Tuesday, August 05, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Into the Borneo interior

On the cargo deck of the Kuching to Sibu express boat. [IMG_4732]
Bags and chickens [Enlarge]

The current vague plan is to head north-east towards the Sultanate of Brunei, and carry on clockwise around Borneo into Indonesia. We could travel overland to Brunei in two days by air conditioned express bus, straight up the Pan Borneo Highway. Or we could take the interesting option, which is to take much more time over the journey and travel by boat up the Sungai Rejang (Rejang River). The Rejang is Malaysia's longest river, and it passes through places that still aren't connected to anywhere by roads, cutting through rapids and passing indigenous long houses. This decision was a no-brainer.

Step one was the once-a-day express boat from Kuching's port on the Sarawak river, out into the South China Sea, north-east across open water for about 90 kilometers, then into the Rejang estuary, and a further 80 kilometres upriver to Sibu. Though the price recently went up, 45 ringgits (GBP 7.19 / USD 13.53) is still pretty reasonable. For that money you can sit watching "inflight movies" in the air conditioned cabin, or you can sit outside with the chickens (by the boxload, clucking and roostering all the way!), which is what we did. The wooden benches weren't too comfortable, but the view was great. As we entered the mouth of the Rejang River, our progress slowed. The boat's huge engines battled against the vicious current and we began to fight our way inland towards Sibu.

From the Kuching to Sibu express boat. [IMG_4736]
Logging barge [Enlarge]

Starting at several kilometres wide, the chocolatey brown river soon began to narrow until we could clearly see the jungle on both banks. The river was busy with passenger boats and logging barges—tiny but powerful tug boats pulling huge, chained together platforms of logs. There were plumes of smoke rising from the forest in places. Along with oil, logging is Sarawak's main industry and the environmental impact is huge, with estimates claiming that as much as 90 percent of the primary rainforest has given way to oil palms and other plantations. From the river, we didn't see any areas of cleared land or deforestation, but certainly a great deal of tree trunks were making their way downriver on this Tuesday morning.

The journey only took five and a half hours, and Sibu was fairly quiet when we arrived just before 14:00. The only life as we left the landing jetty was a cluster of taxi drivers chatting near the taxi stand and a smiley man raking grass clippings in the town park.

Sibu harbour [IMG_4744]
Rejang river boats [Enlarge]

First stop as ever was the visitor information centre. In spite of having directions, we walked round in circles getting hotter and sweatier than we wanted to be, but we couldn't find it. Eventually we gave up and phoned the centre to ask where it was. It turns out we hadn't seen it because it had moved a few hundred metres last year. When we found it, the information person was friendly, just like all the other Sarawakians we've met, and spoke great English. He suggested some hotels that we might like to stay in. Clustered on the main square, they were all ones that were in the lowest budget section of our low-budget travel guide. We asked if there was anything in a slightly higher price bracket and he circled a mid-range hotel on the map. In Sarawak 'budget' means around GBP 5 (USD 10) a night for the room, whereas 'mid-range' means GBP 10 to 12 (USD 20 to 24). The extra five quid makes a big difference.

Already we're noticing the effect of our new proper backpacks—people are now judging us as wanting the lowest possible price regardless of quality. Also the number of taxis screeching to a halt on the road beside us and winding their windows down has increased markedly. The backpacks act as huge beacons proclaiming:

I'm a western backpacker I'm just like all the other western backpackers I want cheap hotels cheap food cheap beer and but I won't try to bargain your ridiculous price down because I'm hungover and we don't do that in the west so you can charge what you like and anyway I'm not discerning so you can rip me off with all your overpriced tours and taxi rides and souvenirs after all I'll buy anything.


We walked back through town to find our hotel of choice (a fantastic ten quids-worth), showered and went out for some dinner. The choices in Sibu were a lot less inspiring than in Kuching, but we found a place serving chicken and rice and while it wasn't the best meal ever, it was better than doritos. Back at our hotel, we discovered that they have wifi in the lobby, so we checked that the world was still turning and then had an early night. There is still a long way to go up the Rejang.

Map of Day 620

Day 620
Kuching to Sibu

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


jimmyk said...

"we checked that the world was still turning", by this do you mean, the world news and the news from Britain?

Isla Malte said...

Hey Jimmy, yup - world news, family news, emails, that sort of thing. It just means to check that nothing major (especially bad stuff) has happened. Is this only used in British English?