Malaysia’s Rainforest World Music Festival: the coolest festival you’ve never even heard of

written by Bex Shapiro November 28, 2017
Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival

Think back on your most treasured musical memories, your favourite festival moments. Then imagine they took place in a literal rainforest in Borneo.

Too good to be true? Actually no, the festival we’re about to introduce you to is oh so real. And it’s even more spectacular than it sounds.

Welcome to Malaysia’s Rainforest World Music Festival, a three-day extravaganza that celebrates the diversity of world music.

Even better, it’s an event that you can now experience via Intrepid tour for the first time ever.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music FestivalHaving grown from an audience of 300 in 1998 (the festival’s first year) to an audience of 22,000 in 2017, it’s fair to say the magic is catching on. Not that that’s surprising. From renowned international musicians to indigenous Dayak performers of Borneo, from jamming sessions to interactive workshops, the festival has everything going for it.

And the 11-day trip you can visit it on is jam-packed with extra cool experiences. We’re talking local homestays with festival performers, visits to one of the world’s largest cave networks, opportunities to see Orangutans at the Semenggoh Sanctuary, and so much more.

Here’s everything you need to know about this once-in-a-lifetime festival.

What makes the festival so special?

The music

It’s hard to put into words quite how international and varied the performers are. International performers from the past include Shooglenifty from Scotland, Inka Marka from Australia, Shannon from Poland, Huun Hur Tu from Tuva and Borte from Mongolia.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music FestivalBut the true greatness lies in the fact that renowned musicians such as these perform right next to traditional nose flute musicians from Sarawak’s interior. There’s everything from traditional music to world fusion to contemporary world music. All wrapped up in one truly global festival.

The other offerings

There’s more to the festival than nightly shows. There’s wellness programs, jamming sessions, and hands-on workshops where the audience can learn how to play indigenous instruments. And when we say that acts and audiences tend to be from different walks of life, that’s no exaggeration. For starters, the festival is held in Sarawak’s rainforest which is home to 27 ethnic groups!

Pauline Lim of Sarawak’s Tourism Office hearteningly explains exactly why the festival is so special:

This festival is important as it is our belief that music brings people together – regardless of race and culture. The festival not only has different groups of performers – local and international – coming together to share their music but it also brings people of different cultures together to spend the weekend together. For some, it has become an annual meeting for them to enjoy the food, music and fun.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music FestivalThe 2018 lineup

The 2018 Rainforest World Music Festival will be bigger and better than ever before. So put July 13-15th in your calendar, because the range of traditional and world music offerings from local and international bands is like no other.

We’ve already explained why the festival is so much more than nightly shows. But how exactly does Intrepid make the experience even more unique? Let Andrea Dalton, Intrepid’s Destination Manager for Malaysia, tell you:

What makes this trip a true Intrepid trip is the homestay visit after the 3-day festival itself. Intrepid travellers are welcomed into the home of Matthew Ngau, a regular performer of the Sarawak Rainforest Music festival. Famous for his Sape playing, our travellers will get a chance to see how Matthew makes his Sape instrument (traditional lute) and if they are lucky enough they may even get the chance to play this unique instrument! There’s nothing like spending the night in the home of a local and learning what world music means to the people of Borneo.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival

The sape, a traditional lute of the Orang Ulu

What do you need to know before you go?

The setting

The festival itself is inside Sarawak Cultural Village which is 35km (22 miles) from Kuching and a few hundred meters away from the beach. (Yes, this does mean that the festival is in the coolest setting ever – a perfect mix of pristine rainforest and dreamy beach.)

Although many can and do spend all three days of the festival at the festival, that’s not to say you can’t have a wander. There’s a fringe festival that runs throughout Kuching offering both a change of pace and an array of other cultural events. Getting bored is basically an impossibility.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival

At the main festival

The food

The festival food on offer boasts everything from local to intercontinental foods. But as is pretty much always the case, food can be pricier inside the festival boundaries than outside of it. So, bear in mind that leaving Sarawak Cultural Village for a snack at the nearby food court might be a good choice. (Though you are not allowed to bring food and drink from outside back into the festival.)

Kuching, the starting point for the Intrepid trip, is famous for its Sarawak Laksa. This is a popular spicy noodle soup consisting of rice noodles, chicken, prawn or fish and usually coconut milk. No visit to the city is complete without it, so give it a try before or after the festival!

Laksa Kuching Malaysia

Laksa in Kuching

The essentials (to pack)

The 11-day festival trip is an action-packed one. Because you’ll be on the go a lot, and because there’s an internal flight with a maximum luggage allowance of 15kg, it’s worth trying to pack as lightly as possibly. (There WILL be some access to laundry facilities, though.)

It’s also worth nothing that although Malaysia is a liberal Muslim country, it’s still much more conservative than what you’re likely used to at home. So, skimpy clothing is a no-no (except when on the beach). When in Borneo, ensure you cover shoulders, cleavage and knees.

Here’s a list of essentials to pack: t-shirts, long-sleeved top, long cotton trousers, walking shoes/ hiking boots, strap-on sandals, flip flops, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent, travel towel, light rain jacket, swimming costume and small day pack.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival

Feel free to also bring yoga gear for the festival’s workshop!

Want more guidance? Here’s some more recommended items to bring with: personal medical kit, camera with charger, travel adapter, hand sanitiser, water bottle, money belt, water purification tablets, torch. Overall, try and also take a backpack or bag with shoulder strap (rather than wheelie bag) as well as a smaller, waterproof one (for trekking and boat rides).

Top festival packing tips from Jeremy Kwan, an Intrepid staffer in Malaysia and previous festival attendee:

It is a rain or shine event. So, it’s important you bring a rain poncho or coat and umbrella. It rained several nights in a row when I was there, so got pretty muddy. In addition to closed-toe shoes you should should bring sandals/ slippers and extra clothes.

Are there cool destinations and worthwhile sights nearby?

The Malaysian state of Sarawak is full of adventure and wildlife, stunning National Parks and welcoming locals. A must-see on any visit to Sarawak, Gunung Mulu National Park is simply stunning! A world heritage area, the natural beauty really is exceptional, the limestone cave systems that can be found here are simply amazing and the wooden walkways trails just shows the care this park has for the environment.

Gunung Mulu National Park

The caves of Gunung Mulu National Park

If you have any free time after the trip it’s worth taking a boat across to the many islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. A short boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu, an island visit will have you lazing on a lovely beach or, if you are up for adventure, flying on a zipline between two Islands! A perfect way to end a perfect trip.

Convinced yet? You should be. We asked Jeremy, the Malaysia-based Intrepid staffer and festival attendee, the best thing about the experience. His answer says it all:

The festival brings people around the world together. Music is life, life is music.

We so agree, Jeremy. See you there in 2018.

Ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s new 11-day Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival trip.

(Image credits: Sarawak Tourism Office x6, iStock/fbxx, Sarawak Tourism Office, iStock/zodebala.)

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