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Eastern Malaysia

September 1, 2008 By: Mark Rogers Travel Agent

Authentic Sarawak culture and longhouse experiences are highlights of a visit to Malaysian Borneo

Malaysia is split into two parts: Peninsular Malaysia, which contains the capital city of Kuala Lumpur; and Eastern Malaysia, which is sometimes called Malaysian Borneo. Eastern Malaysia borders Brunei to the north and Indonesia to the south and it’s possible to combine a Malaysian trip with days in these countries. What sets Eastern Malaysia apart is its multitude of ethnic communities. This is a land of native culture and tribal customs.

hilton kuching

The Hilton Kuching overlooking the Sarawak River

Most travelers fly into the international airport in Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak. Kuching makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area and has attractions of its own. The Sarawak Museum, for instance, displays local native arts and crafts and the natural history of Sarawak, and is a good place to start a day’s sightseeing. Kuching is known as The Cat City, and the Cat Museum is devoted to all manner of depictions of felines.

For some local color, head over to Kuching’s Sunday Market at Jalan Satok, which is actually open on Saturday and Sunday. Here you’ll find local produce, various souvenirs and even antiques for sale. A local beverage worth trying is the region’s ginseng coffee.

Touring Beyond Kuching

The Sarawak Cultural Village is about a 40-minute drive from Kuching and is open throughout the year. Here travelers can see and sample Sarawak's rich cultural diversity made up of Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Penan, Malays and Chinese influences. This is also the site of Sarawak’s annual Rainforest World Music Festival, a three-day festival held every July on the grounds of the village. Musicians from around the world gather to perform diverse ethnic music in an outdoor setting. Agents can expect to see the festival heavily promoted in the future, since tourism players are convinced they can build on this already popular event. This is also the most difficult time to book rooms in Kuching, so book a year in advance.

One of the premier experiences in Sarawak is visiting the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, home to 23 rescued and semi-wild orangutans. Today the nature reserve is an important part of the effort to make sure the species survives. The reserve is about a 30-minute drive from Kuching. Like any viewing of semi-wild creatures, it’s not always possible to guarantee an orangutan sighting, although during my visit, I saw nine of the colony, including a mother with her four-day-old baby. There are two scheduled feeding times, 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. This is when the orangutans are most likely to be observed. A couple of things to keep in mind: There are no barriers between you and the orangutans, so keep a distance of 16 feet. Also, keep your flash on your camera turned off— these creatures were heavily hunted at one time and orangutans are conditioned to think of a camera flash as the flash of gunfire.

A visit to an authentic longhouse is also not to be missed. Visitors can approach the Iban longhouse in one of two ways. You can drive for several hours from Kuching and then take a one-hour longboat ride or drive to the longhouse directly over a gravel road. If possible, arrange for a longboat ride – it’s a more authentic and exciting method of arrival.

malaysia dancer

A dancer at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort

Longhouse traditional architecture consists of wooden dwellings on stilts— the entire population lives under one roof, although each family has its own private room connected to the communal chamber.

There’s some basic etiquette to follow when visiting a longhouse. You always bring a gift— this doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it does have to correspond to the number of doors in a longhouse. I was visiting a 24-door longhouse containing 24 families, so I brought 24 packets of cookies and coffee to be distributed among them. These are presented to the chief after they’ve performed their dances. If you’re traveling on your own without a guide, you’ll find general stores along the road where you can buy 24 packet bundles of gifts. You also take your shoes off when entering a longhouse, and you always shake hands with your right hand. When they offer you a glass of tea or tuak (homemade rice wine) don’t reject it, although you don’t have to necessarily drink all of it. Always ask permission before you take someone’s picture. No one denied my request.

During your visit, you’ll sit on the floor and share some food and then they’ll perform a warrior dance. At some point, the Iban will spread their crafts and souvenirs on mats on the floor; some items are well-made, such as the handcrafted reed baskets, which are attractive and a good buy.

A longhouse overnight stay costs approximately $100 per person. This includes breakfast and dinner, a cultural show, traditional games, a blowgun and cockfight demonstration (non-lethal, the birds aren’t harmed) and a morning nature walk.

Where to Stay

The Hilton Kuching overlooks the Sarawak River, affording panoramic views of the river, the green lowland at the foot of the Gunung Serapi mountain and historic Fort Magherita. The hotel has 315 guest rooms and suites. Guests can choose from several room categories, including Hilton Guest Rooms, Executive Rooms and Executive Room Plus. Every room provides river and city views. The hotel’s Executive Floors on the 11th, 12th and Penthouse Floor provide a hotel within a hotel, with private check-in. The Governor Suite on the Penthouse Floor provides the highest level of luxury at the hotel. Features include a pool, tennis courts, fitness center, WiFi in all public areas, and nine meeting rooms for groups as small as two and up to 750 persons. The hotel has several restaurants including Toh Yuen, which sports red & gold décor and views of the waterfront esplanade through the large windows; a house specialty is buttered prawns.

The 14-story Crowne Plaza Riverside Kuching is centrally located and commands a panoramic view of the city and the Kuching Waterfront. The hotel has 241 guest rooms and 35 suites. Rooms with the best views are Superior Rooms numbered 1202, 1302, 1402, 1502, 1218, 1318, 1418 and 1518; and Deluxe Rooms numbered 1201, 1301, 1401, 1501, 1219, 1319, 1419 and 1519. The top accommodation in the hotel, as well as the suite offering the very best view, is the Pinnacle Suite.

The executive level of the hotel has the Crowne Plaza Club, which offers guests personalized services. These are the most requested premium accommodations. Guests staying in the Crowne Plaza Club receive such perks as priority check-in and express check-out, daily complimentary breakfast served in the Executive Lounge or Café Majestic, complimentary use of the Crowne Plaza Club Conference Room, and the personal attention of a dedicated Club Services Assistant.

Agents can feel free to reach out to the hotel’s general manager, Alvin Jaiyaseelan (60-82-423 111, cell: 6019-330 6358, [email protected]). There are two travel agent liaisons at the hotel. Delia Kirieng, business development manager (60-82-423 111, cell: 6013-826 8811), and Afreda Aleng, business development executive (60-82-423 111, cell: 6019-846 5097).

Agents should note that effective January 1, 2009, the Crowne Plaza Riverside Kuching will be rebranded as the Riverside Majestic Hotel and will no longer be managed by the InterContinental Hotels Group.

The hotel doesn’t have a spa, but it does have sauna and steambath facilities. In-room traditional massage and foot reflexology services are available with masseuses from Clark Hatch Fitness. Guests can contact Rose Yong, manager of Clark Hatch Fitness; her direct line is 60-82-258 049.

Crowne Plaza Riverside Kuching has a variety of dining venues. Cafe Majestic is popular for its high tea; Coca Restaurant provides Thai fare; and the River Palace Restaurant serves Cantonese cuisine.

hilton batang ai longhouse resort

A guest room at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort

The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is located several hours from Kuching and has a spectacular location on Batang Ai lake. This is a unique property in a lot of ways. Number one, the only way to approach the resort is by boat— there are absolutely no roads leading directly to the resort. Once you arrive, you’ll find luxurious accommodations built in the traditional longhouse manner. Each of the 11 longhouses that make up the resort have a long gallery that runs the length of the building. Coming out of the gallery, you’ll find a porch offering views of the lake. The number of rooms in each of the 11 longhouses varies. The shortest block has four rooms, while the longest block has 18 rooms.

Activities and excursions are a big part of any stay at the property, especially for team-building corporate groups. Excursions include guided jungle trekking and nature walks, longboat river cruises, waterfall visits and fishing trips. Batang Ai National Park is a two-hour boat ride away

Guests can dine on local Malaysian cuisine at the casual Nanga Mepi Restaurant. The restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere and an authentic Sarawak ambiance, due to its wooden interiors, which are reminiscent of a tribal longhouse. Local dishes include chicken cooked in bamboo and stir-fried jungle fern.

Features at the hotel include a swimming pool, tennis courts, and three meeting rooms for up to 220 people. A green philosophy is followed at the resort; all construction was done using local timber and the gardens have only indigenous plants.

The Hilton Kuching and Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort share the same general manager and director of sales; both work out of the Kuching location. Peter Simson is the general manager ([email protected]) and Christopher Tan is the director of sales ([email protected]). Both are very hands-on and open to being contacted by either email or through the hotel’s main line (60 82 248 200).

Learn more information about Malaysia at our Malaysia Resources page. 

Read more about Mark Rogers' travels in Malaysia in his multiple blogs about Malaysia travel. 

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