This is a 5 part series that showcases my experiences at the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) and also what I did in the city of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
Part 1 – Introduction to Sarawak and its RWMF
Sarawak is one of Malaysia’s 13 states and it lies around 1000 km to the East of peninsular Malaysia with the South China sea in between. It is the largest state of the country and nearly equals peninsular Malaysia in size.
It is located on the North West coast of the island of Borneo, with the South China sea lapping at its enchanting shores.
This is also the land of dense rainforests and stunning landscapes, that hold within their mysterious interiors, an exotic collection of flora and fauna. Sarawak holds the largest cover of rainforests in Malaysia with lowland forests towards the coast and mountain rain forests in the interiors.
The Rainforest World Music Festival is conducted annually (typically in June or July or August) near Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Started in 1998, this is now its 21st edition.
It is a one of its kind 3 day event that brings to us local and tribal musicians and bands and also those from the world over. It showcases lesser known indigenous traditional instruments from several lands, including of course the ubiquitous Sape (pronounced Sap-eh), which is a traditional lute made from a single piece of wood and is very popular in this region among the ethnic performers of Sarawak and the entire island of Borneo in general.
I was invited by the Sarawak Tourism Board to attend this event and thanks to them I had the experience of a lifetime !!!
About the RWMF –
The RWMF is a 3 day cultural and musical extravaganza made up of a series of events that include day time cultural performances, wellness and music related educative workshops and educational sessions for children, followed by dazzling musical performances in the evenings.
Also showcased at the venue are traditional arts and crafts, stalls selling festival memorabilia, Sarawak souvenirs and CDs of the performing artists.
Of course as everywhere else in the land, there is no dearth of food and drink and one is simply spoiled for choice at the various food courts and stalls.
People visit this festival from all over the world, sometimes making travel plans a year in advance.
This year had performers and artistes representing around 27 nations including Russia, USA, China, India, Serbia, Spain, Poland, Tunisia, etc
This cool (or should I say Curl) T shirt souvenir from Rip Curl, had a list of countries printed on the back.
The theme this time, was Awakening of the Rainforest and the logo was created to represent the modern and the ancient, with a Iban tribesman wearing Head phones, which I thought was quite brilliant !!!
The number of visitors has only increased over the years and estimated at 20,000 this year.
Songlines Magazine has listed this as one of the Top 25 International festivals.
Venue of the RWMF –
The Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), the venue that hosts the RWMF, snuggles up to the base of Mount Santubong in the midst of a true blue or should I say ‘true green’ rainforest. A perfect setting that matches the indigenous theme and gives visitors a true feel of the flavor of Sarawak.
This year due to an estimated increase in the number of visitors, Damai Central, an event center which lies opposite to the SCV, was also included as a part of the venue and housed performance areas like the Big Tent and Amphitheater and also had exhibitions areas for the art and craft stalls. It also had its own food court. Hugging the coast of the South China Sea, this also offered a scenic vantage point from where the sunset could be viewed.
About the Sarawak Cultural Village –
The is SCV situated near Damai beach (Pantai Damai) and is a 17 acre mini Sarawak which attempts to showcase the culture of the state by creating life size replicas of actual settlements of some of the major tribes. Called the ‘Living museum’, this is like a one stop cultural shop where one can visit the longhouses (traditional settlements) of the tribes of the Iban, Orang Ulu, Bidayuh, Melanau and also a Malay Townhouse and Chinese Farmhouse, all in one location. The resident villagers showcase their art and handicrafts like weaving and wood carving and there are also cultural performances in traditional attire, for the entertainment of visitors.
There are restaurants and guesthouses for the comfort of tourists.
The SCV has also served as the venue for the RMWF in the previous years.
Situated around 35 km north of Kuching at Damai near the beach, it takes around 40 min to get here from the city center. There is a bus shuttle service that operates to and from the city. Cabs can be hailed using the Grab app. Roads are excellent and the journey is scenic, with the Mount Santubong (whose peak looks like the profile of a human face) and river Sarawak offering you gorgeous glimpses of themselves from various points along the drive.
Map of the Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV) –
A few pointers about the RWMF –
Schedule of performances –
There is a well crafted schedule of performances, coded alphabetically to indicate the nature of the event and colored uniformly for easy recognition.
For example the C’s stand for Cultural snippets and are all colored pink.
The F’s indicate Film screening, K is for Kiddie programs, L for (sape) Lessons, M for Mini sessions, P for performances and W for Wellness and lifestyle.
Printed schedules are available but they can also be downloaded in advance in order to plan one’s viewing strategy 😀 since there are so many simultaneous events and one has to prioritize carefully.
One can take advantage of the various workshops that include Sape lessons, belly dancing, line dancing, martial arts, yoga, reiki, meditation, pain management etc.
There are also sessions and activities for children like body painting, story telling and dance.
There are also cultural exhibitions and films to view, that showcase the traditions of the region.
One can take part in Interactive sessions like traditional dancing or also volunteer to be the prey in the dance of the head hunter 😀
Main and mini performances –
The mini performances take place from morning till evening at various venues but the evening is owned by the electrifying and scintillating main stage shows that have the crowds delirious with excitement and thoroughly revelling in the action.
Food and drink –
The people of Sarawak love their food (which is why I love them 😀 ) and eating and drinking options are mind boggling in the various food courts that abound on the venue during the festival. One has a choice of various local tribal cuisines as well as those of Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan etc and 3 days is most insufficient to sample even half of them.
Though most of the food is non vegetarian, vegetarians will not go hungry as there are a few options for them too, albeit limited.
The Restaurant Budaya near the entrance, serves a substantial buffet spread and they also have a wide choice of chilled beverages and thankfully an air conditioned dining section too.
What to wear –
There are no dress codes and the authorities are most sensible in permitting people to wear whatever is comfortable. The hot and humid climate is not conducive for overdressing or even basic dressing and one would be wise to use as light an attire as possible. Light cotton tops with shorts and easy footwear, will go a long way in taking one comfortably through the several hours of the festival. Evenings though not sunny, are still warm and sticky, so the same attire works.
Sleeveless tops also help show off tattoos which would otherwise be hidden 😀 Especially Cat tattoos which are so Cat’racteristic of Kuching, which is called the cat city (Photo clicked with permission of the owner of the shoulder 😀 )
Carry a raincoat or umbrella and also a cap and sunglasses.
Protection against insects and rain –
We were advised to carry mosquito repellent cream but I must say that we did not find a single mosquito. Ok there was just one but we promptly annihilated it 😀
However, it pays to play safe and protect oneself just in case.
We were also warned of rain (rain … forest – get the connection ?) but the rain gods held back and there was not a drop during the 3 days of the festival. Lucky or not is a matter of opinion because though the rains might have disrupted performances, they would have also brought down the temperatures and created some drama.
General Tips –
Food and drink is not permitted from outside and there is strict checking at the entrance. At most they will let you take in one bottle of water if you give them a sufficiently dehydrated pleading look.
Bring sufficient cash (only Malaysian ringgit RM is accepted). There are no ATMs.
Bring your own folding chairs or mats if you wish to sit during performances. Or else it is the lawn or the ground that will seat you, depending on the venue.
There is limited parking and early visitors will have an advantage.
There are washrooms at a few locations and while some of them are clean (and exhort the visitor to maintain hygiene), some of them can get a bit messy as the day goes by, due to the sheer number of people using them. Carry your own toilet paper/tissues etc.
Local people do use their private vehicles but after a point, parking does become an issue with long lines of cars awaiting space.
Shuttle buses ply from various points in the city to the venue and the schedule is available here. This year free shuttle services were offered to those who held a festival ticket. However, the lines can be dreadfully long and it may be quite a while before you get transport back.
Grab a cab or Grab a Grab … Grab being the Cab service app in Kuching. They usually have offers during festivals when they are the transport partners.
I also did notice metered taxis in Kuching city center but I am not sure how they work.
One can also approach fixed fare taxi counters at the venue.
There are very few resorts in Damai and they tend to get sold out very early. Besides they are usually booked up in advance to accommodate media, artistes etc.
Damai Beach resort is one of them and the convention hall and other facilities were used by the Sarawak Tourism Board for the duration of the festival. This is walking distance from the SCV.
There are plenty of hotels in Kuching city to suit all budgets. It will also be advantageous to stay in the heart of the city near the waterfront because there is more activity there than at Damai. We stayed at the Hotel Abell very close to the waterfront.
Tents can be booked in advance and pitched on the camping site of Damai Central next to the SCV for the duration of the festival. They cost around RM100 per night. This is a great option for those who want to spend maximum time at the venue.
Other activities at the venue –
Go kayaking in the water body at the heart of the SCV.
Get a tattoo and braid your hair into dreadlocks to look really funky. Or find someone who has been braver than you and take a picture of them 😀
After walking your legs off in the heat, go in for some foot Reflexology administered by the visually impaired.
Admire the colorful sago palm beads and support the local enterprise by buying some of the bead jewelry, as you listen to the story of how they are made from an amalgamation of the pith of the palm and clay and stained into the colors that resonate with the indigenous fruit of the region.
Pick up some healthy cooking ingredients like the organic red rice of the Bario highlands or some ready to eat traditional snacks. Or better still, model for them 😀
Check out the traditional crafts at the craft hub and join in some of the workshops on local crafts. Or buy some brightly colored batik T shirts.
There is a helpful Lost and Found counter near the entrance which also has a banner that helpfully teaches you how to say ‘How are you’ in various tribal dialects, while you hopefully await a retrieval of your lost items 😀
There is a free mobile medical care clinic parked between SCV and Damai Central, which I assumed was to provide first aid facilities.
Volunteer program –
The RWMF offers a volunteer program that is devised to provide students from local universities, a learning platform on the various operational aspects that are involved in organizing events.
They also have the advantage of being provided with an allowance, the festival souvenir T-Shirt, free entry, transportation and lodging in the vicinity of the venue.
Environment sensitivity –
Sarawak is a very environmentally responsible place and the people are acutely conscious about safeguarding the ecosystem.
The festival rules require vendors to use eco friendly ware and implement waste management programs.
With the guidance of a social enterprise called Biji Biji, they had installed recycling and food waste bins at several points in the venue and they personally made sure that everyone adhered to the system. The collected and segregated waste would then be disposed off or upcycled in a way that utilized it optimally. For eg the previous year’s banners were transformed into bags to package this years souvenirs … and other such creative reuse of waste.
Tickets are indicated on the website and there are early bird discounts and family packages etc. for advance bookings.
Tickets can be purchased online or at Shuttle bus stops or at the venue.
There are also extended touring packages to be purchased from tour operators if you wish to prolong your stay and take in some of the sights of Sarawak before you leave, which is a really good idea because Sarawak has an amazing time to offer.
Keep an eye on the official rwmf website for the announcement of next year’s tickets for the 2019 festival scheduled for the weekend of Jul 12th-14th, 2019.
Getting to Kuching from Kuala Lumpur –
There are over 20 flights in a day, that connect Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. One can choose between Air Asia, Malaysian Airlines, Malindo Air which operate direct flights. There are also connecting flights from other airports like Singapore etc.
My flights –
There are no direct flights to Kuching from Bangalore, India. I flew Malaysian Airlines from Bangalore to Kuala Lumpur and switched to Malindo Air from KL to Kuching. Both flights used KLIA-1 (KLIA-M, the main terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport)
On the return journey, I flew Air Asia on both sectors. These flights operate via the KLIA-2 terminal.
My travel dates – July 11th-16th, 2018
RWMF dates – July 13th-15th (Fri-Sun), 2018
Please Note – I visited Kuching and attended the festival, on the invitation of the Sarawak Tourism Board and Tourism Malaysia, which sponsored my flights, stay and related activities and I thank them for the same. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.