Sunday, November 09, 2014

Sarawak: Forest full of music

I ticked Glastonbury off my music festival "must-do" list years ago and always thought Coachella would one day round it off. A trip to Borneo, however, has prompted a serious re-think.

Coachella is still on the cards, but what I used to think were priorities for a three-day music festival are no longer so important. I have the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak to thank for that epiphany.

It didn't start out like that. The 11-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and another 1½-hour flight to Kuching in East Malaysia were great. What wasn't so great was stepping from the cool comfort of the air-conditioned airport to a startling 30C heat.

That might not sound hot, but in a tropical rainforest climate humidity is the killer. There were a few moments on that first day when I thought trudging around a windy, rainy Glastonbury with tens of thousands of other festival-goers in knee-deep mud was preferable to being covered in sweat and insect repellent, and trying not to be bitten by angry monkeys.

The festival is held in the Sarawak Cultural Village, a 40-minute drive from Kuching on the Damai Peninsula, nestled between the South China Sea and the majestic Santubong Mountain. You can stay in the city and make your way out each day on your own steam or on the shuttle, but make the most of it by staying at the nearby Damai Beach Resort.

The walk from my beachfront room to the village was, at best, a five-minute stroll. Or as I opted for on that smotheringly humid first day, an embarrassing two-minute ride in the hotel's free shuttle.

In an ideal world, I would have spent the first hour or two familiarising myself with the venue. But with a beetroot-red face and my freshly straightened hair a frizzy tangle of knots, I made a beeline for the air-conditioned theatre.

On stage was a woman dressed in black dancing and balancing bowls in each hand. Behind her sat six men keeping time with sticks which they beat on their own bowls.

For a fleeting second, I wondered if I'd cope with three days of world music. But as the beats from Talago Buni began to intensify, so did my interest.

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