Sarawak’s Santubong Peninsula, just outside of Kuching, was a thriving international trading port long before the establishment of Sarawak itself. Nowadays, the peninsula is most famous for the outstanding Sarawak Cultural Village, an open-air museum where visitors can learn all about the province’s ethnic groups. But beyond the museum, the peninsula is home to a number of ancient cultural and archaeological treasures. That is, if you know where to look.
I messaged a Grab driver that I met the week before to see if he’d be able to take me around the peninsula for a few hours. We agreed on a price, and he was also excited to see the sites himself. Despite being born and raised in Kuching, he’d never been to any of them before. With a little trouble along the way, we ended up managing to find them all. While each individual site may not be worth going out of your way for on its own, seeing them all together makes for a fun excursion on your way to the Sarawak Cultural Village.
Note: Mt. Santubong (or Gunung Santubong, as it’s locally known) can be climbed as its own day trip. The following guide, however, only covers attractions around the Santubong peninsula, and not the mountain itself.
Unfortunately, a number of the locations listed below don’t even appear at all on Google Maps. They’re all on or just off of Jalan Sultan Tengah, however. If you go with a local then you should be able to find most of them.
Tomb of Sultan Tengah
First up on the itinerary was the tomb of Sultan Tengah, who took the throne in 1599. He was, in fact, the only Sultan of Sarawak ever. At the time, Sarawak was administered by Brunei, and Tengah was the son of Brunei’s third ever sultan.
But in the middle of his reign, he got shipwrecked on the coast of Sukadana (now Indonesian Borneo). He started a family there but never made it back to Sarawak. Following his death, his body was taken to Santubong and he was laid to rest in 1641.
Before his departure, Sultan Tengah appointed four state ministers to govern Sarawak, and they remained in power following his death. No sultan would replace Tengah, however, and Sarawak returned to direct Bruneian control. In fact, things remained this way all the way until James Brooke‘s arrival in the 19th century.
This is a well-preserved mausoleum that represents an interesting piece of Sarawak’s history. And the structure itself is pretty interesting to look at. Entrance is free, and you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself during your visit.
Batu Bergambar is one of the area’s most mysterious sites. Scattered among the grass are a number of large rock carvings that indicate an ancient foreign presence in the area. Furthermore, iron from China and pieces of glass from West Asia were once found around here. Researchers believe that they may be as old as 1000 AD. Chinese traders, in fact, were present in Santubong from as early as 900.
While the area is well known by local historians and archaeologists, Batu Bergambar is well off the tourist trail – literally!
To get to the rocks, you’ll need to walk through unkempt grass and tall weeds. And that’s if you can even find the place to begin with! Seeing a small sign, we turned left only to find nothing but a small construction site and a big pile of mud. And so we went back to the main road and kept searching.
But to no avail. Eventually, we realized the original road was probably the correct one. We asked the construction workers who told us that we’d had to drive through the mud and keep going straight until we found it.
Finally arriving at the site, we were disappointed to see that a number of rocks had no obvious carvings at all. Perhaps they’ve weathered over the years, or maybe you need to see them under certain lighting conditions. We kept walking around until we came across one rock with a smiley face above a simple figure. The childish carving was seemingly etched with a simple tool.
But nearby was the most impressive carving of all – a large three-dimensional carving of a man. The figures are said to be of Hindu origin, but it’s not entirely clear which mythological figures they represent.
Is Batu Bergambar worth going out of your way for? It can be, if you consider the journey there as part of the adventure. But hopefully, this area gets cleaned up in the near future (along with better signage) for more people to enjoy.
The next archaeological site was closer to the main road and easier to find. But taking a peek inside the structure, I really had no idea what I was looking at. There was no informational signboard anywhere, either. I’d read that this was where an important Hindu artifact was found, but there was nothing inside. Nevertheless, the site seems to have some type of sacred significance for locals.
I later learned that the artifact itself is kept in the Sarawak Museum, which was unfortunately closed during my visit. In fact, there were a number of small artifacts discovered here, and the spot is believed to have once been a shrine. The items include a silver box and carved figurines.
With that in mind, a stopover here would surely be much more interesting after seeing the artifacts at the museum.
The Batu Buaya Crocodile Stone
Next we headed over to the beach to find the Batu Buaya, or ‘Crocodile Stone.’ According to legend, a giant crocodile used to terrorize residents of a small inland village. Though locals tried to kill it many times, it was not only huge, but had magical powers that could fend off any attack.
Eventually, though, a warrior named Panglima Merpati Jepang came to save the day. The hero was able to defeat the crocodile by severing its head, which floated down the Sarawak River and ended up on the coast. The head eventually turned into a rock, which remains on the beach to this day.
Walking along the beach, it wasn’t exactly clear which rock was supposed to be the crocodile head. In fact, there were more than a few likely candidates! In any case, the area was gorgeous. And turning around, one could get a scenic view of Mt. Santubong’s misty peak.
Unsurprisingly, the mountain itself is the centerpiece of another local legend. As the story goes, two goddess sisters, Princess Santubong and Princess Sejinjang came down to earth to live amongst the people. Santubong was the prettier and more popular of the two. Sejinjang, who was not as pretty, grew extremely jealous and hit her sister in the head while they were back up in the heavens.
Santubong fell down from the sky, forming the mountain we see today. But Santubong threw a counterattack just before she died, breaking apart Sejinjang’s body. This is how the small islands across from the peninsula were created. Supposedly, one of them is Monkey Island, the location of Princess Sejinjang’s head!
Sarawak Cultural Village
Next, it was finally time to check out the Sarawak Cultural Village. Up to this point, a number of locals I’d met told me it was the top attraction in all of Kuching, so my expectations were high.
The Sarawak Cultural Village is a 17-acre open-air museum with replica houses of each of Sarawak’s native ethnic groups. Before your visit, though, understand what it is and what it isn’t. The place markets itself as a ‘Living Museum,’ which is not entirely accurate. Nobody lives here, and all the staff members go home for the day after closing time. Therefore, it can’t really beat the experience of visiting an actual tribal longhouse such as Annah Rais.
But going around the province and to the depths of the jungles to encounter each of these tribes would be incredibly time consuming, if not impossible. The Sarawak Cultural Village, then, is the next best thing. And while they may not be permanent residents, members of each group are on hand to demonstrate crafts making, weaving or traditional household games. At some of the houses, you even have the chance to buy some local snacks.
Tickets are on the pricey side at RM60 per person. But that also includes access to a dance performance which takes place twice daily (11:30 and 16:00). Admittedly, I’m not normally one to go out of my way to see these cultural performances put on just for tourists. But since I arrived just as the morning show was about to start, I thought I’d go and have a look anyway.
And boy was I glad I did. The show was excellent. Different groups took turns on the stage demonstrating local dances, which were very well choreographed. But they weren’t just dances – some of the performances involved some pretty impressive acrobatic feats.
One of the highlights of the show was when a man (Orang Ulu, I believe) demonstrated his blowdart skills, shooting a series of balloons placed high above the stage. Afterward, without saying a word, he managed to get some crowd participation going and make everyone laugh with some silent comedy. You’ll have to see what I mean for yourself.
After lunch, I set out to explore each of the replica houses. When you buy your ticket, they even give you a little custom “passport” which you can get stamped at each exhibit, which is a very nice touch.
The Bidayuh account for over 8% of Sarawak’s population and have traditionally lived in mountainous regions. Typically, all families of a single group lived (or still live) in longhouses, which are long wooden communal compounds. These structures were also built on stilts to prevent flooding.
Also in the Bidayuh portion of the museum is a cone-shaped hut. In fact, it’s this design that the New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building was based on. Inside is a display stand on which Bidayuh headhunters would traditionally put their skulls (learn more here). But as there are no actual skulls here, you’ll have to visit a real Bidayuh dwelling place to see some.
The small Penan hut is much less elaborate than the other structures at the museum. But that’s because the Penan typically lived in the center of the forest, dwelling in these huts for just a few weeks before moving on. For much of their history, the Penan have adhered to a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But more recently, some tribes are settling down in the same spot permanently. In fact, visitors to Mulu National Park’s caves are brought to a Penan settlement to shop for local crafts.
The Penan are also known for being skilled with a blowpipe. At the hut, you can observe members of the tribe making traditional crafts, while a wooden path leads you to a scenic waterfall with a cafe out front.
The Iban make up around a third of Sarawak’s population. Like the Bidayuh, they’ve also commonly lived in longhouses, but riverside near the coast. Inside the replica longhouse at the museum you can find masks, traditional instruments, and crafts used in the Iban ‘Hornbill Festival.’
The Orang Ulu house is one of the most interesting of the complex. Native to the central part of Borneo, the Orang Ulu make up around 5% of Sarawak’s total population. They tend to live upriver, as implied by their name which means “upriver people.”
The group is skilled at both rice cultivation as well as sword making. Interestingly, Orang Ulu women would get themselves tattooed which was an indication of status.
The Melanau also make up around 5% of the province’s population. And like the Orang Ulu, they also constructed large houses. But the main difference between the Melanau and Sarawak’s other native groups is their preference for sago over rice. (Sago is a starchy food derived from tropical palm stems.)
Melanau culture also placed an importance on magical healing ceremonies. Depending on the type of illness, a healer would create a particular type of effigy out of wood and then send it down the river on a custom made little boat. The whole process would be accompanied by a special ceremony involving music and chanting.
This house is one of the more interesting ones, as even bedrooms have been set up just as Melanau families would traditionally sleep in them.
Next is the Malay house, which is an ornate structure similar to those left over from 19th-century Kuching. Malays make up the majority of Malaysia, but are still a minority in Sarawak itself.
Around the large house you can find a bedroom and even walk up to the attic. The large front room, meanwhile, was mainly designated for the entertainment of guests. Like others, traditional Malay houses were also built on stilts.
Chinese traders were among the very first to settle in Sarawak, and they continued to immigrate throughout the Brooke dynasty era. Though many were city-dwelling merchants, the structure as the Sarawak Cultural Village is a Chinese farmhouse. And it’s one of the only traditional houses at the museum that’s not on stilts. The house comprises of a thatched roof over whitewashed timber with an earthen floor inside.
Nearby, there’s also a Chinese-style pavilion that resembles a pagoda.
Around the Site
Whoever designed the museum did an excellent job with the landscaping. Everything surrounds a scenic little lake, and you’ll encounter some contemporary art sculptures here and there. There’s also an open-air music stage, though it’s not entirely clear when performances happen.
And if you plan to spend awhile at the village, don’t worry about food. There’s a restaurant on site which, quite fittingly, serves traditional cuisine from each of the ethnic groups featured here.
And while waiting for your shuttle back to town, head across the street to check out the Damai Beach. Nearby, you can also find a number of restaurants and shops.
Entry costs RM60 for adult, but if you buy a ticket in advance (either online or at a hotel) they’re RM50.
Getting to the Sarawak Cultural Village from central Kuching is easy. You can hop on a free shuttle bus that departs from the Grand Margherita Hotel and the Riverside Majestic Hotel. But the shuttle only leaves at 9:15am, 12:15 and 14:15. And the shuttle back to town leaves at 11:15am, 13:15 and 17:15.
The second musical performance of the day ends at 16:45. So if you intend to see the second performance and also take the shuttle back, be sure to do all your exploring before the performance begins at 16:00.
If you want to add in some of the archaeological and scenic spots mentioned above, you’ll have to hire a private driver. I am not aware of any particular services around Kuching, but I simply asked a Grab driver that I used the week prior. We’d exchanged contact info through the LINE messaging app, and decided on the Santubong itinerary and price by ourselves without using Grab again.
Luckily, the Grab drivers in Kuching speak excellent English and are quite personable. So it’s easy to get into a conversation with them about some of the lesser-known sites around town.
As exotic as a trip to Borneo may sound, Kuching is fairly easy to get to. There are plenty of flights between Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, which itself is reachable from all over the region thanks to being the main hub of AirAsia.
There are also direct flights between Kuching and Penang and Kota Kinabalu. Internationally, you can also fly between Kuching and Singapore as well as Pontianak, Indonesia.
Coming by bus, Kuching Sentral Terminal is very well connected to the rest of Sarawak.
One of the great things about Kuching is its size. If you’re staying in a relatively central part of the city, you can pretty much get everywhere on foot. Aside from the bridge, you can also take a boat for just 1 ringgit to get across the river.
If you’re in a hurry or need to get somewhere a little farther out of town like the central bus station, just download the ridesharing app called Grab. (Uber no longer exists in Southeast Asia, as Grab recently bought them out.)
Considering the city’s size, location isn’t incredibly important, as you’ll still be able to get most places on foot. Basically, aim for anywhere in between the Kuching City Mosque and the Cat Statue.
One popular place to stay is the Riverside Majestic Hotel, which is right across the street from the bus stop that takes you to Bako National Park. Otherwise, there are all sorts of options in Kuching, from luxury hotels to budget youth hostels.