Explore Santubong for a peek into Sarawak’s medley of culture while enjoying the beauty of its rainforests, rivers and beaches
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Malaysia has gained a reputation as a must-visit tourism destination is because of the diversity of its ethnicities. Comprising more than just the Malays, Chinese and Indians, Malaysia is also home to various indigenous groups that are unique to the region. As each ethnicity has their own culture and identity, Malaysia is indeed a treasure trove of new discoveries for visitors to the country.
This is especially true for those finding themselves in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Home to the largest tract of rainforest in Malaysia, and featuring one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, Sarawak is also the home of various indigenous tribes including the Ibans, Bidayuhs, Melanaus, Penans, and Orang Ulu, among many others, collectively known as the Dayaks of Sarawak.
Just outside of Sarawak’s capital city of Kuching, the Sarawak Cultural Village is the place to head to if one is keen on learning about the various cultures in Sarawak at one go. About a 40-minute’s drive from the city centre, you’ll be transported from the shiny, modern buildings along the Kuching waterfront to a slice of that rainforest haven, near Santubong National Park, north of the city.
You’ll find that the Sarawak Cultural Village - home to the Rainforest World Music Festival every July - is basically a living museum where you are guided through the traditional houses of the indigenous tribes and are welcome to observe their lifestyle and customs while learning about them. The tour of the village introduces you to three of the tribes here, namely the Bidayuh, Iban and Orang Ulu by taking you through the full-scale models of the longhouses, similar to where members of each of these respective tribes traditionally live. In each house, a storyteller describes and explains each tribe’s culture and lifestyle.
At the Bidayuh house, you will be invited into a round bamboo hut attached to the Bidayuh longhouse. This is the Barok, where Bidayuh warriors would congregate in, and where their battle accessories are stored.
Later, after the tour, guests will be able to watch a traditional Bidayuh performance featuring their dance and songs for their ancestors in seeking guidance, advice and good health, just as they would during Gawai Sowa, a harvesting festival celebrated to honour the current harvesting season and to pray for a new cycle of prosperous harvesting.
Next is the longhouse of the Ibans, who were the first inhabitants of the forest and were once notoriously known as the head hunters of Sarawak. Upon entering the house, you’ll be asked to shoot three darts from a traditional Iban weapon, establishing whether you have the warrior blood or not. You can then enter the house, where you will immediately notice masks hanging from the walls. These are masks used as substitutes for the heads that the Ibans would hang as trophies - it is said that the number of heads an Iban man hunted represents strength and power.
Hanging masks in the Iban longhouse Iban performance
The third and final tribal house that you will experience is the Orang Ulu Longhouse. Whilst the Ibans are known as headhunters, the Orang Ulu is recognized as the most artistic and creative of the Sarawakian tribes. Their artistic talent is showcased in the intricate design of their longhouses adorned with wood carvings enhanced with paintings. In the Orang Ulu longhouse, you will witness a woman spinning intricate beadwork as a small block of coal is placed next to her. This block of coal is used to ward off any evil spirits that may disturb her as she weaves her artwork.
Ulu women weaving her beadwork
The Orang Ulu’s creativity can also be seen in their self-crafted ‘Sapeh’. The ‘Sapeh’ is an instrument that resembles a guitar but is carved from the softwood of a meranti tree.
Once the tour of the tribal longhouses is over, prepare to be mesmerised as the performers for each tribe, dressed in their respective traditional clothing, perform a medley of acrobatics, spinning and even a demonstration on how to hunt.
If you’re hungry, the village’s Halal-certified restaurant, Restoran Budaya, offers local meals like Mee Kolok, Laksa Sarawak, Manok Pasoh (chicken cooked in bamboo), Ayam Penyet, and Prawns in Durian Paste.
Exploring Santubong’s Natural Wonders
As mentioned, the Sarawak Cultural Village is located near the Santubong National Park, which is just a 2-minute’s drive away, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you have time to spare. While climbing up to Mount Santubong’s summit (810.2 m) takes about 3 to 4 hours and best reserved for those with proper training and adequate stamina, casual hikers can follow the park’s Blue Trail, which takes about 2 hours to complete. The trek takes you to a hanging bridge, where you can observe nature’s glory while making your way to the other end, then on to one of the waterfalls, where you can take a dip if you want to.
Kayaking (Photo: Courtesy of CPH Travel)
If a swim in the ocean is more your style, though, then head on to Damai Beach, a 3-minute’s drive from the National Park. The nearby Damai Beach Resort offers kayak rentals if you’d rather explore the coastline in a boat. Other than Damai Beach, you can also check out the quieter Pantai Puteri, which has interesting rock formations.
Santubong Wildlife Cruise (Photo: Courtesy of CPH Travel)
Closer to Santubong’s town centre, you can also hop on a Kuching Wetlands Cruise, which takes you down the Santubong River, where there is a small chance of encountering the elusive yet undeniably present Irrawaddy River Dolphins!
A Piece of History
History buffs can check in at the Sultan Tengah Mausoleum, dedicated to the first and only Sultan of Sarawak, before going to the Batu Bergambar site, which holds a rock with a full-sized 3D carving of a man and another rock with a simple etching of a person with a smiley face. There are also other rock carvings scattered around the site, while iron from China and pieces of glass from West Asia found here indicate that there had been trading activities in Santubong from as far back as 1000 or even 900 AD.
Santubong itself is steeped in history and mythical lore, the origins of the mountain often being referred to the legend of two princesses from heaven, Puteri Santubong and Puteri Sejinjang, who got into a fight over Prince Serapi and hit each other with their weaving rod and rice mortar respectively. The body of Princess Santubong was cursed to become Mount Santubong, while Princess Sejinjang became the scattered islands around the area. The Prince? He retreated in sadness into a cave in a mountain that is now known as Mount Serapi.
Rest and Retail
A majestic hornbill sculpture proudly welcomes visitors to the Damai Craftworld and Event Centre. (Photo: Courtesy of Damai Craftworld and Event Centre).
There are many options for accomodations in Santubong, the most popular being Damai Beach Resort. However, if you prefer a rainforest experience, the Permai Rainforest Resort offers treehouse lodgings at the foot of Mount Santubong. Other attractive options include the beachside Culvert Hotel Resort near Pantai Puteri, and the idyllic Cove 55, a luxury boutique hotel on the other side of the peninsula, just an 8-minute’s drive away from the Santubong National Park. In the evening, check out Damai Craftworld and Event Centre for some great dinner options while listening to live music, activities for kids, and souvenir shopping.
Treehouse accomodations at the Permai Rainforest Resort. (Photo: Courtesy of Permai Rainforest Resort).
The nearest airport to Santubong is the Kuching International Airport, with direct flights via Malaysia Airlines, Malindo Air, AirAsia, Firefly, Silk Air and Scoot. Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air operate numerous daily flights from KLIA, while AirAsia flies daily from klia2. From the Kuching airport, it’s a 50- minute’s drive to the Santubong city centre, and about 50 minutes to reach the Santubong National Park. Upon departure out of Kuching, give yourself some extra time to check out the 26 retail and 17 F&B outlets at the airport for extra souvenir shopping and a quick bite.