Tusan Beach.

KUALA LUMPUR: Mainstream travel destinations can be monotonous and uninspiring, but visiting places that aren’t commonly frequented by tourists could put a dent in your wallet as they can be expensive to go to.

Luckily, we don’t need to fly to the farthest corners of the earth to find beauty and adventure. Such a holiday can be had in Miri, Sarawak ― two hours and 15 minutes by flight from Kuala Lumpur. And the great thing is Miri’s best-kept secrets are free!

The second biggest city in Sarawak after Kuching, Miri is also known as Sarawak’s oil town, but more than just “black gold”, it offers many other precious wonders to entice even the most jaded wanderer.

Most famous is the Gunung Mulu National Park which is recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity and karst features. It is the most-studied tropical karst area in the world.

Sarawak Chamber

“Dominated by Gunung Mulu, a 2,377m-high sandstone summit, the park is a playground for nature lovers and photo enthusiasts. Caves that run deep to at least 295kmin length await to be explored as they provide spectacular sights and sounds since they’re home to millions of swiftlets and bats,” explains Sarawak Tourism Board chief executive officer Sharzede Salleh Askor.

Not to be missed while in this park is the Sarawak Chamber inside Gua Nasib Bagus (the Good Luck Cave). Measuring 600m, 415m and 80m in length, width and height respectively, it is arguably the planet’s largest cave chamber.

“Getting to the chamber is an experience in itself as you’d need to follow a river upstream from the cave entrance. This requires a bit of swimming and a traverse along a ledge. But worry not, as there are well-trained guides to accompany visitors,” assures Sharzede.

Miri is also the main tourist gateway to other reserves namely Loagan Bunut National Park, Lambir Hills National Park, Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park and Niah National Park.

The latter was the site of human settlement dating back to 65,000 years ago, and is home to Palaeolithic and Neolithic burial grounds and iron-age cave paintings.

Another beauty in Miri blessed by Mother Nature is Tusan beach.

“Rare blue algae in the sea emits luminous blue light at night reminiscent of a scene in sci-fi flick Avatar. To reach this glowing paradise requires a 30-minute drive from Miri. The cliff formation here is equally Instagram-worthy as it resembles a horse drinking water from the sea,” she said.

While some holidaymakers would head out straight to these natural attractions, it’s also a good idea to take in the sights of the city itself.

“The Handicraft Heritage Centre is where you can buy handcrafted souvenirs like mats made by the indigenous Penan people, handwoven textiles, rattan bags and more. Close to the centre is Sarawak Handicraft which sells an array of locally-made knick knacks such as tribal art, bamboo flutes and other one-of-a-kind items,” says Sharzede.

For a relaxing stroll, check out the Miri City Fan, a 10.5-ha park with a musical fountain, Islamic garden, Chinese garden and health garden.

Then there are the two notable places of worship, each steeped in history and culture.

“The Tua Pek Kong Chinese Temple is about 100 years old and it’s one of the few structures that survived a bombing during World War II. The second temple, San Ching Tian is one of Southeast Asia’s largest Taoist temples.

“Surrounded by a beautiful garden, the temple features a striking appearance. It is sheltered by a two-tiered orange roof while intricately-carved dragons guard the exterior, `protecting’ the bronze statues of religious icons inside.”

Overlooking the city on Canada Hill is The Grand Old Lady, the country’s first oil well (dating back to 1910) and the Petroleum Museum. Here, you can learn about the history of Sarawak’s oil industry and see a display of oil drilling equipment like the Nodding Donkey (pumpjack) and an oil derrick.

“Come to this place during sunrise or sunset as it offers breathtaking views of the city and the South China Sea,” suggests Sharzede.

A visit to Miri isn’t complete without savouring its treats like minced tapioca and fried jungle greens which can be had with healthy and aromatic Bario rice.

Grown in the highlands, the soft and fine rice is as organic as it gets.

“For added taste, have your rice with bubok or small shrimp (available during its migrating season between February and March) often made into cincalok (fermented shrimp) or belacan (shrimp paste).

“Unlike the common belacan, Miri belacan is known for its distinctive smell and taste as it is traditionally prepared using mortar and pestle.”

Worth visiting too is the annual Bario Food and Cultural Festival. Recently held in July, the three-day festival showcases food and cultural heritage of the Bario highlands. Depending on how much time you have, you can opt to fly (45 minutes) or travel by road (12 hours) to the highlands.

Other yearly events held in Miri are the Borneo Jazz Festival and the Miri Country Music Festival. The former, usually held in May, features musicians from the US, Europe, Australia and Asia who entertain the crowd with all manner of jazz sounds from standards to funky latin and oriental as well as contemporary and blues.

“The Country Music Festival is unique to Southeast Asia where country music bands from the region take to the stage, headlined by an international act. Past performers include country music bands from Nashville, Tennesse.”

With a myriad of things to do, see, learn, taste and purchase, it is no surprise why Miri is fast becoming a top choice among holidaymakers. Come and discover for yourself - from the magnificent to the mysterious and magical, Miri’s got it all!

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