In the weeks leading up to our visit to Malaysia in January, many people seemed puzzled by our plans to spend a week at Damai Beach Resort in Sarawak, 40 km north of the city of Kuching. “It’s just jungle there.” “There’s no nightlife.” “Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a much more international city.” “You know it’s the rainy season, right?” Admittedly, we may have lucked out on that last point. We had beautiful weather and minimal rain for the duration of our trip, but we heard that those who visited the week prior weren’t as fortunate. While the skeptics may have had some valid points for some travelers, we found our week in Sarawak to be the most enjoyable part of our trip to Malaysia. It was incredibly peaceful and interesting, and very inexpensive to boot.
Getting there from KL was quite easy. The flight takes about an hour and a half to two hours depending on weather. From Kuching airport, we took a Grab to Damai Beach. It took about an hour and cost US$11. If one wanted to stay in Kuching city, it would only take about 20 minutes to get there from the airport. While not as large or cosmopolitan as KL, Kuching is quite vibrant and offers a lot to do, if you are looking for a city experience. We wouldn’t have traded our remote beach experience for anything, though.
For the duration of our stay, we were at Damai Beach resort. Situated in a beautiful location on the coast of the South China Sea, it is a relatively old resort in a very quiet location. The only things in the area are the beach, Sarawak Cultural Village (discussed below), a small food court, another resort, and some apartments. It had mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, but given the fact that we found a deal on Booking.com to stay there for only US$30 a night, we decided to take a chance. I’m glad we did, because it was an excellent experience. While the sea was not safe for swimming given the tides, we were able to go for walks on the beach, do yoga there, etc. each day. There are two beautiful pools on the resort’s property which we used every day, one of them on the side of the mountain with an excellent view of the sea. To make things even better, we practically had the place to ourselves given that it was the low season. We even treated ourselves to a couple of full body massages at the spa–highly recommended, and only about US$20!
At this point, the reader would be justified in thinking “well, that sounds fine for a couple in their 70s, but I’m young and I’m looking for more excitement than that!” Fair enough, dear reader. I’ve been called an “old soul” many a time, and not without cause. But you would be mistaken if you thought that staying at this remote beach getaway prevented us from exploring Sarawak! So come along on our journey with us as I share some of the highlights.
Just a short walk from the resort is Sarawak Cultural Village, so we decided to check that out first. Billing itself as a “living museum,” this attraction contains various replicas of the dwellings of the many indigenous groups of Sarawak. These replica longhouses are quite interesting to visit and the relaxed atmosphere of the countryside near the beach is a great atmosphere for the museum. We got caught in a tropical downpour during our visit, but given the high temperature and sunshine present throughout the rest of the day, we found it refreshing.
At each cultural group’s dwelling were members of that group demonstrating some of their traditional activities, such as food preparation, music, and art. The most memorable and beautiful for us was the Orang Ulu longhouse, where a man was playing beautiful music on a stringed instrument called the sapeh.
At the conclusion of our walk around to the various longhouses, we took in a show at the theater. Here, various traditional dances were performed, as well as a demonstrate of the “blowpipe” used for hunting by some of the indigenous communities in Sarawak. In some ways the performance felt a bit strange given its obvious attempt to appeal to a tourist audience, but it is was still quite interesting and entertaining.
Bako National Park
Our visit to Bako National Park was perhaps the highlight of our trip to Sarawak. There are no roads to this remote national park, and it can only be accessed by a 20 minute boat ride. We got lucky and the boat ride was quite smooth both ways, but from what we understand, on many days the large waves make it a journey not for the faint of heart. According to Wikipedia, Bako is home to nearly every form of plant life in Borneo, as well as a plethora of exotic jungle species, including the endangered proboscis monkey. Although we didn’t get any good pictures, we did get to see this fascinating animal in its natural habitat. During our visit, we also encountered several Bornean bearded pigs, many unidentified birds, and particularly mischievous monkey who skilfully stole some of the last bites of my lunch (captured below!).
While hiking on one of the rainforest trails, Emily held on to a tree branch for balance. Unbeknownst to her, a green snake had made itself comfortable on this branch. I have never seen her scream louder or run faster. Although most of the snakes in Bako are considered to be harmless to humans, she said that it looked like the venomous pit viper that the park rangers had warned us about when we arrived. I suppose we will never know for sure (Thank God!), but it certainly made for a memorable moment.
Our day trip to Bako unfortunately only allowed us to scratch the surface of its spectacular beaches, lush rain forest trails, and fascinating species. Given the treacherous nature of the tides at the time of year we visited, we only had about 4 hours to explore. If I were to do it over again, we would have definitely stayed overnight in some of the inexpensive cabins available there. Some of the longer trails can be a full-day proposition, but would no-doubt have been incredible to explore.
Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse & Natural Hot Springs
Although our visit to Sarawak Cultural visit certainly piqued our interest, we were interested in visiting an indigenous community in a less contrived setting. So, we were quite excited to visit the Annah Rais longhouse. Located in a remote village near the Indonesian border, this is one of the few surviving longhouses of the Bidayuh people. While it was certainly fascinating to visit this community, it is also clearly set up for tourists, having such conveniences as a bank machine and convenience store on site. Although I expected that a visit to such a remote tribal group would be an opportunity to escape questions about Donald Trump, my thoughts on him were the first thing I was asked about by the Bidayuh woman at the ticket desk the moment she learned I am an American. Just goes to show how small the world has become.
Before visiting the longhouse and the surrounding village area, we were offered some free Tuak, a rice wine that the Bidayuh brew. I think they were only supposed to give us one small sample, but they were quite generous and we probably could have had as much as we liked. I think we each had 2 glasses while chatting with the woman at the desk. She had a great sense of humor and seemed to really enjoy interacting with tourists. Out of respect for the many people who lived at the longhouse, we were asked not to take pictures of the longhouse itself or the people there. So the only pictures I have are those of the surrounding village area. You can view some pictures on the Sarawak tourism website here. Most of the people there were just going about their daily business, cooking what appeared to be a flatbread of some kind on a small stove top in a communal area. Some of the families seemed to have private dwellings apart from the communal area. I assume this is a modern innovation and a break from tradition.
The funniest story of our visit happened outside one of those dwellings. On the porch, we saw some durian, the legendary smelly fruit of Sarawak. Opinions on the taste of durian are sharply divided among westerners who visit southeast Asia, but everyone agrees that it smells awful – similar to rotten eggs. One of the indigenous women saw us examining the durian from inside. She had just got out of the shower (running water no doubt being a recent innovation to Bidayuh life) and casually came outside in a towel. Seeing our curiosity about the fruit, she asked us if we would like to have some. We said of course. Back she went into the dwelling, emerging with a large knife, resembling a machete. She handed me the blade and told me to go ahead and open the durian. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, and was unable to do so. Emily also tried with no luck. I’m glad that we were able to provide her with such high quality entertainment. Amused, he took the blade back and proceeded to crack open the durian with one firm strike. “Enjoy!” she said, and went back inside. The fruit itself is slimy in texture and surrounds several large pits that resemble an avocado. I did not find it particularly tasty, but it wasn’t as disgusting as many hyped it up to be!
A surprise addition to our trip to the longhouse came when our driver suggested we visit some of the natural hot springs nearby. I was so happy that he suggested this, because it was an excellent way to end the day. Located in a small stream in a secluded, this hot spring provided a perfect opportunity to relax in an amazing natural setting. And given the hot tropical temperatures, it was nice to have an opportunity to cool off in the stream afterwards.
Kuching City: Good Food and Good Times
Although we didn’t visit Sarawak looking for a city experience, we did spent some time in the city of Kuching during our trip. The primary reasons for this were practical and culinary. Emily and I have been vegetarians since the New Year, myself having made the resolution to return to the diet I maintained from 2011-2013, and her making a decision that she had always strongly considered. In South Korea, where we are currently based, this can be quite a challenge.
Truly vegetarian options in the local cuisine are scarce, and the opportunity to try truly authentic non-Korean cuisine generally comes only when we take a trip to Seoul or Busan. So, we made the most of our time in Malaysia to have all of the delicious vegetarian food we usually do not have access to! In practice, this meant having dinner at Bombay Spices at least 3 or 4 times during our trip. I guess we could have been more adventurous, but the food was amazing and I regret nothing.
It was also lucky that our friend Daniel was passing through Kuching during our visit. He is also a teacher in the Jeollanamdo public schools (the region where we teach), and was in Kuching for the evening on his way to the Indonesian province of West Kalamatin. Of course, there is only one proper way to celebrate such a coincidence: with bowling! My friends in Korea know that this is one of my favorite pastimes, so we decided to take the tradition to Malaysia (for one night only!)
Our trip to Sarawak was truly the highlight of our time in Malaysia. With such amazing natural surroundings and diverse cultural landscapes to explore, and the amazing affordability of it all, I can’t recommend a visit there enough.