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What to see in Sarawak?

Of the two Malaysian states located on the island of Borneo, Sarawak is lesser-known and sees fewer foreign visitors than neighbouring Sabah but still possesses several must-see sights

Although official Tourism Malaysia statistics claim more visitors to Sarawak than Sabah, we suspect this is inflated by domestic tourists as well as visitors from neighbouring Kalimantan since, in our experience of running Borneo tours, Sabah clearly proves the more popular of the two among Western travellers. Sabah has well-known Kinabatangan, Danum Valley, World Heritage Mount Kinabalu and a clutch of enticing islands so – what is there to see in Sarawak?

Sabah, (‘The Land Below the Wind’), occupies the island’s northern tip, with Sarawak, (‘Land of the Hornbills’), covering a broad swathe of the northwestern coast and its hinterland. The small, independent state of Brunei separates the two. Sarawak includes some 125,000 square kilometres of coastal plain and mountainous interior which is roughly equal to the entirety of West, or Peninsula, Malaysia yet possesses a population of less than three million – a third of greater Kuala Lumpur alone. Approximately 30% of the population is from the Iban ethnic group, while close to 25% are of Chinese and 25% of Malay origin. The remainder comprises a variety of minority groups, mainly inhabiting interior regions. According to the statistics we checked, some 50% are nominally Christian and 35% Muslim, (although all these stats do vary depending on which source one checks).

The Sarawak River Estuary near Kuching
The Sarawak River Estuary near Kuching

You could spend a long time exploring the huge state but we’re limiting our ‘what to see in Sarawak’ post to some of the better-known and more easily accessible sites that could be conveniently included – along with Sabah – in say a two to three-week tour of Borneo.

What to see and do in Kuching

There’s plenty to see in Sarawak’s agreeable capital city Kuching, but to keep the post to a manageable length, we’re not going to list them all individually. We’ll start out by offending all our friends in Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu by saying we find Kuching a much more pleasant town – the former suffered significant destruction during WW2 while Kuching and its historic buildings were largely spared so, ‘KK’ is still a fun town but, through no fault of its own, rather lacks the charm and historic sites of Kuching. Check out the small but vibrant Chinatown, the riverside area and, of course, the 19th-century Fort Margherita, built by Charles Brook and named in honour of his beloved wife.

There’s also the excellent Sarawak State Museum, the Chinese Museum and the Cat Museum, (Kuching is sometimes referred to as the City of Cats as its name is considered to be derived from the Malay word kucing meaning cat. As far as we know, however, this is unconfirmed.)

Malaysia, Borneo Adventure, Fort Margherita, Kuching
Fort Margherita, constructed by Rajah Brookes in the 19th century for his beloved wife

All in all, Kuching offers enough to keep visitors occupied for at least a couple of days and it’s also just a pleasant town to wander around.

Bako National Park

Conveniently located a short distance north of Kuching, Bakok National Park is situated on a rocky headland jutting out into the South China Sea. It’s usually reached by boat across the bay separating it from Santubong, a second peninsula situated slightly to the west.

The small but picturesque park includes a variety of nature trails – easily adjusted at any fitness level and time frame – and is considered to be the best site in Borneo to see the unique proboscis monkeys.

Malaysia and Borneo tour
And there is one of the little darlings! The unique (to Borneo) proboscis monkey
Semenggoh

Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, also located conveniently close to Kuching, is Sarawak’s answer to Sabah’s better-known Sepilok Centre. Semenggoh is more low-key and less visited than Sepilok although the latter can be conveniently combined with visits to the adjacent Borneo Sunbear Conservation Centre and the excellent Rainforest Discovery Centre.

Both rehabilitation projects need funds and are very deserving of visits, so whether you visit Semenggoh and Sepilok depends upon your time frame. While you can’t see too many orangutans in Borneo, you will have several opportunities to see them in the wild if you’re continuing your trip into Sabah.

Our Borneo adventure itinerary takes in Bako and the sites of Kuching but does skip Semenggoh although if you had another half day to spare, this would be well worth considering. Before moving on to Mulu, another two sites close to Kuching that could be added are the following.

Santubong

Santubong is a scenic national park and jungle-clad mountain located on the aforementioned headland situated across the bay from Bako. To the west, it’s bordered by the Sarawak River estuary. The peninsula includes several sandy beaches while boat trips through the estuary’s mangroves are available with the chance to see Irrawaddy dolphins, crocodiles, hornbills and more proboscis monkeys. Another afternoon or morning well spent.

Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo
The fanous Deer Cave with its 3 million bats. Gunung Mulu National Park
Kubah National Park

Another popular national park within easy reach of Kuching is Kubah, located slightly northwest of town in the Sibu River estuary. There’s good hiking and scenery although it gets mixed reviews for wildlife and with Bako already on the itinerary and Santubong offering something a bit different, Kubah wouldn’t be high on our what to see in Sarawak list unless you were really at a loose end.

Mulu

Sarawak covers a large area so, unless you have unlimited time, our next what to see in Sarawak suggestion involves an inevitable domestic flight to Mulu for World Heritage Gunung Mulu National Park. We did try flying to Miri, in northern Sarawak, and taking a boat upstream to Mulu but picturesque as it was, this proved logistically complicated and very time-consuming. (Also, the oil town Miri is not great to overnight in.) Much as we like to avoid flights, there are no practical road or rail options in or out of Mulu.

The huge national park is, of course, home to a huge array of flora and fauna but in some respects, Mulu’s geography is the star of the show as it possesses some of the most spectacular, readily accessible, limestone cave formations in Southeast Asia. Some of the best-known – with sections open to the public – are Deer Cave, (with its estimated 3 million bats), Lang Cave and Clearwater Cave. (Recent expeditions to the latter have confirmed a cave system extending to an astonishing 226 kilometres!)

Malaysia, Deer Cave, Mulu, Sarawak
Interior of Deer Cave in Mulu National Park

Next up, a couple of better-known sites and activities that don’t make it onto our what to see in Sarawak list.

Niah Cave

Another famous Sarawak cave, Niah, is also located in the northern part of the state not far from Miri. In our opinion, Niah is probably of more interest to archaeologists than casual visitors so, having spent 2 days exploring Mulu’s underground offerings we’d skip this one which would also involve spending a night in, what you’ve gathered by now is not our favourite Borneo town, Miri.

Longhouse stays

An overnight stay in a traditional longhouse used to be de rigeur on any Borneo visit although, while it may have been great a few decades ago, for several reasons, we’ve chosen not to include it on our present Sarawak tour. The bottom line is that such traditional longhouses are today few and far between. The emphasis is on far and you’d have to travel a long way into the interior, on pretty poor roads or tracks to find anything remotely authentic and, in our opinion, any minority longhouses within feasible reach of Kuching offer a rather contrived and inauthentic tourist experience. (The best longhouse stay we found was in Brunei – which we no longer include – but that’s another story.)

Overall, we’d happily spend at least a couple of days exploring Kuching – with a morning or afternoon hiking and wildlife spotting in Bako – followed by another two days in Mulu. That covers the main caves, the bats, a boat trip, a jungle boardwalk tour and perhaps a night hike at a comfortable pace. Yes, there are longer hikes – such as the Pinnacles or a hike through Deer Cave to the Hidden Valley but some of these are both lengthy and strenuous.

Our what to see in Sarawak suggestions are admittedly limited but do include some great sites and; A. we’re assuming time is limited and B. Sabah beckons.