I'm back from Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Despite some torrential tropical rain showers, I spent a fun weekend at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak near Damai Beach Resort where I took a swim in the South China Sea.
I was invited as part of a sponsored group by Tourism Malaysia, which also included a couple of American travel writers from New York (Max and Sonja) and one from L.A.
There were travel agents and travel writers from all over the world at the festival, including a large number of Australians (23 total), who turned out at the Tourism Malaysia Media event on my second day. I also met a group of travel writers and travel agents from Hong Kong and the U.K.
Since 1959, Toursim Malaysia has expanded to under the Tourism Development Corporation of Malaysia (TDCM) and has helped to increase tourism income from 4 million ringgit in 1989 to a whopping 46.1 billion ringgit in 2007, along with a record 20.9 million visitor arrivals.
Being from the United States, I was surprised to find that North America was not targeted among the top 10 countries for their 2008 marketing campaign. In fact, the majority of visitors to Malaysia come from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei, followed by China, India, Japan, Philippines, Australia and the U.K.
This shouldn't be a big shock to anyone though once you look at Malaysia's drawing points: Eco-tourism, sea sports, hiking, trekking, adventure sports, caving or spelunking, beaches, etc.
For Americans, most of those activities can be accomplished stateside. And for those that want a little more of tropics, there's always Hawaii.
But not to take anything away from Malaysia, it's a great country, I loved it. And the price is right. Currently, one U.S. dollar is worth about 3.24 ringgit, which makes for some nice bargains for shoppers. However, once you factor in the price of airfare to get there, and the fact that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it kind of explains why most Americans don't travel there very often on vacation.
Aside from that, Malaysia is a beautiful country and world travelers will find it a unique destination. There's a rich history of cross-cultural exchange and a wide variety of different heritages on display, including Malay, Chinese, Indian and the local indigenous peoples in Borneo.
It's a great place to study abroad for International students seeking Homestay programs with native villagers or for those seeking educational Eco-tours at United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization approved World Heritage Sites such the limestone caves in Mulu National Park.
My favorite part of our trip was a journey into the countryside to see the Annah Reis Longhouse inhabited by several generations of Bidayuh natives, as well as the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre where we saw orangutan, which are currently listed as endangered species.
Orangutan are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran orangutan have black fur, while the ones in Borneo have a brown color fur. They live in nests in the trees much like squirrels do, and they eat fruit, leaves and the occasional gekko.
Since 1988, the government has established a no hunting, no eating law regarding orangutan in Malaysia. Orangutan are totally protected under the law and persons breaking the law can be fined 50,000 ringgit and imprisoned for 5 years.
There are currently 23 living at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, including a newborn baby. The dominant male is named Ritchie and goes by the nickname "The Boss."
Interestingly enough, our guide told us that orangutan are 96 percent genetically similar to humans. They have a 50 year life span and live mostly solitary lives rather than in large groups.
What I found most amusing though was that in Malaysia, smoking is allowed almost everywhere. At the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, they had a huge urinal-like metal bin for smokers to put out their ashes before entering the park, but nevertheless people were smoking right next to the trees and foliage. Good thing it's the rainforest and wet! I doubt they'd ever allow smoking anywhere near a national park like Yosemite in the U.S.