It is easy to look at the long teardrop peninsula of Malaysia and forget that the country’s largest state is not situated there. Sarawak lies several hundred miles away on the island of Borneo.
Sarawak and Sabah, the 12th and 13th states of Malaysia, share the north of the island with the tiny independent sultanate of Brunei. The Indonesian state of Kalimantan takes up the southern half of the island, and it is from here that last year’s disastrous smoke haze emanated. Nobody can be sure it won’t happen again but the unusually dry conditions which allowed the jungle fires to get out of hand have been replaced this year by unusually wet conditions.
Sarawak, the land of the hornbill, is not just one of the most colourful places on earth, it has a colourful past too. This was the fiefdom of the “White Rajahs”. When Rupert Brooke, a gentleman-adventurer, arrived in Sarawak in 1839 and ruthlessly put down a rebellion by the local pirate tribes, he claimed a large chunk of the Sarawak river basin from the Sultan of Brunei as his reward. For the next century, until the Japanese arrived in WWII, three generations of Brookes expanded their territory to cover most of northern Borneo, an area the size of England and Scotland.
An incentive visit to Sarawak usually starts at the capital, Kuching, having flown from Europe via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. Kuching straddles the muddy brown Sarawak River not far from the coast. It is not so much a city, more a large town, with plenty of old colonial-style buildings, gardens and parks, Chinese temples, and narrow streets with shops and stalls.
In contrast to most Asian cities, Kuching has a relaxed pace of life and is the perfect place to wind down after a long flight. Most of the major chain hotels like the Hilton, Holiday Inn and Sheraton are close to the river and overlook the Brookes palace and the rather quirky-looking Fort Margherita on the opposite bank. They all cater for groups of people.
From Kuching most groups head either for the beach or the rainforest. There are three resort hotels in particular that cater for their needs.
The Holiday Inn Damai Beach resort is a 40-minute drive away, down on the coast of the South China Sea. Its 302 rooms are spread over 36 hectares of beachfront and hillside. The most luxurious rooms, suites and chalets look out onto their own pool on the brow of the hill where the Sultan of Brunei has a private villa. There are squash and tennis courts, a spa pool, fitness centre and a wide range of water sports.
However, one of the resort’s best assets – the multi award-winning Sarawak Cultural Village – is right next door. This government-established 14-acre “living museum” is a cut above the average cultural centre. Situated by a small lake, it has Bidayuh, Iban, and Orang Ulu longhouses, Malay and Chinese farmhouses, and even a hut occupied by non-wandering members of the nomadic Penan tribe.
The residents of the village, who actually live here, will talk about their lifestyle, their past (head-hunting was big on Borneo, you can still find the trophies hung up in longhouses), teach skills like cooking, weaving, wood-carving, fishing, and hunting with a blowpipe, and demonstrate dances and ceremonies in the purpose-built theatre.
The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse resort is built on the shore of a lake, surrounded by rainforest, four hours drive inland from Kuching. The longhouse is the traditional dwelling of Borneo. Standing on stilts between ten and 20 feet off the ground, it is a village under one roof shared by about 17 families.
The 100-room/11-block Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is Hilton’s luxury version. The resort has function rooms for up to 130 people and an outward-bound-style assault course. There are guided jungle treks, fishing and canoeing on the lake, and tours to nearby oil palm, rubber, cocoa and pepper plantations. The highlight of the visit is a trip by canoe to visit one of the many real longhouses which are dotted along the rivers and tributaries that fan out from the lake.
Borneo Adventures, one of the leading inbound tour operators in the region, whose client list includes companies like Hewlett Packard, American International Assurance, Dutch Telecom (and famously, Michael Palin on his first global tour), have built their own simple guest accommodation at one longhouse in the area so that visitors can get an overnight experience of the real thing.
Located at the entrance to the national park at Mulu, the Royal Mulu Resort provides four-star luxury accommodation perched on stilts 18 feet above the jungle floor. Mulu is famed for its razor-sharp mountain peaks, the Pinnacles, and its caves. One of them, Clearwater Cave, is the world’s longest (75 kilometres have been explored). Another, Deer Cave (2.2 km long, open at both ends, and home to millions of bats) is the world’s largest cave passage (five times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral) and a third, the Sarawak Chamber, is the world’s largest natural chamber.
The problem with Mulu is that you can only take small numbers. There is no road to this remote part of Sarawak – the only way of getting there is by river which takes a whole day, or a 20-minute flight by light aircraft.
Is now a good time to go? Chris Robles, marketing manager at the Sarawak Board of Tourism, says that the economic problems in Southeast Asia may have reduced the number of Asian visitors, but that long-haul incentive trips from Europe, particularly France and Germany, have increased dramatically now that it is such good value. Furthermore, the recent political turmoil in Kuala Lumpur has not had much coverage in European media and has little impact in Sarawak.
Manfred Kurz, director of marketing for Singai Travel Services agrees. His company, whose client list includes the likes of Fuji, Panasonic, Peugeot, Yamaha, Minolta, Arthur Andersen, Petrofina/Sigma and CitroÃ«, is offering incentive packages at 30 per cent less than last year’s prices. Bookings for 1999 are up by the same amount. Now is a very good time.