The pepper groves and paddy fields of western Sarawak bounced past the dirty windows of the bus as the sleepy village of Sematan disappeared in a dust cloud. Once a target for Indonesian border incursions, this is now a forgotten fishing community.

The asphalt had died and the driver had stopped to tie a dust bandanna around his face. Kuching, the capital, was not going to be reached without some discomfort. The rocky, unpaved roads are not among Sarawak's redeeming features.

After 80 kilometres of potholes I fled the bus in downtown Kuching. The golden onion dome on the National Mosque glistened in the heat. Loudspeakers boomed the call to prayer across the


Out on the shaded streets, friendly strangers said, 'Hello, how are you?' as if anxious to test their English. Busy cobblers occupied almost every corner. Anything can be bought from the Chinese shop houses on Main Bazaar - fake Ray-Bans, shiny wheelbarrows, dazzling batik, silver bracelets, sea cucumbers, and, from the interior, artefacts such as grotesque necklaces of monkey skulls and human teeth from the local tribe of the Iban.

Almost 30 years after independence, Kuching still exudes a strong colonial charm. The touch of the White Rajahs is clearly visible, especially in buildings such as Astana, once their palace and now the Governor's residence. A bugle accompanies flag-lowering as dusk outlines river craft in the equatorial evening.

Towering over the sleepy Sarawak River, the new Hilton seemed out of place beside the curves of the century-old Tua Pek Kong temple, guarded by its gold dragon. Shy children peeped from moored houseboats as I squeezed into a sampan taxi with giggling Muslim schoolgirls. I disembarked on to the manicured turf of the 19th-century Fort Margherita, now a police museum. The battlements afford a commanding view of the city. Although built too late to protect Kuching from pirates, the cannon did fire in anger at the invading Japanese, decades later.

Nearby stands an impressive chateaux-like mansion - the Sarawak Museum is a detailed compendium of the land of the White Rajahs, encompassing everything from head-hunting to oil exploration. Yellowing photographs, dusty snakeskins and tribal masks stare down on intricate carvings and moth-eaten beasts.

For 190 ringgits (about pounds 40), at Kim Yong's bicycle shop, I bought a new Malaysian machine - black, with no gears and a tinkly bell. Heading east, three hours of brisk, upright pedalling found me under jungle canopy, surrounded by young orang-utans. Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is attempting to reclaim endangered species from illegal domestic captivity. I watched, mesmerised, as 11 mischievous primates were taught to climb trees again.

Cycling wide around a big dead snake, I coasted through smouldering clearings of 'slash and burn', soon to yield tapioca, papaw, durian and cocoa. Workers waved from patchworked paddy, dwarfed by hazy jingle and a mountain backdrop stretching south to Indonesia. After a communal river dip, I shared fish and rice with a family, who later found me a bed in their simple house.

About 200 kilometres of cycling brought me to Sri Aman, a normally quiet provincial town now bursting with pilgrims attending the National Day celebrations of Malasia's independence. A shrewd old Chinaman bought my bike, showing no interest until I dropped the price drastically. The only Englishman in town, I watched the celebrations from the officers' tent, sheltering with china teacups and regimental swords as rain bounced off bugles and bagpipes. Only the enlisted men held ranks as the storm swamped the visiting government minister's speech. Clouds peeled to allow a fly-past and 15 flag- bearing paratroops to drop into the packed sports ground. 'Yesterday, three landed in a Muslim graveyard,' said a bystander.

Drums echoed as night blackened the congested streets. A Chinese dragon cavorted ahead of a procession of brilliantly lit tableaux, generating more wattage than Blackpool illuminations. As the last float crawled by, sparkling star-bursts momentarily expelled the darkness. Then nature took a hand, enhancing the firework performance with forked lightning that split the sky and struck the generating station, plunging the community into blackness until dawn.

I left town on a crowded bus. For another dollars 1.20 I could have got an air-conditioned one, but the locals beat me to it. Like all buses, chickens and vegetables also get to ride. Before long, the unmistakable aroma of sickly durian percolated the humid cabin. I asked a fellow passenger why so many cars were parked up a lonely plantation track. 'Illegal cockfighting,' came the whispered reply.

In the lush green countryside, where more rain dissolved the unpaved highway, we fishtailed through deep mud past less fortunates, struggling in bare feet to extricate marooned vehicles from the quagmire.

Sarawak's main highways are her rivers, rapidly plied by sleek express boats, built from old aircraft fuselages. I boarded the Laser Speed at Sarikei. It had the external grace of a 747, but inside resembled an obsolete DC3, with plastic flowers and a video accompanied by harsh kung fu screams which riveted the audience. The powerful engine carved a deep furrow up the broad Rajang River, eroding banks piled high with felled hardwoods.

At Sibu, Laser Speed nuzzled in to dock among her sister craft. As fish, rice, chickens and cabbages were conveyed ashore by laden workers, deftly sidestepping the carcass of a formidable looking wild boar shot in the jungle the previous evening, we gazed at the giant helter-skelter of the multi-tiered pagoda that dominates the busy Delta Wharf.

Dodging rickshaws on the wharf, I sought the respite of an outdoor cafe, collapsing among faces buried in Chinese newspapers. Hard-boiled eggs, sponge cakes and little parcels of rice were already laid. Iced tea and a smile soon followed.

On an express boat to the interior, I again studied the murky Rajang River flashing by. 'It was never that brown when I was a boy,' said my Malay companion. 'Heavy logging has scoured the landscape; there are few fish in there now.' As if to support this, another bargeload of majestic rainforest sailed by, destined for disposable Japanese chopsticks.

At Song, a river crossroads, I transferred to a narrow longboat, joining villagers to complete my trip up the Bangkit River. I was in Than country, where ferocious warriors were once feared for their head- hunting. The boatmen indicated a bamboo house on the far bank; a platoon of Japanese soldiers was ambushed there during the war, probably one of the last times head trophies were taken.

We skimmed the currents with ease. Three hours upstream lay the village of Ng Bangkit, my destination. Always, the jungle chorus was audible over the sound of the powerful outboard motor. Several times we splashed ashore, allowing the boatman to steer the lightened craft through shallow rapids. Around one bend huddled a cluster of stilted dwellings, rising out of the steamy vegetation. Above parked canoes, a notched treetrunk ascended to the longhouse. As many as 60 families may live under one roof, each in a separate apartment that opens on to an enclosed reception area. Passing travellers are welcome guests unless a taboo stick, a bunch of live branches, indicates closure because of death or some other misfortune.

Timid children scattered as we approached. On the veranda a woman in a bright sarong was tending a mountain of drying rice; we removed our shoes as the head man bade us enter. In the neat dwellings, posters of Manchester United and Western pop stars were displayed alongside spears, blowpipes and ancestral pictures. Outside, skulls of slain enemies hung from a central rafter, a reminder of warrior days now a symbol of longhouse unity. Since I arrived with the district officer, a man of importance, we were afforded an exceptional welcome. The tuak (rice wine) flowed as a lively ceremony unfolded, guaranteed to expel evil spirits and ensure a good rice harvest. It involved the passing round of egg, popcorn and fish, and then a live chicken. This was followed by tattooed warriors, sporting sacred hornbill feathers, performing a graceful, stalking sword dance to rhythmic drums and gongs.

Women left their rattan weaving to fetch more tuak as the entire community became involved, with the celebrations spilling outside into the afternoon sunshine. At one point, over the pounding of drums, I recall guns being fired into the air, though I was fast falling victim to the lethal alcohol. A friend recounts losing three days of his life through imbibing rice wine at a similar celebration. I think we ensured an excellent harvest for that community.

A chilly dawn mist clung to the tops of the forest canopy as I reluctantly left. Soon I was swept downriver by a strong outboard motor, squashed between sacks of expensive durian. We took on more at every jungle village; durian fetches a high price on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Another long dusty bus ride bounced me into Bintulu, followed by a choppy motorboat trip, flattening the crests of the South China Sea. We killed the engine in a quiet mangrove inlet. 'Beware of Crocodiles]' proclaimed a weathered sign. Similajau National Park is a hidden paradise where dense rainforest fringes a 30-kilometre, white, log-strewn coastline. Hermit crabs rolled and tumbled in the surf that filled my footprints. Flying foxes continued the evening's entertainment, screeching with their ungainly landings as they crashed among the tall palms above my mosquito net.

Four hours of frontier roads saw the giant limestone crags of the Niah caves looming. Only in the Fifties did cave paintings reveal that man had inhabited the area as long as 40,000 years ago. Home to vast colonies of swiftlets by night, and as many bats during the day, a fluttering black cloud obliterates the sky at dusk as the two groups exchange homes through the enormous cavern mouth.

Today, the pungent caves yield a bizarre crop. Agile locals zealously guard 60-metre bamboo poles that stretch into the dark, aerial recesses of the lofty chambers. Every day they climb to gather the lucrative swifts' nests that will go to Hong Kong and Shanghai for bird's-nest soup. It is a dangerous occupation. As I entered the cave, a bloodstained climber was being carried out on a bamboo stretcher, face contorted from a shattered leg.

Within hours I was airborne over Miri, gazing down on spindly, offshore oil rigs, source of the country's wealth since 1910. Over the weeks I felt that I had sampled more than a little of that oriental richness. Easy to see why the White Rajahs gave more than 100 years in the service of such a land.


Getting there: Singapore and Malaysian airlines fly to Kuching, via Kuala Lumpur, for about pounds 700. Internal Sarawak flights are regular and inexpensive. October to February is monsoon season.

Accommodation: There are plenty of hotels to suit all pockets.

Health: Consult your GP for jabs and essential malaria pills.

Further information: Malaysian Tourist Development Corporation, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU (071-930 7932).

(Photographs and map omitted)