Sunday, September 20

Now’s the best time to see your own country!


WITH the latest announcement that the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) has been extended until Dec 31, 2020, it looks like travel outside our borders will not be possible for the next four months.

However, that shouldn’t keep you at home if you’re one of those restless with the travel bug, who can’t stay in one place for longer than a couple of months and needs to get out and take a hike, by hook or by crook. It’s the best time there is to travel and see the rest of your own country; this includes (travel restrictions permitting) neighbouring Sabah, Brunei, and across the South China Sea to the peninsula. If you’ve always wanted to visit Penang or Sipadan, now’s the best time. Almost all the hotels and lodges have either reopened, fully or partially, and would warmly welcome your local tourist ringgit!

I count myself lucky as one of those who, during my working days, had the chance to see almost all the different places in our lovely country Malaysia – indeed from Langkawi way up northwest on the peninsula, to the tip of the eastern-most town in Sabah, Tawau.

Let’s start from nearest to Kuching.

Nowadays home and village stays are very popular and you can choose from a wide variety of four-star to simple accommodation with your personal interests in mind – upcountry hiking mountain trails; remote Iban, Bidayuh, or Orang Ulu homestays; or if you’re the beach-loving type, with nearby beaches or waterways.

Your choices are many and all you need to do is either Google or go to Facebook, or just ask around among your adventurous friends who may give you tips from what they’ve experienced themselves.

I can suggest a few based on either personal experience or from feedback from friends. Kuching-based Borneo Adventure is probably the longest experienced in this field (since 1987) and they have their own Ulu Ai project at Nanga Sumpa, an Iban community in Batang Ai.

Then there’s Saloma’s Village Stay in a Bidayuh village at Kampung Sadir, Padawan in the first division. For more luxurious four-star comfort and if you love the seaside, there’s the exclusive Singgahsana Village House at Santubong with the beach just a strong stone’s throw away, and the rustic fishing village and glorious seafood at Kampung Buntal within a few minutes’ drive.

For the more adventurous, who want to rough it out for a couple of nights or even up to a week, Borneo Exploration Tours can tailor make a suitable package trip for you up the Lemanak River in the second division, which takes you deep into Iban territory. You’d be able to experience the daily routine with them as you stay among the longhouse folk, eat and sleep, and even go padi planting (in season) or hunting if you plan ahead.

Photo shows travel guides and maps to plan a local holiday.

However, be prepared to eat what’s on offer, usually local wild ferns, river-caught fish, hill padi, and wild boar meat (if not available, local pig is substituted), and drink voluminous amounts of ‘tuak’ and arak. You’d also be sleeping on four-inch thick mattresses with mosquito netting provided.

Mornings are met with brushing your teeth and bathing in simple washrooms with either gravity-fed mountain spring water, or in the dry season in the nearby swiftly flowing river, usually so shallow and so clear that you can see the pebbles and the little fishes swimming by as you gargle.

One can also plan a road trip which takes one all the way from Kuching passing by Serian, then Sri Aman (a stopover at Simanggang if the tidal bore or ‘benak’ season is on) with a night’s stay over at either Betong or Saratok being ideal – the freshwater prawns and local terubok fish are famous.

Next morning, it’s onwards to Sarikei and then Sibu and if you want to experience an express boat ride, now’s the time to do it on the Sibu-Kapit sector; it takes three hours plus and costs RM30. Kapit is the real heartland of the Iban community and you can even venture further upriver to Belaga and Long Lama if you have the time and the urge to do so. There’s plenty to see and experience along the way and upon arrival.

The famous Bario Highlands and its lesser known sister, Ba Kelalan, beckon you next. These are more logistically challenging locations as they require air transport and these are both costly and irregular. But once you get there, you’d be able to experience the remoteness as well as the serenity of the place – there are again many lodging houses and all you need is to Google or Facebook search for them and pick one you like.

The Mulu Caves must not be missed; there you have a choice of five-star comfort at Mulu Marriott Resort, National Park, Benarat Lodge, or Mulu Backpackers Lodge (nearest to the Mulu Airport, you can just walk there). You can arrange for either a personal tour guide or be part of a group tour if there’s one going. The caves are captivating and awesome.

For the more historical minded visitor, don’t miss the Niah caves, located midway between Bintulu and Miri, with a brief road diversion.

Don’t forget that Bintulu, Miri, Marudi, Mukah, and Limbang are all worth visiting too! I’d skip Brunei for the time being as I am not too sure what its current travel restrictions are.

Sabah, our neighbouring state, is such a big and wonderful place where you can get almost everything you want under the sun! There are splendid gorgeous beaches; the scuba and deep sea diving is to die for; the seafood is fresh and plentiful (although no longer as reasonably priced as during the 2000s); and Kinabalu Park is well worth the visit, although nowadays the management is restricting the number of visitors, and the fees to go up the mountain have been raised to such a level that limits its wider appeal.

There’s nightlife aplenty in KK and the population is cosmopolitan, while Sabah’s towns are always abuzz with fun, activity, and colour.

If you love the wetlands of Kinabatangan where the Sumatran elephants, Proboscis monkeys, and orang-utans roam freely, try a stay at the world-acclaimed and much-awarded Sukau Rainforest Lodge built in 1995 and operated by renown environmentalist and photographer Albert Teo.

Danum Valley and the Meliau Basin are well worth visiting too. They are more remote and rather costly to get to and lodgings can be expensive. Of course, the main attractions in Sabah are the islands of Sipadan and Mabul, but make sure you have planned well in advance as they have very few rooms and again can be expensive.

If you follow my plan and suggestions, you won’t be able to visit all these delightful places – villages, towns, and cities – from now till December! You’d probably need more than four months to get them all in. But don’t worry, they will always be there, waiting for you.

Give yourself a treat. Go see your own country – Sarawak and Sabah!

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