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 Touring Local Culture

One of the highlights of a trip to Sarawak is a visit to a longhouse community. Trips can last from simple overnight stays to 2-week intensive discovery tours. It goes without saying that shorter trips venture only as far as those longhouse villages closest to Kuching. The benefit is that these communities are at ease with foreigners and so are better able to demonstrate their culture. The drawback is that these villages are the ones most trampled by coachloads of tourists looking to gawk at "primitive tribes." Basically, the more time you have, the deeper you will venture into the interior and the more time you will have to spend with different ethnic groups, allowing greater insight into these cultures.

A typical longhouse trip starts with a van ride from Kuching followed by a longtail boat ride upriver, through gorgeous forests. If you are stopping in only for the night, you'll be welcomed, fed, and entertained -- the food is generally edible and always prepared under sanitary conditions. Fruits are delicious. Your guide, through translations, will help you chat with villagers and ask questions about their lifestyle and customs. At night you will sleep in a longhouse provided especially for guests. It's basic but cool, with mosquito nets (very necessary) provided. The following day includes a very brief jungle trek, plus hunting and fishing demonstrations before your departure back from whence you came. If your trip is longer, you will probably avoid the closer villages and head straight for more remote communities, depending on how much time (and money) you have.

For budgeting longhouse tours, plan to spend about RM800 per person for each night you spend on the tour. Good tour operators making longhouse tours are Borneo Adventure, 55 Main Bazaar (tel. 082/245-175; www.borneoadventure.com), and Telang Usan Travel & Tours, Ban Hock Road (tel. 082/236-945; fax 082/236-589). These agencies can also arrange trips into Sarawak's national parks.

Touring Sarawak's National Parks

The Sarawak National Parks & Wildlife Centre has opened access to all of Sarawak's national parks to DIY (do-it-yourself) travelers. From their booking center in Kuching, you can apply for parks permits and book reservations in state-run lodging within each park. They can also advise how to travel to and from each park: Those closer to Kuching will involve only local road and river transportation, while more remote parks will require commercial flights to either Sibu or Miri, plus transfers to ground and river transportation and even chartered flights. If you have the time to plan your travel this way, you will be rewarded with the thrill of "getting there," experiencing local life a little closer to the ground.

Most people do not have the luxury of time, which is why I recommend booking trips that interest you through a tour operator who will arrange all transportation, parks permits, lodging, meals, and guides for you, freeing your time to experience the attractions themselves.

National Parks Not Far from Kuching -- Both Borneo Adventure, 55 Main Bazaar (tel. 082/245-175; www.borneoadventure.com), and Asian Overland Services, Lot 112, 1st Floor, Lorong Datuk Abang Abdul Rahim 5A, behind 360 Hotel (tel. 082/330-398; www.asianoverland.com.my), charge a few dollars more than many of the other local operators, but you'll get experienced guides and reliable services, and you do not need to join a huge touristy coach group. Most of these trips are for small groups. Their half-day trips from Kuching take the mystery out of local transportation -- they can even be combined for longer itineraries so you can maximize your time. They can also prepare customized itineraries and special theme tours based upon your special interests -- for example, crafts, flora, or tribal cultures.

Bako National Park, established in 1957, is Sarawak's oldest national park. An area of 2,728 hectares (6,738 acres), it combines mangrove forest, lowland jungle, and high plains covered in scrub. Throughout the park, you'll see the pitcher plant and other strange carnivorous plants, plus long-tailed macaques, monitor lizards, bearded pigs, and the unique proboscis monkey. Because the park is only 37km (23 miles) from Kuching, half-day trips here are extremely convenient. A day trip for two costs around RM300 per person.

Gunung Gading National Park, about a 2-hour drive west of Kuching, sprawls 4,106 hectares (10,142 acres) over rugged mountains to beautiful beach spots along the coast. Day-trippers and overnighters come to get a glimpse of the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. The flowers are short lived and temperamental, but the national parks office will let you know if any are in bloom. A day tour for two people costs about RM300 per person.

Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary is a rehabilitation center for orangutans and other endangered wildlife species who are either orphaned or recovering from illness and are being trained for eventual release into the forest. A half-day tour for two people costs RM120 per person.

National Parks a Little Farther Out -- Borneo Adventure, 55 Main Bazaar (tel. 082/245-175; www.borneoadventure.com), and Asian Overland Services, Lot 112, 1st Floor, Lorong Datuk Abang Abdul Rahim 5A, behind 360 Hotel (tel. 082/330-398; www.asianoverland.com.my), also book trips to national parks in other parts of the state. You'll have to fly to Miri or Sibu, as these two towns are the hop-off points for these excursions. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia both service these two towns from KL and Kuching.

Gunung Mulu National Park provides an amazing adventure, with its astounding underground network of caves. The park claims the world's largest cave passage (Deer Cave), the world's largest natural chamber (Sarawak Chamber), and Southeast Asia's longest cave (Clearwater Cave). No fewer than 18 caves offer explorers trips of varying degrees of difficulty, from simple treks with minimal gear to technically difficult caves that require specialized equipment and skills. Aboveground are 544 sq. km (212 sq. miles) of primary rainforest, peat swamps, and mountainous forests teeming with mammals, birds, and unusual insects. Located in the north of Sarawak, Mulu is very close to the Brunei border. Borneo Adventure has a 2-day/1-night package for around RM240 per person (minimum two people). The trip includes accommodations, ground transportation, longboat rides, nature guides to see Deer Cave, Sarawak Chamber, and Clearwater Cave, plus some rainforest trekking (wear a hat in the caves to protect yourself from bat droppings). They can book your flights from Kuching, but you'll have to pay extra.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.