The many quaint charms and hidden gems of this historic city in Sarawak.
Bintulu is best known to Sarawakian history buffs as home to the first General Council Meeting in 1867 - a precursor to the present-day Sarawak State Legislative Assembly. It was convened by Charles Brooke under the orders of his uncle, the then-Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke. This later evolved into Council Negeri, or State Council by 1903 – which had their first meeting in Bintulu as well. A Council Negeri Monument was later designated in Bintulu old town at the spot where the meeting was held, in the shape of a clock tower and fountain there were erected in 1987, with the former also housing a centenary stone erected in 1967, which marked the 100-year anniversary of the first General Council Meeting.
Bintulu is famous for its two main markets - Pasar Utama and Tamu Bintulu. The distinctive cone-shaped roofs of these markets - representing the terendak, the traditional headwear of the Melanau ethnic group – make them rather easy to spot. You could pretty much find anything you might want to take home here whether it’s fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, Pua Kumbu textiles or even sago worms. Meanwhile, the top floor of Pasar Utama has stalls selling local hawker favourites such as laksa Sarawak and mee kolok – so that’s your hunger pangs easily sorted.
If you’d like to do a bit of light trekking without having to venture too far from Bintulu town, you should head to Taman Tumbina. Spread over 57 hectares of hilly terrain, it’s essentially a miniature zoo and botanical gardens rolled into one, with the convenience of being only 5 kilometres away from town. There’s plenty to see here, including a large collection of orchids, cactus gardens, a fruit garden and animals that are native to Borneo.
Taman Tumbina is also just a 15-minute walk away from Tanjung Batu beach, which is a popular picnic spot with the locals. There’s also a beachfront food market, with the usual street food fare, but with fresh seafood on the side.
Just a 30 to 40 minutes’ drive from Bintulu town, Similajau National Park has a little bit of everything for everyone: stunning golden sandy beaches, gorgeous geological formations and treks through rainforest greenery. On a particularly lucky day, you could spot up to four species of dolphins (including the Irrawaddy dolphins) and green turtles landing ashore to lay their eggs along Turtle Beach II and Golden Beach. Two species of crocodiles, 185 species of birds, and 24 species of mammals also call the park home. These include hornbills, sea eagles, wild boars and macaques. Popular activities to do here include jungle-trekking, bird watching as well as river and coastal cruises.
Further up along the same Miri-Bintulu stretch of road are the two national parks of Niah and Lambir Hills. While they’re both actually located within the Miri division, both parks are only 2 hours and 40 minutes from Bintulu town. Niah probably needs little introduction as it is rather well-known as the discovery site of one of the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia and for its Great Caves, but Lambir Hills is still worth checking out for its many waterfalls and bathing pools.
Don’t leave town without trying the famous Bintulu belacan (fermented shrimp paste) and cencaluk (salted krill). Ready-made ones are easily available at Pasar Utama Bintulu, but you can also see how they are traditionally made at Kampung Jepak, which is accessible via water taxi from Bintulu Jetty. Aside from mee kolok and Laksa Sarawak, there's also the often overlooked mee tomato, distinguished by the springy, crispy texture of the noodles in tomato gravy. The seasonal dabai fruit is also not to be missed – it grows naturally in the wild and is
indigenous to Borneo Island, particularly in Sarawak. It’s commonly known as Sarawak olives by locals but has no botanical relation to olives whatsoever. It has also been incorporated into nasi goreng as nasi goreng dabai.
Due to Bintulu’s proximity to the sea, fresh seafood is pretty much everywhere but Peace Garden Seafood at Jalan Tun Ahmad Zaidi comes highly recommended for being both excellent and cheap. Another well-rated restaurant nearby is Apple Restaurant, which serves a wide variety of halal Chinese dishes. A must-try at the restaurant is the traditional Melanau delicacy umai, which is freshly sliced raw fish served with a mixture of onions, chilies, salt and lime juice. Additionally, D’Muara Seafood and Traditional Melanau Cuisine at Kuala Tatau comes highly recommended for their generously-sized lobster noodles.
Within Bintulu town itself, there’s a healthy array of accommodation choices: from the 4-star Parkcity Everly Hotel and New World Suites to the various 2-star OYO inns scattered around the town centre. There is also the 4-star Samalaju Resort Hotel located almost in-between Bintulu town and Similajau National Park. Staying overnight at Sarawak’s national parks is usually possible as long as you book in advance: they’re usually equipped with chalet units and hostel accommodations, complete with 24- hour electricity and running water.
AirAsia flies to Bintulu from both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, whereas MASWings runs flights from Mukah and Sibu. If you’re coming from West Malaysia, you would be able to fly directly into Bintulu via both terminals of KL International Airport with Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia.
Main photo courtesy of www.malaysia.travel