Sarawak: Two worlds collide

The Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is preserving the waning lifestyle of the Iban people, ancient orangutan and turtle populations, and a snapshot of the Sarawak of yesteryear in its national parks

By Mark Stratton
Published 3 Jan 2014, 15:37 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:32 BST

Surrounded by his treetop harem, he knows he's God's gift to primates. His burgundy toupee twitches while he greedily enlarges his potbelly with hastily plucked leafs. Yet his real sex appeal lies in a nose large enough to give Cyrano de Bergerac an inferiority complex.

No other primate is blessed with a six-inch-long hooter. Abang Mutalib, head-warden at Bako National Park, tells me proboscis monkeys are locally called orang-belanda, roughly translating as 'Dutchmen', a mocking reference to Borneo's big-nosed former colonists. "Bigger noses are more attractive to females," he says, referring to the monkeys not the Dutch. Abang also explains that much of their coastal forest habitat has been lost and these rare monkeys, around 150 of which reside within Bako, are increasingly hard to find elsewhere. Extraordinary creatures, fearsome headhunters and wild uncharted jungles have historically marked Borneo out, but today it's a very different place.

Borneo is divided between three countries — to the south lies the vast Indonesian province of Kalimantan, while the northern coastline is shared by tiny, oil-rich Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. I've travelled to Sarawak, which four decades ago was cloaked in pristine tropical forests teeming with flora and fauna. Since then it has epitomised Malaysia's rapid modernisation through the exploitation of its natural resources.

Flying into the state the landscape below looked green. It remains 80% forested yet only 6% of this is untouched primary forest — the rest is post-deforestation secondary growth, fast-growing commercial timber, and oil palm plantations. While Sarawakian biodiversity remains high, abundance has been heavily impacted, reducing its endemic species, particularly primates, to isolated communities. Former prime minister Gordon Brown once labelled Sarawakian deforestation as 'probably the biggest environmental crime of our times'. Indeed, the area's chosen title of Bumi Kenyalang ('Land of the Hornbills') has become sadly ironic — hornbills are infrequently seen these days.

Sarawak's international standing hasn't been helped by corruption allegations focused on its long-serving chief-minister Taib Mahmud, whose family are accused of amassing billions of dollars from Sarawak's great forest sell-off. Reports of forced eviction and intimidation of forest-dwelling indigenous communities have further sullied its reputation. However, Sarawak claims it's working towards granting 10% of the state protected status and a new 35,000-acre national park for orangutans in Sungai Menyang was proposed recently.

My guide Tiyon Juna met me at the state capital Kuching's international airport. He was tattooed, played heavy metal, and was Iban — the former headhunting tribe of Borneo. He offered his perspective on Sarawak's modernisation. Life for him had moved on. "Most of us lived in longhouses just 10 years ago," said Tiyon. "Our development is good. We have free education and healthcare now and good roads. When I was younger I walked for a day through jungle to reach school, where I slept on the floor throughout the term and away from my family. I used to roll up clay to draw on blackboards."

Just capital

A laid-back riverside city, Kuching is convenient for exploring Sarawak's accessible national parks. It's a cosmopolitan city, reflecting Sarawak's 27 different ethnic groupings, symbolised by gilded Chinese temples, Indian street markets and a pink hilltop mosque.

Sarawak was ruled from 1842-1946 by a private British dynasty, the Brooke family, known as the 'white rajahs', who bequeathed Kuching significant 19th-century architecture, including an old-fashioned museum which I ducked into during a furious tropical downpour. Alongside grainy photographs of tribal life, its cobwebbed glass terrariums house collections of weirdly wonderful stuffed creatures: bearcats, narrow-snouted gharial crocodiles, and Pongo pygmaeus — Borneo's shaggy orangutan species.

How many of these museum exhibits would I encounter in the wild? I have my first sighting a few days later when Richie appears, swaggering like Liam Gallagher in his pomp. Crowds of visitors part, some screaming, like in a bad Hollywood B-movie. The 32-year-old alpha-male hellraiser of Semenggoh Wildlife Centre near Kuching has come for his daily feed. "Richie hates people. He sometimes damages cars or smashes-up the visitor centre," says Tiyon. Richie tucks into his fruit as us punier primates edge closer with camera shutters clicking.

Found only on Borneo and Indonesian Sumatra, the mature forest required for nest-building by orangutans is disappearing alarmingly fast. Most of it has already gone in Sarawak, leaving several national park outposts where around 2,000 wild orangutans survive. Meanwhile, their forest habitat in Indonesian Kalimantan and Sumatra is being pillaged as Indonesia's deforestation continues.

Semenggoh's orangutans are an assortment of rescued pets and their offspring living semi-wild as safari-park entertainment. I prefer nearby Matang Wildlife Centre, a 450-acre forest hosting 27 rescued orangutans whose caring staff offer no pretence they can ever be rehabilitated into the wild. Visitors can join its day-long Heart-to-Heart programme, assisting with the orangutans' practical care. It's a bittersweet experience. I pack bamboo tubes with honey and nuts for a rescued male called Peter — his tousled body hair resembles a shaggy Afghan coat — and I pass his bamboo feed into his leathery hands through the bars. He will never be released.

The same goes for Matang's most imposing inmate, Aman. In 2007, this 25-year-old enjoyed 15 minutes of global fame when he had his sight restored after suffering with cataracts, a condition triggered by ill-advisedly chomping through an electricity cable. As a 285lb alpha-male, Aman's muscularly imposing. He possesses huge half-moon cheek flanges, creating a pan-shaped face, coloured by a bright ginger goatee you'd be foolhardy to tease him about. "He cannot ever leave his enclosure," says Matang's manager Siali anak Aban. "As a former pet he's used to human company meaning he's a danger to people. At his age, they're moody just like humans."

Matang's most heart-wrenching experience is 'primary school'. I watch four confiscated pet babies being taught forest skills such as nest-building — ironically by the same species eradicating them. The babies cling to their human trainers like furry orange backpacks. "They won't be released into the semi-wild until they're around eight years old when they've learned to survive independently," says Siali.

After my Bako encounter with proboscis monkeys, I remain on Sarawak's South China Sea coast. "Welcome to paradise," says warden Tonny Ganya, a fresh-faced Robinson Crusoe. As the speedboat moors in lukewarm, aquamarine sea off the horseshoe-shaped foreshore of tiny Talang-Talang Island, it's hard to disagree with his assessment. I'm here to explore Talang-Satang National Park, where six paying volunteers a week are permitted to stay during turtle nesting season from April-September.

On first impression, it looks as though a monster truck rally has torn-up this tiny beach leaving tracks a few feet wide. "They're green turtle tracks from when they move onto the beach to lay," says Tonny. "Last year they laid over 27,000 nests here."

Green turtles arrive here every season with remarkable in-built GPS, often travelling thousands of miles to the same beaches. The park has protected the surrounding inlet by creating artificial reefs to prevent turtles drowning in illegal trawler-nets. It's ironic the biggest threat they face is themselves.

"They dig up each other's eggs when nesting," explains Tonny. "So we collect the freshly-laid eggs and relocate them to a separate hatchery where they emerge undisturbed. Our incubation success is 70%; very few eggs would survive naturally without this programme."

Settling into the two-storied wooden house for volunteers, I relax on the veranda. An extravagant sunset of vermilion and cerise looks as if nature is experimenting with Photoshop. Then D-Day erupts. With glistening carapaces like rounded shields, the turtles begin slowly edging up the beach to excavate nesting holes with powerful flipper scoops. I'm eager to inch forward but I'm told to wait until they've dug their holes and laid their eggs. By this time they've sunk into an exhausted trance and don't register our presence.

Once these shelly leviathans crawl away we retrieve, by hand, 80-90 squidgy ping pong ball-sized eggs per nest to relay to the hatchery. It's relentless, inspiring work. I sweat in the humidity, excavating the eggs (each female may lay 1,000 during a nesting season). The turtles continue up the beach throughout the night, long after I've slumped exhausted into my bed.


During the five-hour drive south, from Kuching to Batang Ai National Park and into the Iban heartland, Tiyon relates stories of their beliefs. Until recently, Iban shared communal longhouses and practised what he calls 'obsessive' rice cultivation. "I support my mother now with a modern house but she won't stop rice-cultivating," he sighs. "She says without working in the paddies she feels ill."

"To show respect in our society," he laughs, "my wife must follow my mother to the rice-fields."

At the dammed Batang Ai River, motorised longboats depart for the national park, a primary forest stronghold for orangutans. They have traditionally fared well here because the Iban revere orangutans — they believe the souls of the dead inhabit the bodies of these creatures. But they're very difficult to find, and my own morning's tracking proves fruitless.

Another joy of Batang Ai is experiencing a traditional longhouse: an unforgettable window into a waning lifestyle. Delok Longhouse is an hour upriver along the Rumah Ipang tributary. Set on a mid-river island teeming with durian, mango, and breadfruit trees, it's a stilted wooden structure that groans inside with every footstep. Its 300ft length surprises me, although Tiyon dismisses it as rather small.

Inside, a lengthy corridor links individual quarters, which host 16 families. Children, dogs and cockerels slalom in and out; men weave fishing-nets while women de-husk harvested rice, treading it as if pressing wine grapes.

Today, these legendary headhunters are calm pastoralists wearing Western clothes. Headman Nyindang anak Belayong greets me. Living by subsistence farming and foraging is economically tough, he says, so they welcome small-scale tourism. Receiving tourists isn't the only pragmatic decision they've made. "We were animists but recently became Christians," says Nyindang. They'd seen the light? "No, before we worshipped everything so if I had a bad dream I couldn't go outside the longhouse the next day. I get more work done as a Christian."

Later, after food steamed in bamboo tubes, and with the rice wine flowing freely, a woman appears bearing a circular platter. Coffee? After-dinner mints? Neither, just two blackened human skulls presented with a spirit-appeasing offering of popcorn. "They were cut by ancestors over a century ago," says Nyindang. "It was a warrior's game to fight just like those American wrestlers, only the loser lost their head," he says, prompting sozzled hilarity around me.

Out of the darkened recesses, as a sonorous downpour pitter-patters on the tin roof, a bare-chested elder wearing a feathered headdress appears, jabbing the air with a hornbill beak-handled dagger. Nyindang explains this is the blade that severed these skulls but mine won't be added to the tally as headhunting has been outlawed since the mid-1800s. Tattooing persists, however, and the old man's torso is inked with depictions of places and people. "They record his life's experiences after leaving home as a young man," says Nyindang, describing bejalai — their rites-of-passage walkabout. "Young Iban leave the longhouse now for cities and don't want tattoos." Or heads, I venture? Cue more raucous laughter.

My final few days are in remote northern Sarawak in the 130,000-acre UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gunung Mulu National Park. "My longhouse has 80 rooms and when I was younger it housed 1,000 people," says Jenny Malang, my splendid naturalist guide in Gunung Mulu. She is Berawan tribe. "Now we have around 300 living there and it feels quite empty. Youngsters have moved out to find different lives in town," she explains. "We grew up eating sago palm grubs but recently I had to pay my city nephew 10 ringgit (£2) to eat one." "Did he?" I ask. "Yes, he wanted the money but prefers KFC."

Mulu has an exceptional level of biodiversity. A common trip is along the Melinau River to Batu Bungan, home to the Penan. Women sell homemade trinkets to tourists in a little market, where an old man invites me to burst balloons using a blowpipe in return for several ringgits. I miss. He's probably thinking I'd starve in the wild.

Once renowned for venturing into the forest for months to forage and hunt from temporary shelters, this semi-nomadic lifestyle is under threat as they struggle to save their realm from logging. I sense the villagers are caught between two worlds. Forced to abandon a rich forest-dwelling culture to become a sedentary underclass, housed in a concrete longhouse the government is building them in Batu Bungan.

Otherwise, Mulu is one of Asia's best national parks. Jenny and I hike along boardwalks linking its mosaic of limestone karst scenery, peat swamps, and a tangled dipterocarp forest electrified by buzzing insects, birdsong, and flashes of effervescent butterflies. Mulu's most famous attractions are sculpted caverns forming part of an immense underground network. At Deer Cave, around dusk, streaming past a rock formation that looks alarmingly like Abe Lincoln, two million bats depart their roost. At Lang's Cave, creamy formations drip into shapes resembling jellyfish, shark-fins and organ pipes. Near one stalagmite a hair's breath from a stalactite, Jenny exclaims: "I've been looking at that millimetre gap for 10 years and it's never changed. It may join when I have a walking stick."

Over the same decade, Sarawak has seen change of enormous magnitude. These well-managed national parks are a microcosm of what's been lost, and your presence among these welcoming people can influence a better future through tourism. If Sarawak's protected areas expand as promised and deforestation genuinely stops, then the dedicated conservationists I've met wouldn't continue to be undermined by corruption and greed.


Getting there
There are no direct flights to Kuching, but Malaysian Airlines flies from Heathrow to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur. 

Average flight time: 16h.

Getting around
Many national parks are accessible from Kuching by bus, private car or motorised longboats. Mulu is reached by internal flight.

When to go
Warm and humid all year round, the wet season is November-February with marginally less humid and drier conditions from March to October.

Need to know
Visas: Malaysian visa issued on arrival.

Health: Consult your GP but anti-malaria precautions are essential.

Currency: Ringgit (MYR). £1 = MYR 5.14.

International dial code: 00 60.

Time: GMT +8h.

Places mentioned
Grand Margherita Hotel (Kuching): A fine city centre hotel with good restaurants.
Royal Mulu Resort (Mulu): A collection of chalets located in jungle near the Gunung Mulu National Park.
Benson Seafood (Kuching): Fantastic freshly-caught seafood. T: 00 60 82 255 262.
Delok Longhouse: Booked through Planet Borneo Tours.
Batang Ai Longhouse: Smart mock-Iban jungle lodge managed by Hilton

More info
The chapter on Sarawak in Lonely Planet's Guide to Borneo costs £2.99 to download from
Sarawak Forestry manage national parks.
Great Orangutan Project (Matang volunteering). 

How to do it
Planet Borneo Tours offers a 10-day Sarawak tour, including Bako, Batang Ai (Delok Longhouse), and Mulu with guides, transfers, and internal flights from £1,908. Four-day stay on Talang-Talang Island is an extra £646. Excludes international flights.

Reef & Rainforest offers a 15-day tour with flights to Bako, Mulu, and Semengoh, ending with four days around Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. Includes guides, transfers, and accommodation from £3,380 per person. 


Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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