Climate / Weather
On the whole, Sarawak has an equatorial climate. The temperature is relatively uniform within the range of 23°C to 32°C throughout the year. During the months of March to September, the weather is generally dry and warm.
Humidity is consistently high on the lowlands ranging from 85 per cent to 95 per cent per annum. The average rainfall per year is between 3,300 mm and 4,600 mm, depending on locality, and the wettest months are from November to February.
Sarawak is presently divided into 11 administrative divisions – Kuching, Sri Aman, Sibu, Miri, Limbang, Sarikei, Kapit, Kota Samarahan, Bintulu, Mukah and Betong. Kuching is the seat of government for modern Sarawak and is home to some 458,300 people making it the highest populated city in Sarawak and the 7th highest populated city in Malaysia. Sarawak has a Chief Minister, which heads a Cabinet of Ministers.
Red symbolises the courage, confidence and sacrifices of the people in their efforts to achieve and maintain progress in the state. Yellow represents the supremacy of the law and the unity found amongst Sarawak’s diverse races. Black denotes the abundant natural resources of Sarawak: petroleum and timber. The yellow nine-pointed star represents the nine divisions and the aspirations of the people to improve their quality of life.
The Bunga Raya (Hibiscus) – the national flower appears on the right and left of the bird’s legs while the banner or ribbon on which the bird’s stand carries the new State Motto “Bersatu, Berusaha, Berbakti” (United, Industrious, Dedicated). Positioned on the bird’s chest is a shield bearing the state colours-black, red and yellow.
Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is simply unique. No other city in Malaysia has such a romantic and unlikely history, nor displays its charms with such an easy grace. The residents of Kuching (pop. 650,000 approx.) enjoy living here, and take great pride in their fascinating city, which is reflected in their attitude to visitors. Kuching welcomes visitors warmly, but it does not put on an act for them. Instead it goes about its own business in a relaxed manner that hasn’t changed in 160 years. It is impossible to really enjoy Kuching from the air conditioned comfort of a tour bus. To make the most of your visit you must put on your walking shoes, take to the streets (and the water), and join in.
Like all towns and cities in Borneo, the focal point of Kuching and the reason for its existence is the river. Hiring a sampan to meander slowly up and down the Sarawak River is the best way to get your first impression of Kuching. From the river you will see picturesque Malay villages (kampungs), a golden-domed mosque, a Victorian fort, a whole street of 19th century Chinese shophouses and an imposing wooden-roofed palace, all set against a background of distant mountains.
Kuching’s city centre is well preserved and very compact; virtually everything that is worth seeing can be reached on foot or by sampan. The narrow, bustling streets are crammed with shops selling all manner of goods, from the mundane to the exotic. There are ornate Chinese temples, many fine examples of colonial-style architecture, a beautiful waterfront and a number of interesting museums, including the historic Sarawak Museum. There is an excellent range of accommodation, from luxury via boutique to budget, good restaurants, and nightlife to suit most tastes and pockets. You can try local delicacies such as deer meat and jungle fern, drink a glass or two of tuak (local rice wine), or feast on a vast array of seafood dishes Kuching has an unusual name – the word means “cat” in Malay. There are a number of stories as to how this name came about, but it is unlikely that it has anything to do with cats. The two more likely explanations are that it derives from the Chinese word kochin, meaning “harbour,” or that it is named after the mata kuching or “cat’s eye” fruit, a close relative of the lychee that grows widely here.
Sarawak is a unique and enjoyable tourism destination, and Kuching is the ideal base from which to go exploring. The nearby national parks include the famous Bako, home of the rare proboscis monkey, Gunung Gading, where giant rafflesia flowers bloom, Kuching Wetlands, which protects a fascinating mangrove ecosystem, Kubah, with its rare palms and orchids, and Semenggoh and Matang Wildlife Centres with their resident orangutans. Literally hundreds of Iban and Bidayuh longhouses are within easy travelling distance. Damai, on the nearby Santubong Peninsula is Sarawak’s main resort area, and many travel agents offer “two-centre” packages allowing you to explore Kuching, go on a longhouse trip, visit Bako and the rainforest and then relax on the beach after the rigours of jungle trekking.
Kuching is also the ideal base for visiting longhouses. Local travel agents have a variety of tours, ranging from half-day trips to nearby Bidayuh longhouses, to week long safaris to Iban longhouses on the Skrang, Lemanak and Batang Ai river systems.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Sarawak was a typical Malay principality, under the control of the Sultan of Brunei. Apart from occasional piracy on the coast and headhunting in the interior, Sarawak was peaceful. All of this changed when the Sultan of Brunei appointed a hugely unpopular Governor. The Malays and Bidayuhs of the Sarawak River revolted in 1836 and declared independence. An ugly guerilla war ensured, which continued until 1839, when James Brooke, a young, wealthy Englishman arrived on the scene in his well-armed yacht, the Royalist.
Brooke set himself up as a freelance adventurer and the Sultan’s uncle immediately asked him to help put down the rebellion. The spears and muskets of the rebels were no match for the Royalist’s cannon. As a reward, the grateful Sultan made Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. Brooke was not content to rule over a small riverside town, and set out to pacify his new kingdom, with the help of British Navy. By the time of his death in 1868, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful territory covering the area between Tanjung Datu (now the Indonesian border) and Kuching.
James Brooke’s nephew Charles, who succeeded him, was not adventurer like his uncle, but an excellent administrator and politician. He set up a proper system of government, gradually expanding his area of control until it formed the present day Sarawak. His legacy is everywhere in Kuching. It was he who built the Astana, Fort Margherita, the Courthouse, the Sarawak Museum and other fine buildings. Charles Brooke died in 1917, and was succeeded by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke, who built on his father’s achievements and improved the general administration of the state. In 1941, he set up a State Council was short-lived, as the Japanese invaded at the end of the same year.
When the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, Sarawak came under Australian military administration. Vyner Brooke felt the state would be better off as a Crown Colony and ceded it to Britain. This move was very unpopular and resulted in the assassination of the Governor, Duncan Stewart, in 1949. Order was eventually restored and the colonial administration concentrated on preparing Sarawak for independence. On 22nd July 1963, Sarawak gained independence, then shortly afterwards joined with Malaya, Sabah and Singapore (subsequently expelled in 1965) to form the new nation of Malaysia on 16th September 1963.
Sibu is the largest port and commercial centre in the Rejang Basin and the gateway to Central Sarawak. Located at the confluence of the Rejang and Igan Rivers, approximately 130 km from the South China Sea, Sibu is a thriving modern town with a vibrant centre and a bustling, crowded waterfront.
To visitors, Sibu feels more down-the-earth than relaxed Kuching. There is still something pioneer style about the town, and its people are direct, plain-speaking and assertively friendly. Of course, their smiles may be partly due to the belief that Sibu has more millionaires per capita than any other city in Borneo.
The mighty Rejang, almost a mile (1,600km) wide, is the dominant feature of the town, and a room with a river view is highly recommended for vibrant impressions of the waterfront life. The river is a source of constant activity, with ocean-going vessels manoeuvring delicately between speeding express boats, battered river launches and tiny sampans. Rejang sunsets can be truly spectacular.
Sibu is not only fascinating in its own right; with its excellent road, air and river transport links it is also the ideal jumping-off point for exploring the whole Rejang Basin, from the coastal town of Mukah to the furthest reaches of the Upper Rejang, over 600km upriver.
Until the beginning 19th century, Sibu was a sleepy trading settlement in the lower Rejang area, named for the rambutan fruits (buah sibau in the Iban language) that grew locally. The only significant population was a Melanau village at nearby Kampung Nangka.
Sibu’s transformation began in 1901 with the arrival of Foochow settlers from southern China, led by the Reverend Wong Nai Siong. Rev Wong, a Methodist missionary sought to find a safe haven for his followers, who were subject to religious persecution in China. He petitioned Charles Brooke, the 2nd Rajah of Sarawak, who offered land in the Lower Rejang to develop Sarawak’s agriculture. The first batch of 72 pioneers arrived in 1901, and by 1903 over 1,000 Christian Foochows had made their homes in Sibu. They were later followed by sizeable groups of Henghuas and Cantonese during the 1st World War period.
The early Chinese settlers planned to cultivate rice, but found that the soil was unsuitable for profitable rice farming and turned their attention to pepper, rubber and gambier (a sticky resin formerly used in place of rubber). Despite famine, fever, floods and other hardships, the early settlers eventually made their new home a success. They were capably led by the determined Rev. Wong, ably assisted by the Hoovers, an American missionary couple who played a major role in the development of Methodism in Sarawak.
By the mid-1920s Sibu had the appearance of a fully fledged town. However disaster struck in 1928, when a major fire destroyed almost all of Sibu’s predominantly wooden buildings. The hardly settlers simply picked up their tools and built the town all over again, but Sibu was once more devastated, this time by Allied bombing, during the WWll Japanese Occupation. Hundreds of local people were killed, not only by the bombing but also by savage Japanese repression of the local Chinese community, who were firm supporters of Chinese independence.
Sibu’s recovery began in the early 1950s, with the advent of mechanized logging. The town became the principal centre for the timber industry in Sarawak, and huge fortunes were made. From the 1960s to the late 1980s Sibu boomed along with the timber trade and downstream industries such as sawmilling, plywood manufacturing and even shipbuilding were established. From the early 1990s onwards, the timber industry in Sibu began a gradual decline as more sustainable logging practices were introduced and timber quotas imposed. However, the town continued to grow thanks to its strategic importance as a major port and commercial centre for the entire Rejang Basin.
Miri is the second largest city in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo. The discovery of oil 100 years ago transformed Miri from a quiet fishing village into a wealthy city of around 300,000 people. The close proximity to Brunei makes Miri extremely popular with expats working for the oil companies. In recent years, Miri has become a major tourism gateway and the jumping-point for some of the Sarawak’s world-famous National Park, including Niah Caves, Gunung Mulu, Loagan Bunut, and Lambir Hills. Other interesting possibilities include the remote Bario Highlands and the mighty Baram River, as well as a number of excellent offshore dive locations.
Miri’s original population was primarily Melanau, but since the development of the oil industry people have flocked here from all over the states and Miri’s 300,000 inhabitants reflects Sarawak’s diverse ethnic make-up. Chinese, Ibans, Malays, Melanaus, Bisayas, Orang ulus, (mostly Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabits, and Lun Bawang), Bidayuhs, Indians and Eurasians all make their home here, along with West Malaysians and a sizeable expatriate community.
The city is fast becoming an important tourism destination in its own right, in line with its official designation; "Miri - Resort City". The city has an excellent range of hotels in all price categories and a wide selection of food outlets.
Combine this with vibrant night-life, bustling native markets, a number of popular beaches nearby and even a top class marina, and Miri makes a ideal base for exploring the National Parks, the offshore reefs and the other natural and cultural attractions of Northeast Sarawak. It is also a great place to relax for a few days after the rigours of jungle trekking.
The history of Miri is also the history of Sarawak’s oil industry. The area had long been known for black oil that seeped from the ground, as noted by the Resident of Baram, Claude Champion de Crespigny, in 1882. One of the Crespigny’s successors, Dr Charles Hose, persuaded the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company, a British subsidiary of Shell, to conduct exploratory, drilling in the area, and on 10 August 1910, the first oil was struck on a hill overlooking the small fishing village of Miri, at depth of 123 metres. The well, subsequently christened the “Grand Old Lady”, continued to produce oil until 1972.
With the discovery of commercial quantities of oil, Miri was rapidly transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a booming oil town. By the mid 1920s it had become the administrative centre of the Baram region, and continued to thrive until the onset of World War 2. Shell staff did their best to sabotage the Miri oilfield, to prevent the invading Japanese forces from making use of it, but resourceful Japanese engineers soon had the field back to pre-war production levels.
During the late 1950s, the onshore oilfield began to dry up. Prospecting in remote peat swamp forest yielded poor results, so exploration moved offshore with the development of mobile exploration rigs. By the early 1970s, offshore production had reached 95,000 barrels a day, but the onshore field was now in terminal decline, and was closed down on 1st October 1972. At the same the support and administration facilities were moved to Lutong, just north of the town.
The move offshore coincided with a boom in Sarawak’s timber industry, and Miri became a major timber processing and transshipment hub, so the economy of the town continued to grow throughout the 1990s and 80s. The tourism sector also began to take off, fuelled initially by weekend visitors from nearby Brunei. Miri continued to prosper throughout the 1990s, and in recognition of its booming population and crucial contributions to Sarawak’s economy, was granted city status on 13th May 2005.
Sarawak is great for trekking, caving, mountain climbing, kayaking, biking, rafting and diving.
Malaysian food can be very spicy, likes fish head curry. If you like hot food, you will be completely delighted by what Kuching has to offer. Dishes are mostly based on rice or noodles and served in small bowls, along with a soup. For some dishes you take a small spoon (in your left hand) and chop-sticks (in your right hand). Typical dishes include: Kolo Mee, Nasi Lemak, Laksa (Laksa Sarawak/ Sarawak Laksa), Kopa Ayam (Chicken Wings, "ayam" being "chicken"), Chicken Rice, and Roti Canai. You can also enjoy unique longhouse-styled dishes - manok pansoh (chicken steamed in bamboo).
Sarawak is a shopper’s paradise with a huge variety of unusual and interesting handicrafts, antiques and artefacts. Modern shoppers are equally well served with good quality malls, department stores, supermarkets and vibrant traditional markets.
Antiques, Handicrafts and Souvenirs
The picturesque waterfront street of Main Bazaar houses most of Kuching’s antiques and handicrafts shops – dark, cluttered spaces that look like Dickens’ The Curiosity Shop meets Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is antique shopping at its finest, with superb bargains to be had. Outside Kuching, Jalan Bendahara and Jalan Yu Seng in Miri and Jalan Blacksmith in Sibu are good places to look, as well as the towns of Kapit and Marudi.
Popular food items include birds’ nests, which are very affordable here, Sarawak pepper, said to be the world’s finest, and the much loved kek lapis (Sarawak layer cakes).
Books on Borneo history, arts, crafts and society are available in the better bookstores, along with CDs of traditional music.
Sarawak’s upmarket malls offer genuine international designer wear alongside equally authentic Swiss watches and high tech items such as smartphones, i-Pads and personal computers. Many of these items are priced far lower than in Europe, Japan or North America, offering great value for money.
Every town and village in Sarawak has a market, where all manner of goods are offered for sale in a wonderfully noisy and bustling atmosphere. Those that should not be missed are the Satok Weekend Market in Kuching, the Central and Night Markets in Sibu, the Town Market in Serian and the Pasar Tani (farmers’ market) and Saberkas Weekend Market in Miri.