Spread out over 13 states on the island of Borneo and on peninsular Malaysia in Southwest Asia, Malaysia is a relatively young country with a colorful past and a lush cavalcade of tropical riches. Well after my return home, I still have vivid memories of my time spent traveling in the states of Sarawak, Sabah and on the island of Langkawi, in the state of Kedah.
The southern state of Sarawak, the largest in Malaysia, takes up most of the northwestern half of the island of Borneo. The region has an interesting history: it was once a private fiefdom for three British rajahs, as well as a pristine frontier where headhunters practiced their ways well into World War II. After the eradication of piracy, Sarawak eventually became a modern state.
The view overlooking Kuching, the capitol of Sarawak, is breath-taking. Mount Santubong broods mysteriously in the distance, and the Sarawak River is where Sir James Brooke, the first white rajah, parked his private gunboat in 1839 and forced the Sultan of Brunei’s lackey to cede part of the sultanate to him. Nearby is the teeming rainforest—one square mile of this region contains more tree species than the whole of Europe or North America.
Music lovers now flock to Kuching every July for the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival. The festival’s goal is to preserve and encourage native music from across the globe. Naturally, Malaysian music can be heard here in a locale that is nothing short of unique. Located right in the rainforest, next to towering trees and in a living museum that showcases the indigenous long houses of the former head-hunting tribes of western Borneo, the Rainforest Festival has become a draw for Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike.
But there are other sights and sounds to see. The eerie shrill of the early morning cicadas greeted us as we arrived at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (an orangutan sanctuary), just 40 minutes outside Kuching. Here orphaned or injured orangutans are nursed back to health with the goal of returning them to the wild.
Encountering an orangutan in the wild is not an easy thing—they spend their time high in the trees, and sightings are usually limited to a glimpse of them building sleeping nests in the towering Dipterocarpus trees.
New strains and tones of cicadas reached us as we made our way through the jungle past regiments of army ants. We stopped on a bridge to view huge, creeper-covered ironwood trees that looked as if they had grown right out of “Jack And The Beanstalk.” Suddenly we saw a huge male ape. He appeared content to live the life of Riley with frequent meals at the sanctuary his overgrown coat made him appear as wide as he was tall. A guide then reminded us that a dominant male has the strength of five men and can rip your head off in one stroke. We stopped in our tracks and frowned, remembering that a smile and showing of teeth would be interpreted as a challenge.
Sabah, the Malaysian state located on the northern side of Borneo, also abounds with natural wonders. On the Sea of Sulu, just across from the Philippines, the historic capital of Sandakan is the center for excursions into the rainforest. An even better choice for accommodations is a jungle lodge in the heart of the rainforest on the Kinabatangan (Sabah’s longest river). The lodge at Sukau, which serves as a place to eat and as a launch for boat excursions, offers the perfect experience of the jungle’s sights and sounds.
Gliding in a small boat, with a motor designed to make as little noise as possible, we began the day accompanied by more wildly intriguing cicada calls, and then the “whoop-whoop” of a hornbill bird as it made its way across a tributary of the Kinabatangan. A rare green pigeon shot across the bow of the dugout as a blue-eared kingfi sher observed us from the riotous mish mash of root systems that make up the shore.
| Travel notes|
WHERE TO STAY
Meritus Pelangi Beach Resort & Spa, Langkawi
The Westin Langkawi Resort & Spa
In Kuching, Sarawak
Crowne Plaza Riverside
In Sukau, Sabah
Sepilok Nature Resort