With Sarawak famed for its headhunters, longhouses and mysterious rainforest, Mukah often flies under the radar. How could such a small coastal town hope to compete with the sensory stimulation on offer elsewhere?
Easily. This charming backwater is one of Malay Borneo’s low-key attractions. Indigenous tribal culture, tasty food and a surprisingly upbeat nightlife await visitors who may not expect such a seductive welcome. Mukah’s hypnotic charms, compounded by wide-open spaces and a cool climate, will not take long to work their magic.
Mukah’s inherent appeal lies in its relaxing ambience. Lacking the hustle and bustle of Sibu or, say, the synaptic overload of Gunung Mulu National Park, the township instead represents the ideal place to meander along with no real agenda.
Vibe and atmosphere remain key. There’s a river, there’s a beach, there’s evidence of tribal culture, the food is good. While it’s true that many visitors bypass the town, those who spend time there will find themselves unencumbered by the pressure to do anything.
The plentiful cafes and restaurants are perfect for world-watching, while the chances of being hassled in Mukah are very slim. With the deficit of touts – the experienced reader can imagine the conversations – comes a divine sense of relaxation.
Given Mukah’s soporific nature, the lack of distraction would provide appeal for writers, bloggers and those seeking a pervading sense of calm. The setting is quiet enough to facilitate focus but with enough going on to provide stimulation. Reached a creative dead end? Take a stroll down the promenade or seek inspiration from the mosque. Had a successful day? Celebrate with a Laoshan beer at a late-night street eatery.
Read more: In Pictures: Seven Reasons to Visit Sumenep, the Forgotten Corner of Java.
As the Sungai Gigis river gently churns its way to the ocean, travellers with a few days in Mukah under their belts will find themselves following a similarly relaxed ebb and flow.
Whilst Mukah rarely attracts plaudits for its grand architecture or old-world chic it does offer a pleasingly self-contained environment.
Many of the principal sights – the Masjid Setia Raja, the Taman Boulevard Setiaraja, the river – exist within the town’s centre, with other main attractions easily accessible on foot.
What stands out, though, is the effect of Mukah. It radiates a sepia dreamlike quality, heightened by the dusty colour palette. A revolving cast of characters – chatty Mormon missionaries on bicycles, mute sisters making noodles and many more besides – slowly reveal themselves as life’s loop continues afresh.
The impression is that of a Wes Anderson movie, centred on the retro-style, symmetrical Grand Budapest-Esque Kingswood hotel. Subtle foibles and nuances rise to the surface, and it is not hard to imagine various escapades, heavy on the whimsy, unfolding behind closed doors.
Food is not an issue in Mukah: it’s well-cooked, varied and multitudinous.
Those looking for a carbohydrate fix should head to Honey Bakery, opposite the Bus Terminal. Sweet or savoury, hungry shoppers will find much to fill them up in this well-priced, central spot. As a rough guide, expect to pay 1.30 RM for a chicken roll.
The daily market adjacent to the boulevard is another culinary hotspot. Curries rub shoulders with delicious satay, and brightly coloured desserts and drinks catch the eye, and heart, of the sweet-toothed. Noodles, rice and freshly barbecued chicken and fish are also on the menu. Typically a box of curry and rice will cost 6R while desserts tend to be on offer – 3 for 1R.
Fix fast food fetishes with the usual suspects; inversely, fresh fruit/veg is available in abundance. As for local cuisine, head to the myriad cafes and food courts for rice/noodles/soup/fried chicken dishes. Ah Bee Corner, a short walk from the bus terminal, provides a notably succulent Won Ton Soup. Fresh ocean catches tend to wind up at Medan Seafood next to the Royal Inn, where a pleasingly piscine scent permeates the atmosphere.
Venues tend to stay open late. 1 Malaysia Cafe, next to Hotel Sarina, represents a fine spot to watch the world go by.
For those who want a croon or a boogie, seek out the karaoke bars and nightclubs. Follow the screeches and dull bass thump.
Find out more about the Melanau river people indigenous to Sarawak at Lamin Dala visitor’s lodge and cultural centre. The riverside location at Sungai Tellian is a relaxing setting. A visit costs 3R. Call +60 19-849 5962 for more information, including accommodation.
Head to the Taman Boulevard Setiaraja for Mukah’s most iconic view. Look toward the town from the water fountain, and you will see the clocktower standing guard in front of the Masjid Setia Raja. The mosque is reputedly one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful; eagle-eyed observers will note how the conical roof mimics the Melenau headwear.
The standout, though, is the Giralda-inflected clocktower. It seems to throb as the town’s heartbeat and is a surprisingly low-key talisman. Those who enjoyed Madura’s Arek Lancor will find much to cherish here.
Head riverside along Jalan Boyan to see the Sago Factory chimney. Beside it, the Chinese temple, Tua Pek Kong, is worth a visit; wander around the back for a simple yet peaceful setting replete with statues, candles, incense and a fishpond.
As with many places in Southeast Asia, street art in Mukah is an unexpected highlight. Mooch around the old town to find some prime examples.
Mukah’s litter-strewn beach is a 25-minute walk away. Sunbathing is inadvisable, but the attendant park and woodland retreat is as good as any for relaxing.
*Don’t forget to budget accordingly for the 10R a night tourism tax. Not just in Borneo, but across Malaysia.
There are many hotels dotted around Mukah. The aforementioned Anderson-inflected Kingswood (call +60 84 874996) is the undoubted central jewel, with rates starting from 150R a night.
The more budget-conscious could do worse than head for Hotel Sarina (call +60 84 872659), above, a short walk from the Bus Terminal. En-suite rooms from 65R. Alternatively, the Royal Inn, close to the boulevard (+60 84 874333) offers en-suites from 52R. Both have plenty of amenities nearby, although the Wi-Fi connection is patchy.
Get there and away:
Terminal Bas Mukah enjoys a central location with regular transport serving major Borneo destinations as far as Pontianak. A ride to Sibu costs 50R and should take 3-4 hours; expect the same if heading for Miri.
The airport, with flights operated by MasWings, connects Mukah to Borneo destinations Miri and Kuching. Check online for prices and times.
Useful things to know:
Language(s): Melanau, Malay, Sarawak Malay, Iban, Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien and English
International dialling code: +60
Money: Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), currently around 5.5MYR to UK£1. Banks and ATMs regularly punctuate the new township