A Borneo discovery enjoying the Sarawak serenades in the rainforest

Safi Theatre (Tanzania)

As the Gipsy Kings (featuring Tonino Baliardo) perform Bambolèo, the heat intensifies across the crowd of 8,000 screaming fans in the swampy humidity. As the only remaining original band member of this iconic ensemble, Tonino is joined by his sons and the other handsome band members in the annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) deep in Sarawak’s rainforest in East Malaysia’s Borneo.

I’ve been listening to the Gipsy Kings’ haunting Spanish tunes for as long as I can remember, yet I only discovered during the press conference they come from the south of France. As they’ve sold more than 20 million albums worldwide, I’m not the only one spellbound. Melodies visibly course through their bodies, acting as conduits as their entwined vocals and flamenco guitar flicks reverberate through the rainforest.

Iranian beats of Rastak

Spanning over three days in June 2023 and returning for the first time since the pandemic, the RWMF has attracted 199 musicians from 12 countries and four continents, such as Big Mountain from Jamaica and the USA (famed for Baby I Love Your Way) and the Cuban beats of Steve Thornton and Afro Asia. The exuberant crowd lapped up the eclectic line-up, including the acrobatic Tanzanian Safi Theatre, while Afriquoi from the UK got the crowd grooving with their African meets disco, soul and jungle rhythms. Translating to ‘newly born plant’ in Farsi, Rastak integrated their Iranian origins into their music with ethnic beats and folk dance.

After hearing the softly spoken frontman of Fasylive share his favourite pastime of fishing in the Maldives the day before, this hard-rock band was a revelation as they shredded the stage in Led Zeppelin fashion. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the diversity has kept festival-goers returning since its inception in 1998 in an ongoing celebration of world music.

Fasylive (Maldives) shreds the stage

While sold-out concerts reign supreme as the nights descend, during the day, festival-goers are treated to pocket performances, workshops and activities for an immersion into Sarawak’s culture through music, art and food. I can’t resist getting horizontal in the afternoon’s heat for the sound healing workshop in a longhouse, where a didgeridoo was all part of the performance. 

The local talent from East and West Malaysia was equally enthralling as Suk Binie’ (meaning young seedlings in Bau Bidayuh) returned to the festival for the second time, alongside 2017 Asia’s Got Talent finalists Sada Borneo, translating to ‘the sound of Borneo. Tuku Kame integrated traditional and contemporary tunes into their lively act, which has evolved since the band formed at the foot of Mount Santubong 24 years ago. 

Meaning ‘shaking bamboo,’ the 14-member Buloh Bekocak is a prime example of the festival’s origins – keeping local musical traditions alive. In a colourful mix of instruments from around the world, Aseana Percussion Unit captivated with the Brazilian surdo bass drum, Indian tabla (bongos) and our beloved didgeridoo. The avant-garde Nading Rhapsody drew from a provocative mix of folk songs and chants from around Malaysia, sending the crowd into trance-like euphoria.

The avant-garde Nading Rhapsody (Borneo) © RWMF

Even if you’re not visiting during the festival, visiting the Sarawak Cultural Village is a must. This living museum is home to the RWMF and has won awards for representing major ethnic groups in Sarawak, such as Malay, Chinese, Orang Ulu and Iban. Ethnic group members dressed in time-honoured costumes carry out tribal activities and dance performances in a collection of longhouses and traditional Malaysian structures.

An orangutan encounter at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre warrants a visit to Kuching any time of the year. Until these majestic creatures can fend for themselves and are released back into the wild, they rely on this rehabilitation centre to supplement their diet. Planning your visit to coincide with feeding times gives the best chance of a sighting; however, there are no guarantees. We arrived during durian season, so they had no reason to come down for a free feed, but I was grateful to see them freely swinging through the trees from a distance, knowing they were on their way to becoming self-sufficient. 

The comical-looking proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo and entertains with their extended noses and potbellies in national parks, including the nearby Bako National Park; just listen for their old-man grunts as they crash through the trees.

Known as cat city, Kuching is the capital of Sarawak and tells of its rich past through historical and modern architecture, including the S-shaped Darul Hana Bridge connecting the esplanade to the impressive State Legislative Assembly Building designed in a nine-point star representing the nine divisions of Sarawak. 

Kuching, cat city

While in town, pop into the Visitor Information Centre in the colonial Old Court House complex, where you’ll find cafés and contemporary local cuisine at Roots Restaurant. Delve into the past at the Fort Margherita museum, named after the wife of Charles Brooke, the second white Rajah, preceded by James Brooke, who founded the state of Sarawak in 1839. 

For a deep dive into Sarawak’s distinct architecture and culture, the state-of-the-art Borneo Cultures Museum pays homage to Borneo’s rich cultural heritage. Continue your stroll through the capital, past street art and old shophouses, to the main bazaar along the waterfront and Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple on Carpenter Street for an immersive urban experience, Sarawak style.

About 45 minutes from Kuching, Damai Beach Resort cradles the South China Sea and is well-placed for epic sunsets and the RWMF, where shuttle buses run continuously day and night. Also set on the Damai Peninsular and positioned between the foot of Mount Santubong and the sea, Cove 55 resort has won awards for refined ethnic luxury seamlessly nestled into the wild landscape. 

There are regular flights from Kuching International Airport and Perth via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Airlines. 

Carmen Jenner was a guest of the Sarawak Tourism Board.