Sarawak is Malaysia's largest state. It lies in East Malaysia and shares the island of Borneo with the eastern state of Sabah, the separate country of Brunei and the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan.


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Sarawak is the largest and, certainly in terms of visitors per square kilometer, least touristed state of Malaysia. Nearly as large as peninsular Malaysia, the interior is covered in a thicket of impenetrable jungle and mountains and the great majority of the population lives near the coast or along rivers leading to the sea.


One of the stranger episodes in Malaysian history began in 1841 when James Brooke, an English adventurer armed only with a single ship (the Royalist) and diplomatic skills, was made Rajah of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei. James and his nephew and successor Charles expanded their private colony to cover much of the state. The third Rajah, Vyner, continued to develop the colony but fled from the invading Japanese in 1941, ending the Brooke dynasty after precisely 100 years. After the end of the Japanese occupation, Vyner returned to Sarawak in April 1946, but ceded the colony to the British in July of the same year. Sarawak joined together with Singapore, Federation of Malaya and North Borneo (today Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.


Even by Malaysian standards Sarawak has an extraordinary mix of peoples: the largest ethnic group is neither Chinese (26%) nor Malay (21%), but the Iban (29%), who gained worldwide notoriety as the fiercest headhunters on Borneo. Back in the bad old days, an Iban lad couldn't hope for the hand of a fair maiden without the shrunken head of an enemy to call his own, and bunches of totemic skulls still decorate the eaves of many a jungle longhouse. Fortunately for visitors, headhunting hasn't been practiced for a while, although some of the skulls date from as late as World War II when, with British support, Iban mercenaries fought against the occupying Japanese. Other tribes of note include the Bidayuh (8%) and the Melanau (5%), as well as a smattering of Kenyah, Kayan and a group of tiny tribes in the deep heartland known collectively as the Orang Ulu (Malay for "upriver people").


Speaking Malay in Sarawak

Please notice some basic communication terms in Bahasa Melayu Sarawak.

  • Kamek - I
  • Kitak - You
  • Auk - Yes
  • Sik - No
  • Igek - Piece
  • Kamek Mauk Pergi Jamban Dolok - I Would Like To Go To The Toilet
  • Kitak Dari Siney? - Where Are You From?
  • Nyaman Juak Makanan Tok - This Food Is Quite Tasty
  • Kamek Ngupok/Mupok Dolok - I'd Like To Make A Move
  • Nama-Name
  • Maok-Want
  • Jamban-Toilet
  • Duit-Money

As elsewhere in Malaysia, Malay is the official language, but English and various Chinese dialects are widely spoken. The Iban language is the largest linguistic group, with many local variations. The majority of Sarawakians are multi-lingual, a necessity in such a multicultural society, and Malay or English will stand you in good stead in most places. Knowing some phrases in Iban, Chinese or other local dialects however will greatly impress your hosts wherever you go. For travels to the Upper Baram region, some knowledge of Penan may be useful.

The Iban Language: This mostly and widely spoken language of Sarawak is quite similar to Malay, but while the two languages share some vocabulary in common, Iban slang is totally different from Malay. It is also known that the Iban community in Sarawak is divided into various different divisions ranging from Kuching to Sri Aman, Betong, Sibu, Bintulu and all the way up North to Miri. These divisions are represented by different Iban accents and dialects. Some useful Iban Words: English-Iban You-Nuan/dik/kuak I-Aku/kami (also stands for plural form of us) Eat-Makai/empuk Not yet-Bedau/apian speak-jaku cheers (drink)-ngirup nice-nyamai beautiful-bajik (bajiek)

While standard Malay is well understood, the local dialect, known as "Bahasa Melayu Sarawak", is different enough to be legally categorized as its own language. Malays from the coast of Sarawak, especially those from Sebuyau, Kabong, Saratok, Betong, Sri Aman and the surrounding areas speak a different dialect called "Bahasa Orang Laut". Malays from Sibu and Miri speak a language similar to Kuchingites' Malay, but they have some terms unique to their dialect, for example "Pia" in Sibu (in Kuching, they called it "Sia", which means "there"), "Cali" in Miri (in Kuching, they called it "Jenaka", which means "funny").

The Chinese community in Sarawak mostly originated from Southern China, especially Fukkien or Fujian province. Therefore, the most widely spoken Chinese dialects in Sarawak are different from the Cantonese you hear in most Chinatowns in the world. The main dialects here are Minnan, Fuzhou Hua, Hakka and Teochew.

Get in

Alone among Malaysia's states, Sarawak maintains an autonomy on immigration control, mostly so mainlanders cannot freely immigrate and swamp the thinly populated state. Even if coming in from elsewhere in Malaysia, Malaysians need to bring along their ID and are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time.

Still, for most travellers this is just a formality and an interesting extra stamp in their passport, as anybody who does not need a visa for Malaysia can get a free 90-day visit permit on arrival. It is recommended to have a return ticket as immigration office may ask for it.

By plane

Most visitors arrive in Sarawak by plane. The largest gateway is Kuching the state capital, which is about 1.5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. There are also a few direct international flights from Indonesia (Pontianak, Bali and Jakarta), Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei and Macau as well as Singapore flying in twice or thrice weekly. China's Xiamen Airlines offers direct connections from Xiamen.

Other airports with domestic connections to Peninsula Malaysia on both Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia include Miri, Sibu and Bintulu. MASWings serves flights between cities and rural areas in East Malaysia, including Sarawak and Sabah. AirAsia also operates an international flight from Miri to Singapore four times a week.

By land

Sarawak has land borders with Brunei, Indonesia and the Malaysian state of Sabah.

There are several land crossings between Sarawak and Brunei. They are at Sungei Tujuh (on the road between Miri and Bandar Seri Begawan, Tedungan (on the road between Limbang and Bandar Seri Begawan), Pandaruan (a ferry crossing on the route between Limbang and Brunei's Temburong district) and Labu (along the route from Temburong district to Lawas).

The main crossing between Sarawak and Indonesia is the Tebedu-Entikong checkpoint which lies along the Kuching-Pontianak road. There are many other crossings between the two countries although the legality of these crossings are questionable and are mostly used by locals living in those areas. It is also possible to legally cross the border in the Kelabit Highlands between Bario and Long Bawan. See the Kelabit Highlands page for details.

As Sarawak controls its own immigration matters, there are checkpoints at border between Sarawak and Sabah at Merapok (Sindumin on the Sabah side) near Lawas.

By bus

There are direct international buses from Pontianak, Indonesia to Kuching, a direct express bus service between Lawas in northeastern Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah as well as bus connections between Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei and Miri.

Get around

Sarawak is big and, by otherwise high Malaysian standards, its roads are poor, making planes the most convenient way of getting around. For example, it's about 1 hour from Kuching to Miri by plane (full fare RM164), but a butt-numbing 14 hours by bus (RM70).

By car

Car can by hired for as low as MYR 100/per day. Discount can be availed if hiring for more than a week. Driving license is reqired offcourse. Don't be hesitate to ask for some free parking tickets from the car rental company. Most major cities along the main highway (Route 1) are at the distance of approx 200/250 km. Petrol is around MYR 22/litre. Route 1 is 1077-km long connecting both ends of the Sarawak. Highway composed of only 2 lane and the overall condition in many sections of the highway is poor with many potholes so drive carefully.

By air

Malaysia Airlines and budget airlines AirAsia provide frequent flights between Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri.

The rural air service is operated by MASWings, which took over the network from FlyAsian Express (FAX) on October 1, 2007. Flights use Fokkers and Twin Otter aircraft. Fokkers flight cover Kuching, Sibu, Miri, Limbang and Mulu National Park while Twin Otter planes link Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Lawas with rural towns and longhouses like Mukah, Marudi and various settlements in the Kelabit Highlands like Bario, Bakelalan, Long Seridan, Long Lellang, Long Banga and Long Akah.

By bus

Most cities in Sarawak are now linked by express buses although travelling times can be long because of the distance. Companies include Vital Focus Transportations Sdn. Bhd., which operates Suria Bas, PB and Borneo Highway express buses, and Biaramas.

By boat

Express boats run from the coast inland along Borneo's larger rivers. They are generally faster than buses and cheaper than planes. Popular routes include Kuching-Sibu (4 hours) and Sibu-Kapit (3 hours).

Local transport

Most cities have local buses and taxis serving not only the city centres and their surrounding suburbs but also adjacent rural districts.


Sarawak's highlights include the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park, which are some of the largest in the world, and the orangutans of Semengoh. A visit to the longhouses and indigenous tribes in the interior of Sarawak is a must.


Visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, some 45 minutes' drive from Kuching. Entrance fees are RM60 per person. It is a living museum of different tribes and architecture spread over a lovely green area at the foot of Mount Santubong. You will be able to see how Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh, etc. tribes live, work and cook in the longhouses, each with its own identity. It is also best to visit this place during the annual Rainforest World Music Festival which happens each July. The festival is held on the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village, hence you don't need to pay the entrance fees (festival fees include entrance to the Village).

Rainforest World Music Festival has been around since 1997 and its popularity is growing from year to year. Accommodation around the festival grounds are snapped up as soon as bookings open so be quick. Good places to stay are Holiday Inn Damai Beach and Damai Lagoon, both a few minutes' walk away from the festival. Alternatively, you can stay within the heart of Kuching city and take the daily shuttle to the festival (RM10 each way). The three-day world music festival brings together some of the best world musicians for workshops and nightly live concerts. Tickets for the three-day festival in 2010 are RM300, or RM110 for daily entry.

Iban Longhouse. Take a tour to an Iban Longhouse. One longhouse provides accommodation for visitors. The facilities are very basic, but tolerable for one night and an interesting insight into the Iban culture.


Various tribal handicrafts are the most popular souvenirs from Sarawak. Particularly notable are pua kumbu, double-weaved fabrics woven by Iban women and illustrated with hypnotic, surreal patterns, wood carvings and bead handicraft by the Kayan and the Kenyah tribes, and Bidayuh baskets and floor mat or kasah, woven from rattan. Black pepper from Sarawak (far more potent than the bland stuff sold in the average supermarket) is also a worthwhile buy.


Variety of Sarawak delicacies

While the Malay, Chinese and Indian favorites covered in Malaysia#Eat are widely available in East Malaysia as well, there is also a broad selection of local ethnic cuisine.

Indigenous dishes

Chinese-influenced dishes


The local firewater, served up in prodigious quantities if you stay in a longhouse, is known as tuak and is distilled from rice, sago or any other convenient source of fermentable sugar. For those who want a stronger dose, langkau or Iban whisky can be sourced from longhouses in the interior. You can buy commercial tuak (The Royalist) at most supermarkets in Kuching, and is a good souvenir. The commercial rice wine/tuak is rather pleasant to drink, and with none of that home-brewed murkiness.

Stay safe

Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are very common in certain parts of this region and great care and caution should be taken when entering water, especially brackish areas like Batang Lupar. A visit to the local crocodile farm; Jong's Crocodile Farm is recommended. Active headhunters no longer exist in Borneo and have not for at least 50 years, thanks largely to the Rajah Brooke's effort to pacify waring tribes and peace-making.

Go next

Overland to other parts of Borneo:

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