Wednesday, August 06, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Kapit, in the middle of nowhere

Boat ticket sales desks. Sibu to Song and Kapit. [IMG_4750]
Plenty of choice for boats upriver [Enlarge]

There are no roads to Kapit, and when the only way to a place is by boat there are a lot of boats. When we turned up at the wharf for the 10:45 express (chosen at random), something like seven ferries had already started the journey upriver, and another three or four were scheduled to follow ours. There are no fewer than three classes to choose from on the Kapit Boleh 168 express boat, at 20, 25 or 30 ringgits each (GBP 3.17, 3.96, 4.75 / USD 6.01, 7.52, 9.02). We chose the middle ones at 25 (didn't want to be extravagant!), and when we were handed the tickets they said 'business class'. When we got on board we were able to see what the extra money gets you on these boats: the more you pay, the further from the outrageously noisy engine you are, and the more legroom you get between your plastic leather seat and the one in front. In business class we had just enough legroom for Glenn to sit down and our seats, like everyone else's, had partially come adrift from the floor. They rocked violently when we sat down or moved. If there hadn't been a Malaysian granny behind us we might have shifted the whole seat back for some extra space. We put in our ear plugs (top tip for these boats, by the way) and carefully settled back in our seats.

on the Sibu to Kapit express boat. [IMG_4753]
Business class [Enlarge]

The express boats running upriver from Sibu are like no other boats we've ever encountered. They look like jet planes with the wings cut off, and they go nearly as fast and sound nearly as loud as their airborne cousins. The ride took about two and a half hours. It wasn't particularly interesting, mainly because we couldn't see much through the windows. To keep the sun out and earn a bit of extra cash the boat operators cover the top 90 percent of the windows with vinyl sticker adverts. As with seemingly all Malaysian public transport, there was an in-flight movie, but it was inaudible over the growling engines.

First impressions usually stick and we didn't particularly like Kapit, when we walked up the long flight of steps from the pier. In isolated places there always seems to be a strange atmosphere, and Kapit had it. It's hard to describe exactly, but there's a sort of feeling of being trapped that pervades everything and everyone. Kapit has a small airport with a couple of commercial flights each week, boat connections back down river to Sibu that stop running in the early afternoon, and a few boats each day to various upriver villages, mainly in the morning. Because of the lack of travel options if there was a problem with accommodation, we had decided to book a room by phone the previous afternoon. It was across town from the wharf, but that meant only a few hundred metres away. The woman at the New Rejang Inn was very sorry, but despite our phone call she didn't have a room for us. The line hadn't been good and the receptionist hadn't known what date we'd be arriving. Her hotel was full of a party of Belgians and Germans.

View from the Melagai Hotel, Kapit [Enlarge]

Instead she directed us to the New Rejang Inn's sister hotel, the Rejang Inn back across town near the wharf. She quoted us a price and even phoned to check there was a room ready. The Rejang Inn is old, as the presence of the New Rejang Inn testifies. Although it was undeniably cheap, we thought we could do better. We went round the corner to the Meligai Hotel which was mentioned in a leaflet we'd picked up in Sibu. They had a room. It was twice the price of the 'Old' Rejang but still cheap.

We are in the middle of nowhere, and we have to make one more journey upriver before we can access onward transport back to the coast of Borneo (without flying or backtracking): to the tiny town of Belaga, another five and a half hours upstream. But to go any further than Kapit you need a permit from the local government, to control and protect access to the rainforest and its people. So that was our next task. It was free, but we had to apply for it in a government office, a few minutes' drive out of town.

Eventually we were accommodated, clean, and permitted... we were ready to explore Kapit. Sadly there's not a great deal to see. Kapit appears to be the archetypal one-horse town, except that with no roads in or out, it hasn't got much need for horses. No one tried to sell us anything. We couldn't see any companies offering local trekking trips. Kapit seems to have no idea that it could be a tourist destination. But the weird thing is that the place seems to be booming. On the way out to the permits office, we passed endless rows of huge new villas with private walled gardens. In the centre of town there is a lot of construction going on, and a whole block has been redeveloped as modern apartments. We could smell the drying plaster as we passed. Most of the cars around town are less than three years old (strange considering there are no roads to anywhere further than a few miles out of town!)

A good choice of restaurant in Kapit. [IMG_4759]
Orchard Inn Chinese restaurant [Enlarge]

We walked through Kapit's streets as day became dusk, struggling to find any reasons to like the place. From a couple of satay stalls a delicious smell of barbecuing chicken reminded us that we hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. We stumbled upon the Orchard Inn, a Chinese restaurant serving large portions of delicious food and cold beer, for very reasonable prices. The owner was very welcoming and served us a Chinese portion (i.e. huge) of sweet and sour pork, another of melt-in-the-mouth beef with ginger, and two plates of fried rice that was very similar to the fried rice with dried salted fish that we ate in Macau. Including two beers, it came to 37 ringgits in all (GBP 5.86 / USD 11.12). Remembering that most stuff has to be brought in by plane or boat, we don't know how they do it. Actually, because the number of tourists to this area is still manageably small (our Belaga permit is number 190 so far in 2008!), there are no overpriced eateries catering for foreigners—you eat with the locals and pay the same prices. Fine by us.

We stopped at a local shop to buy water. The owner wanted to know where in England we were from. We told him and of course he didn't know where that was, so he asked which was our local football team (US: soccer). After telling him, he still didn't know where we were from, but he could at least relate to it. Malaysians, like so much of the world, are crazy about the English Premiership. It's a marketing triumph, and it does seem to make us more welcome when people know we're from England.

However one good restaurant and a friendly shopkeeper couldn't make us love Kapit enough to stay. One night is plenty here, and that means catching tomorrow's boat upriver to Belaga, even further into the wilds of Borneo. The difference however is that Belaga has a recently constructed road out of the forest, which is hopefully going to be our eventual way back to the towns on the coast.

Map of Day 621

Day 621
Sibu to Kapit

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.