Sarawak, dominated by the crocodile-infested Rejang River, is renowned for its Headhunter’s Trail and Iban, Melanau and Kenyah longhouses. It is the ‘land of the hornbill’, the largest state in Malaysia, covering an area of nearly 125,000 sq km in northwest Borneo with a diverse population of 2.5 million.
Sarawak has a swampy coastal plain, a hinterland of undulating foothills and an interior of steep-sided, jungle-covered mountains. The lowlands and plains are dissected by a network of broad rivers which are the main arteries of communication and where the majority of the population is settled. In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin described Sarawak as “one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself”.
Sarawak is Malaysia’s great natural storehouse, where little more than half a century ago great swathes of forest were largely unexplored and where tribal groups, collectively known as the Dayaks, would venture downriver from the heartlands of the state to exchange forest products of hornbill ivory and precious woods. Today these ethnic groups have largely been integrated into mainstream Malaysian society and the market economy has infiltrated the lives of the great majority of the population. But much remains unchanged. The forests, although much reduced by a rapacious logging industry, are still some of the most species-rich on the globe; the government claims more than 70% of the land is forested and has pledged to keep a minimum of 60% covered though these numbers are contested by environmentalists.
The moody peak of Gunung Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest mountain, has views down through the swirling clouds to Sabah’s islands including Pulau Gaya, Layang Layang and Sipadan, which offer unparalleled underwater adventures. Sabah’s jungle, though fast making way for endless plantations, still provides stunning jaunts for the hardy in the Maliau Basin, home to pygmy elephants, orang-utans and sun bears.
There are still ample opportunities to engage in Lost World fantasies here with stunning dive sites and hiking trails. These natural distractions, alongside diverse cultures, beguiling cities and some of the world’s best food, make a trip to northern Borneo one of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after experiences.
Sabah may not have the colourful history of neighbouring Sarawak, but there is still a great deal to entice the visitor. It is the second largest Malaysian state after Sarawak, covering 73,500 sq km, making it about the size of Scotland. Occupying the northeast corner of Borneo, Sabah is shaped like a dog’s head, the jaws reaching out in the Sulu and Celebes seas, and the back of the head facing onto the South China Sea.
The highlights of Sabah are abundant and accessible. The state is blessed with stunning (yet rapidly diminishing) wildlife and natural wonders including caves, reefs, forests and mountains. The Gunung Kinabulu National Park is named after Sabah’s (and Malaysia’s) highest peak and is one of the state’s most visited destinations. Also popular is the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary outside Sandakan. Marine sights include the Turtle Islands National Park, the Danum Valley Conservation Area and Sipadan Island, one of Asia’s finest dive sites.
While Sabah’s indigenous groups were not cherished as they were in Sarawak by the White Rajahs, areas around towns such as Kudat, Tenom, Keningau and Kota Belud still provide memorable insights into the peoples of the region.