rais Longhouse, a centuries-old bamboo longhouse, provides an immersive experience and unique insight into the culture of the indigenous Bidayuh people.
A one-and-a-half-hour sunset cruise along the Sarawak riverbank is a stunning way to explore Kuching’s historical landmarks by night.
Whether you’re planning weekend getaway or a week-long adventure, Sarawak is certain to provide you with a memorable experience.