KUCHING: Unlabelled nondescript green bottles lined a makeshift table at the balcony of a traditional Sarawak longhouse, filled with enough homemade tuak (rice wine) and langkau (rice whisky) to intoxicate an entire kampong or village.
Speckled across the longhouse were free-ranging chickens, napping kittens, and dayaks or natives barbecuing pork under the blistering sun. Children tossed popping pellets to the ground, making sharp snapping sounds that took you back to Singapore in the late 1980s.
Indeed, flying to Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak, felt like time travel.
Even though it is only 90 minutes away via a direct AirAsia flight, Kuching seemed less frantic. Even on May 31, the eve of Gawai Dayak, the bustle of festivity was oddly calm and unhurried. To put things in perspective, this annual end-of-harvest festival is one of the most important festivals for the indigenous people of Sarawak.
“In the old days, people believed that if the gods are unhappy, they can fail your crops and people will starve,” said our guide Antoni Sheridan Derby. “So it is our tradition to thank the gods for a good harvest and celebrate a new planting season.”
Other peculiar rituals included paying respects to skulls. However, visitors are usually only invited to participate in jollier pursuits such as feasting, drinking, dancing, and merry-making that typically lasts for three days, from May 31 to Jun 2.
By evening, the longhouse would have transformed into a tribal gathering. Dayaks and children dressed in traditional costumes swayed to indigenous and local music. After the ministers and village VIPs arrived, the crowd gathered around a buffet spread with about 25 to 30 different dishes, half of which featured free-ranging chickens.
The children then put up a mini-fashion show to display prismatic tribal costume, and the drinking and dancing began. Travellers who were less nimble on their feet were taught a simple dayak dance move that involved fluttering the arms gently like a bird in slow motion — far more sedative and soothing than any modern-day gyration. At midnight, fireworks went off, and the dancing continued into the morning with renewed exuberance.
Sarawak is laidback. Travellers who make the city of Kuching their base may not come to fully appreciate its character. A homestay however, will provide a far more immersive experience.
Don’t expect hipster cafes with single origin coffee, swanky bars, air conditioning or reliable Internet reception at these kampongs. Don’t even expect hot showers, towels or a full range of F&N canned drinks. Homestays by the Bidayuh tribe include a three-inch mattress, cold showers, and warm home-cooked meals served with even warmer smiles. The homes of other tribes such as Iban (which means “wanderer”) are more pared down, and only have electricity from 6pm to 10pm. So travellers should pack whatever indulgence they cannot live without, and leave their expectations behind.
What these homestays lack in creature comforts, they make up for with verdant green and nostalgic factor. Instead of the jarring beep of the alarm clock, guests will wake up to the call of roosters, and gardens lush with flowers and jackfruits. Beyond this, travellers will also be close to some of Asia’s most gorgeous rainforests and nature reserves, which are home to the critically endangered orangutans.
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), only 104,700 Borneo orangutans are left in the world. More than 1,000 of them reside in Batang Ai National Park, 180km from Kuching. However, travellers without the luxury of time can visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre - one of the largest sanctuaries for injured and orphaned orangutans - which is 30km or 30 minutes from Kuching.
All 28 of the orangutans in the centre are wild or semi-wild, and unlike the Singapore Zoo, these rehabilitation centres practise a no-love policy. For instance, when baby or young orangutans run to their handlers, they will spray them with water to teach them to run up a tree instead of to humans. This enables young orangutans to develop essential survival skills when faced with danger.
As with all wild animals, travellers are not guaranteed a sighting. However, the best time to spot them is during feeding time from 9am to 10am and 3pm to 3.30pm, and the best months to visit are between March and August. Food is scarcer during these months so these orangutans usually emerge from the forest to feed their young.
Watching orangutans feed can be hungry business. Luckily, the city also rewards explorers with local delights such as the kek lapis, traditional layered cake that are more colourful than the kueh lapis in Singapore and other parts of Malaysia. In Sarawak, they come in Insta-worthy rainbow hues and can look like intricate Persian carpets. Made one layer at a time, and ranging from five to 30 layers, they can take up to five hours to prepare.
Other famous Sarawak dishes include Kolo Mee, thin yellow noodles garnished with minced pork and char siew (barbecued pork), as well as Sarawak laksa. That said, don’t expect frills such as fancy décor or truffle-infused hybrids. The true flavour of Sarawak is simple, warm and comforting. Whether dining or exploring the kampongs, with a little patience and humility, travellers will fall in love with its rustic charm.