Sematan has its own allure that keeps people coming back, such as its laid-back lifestyle in remote villages, picturesque beaches and friendly communities. Undeniably, its main attractions are the undisturbed wildlife and protected nature. If you are looking for a short getaway, Sematan is perfect as it has plenty of offerings for your summer holiday in the sun, away from the bustles.
Commuting to Sematan is fairly easy these days. With the newly-opened Pan Borneo highway, the journey to Sematan from Kuching City takes about two hours of seamless drive (100km). There are two roads you can use to go to Sematan. However, an interesting experience would be to take the coastal route and get on the Rambungan ferry instead of the usual Stephen Yong route.
1. Sematan Town
Initially started as a Chinese trading outpost by four Chinese traders, Sematan prospered into an area for buying and selling timber-related items such as gambir, belian and jelutong between the locals and the Indonesians. In the 1950s, Sematan flourished even further when the British government set up a bauxite mine at that time. Currently, several rows of rustic wooden shophouses aged over 100 years old still stand at the bazaar, boasting their own charm.
At Sematan Bazaar, you will find fresh food products rarely found in supermarkets, such as fresh santan (coconut milk) and homemade kerisik (toasted coconut), both used to prepare the Malay dish ‘rendang’. Take a leisurely walk along the jetty opposite the bazaar, where one can breathe in the fresh air from the South China Sea and observe the locals as they commute to and fro in their longboats.
Sematan has one of the best beaches in Sarawak, thanks to its long stretch of pristine and litter-free shoreline. One nearby beach accessible to the public in Sematan is the Abang Amin Beach. Surely the idyllic location, accompanied by the sound of sea waves crashing onto shore will wash your worries away. Several places to consider when looking for a place to stay in Sematan are Sematan Palm Beach Resort, Nomad Resort Sematan and Roxy Hotel. Whatever the cost, spending the night in Sematan is absolutely worth it.
2. Telok Melano
Escaping to remote villages is one of the best ways to take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life. Once only accessible by boat, this seaside Malay fishing village is now just 30 minutes driving distance away from Sematan town.
When translated, Telok Melano means Melano Bay. The origin of the village name ‘Melano’ remains unclear and the villagers claim that it is definitely not from the Melanau people. However, there is a possible reference to a tree that is found in abundance in that area – the ‘No’ tree (Arenga pinnata) also known as Ijok, a palm sap wine tree well known among the Dayak people. With the combination ‘Mela’ from Melayu (Malay) and ‘No’ tree, Telok Melano literally means ‘the bay of Malays and palm trees’.
Telok Melano, a malay fishing village
Bermukun session at Fanorama Homestay
Although tiny in size, the village offers many things to explore. There are no hotels in Telok Melano; only homestays in the form of traditional Malay wooden houses. Staying in a homestay gives you a one-of-a-kind experience that you cannot get in hotels. Fanorama Homestay, for example, offers a lot of first-hand activities that guests can engage in with the locals. Here, guests can experience bermukun – a traditional Malay entertainment customarily held during weddings. Still practised to this very day, bermukun is a unique cultural tradition among the Malays of Sarawak, which is usually held the night before a wedding. It involves singing, dancing, and berpantun (an exchange of rhyming verses), accompanied by the gendang (local percussive instrument) drummed by Mak Gendang or Seh Gendang (it is customary to only be played by women). The men participate by bertandak (dancing in Sarawak Malay). Meanwhile, pantun is an exchange of spontaneous commentary in the form of a lyrical quatrain, where the first two lines rhyme with the last two. The pantun would be exchanged between the Mak Gendang and the dancers, and it can last all night. If you are a person who leans more towards food rather than music, why not try to make a ketupat (glutinous rice wrapped in woven palm leaf) instead? This Hari Raya celebration staple is a delight to your palate just as it is a delight for you to learn to prepare.
The roads in Telok Melano Village are narrow and best explored by foot. It is common to see mango trees in between the colourful wooden houses – don’t forget to try the jeruk (pickled mangoes) or have a coconut shake by the beach, where colourful boats harbour at the coastline. When staying in Telok Melano, savour the experience of waking up to the sounds of roosters crowing in the early morn, as it is a sound you will not be able to hear in the city.
3. Pueh Longhouse
Hidden in the Pueh enclave, Pueh Longhouse is full of warm Sarawakian hospitality from the moment you set foot in this traditional Salako longhouse. Housing over 100 people, this 20-door longhouse is the only longhouse in Pueh village. Unlike traditional Iban longhouses, which are built on high stilts, the Salako longhouse is relatively low. It is also the only Bidayuh longhouse left that has a ‘Nangkat’ – a cubicle that an adult single male visitor sleeps in.
Entrance of Pueh Longhouse with memorial next to it and Pueh mountain at the back
Pueh Longhouse resident making tambok
The Salako is a rare sub-ethnic group amongst 26 other groups in Sarawak. Geographically and linguistically, the Salako people are classified as part of the Bidayuh tribe, hence usually referred to as Bidayuh Salako. In Sarawak, they are found settled in Sematan, particularly the Pueh enclave. Although Bidayuh Salako is under the Dayak community, they speak purely Salako language (also known as Kendayan), which is closer to the Malay language instead of Bidayuh.
When in Pueh, take a guided trek into the lush rainforest of Pueh Mountain and pass through oil palm plantations, durian trees and crystal fruit trees. The local guide makes it easier to learn about the local flora and fauna. Soap Bush (Clidermia hirta) leaf is commonly found in the forests of Pueh Mountain. Rub the leaves with both palms and it will lather up into a foam just like a normal soap. This leaf is a typically used by Pueh natives to clean their body and as a natural alternative to shampoo.
Once finished with trekking, take a dip in the Sebat Waterfall and feel the cool water cascading over your body. The waterfall is only a 10-minute walking distance from Pueh village. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom of the pool and the fish swimming in it. Definitely a sight of nature that’s rarely seen, especially in urban areas.
Back at the longhouse, take a sneak peek into the daily life of the Salako farmers, from harvesting paddy to drying the crops in the sun and storing them in dango padi – small storage houses opposite the longhouse. The reason why paddy is stored in dango padi is to prevent them from being eaten by pests. Besides farming, most of the Salako people have exceptional weaving skills. Before the existence of backpacks, the Bidayuh had tambok, a rattan-weaved basket in different sizes used to carry jungle produce and personal belongings. The elders of the longhouse usually spend their days making the tambok or kasah – a durable mat woven from rattan and beaten tree barks for subsistence. Guests at the longhouse can also try their hands at weaving. Before leaving Pueh Longhouse, check out its entrance, where a memorial stone with names of the longhouse leaders since Charles Brooke’s reign is located.
4. Talang-Talang Besar Island
There is something quite magical about seeing little baby turtles flap their way out of their sandy nests into the ocean with your own eyes. This is possible at Talang-Talang Besar Island, one of the turtle islands in Sarawak. Just 40 minutes boat ride from Telok Melano, this small island is a popular nesting location for endangered marine turtle species such as green and hawksbill turtles.
Green turtle hatchling
Steep and densely forested, Talang-Talang Besar is unsuitable for trekking activities. However, its surrounding areas of shallow coral reefs and clear emerald blue waters make it possible for visitors to enjoy recreational activities such as snorkelling. Among the venomous creatures that call the coral reefs home are sea snakes, stonefish and conch shells.
With its primary function of conserving marine turtles, visitors are only permitted to enter Talang-Talang Besar Island with permission from Sarawak Forestry. Permissions are usually granted to participants of the Sea Turtle Volunteer Programme, a four-day eco-tourism conservation initiative. In this programme, volunteers will experience memorable turtle encounters through the tagging of turtles, monitoring nesting activity and releasing hatchlings.
Fun Fact: Did you know that the gender of a turtle is determined by the egg’s temperature? Cooler temperatures below 31 degree Celsius will produce male eggs and warmer temperatures above 31 Celsius will produce female eggs.
A view of Talang-Talang Kecil island
Snorkelling at Talang-Talang
5. Tanjung Datu National Park
Located at the point where Borneo begins, Tanjung Datu consists of secluded capes and remote beaches. At 14km2 in size, this national park may be small, but there’s plenty to do here and many natural wonders to behold. Visitors to Tanjung Datu are likely to be greeted by its “natives” in their unique ways such as the loud calls of Rhinocerous Hornbills or the discreet slither of the Malayan Striped Coral Snake amongst fallen leaves. If one observes carefully, Irrawady dolphins can also be frequently seen frolicking from the shore of Tanjung Datu beach.
Pasir Antu Laut Beach, surrounded by rocks burrowed in clams
A mere 10-minute boat ride from Telok Melano, Tanjung Datu is for those who value a jungle experience in its purest form. There are no resorts, mini markets or restaurants here, only very basic lodgings and amenities. Just like any other camping experience, here visitors cook their own meal at the barbeque pit and spend the night in the open-spaced forest hut. Best to bring your food from Telok Melano. Also, accommodation is available though very limited.
The hike to Pasir Antu Laut Beach is extremely rewarding, so pack a picnic for this one. This secluded beach features pure white sand and sparkling blue waters, surrounded by clusters of rocks burrowed in clams. The hike can take up to two hours. However, the trail is also special because it takes you deep within Borneo’s rainforest, passing by majestic strangler fig trees and dense boulder formations that can only be overcome with the help of wooden ladders. For those hoping to see the giant Rafflesia flower, a hike along Belian trail will take you right to where this magnificent flower can be found between Mount Melano and Mount Arol, during its blooming season.
Other than hiking, night walks are also among the favoured activities here. You will be surprised to learn just how many creatures you can see here at night, such as the Bornean bearded pig, civet cat, fireflies and slow loris. Prior arrangement with the park rangers is recommended.
As it is located in a remote area bordering Kalimantan and Sarawak, expect scarce mobile coverage and no power supply in Tanjung Datu. This might be an issue to some, but take it as the perfect way to disconnect from modern distractions and enjoy quality undisturbed time with your friends and family. What better way to do that than to catch up with one another underneath the beautiful starry skies. For a vivid stargazing experience, lie down in a hammock tied to trees. A night under the Milky Way is definitely something to look forward to in Tanjung Datu. Before you do that, be sure to bring your own hammock.
Tanjung Datu is indeed heaven for nature lovers, whether they are birders, hikers or swimmers. In essence, Tanjung Datu is unspoilt nature at its best.
Note: The best time to go to Tanjung Datu is during dry season (April until September).