World music festival for your bucket-list: Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF
Damai Beach Resort beside the Sarawak Cultural Village and the RWMF

World-wide the music festival circuit is full of competitors looking to use our travel dollars to introduce and support local and international musicians and, of course, promote their area. Here’s a great one for your bucket list – either as a destination, or as a stopover or side trip while in Asia.

Heineken provided recycling bins & sponsorship
Heineken provided recycling bins & sponsorship
Part of the beautiful Cultural Village grounds used for the festival
Part of the beautiful Cultural Village grounds used for the festival

Let me introduce you to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival which is set wonderfully between a great beach and a rain-forest mountain peak in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. In the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village, 35 kilometres from Kuching, the two stages are nested among trees at the foot of the legendary Mount Santubong, and throughout the village screens are up so everyone has great views no matter where they are. I sat on the ground on the rise in front of the stage.

Talking to a couple of the music writing professionals while I’m at the 16th festival I’m told

  • Kate Welsman, from ‘The Good, The Dub & The Global’ on Australia’s largest community radio station, RRR  told me she was “gob-smacked with the phenomenal Rafly.
  • Will Hemes, senior critic for Rolling Stone, said of the festival (while he and I were on a bus trip around the city of Kuching) “While individually there are no big stars, collectively  and the setting makes it outstanding.”
  • And a writer (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten)  from Songlines said, at one of our press interviews, “Without a doubt this is the most spectacular festival I’ve ever been to. Never have I felt I learnt new things about cultures as while here.”

With praise such as these quotes from experts, all I can tell you is

  • What it was like to be a travel writer there. Fabulous!
  • Would I go again? Yes!
  • Would I recommend you add the festival to your bucket-list? Of course!
Will Hemes and i share lunch with another writer .. at the fabulous "Sunday Market"
Will Hemes and I share lunch with another writer .. at the fabulous “Sunday Market”


To quote from Will Hemes blog on NPR;

“ . . . many of its most stirring moments came from local musicians relegated to brief opening slots and afternoon workshop performances. There were the hypnotic hammered bamboo zithers (called “gongs”) built and played by Arthur Gorman and Madeeh, a group from a jungle-based Bidayuh tribal longhouse community about 65 kilometers from Kuching. There were soulful performances on the sape, the ornate lute that is the icon of Malaysian traditional music, by Matthew Ngau and Maya Green and a remarkable bit of Kayan nose-flute playing by the 71-year-old Juk Wan Emang.” See much more in his NPR blog here.


So who were my favourites?  Well I really liked about 85% of performances so will not go into detail as of course in 2014 the RWMF line-up will be different – although no doubt some favourites and locals be back on the calendar. (See this blog for more about the various groups from many parts of the world and here too and other blogs I’ve written about both the festival and Sarawak.)

rafly IMG_2624 (2)

The charismatic Rafly especially was great and carried the crowd with him and his band. He sings traditional songs (in his Aceh language) with modern instruments. Many of the songs are about rain-forests and mangroves. Interestingly, during his press interview, translated by a fellow band member, he talked about the 2004 December tsunami and how many of the so-called ‘quake-crazy’ reactions are now found to be alcohol and drug related.



use santubong
Santubong Mountain, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Author: Heather - the kiwi travel writer

Nomadic travel-writer, photographer, author & blogger. See more on and Amazon for my books (heather hapeta)

6 thoughts on “World music festival for your bucket-list: Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo”

  1. I am originally from Kuching and have heard lots about this festival. So glad you enjoyed the warm hospitality that is characteristic of my once sleepy town by the river.


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