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Venturing beyond the wild side
Take a longboat picnic to a black pepper garden / Pictures: Annette Tuncel

Say the word "Borneo" and images of orang-utans, jungle, head-hunters and rafflesia, the world's largest flower, come to mind. And for visitors to Sabah and Sarawak, the two Malaysian States of northern Borneo, it's fairly easy to see all of these - although obviously head-hunting is no longer practised and, in fact, Sabahans and Sarawakians are probably some of the friendliest people on the planet.

Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah, and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, are good places to start experiencing Borneo.

Kuching carries its past with it: the white colonial buildings from the Rajah Brooke era, the warehouses and market shophouses along the river bank and the Chinese section of the town centre. The Chinese began migrating to Sarawak in the 7th century and there's been a steady flow over the centuries.

Eating is a joy throughout Malaysia and regions often have specialties. Sarawak laksa is a spicy soup with noodles, prawns, chicken and bean sprouts. My daily journey along Carpenter Street, in the Chinese section of Kuching, begins with Sarawak laksa at the same simple cafe each day, followed by a climb to the rooftop Queen of Heaven temple next door, where an old Chinese man unsuccessfully tries to send me messages telepathically, then sighs and signals we'll be together in heaven but not on this earth.

Afterwards, at a table in a small red and gold cafe down on the street, Mr Wee Boo Yaw politely pours brown rice tea into small ceramic cups and chats while I munch one of his wife's sesame biscuits. On days when he is too busy, Mr Wee assigns one of his friends to chat. After this I am ready to explore.

"Sarawak is a land of mountains, of trees, and of water," wrote Ranee Margaret Brooke, wife of the Second White Rajah Charles Brooke, in her 1913 book My Life in Sarawak. The description continues to be apt today.

Sarawak has 17 national parks and Bako National Park, a day trip from Kuching, is a good place to see proboscis monkeys with their large noses and pot bellies. Going to see rafflesia, the world's biggest flower, in Gunung Gading National Park is also a day trip, though since each flower is only open for five days it's essential to check with the park beforehand as to whether a flower is open.

Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is another easy day trip and the place to see orang-utans. The orang-utans are semi-wild, living in the forest and choosing (or not) to return to the centre's feeding station morning and afternoon.

There are a number of indigenous tribes living in Sarawak and many live communally as extended families in longhouses. Some communities accept visitors and a stay in a longhouse is a memorable experience.

Tanjung Datu National Park offers a complete getaway. The park has accommodation, deserted beaches and walking tracks through the jungle. On a short guided walk, we hear and glimpse gibbons and silver-leaf and black- banded langurs.

A good reason to visit Kuching in June/July is the Rainforest World Music Festival, held each year at the Sarawak Cultural Village, Santubong, just outside Kuching. The festival is an opportunity to either be up close with instruments and music from around the world or just relax for three great days and nights of workshops and concerts. Songlines world music magazine has voted the festival one of the top 25 world music festivals for three years running.

Sabah at the north of Borneo isn't short of world-class attractions either - climbing Mt Kinabalu, one of South-East Asia's highest mountains, diving at Sipadan and the other islands out from Semporna, and the Kinabatangan River, where it's possible to see elephants, orang-utans and gibbons wild in the rainforest, plus proboscis and macaque monkeys, crocodiles and hornbills. Rafflesia flowers grow in Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve about an hour drive from Kota Kinabalu.

But there are also lesser known, simpler experiences. At the Gaya Street Sunday market in Kota Kinabalu (KK in local parlance), I queue for a foot massage offered by the Sabah Society for the Blind. When my turn comes I place my feet in the hands and lap of Mustafa and relax back. Mustafa also has another talent and soon is singing old favourites such as "Rock around the Clock". Between the songs he jokes with the other masseurs - we are all one big happy family and I leave with both my heart and feet feeling refreshed. The charm of KK grows with time and exploration, from the bustling cafes and colourful waterfront, to Gaya and the other islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park just a quick boat ride from the waterfront, past the village built on stilts over the water and onto the resorts and bays with clear water.

Village markets at small towns like Kudat or Kota Belud are a good opportunity to buy local handicrafts such as beadwork, embroidery and weaving produced by indigenous people.

The destructive hand of World War II is clear in Sabah. KK was destroyed twice by Allied bombing then rebuilt after the war in concrete functional architecture. Sandakan, a booming port on the north coast before the war, was also destroyed and rebuilt in a similar style. Japanese Imperial Forces occupied Borneo during WWII and Australian and British prisoners were transported to camps in Kuching and Sandakan after the fall of Singapore and peninsula Malaya in 1942.

Today Sandakan Memorial Park marks the PoW camp where Australian prisoners not only suffered great brutality and humiliation, but also showed courage and kindness.

The memorial park today is an island of tranquillity, offering joggers, strollers and lovers a temporary escape from the noise and bustle of Sandakan.

Each year more and more Australians are travelling to commemorate Anzac Day in Sabah at Sandakan, Kota Kinabalu and Labaun Island, where Australian soldiers are buried in Labuan War Cemetery.

"If you want wildlife, come to Borneo," a tour guide says to me during my travels in Borneo.

He's right, but that's just the start - there are also people, culture and history.

FACT FILE

In December, Malaysia Airlines reinstated weekly direct services between Perth and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. The non-stop service leaves Perth every Monday at 12.40am and arrives in Kota Kinabalu at 6.25am. The flight from Kota Kinabalu departs at 6pm every Sunday and arrives in Perth at 11.25pm the same day.

The flight is on a B737-800 with 160 leather seats - 16 in business class and 144 in economy. All seats have personalised in-flight entertainment systems.

These flights are in addition to Malaysia Airlines' 10 non-stop weekly flights between Perth and Kuala Lumpur.

malaysiaairlines .com and travel agents.

sarawaktourism.com, sabahtourism.com.