It's a jungle out there

Among predatory plants and comic-book monkeys, Craig Tansley hears tall tales in Sarawak.

'This is the spot just there, just there." Khalik is pointing at an unremarkable spot in the mangroves but the guide's excitement makes his voice waver; I can't help noticing his hand is shaking as he thrusts it near my face.

Ten metres above us, a rare male proboscis monkey honks in annoyance at our trespass. He's staring at us, his huge red nose blazing, and I can sense the whole colony waiting for us to pass.

"The monkey was sitting there being a monkey," Khalik continues (which makes me wonder what else a monkey can be). "And this snake, he came up behind him and swallowed him. He was a big monkey, too, a male, but that snake was big, really big, maybe four metres or more. I said to him: 'OK, you have the monkey."'

I stare at the monkey above us and imagine a snake big enough to eat him whole. I move a step closer to Khalik. "Are there many of these snakes around?" I ask.

"Oh some, some," he says. I'm not sure if Khalik is trying to scare me but it's the second murderous reptile story he's told and I've been in Sarawak for scarcely an hour. Already we've seen the country's most dangerous snake, the pit viper, slither along our path.

We're in Bako National Park on the fringes of Sarawak's capital city, Kuching. On our way here Khalik pointed out the spot where a boy was taken by a crocodile. "The little brother was sitting on the big brother's shoulders," he tells me as we motor past the scene. "But the crocodile wasn't interested in the boy in the water, he wanted the boy on his shoulders because he thought he was a monkey. He goes 'bam!"' Khalik lunges at me, nearly knocking me off my feet.

"It struck him three times then took him under. He had no chance, that little brother."

Borneo is one of Earth's few remaining wildernesses. The name itself is enough to conjure fantasies of jungles and the beasts that roam and kill in them. But two previous visits to Sabah – the other half of Malaysian Borneo – had chipped away at my illusions. I wouldn't go as far as to say I was disappointed; Sabah is beautiful but it has been conquered by a million package-holiday tourists searching for the new Bali.

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When you land in Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, you can be on a jet ski or banana boat or parasailing from behind a stinky speedboat within half an hour. I'm not sure you can ride a jet ski anywhere in Sarawak, and within 30 minutes' drive of the airport you can be swallowed whole by a giant snake. Now that's my kind of holiday.

There are plenty of Australians on package holidays in Kota Kinabalu but the only Australians I meet in Sarawak have drifted here after months of tough travel through India and Nepal; they seem a different breed of traveller entirely.

However, Sarawak is also attractive to those who like their creature comforts. Approaching Sarawak International Airport, I predict a third-world country and scribble in my notes: "Approaching Borneo. Certain mystique. Looks stinking hot and wild. Not much to see but jungle." But I discover something entirely different. Sure, there's jungle creeping at you from all directions and it's steaming under an equatorial sun. But on the edges of all that wild jungle, Sarawak appears neat and tidy, like someone has come through with a broom and vacuum cleaner.

There's an affluence and a tidiness I haven't found in many other parts of Asia. It feels good and wholesome, a little like the Polynesia of my childhood. Pigs, chickens and dogs wander on trimmed lawns and among hedges in pretty villages not far from Kuching. People are prone to pulling out guitars and serenading travellers; I meet people with big booming laughs and easy smiles that make you want to spend time with them. Sarawakians appear to be a contented people; quite clearly, they live in paradise.

This paradise has the following attributes: a 750-kilometre coastline with very little tourist development; 8.7 million hectares of rainforest (three quarters of Sarawak's surface area, although it has been well documented that much of this forest area has been logged); some of the world's rarest and most unusual flora and fauna, including the aforementioned proboscis monkey, found only here in Borneo, and the orang-utan, found only in Borneo and Sumatra; and a multicultural people from 40 sub-ethnic groups – the largest of which, the Iban people, used to be the most feared headhunters in all of Borneo. (Depending on who you listen to, some of them can still be found practising their talents in the deepest, darkest corners of the country.)

Paradise should have a colourful history and Sarawak doesn't disappoint. Sarawak's political history is incomplete as written records weren't kept but it is known that Chinese traders came to Sarawak for nearly 2000 years. The Sultan of Brunei, who ruled Sarawak from afar, appointed a rajah to rule in the 15th century. In 1841 the people of Sarawak revolted and the country plunged into near anarchy; in desperation, the Sultan of Brunei asked British explorer James Brooke for assistance. When order was restored the country's government was signed over to Brooke – the infamous White Rajah. His family ruled Sarawak for 100 years, until the Japanese invaded and took control in 1941.

Australian army forces wrested control from the Japanese in 1945 and it was handed to the British in 1946. Independence from the British was declared in 1963 and Sarawak became the largest state of the Federation of Malaysia (neighbouring Sabah is the second largest).

You can still see evidence of British rule in Kuching, a colonial city often described as one of the most attractive cities in South-East Asia. It escaped the destruction wreaked on Kota Kinabalu during World War II and is a favourite in Hollywood; Kuching has been the backdrop to several movies, including Farewell to the King starring Nick Nolte.

But in a country blessed with natural beauty, spending time in a city makes no sense to me. I enjoy the fact it takes no longer than 15 minutes in a car to find solitude and wildness.

Bako National Park spans 2727 hectares of secluded beaches, rock formations, wildlife and waterfalls – only 45 minutes by boat and car from Kuching – yet it is probably the best place in Sarawak to see wildlife and the wildlife you'll see is some of the most exotic and rarest in all of Borneo.

Only a handful of tourists choose to stay in very basic lodgings in the park. So we're alone with the mosquitoes when we rise at dawn to wait for proboscis monkeys to come down beside us to feed on the leaves of mangrove trees. In the dawn there are just five of us, but come nine o'clock the day-trippers arrive. Even so, it's a temporary distraction. The forest seems to swallow intruders.

In Bako you can see almost every type of vegetation found in Borneo; in fact, there are seven complete ecosystems here and on some walks you pass through every one of them. Like seemingly everything else in Borneo, the park's carnivorous plants are capable of killing. Pitcher plants drown their food, bladderworts trap them and sundews have sticky tentacles that help devour insects. Yet within a few minutes' walk, the lushness can give way to dry plains.

After roughing it at Bako, we stay high up in a luxury treehouse at Permai Rainforest Resort, bordering the South China Sea and Bako National Park, a 30-minute drive from Kuching. Here it's possible to live like a monkey in the forest canopy, where it's a little cooler than the forest floor and you can see for miles across a blue sea. At night I sit on my balcony and listen to the creatures of the forest hunting for dinner.

A few days later we experience village life at Mongkos Longhouse, a 50-kilometre drive from Kuching, during the region's biggest celebration, Gawai Dayak. It's a celebration of the end of the region's rice harvest and seems as good an excuse for a party as I've seen. While women prepare food for the masses, men start early on rice wine while playing traditional gong music on bamboo flutes. Nothing seems to please them more than watching us pucker our faces after sipping the foul-tasting wine. But it's not just the alcohol making everyone smile; there's something about the sense of order and strong community bond here among the longhouses that feels utopian.

Once my hangover subsides (rice wine drunk in high humidity can reduce even the strongest to tears), I head west into Sarawak's highlands. While the jungle steams, up here the temperature can drop at night to a bearable 15 degrees and you can see over the highlands to Indonesia's Kalimantan, 1000 metres or so below. It was in this region in the 1960s that local forces repelled Indonesians determined to take over Sarawak.

The Borneo Highlands Retreat seems as far from a war zone as you could imagine. It's an unassuming eco-resort, just an hour's drive south-west of Kuching, built within one of the world's oldest – and its second largest – tropical rainforests. There's a calmness about life up here, especially in the mornings when the mist stays over the forest and a million creatures call out for attention.

The drive here is an adventure in itself. It winds past waterfalls and valleys of mist and trees with trunks as wide as a car, and must rate as one of the top scenic drives of Asia. There are walks to take and massages at the end of the day; there's even a golf course here. But the best thing is to have no agenda at all.

For me, Sarawak isn't so much a tourist destination as a sense of what all of South-East Asia could have been.

On a serene night cruise beside Permai Rainforest Resort, I feel for a moment the beating heart of this country. A thousand fireflies light up the trees towering above the mangroves – they call them Borneo's Christmas trees – and we glimpse the orange eyes of feeding crocodiles. The night sky is so clear that every star has high definition and it's so quiet I can hear my heart beating – even the cicadas are silent.

Then someone's mobile phone rings and spoils the moment and I wonder if any place can remain so perfect for long.

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur for about $876 (low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax). Australians do not require a visa for a stay of up to three months.

Touring there

Masama JS Adventure Tours has packages including transfers, accommodation and tours to attractions; see masamaborneo.com.

Stay in a treehouse at Permai Rainforest Resort, rooms from $95 a night; see permairainforest.com. Borneo Highlands Resort has hotel-style rooms for two-night stays from $388; see borneohighlands.com.my. Bako National Park has several accommodation options. Rent a two-bedroom hut from $51 a night or stay in a dorm with bunks from $5 a night; see ebooking.com.my.

For more information see www.tourism.gov.my or sarawaktourism.com.

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