Sunday, January 08, 2017

Magic Kervan: In the heart of Borneo – sailing on Rajang River and living with the headhunters

In the morning we go out together again. We eat some roti at a Malaysian eatery and the two of us continue walking around Saratok. People here are mostly Malay, which is not typical for Borneo. Usually towns are inhabited mainly by Chinese.

In the Malayan part of the town there are many old houses that resemble villas. Today is Friday so after visiting the local market we position ourselves in front of the mosque and watch people who come to the mid-day prayer. All wear very interesting clothes, some of them with robes and fezes.

At lunch time Zhong takes us and we continue with our culinary endeavours. Then we visit his swallow nest factory and he shows us how the nests are being processed. The nests are very popular in China and are considered extremely good for one’s health. The price of a single nest weighing 10 grams could reach 50-60 euro there. They sell it for 10 Euro per nest in the factory.

In the afternoon we go with Zhong and his friends to visit a water-fall into the jungle and then visit a long house. It is wooden and in much better condition than the one we visited in Engkilili. People rest on big mats placed on the shared porch. In this season the pepper is gathered and dried.

This is also the time when rice is gathered (the local varieties are black, brown and red and it grows on the slopes). To the utter surprise of our Chinese friends the locals refuse to sell us some rice. For the Chinese who are tradesmen by heart this is flabbergasting. Local Iban people on the other side produce things for themselves only and are not very fond of trading.

In the evening we go to another restaurant. Zhong treats us again which makes us uncomfortable. Hopefully someday we would be able to repay him for all he did for us in the last two days.

The factory is pretty close to the highway. In the morning we head to the road on foot and start hitchhiking. A man from the Iban ethnic group takes us. His car is ancient and his arms are tattooed. We travel with him to Sarikei. Sarawak State is very different from West Malaysia (the continental part). We see jungle forests, not much palm oil plantations and not many roads besides the one connecting Sabah and Sarawak, which resembles more a secondary road than a highway.

The towns and the villages are small and apart from each other. The infrastructure is underdeveloped but seems like everyone has money and owns new luxury jeeps. Most Chinese we met spend their vacations in Korea, Japan and Thailand and their income is much higher than those in let’s say Eastern Europe.

At the fork to Sarikei it starts raining heavily and we hide under the shelter of a bus stop. In an hour the rain stops and we continue north. A guy from Myanmar stops, he is an eye surgeon and today is his holiday as we find out later. He insists to take us to our next destination which is Kanowit – 100 km away.

We don’t want him to drive for 200 km only to take us us but he insists he needs some travelling. We arrive in Kanowit in the early afternoon and our new friend buys us tea and noodles. Before he leaves he gives us a bottle of water – a real tradition in Myanmar. We remember again how great the people from this country are.

Kanowit is situated at Rajang River, the biggest one in Malaysian Borneo. It is used as a main transportation artery. It is an interesting fact that the towns and villages upstream don’t have roads. Some are 100 km away from here and the only way to reach them is sailing on the river.

The weather is cloudy and we don’t see any ships or boats. The river is 500 m wide and its dark brown waters flow slowly. Everyday there are 5-6 express boats that can take you from Sibu – the region’s center, to Kapit Town. Most of them stop at Kanowit too. There are no boats that could be hitchhiked so we buy a ticket for the express one. We are so excited that we will visit places deep into the jungles that could only be reached by boat. The ticket is high for our budget (25 ringgit – 5 Euro) but we want to celebrate our name day so we embark.