Story and photos by Bernard L. Supetran
IT was indeed my lucky week in mid-May, when the distant planets of the universe conspired and brought together three of my favorite things—diving, caving and jazz music (in that particular order).
The fact that it happened in the charming resort city of Miri in Sarawak, Malaysia, during the Borneo Jazz Festival made it a consummate and multisensorial experience.
Located on the northern central part of Borneo island, which boasts of a rich biodiversity, Miri is one of the unheralded diving havens in this part of the world.In between the sizzling performances in the two-day jazz fest, the event organizers took us to Miri’s underwater world via Co.Co. Dive, Sarawak’s one and only Padi 5-Star Dive Center.
Facing the South China Sea, Miri boasts of over 800 species of hard and soft corals, sea whips, anemones, sponges, 40 species of nudibranchs, sting rays, sea turtles and whale sharks.
The dive was a bit physically challenging due to the long speedboat rides, the sea current and choppy waves, but once we reached the ocean floor, the world was more serene and the profusion of marine life made us forget our struggle in the surface.
We ventured into dive sites—Batu Belais—known for its batfishes and long swaying sea whips, Anemone Garden, which abounds in iconic “Nemo” fishes playing in the soft corals; and Eve’s Garden, which all teem in marine flora and is a delightful subject for underwater photography.
Another exciting side show from the Jazz Fest was a visit to the Gunung Mulu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which encompasses massive cave systems and astounding karst-limestone formations in Borneo’s equatorial wilderness. Named after Mount Mulu, Sarawak’s second-tallest peak at 2,376 meters, it can be reached by a 30-minute flight from Miri, overlooking meandering rivers and rainforests. It can also be accessed via Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
At 529 sq.m, the National Park boasts of largest known natural chamber—the Sarawak Chamber in Gua Nasib Bagus (Good Luck Cave), which is 700-meters long, 396-meters wide and 70-meters high and can fit in some 40 Boeing 747s. The adjacent Deer Cave also has one of the world’s largest single-cave passages and is home to millions of bats, which fly out at dusk in a much-awaited exodus show by tourists.
Other notable caves we explored were Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave, the world eighth-longest and believed to have the largest water volume. Both caves can be reached through a cruise at the Melinau River passing through the villages of the Penan tribe, which showcases their way of life at the designated pit stops.
The iconic image in the park is The Pinnacles, the peak of Mount Api, which is punctuated by jagged limestones and steep trails, which can be conquered through a whole-day trek.
Further enhancing our interlude with nature was a stay at the luxe Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa, whose architecture is inspired by Melinau indigenous longhouses on stilts to blend within the jungle setting. The 101-room property is a recipient of a TripAdvisor 2017 Travellers’ Choice Award, and Asia’s first rainforest resort to be awarded the Best of Malaysia Top 5-Best Resort Experience and Excellence Award by Expatriate Lifestyle.
But lest we be distracted by its natural wonders, Miri’s piece de resistance is the musical event, which has made it the hub of jazz in this side of the world. Incepted 12 years ago as the Miri Jazz Festival, it aims to literally jazz up Borneo with a music genre that everybody can relate to, featuring the best contemporary artists from all over globe.
Organized by Sarawak Tourism Board and supported by official flag carrier Malaysia Airlines, it was later renamed Borneo Jazz to embrace the musical scenes of East Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and the Kalimantan provinces of Indonesia, which also have a significant jazz following.
It is interesting to note that the oil-rich city is also host to the Miri Country Music Fest, billed as Southeast Asia’s only country music festival, making it a virtual music hub in the world’s third-biggest island.
Formally opening Festival Day 1 was the US-based Fluorescent Collective comprised of young musicians dabbling in fusion genres made more colorful by their diverse Asian and American ancestries, which starred Sarawak-born award-winning violinist Nisa Addina who showcased her virtuosity in the fiddle.
Cabocuba Jazz kept the musical momentum with their amalgam of melancholic Cape Verde melodies and Cuban dance rhythms. While based in the Netherlands, its members and their music are rooted in Cuba and Cape Verde melodies, creating a unique subgenre from two continents. Their lead vocalist Dina Medina was named “Best Female Singer of Cape Verde” in 2012.
Music shifted into an Afro-Carribean accent as Dutch trio Delgres took the stage, bringing their ensemble of Delta Blues influenced by Guadeloupe, Louisiana Blues and everything in between.
Cape Jazz Band, an all-star group from the cream of Cape Town’s jazz scene and credited for the “jazzification” of South Africa’s capital city, displayed their musical wares as they drew the curtains down on the festival’s opening day.
Other legends who hogged the limelight were 20-year-old Osaka Monaurail, Japan’s funkiest orchestra who still brings their “superheavy funk” music led by its front man, Nakata, who is a jazz personality in his own right.
Solo sensations who took center stage were Indonesian jazz superstar Idang Rasjidi and the multiawarded Canadian pianist, composer and recording artist Laila Biali, whose talent did not escape the admiration of British rock icon Sting.
Moreover, trumpeter Michael Simon brought in his “Asian Connection” brass and piano trio to sail into uncharted musical waters.
Raising the curtains of the two-day extravaganza were Riam School Brass Band, Miri Orchestra and Choir Society, Zuhaili Quarter and Chung Hua Marching Band, which are considered the rising stars and heirs-apparent in the Malaysian jazz scene.
As an immersion to the vast ocean of jazz, visitors were treated to preconcert workshops on contemporary keyboard styles, a percussion clinic, concert-production lectures, as well as evening gigs, which served as sneak preview to the festival.
With the confluence of diving, caving and all that jazz, Miri is undoubtedly among my merriest places on earth.