When the Hotel makes it all about The Kids

Let’s take a break from the Borneo Tales for a moment – We’ll call it an Intermission.¬†Mainly because something has come up in the newsfeed that has REALLY caught my interest.

Le Meridien has teamed up with LEGO and is now offering small LEGO packs for all children who stay in their hotels.

Meridien Duplo Meridien LEGO

Side note: Some of you may know my “Geeky Alter-Ego”, so ssssshhhhhh! But for you, it should come as no suprise that I went “LEGO?”, in the same manner that a meerkat goes “What was that?”

How serendipitous for this news – even though we are currently in the final days of planning our NZ trip, we are also in very early discussions about an island holiday somewhere for B’s 40th birthday. Perhaps somewhere with a Le Meridien…? ūüôā

Now, bonuses for the kids isn’t a new thing (though a partnership between LEGO and a non-LEGO hotel is). I’m not talking the standard Kids Club thing either.

Back in 2010, we were stayed at the Sofitel on Broadbeach (Gold Coast, Australia). It was nice. Really nice. Fortunately, it was also paid for by B’s work (conference). When we advised that 2 small children would be joining us, they easily allowed us to all co-sleep in the one room and gave a “Welcome Pack” to each of the boys. I can’t remember the details, but I do recall a cute teddy, a blanket and a book for bedtime. It was the first time we had experienced this and the kids LOVED it! As S said at the time, “it’s our room too!”

It seems like only a small thing but it is definitely a bonus to keep an eye out for. Many hotels are doing – Sofitel has since changed over to the Magnifique Experience, partnering with The Little Prince brand. We’ve already mentioned Le Meridien and LEGO (did I mention that there are two options: LEGO and Duplo?) and Novotel has Welcome gifts for kids staying in the Family Deals.

While this is all highly tempting (hello, Le Meridien Bora Bora), I have asked the kids what their favourites are.

Both S & N have come back to Kurakura Homestay and our upcoming Campervan (nicknamed TARDIS). Why?

“Because the best welcome gift was another kid to play with!! And TARDIS is going to take us SKIING!”

Sure, there is money in the marketing to kids. But I am glad to see that experience will still count for something too.

Have your kids received a “Welcome Pack” for being kids? Is it a selling point for you?

Share your stories in the comments! We love to hear from others!

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KK: Sabah State Museum

I know I have mentioned this before, but KK has really nailed the tourist vibe. Which can make for a really nice SE Asia holiday – if you are going for the cheap, not quite too-resorty vacation. But if you are looking for more experiences, cultural or adventure, then you need to hunt a bit further.

Not that I’m saying we really had to hunt for the Sabah State Museum – trust me, it’s easy enough to find. It’s more like, when you ask people about it they seem hesitant to say anything because it is not the usual tourist destination in KK. In fact, even some of the locals don’t know much about it because they aren’t asked about it a lot.

It’s not just one building of stuff – The museum is part of a large property that includes museums, displays, gardens, art galleries and a cultural village. The only thing it was missing was a decent cafe or street hawker.

The first building we went to was the Main Building, housing the largest whale skeleton in Malaysia. It also has Natural History, Ceramics (burial pots), Archaeology, and Cultural Heritage (costumes). The museum was under renovation when we visited and, by the look of many reviews I found online, had been for some time. And continues to be. Which might not be a bad thing (because they are updating and maintaining), but if you have ever been to the Napoli Museum you will understand how frustrating constant renovations are. There is always something closed and ongoing presumptions on what they think you want to see instead.
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So we moved onto the greater grounds. And they are fantastic! In the Science and Technology Centre, the boys got a kick out of playing with old television and radio equipment.

Make sure you also check out the art gallery – the boys also loved the flamboyant colours and beautiful images that kept true to the Borneo we had seen so far. The themed room upstairs also provided the opportunity for a bit of themed play with the kids, breaking up the monotony of the first building.

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Suspension bridge across the Lotus Pond

After a walk around the gardens (including the suspension bridge over the lotus pond), we visited the Heritage Village. Obviously not as impressive as the Sarawak set-up, but the traditional houses are lovely to check out at your own pace. These are also a bit more accessible for children to play – “Look Mum! I’m cooking dinner!”

Tip: As mentioned above, it would really benefit from a cafe or street vendor out front. Maybe there is one now (if you know, please share in the comments!) But otherwise, make sure you bring plenty of water and food, especially with little ones.

Our 5yo and 2yo really enjoyed it. Definitely worth a visit to round out your travels through Sabah. Even just for the change of perspective and the leisurely walk around the grounds.

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Sabah Cultural Village

North Borneo Railway

Sometimes, when I am researching/prepping for a holiday, I come across little gems that make me so excited… I worry about if they will live up to my expectation.

I cannot even remember where I initially heard about the Railway. It was a passing comment on a forum somewhere (maybe Travellers Point?) but it piqued my interest. A beautiful old steam train, in true colonial style, wandering down the original track of colonial days as it leaves the bustle of KK and takes you on a gentle exploration further afield… *sigh*DSC_0973

When I looked into it further, I found it had been decommissioned. ūüė¶ I was so disappointed – I knew the kids (particularly N) would love a train ride like this.

Then … rumours started to pop up. Someone was trying to revive the Railway. The Malaysian Government was in talks. Tourists were hearing chatter about “When you come back…”

About two months before we were to start our Borneo adventures, I finally found a website with more information!! The track was in desperate need of repair – and it seemed like the maintenance was taking forever. Would it be ready in time for our holiday? The anticipation was killing me!

The reason for all the to-ing and fro-ing was the “sale” of the Railway. Many years ago, the Railway experience was run by the Government, but the need for maintenance was outside of the budget. Where once there were daily treks, services soon depleted to every second day. Then twice a week. Eventually every 2nd weekend if there were enough people on the waiting list. Around 2009, it had pretty much stopped.

Until one of the big resorts, Sutera Harbour, purchased the Railway experience and gave it a complete make-over. And did a FANTASTIC job.  DSC_0967

Being organised by a Resort (and subsequently aimed at its own patrons), the North Borneo Railwaycomes with a price.¬†On face value, this trip was perfect for all of us – adults being able to sit and enjoy the scenery; children getting a kick out of the train ride (and scenery); and we were fed too! But¬†it is expensive – I found¬†a lot in KK is expensive, as it is aimed at the tourists. I even organised directly with the information desk – and it didn’t change anything. Consider this one of the “splurges” on the trip.

The train itself was beautiful. Definitely true to the Colonial style. Well decked out, nostalgic music being played and the staff are there for the patrons comfort. As the train was ready to depart, our station master rang his bell and the engine puffed slowly away. Refreshments were served almost immediately, so we sat back and sipped our lemon teas, passing by water villages, schools, and fields. DSC_0988

The view along the way is amazing – grab a seat on the East side of the carriage (left looking to the engine) as most of the interesting scenery is that side.

PENTAX Image

PENTAX Image

The train stops twice before returning. At the first stop, we took the Tour to a Chinese Temple. You walk back along the train tracks to the small Temple, beautiful in its presentation and feel. Make sure you wear appropriate shoes for this short walk, and bring a hat and sunglasses. It is really bright here and even this short walk is enough to drain you. Fortunately, there are refreshing towels when you return to the train.DSC_1038

After the Chinese Temple, we continued our journey further South to Papar, a small town wedged in the valley between Crocker Range and the coast. There is a great little park across from the train station for kids to run around, and further along are a few mini markets for ice-cream.

As we returned to the Station, we heard the whistle blow and saw the tell-tale steam rising overhead. Once again, refreshments served as soon as the train pulls out and a delicious Tiffin Set lunch was laid out before us.

The Steam Engine pulls you back the same way, so if you are sitting on the good side, you are still on the good side. If not, buddy up to the travellers in your carriage for a seat swap.

Couple of tips: Don’t bother being too early with kids – There is nothing else around the station and they will soon be bored. 9.30am is the best time to be there, grab good seats and grab a few photos.DSC_0964

S had a childrens ticket and N was complimentary. I was initially told that the seats are allocated with the tickets, but later learned (after watching others scrambling on for seats) that it was first in, best dressed. This left us sitting with all 4 at the same table, rather than 2 to a table like everyone else. Not a great problem (read: young/small kids) but it was noted and did effect the wait staff with service (often forgetting the extra food we were to have).
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Bring a little extra cash – any extra drinks bought on the train are charged at Resort rates.

Watch the gaps between the carriages and the platforms. 5yo just made it across.

It is an expensive splurge, but we enjoyed it as a whole family.

KK: Island Hopping

Kota Kinabalu (KK) was our bridging stay between the wilDSC_0927d of Kurakura and the wild of the upcoming Sepilok region. While we parked in KK, one of the big “must-do” items for B and the boys was ISLAND HOPPING.

We had read all about the fantastic diving/snorkelling spots around Sabah. We were warned, however, to avoid as many of the heavy tourist destinations – but that is pretty hard around KK.

The islands off KK are part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. It comprises of five recognised islands – Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik, and Sulug. The diving and snorkelling is supposed to be pretty good around here, but the touristy feel stretches to the islands as well. Gaya is HUGE with its own resort, and Manukan is pretty developed as well. We decided to chance it with two of the smaller islands – Mamutik and Sapi.

We headed DSC_0957to the jetty, hoping to find a group called Beach Bums who (reportedly Рfrom many travel forums) hire out sailing boats by the hour. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding them Рwe only found ourselves in the usual hub of tourists looking for boats to get out for the day. Alas, we purchased our standard tickets for speedboats and headed out.

The islands are beautiful, and the day was fantastic for being out in the water. A little hazy, but both heat and humidity were moderate. They even have real beaches, akin to Australia (not like the beach we found in the Cinque Terre region of Italy – pebble?!?)

But the snoIMG_0615rkelling – it was not all it had been hyped up to be. A lot of the designated areas allowed for snorkelling had been trodden on a fair bit; the visibility was fairly average in an area said to have crystal clear water. N’s camera was a water-proof kids camera so even though the quality of the images isn’t going to be top-range, the photos here are pretty spot-on to give you an¬†idea.

 

We started on Mamutik, the larger of the two. It has a number of designated snorkelling¬†and diving areas. You can attempt other areas but with a few “no go” zones scattered around the island, you better make sure you know exactly where you are going at all times. They have some pretty hefty penalties involved – including escorting off the island.DSC_0928

Mamutik also has a “day-tripper” feel to it. A number of the resorts have Mamutik as THEIR island for their guests. Tired of luxury by the pool or the air-conditioned comfort of your villa? Why not join a small group of guests on one of the many islands! I was lucky enough to chat to a few, including one family with kids the same age as ours. The mother was stunned that non-resort guests were allowed on the island with them. The father was more interested in how we were “roughing” it in the streets. Even though I explained many times how we were staying in a very nice hotel, he was more surprised we were willing to “risk our children’s health” by eating with street vendors and markets. That was until he realised we were spending the same amount per day that he was spending on one small family meal. And our kids were eating more.IMG_0598

After lunch we moved on to Sapi – it also has a little kiosk for food and drink, but I was very glad to have brought some of our own. Sapi’s snorkelling areas did have better visibility and fewer people there, but as the sun was going down it did tend to lose some of its ‘sparkle’. By this stage, N had finally started showing an interest in the water, but B and I were starting to tire.

IMG_0556My biggest problem with this part of the holiday is that I¬†spent my childhood Summers in North Queensland. Yes, I even had a cool grandfather with a boat to take us out to the Whitsunday Islands for fishing and swimming. Though, his attempts to teach me to snorkel were in vain – and probably what stopped him from teaching me how to surf. With these memories in mind, I was disappointed that the boys’ first experience wasn’t as outstanding. The Islands around KK are nice, but if you have the opportunity to snorkel around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia, do that instead.IMG_0579

Nevertheless, S had his first taste of snorkelling – riding on B’s back as they went searching for marine life. We all took turns with the camera and made the most of our island hopping experience.

Tips for future travellers: If you walk South of the jetty, back towards the markets, you will find another grouping of boats. The next night after our island-hopping, B had a wander down here and is almost certain he found the “locals jetty”, rather than the tourist hub. After speaking to a few other regular travellers in the area, this is the place you will find local boat operators willing to take you out the islands cheaper than the others, and possible with a more scenic tour thrown in. However, when negotiating, make sure you arrange for one of them to come and collect you at the right time and place.

In the Shadow of the Mountain

If you have been reading this blog in chronological order, you would have picked up on how impressed we were with Kurakura Homestay. If not, then you need to read (in order) this entry, this one, and of course this one. And then you need to book a holiday to Malaysia Borneo, stay at Kurakura Homestay, and send me a thank-you postcard that I can vent my jealous rage at.

Kurakura Postcard

I expect nothing less than the dodgiest of postcards, because you should be too busy enjoying yourself to send me one anyway.

As excited as we were to continue our adventures, we knew it was going to be hard to beat the experience shared with Liza, Lars and Froya.

For the next leg, we flew with Air Asia from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu. Standard flight, though we had to go through customs again. Because KK is in Sabah, and we were travelling from Sarawak; and because it was an International Airport; and because of something else… To be honest, I never quite knew why but it is the way it was done. Be prepared with passports when travelling from Sarawak to Sabah, and vice versa.

A painting bought in the market. Truly captures the spirit of KK

A painting bought in the market.
Truly captures the spirit of KK

Going from Kurakura to KK was a bit of a culture shock. Where Kurakura was tranquil, and even Kuching had an old charm to it – KK (as it is better known) was definitely a tourist hub for Sabah. It seemed to ooze that feel of touristy-resort with islands-on-the-side. A cross between Gold Coast and TownDSC_1248sville – maybe a bit like Cairns (Qld, Australia). Anyway, it just smells of tourists and the price difference reflected it. As friendly as the locals were, you had the feeling off them that they were a little immune to the charm of tourism itself. Down at the esplanade markets, there is far more genuine cheer. The people there are just getting on with their day – if you want to share a few minutes with them, great. Otherwise, they’ll just move on.

There were a couple of things on our wishlist for KK – once again, mainly things that were only here. I was super-excited about the North Borneo Railway (mostly because it was so hard to organise!) while the island hopping and snorkelling were high on S & B’s list. We had considered a day trip to Mt Kinabalu National Park, but with¬†time, suitability to kids, cost, and weather, we decided against it. If we ever return, we will probably hire a car and drive from KK to Sandakan.

There are plenty of resorts in KK; most of them even allowing you to leave the resort to see part of the city although the few we spoke to were in such a rush to return to the sanctity of their villas, it was hilarious. At the other end of the spectrum, there are also plenty of hostels with easy access to the city. As a young family, we were looking for something in between – with a comfort, affordability, and easy access to town.

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We found it perfectly at Hotel Eden 54. It is located on Gaya Street, pretty much at the beginning of the biggest KK markets and within an easy few blocks of … pretty much everything.

For our first night, we decided to have S lead the exploration and find us dinner. We headed towards the sound of water and quickly found a big shopping centre that was still fairly new (read: half empty). Nevertheless, S found food in the building and we soon enjoyed a delicious fusion of Malay and Italian. S truly enjoyed taking charge for the night, and we soon recognised how much both the boys were growing with experience on our family holiday.

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More than a Homestay

I just want to keep writing about Kurakura Homestay. And when I run out of things to write, I want to travel back there for more adventures to write about.

DSC_0891It really was a home for us. If you aren’t after an adventure (like trekking to caves), then you can always simply laze about the house and enjoy the fabulous company, and equally fabulous food. But I’m warning you – you may find yourself exploring, despite your original intentions. Liza has a way of enticing your curiousity…

For example: check out this view from their balcony.

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Now, one of the memories that sticks out for me is the sound of crashing Durian. Have you ever tasted Durian? It is a bit like a creamy raw onion. It’s not¬†bad, but it is definitely an acquired taste. Some people (mostly the locals)¬†LOVE¬†them.

Every now and then, you would hear a *crack…crack…crash!!* coming from somewhere in the jungle around you. It was the sound of durian falling. The fruit normally grows pretty high up and you have to be very careful about the “ripe time” for eating it. Mostly within a day or it falling.

Durian

The first time I heard this, it was followed by a very determined *thud, thud, thud* as Liza would RUN to the balcony to determine where the sound had come from.

“What ARE you doing?”

“If it was close by, I have a good chance of beating my cousins to it. And maybe if they didn’t hear it. But that’s less likely. But I think it was close. Yes close!! Gotta go!!” and all I saw was her running down the stairs and out into the jungle.

This happened a few times during our stay –¬†pretty soon, we were also running to the balcony to help Liza locate the prized fruit. And I don’t even EAT the stuff!!DSC_0867

Our last day at Kurakura Homestay was filled with these sounds – we had opted to laze around, waiting for the storm clouds to break and getting to know our hosts/new friends.

It’s so easy to kick back and enjoy. There’s so much food growing in the farm area. Froya and our boys were happy to entertain themselves. B loved exploring with the camera and capturing some fantastic nature shots.

I spent sometime learning about Liza’s cooking skills and Lars background. Although Liza has always been a fabulous cook, she refined her skills with training in Norway (Lars’ native country). The Wonder Couple lived in Norway for awhile before establishing Kurakura Homestay. The school Liza attended gave her culinary expertise in a range of styles and cultures. While she particularly loves to cook her native food (with both pride, and interest in sharing the full cultural experience with her guests), Liza can cook pretty much anything you ask for. And if you are¬†really¬†nice, she’ll even share a recipe or two. I had to barter with B’s Family Sponge Cake recipe for Liza’s Sticky Rice and Garlic Prawns. It was worth it. Totally.

Eventually, our stay did come to an end, but not our friendship. Damn I miss this place. But we still have so much more to see.

Kurakura Caving

Wake up to this

I don’t know about you, but I know I am in love with a place when I wake up with a smile on my face. And yes, even when travelling with children.

When you wake up and see this flower outside your window; when you smell the breakfast cooking metres away; when you know you are going caving and you hope your knees won’t fail you. All of this, and smiling.

One of the many activities offered at Kurakura Homestay includes jungle trekking. Since Lars and Liza also have young children (at the time, only Froya), they made sure we could participate as a whole family. In fact, Lars was quite impressed with our backpack and set-up. It is far easier than you think, to travel through the jungle with children.

Up the RiverWe started with a short boat ride up the river, where we were faced with an almost vertical climb up the muddy bank to the “path”. Don’t let this term fool you – this is a light path, due to the tread of past victims to Lars’ reassurances.

Although not much problem climbing up (even with the backpack carrier and N), we knew that somehow B had to make it back down the steep, muddy, slope with N on his back when we return.

Lost in the Jungle

Our trek took us through the jungle for about 30-45 minutes. Even though we could see the path, it was easy to see how lost you could become within minutes.

Trekking with Lars is both educational and entertaining. He is so patient and will stop to explain anything along the way. For example, never touch young bamboo with your bare hands. It has tiny fibres (like fibre-glass) that will stick in to your skin, risking infection and a hell of a lot of pain.

And again, amaSee this flower...zing with kids. Although N was in the backpack carrier most of the time, S really was in his element. He was observing all around him; looking, learning, asking questions. And Lars would happily stop and show him things. Like flowers. And old bamboo sections (which S still has in his souvenir collection to this day). For a 5yo kid, it was a big trek Рbut Lars made it a very enjoyable journey.

Eventually we reached a cave with a small rocky stream running throuIMGP3502gh. With torches, we followed Lars through the cave as he showed us frogs, millipedes, centipedes, fish, and even a bat. The water was cool in the dark but we soon came out the other side to a beautiful small swimming hole, hidden away in the jungle. Here we stopped for a swim and some delicious morning tea, prepared by Liza. DSC_0860

During the march back to the boat, N dozed (heat and excitement) while S powered on. He was truly amazing during this trek! There were times where Lars helped across a log or down a small slope, but never once was S treated as a hinderance. On the contrary, Lars made this trek as much about the kids as it was about us!

Now don’t get me wrong – it is not a “little walk” like Lover’s Way in Cinque Terre, or even the beach walk along Bondi in Sydney. This is still a jungle trek, albeit an easy jungle trek. There are slippery slopes, and vines, and fallen trees. It is hot and muggy. But you are safe. And you are guided. And you are at your leisure. It was an amazing experience, with both S and I sliding a few times. Of course, B remained ever diligent with N on his back – until THAT slope at the boat.

hellish muddy slope to climb

hellish muddy slope to climb

Within sight of the boat, B slipped straight over, muddying himself greatly – while keeping N safe and clean. Dad of the Year, right there!

It was worth the laugh, even from B –¬†the first highlight the kids shared with Liza back at Kurakura.

More photos are shared on our Facebook page. 

Kurakura Homestay

This particular post is long overdue. By far, the best ‘stay’ we had in all of¬†Borneo – initially found on Travellers’ Point (love that site), the proprietors Lars and Liza have since become good friends. BTW: Kurakura Homestay has been voted #1 Homestay in Borneo for at least 2 in the last 4 years (if not 4 in the last 4 years). And with good reason.IMG_0449

By now, you have probably picked up that we travel differently to most families. We don’t do resorts. We don’t do kids clubs. And we rarely do “stock-standard tours”. Instead, we like to meet locals – people who live in the area and are willing to share their lives with us. Homestays are fantastic – and¬†Kurakura Homestay¬†is #1.

I have never felt so welcomed from the moment I met them! Lars picked us up from Annie’s Guesthouse and whisked us away in his people mover. We were the only guests during our stay so the journey was partly at our leisure, and partly at the need of Liza’s shopping list. Thus, a stop at the markets is required – which B thought was great, as he loves checking out local food!

Lars is originally from Norway, and stands out amongst the locals as a tall, white man. Which is why it was so beautiful watching him weave in and out the food stalls, talking to all the merchants, showing us the food and activities.

Nothing says local hang out like the locals hanging out with a game.

Nothing says local hang out like the locals hanging out with a game.

Lars is¬†great with the kids as well, darting in and out. At this point, poor N was starting to feel the heat so Lars suggested an ice-cream – they’ve been best friends ever since. It was a long drive from the markets, but it gave us plenty of time to chat, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Check out the Kurakura webpage –¬†Lars and Liza describe the experience so well, but nothing compares with the living it. You can imagine the picturesque drive to the village, and the stop along the way for food (and ice-cream). You can hope for the witty and insightful conversation with Lars as he¬†drives you through the country-side. And when you know about the cool boat trip up the river, you will even feel that sweet tremor of excitement as you realise you are arriving at your destination in a way different to most “resort dwellers” in Borneo.

The beautiful 20min journey up river to Kurakura

The beautiful 20min journey up river to Kurakura

And that’s cool.

It’s a long thin boat, with a flat bottom. Most of the time, the water isn’t too deep – which is why we had to hop out and walk through one section. It was basically us or the backpacks getting wet. And it was a nice day. And the kids wanted to play. ūüôā

But seriously – Lars steers the boat from behind, while we sit in front. And it is beautiful. Lars has a biology degree with quite a bit of knowledge of the jungle. He sits there pointing out lizards, and birds, and insects, and fish. He shows you the various plants growing along the side. He truly loves this area – a love that flows from his words and movement through the environment.

There’s a short walk from the river up to the house, lined with beautiful tall red-flowering plants. I can’t remember what they are but they do their job perfectly. And at the home – there is Liza, probably already cooking up a storm. At least she was for us.

Liza is from the village down river. She is also a trained chef and is AMAZING in the kitchen. Liza and Lars have 2 daughters, Froya and Fiona Рalthough only Froya and the boys have met. Fiona and Z are later additions. Liza also has no problem opening her home to guests. We always felt like old friends visiting, and we remain in contact to this day.

The rooms available are fantastic. We stayed in two rooms – B and S (then 5) stayed in Single Bunks in one room. N (then 2) and I shared a double bed in another. All beds have nets, but we really didn’t notice a problem (remember – travelling around September). They are decent size rooms that open up to a big space/courtyard and easy walk to bathroom and dining area.

Now – this isn’t the end of the stay at Kurakura – but since we did some adventuring around the area, I will end here. Like a pause – for effect. In the meantime – check out the Kurakura homepage. If you travel to Borneo just for them, it will be worth it. A true example of Sarawak culture, environment, and hospitality.