Malaysia is home to some of the most alluring destinations in Southeast Asia. Think of a typical Malaysian holiday and destinations like Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Langkawi often come to mind. However, just as Malaysia has many famous travel destinations, it also has its fair share of underrated travel gems like Sarawak. These more than deserve the limelight and a spot on your 2021 travel bucket list.
Sarawak is, in terms of surface area, the largest state in Malaysia. Located on the island of Borneo, the Land of the Hornbills is home to lush virgin rainforests, exotic flora and fauna, pristine beaches, and an enticingly rich cultural heritage. Be it scenery, food or ambience, Sarawak offers a little something different with every visit.
Piqued your interest? With its diverse culture and experiences, Sarawak definitely deserves a spot on your 2021 post-pandemic travel bucket list. To start you off, here are 18 incredible experiences in Sarawak you don’t want to miss!
1. Chase down the beautiful murals scattered throughout Kuching
For most travellers, Kuching is most likely the first city in Sarawak you’ll see. As you journey throughout the state capital, one fun way to kick off your Sarawak bucket list is to hunt down all the beautiful, vibrant murals that are scattered around the city.
Hidden in the alleys behind traditional shophouses, the murals depict and celebrate Kuching (and Sarawak’s) diverse way of life. Some of the most famous art murals you don’t want to miss include the orangutans along Jalan Power, Wild About Kuching on Temple Street, and Leaping Feline on Carpenter Street.
Wherever you go in Kuching, you will be able to admire the creativity of the locals reflected in the murals all around you. I can’t think of a better way to start your journey in Sarawak! Of course, as you go hunting for the murals, don’t forget to enjoy the ambience of Kuching’s many heritage streets!
2. Admire the alluring evening scenery at Kuching Waterfront
As night falls in Kuching, be prepared to have your heart stolen by the amazing evening view at the Kuching Waterfront! The scenic waterfront is arguably the most popular hotspot in the city at night. It is filled with ambient walking paths by the water and beautifully lit landmarks.
As you walk around the waterfront, you’ll be able to spot some mainstay tourist attractions like the majestic Floating Mosque (currently closed to visitors), the Astana (palace) and Fort Margherita. As the skies turn dark, you’ll be able to see Darul Hana Bridge decked out in alluring LED lights. It’s no wonder this place is such a hit among the locals!
If you feel tired from your leisurely stroll, there are plenty of cafes and eateries around to recharge at. Not a bad way to end your night in Kuching by any means!
3. Sample the many different flavours of Sarawak
With Sarawak being a melting pot of many different cultures and ethnic groups, it comes as no surprise that it is also a cauldron of fascinating culinary delights. In fact, if you consider yourself a true foodie, you will certainly not want to miss the opportunity to sample some of Sarawak’s most famous dishes.
While you can find unique dishes throughout the state, you can often eat your fill by visiting the major cities like Kuching and Sibu. Some of the must-try dishes in Kuching include Sarawak laksa (dubbed “Breakfast of the Gods” by the late Anthony Bourdain), kolo mee, and various Dayak and Kelabit cuisine like Kacangma Chicken and Manok Pansuh. Of course, before you go home, you should also bring along a few boxes of kek lapis (layer cakes)!
In Sibu, you’ll be able to sample authentic Foochow dishes, including the must-try kampua mee (noodles tossed in pork lard) and kompia (tandoori-style roasted bread rolls often stuffed with stewed pork). Basically, if “enjoy Sarawakian food” isn’t on your 2021 travel bucket list, you’re REALLY missing out!
4. Get up close and personal with orangutans at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Leaving behind the glitz and glamour of Sarawak’s main cities, the first natural attraction you’ll want to visit is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. Conveniently located just a short distance away from Kuching, it is here where you have the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with man’s closest primate cousin: the orangutan!
The main purpose of the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is to house rescued orangutans and eventually reintroduce them to the wild. It also provides a unique opportunity to visitors who want to learn more about these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat.
The best part about visiting is the fact that the orangutans will occasionally swing down from the trees for some fruit! It is in fact one of the few places in the world where visitors have the chance to interact with these often elusive creatures. If you want the highest possible chance of seeing these amazing red apes in the flesh, your best bet is to visit between 9 – 10 am and 3 – 4 pm, which are their usual feeding times.
5. Hang out with Proboscis Monkeys at Bako National Park
Another famous nature escape in Sarawak that deserves to be in your travel bucket list is Bako National Park. Lying between the Sarawak and Bako Rivers, Bako National Park is the oldest national park in Sarawak. It is also one of the most accessible attractions from Kuching.
It spans an area of almost 3,000 hectares and boasts some of the most unique geological sights in the state. To access it, you’ll have to hop aboard a boat ride across the pristine lake. Along the way, you’ll pass by several coastal cliffs including the iconic sandstone formation the park is famous for.
Apart from boasting majestic sandstone formations, Bako National Park also houses several different ecosystems, including mangrove swamps! It is also home to several unique fauna, the most famous of which are the proboscis monkeys, macaques, and bearded pigs. All in all, Bako National Park is the perfect day trip from Kuching and one that will keep you coming back for more!
6. Hike up Santubong, the tallest peak in Kuching
Ask any local and they’ll tell you that the most famous mountain in Sarawak is Mount Santubong! Located about 35km(about 45 minutes drive) away from Kuching on the Damai Peninsula, Mount Santubong is one of the most popular destinations in Sarawak, especially among avid hikers.
There are no less than four different hiking trails you can take to reach the peak. While you don’t need any permits to hike Mount Santubong, the journey can be challenging. This is because the trail includes steep vertical climbs, some of which will require the use of rope ladders to overcome. Apart from that, you’ll be travelling across dense jungle terrain as well.
However, once you reach the peak, all that toiling will be worth it as the view is simply breathtaking! The entire hike shouldn’t take more than nine hours in total, making it a perfect day trip activity to add to your 2021 Sarawak bucket list.
7. Discover wild rafflesia at Gunung Gading National Park
Sarawak isn’t just home to uniquely rare animals, it is also the place where you can find the largest flower in the world: the rafflesia. The best place to find this extremely rare flower is Gunung Gading National Park, which is located about two hours away from Kuching.
While there are certainly many different activities on offer at Gunung Gading National Park, there is no doubt that the biggest draw is the chance to view the Rafflesia flower. Thankfully, this item on your 2021 Sarawak travel bucket list is easy enough to accomplish. This is because the flower generally blooms throughout the year at the park.
Apart from admiring rafflesia flowers, visitors can also go trekking on lush jungle trails and immerse themselves in the gentle abode of Mother Nature. For those who really love a challenge you can also hike up the main peak, aptly named Gunung Gading!
8. Explore the enigmatic Mulu Caves
If there’s one destination in Sarawak that I personally adore, it’s Mulu National Park. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, this gorgeous national park is often regarded as one of Malaysia’s most mesmerising locations.
There are many spectacular caves here but Mulu National Park is best known for the iconic Mulu Pinnacles. Enigmatic and surreal, these pinnacles have attracted plenty of adventurers and avid photographers throughout the years. However, be warned that the journey to the Pinnacles (known as the Pinnacle Climb) is a rather challenging one. It often takes several days to complete, even under supervision by a trained guide.
For a less adrenaline-filled time at Mulu National Park, visit Deer Cave instead! As you journey towards the cave chamber, you’ll pass through lush rainforest trails, waterfalls, limestone outcrops and swamps. For an authentic experience of Sarawak’s mesmerising jungles, a trip to Mulu National Park is an essential item to add to your bucket list!
9. Be amazed by the rare beauty of Fairy Cave
Another wondrous cave in Sarawak that deserves your attention is the ever-whimsical Fairy Cave in the old mining town of Bau. As you might have guessed from the name, Fairy Cave is a location that is steeped in mystique and local legends.
While you’re unlikely to bump into any real fairies, you’ll be swept away by the whimsical beauty of the caves and surrounding area. However, getting to the entrance is, in itself, a challenge. Before you can explore the limestone caverns of Fairy Cave, you’ll need to ascend quite a few flights of stairs. Don’t worry though, they’re not as steep as they may sound.
For a more challenging time at Fairy Cave, you can also choose to scale the walls of the caverns outside. There are multiple different rock-climbing routes, each with its own level of difficulty.
10. Watch the collection of birds’ nest in Niah Caves
For the uninitiated, bird’s nest soup is a Chinese delicacy that is highly-sought after in Malaysia. It is often served as a chilled dessert and is believed to promote good health and improve one’s skin. One of the most famous locations where birds’ nests are harvested is Niah Caves in Miri.
Apart from witnessing how birds’ nest is harvested, visitors can also explore the storied caverns of the Niah Caves. You see, the caves actually contain the earliest record of human settlement in East Malaysia! Within the extensive network of caves, especially in “Painting Cave”, you’ll be able to see some cave paintings and even the burial ground of the earliest “Malaysians”.
What’s more, the journey to Niah Caves is also an enjoyable experience on its own. You’ll first need to take a boat ride through the river and then proceed on foot through the lush rainforest. However, rather than rush through the experience, make sure to keep your eyes peeled because you may just be able to spot the illustrious hornbill on your way to the caves!
11. Discover the native heritage of Sarawak @ Sarawak Cultural Village
One of Sarawak’s most attractive traits is its diverse indigenious culture. In fact, it is what sets Sarawak apart from other famous destinations on the peninsula. There are no less than 26 ethnic groups in Sarawak, each with its own unique heritage.
One way to experience the charming culture of Sarawak is by making a short trip to the Sarawak Cultural Village just outside of Kuching. At this 17-acre open museum, you’ll be able to learn about the various indigenious groups in Sarawak by interacting with various local crafts. There are also replica longhouses, Penan huts, and Melanau Tall Houses where you can experience the daily life of the locals.
In addition, you’ll also be able to enjoy cultural performances and even get a hands on experience with weaving, bamboo carving, and cooking using traditional tools and techniques. What’s more, the Sarawak Cultural Village is also the site of the annual Rainforest Music Festival. This awesome music festival (the only one that’s held in a rainforest) often lasts for three days and features music from different parts of the world. There are also music workshops and cultural performances held during the day!
12. Stay overnight in a traditional longhouse
Of course, if a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village isn’t immersive enough, you can also opt to do a homestay in a traditional longhouse to truly experience life as a local! There are actually several longhouse homestay options in Sarawak and it’s pretty easy to find one that suits your fancy. Of course, it’s not just about staying the night!
Many of the longhouse homestays also offer fun activities that introduce guests to the local indigenous cultures. These will often vary based on the type of longhouse (which ethnic group) you’re staying in. Regardless, you’ll likely be able to enjoy a wholesome experience. After all, Sarawakians are nothing if not warm and hospitable hosts!
One of the longhouse stays we highly recommend is the Annah Rais Bidayuh Homestay. We’ll get to why in a minute!
13. Catch the sunset at Canada Hill
Here’s a fun fact for you: Sarawak is actually one of the main producers of oil in Malaysia. In fact, one of the earliest oil wells in the country is at Canada Hill in Miri! Of course, we’re not including that location on our bucket list simply because of its important history!
Ask any local and they’ll tell you that Canada Hill is where you can enjoy one of the most alluring sunsets in the country! It is also a great place for a leisurely hike. At the top, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Miri. I suggest planning your hike around the evening so you’ll be able to watch the sun dip below the horizon. It might take a while to get the timing right but the view is oh, so immaculate!
14. Relax and rejuvenate with hot springs
Remember the Annah Rais Homestay experience we mentioned earlier? The main reason we recommended it is because it actually allows you to strike off TWO bucket list experiences at the same time! Other than the traditional Bidayuh Longhouse, Annah Rais is also famous for its rejuvenating hot springs!
Located in the Borneo Highlands, Annah Rais is surrounded by thick jungles. And, in the middle of it all, lies its popular hot springs! Even though it’s been around for ages, it has only recently become famous, so you might want to check it out soon before it becomes another tourist magnet!
Supposedly, the spring water, housed in an enclosure next to a river, helps improve blood circulation. But even if you’re not there only for the hot springs medicinal properties, it’s certainly a pleasure to soak in the warm waters while admiring the sights and sounds of the jungle!
15. Look for the mesmerising bioluminescent sea at Tusan Beach
Sarawak is no stranger to breathtaking islands and beaches. While many people rave about Damai Beach in Santubong, I actually recommend adding Tusan Beach to your 2021 Sarawak bucket list.
Located in Miri, Tusan Beach was once popular for its iconic rock formation that extended into the water. Sadly, the rock formation collapsed in early 2020 (because 2020, duh!) Despite that, Tusan Beach remains a lovely destination, especially because of its colourful limestone cliff faces. However, it is when night falls that Tusan Beach shows off its most magical sight.
The sea off Tusan Beach houses a certain kind of algae that feed on the plankton in the water. As a defense mechanism the plankton emit a blue light (bioluminescence). This creates a beautiful, nay, magical phenomenon known as the Blue Tears! Imagine a sky full of stars, now imagine that in the water. That’s exactly what it looks like! As the ocean glows a stunning electric neon blue, you can capture some truly amazing photos!
Of course, this otherworldly experience is extremely rare. You’ll need the weather and ocean to be clear and have high visibility. If you’re lucky, you’ll start seeing the first few specks of blue in the ocean by 7pm. Bring a good camera because the Blue Tears is definitely something you’ll want to keep for memories sake!
16. Watch Irrawaddy dolphins off Satang Island
Off the west coast of Sarawak, you’ll find Satang Island National Park. Made up of two different islands (Pulau Satang Besar and Pulau Satang Kecil), the park is a sanctuary for marine life, with its turtle conservation area being one of the most popular attractions. Apart from the turtles, visitors can also explore the pristine underwater world and admire the beautiful coral reefs.
However, the most fascinating activity on Satang Island is the chance to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in their natural habitat! These beautiful creatures can be found along coastal beaches around Borneo. The easiest way to spot them is by taking a boat trip out to sea at the right time. Trust us, this is one Sarawak bucket list experience you won’t soon forget!
17. Go kayaking in Padawan
Another unique travel experience that deserves a place on your 2021 bucket list is exploring the Padawan region in Sarawak by kayaking. Blessed with alluring natural landscapes and a pristine river that runs through the area, Padawan is home to the ethnic Biatah Bidayuh natives. While it is possible to explore the area on foot, signing up for a kayak tour is way more exciting!
There are different kinds of tours on offer, each with varying levels of difficulty. These range from a leisurely two-hour tour of Padawan to a challenging escapade through the thick jungles. Whatever you choose, it’ll definitely be an experience you’ll want to relive over and over again. Plus, it sure is something different to reminisce about!
18. Be astonished by the natural beauty of Similajau National Park
Located some 30km away from the town of Bintulu is a natural haven of lush rainforests and an alluring coastline that will charm just about anyone who visits. Similajau National Park is a protected forest fronted by sandy beaches that stretch along the South China Sea. For those who adore the great outdoors, it is a treasured opportunity to bask in the untouched, rustic beauty of Sarawak’s natural attractions.
There are several trekking trails here (the most popular being View Point Trail) that pass through rocky coves, mangroves, and a golden shoreline that stretches as far as the eye can see. Along the way, you may just be lucky enough to cross paths with some of the 185 species of unique birds and mammals (including the iconic hornbills!) that live in the area. Golden Beach is especially famous for being the place where saltwater crocodiles (the largest of its kind) often bathe in the sun. Because even crocodiles need their daily dose of Vitamin D!
All in all, whether you’re looking to enjoy the gentle sound of the ocean beating against the shore or wish to spot some unique animals in Sarawak, Similajau National Park is an essential bucket list item for anyone who loves being surrounded by nature!
Note: Similajau National Park is temporarily closed. Please stay tuned for updates regarding opening times in the future.
A hidden gem waiting to be explored
And there you have it: 18 incredible experiences in Sarawak that deserves to be on your bucket list in 2021! As travel gradually resumes normalcy, it’s high time to start planning your post-pandemic travels and there’s no better place to start than in Sarawak! STILL not convinced? Don’t worry, I’ve made it my personal calling to show you more of Sarawak’s mesmerising beauty, so stay tuned for more!
Brought to you by Sarawak Tourism Board