Saturday, August 09, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Leaving the Rejang behind

Main street, Belaga [Enlarge]

We liked Belaga straight away. It's a tiny town consisting of just three or so parallel streets, each one only about a hundred metres long. It has just two or three shops, between them selling absolutely anything you could ever want to buy, as long as you don't want a big choice; a surprising number of cafes offering variations on a theme of nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles); and a smattering of hotels. It has a chilled out atmosphere. The locals smile and greet you on their way to the badminton court or park, but no one pressures you to join their 'special price' excursion or buy their locally produced handicrafts. You can if you like, take it or leave it. It's our kind of place.

Now, about the excursions. The thing to do in this part of Borneo is to go on an organised visit to a longhouse. The state of Sarawak alone is home to more than forty sub-ethnic groups and many of them still live in traditional style in multi-family longhouses, up to 200 metres long and raised up on stilts to avoid floods. Longhouse visiting is big business.

We are genetically predisposed to be sceptical of anything that involves swapping money for an 'authentic experience'. We've been lucky enough to be taken to the homes of people we actually know while on our travels, and these visits were great. But we find organised, money-changing-hands experiences awkward and difficult. We prefer to see what normal family life is like rather than some manufactured idea of what Westerners expect to see. It's one thing to meet a local on a boat or bus, get talking, and end up going back to his place for a cup of tea—that's special and unmissable—but we don't like it when it's commercialised.

With our hotel in the background. [IMG_4798]
Public garden [Enlarge]

We talked to a few Brits in town who'd been on an overnight stay in a longhouse over the previous two days. In addition to the fee, they told us you are required to bring gifts. Also, they didn't say outright, but they strongly implied, that it's quite boring at times. Almost every family unit in the longhouses has satellite TV and the probability is that your hosts will spend the evening watching Malaysian soap operas. If you try to talk to them or play with the children, you'll be sssshhhed. And you have to eat truly weird food (for Westerners) in circumstances of dubious hygiene... Of course, they said good things about the visit too! We may regret it, but on balance, we decided to give the longhouses a miss, for now at least.

(On the subject of food, we can imagine the poor longhouse hosts complaining to each other: "We've got some more weirdo foreigners coming tonight, we'll have to leave the pizza in the fridge and cook them up some bugs!")

Right outside our window. [IMG_4800]
****ing rooster [Enlarge]

We spent two days in Belaga which was enough, especially since we had another rooster with a faulty body clock living outside our window. It's a lovely place, but it's very, very small and you keep bumping into the same people over and over again. It's like when you pass the same colleague in the office corridor three times in the same morning; the first time you say "Hi", the second time you nod, and the third time you awkwardly ignore each other.

Our last day in Belaga was the 8th of August: 08/08/08. In our room we had a tiny television with a very limited choice of channels, so we didn't hold out much hope as we turned it on at 8pm and flicked through the channels hoping that just maybe we'd be able to catch something from the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. We found it! With commentary in Malay, of course. It was good, but not a patch on the Arirang Mass Games in North Korea. It felt like just another identikit Olympic opening ceremony from the shelf marked 'Olympic opening ceremonies'. We really hope that the London 2012 team breaks the mould, throws away the rule book, and does something totally different for our opening ceremony in four years' time.

Clouds in the Borneo hills [Enlarge]

So, how to get out of Belaga? Until recently you had to go 60 kilometres further upstream as far as the Bakun Dam where the only road in the area began. What then? Catch a lift from a friendly logger, or call ahead and arrange for a pick up. It would have been nice to have been able to say that we'd travelled the entire length of the Rejang from ocean to source, all 640/530/564/567/770 kilometres of it. (None of our leaflets or guides can agree on the actual length—the last three numbers came from the same booklet.) But those days are gone. Belaga is now well and truly connected to the outside world by a road that starts out as a gravel and dirt track before getting wider and flatter, until it finally joins up with the Pan Borneo Highway part way between Bintulu and Miri.

There's no public transport out of Belaga, so we teamed up with four more Westerners and commissioned a Toyota Landcruiser four wheel drive to take us from Belaga to Bintulu, back on the coast. It cost us a slightly pricey 60 riggit per person (GBP 9.63 / USD 17.92), but it was a long drive and the vehicle was new and immaculate—and came with a couple of golden Buddhas on the dashboard to assure our safety.

Buddhist dashboard [Enlarge]

The road was bumpy. In places it was a compacted mud track, in places it looked like it had been freshly ploughed. We passed a few roadworking gangs who were using huge yellow earth-movers to flatten out the ruts. On a road without deep foundations or tarmac this must be a full time job. We bounced through beautiful jungle scenery, including looking down on a sea of clouds which the early morning sun hadn't yet burned off. As the road gradually improved, we began to come across occasional longhouses dotted throughout the forest. At one point the jungle suddenly disappeared, as far as we could see in all directions. The hillsides had been cleared and terraced ready to receive a few million oil palm trees.

Finally the road joined a wider, tarmac road and then before too long we were at the junction with the Pan Borneo Highway. Here we parted company with two of our travelling companions who were going east to Miri by bus, while the other four of us turned south west to Bintulu.

The last week in Sarawak has been one of the most memorable of our entire trip so far, and we're still only half way up the coast of Borneo!

Map of Day 624

Day 624
Belaga to Bintulu

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.