Journey along the Batang Rejang
Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
82Trip End Dec 12, 2008
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This morning Rikke and I left Kuching to travel by boat to Sibu, one of the towns along the Batang Rejang river. The journey along the river took about five hours. Along the river banks we couldn't fail to notice the patches of decimated rainforest interspersed with logging stations. The vanishing rainforests are an issue we hear so much about, and yet it's only now that it's right in front of me that the extent of the problem is really sinking in. What I've seen today is just a glimpse of what is of course a much bigger picture. I don't know what the saddest thing is - the Western culture of greed and excess that drives this industry, or the waste. Most of the logging stations we passed today still appear to be using tractor felling, a method that destroys about five trees for every saleable tree felled.
In Sibu we headed off to find the Hoover Hostel, which we had heard was good, only to find that it doesn't exist any more. So we ended up with a twin room (for a really good price considering the cleanliness and air-con) at the Sarawak Hotel. We had a late lunch and then had a look round town, but there isn't really much here; this is really just a stopping-off point on our journey up the Rejang. So, we decided to make the most of a free afternoon and go for a much-needed haircut. It was lovely to feel pampered after all this time living out of a backpack, and the free head, neck and shoulder massage that was included in the dirt-cheap price was absolute heaven. I think cheap haircuts and massages are something I will be seeing a lot more of over the next 5 months!
In the evening we went to the night market, had the worst satay I have ever tasted (I do not want to know what part of a chicken was on that stick), but then found a really nice cafe to relax in and enjoy dessert and a hot drink before bed.
Wednesday 16th July
This morning we slept in late, which I think we both needed as we've had quite a few early starts and been packing quite a lot into the days. We went back to last night's cafe, where I had Balinese chicken for lunch. Then we caught an afternoon boat further up the Rejang to the smaller town of Kapit.
On the boat we were befriended by a man called Rudy, whose eyes lit up when we told him we didn't know where we were going to stay in Kapit. We're used to ignoring hotel recommendations from taxi drivers and friendly locals as they're pretty meaningless due to the fact that everything here is done on commission... however, this time we figured if he could find us a decent room for the price we wanted to pay, then there was no harm in him getting paid for it. He took us to one absolute cess-pit before we settled on somewhere nice for a good price. He gave us a much-appreciated lift there too - it did dawn on me as we got in the car that we perhaps shouldn't be accepting lifts from strange men, but it all turned out OK. It was funny to watch him make a big show of leaving the hotel while we were in reception, only to scuttle back in to collect his commission as soon as we were on our way up the stairs to our room.
As with Sibu, there isn't a great deal to see or do within the town itself - our journey up the Rejang is definitely about the river itself more than anything else! So, we had a bit of a look round the town before dinner, and then spent the evening in an internet cafe.
Thursday 17th July
Our plan for this morning was to pop to the nearby State Government Complex when it opened at 8am to collect a permit that we need in order to travel any further up the Rejang, before catching the 9am ferry to Belaga. Things are never quite that straightforward...
We found the Government building easily enough, with the help of Lonely Planet as always, but it was all locked up with no signs of life. At this point we weren't too worried because it was only 8am, so we thought they were probably just running a bit late. By 8.20 we were getting a bit concerned that if they didn't open soon, we might miss our ferry. Just at that moment, who should pull up next to us but our friend Rudy. When we explained our situation he laughed and told us that the Government offices had moved to another building on the other side of town, and, by happy coincidence, he just so happened to be on his way to that very building as it is his place of work.
I wasn't sure whether to thank some higher power who is obviously looking out for us, or wonder why this strange man is stalking us. Anyway, it's times like these when cynicism only would have led to us missing our ferry, so we jumped in the car with him and off we went to get our permits. We got them with about 15 minutes to spare before our boat, and asked the receptionist to phone a taxi for us. She sent us outside where we were under the impression there would be some sort of taxi rank, to find a man with a van who offered to drive us to the wharf for 2 ringgits (less than 20p). When we finally arrived and the boat man told us we were at the wrong wharf, I was convinced we would miss the ferry, but typically it was late, so after all that rushing around we actually ended up sitting on the wharf waiting for the boat for quite a while.
My left eye has been a bit sore for the last few days (don't worry, I'm not moaning, this is leading somewhere...), so I've taken the contact lens out and, as it's so sensitive to sunlight and I don't have any prescription sunglasses, I have opted to wear one contact lens with sunglasses, rather than my glasses. Now, wharfs on the Batang Rejang are not complicated affairs, and generally involve leaping from one boat to the next to get to the one you need to be on. This, with a large backpack on my back, a smaller one on my front, and absolutely no visual perception of depth and distance due to my absent contact lens, was quite a unique challenge today. I'm quite relieved - and surprised - to have made it to Belaga without falling in the river and being eaten by crocodiles.
We found an average (but cheap) room at the Belaga Hotel, and had an afternoon nap. Then we headed out to explore the small town that is Belaga. I wasn't at all surprised to bump into Romain here as I think we're on quite similar routes at the moment, but we didn't get to talk for long today as he was heading off on a longhouse tour.
We went to a cafe to have some fried noodles for dinner, and there we were befriended by a local girl who everybody calls Epep, because she's deaf and that's the sound she always makes. We also chatted to her English-speaking mother who runs the cafe. After we ate, Epep took us for a walk through the residential area of the town and through the local school and graveyard before heading back to the road that forms the town centre. It's normal for every local we pass, especially in the small villages such as this one, to say hello and practice any English words and phrases that they may happen to know. So, on our walk we were constantly serenaded from the nearby houses with shouts of "hello how are you", "where you from" and even "I love you" from a small boy.
I'm certainly better at communicating in Epep's sign language than in Malay, and throughout the course of our tour of Belaga she gave us lots of useful advice including don't walk in the middle of the road as you may get hit by a car, don't fall into any drains, and don't under any circumstances talk to a very bad man called Andreas.
Friday 18th July
We were up at 7am to meet the 4WD driver who was to drive us to a place where we could catch a bus to our next destination, Miri. Miri will be our base for Gunung Mulu National Park and Brunei over the next week or so. We arranged the 4WD transport yesterday with Daniel, a local cafe owner.
As soon as we set foot downstairs we were greeted by a rather frantic Epep, who had clearly been waiting for us. She led us to a nearby cafe for breakfast, which in itself didn't seem to be a problem... but then she started to explain that we shouldn't go with the driver Daniel had booked for us because he is a very bad driver, and before we could stop him the cafe owner had phoned for a different driver to come and collect us from his cafe. Of course they were both just going for an easy commission, and were pretty pissed off when we politely refused to hide from our original driver, who was by this time waiting for us outside.
Epep soon cheered up when I paid for her breakfast, but the cafe owner just threw my change at me and batted me away as if I were a mosquito bothering him. I don't really know what we could have done differently and it feels bad to have offended them, even though all we did was not fall for their little attempt at a commission scam. It was a bit sad to leave on this less-than-friendly note, as only yesterday I had commented that Belaga was the most welcoming town I had yet come across in Asia.
The 4WD journey was scenic, if a little cramped, and the driver did his best to keep us entertained with his DVD compilation of romantic hits from the 80s and 90s. He dropped us off at a crossroads where we waited for a bus to Miri. The only distinguishing feature of this place is that it is the junction between the three nearest towns, Belaga, Bintulu, and Miri. From this a small marketplace has grown, trading produce between the three towns and of course selling to tourists waiting for the bus. I guess this is how towns begin, and I wonder how long it will be before this place has a name.
The bus took us to Miri, arriving mid-afternoon. We found a nice hostel, Highlands, ate at a cafe, went on the internet and had a walk around the town. We decided that a productive use of our evening would be to go for a massage - my first and definitely not my last!
Saturday 19th July
We had a lie-in this morning and after we got up we went to speak to the hostel manager, as she had asked us to move to a different room tonight because she had a large group arriving. It turned out, she actually expected us to sleep on the floor, and yet we would still be paying the full rate for the privilege of being in a room. She was so rude and unhelpful throughout the conversation that we decided to leave and find somewhere else to stay. We came across Minda Guesthouse, which isn't in our Lonely Planet books as it only opened 2 months ago; it's cleaner, friendlier and much more welcoming than Highlands, so it all turned out well.
We had a fairly lazy day in the rain in Miri - cafe-hopping, reading, going to the cinema (Hancock is RUBBISH) and organising ourselves for our trip to Gunung Mulu National Park tomorrow.