Sarawak, one of Malaysian states on the island of Borneo neighbouring Sabah is located on the north west of the island. Famously known as Bumi Kenyalang (it means Land of the Hornbills), it is the largest state in the country.
Diverse culture and people of Sarawak
Sarawak’s capital, Kuching has a population of over 600,000 that comes from plenty of ethnic groups namely Dayak Iban, Chinese, Malay, Melanau, Bidayuh, Penan, Kelabit and Kenyah.
History of Sarawak
Sarawak’s history can be traced back when James Brooke arrived in the state. Prior to the arrival of Brooke, the state was under Brunei Sultanate administration. In 19th century, under control of Pangeran Indera Mahkota, the state was in chaos. The then Burnei Sultan, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II gave out his orders to Pangeran Muda Hashim to settle the chaos.
When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, he refused assistance when Hashim requested for it. Several years later, when Brooke went to Sarawak for a second visit, he agreed to help out to restore the state, which was then already in poor condition.
As a result, Hashim signed a treaty in 1841 to hand-over Sarawak and Sinian to Brooke. In addition to that, Hashim also promoted James Brooke as the Governor. Brooke took the advantage to establish White Rajah Dynasty of Sarawak and extended his administration with Brunei Sultanate when he finally became Rajah of Sarawak.
White Rajah Dynasty under Brooke’s administration ruled the state for more than a hundred years. Over the years, the administration provided assistance to protect the rights of indigenous population against exploitation. Besides that, they have also enlisted Ibans and a majority of other ethnic groups as a contingent militia. When Chinese immigrants decided to settle down in the state, the administration discouraged them from migrating to outside of town in order to minimize impact on Dayak traditional lifestyle.
Sarawak, a rich multicultural state in Malaysia has over 40 sub-ethnic groups with their own distinctive lifestyle, culture and language. Overall, cities and larger towns are populated by Malays, Chinese, Melanaus and also minority of Iban, Bidayuh and Melanau. Minority groups as mentioned above migrated to larger towns for employment reasons. Bear in mind that only small percentage of Indians are residing in the state.
Dayak Iban made up the largest percentage of Sarawak’s population (about 30 percent from the grand total). As a matter of fact, Ibans are generous and hospitable even though they were once the famous headhunters on Borneo island. They have a long history of being cruel and harsh pirates and fishermen. Thus, citizens used to brand them as ‘Sea Dayaks’. This ethnic group is famous for several aspects – traditional Iban weavings, beadwork and unique wodden carvings. During major occasions, they will serve tuak (sweet rice wine) to celebrate the festive seasons.
The second largest group in Sarawak – Chinese used to control the state’s economy. Today, they made up to 26 percent of Sarawak population. The first few Chinese of Hakka descendents were hired to work as labourers in gold mines. With the assistance provided by their own clan associations, most Chinese managed to venture into business sectors and thus, they are the most prosperous ethnic groups in Sarawak today.
Malays in Sarawak made up to 21 percent of the total population. They are famous for the craftsmanship of wood carvings and brass craftings passed down from generation to generation. Other ethnic groups in Sarawak including Melanau, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Kayan, Lun Bawang, Kelabit, Kenyah, Penan and Chebob.
Festivals in Sarawak
Since Sarawak is a rich multicultural state, it has been branded as one of the top tourism destinations in the country. There are plenty of festivals celebrated annually in Sarawak. Perhaps, one of the most popular event is The Rainforest World Music Festival.
This is an annual 3-day music festival with a diversity of world music held in Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak. Among some of the activities featured are evening concerts, crafts and cultural displays and also daytime music workshops. Visitors get to watch world class performance by Joey Ayala (Phillipines), Te Vaka (Samoa), Namgar (Mongolia), Tarika Be (Madagascar) and plenty more. The festival was founded by a Canadian music instrumentalist, Randy Raine-Reusch.
Other events of the year including the spectacular water sports event – Sarawak Regatta. It has always been a premier event that displays historical and cultural elements. First held in 1872, the event features a series of interesting activities namely dragon boats, traditional longboats, climbing greasing poles and also pillow fights. This grand affair is one of the major event to encourage foreign tourist to visit Sarawak.
Another fascinating event of the year – Miri International Jazz Festival aims to be the leading tourism driven music festival in the region. Featuring Miri as a city of cosmopolitanism and relaxing lifestyle with the organization of such grand event, the festival has featured performance from Alamode (Australia), Bombay Baja Brass Band (UK), Dites 34 (France), Double Take (Malaysia) and plenty more.
Other colourful events including Kuching Festival and Gawai Festival. The festival is organized annually every August featuring a series of stage shows, concerts, nightly exhibitions and competitions. First organized in April 1986, the festival aims to promote Sarawak’s culture and arts.
Attractions in Sarawak
You’ll just have to spend more than few days in Sarawak as the state offers various historical sites and natural attractions. One of the most popular places of interest is the Gunung Mulu National Park.
Ideally located near Miri, it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can enjoy wonders of caves and karst formations in an equatorial raiforest setting. This is an ideal place for nature lovers to explore the surrounding rainforest, Royal Geographical Society Expedition.
In addition to that, remember to check out the largest natural chamber which is found in Nasib Bagus Cave. You’ll also have to pay a visit to other notable caves – Benarat, Wind and Clearwater. The park is named after Mount Mulu that is the second highest mountain in the state.
Besides the national park, remember to drop by at Kuching Waterfront, Sarawak Museum, Cultural Village, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Cat Museum and Bako National Park.
Kuching Waterfront lengths 900 metres long with beautiful landscaped surroundings. Popular amongst local and foreign tourists, this place also features The Square Tower, Sarawak Steamship Building and the nearby beautifully carved Tua Pek Kong Temple.
While you are enjoying the annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak Cultural Village, take a tour down this award winning attraction during the day and learn about the lifestyles of various ethnic groups in Sarawak.
Another notable attraction – Semenggoh Wildlife Centre enables you to touch and feel orang utans up-close in their natural habitat. Besides that, you can also spned time on the greenery botanical gardens, fruit orchard and arboretum.
Lastly, include Bako National Park under your trip itinerary as this state’s oldest park houses long-nosed proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and various animal species.
Shopping in Sarawak
Walking around town and larger cities in Sarawak can be an exciting and wonderful experience as there are various traditional handicrafts and local items sold everywhere from night markets to shopping malls.
Few must-buy items on your list including pottery, wood, textiles, beads, bamboo, rattan, reed basket, salted terubok fish, Sarawak pepper and terendak. Pottery made in Sarawak can be divided into two types namely one by Chinese potters and another by Iban, Murut and Kelabit potters. There are various pottery items available such as candle holders, ashtrays, teapots, mugs, drinking water cisterns, decorative jars and vases.
Another unique handicraft, woodcarvings are made by Kayan and Kenyah ethnic groups. There are several popular shopping sites suitable for tourists to purchase genuine woodcarvings by these ethnic groups – Abau Regong, Saging Anyi Taman Delight, Karya Indah and JJ & LL Family.
Perhaps, the most popular must-buy item when you are in Sarawak is the pepper. The high quality Sarawak pepper has gained international recognition due to its distinctive flavour. Pepper plantations can be seen around Kuching-Serian Road.
An all-time favourite, salted terubok fish is a unique souvenir nicely wrapped in a box for longer preservation. Even though terubok is full of bones, it has always been a favourite gift among the tourists. A tip for those who would like to try this salted fish, find the biggest terubok as bones are larger and thus, easier to dispose.
Rattan, a durable jungle product in Sarawak is sold everywhere in Aji @ Ismadi bin Chupak, Kg. Pahlawan, Awing Crafts & Cultural Centre Workshop, Nuran ak Jawa, Rh.Sap Batu Lintang Undop and Orah Bampa Badeng Lg. Mejawah. Lastly, purchase the beautiful ornamented beadwork hand-made by indigenous people of Sarawak. Sold widely in various forms and colours, you can get it in Agnes Nani Ganti at Saberkas Commercial Centre or Miri Heritage Centre.
Major towns and cities
The state of Sarawak is one of the 2 states that make up East Malaysia in the island of Borneo which is shared with Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan region. It has a land size of 124,450 km2 and a population of 2,420,009 people. This makes it the largest state in the country although it is not the most populous. This is because a majority part of the land is made up of deep forests and highlands. The state capital of Sarawak is Kuching while its main towns here are Sibu, Sarikei, Miri, Bintulu and many others. Sarawak is very much known for its natural attractions as well as oil and gas industry.
Betong is one of the main districts in the state of Sarawak. It has a land size of 4,180.8 km2 and an estimated population of around 116,000 pople. It is one of the eleven administrative divisions of the state which was previously part of Sri Aman. It is the smallest and newest administrative division in the state located around the eastern region of the state.
Bintulu is one of the major towns in Sarawak with a land size of 12,166.2 km2. It has a majority of Iban people here which is one of Sarawak’s eleven administrative divisions. As most of the major cities in Sarawak is located along the coastline of the state, Bintulu is around the center of the state where it is linked with Miri towards the northeastern route while Sibu is on the opposite direction.
Kapit is one of the towns in Sarawak with a land size of 38,934 km2. It has a population of around 115,000 people with a majority of them of Iban ethnics. Kapit is made up of 3 main regions namely Kapit, Song and Belaga where it is made up mainly of forest reserve. It is located around the center of the state with no coastline, unlike other towns in Sarawak. Sarikei and Sibu is located towards its west while Bintulu is towards the north.
The state capital of Sarawak is Kuching where it has a land size of 4,559.5 km2 and it is the largest city in the state. This is the state’s main nucleus and transportation hub where it also connects to other rural areas of the state. Located towards the western end of Sarawak, it is closely connected to Samarahan towards its east. On its north is the South China Sea while towards the south is Serian town.
The town of Limbang is located towards the eastern region of Sarawak. It is separated by the country of Brunei and has a land size of 7,788.5 km2. It is one of the eleven administrative divisions of the state where it holds the border to Brunei. The city of Miri is also connected to Limbang heading towards west. On its east is another part of Brunei which will also lead out to Lawas, another major town in the state.
The city of Miri is one of the major districts in Sarawak. It is known for its oil and gas as well as the gateway to major tourist destination here like the Mulu Caves. Miri has a land size of 26,777.1 km2 and is the second largest administrative division after Kapit. As it is naturally known for its offshore oil and gas industry, major petroleum companies like Petronas and Shell have a strong presence here. It is connected to Kuala Baram towards the north, Brunei towards the east and Marudi towards the south. Heading towards south west would be Niah and to the rest of the state.
Sibu is one of the major regions in Sarawak with a land size of 8,278.3 km2 and population of around 300,000 people. It is one of the towns in Sarawak which has a large portion of Chinese people. Sibu is very much known for its timber related industry and is located around the center of the state. Sarikei is located around the western areas while on its north is Mukah. Bintulu is located around the northeastern areas which leads to other towns like Miri and Limbang.