Travel for the Arts

Published on 27 July 2017

Stunning images of tribal and indigenous communities captured by British photojournalist Jimmy Nelson were showcased in an exhibition, Before They Pass Away, at RFF 2017. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)

The Rainforest Fringe Festival made its debut in Kuching this year, a delightful addition to the slew of colourful arts festivals held across Southeast Asia. If you love travel, why not travel for the arts?

By Pamela Ho


Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, may not be your first choice for a vacation. But if you’re looking for a different experience, pegging your getaway to a festival celebrating the destination’s arts and culture could be more rewarding than you think!

Let’s face it, there’s no better way to get to know an unfamiliar place than through the eyes of its artists. Their works are often a response to their realities, an expression of their cultural influences. The Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF), which was held in Kuching from 7 to 16 July, was a perfect entry-point for first-time visitors into an enchanting world we knew little about.

Conceptualised by Joe Sidek, founder of the George Town Festival, this inaugural fringe festival is tagged to the Rainforest World Music Festival (14 to 16 July), which has been drawing international travellers since 1997. Visitors flying in to Sarawak via Kuching can now enjoy fringe activities such as exploring the Culture & Vintage Market, which features crafts by local artisans: from handwoven baskets and hats to indigenous textiles – Pua Kumbu – created by the Iban weavers of Sarawak.

Sarawakian fashion designer Edric Ong’s Iban warrior-inspired Topi Tunjang hat was a hit with visitors! His hats and fashion line were later showcased in Sarawak: Theatre of Clothes, a gala celebrating the best of Sarawakian fashion. Also taking the runway was Ong Shunmugam – the only non-Sarawakian fashion label to be showcased at RFF 2017. Singapore-based designer Priscilla Ong-Shunmugan was gifted four rare pieces of Pua Kumbu from the personal collection of anthropologist Dr Welyne Johem and tasked to weave the fabric into her designs.

With venues located around the Old Court House by the waterfront, it’s convenient to wander around on foot, enjoying the art installations, artist talks, film screenings and exhibitions. The photography exhibition by British photojournalist Jimmy Nelson quite stole the show, with his stunningly beautiful and powerful images of the world’s indigenous communities.

RFF 2017 also took audiences outdoors to the Amphitheatre Panggung Udara for a concert under the stars. Sada Kamek: Music of Sarawak showcased local musical talents – including Pete Kallang, Noh Salleh and At Adau (who opened for RWMF 2017) – in a unique blend of contemporary and traditional Borneo music, which got audiences on their feet!

RFF 2017 was a peephole into the cultural life of Sarawak. The laid-back vibes, coupled with the presence of cafés and local street food (Kolo mee and Sarawak Laksa!) nearby, was an invitation to explore and engage. “Malaysia can be wild, weird and wonderful,” says Singaporean actress, Tan Kheng Hua, who attended RFF 2017 with her family. “We need to feel how other people live. We’re all part of the same story. The more we see and learn, the greater the chance of understanding. Travel is just one very fast-tracked, intense, and extremely fun way of finding this understanding.”

The Old Court House (bottom, left) by the waterfront is where most of the fringe festival’s activities are held. Explore the area on foot, or take a boat ride on the Sarawak River. (Photo: Pamela Ho)
Check out RFF’s Culture & Vintage Market and chances are you’ll carry home some local crafts as souvenirs! (Photo: Pamela Ho)
Singapore label Ong Shunmugam presents its Pua Kumbu 2017 collection on the runway – the only non-Sarawakian fashion label to be featured at RFF 2017. (Photo: Rainforest Fringe Festival)
Kolo Mee – one of must-try street food options in Kuching. (Photo: Pamela Ho)

Festivals to Fly To

If you’re keen to explore other arts festivals in Southeast Asia, here’s our pick to start you off.

Photo: Martin Tang

George Town Festival (28 Jul to 3 Sep 2017)
Penang, Malaysia

Founded in 2010, George Town Festival draws thousands of visitors to Penang each year. Now into its 8th edition, the Festival boasts over a hundred unique events (across a myriad of arts genres) that allow you to soak up Penang’s laidback vibes and cultural heritage. Click here.

Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (25 to 29 Oct 2017)
Bali, Indonesia

Founded in 2002 to draw visitors back to Bali after the horrific Bali bombings, UWRF has grown into a major literary festival in Southeast Asia, attracting renowned authors from around the world, as well as lovers of literature and conversation. Lush, rustic, laid-back vibes. Click here.

Photo: Quest Festival

Quest Festival (10 to 12 Nov 2017)
Hanoi, Vietnam

Located at Son Tinh Camp, 45 minutes from Hanoi, this is one of the region’s most scenic festivals – surrounded by a lake, jungle and mountains. This is an international music festival that also features art installations and design. Mythology meets modernity in this year’s theme. Click here.

Photo: Rainforest World Music Festival

Rainforest World Music Festival (Usually in July, 2018)
Kuching, Sarawak

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, RWMF brings together on the same stage renowned world musicians from all continents and indigenous musicians from the interiors of the mythical island of Borneo. The pulsating beats of world music amidst lush greenery – what’s better? Click here.

Makassar International Writers Festival (Usually in May, 2018)
Makassar, Indonesia

Founded in 2011, this annual festival is the first and only international literary festival held in Eastern Indonesia. Held this year at Fort Rotterdam, a 17th century fort on the island of Sulawesi, MIWF is renowned for its informal atmosphere and diverse, eclectic programming. Click here.

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