By Shahida Sakeri on April 27, 2018
I came to Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat under the invitation by Tourism Malaysia Sarawak Office to cover on the property that had undergone a rebranding exercise in early 2016 following a change of ownership from Hilton Hotel Kuching to Planet Borneo Lodge Management Sdn. Bhd. Truthfully, the resort was like nothing else I’ve ever stayed. Not only its architecture is impressive – the resort is modelled after a traditional Iban longhouse – but also emphasises on giving guests a real connection to the location and its surroundings, without compromising on great hospitality and comfort.
It took four hours on a bus along the bumpy road from Kuching before we arrived at Batang Ai, which is roughly 270 kilometres away. We made a couple of quick stops at the distinctive Serian and Lachau towns. The last leg of the journey required us to embark on a chartered boat (leaving to and from the resort’s jetty every 30-minutes between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.) across the calm waters of the scenic Batang Ai Reservoir constructed in the 1980s, which I found incredibly invigorating.
After thirty minutes of reverie aboard the boat, the beautiful resort that stands proud on top of the hill finally came into view. The facade swept me off my feet, but then I spoke too soon – the trip to the lobby itself required walking up the steps from the jetty (read: I don’t exercise on a regular basis). Once arrived at the resort’s well-appointed lobby, we were treated with a brief traditional Iban dance performance before retreating to our own room to freshen up and prepare for a local gastronomic experience at Nanga Mepi, the resort’s restaurant.
The resort’s 11 indigenous timber longhouses containing 100 individually air-conditioned guest rooms imitate the Iban’s traditional bilek (private family room) system. 88 of these rooms are Standard Rooms are part of the single-storey longhouse. It is configured to include a spacious bedroom and a large bathroom with separate enclosed shower, water closet and vanity area. However, should guests desire bigger space, they could always opt for the Duplex Suites set within the two-storey longhouse featuring living room on the first floor and bedroom on the top floor, also known as sadau (loft). Regardless of size, all rooms are rustically elegant and utilise locally sourced timber furnishings, designed to achieve a style that is both comfortable and environmentally responsible.
Speaking of environmentally responsible, I realise that the whole property is carefully blends into its surroundings comprising impressive tropical verdure and wildlife. It combines the aspects of traditional craftsmanship, safety and sustainability. For instance, besides its aesthetic value, the longhouses sit stilted platforms to enable animals to roam freely underneath as they would in an undisturbed forest. And since bats are part of the ecosystem, guests may find bats guano stains on the floors at some spots around the resort, but they do not have to worry because these droppings are cleaned on regular basis. Bats are actually beneficial because they consume vast amount of insect pests and pollinate many valuable plants.
Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat was featured in CNN Travel’s Amazing Rainforest Resorts in Malaysia in November 2015 due to its eco value. But that’s not all: the resort is also ideal for incentives and functions because it possesses facilities for business and social gatherings of every kind such as the three multipurpose meeting and conference rooms that can accommodate up to 220 people at any one time. Also, its outdoor team-building and training centre can facilitate courses and programmes for pre-arranged groups at reasonable rates.
In most cases, when being at Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat, guests choose to laze around while immerse themselves with nature; take a dip in the swimming pool; fish at the jetty; pamper at the spa with the unique Iban massage; or simply read a good book at the tanju (veranda) overlooking the picturesque view of the man-made lake.
However, since the resort is surrounded by an ecosystem known for its size, beauty and diversity, outdoorsy guests and culture buffs should take the opportunity to explore the surroundings. One of the ways to do so is by taking the nature walk around the resort, including on the 110-metre suspension bridge, which is 60 metres high above the forest floor. On a clear day, guests can even have a glimpse of the neighbouring West Kalimantan area from the bridge.
But for the more intrepid travellers, I recommend a day-excursion further from the resort: a trip to one of the many real Iban longhouses nestled along the Batang (Rover) Ai area such as Nanga Sumpa. This can be done easily through the resort’s excursion desk or by booking through tour agencies like Borneo Adventure (www.borneoadventure.com), one of the most ecologically responsible and culturally sensible tour services in Borneo. The trip typically starts in the morning to give ample time for travellers to not only witness the place’s natural beauty, but also interact with local Ibans. Travellers should expect to spend around one hour or so on a longboat heading upriver to reach Nanga Sumpa (actual time depends on the weather and water level) and be prepared to get out of the longboat and help push it past a set of rapids if needed. During our trip, it was low tide, so I had my fair share of pushing and shoving our boat, which was challenging but made the whole experience more memorable.
Interestingly, the longhouse at Nanga Sumpa was also the first of its kind that I’ve encountered throughout my travel experience. Instead of being welcomed by either rituals or rehearsed dance performances, the reception for our arrival was casual. We shook hands with the representative of the longhouse, then invited to sit at the ruai (common area), which was almost empty since its residents were away performing their daily tasks. The experience was more realistic and refreshing because it felt like we visiting our neighbours instead of strangers. I soon discovered that the Nanga Sumpa longhouse and Borneo Adventure has developed a community-based tourism project that enables travellers to experience authentic native lifestyle minus the pretension and commercial pressures.
Besides visiting the longhouse, travellers to Nanga Sumpa could also swim at the Enseluai Waterfall, located another 20 to 30 minutes upriver, or explore the jungle trails with a local guide who is more than happy to show them the orang-utan nests and try their luck at spotting gibbons and even hornbills. We ended the trip to Nanga Sumpa with a picnic-styled lunch at the riverside, feasting on local dishes such as manok pansoh (chicken cooked in bamboo), midin goreng (stir-fried wild fern) and lemang (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo).
In short, in choosing a getaway destination with a strong sense of place and allows travellers to totally be immersed in local culture and nature, Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat is definitely the place that will charm travellers near and far…
Arriving & Departing
The route served between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching has three airlines operating non-stop flights: Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Malindo Air, which takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes.
When in Kuching
Dine at My Village Barok Restaurant, Kampung Boyan
Despite many visits to Kuching in the past, I couldn’t believe that I’ve never eaten here until recently. The local delicacies served here are simply amazing! This entire restaurant is set in a traditional wooden barok – a circular-shaped head-house of the Bidayuh community – giving a unique dining experience for its patrons. The restaurant opens daily from 4:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. (they close at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays).
Stay at Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites…
Situated in front of the iconic Padang Merdeka, the hotel needs no introduction: this historic landmark has played host to many high powered figures and celebrities due to its great hospitality since opening. It is conveniently located close to the Sarawak Museum, Plaza Merdeka, Main Bazaar and the Waterfront. The hotel also has four equally wonderful food and beverage outlets; however, it is the hotel’s award-winning Italian restaurant – Ristorante Beccari – which has won the hearts of many, the place where diners can enjoy wood-fired pizzas and gourmet Italian dishes while appreciating the Baroque-inspired setting, especially the painting called ‘The Pasta Eater’ that hangs high on the wall.
…Or stay at Grand Margherita Hotel
Grand Margherita certainly has the best location in the city, with plenty of attractions surrounding the property and also an unrivalled view of the picturesque Sarawak River and the long-established Malay villages along its banks. The hotel boasts 288 comfortably furnished rooms and equipped with an outdoor swimming pool, cardio exercise room and business centre.
Gaya Travel team extends our heartfelt gratitude to Tourism Malaysia Sarawak, Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat, Borneo Adventure, Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites and Grand Margherita Hotel for the great hospitality and making our trip to Sarawak a wonderful and edifying experience.