Get some peace and quiet in Bintulu
Quiet coastal town in Sarawak has its share of charming urban and rural attractions
On the lookout for your next weekend getaway but tired of the usual suspects like Bintan or Phuket?
Consider Bintulu on the island of Borneo, in the central region of Sarawak, Malaysia.
With AirAsia's launch of a direct flight from Singapore to Bintulu in December, the quaint coastal town is a good destination off the beaten path.
With a population of just over 100,000, it is perfect for a short break for city dwellers.
Bintulu is home to some of Malaysia's best national parks - including the Similajau National Park, which is a 30-minute drive from Bintulu town.
Similajau National Park is a wonderful place for a hike. There are several different trails of varying lengths and difficulties in the park - you can explore the mangroves or walk by the beach.
Although my trip through the mangroves was cut short by a sudden rainstorm, on a drier day, the park can be extremely enticing with its lush greenery.
Bird and animal watchers will also be spoiled for choice. The park is home to 24 species of mammals and 185 species of birds.
If you are interested, you can approach park rangers to ask about crocodile-spotting trips.
While there has never been an attack in the park, visitors are strongly advised not to approach crocodiles on their own.
If you head out to sea, beyond the coast of the park, you may be lucky enough to spot some of the indigenous dolphins.
BAKUN LAKE AND JELATONGS
Three hours away from Bintulu is Bakun Lake, which is about the size of Singapore.
Taking a boat out is a treat.
The expansive waters are clear and surrounded by rich greenery. I even saw a proboscis monkey in the trees although it disappeared before I could snap a photo.
A smattering of jelatongs, or floating houses, dot the lake, and although most were under construction during the visit, it was an interesting sight.
You need a security clearance to visit the Bakun jetty, but the folks at the Uma Belor longhouse can help arrange it for you.
LIVING LIKE A LOCAL
For those who want to get up close and personal with the local culture, you can spend a night or two in a longhouse.
I stayed at the Uma Belor longhouse in Sungei Asap, about a 21/2-hour drive away from Bintulu town.
The longhouse, which consists of seven connected blocks, can hold up to 700 members of the Kayan tribe - one of the largest ethnic groups in the area.
At night, members of the community from different families gather on the shared balconies to chat and drink tea.
I was treated to home-cooked dinners and was taught traditional songs and dances, accompanied by the sape - a musical instrument resembling a lute.
The longhouse does have modern amenities, such as showers and bathrooms, but touches of the past still remain - masks, headgear and costumes adorn its wooden walls.
EXPLORING THE TOWN
If you prefer something more urban, check out Bintulu town itself.
Local markets such as Pasar Tamu and Pasar Utama sellfresh local produce, snacks and delicacies.
This is where you can get Bintulu belachan - the town's version of the spicy shrimp paste.
You can also visit the town's famed Tua Pek Kong Temple for a cultural experience.
At night, there are numerous markets where you can get cheap Nonya kueh - RM1 (35 Singapore cents) for three pieces - and other local food.
Because of how quiet the town is - its airport has only four boarding gates - Bintulu is often overlooked in favour of more well-known places like Penang or Malacca.
But give it a try, its quaint charm may just win you over.