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.


     Chinese temple in Saratok

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.


The mosque in Saratok














The Friday prayer

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.


Cleaning the swallow nests at the factory

 Interesting to know:  The kind of swallow that lives here uses its saliva to glue the nest. After swallows’ offspring flies away people gather the nests. All feathers, mud and twigs are removed. What is left is a white net made of swallow’s saliva. After being cleaned the nests are dried and ready to eat. The meal is rich in proteins and amino acids. It doesn’t have any specific taste.

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 🙂


At the waterfall


                                                     At the long house of the Iban people














Drying pepper

Interesting to know: People in Sarawak produce the highest quality pepper. The white pepper and the black pepper are actually made of the same plant with different processing. The black one stays in the sun for three days in order to dry and the white one is soaked in water for a longer period and that is why it is more expensive. Many people think that pepper is a typical European spice but it grows only in the tropics and becomes popular in Europe after the colonization of the region by the British in 17-18 century.

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.


Typical eatery


                                                                        Roti with bananas















Some other specialties we saw at the local market in Saratok:


Sago larvas – very popular specialty, some people eat them raw


                                       Bee hive – the honey has a specific strong sour taste


   Local vegetable



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.


Vendor at the market from the Iban ethnic group

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.


Rajang River

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.


Very long house of the Ibans

We know that upstream live mainly Iban people and some other small ethnic groups. The Chinese are not numerous here and live mainly in Kapit, where they own all the local shops and businesses of course. The region of Kapit is in fact the heart of Borneo where most of the local population lives so we are eager to start exploring the wild and conserved state of Sarawak.

The boat is supposed to arrive at 3:30 in the afternoon. While waiting for it we decide to buy some food because we are not sure what to expect in Kapit, then we sit next to the quay. Kanowit is a typical town with many Chinese, several shops, temple by the river and with an air of sleepy province.


Borneo hen

The boat is here. It looks like an enclosed long capsule. All passengers are wrapped in blankets and shawls because of the air conditioner. The temperature in third class is higher to our relief. We sail for around three hours. The distance to the town is 100 km and the boat flies over the water with 50 km/h. Against all safety principles people are allowed to go out on the narrow edge around the boat. This is how we head to explore inner Borneo…


Our adventure on Rajang River

As far as we can see there is just jungle and some steep wooden quays entering the river. While we sail we notice long Iban houses, but most are modern, built with bricks. Some have 50-60 doors each. Even today the locals prefer living in one common building though every family has its own private rooms.

Every few kilometers we stop in different villages where people get off and luggage is unloaded. Some people are welcomed by friends or realatives with narrow long boats that sail inside the river’s sleeves.


Quay on the river in the middle of the jungle

The only bigger town before Kapit is Song. Most of the passengers get off there. Nearing Kapit we see more and more boats and ships. Most of them transport huge wooden logs down to Sibu. The main occupation here seems to be wood cutting, which is illegal, judging by the size of the logs.


The port of Kapit

We arrive in Kapit in the late afternoon. The small port is clogged by cargo ships, motor boats, wooden boats and passenger ships. The town is unexpectedly developed for its size and remoteness. It has everything: banks, gas-stations, a school, a hospital, many shops and restaurants, huge local market, Internet cafes, library, etc.


The central square of Kapit

The strangest thing is the number of the cars: a lot of new jeeps, which is weird as the roads of Kapit are no more than 50 km in total and almost everyone lives in the town. Cars are delivered with boats from Sibu, but we don’t know why people need them as there are around five streets in the town. Anyway everyone uses its car even if to cross just 100 meters.


         Sunset in Kapit

We walk around the town. The only landmark is the old British fort – Fort Sylvia, built by the “White Rajas”. Its aim was to stop Ibans from killing the Kayan and Kenyah Tribes living upstream. The fort is also a museum but is closed today. The other interesting thing to see here is the local market where vendors sell all kinds of things gathered in the jungle.


Woman with long ears from the Kayan ethnic group at the market in Kapit

Some say that here they sell many animals and plants from the jungle that are endangered, but we don’t see any illegal products. The most harmful of all are the Chinese with their manias to put rare plants and parts of endangered animals in their traditional medicine remedies. In addition they are rich and order endangered species directly through their business net here. They catch for example pangolins and rare kinds of monkeys, though they are protected. Greed could be limitless and unsatiable thing…


Wooden bridge

We see a small lake surrounded by a glade. We pitch our tent on a little hill hidden from people’s eyes. We are exalted by the place we are at, by the sailing with the boat and by the upcoming expeditions.


What seemed to be a nice glade yesterday turned out to be an old British graveyard. At least the ghosts of the nobility didn’t bother us at night.


Camping at the old British graveyard














We are horrified when we see we hanged our wet clothes on a bush growing over the grave of señora Rosario whose semi-rotten wooden cross protrudes here since 1872. The tent is maybe on some devoured by the earth grave too. We are sceptic about paranormal phenomena but we can’t ignore the fact that the ground where we slept was very hot in the morning.

We pack our baggage and go to have a breakfast at the square. Vendors sell many kinds of cakes and pies cheaply – 15-20 Euro cents each. While we eat on a bench we watch at the strange people coming from the long houses in the vicinity. The queue of people waiting for the express boat going upstream is unbelievably long. Streets are clogged with people, eatires are full too. Kapit is the only town in the whole region and people come here to buy household products. We have never seen such a busy town in whole of Borneo and even the capital Kuching now seems sleepy compared to Kapit.


Building at the park

We become a little worried when we see that there are posters at every corner warning people for danger of dengue and giving advises of how to protect themselves against mosquito bites. There are people on the street who spray insecticides on wet places. We have to use our repellent more.

We walk out of the town on foot. Beforehand we printed some Google maps but this is not something one could rely on in this remote area and we will depend more on the information provided by the locals. We plan to visit authentic wooden long houses if we find some. Nowadays there are not much left – most are modernized and built with bricks.

A Malay boy takes us. He is from Kapit but he doesn’t know about any authentic houses in the region. We saw in Internet that there is one 10 km. away and he decides to help us and take us there. After we arrive at Rumah Bundong (Rumah means long house in the local dialect) we are quite disappointed. We find a brand new house, 200-300 meters long with tiles and brand new jeeps parked at the place where the old house had been. There are just few barracks left by the old one and no one lives there anymore. Nobody came to invite us or say hello so we decide to continue traveling.



        What is left of Rumah Bundong

We continue down the road and 500 m. further it disappears. At the end of it we see some stairs leading to a river in the jungle so we decide to camp here. The place looks calm and we see that some people have come here to rest. There are stone barbecue tables and a path covered in leaves.


This is how roads end in this region


In the morning we hear locals – some with chainsaws others with guns. Since we are in South-East Asia we are scared by the level of poaching and illegal wood cutting. This is so widespread that soon we will say goodbye to many species if locals are not educated and precautions are not taken. The place where we are is not a protected area so there are no mammals left – no monkeys, boars or deers, but the hunting continues – there are still birds. We don’t see any big trees either.


At noon some Iban boys come. We ask them if there are old houses in the vicinity and they answer there are none. They explain that the government is subsidizing the people to build new ones. It is no wonder there is not a single tourist. Before there were some but now nobody embarks on the journey on the river because what tourists want is now gone. Anyway the second house we intend to see is still there, the boys tell us, and propose to take us there. We drive 16 kilometers on a winding road and we reach Rumah Ulu Yong.













The Iban boys

It is a wooden pile house and seems quite preserved. We enter inside and the boys point us towards the boss (every house has a kind of mayor). Several old women sit on the porch – one knits, the  other washes vegetables, the third one is resting. They don’t greet us and look at us grumpily. They look somewhat scary, like witches, with long oily hairs and strange faces. One of the boys shows us an antique guillotine. The wooden floor creeks loudly.





A corpulent lady wearing a ton of gold jewelry expects us at the end of the long hallway. She holds an accountant notepad. She is the wife of the boss. She looks at us furiously and hisses that we have to pay 40 ringgit (10 Euro) for the visit and 15 ringgit (3 Euro) for taking photos. We start discussing. We stayed for no more than 3 minutes on the porch and there was no sign that there was a fee. The boys translate that we can’t afford to pay this sum and that we don’t want to stay or walk around anymore.

The lady is relentless and starts shouting. This is a real robbery as the most expensive museum in Malaysia costs no more than 20 ringgit – and they expect us to pay 50 ringgit just for the fact that we stood for three minutes at their porch and made several photos. We are disgusted by this behavior and leave without paying.

The boys also seem shocked by what is happening and feel bad. They can’t belive the fact that someone wants us to pay them for stepping on their porch. They are worried that we might think Ibans are bad people. We console them that these are the first not so pleasant Ibans we have ever met. We tell them all people from this ethnic group are extremely kind, including them, who spent two hours taking us here and there.


We go back on the main road and continue hitchhiking. A Chinese truck stops by and we hop in the open back carriage. We know that this road is 100 km long and most of it is a dirt road used by the wood cutters. Suddenly the truck stops in front of the arc of a long house. The Chinese driver seems worried and ask us to get off as he doesn’t want to continue driving further for some unknown to us reason. We get off – who knows, maybe it is a blessing in disguise!


Welcome to “Rumah Emak”

There are many jeeps parked on the road, flags flap by the wind. Police and military pass by us. They are here to guard some important politicians. It turns out this is a campaign of some political party and one of the candidates has come here to treat the electorate, meaning to hire them to vote for him. Here this is done openly.

The candidate is leaving but the celebration continues. The building is brand new and is so long that around 400 people live in it. All is clean and new. The old wooden porch has become a brand new one covered in shiny tiles. In front of every door there is a mat and families eat and drink with their friends – all paid for by the politician. When they see us people immediately call us to participate in the feast.


People calling us

Everyone is extremely happy. At the table we see chicken with spinach, raw marinated fish (called Umai), sticky rice in banana leaves, beer, juices and various sweets. In two hours celebration starts to fade away and we decide to leave, but a tropical rain starts pouring. It seems like it will continue for a while and people invite us to sleep here. It will be extremely interesting to engulf in the life of Iban people even though its modernized version, so we agree.


The feast


Sticky rice in banana leaves

Our host starts showing us around and introducing us to the others. Everyone is drunk, the music plays loudly and people are dancing. 70 % of the men have almost all of their bodies tattooed. They keep pouring Mr. Shushtari tuak – sweet rice liquor. This night we understand many things about Iban people. Later we go at our host’s rooms. Every family internal rooms are separated from those of the others (usually relatives). All expenses are also separate. Everyone is one big family on the porch, but once inside all lead their own lives and have their space.


In the evening everyone goes to their rooms. We eat some spinach with rice that they prepared especially for us without meat. Then some youngsters show up – cousins of our host from the neighboring rooms and start telling us about their hunting adventures. There are no animals left in the region and they drive 4-5 hours to go to next the border with Indonesia to hunt boars.

In fact this is their traditional occupation for centuries – hunting and selling animals from the jungle. But nowadays this is horrible. No one in the house seems to work. They grow their own fruits and vegetables, have hens and pigs and own fishing boats. They have money to by huge flat TVs and iPhones by selling expensive trees and rare animals – with the help of the government on top of everything. A boar that weighs 50 kg is sold for 1000 ringgit (250-300 Euro). At least they are informed that they must not shoot at orangutan…


Scorpion (Uropygidae) which we found next to our camp. We caught it in a t-shirt and it released some strong acid like smelly substances that we could barely wash out afterwards

We prepare to go to bed. They give us a mat and accommodate us at the living room and the hosts go to sleep in the room next to us. The insides of the house are also long. There are not rooms as we know them, just some halls that follow one after the other with no doors – 4 or 5 in total. Obviously Ibans love long buildings 🙂

Interesting to know: The indigenous population of Borneo/Kalimantan is known as Dayak. This term however includes various ethnic groups such as Iban (the most numerous group in Sarawak) Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayang, Melanau, etc. Most typical for them is that they live in long houses by the rivers. In the past they were fearsome warriors, known as headhunters. In order to get married the young warrior had to throw a cut-out head in the feet of his bride. The heads and the skulls of the enemies were hanged as trophies at the porch where everyone could see them. This custom was practiced till WWII and even today in some houses there are still skulls hanging from the ceiling.


After breakfast we leave the hospitable Ibans from Rumah Emak. There are no cars passing by on the dirt road so we decide to leave our choice of destination to fate – if the car goes to the jungle we will hitchhike it, if it goes to Kapit we will hop on too. In an hour the first truck shows up. It goes to Kapit and we embark.



We go around the market for one last time. This time we see shocking things: giant toads, two meter long baked lizard, boar parts. At the market we see a woman from the ethnic group Kayan who has prolonged ears reaching her shoulders – in the past all women from this ethnicity used weights to prolong their ears. We haven’t yet seen Kayan or Kenyah people as they live upstream and are known as Orang Ulu – upriver people.


Toads for sale


                                                                    Boar meat









Baked lizard

After exploring the different quays we find out we cannot continue upstream. The express boat to Belaga costs 55 ringgit (around 10 euro) which is above our current budget. Long wooden boats sail up Baleh River and are too expensive too. Cargo ships don’t travel to there as they cannot pass the rapid currents. We have to go back but we are not regretting it that we came here at all. In several years they will build a road to Kapit and all will be very different.


Fort Sylvia

Today Fort Sylvia is open and inside it there is an exposition, which is not very interesting to see. Here is some information of who “The White Rajas” were:

Historical facts: The British adventurer James Brooke arrives on Borneo with just one ship in the 19-th century. His diplomatic and military skills help him win the respect of the Sultan of Brunei who designates Brooke as a white Raja of Sarawak. He and his heir and nephew Charles Brooke rule their private colony for 100 years before the Japanese came and the last white Raja, Vyner Brooke, escaped. After the end of WWII Vyner decides to transfer his powers to the British Crown. This is the end of the reign of the White Rajas on Borneo… In 1963 Sarawak becomes part of Malaysia. Now the only thing left from the era of White Rajas are post stamps that are extremely rare. We wonder what is the feeling of having one’s own colony!? 🙂

Luckily a cargo ship captain agrees to take us downstream. Instead of three we will travel for eight hours but we are boathiking and we will enjoy the views. Captain Lee is very nice – half Chinese, half Iban. He is happy that he has company. Before we go they have to load 300 empty gas bottles so we leave in the afternoon.


The new captain of the cargo ship 🙂

The captain decides that we will stay at Song Town in order to not sail at night. We are OK as we will visit and see this town too. Song has just one street and is much smaller than Kapit. There is nothing much here – few shops, a market and a Chinese temple.


                                                            The port of Song

We cook at the outer deck and in the mean time part of the crew goes to visit a friend. Cooking under these circumstances is a real adventure as all shakes from the vibrations of the boat. Plates and cups fall down all the time. We cook Manis – a vegetable that is very poisonous if not cooked. Scientists haven’t yet managed to isolate the mysterious toxin that disappears when cooked. The Manis’s leaves are a local specialty and are eaten only in Borneo. We also cook some gigantic rose colored flowers that has a very strange taste. For quite a lot time already we eat only local leaves, flowers and roots gathered in the jungle. We said good-bye to the food we were familiar with 🙂


Cooking onboard

In the evening we go to bed at the front of the ship because the noise from the motor at the back is unbearable. There are no berths at the ship, just four wooden beds next to the helm and they are all occupied… but we have a tent 🙂


We start at 4 a.m. heading to Sibu. We feel exhausted by the constant loud noise, but we manage to fall asleep even at the back. The boat arrives at the port of Sibu at 11 a.m. and we go to an eatery together with the captain who buys us beverages. He lives at a small town next to the highway and we hop on a public bus with him. The distance to there is 20 km. and it costs just 2 ringgit (40 Euro cents).


Sibu Town

The atmosphere at Sibu is very weird. Next to the port rise a Chinese temple and a huge church. The population is mainly Chinese. Sibu seems as developed as the capital Kuching. We are told that the town is reigned by the Chinese mafia and everybody warns us to be careful. The bus driver obviously likes the gangster fashion – he has special shoes, black bowler hat and sunglasses. Next to us sits an old man who reads an English newspaper with an air of importance. A weird town indeed.


Inside the bus

Soon we are on the highway and hitchhiking goes smoothly. A nice guy takes us to the fork to Mukah Town. He is Orang Ulu himself and owns an oil plantation, has six kids and his wife is a popular singer in Sarawak . While hitchhiking one could meet so many different and really interesting people. Then a Kayan takes us to the center of Mukah. He tells us where we can find Kayan and Kenyah long houses but it will be an uneasy task.


The mosque in Mukah

Mukah is situated on the ocean and the main reason for us to come here is because the region is inhabited by the Melanau ethnic group. Traditionally people here grow sago palm from which they make flour that resembles those made of tapioca. For the locals for centuries sago was the main food, contrary to other ethnic groups in the region who eat mainly rice.


The chimney of the old sago factory

Mukah is a small town though it is the capital of the region. The atmosphere is somewhat Muslim as there is a very big, modern mosque in the center of the town. It starts raining and we enter a pavilion at the port of the river.


The Chinese temple at Mukah





















We start chatting with an old local Melanau fisherman who speaks perfect English. Once English was obligatory and even most of the classes at school were taught in English. Here one can meet many old people who speak much better than the youngsters.

The rain stops and the fisherman takes us to the beach of Mukah, which is 2 km away. It seems strange to us that in such a small town without any tourists the local authorities has built pavilions, alleys in the wood behind the beach and maintains all the lawns mown. There are no houses in the vicinity so it is perfect for camping.


Sunset at Mukah’s beach

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