Somerset Maugham called this Malaysian state a "terribly jungly place". For visitors, the character of its people is just as impenetrable. So Sholto Byrnes made the trip with a local...

The call from the mosque may be heard in its capital, Kuching, or above the roar of the waves in Miri, near the border with Brunei. Though Muslims are in a majority in other Malaysian states, here they are in a minority, as are the Malays themselves, outnumbered by both the Chinese and the indigenous Iban. Most are Christian, although the old animist traditions retain their hold, as do the shamans who harnessed nature's powers.

To the casual tourist, enchanted by the fireflies that land on deck during a mangrove cruise along Damai beach, north of Kuching, Sarawak may simply seem the perfect place to take an adventurous holiday. However, those accompanied by a Malaysian, as I was, are privy to other dimensions. In every place we went, our guides talked to Farah, my girlfriend, about spirits. These conversations were in Malay; they know that Westerners give little credence to such beliefs. But from these we gathered, for instance, that it would be unwise to stay in room 303 at the Holiday Inn at Damai Beach, as it already has a ghostly inhabitant.

The following night, as we sipped tuak (rice wine) in the Nanga Sumpa Longhouse at the end of a day travelling by longboat up the Batang Ai river, we learnt more. If the dogs howl at night, said the Tuai Rumah (headman), it means that they can see the spirits. The rest of our group sat nearby, watching the longhouse men take turns at the traditional dance inspired by the flight of the hornbill, the state bird of Sarawak. Perhaps just as well, they heard nothing of the spirits, who are not necessarily, but can be, malicious, as the headman did not speak English.

No such thoughts would have troubled them when we arrived in the late afternoon. The longhouse itself, built entirely of natural materials, was enough to take in. Home to 319 people, it has a central corridor, under which animals wander between the stilts. On one side of the corridor are the doors, behind which each family lives - Nanga Sumpa is a "30-door" longhouse - and on the other, each family's verandah. Baskets and carvings hang from the ceiling above pictures torn from magazines - the king and queen of Malaysia next to Westlife, and further along the wall a signed publicity photo of Miss Texas 1999, one Carissa Blair.

Outside, children play in the river, which at this point is close to its source. Clear and cooling, it has a fast current and is safe to swim in; there are no crocodiles this far up, and no snakes to be seen either. Nearby, before you reach the thicker primary rainforest, are hillsides and fields cleared to grow rubber trees, pineapple bushes, and tapioca and galangal plants. Further upstream, locals catch small, silvery fish with nets.

The accommodation may be primitive - mattresses on a raised wooden platform - but no resort can match the perfection of lying on your back and being swept downriver while towering rainforest frames a cloudless blue sky above. The traditional longhouses, however, are disappearing. Modern, concrete versions are springing up, and some of the tribesmen are moving away to the towns. The proud boast of one local - "We didn't join Malaysia, we formed Malaysia" - is hollow. While this is true - Malaysia was formed by the union of the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and (initially) Singapore in 1963 - the voice of Sarawak is not heard loudly in the highest councils, and there is a feeling that its natural resources are being exploited for the benefit of peninsular Malaysia. Sarawak, think many locals, is not getting its proper share. Certainly, insufficient effort is going towards helping the longhouse dwellers to preserve their traditional way of life.

At the eastern end of the state, two flights away from Kuching, the story is happier. The Gunung Mulu National Park, the largest park in Sarawak, contains the most extensive cave system in the world. The Royal Mulu Hotel, built on stilts in the style of a longhouse, is on the park's doorstep. A few minutes' drive away is the canopy walk, 100 feet above the ground. Consisting of a tiny walkway with ropes either side, it is not for the faint-hearted. From there you can look down and try to spot honey bears, civet cats and deer, or observe at eye level the stringy rotan (which is used for caning criminals) climb unfeasibly high by using its thorns to cling on to sturdier trees.

By late afternoon it is time to explore Lang cave. Formed by standing water over the course of four million years, it has a stunning collection of stalactites and stalagmites. Deer Cave, nearby, relies on its size to overawe the visitor. Big enough to fit St Paul's Cathedral five times over, it is also home to millions of bats which hang under its roof by day, then stream out in thin ribbons at dusk. If Peter Jackson ever needed a real location to film the cavernous dwarf halls of Moria, he could do no better than Deer Cave, whose eerie dimensions bring Tolkien immediately to mind.

Back in Miri, after indifferent food at the Royal Mulu, the comforts of the newly opened Marriott were welcome. Looking in at the restaurant before opening time, we asked if char kway teow (a Chinese Malaysian noodle dish) was on the menu. It wasn't, said Gabriel, the head chef, but he would see what he could do. Later on, our plates laden with chicken, beef, lamb, prawn and squid satay, a dish of some of the finest kway teow I have ever tasted appeared at our table.

Days later, back in Kuala Lumpur, I picked up a copy of Somerset Maugham's The Casuarina Tree. His short stories of lonely British colonial officers capture the difference of Sarawak, but are filtered through his Home Counties suspicion of "otherness". Then I chanced upon his description of an evening's entertainment in a longhouse. The Casuarina Tree may have been published nearly 80 years ago, but it was as though Maugham were writing about the dance we had just seen at Nanga Sumpa. Go swiftly before this centuries-old culture ceases to live and becomes instead an exhibit in a museum. Its magic still lingers, but will not for long.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Travelmood. Travelmood (08700 664 556; travelmood.com) offers returns to Kuching with Malaysia Airlines from £420. Doubles at Holiday Inn Damai Beach start at £34 per room per night with breakfast. Those at Merdeka Palace cost from £45, room only. Tourism Malaysia (020-7930 7932; tourismmalaysia.gov.my)

1. Kuching

Capital of Sarawak, and the base from which a Briton named James Brooke carved out his own state in the 19th century. Take a sampan down the river Sarawak past Malay villages and a Victorian fort.

CONTACT: Kuching Visitors' Centre (00 60 82 410944)

2. Matang Wildlife Centre

Part of Kubah National Park, the centre helps orangutans rescued from captivity to survive on their own. It has civets, crocodiles, hornbills, bear cats and eagles. Dip in bathing pools in the park after visiting the centre.

CONTACT: Booking office (00 60 82 248088)

3. Gunung Gading Park

Gunung Gading (gunung means mountain) protects the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which can span a metre. See it where it grows, or visit the summit.

CONTACT: Booking office (00 60 82 248088; sarawakforestry.com)

4. Damai Beach

The main resort on the Santubong peninsula, with watersports and mountain biking. See proboscis monkeys, fire-flies maybe even a croc.

CONTACT: The Holiday Inn Resort (0870-400 9093; ihghotelsgroup.com) has double rooms starting at MYR190 (£27) per night

5. Niah Park

Niah Great Cave holds the oldest human remains in South-east Asia. In the Painted Cave are ancient drawings of humans watching over graves where bodies were laid in boat-shaped coffins.

CONTACT: Forest Dept, Sarawak (00 60 85 737450; forestry.sarawak.gov.my)

6. Miri

Take an internal flight, or fly from Brunei, to this north-eastern city which has modern hotels and a jazz festival. Although a business centre, Miri's superior accommodation is welcome after the basic hotels around the parks.

CONTACT: Miri Tourism (00 60 85 434181)

7. Gunung Mulu National Park

Over 300 kilometres of caves are tucked away in dense rainforest, with Deer Cave and its sunset stream of departing bats possibly the most spectacular. Get there on a short flight from Miri.

CONTACT: Borsarmulu Park management (00 60 85 433561; mulpark.com)

8. Lambir Hills National Park

Only 30km from Miri, the Lambir Hills are a naturalist's dream, spread over 6,592 hectares. Amid the huge variety of trees, ferns and creepers are 157 species of birds, waterfalls and trails.

CONTACT: Forest Dept Sarawak (as above)

9. Rejang river

Formed by the confluence of two rivers in Sarawak, the Rejang is Malaysia's longest river - 1.6km wide by the time it gets to Sibu, 130km from the sea. Travel through the heart of Sarawak on the roof of an express boat.

CONTACT: Sarawak Tourism

10. Batang Ai

Four hours' drive from Kuching, this lake is the starting point for a longboat trip to the Nanga Sumpa longhouse. See the Iban tribe on the beautiful two-hour journey.

CONTACT: Sarawak Tourism (00 60 82 423 600; sarawaktourism.com)

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