PREVIOUSLY, when people mentioned Sarawak, the only city that came to mind was its capital, Kuching, mainly because its name means “cat” in Malay.
Miri — the East Malaysian state’s second largest city — was off my radar until I went there recently for the Borneo Jazz Festival. Here are a few discoveries I made about Miri and Sarawak:
Home of headhunters
The Iban (or Sea Dayak) tribe is the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, comprising about 30 per cent of the state’s population.
Infamous for being fearsome headhunters in the past, the Ibans were known to live in longhouses adorned with skulls hanging from the ceiling.
An Iban longhouse is a long building on stilts with six to 60 bilik (individual family units) linked by a covered corridor called ruai.
These days, headhunting is no longer practised. Although the Ibans have become urbanised, some still live in longhouses — upgraded ones equipped with modern amenities such as electricity, running water, phone lines and even Internet access.
When I visited Entulang Longhouse in Miri, I saw cars parked outside and residents watching TV inside.
This modern longhouse reminds me of Singapore’s Housing Board flats with a common corridor, except that their corridor is about four times wider. The corridor is an important community space where residents socialise and hold festive ceremonies.
I had a brief tour of a family’s bilik and was surprised that it was more spacious than our typical flats. In Singapore terms, this was actually a maisonette as there was a staircase leading upstairs.
My tour guide said each bilik in this longhouse usually has a living room, a kitchen, three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Some families turn the upper floor into bedrooms while those who are farmers may use it as a storage space for crops.
As I walked past the living room, I noticed a display showcase filled with soft toys and sports trophies.
I was so relieved they were not the type of trophies that would have greeted me in a headhunter’s home 150 years ago.
Toast of the town
At a tamu (local market) in the E-Mart Tudan complex in Miri, my tour guide educated me on the assortment of local produce sold there.
An exotic vegetable that caught my eye was the midin, a wild jungle fern with curled-up fronds. It is a popular vegetable in Sarawak and is usually stir-fried with belacan (shrimp paste).
Another famous local produce is the home-brewed tuak (rice wine), a traditional alcoholic drink made from fermented glutinous rice.
Tuak is commonly served by the Ibans to welcome guests at their longhouses, and during festivals and ceremonies.
To spot the tuak among myriads of items in a market stall, look for the yellowish liquid sold in recycled mineral water bottles.
Birthplace of Malaysia’s oil industry
En route to the “Grand Old Lady” during my city tour, I thought I was going to see the statue of a female historic figure.
Well, “she” turned out to be an oil well. Not any oil well, but the first one in Malaysia.
Built by Shell on Miri’s Canada Hill in 1910, the Grand Old Lady — originally named Miri Well No. 1 — churned out oil almost non-stop for 62 years.
The hill, which offers a panoramic view of the city, is said to have been named to honour the Canadian engineer of the oil well.
After retiring in 1972, the legendary oil well is now a historic monument.
Beside it is the Petroleum Museum, which showcases how the industry transformed Miri from a sleepy fishing village into a bustling oil town.
Malaysia is the second largest oil producer in South-east Asia today. Miri is still a contributor to the industry, and new offshore and inland oil fields have been discovered in recent decades.
Seahorses are stars
I noticed that there are seahorse sculptures and logos all over Miri — not surprising since this little sea creature is the city’s mascot.
Introduced as part of the “I Love Miri” campaign in 1994, the seahorse was chosen because its gentle and graceful characteristics represent a multi-ethnic community living in harmony. It is also a symbol of Miri as a seaside paradise.
For Instagram-worthy shots, head to the Seahorse Lighthouse near Coco Cabana at Marina Bay, a popular sunset-watching spot.
Gateway to five national parks
Miri is the entry point to five famous national parks in Sarawak:
- Niah National Park
Famous for prehistoric cave paintings dating back some 1,200 years and edible birds’ nests built by swiftlets high up on the cave walls.
- Loagan Bunut National Park
Home to Sarawak’s largest natural lake, which dries up for two to three weeks during the dry season, normally in February and May or June. A fascinating attraction is the Selambau scoop nets, a unique fishing method of the Berawan fishermen. The nets are mounted on large rafts to catch migrating fish as the water levels change.
- Gunung Mulu National Park
A Unesco World Heritage Site that houses the world’s largest cave chamber — Sarawak Chamber, which is said to be large enough to hold 40 Boeing 747 planes. The park is also home to Deer Cave, which has a cave mouth that resembles the profile of 19th-century American president Abraham Lincoln.
- Lambir Hills National Park
Has several waterfalls and more than 10 forest trails; the shortest route is a 20-minute stroll to Latak Waterfall. The park is temporarily closed for trail maintenance after a flood. Check for updates on Sarawak Forestry’s Facebook page.
- Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park
An offshore national park with a diversity of corals and marine life, which makes it a popular dive destination. There are almost 40 dives sites, including coral-encrusted oil rigs and wrecks.
Brunei is just next door
I didn’t realise Brunei is less than two hours’ drive from Miri until the locals told me that many Bruneians like to shop in Miri.
The reason is similar to why Singaporeans like to shop in Johor Bahru— the favourable currency exchange rate.
You can easily join a day tour from Miri to visit Brunei, which is famous for its ornate mosques, the Sultan’s royal palace (one of the largest in the world) and Kampung Ayer, the world’s largest water village.
The writer’s trip was organised by Sarawak Tourism Board and AirAsia.
I took a two-hour flight on AirAsia (www.airasia.com) from Singapore to Miri.
- There are various types of longhouses, from traditional to modern ones, that you can visit.
Find out more at Sarawak Tourism Board’s website (www.sarawaktourism.com).
- Visit Sarawak Forestry’s website (www.sarawakforestry.com) for information on the national parks, including opening hours, how to get there and news updates on trail closures.
- For my Miri city tour, I joined Brighton Travel & Tour (www.brightontt.com), which also organises tours to national parks and day trips to Brunei.
The Sarawak kek lapis (layered cake) is a famous local dessert that comes in multiple colours, patterns and flavours. A popular shop is Siti Payung (sitipayung.com.my).
Philip Lee finds a cheap way to get around when he hops on the buses that go to interesting places on the island
SundayLife! joins a group of hunters in search of the jungle pigs, whose flesh is fresh and tender
Michelle Chin goes on a six-day road trip to explore Perth, Albany and Denmark
Chan Siew Lian immerses herself in a sensory experience of Northern Kansai in Japan
Soak in the arts scene, gear up for adventure and savour yummy delights in just one weekend