I came across an online post about the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) just after it happened last year while we were still in the planning phase of our Around the World trip. I remember immediately swiveling in my chair to ask Carl, “What do you think about an international music festival in the rainforest?” And with that, we slotted Malaysia for early July and it was the only hard rule we had for our route the entire year. Despite taking us through South East Asia during some of the hottest and stormiest months it was completely worth it.
The performers at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2019 are incredibly talented: so many musicians played multiple instruments and almost everyone played completely from memory. We got to witness sacred ceremonies of various tribes of Sarawak and saw the revival of the sape’, a traditional instrument of Borneo. From a local sape’ maker we learned that the sape’ tradition was starting to die out and was only recently revived in the past decade and getting a modern twist by the younger generation.
The festival featured international musicians sharing native instruments and also those who were masters of instruments from countries not their own, like a Spanish singer playing the Swedish nyckelharpa. There were bands like Duplessy and the Violins of the World; made up of completely international strings, and there were old collaborations being honored as well as impromptu new ones. Besides music there were crafts to learn and purchase, international foods and ice cream to be enjoyed, and wellness activities to partake in – a weekend full of creative cultural experiences that would be difficult to find anywhere else.
Our Favorite Artists from the 2019 Rainforest World Music Festival
RWMF Day 1
The first day of the Festival started out slow and was the least attended day of the weekend, the perfect time to wander around and get our bearings. It was also a good test run of the shuttle system, since that turned out to be a bit of a mess in terms of going to the festival. This is the best day to take your photos and videos if you prefer them without people in it, to shop and get your henna or real tattoos without the wait.
The first performance we attended was by Sayu Ateng, a lively and entertaining local band spanning multiple generations and a frequenter of the festival. We were introduced to the native sounds of the sape’ (lute), engkerumong (gong chimes), and gendang melayu (drum).
From Sarawak we traveled all the way to Scotland via Talisk, a captivating and intense trio of concertina, fiddle and guitar. They went from delicate yearning melodies to finger sprinting foot stomping rhythms, bringing folk music to a new caliber: we never realized how much we were missing out with Scottish music. Likewise we’re also adding the Canary Islands to our bucket list because of Olga Cerpa Y Mestisay, a powerful voice carrying the vibrant and summery sounds of the Atlantic island.
With my background in dance, I was most excited to watch the
Ballet Folclórico de Chile, a dance group from Chile perform dances of the Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. Similar to other Polynesian dances, the males’ movements reminded me of the Maori while the females’ gestures echoed those of both Hula and Ori Tahiti. While they were certainly a hit with the crowds, I was a little bummed that they didn’t have live music, which is a typically a huge part of Polynesian dances and greatly effects the energy you get from a performance.
Anticipating a full next day, we wrapped up our night after Rajery and heard the valiha (tube zither) from Madagascar for the first time. Beautiful and playful rhythms lit up the night and for the last song he invited his Malaysian friend to play together to honor their long ago collaboration, really embodying the spirit of the festival.
RWMF Day 2
As with most festivals, Saturday is the day go to if you’ve only got one day and if you prefer the high energy of a big crowd. It was the busiest (almost quadruple the people of Day 1) of the festival days and also offered the fullest schedule.
With the long shuttle ride we were late to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Self Defense workshop, only watching the last bit of how to escape a grab from behind. The day was unbearably hot and we decided it was probably best we didn’t join in, so we headed over to a mini session with a handful of guitarists from different groups. We got to see the fiddler and guitarist from Talisk again, who explained that in Scottish music the guitar was really a support instrument and the fiddle usually leads with the melody. They had to take off for a flight right away, but managed to play a short demo and lead a bit of a jam session with the other guitarists, which was an impressive feat given that they were all playing the similar instruments but all from different styles. Sadly we couldn’t stay the entire time as there were other shows we wanted to catch at the same time.
We were glad to escape the heat though and the shows in the air-conditioned Theater Stage were astonishing. The Duplessy & The Violins Of The World Ft. Guo Gan, were so emotive and epic like we were watching dramatic scenes unfold. Mathias Duplessy played really interesting percussion on his flamenco guitar and there were was just the perfect amount of intensity and playfulness between the singing and shouts and the call and reply between the instruments. The arrangements wove the varying voices from the Swedish nyckelharpa, Mongolian morin khuur, and Chinese erhu so seamlessly you wonder why no one has done it before.
Next we heard from Bhutan with the drangyen (lute), ba-jing (flute), aungli (horn), yangkali (a naturally occurring pod – shaker), performed by the extremely talented Druk Folk Musician trio. They are an adorable group with sweet and enthusiastic personalities; they even smoothly tuned each others instruments when a few went out of tune during their performances (a common challenge for instruments traversing new climates). They surely epitomized Bhutan’s “happiest people in the world” claim keeping their cool and singing songs about a yak and about mothers.
Another skilled group accompanied Ana Alcaide, a Spanish singer, violinist, and also a nyckelharpa player. Everyone in the group played multiple instruments: only 4 people playing over 10 different instruments! There was an acoustic and a Spanish guitar, a psaltery, a santur, an oud, a wooden flute, a clarinet, and various percussions – including a great use of filling an open drum with beads or something that scattered to sound like waves crashing, similar to a rain stick.
After those stunning performances we grabbed some dinner before heading to the main stage – we recommend finding grub at the Local Fingers Food Fest tent (that’s also where to find the ice cream). We bunkered down on the hill between the Jungle Stage and the seating area for VIP or partners, as that gave us a view of both stages without moving. To open each evening of on the main stages there were ceremonies performed by Kemada, a group from Sarawak dedicated to preserving the Iban traditions, performed on the Gendang Pampat, old drums usually reserved for rituals and Gawai Dayak celebrations.
After the almost mystical rite, the French a capella group San Salvador took the stage with full bodied harmonies in the Occitan language and wonderfully danceable drums. They had such extraordinary crescendoes and crisp timing, adding to the drama of an almost full-moon lit night.
The crowd was already in dancing mode when the spry and entertaining Darmas, a Malaysian rock band with the kulintangan (an ancient series of gongs from the Sabah tribes), took over the party. Of the whole weekend, they were one of the performers with the most engaging energies, hats flying off and every one of them jumping and dancing with the audience. Enter UK reggae artist Macka B, who could write a song about anything, including a spunky one about what vegans can eat, “Wha Me Eat”.
To avoid the crush of the crowd, we didn’t stay to the end of the program, but we’re so glad we stuck long enough to listen to the dynamic Trad.Attack!, from Estonia. As only a trio, they played some high intensity folk rock with a 12-string guitar, drums and an array of whistles, bagpipes and jew’s harps. With their big energy, they won Carl’s vote for favorite of the entire festival, and I have to agree that their creative use of vocal samples of their Grandmother’s singing or old folk songs, is a genius way to keep tradition alive.
RWMF Day 3
After the hype of Day 2, Day 3 will feel like a mass exodus, but there was still more of a crowd than Day 1. We did some final browsing at the bazaar and grabbed our dinner to go over at the Arena Grounds so we could hold our spot for the final show. Each day, just before the main stages fill, there’s a Calling of the Tribes and Drum Circle on the Arena Grounds. The Drum Circle is great for kids and adults alike, everyone gets a percussive instrument and the group attempts to make some music!
The final evening opened with the remarkably chill mix of Irish and Ainu Japanese through the collaboration of Kila & Oki, who played the tonkori (Ainu stringed instrument). No surprise, but the Kila band members also all played multiple instruments like the bodhrán (Irish frame drum), uileann pipes (bagpipes), bouzouki (Irish adaptation of a Greek stringed instrument), whistles, clarinet, fiddle, guitar, and drums. They were followed by another showing of Duplessy & The Violins Of The World Ft. Guo Gan, who definitely won over the crowd with their dramatic heart stirring songs and the delightful tribute to Bruce Lee called “Kung Fu”.
The party continued with At Adau, a local band from Sarawak using the sapes and traditional percussion from the Bidayuh and Iban along with modern drums and guitars. They played sape’ tunes from the Orang Ulu people. Keeping up the energy, Morrocan performer Mehdi Nassouli brought gnawa rhythms, playing the gimbri (lute) while others leapt, danced, and played qraqab (castanets) with ridiculous vigor.
Another energetic though completely different African sound was shared by Tabanka, a Rotterdam based group playing funaná, a once forbidden music of the Cape Verdean slaves during Portuguese rule. They rocked out on the gaita (accordion) and the ferrinho (notched metal bar) – the guy was nonstop dancing like a work out video: jumping, squatting, popping high knees the entire time!
Though we were only in Kuching for a short week, we loved the riverside vibes and felt warmly welcomed by the friendly locals and enjoyed the delicious and affordable food. The Rainforest World Music Festival was an incredible experience that we highly recommend. Read on for our Top Tips and other logistical information, browse our photos for inspiration, or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
Top Tips for the Rainforest World Music Festival
Stay Up to Date: Check the Website Often
As with any event, they’ll be changing their website as the festival approaches so make sure to check back often as you prepare so you have the latest details. The easiest way is to follow them on Facebook for updates if you don’t want to manually check the site yourself. Tickets went on sale around April this year, purchase them then to score the early bird prices. There’s a lot going on during the day so you’ll have to prioritize by checking the program and creating some sort of itinerary. There was an app but I was unable to use it.
Book Accommodations Early
Book your stay as soon as they officially declare the dates. Your options are essentially one of the resorts next to the Sarawak Cultural Village or a hotel near city center (where the shuttles run from). We checked AirBnBs but they were not as conveniently located. Staying near the village means you won’t have to waste time commuting back and forth (the shuttle takes a minimum of 1 hour from city center) and many of the performers stay at the resorts so you supposedly have a better chance of interaction that way.
We wanted to stay at one of the resorts, but they were already full when we looked so we stayed at Abell Hotel. While the hotel is a bit older, it is within walking distance to the Waterfront, both the Hills and the Riverside Majestic shuttle stops, and plenty of food options.
Getting To and From the Rainforest World Music Festival
Speaking of shuttles… Check online to see if you’re eligible for complimentary shuttle passes. There was some confusion about it this year: the e-tickets stated to simply show the ticket and you could get a shuttle pass, but when we were picking up our shuttle passes, some other people were told that there was a limited amount and they had already given all the free passes. Good thing we had emailed them ahead of time (due to ticketing issues) and they had set some aside for us.
However, using the shuttle passes were a bit inconvenient. They’re good for one round trip, so no back and forth throughout the day. You have to reserve your spot to the Village ahead of time, meaning you have to go the ticket counters and book a time slot each day or plan ahead. We found this to be nonsensical and inconvenient, especially since the shuttles were hardly ever on time. If you hope to make a certain event, try to catch the shuttle at least 2 hours prior to it.
If you don’t care to use the shuttles, Grab is widely used in Kuching and really affordable. We did not use it to get to the festival though, so we don’t know if there were surge prices or any difficulty booking rides during the event. There is WiFi at the Sarawak Cultural Village, but during peak times it was not reliable.
What to Wear to the Rainforest World Music Festival
Be prepared for rainforest weather: humid heat and always a chance of rain. Slather on the sunblock and mosquito repellent often. The Sarawak Cultural Village is up in the hills, so it tends to have a different temperature than down in the city center. We lucked out with only a little rain all weekend, but even when it wasn’t rainy, the Arena Grounds did get muddy in certain spots. Hiking boots turned out to be overkill, especially with the heat, so we recommend light sneakers or flip flops that are comfortable to be in all day and that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty. Some of the buildings ask for shoes off so it’s helpful to have something that’s easy to take on and off.
While most of the activities have coverage in a traditional building or under a tent, you’ll have to trek outdoors to get from activity to activity. The main stages, Jungle and Tree stage, for the evening performances are outside with no cover. Most paths are wooden or paved. Some buildings are elevated and are accessed by wooden stairs. Most indoor spaces have fans and the Theater Stage does have AC (a good place to hide out if you need a cool break).
What to Bring to the Rainforest World Music Festival
Spending a whole day out in the rainforest does require some supplies, but definitely bring only what you need and stay as light as possible. When we asked, they were pretty lenient on what you can/cannot bring to the festival. All camera gear is a go, we saw a couple drones but please confirm that as drone laws are in constant flux. We saw lots of people using dry bag backpacks, but a good ol’ ziplock bag for the important stuff works as well.
- reusable water bottle
- bug spray
- tissue (especially for the ladies, as toilet paper is not always available)
- a thin rainjacket/poncho (which can also double as a mat to sit on for the lawn)
- a mat/cushion (there’s a lot of seating on the ground throughout the festival), lawn chairs are allowed in the festival but we didn’t think it was a practical thing to carry around with you
- handkerchief or small towel (great for wiping the sweat or after washing hands)
- a fan (electric or manual – useful for the heat and also in case you wind up next to smokers)
Budgeting for the Rainforest World Music Festival
Currency: 1 MYR = 0.24 USD
At the festival you’ll need cash to buy anything, though some food vendors did accept Sarawak Pay, the e-pay partner of the festival. For food, the only thing we really spent on, you can budget about 15-40 MYR per person per meal. On certain days we didn’t head to the festival until after lunch time anyway, so we would only have one meal inside. The food vendors at the Festival were decent and did not seem overpriced, especially compared to other festivals.
Some of the craft workshops, woodblock printing and batik painting charge a fee of about 30-60 MYR. There were a couple henna artists and also an actual tattoo shop that was really popular. The Crafts Bazaar and the Sarawak Cultural Village souvenir shop had a decent range of things from woven bags, beaded accessories, hand printed fabrics from India, batik paintings, and wooden flutes, though those were the only instruments we found. We felt the Festival shop was a bit lacking – there was the one festival tee, a handful of general Ripcurl products and some of the musicians had CDs available.
- Early Bird 3-day Pass: 315 MYR
- Bowl of Chinese noodles: 10 MYR
- Affogato Ice cream: 15 MYR
- Chicken Sandwich: 9 MYR
- Set of 3 bells souvenir: 25 MYR
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations, Hep A and Typhoid are also recommended. Check with your Doctor before you go!
Mosquito problems: You will need bug spray! Apply sunscreen then bug spray before you head to the festival, reapply as necessary.
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Getting into Kuching
As with most of Malaysia, Grab is the way to go. From the airport or city center you can order a Grab, they’re waiting right around just like taxis so there’s usually no wait. The cost to and from the airport to the city center is about 10-12 MYR. There is no longer a bus service available, plus all of our Grab drivers in Kuching were super nice, even making the effort to write down a list of places to eat when we got in. City center is quite walkable though it was quite hot during our stay. There is also a water taxi, but we didn’t have the opportunity to use it.
Where to Eat in Kuching
One of the surprising things about Kuching was the amount of birds’ nest (Chinese delicacy) shops in city center, which I’m not sure if there’s any relation to Kuching being the “cat” city… probably not. During our stay it seemed as if Kuching was a sleepier city where most businesses opened later in the day. There are not a lot of breakfast options for the early risers and it will mainly be Asian food. Despite there being plenty of “cafes” showing up on Google maps, most don’t open until 10-11am for lunch or whenever the encompassing shopping complex opens. If you’re a morning person and particular about your breakfast options, you may want to opt for hotels that include breakfast for the convenience. Abell Hotel does have a breakfast option but it doesn’t start until 9 am.
Other than that you’ll have your pick of tasty Asian grub in Kuching. Something you might notice if you’re looking at restaurants’ ratings on Google, is that almost all the restaurants have good ratings – like 4 stars for hundreds of reviews, which seems a little fishy (in Cat City, ha ha), but in general the places we went to did not disappoint. Head over to Aladin Chicken Rice for the most fragrant chicken rice we’ve ever had (we had a fair share throughout Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) and it’s the best $2 you’ll ever spend. We were a bit unsure of the protocol at the small restaurant, but we placed our ordered with the lady cooking at the indoor station (that’s where the “menu” and photos of your 3 options are) and sat ourselves, but we couldn’t tell if that was right.
If you’re a noodle person like me, you’re in luck, and you’ve got your pick of noodles spots. Start at Nuromen Cafe Kuching for super garlicky garlic noodles or beef noodle soup – ask for tendon only! They open early so you can have noods for breakfast, you’re welcome! The homemade round noodles at Life Cafe have an excellent chew to them even though they’re not hand-pulled.
Right next to Nuromen Cafe Kuching there is a Chinese restaurant and a food court Da’ Apple Kopitam that has a variety of stalls if you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for – found a tasty ginger chicken rice porridge there. In the same complex, there is also Sanga Japanese Food. This is the restaurant to go to if you need to cool off: the AC was on full blast and our sashimi was so cold it felt like it was still thawing out. They offer a limited selection of rolls and in terms of fish, we recommend sticking to the scallop, salmon, and white tuna – avoid the maguro (red tuna) as it had a strange mushy texture and taste.
As you can imagine, we were plenty excited that there was the popular ice cream spot down the street, DP Ice Cream Gula Apong. Unfortunately the visit was a little disappointing, there was no visible menu available and the nonchalant service we got took away from the tasty palm sugar soft serve. We preferred the soft serve ice cream from Affogato which had a much thicker consistency and punchier flavors.
Our last evening in Kuching, we headed over to the famous Lepau Restaurant, known for its efforts to preserve and present authentic Sarawakian foods. We loved the steamed sea bass with curry and yellow eggplant and the signature Lepau Special Fried with kuh tiew (rice noodles). Their signature drinks Tree Bark (tastes something between barley and herbal tea) and Pandan Lemongrass were refreshing – and super necessary when I tried the Umai, a punch-you-in-the-throat spicy ceviche styled dish.
Things To Do in Kuching
Other than attend a festival (they have a lot here), the waterfront is the place to be. Whether you’re looking for a morning stroll or an evening’s entertainment, make your way along the river to the iconic Golden Anniversary Bridge. Up on the bridge you can catch a cool breeze, get a beautiful view of the riverside or cross all the way to the National Palace and visit the public gardens.
A pleasant surprise was stumbling upon the Cultural Center & Custom Sape’ shop inside of the Riverside Shopping Complex. The mass of woven bags for sale may throw you off, but step in and say hello to Kenny to learn all about the nuances of how the sapes are made, maybe even order a custom sape’!
Abell Hotelabellhotel.com 22, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, $ – older but conveniently located budget hotel with pleasant staff, we enjoyed our stay.
DP Ice Cream Gula Apong, Jalan Chan Chin Ann, $ – They don’t have a visible menu so just approach the counter and ask them. It’s 2 MYR for a small cone.
Affogato – Ice Cream Café, Ground Floor, Lot 3239 (SL.26 TT3 Commercial Centre, Jalan Canna, Tabuan Jaya, $$ – we’ve never been to their shop, but had them at the RWMF and really enjoyed their flavors and toppings.
人間茶坊 Life Cafe 62, Jalan Padungan, $$ – get any of their noodle dishes, their homemade round noodles have an excellent chew and flavor. They offer decent dumplings and boba drinks (called sago here) but the noodles are really where it’s at.
Da’ Apple Kopitam 264, Jalan Chan Chin Ann, $ – small food court with a variety of Asian food stalls, open for breakfast – try the ginger chicken rice porridge!
Nuromen Cafe Kuching, 163, Jalan Chan Chin Ann, $$ – Excellent garlic noodles with beef soup, they’re open for breakfast and lunch only. My favorite combo was the garlic noodles and beef soup with tendon only!
Sanga Japanese Food, 164, Jalan Chan Chin Ann, $$ – Decent sushi restaurant with really intense AC and very nice staff. The fish is served a little too cold for our liking and the maguro (red tuna) was a really weird texture. We recommend sticking with the salmon, hamachi, white tuna, and scallop!
Lepau Restaurant, lepau-restaurant.business.site 93400 Kuching, $$ – Popular Sarawakian food spot – servings are made to share family style. Beware that their ceviche dish “umai” was super spicy! Due to its popularity it can feel more touristy but it was still a great restaurant and we enjoyed our meal.
Golden Anniversary Bridge Jalan Gambir – pedestrian/cyclist only bridge that takes you over the river. It is a tourist attraction but you walk or run it in the mornings with other locals.
Cultural Center & Custom Sape Riverside Shopping Complex, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman – LG floor near Sweet Sweet Mart and Guardian. Look for Kenny and chat it up to learn about sape’ and its history.