Award-winning Mari Mari: Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

I see more culture at award-winning Mari Mari Cultural village near Kota Kinabalu, Sabah – locals had all recommended I go, telling me to ‘go to the dinner show at night’.  Moving through the village in small groups five local tribes introduce us to their way of life including fire-making, blowpipes, tattoos, whisky, and food, In the famously feared headhunting tribes (Murut) longhouse is an amazing indoor trampoline, the lansaran.  After a demonstration on the trampoline like floor  our group jump to reach for the ‘prize’ – I didn’t try.  Other tribes are the rice farming Kadazan-Dusun, the longhouse Rungus, the hunters and fisherman Lundayeh, the cowboy and sea gypsy Bajau.


The tour culminated in a great concert and buffet style dinner and, in good ecotourism style, every dollar spent here stays here, helping the local native people keep their ancestor’s traditions.

Many cultural shows (around the word) can be superficial, staged authenticity, designed to entertain rather than enlighten, but this is locally driven, and it’s the locals who always need to decide what they want to share with the world and how to present it.

For more information about Malaysian Borneo just search this blog or see the Sabah Tourism Board or Sarawak Tourism Board


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White pepper rules in Malaysian Borneo

Pepper (Piper Nigrum L) is an important foreign exchange earner for several countries: Malaysia is the fifth largest pepper producer in the world behind Vietnam; India; Indonesia and Brazil.  Pepper is grown in small farms, averaging 0.2 ha (under half an acre) in Sarawak and is one of the significant crops in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo – making it an important source of income for about 67,000 rural families in the interior areas of Sarawak and – on the way to a long-house where I’ll spend a night – I visit one.

All pepper, black or white,  comes from this vine
All pepper, black or white, comes from this vine

The little farm is owned and run by an Iban woman and her Chinese husband. I hadn’t really realised the plant is a vine, growing on stakes. Interestingly, for eco-reasons, the govt is experimenting with growing them on ‘decorative’ plants as farmers can no longer grow them on the usual long-lasting, and now protected native hardwoods.

This equipment doubled the Sarawak pepper farmers income.
This equipment doubled the Sarawak pepper farmers income.

Local research and development have also produced a simple device to separate the corns into first and second grades – this unpretentious piece of equipment has evidently doubled the small farmer’s income! I’m shown it working and it reminds me how often local inventors add modest but effective solutions to local problems. This ‘spiral separator’ is sort of like the cream separator my dad used on his Canterbury farm many years ago.

Malaysia grows some 25,672 metric tonnes and evidently 90% is produced in Sarawak meaning the commercial name for Malaysian-grown pepper is named “Sarawak Pepper” in the world’s marketplaces.

Although I knew it was used in food, on my trip to a small pepper farm I hear it’s also used in household products, medical products, and even in the cosmetic industry where pepper perfume can be found!

Black and white peppercorns are both the fruit of the same pepper plant, but are processed differently.  Peppercorns are picked when they are almost ripe then sun-dried, turning the outer layer black. To produce the white peppercorns, the outer layer is removed before drying, leaving only the inner seed: they are soaked in water which softens the shells and which is then removed.

my guide shows the corns growing
my guide shows the corns growing

According to the experts these local white peppercorns ‘have a slightly musky aroma and a rich, winey, somewhat hot flavour that is used locally in soup, on grilled meat, or poultry’.  I didn’t realise that white pepper tastes hotter than black and although freshness is key to good white pepper I have now added it to my pantry  for cooking Southeast Asian dishes – until now I always  just had black pepper in my grinder!

While black pepper is more common in many western kitchens with chefs using white pepper in light-coloured dishes such as white sauces for the look of the dish. However, white pepper is also used in some cuisines for its specific flavour. It is common in Malaysian and Chinese cooking, and evidently is always in aromatic Vietnamese soups and pork dishes.

Sarawak Laksa has local pepper in it!
Sarawak Laksa – the great Borneo breakfast – has local pepper in it!

Which do you use? Tell us (in the comments) about your favourite Sarawak white pepper recipes or tips.

Malaysians are foodies .. this time kek lapis.

More on the ‘all Malaysians are foodies’ theme.

It’s traditional in Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, to serve Kek Lapis for religious or cultural celebrations such as Hari Raya, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and the harvest festival, Gawai Dayak, as well as for birthdays and weddings.

"too pretty to eat"
“too pretty to eat”

As eat my way through Borneo, one fabulous meal at a time, I’m introduced to Sarawak Kek Lapis. These layer cakes can have plain layers or be fancy with patterns, motifs, or shapes. All ‘must have at least two colours’ I’m told by the guide on the city tour when we visit one of Kuching’s many cake shops and sample some with names such as Blueberry Cheese, Swiss Roll, and the green and brown, Lapis Oreo.

These are no ordinary cakes, firm, moist, buttery, and not too sweet.

‘It’s hard to eat’ says an Italian writer as I photograph him, ‘they are so beautiful.

They are cooked layer by millimetre layer, with each layer in the oven for only five minutes before being taken out, spread with butter and the next layer is put on and back into the oven – and repeated up to twenty times.

High heat, high yolk, and high butter content means these cakes keep well too.  Considered a perfect gift by tourists from around Asia, cakes are also exported to Europe, North America, the Middle East and especially, Singapore.

Make sure you buy one, or some, from any of the sellers along the Kuching waterfront.

Numerous designs for sale in shops and stalls
Numerous designs for sale in shops and stalls

Cat city … Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Once part of the Sultanate of Brunei some 200 years ago, Kuching then became the capital of the White Rajahs of Sarawak and now this capital city, Kuching, is often called “Cat City” and has many cat statues as public art.

The 'big cat' is dressed according to the season or festival, these are its Gawai clothes - the Iban harvest festival
The ‘big cat’ is dressed according to the season or festival, these are its Gawai clothes – the Iban harvest festival

The meaning of ‘Kuching’ seems to be lost in history. Some say it’s from the Malay word kucing, meaning cat, (Note in Malay the letter c is pronounced as ch as in church) and many locals call it “Cat City”.

The guide on my city tour bus says it could come from the Chinese word for port (cochin) or, “most likely, from the Malay name mata kucing (cat’s-eye) for the longan fruit. He continues “There was a small tributary of the Sarawak river called Sungei Kuching so some others say it was from this stream that Kuching got its name.” So take your pick.

Cat city seems to be the most common usage and the city has not only many cat souvenirs for sale, and  statues of cats,  but also a cat museum. This  is on top of a 60 metre high hill which gives great views over the city. (The museum is on the ground floor of the  Kuching North City Hall.)

The Cat Museum  has four main galleries  and evidently has more than 4,000 cat artifacts including paintings  and the media group I was with were mixed in their reactions to the collection – from bemused, to thrilled, to amused. Its well worth a visit, and like all the museums in Sarawak, it’s free to visit although a small fee is charged for cameras.


For more about Kuching, see the many other blogs I’ve written, or the Sarawak Tourism Boards’ official website



“Look Heather, the cat is naked” says one of the drivers who knows I’ve walked often to this statue for photos!

World music festival for your bucket-list: Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF
Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF

World-wide the music festival circuit is full of competitors looking to use our travel dollars to introduce and support local and international musicians and, of course, promote their area. Here’s a great one for your bucket list – either as a destination, or as a stopover or side trip while in Asia.

Heineken provided recycling bins & sponsorship
Heineken provided recycling bins & sponsorship
Part of the beautiful Cultural Village grounds used for the festival
Part of the beautiful Cultural Village grounds used for the festival

Let me introduce you to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival which is set wonderfully between a great beach and a rain-forest mountain peak in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. In the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village, 35 kilometres from Kuching, the two stages are nested among trees at the foot of the legendary Mount Santubong, and throughout the village screens are up so everyone has great views no matter where they are. I sat on the ground on the rise in front of the stage.

Talking to a couple of the music writing professionals while I’m at the 16th festival I’m told

  • Kate Welsman, from ‘The Good, The Dub & The Global’ on Australia’s largest community radio station, RRR  told me she was “gob-smacked with the phenomenal Rafly.
  • Will Hemes, senior critic for Rolling Stone, said of the festival (while he and I were on a bus trip around the city of Kuching) “While individually there are no big stars, collectively  and the setting makes it outstanding.”
  • And a writer (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten)  from Songlines said, at one of our press interviews, “Without a doubt this is the most spectacular festival I’ve ever been to. Never have I felt I learnt new things about cultures as while here.”

With praise such as these quotes from experts, all I can tell you is

  • What it was like to be a travel writer there. Fabulous!
  • Would I go again? Yes!
  • Would I recommend you add the festival to your bucket-list? Of course!
Will Hemes and i share lunch with another writer .. at the fabulous "Sunday Market"
Will Hemes and I share lunch with another writer .. at the fabulous “Sunday Market”


To quote from Will Hemes blog on NPR;

“ . . . many of its most stirring moments came from local musicians relegated to brief opening slots and afternoon workshop performances. There were the hypnotic hammered bamboo zithers (called “gongs”) built and played by Arthur Gorman and Madeeh, a group from a jungle-based Bidayuh tribal longhouse community about 65 kilometers from Kuching. There were soulful performances on the sape, the ornate lute that is the icon of Malaysian traditional music, by Matthew Ngau and Maya Green and a remarkable bit of Kayan nose-flute playing by the 71-year-old Juk Wan Emang.” See much more in his NPR blog here.


So who were my favourites?  Well I really liked about 85% of performances so will not go into detail as of course in 2014 the RWMF line-up will be different – although no doubt some favourites and locals be back on the calendar. (See this blog for more about the various groups from many parts of the world and here too and other blogs I’ve written about both the festival and Sarawak.)

rafly IMG_2624 (2)

The charismatic Rafly especially was great and carried the crowd with him and his band. He sings traditional songs (in his Aceh language) with modern instruments. Many of the songs are about rain-forests and mangroves. Interestingly, during his press interview, translated by a fellow band member, he talked about the 2004 December tsunami and how many of the so-called ‘quake-crazy’ reactions are now found to be alcohol and drug related.



use santubong
Santubong Mountain, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Reducing my carbon footprint: greening the music festival

Heather with her tree’and Kuching North City Commission’s Deputy Director, Kartina Zamhari

Within twelve hours of arriving in Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak) along with 200 others, I was planting a tree as part of the ‘greening the festival’ programme while also helping reduce our carbon footprint.

Here for the Rainforest World Music Festival for the first time, it seems this tree-planting ceremony is in its 3rd year and “helps make Kuching a livable city” said the CEO of Sarawak Tourism Datuk Rashid Khan.

Although not essential, it seems traders at the festival are “encouraged to use green products and practices so the event is not only successful, but also to leave a lasting eco-effect,” he continued.

No doubt, like most international festivals this will soon become a need to get a licence to be part of the #RWMF which is set in the Sarawak Cultural Village.

The 150 trees we (school children, musicians, journalists, concert promoters, travel writers, along with local officials and politicians) planted – in the Government offices lake compound area, Banguan Baitulmakmur – are the Golden Shower (Acacia Fistula). Evidently, over the past few years, some 2 million trees have been planted across Sarawak in events such as this: ‘We try to plant three trees for every one cut down’ someone said, ‘although it’s not always in the same area.”


Datuk Gramong Juna digs a hole for his tree, watched by Kuching North City Commission Deputy Director and Datuk Rashid Khan CEO Sarawak Tourism Board









Malaysia often receives bad press for the destruction of native forests and planting oil palm plantations, so it cannot be easy to convince the often cynical foreigners they want to “take care of our environment.”

Come back and hug your tree” we are encouraged by Assistant Minister of Tourism, Datuk Gramong Juna, who said they are “trying to do good deeds to our mother earth, to take care of our environment. It’s heartening to note that the Sarawak Tourism Board has taken the government’s campaign seriously. ”

The minister continues, “We are proud to have the world’s oldest rain-forest that we have custody over. We are serious at promoting Sarawak as an eco-destination – this beautiful land where adventure lives.”

A beautiful setting for “my tree” to grow!

Arriving in Kuching a couple of days before the Rainforest World Music Festival I was, for one day, able to join a group of international concert promoters and journalists who were in the city for their first world music business conference and expo. It seems this was successful for many of the artists featured with their diaries filling up with dates to perform in other places.

expo IMG_2464

expo IMG_2474

The consensus from knowledgeable music people there (and I’m not one of them!) seemed to be that the local, traditional, music scene was creatively rich but needed support to present themselves professionally and that this expo, and the contacts made, will advance that. Good luck to them all!





Note, talking culture; the letter K at the end of a

Malaysian word, such as Sarawak, is always silent!

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