Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sungei Sarawak as a tourist draw

TRICKLING down from a small stream in Upper Kapuas Range, Sungei Sarawak (Sarawak River) meanders through Kuching city, bisecting it into two zones – South and North — and ends its long winding journey to the sea some 120km away at Muara Tebas.

About two centuries ago, the first white Rajah, Sir James Brooke, set up an early settlement opposite two populated Malay Kampungs — Boyan and Surabaya — on the left bank of the river as his administrative centre.

Since then, that part of the river had figured prominently in the life of the early settlers, contributing in no small measure to the birth of downtown Kuching.

Apart from Main Bazaar (1864), the historical significance of Sungei Sarawak is exemplified by the heritage buildings along its banks such as the old State Mosque (1847), the Astana (1870), the Old Court House (1874), Fort Margharita (1879), Brooke Dockyard (1912) and Chinese Museum (1912), not forgetting Kampung Boyan and Kampung Surabaya which provided a vibrant hub for village life on the left bank as early as 1860.

Tapping tourist potential

With its natural beauty and historical sigificance, Sungei Sarawak’s potential as a tourist attraction has never been overlooked by the authorities.

A beautifully designed 1km waterfront walkway was declared open in 1993 and later extended to about 2km, making it not only a “must visit” tourist spot but also a leisure family hangout for locals, especially in the late afternoon and evening.

To fully tap the river’s tourist potential, the Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB) has endorsed a masterplan to enhance regulations and develop river transport along the 24km zone between Batu Kawa and the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK).

SRB is envisaging the expansion of river transport along this stretch as a viable public conveyance alternative to reduce road traffic congestion which is getting worse by the day.

Apart from overseeing the status of rivers, wharfs and vessels, including usage, transport and charges, SRB is also responsible for passenger safety, regulating vessel types plying or crossing the river, standardising fares and ensuring better service from river-going crafts.

The unqiue tambang

The first mode of river transport SRB has been dealing with is the tambang, a permanent feature of Sungei Sarawak.

Though the oldest river-crossing transport around, the tambang is still relevant today.

The cheap 40-cent fare has made this quaint-looking boat a tourist attraction in its own right, ferrying not only the kampung folk across the river but tourists as well.

This small wooden rivercraft — with a triangular-shaped (sometime flat) roof and a plank cover on both sides with a small window at the front or back of it – has become so popular among tourists that it has become an icon of Sungei Sarawak.

It is paddled manually or driven by a small outboard engine and can seat up to seven or eight persons.

Like strolling along the Kuching Waterfront and looking for a bargain at Main Bazaar, taking a tambang across river has become a not-to-be-missed experience for visitors. Despite their no-frills operation, all the tambangs are registered with SRB for regulatory and safety purposes.

And though only a few tambangs are seen crossing the river at a time, SRB has actually given out 118 licences to cover the 24km stretch of the river.

Dual insurance

SRB controller William Jinep told thesundaypost tambang operators who worked 18 hours a day, had organised themselves to provide service at different times of the day — and night.

“All the tambangs are registered with us. This means not only are they insured but also their passengers (automatically) once they buy their tickets,” he explained.

Besides the tambangs, there are also big motor vessels such as the Equatorial which has been providing dinner and cultural shows, especially for tourists, during a river cruise.

In recent years, the increase in tourists had also given rise to river taxis for medium-distance cruise along the 24km waterway.

“The tambangs come in more or less similar size. The cruise boats, on the other hand, are big capital investments due to their tonnage.

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