Why you should care

An ancient tropical forest could be your playground.

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

Nature has many ways to make us feel small, and one is to cruise down a rain-swollen river, surrounded by impenetrably thick tropical forest. During the day birds sing, but night belongs to the insects, which come alive in a deafening roar. One place to experience this exotic environment, with all of the modern conveniences, is in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.

On a peninsula jutting north into the South China Sea, the Damai Beach Resort sits on the edge of a long, curved sandy beach that blends seamlessly into the jungle behind. Yes, it’s a bit Disneyland-esque with pools, water sports and regular theme-park entertainment, but not as hokey. The government-sponsored Sarawak Cultural Village has also made the 90-acre Damai a family resort, having brought in architectural specimens from elsewhere in Sarawak, such as an Iban Longhouse and a traditional Malay house on stilts. In early August, the Village comes alive with a music festival that imports well over a dozen groups from every corner of the globe. And the beach alone makes for the ultimate wedding destination.

The jungle is among the oldest and most biologically diverse in the world.

But the best part of Damai is beyond the resort. Despite the addition of several hotels and a golf course to the immediate area, tourism has spared plenty of the jungle, among the oldest and most biologically diverse in the world. Adventure awaits trekkers and climbers ascending Mount Santubong, where they may come across wild proboscis monkeys. For a sobering and edgy history lesson, you can skip the potted culture of the Village for an overnight excursion — by road and canoe — to visit Iban communities, once home to headhunters. Those shrunken heads in the rafters? When we visited some years ago, we learned that many belonged to “dishonest” Chinese traders. And a warning for those wandering into some communities: You might witness a cockfight, which, believe me, is not a pretty sight.

The Damai Beach Resort charges around $200 a night, but there are other options nearby, including a hostel, and BB Bunkers, with group sleeping quarters, for only about $20 a bunk. There’s plenty available between these two, including hotels in the nearby city. Getting there is not overly complicated, with flights via Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Of course, it’s a long way for many people, and round-trip international airfares can be high — $1,500 and up from San Francisco.

Just like Disneyland, you won’t want to stay too long. For those visiting with kids, “two or three days is enough,” says Evannie Wahid, a Sydney resident who grew up in the area and frequently visits. Also, she warns, don’t go early in the year, especially February, when monsoon rains can cause rivers to overflow their banks.

But for the rest of the year, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to fully experience an ancient tropical forest.

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