Tropical rainforest once accounted for more than 70% of Sarawak's total landmass, providing homes for not only exotic species of plants and animals, but for the myriad ethnic groups who are indigenous to the area. With more than 15 national parks and wildlife preserves, Malaysia shows its commitment to conserving the delicate balance of life here, despite extensive logging that has cleared many other natural areas. The national parks located around the state's capital Kuching provide quick access to forest life, while longer, more detailed trips to northern Sarawak lead you deeper into the jungle, to explore remote forests and extensive ancient cave networks. A number of rivers connect the inland areas to the main towns, and a boat trip from Kuching to visit tribal communities and trek into the surrounding forests is the most memorable attraction going.
The indigenous peoples of Sarawak make up more than half the state's population. Early European explorers and settlers referred to all native inhabitants of Borneo with the catchall term Dyaks, which didn't account for the variations between the more than 25 different ethnicities. Of these groups, the Iban are the largest, with more than 30% of the population overall. A nomadic people by nature, the Ibans were once located all over the region, existing on agriculture, hunting, and fishing. They were also notoriously fierce warriors who would behead enemies -- a practice now outlawed but that has retained its cultural significance. The Ibans fought not only with other tribes, but within their own separate tribal units as well.
The next-largest group, the Bidayuh, live peacefully in the hills. Their longhouse communities are the most accessible to travelers from Kuching. The Melanu are a coastal people who excel in fishing and boatbuilding. Finally, the Orang Ulu is an association of smaller tribes mostly in the northern parts of the state. Tribes like the Kayah, Kenyah, Kelabit, and Penan, although culturally separate entities, formed an umbrella organization to loosely govern all groups and provide representation. These groups are perhaps the least accessible to outsiders.
The indigenous people who still stay in the forest live in longhouse communities, some of which are open for visitors. Most travelers access these places with the help of local tour operators, who have trips that last from an overnight excursion to a week-long homestay. While some tours take you to well-trampled villages for the standard "gawk at the funny costumes" trips, many operators can take you to more remote places to meet people in an environment of cultural learning with a sensitivity that is appreciated by all involved. A few adventuresome souls travel solo into these areas, but I recommend that you stick with an operator. I don't care much for visitors who pop in unexpectedly, and I can't imagine why folks in one of these villages wouldn't feel the same way.
Most visitors to Sarawak start from Kuching, the capital city. With a population of some 400,000 people, it's small but oddly cosmopolitan. In addition to local tribes that gave up forest living, the city has large populations of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans, most of whom migrated in the last 2 centuries. The city sits on the Kuching River, which will be one of the arteries for trips inland. Before you head off for the river, though, check out the many delights of this mysterious colonial kingdom. The riverfront area is one of Malaysia's best open public spaces.
Sarawak was introduced to the Western world by James Brooke, an English adventurer who in 1839 came to Southeast Asia to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Sir Stamford Raffles, who settled Singapore. His wanderings brought him to Borneo, where he was introduced to the Sultan of Brunei. The sultan was deeply troubled by warring tribes to the south of his kingdom, who were in constant revolt, sometimes to the point of pirating ships to Brunei's port. Brooke provided the solution, initiating a campaign to befriend some of the warring tribes, uniting them to conquer the others. Soon the tribes were calmed. The sultan, delighted by Brooke, ceded Kuching to him for a small annual fee. In 1841, James Brooke became raja and set about claiming the land that is now Sarawak.
Raja Sir James Brooke became a colonial legend. Known as "the White Raja of Sarawak," he and his family ruled the territory and its people with a firm but compassionate hand. Tribal leaders were appointed to leadership and administrative positions within his government and militia, and as a result, the Brookes were highly respected by the populations they led. However, Brooke was a bit of a renegade, turning his nose up at London's attempts to include Sarawak under the crown. He took no money from the British and closed the doors to British commercial interests in Sarawak. Instead, he dealt in local trade and trade with Singapore. Still, Kuching was understood to be a British holding, though the city never flourished as did other British ports in Southeast Asia.
After his death in 1868, Raja James Brooke was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Brooke. In 1917, Charles's son, Vyner Brooke, became the last ruling Raja, a position he held until World War II, when the territory was conquered by invading Japanese. After the war, Raja Vyner Brooke returned briefly, but soon after, the territory was declared a crown colony. Eventually, Malaya was granted independence by Britain, prompting Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to form Malaysia in 1963, uniting peninsular Malaya with Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah. Singapore departed from the union 2 years later, but Sarawak and Sabah happily remained.