Definitively an experience to do in Borneo, but only if you're not scared of staying atop the boat's roof!
A low-cost river trip on a cheap ferry
along the biggest river in Borneo
Borneo evokes myths of adventure, and although a bicycle trip in Sabah and Sarawak nowadays would mostly be cycling through palm oil plantation there are still ways to experience some adventurous stuff. A riverboat trip it’s a great way to see what’s left of the jungle, and cast a glimpse of the traditional lifestyle of Borneo people (Dayak).
For the budget traveler though, a private river cruise is not an option, but there are still a bunch of routes that are connected by public boats for very low fares.
The “fast” boat connecting Belaga, Kapit, and Sibu is probably the last public riverboat in Sarawak, from Sibu though, it’s still possible to get to Kuching by boat, a short part of it is the estuary of the Rajang and the rest on the sea.
The boat ride from Kapit to Belaga is especially marvelous, quite an adventure, and it has been a highlight of our bicycle touring trip in Malaysian Borneo.
[divider]Public ferry Belaga – Kapit – Sibu. A cheap boat trip on Rajang River[/divider]
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The road to Belaga
We got to Belaga from Bakun dam, where we had been for our reportage about the devastation hydroelectric projects in Sarawak. The road running from the coast, north of Bintulu is connected to highway 1 and from there onward to Bakun. This road used to be a dirt track but is now paved “thanks” to the huge amount of logging trucks going down from Bakun area to the coastal cities. Indeed we saw hundreds of those while riding this road, scary shit.
Around 20km before Bakun dam the junction to Belaga is to be found. This is an old military road, meaning it was built by soldiers and not professionals, and you can see that. It’s basically 40km of crazily steep up and downs, something like few hundred meters up on a 25% slope, then down at the same rate, seamlessly. Doing this road by bicycle means pushing almost all the way, a really tough one.
Luckily for us, just at the beginning of this mess, a pick up stopped, wondering what the hell we think we’re doing. The driver told us it would have taken two days to reach Belaga. We trusted him and accepted the lift on his truck, Malaysia people are just wonderful! When we saw what was ahead of us we were really thankful.
Belaga is a nice little town (37.000 inhabitants) upstream the Rajang River, the longest river in Borneo. There are a few guesthouses and a couple of restaurants. The town itself has some cute and colorful wooden houses in a style that is typical of this region. If you’re up for a tour of the interior this is a good starting point. Ask around if you want to get a guide.
Speed Boat connections on Rajang river
There used to be a speed boat connection upstream to the Bakun Dam site, but unfortunately, due to the dam itself and its destructive effect on the environment, the waters are now too shallow and the service is suspended.
The dam affects the whole Rajang river, with the trip further downstream to Kapit made sometimes unsafe by the low water level, so the boat service might be shut down in dry season. Check before, usually, The Borneo Post is a good source for this kind of info.
This is a serious issue for people living along the river since the express boat is the only way that connects them to so-called “civilization” (hospitals for example), no roads there, so when the service is shut down they have to rely on their own longboats.
Price, Schedule, and length of the boat trip
The boat fee from Belaga to Kapit (or the other way around) is 55RM, from Kapit to Sibu the price is 20RM.
The Kapit – Sibu stretch will take around 4 or 5 hours upstream and around one less going downstream.
From Kapit to Belaga time spent on the boat varies from 6 to 7 hours upstream to roughly 5 hours downstream.
The total length of the boat trip is 576km. The time can vary depending on weather and river conditions.
We took the boat at 8 am from Belaga jetty, many stairs do get to it, so not very comfortable with bikes and luggage. A sort of schedule can be found on the Official Website of Sarawak River Boards, but I won’t rely on that, ask at the port if you’re in Sibu or just some locals in Belaga, they all know.
Arriving in Kapit you must change boat, hopping on a slightly bigger one, so more stairs for you and your luggage.
[divider]The boat ride[/divider]
Belaga to Kapit by boat
8:30 am, here comes the boat, slightly late, it’s a sunny January morning with the usually spectacular clouds of Borneo’s monsoon season towering above the fast-flowing river. The ferry is narrow and long, with a slightly curved roof where to lean the baggage, that the crew will cover with waterproof canvas. Here we put all our bags and bicycles.
No extra fee is charged for any amount of luggage, but loading and securing the stuff is up to the passenger, luckily we have ropes, never forget your ropes.
The boat has bus style seats inside, the air-con is at 15 Celsius, need a jacket. Windows are narrow and dirty, not ideal to enjoy the view. But here comes the great fun! On this kind of speedboat locals usually stay on the roof, and that is a completely different story. As soon as we see the first passenger heading there we follow, and we won’t move from there until we reached Kapit (concerns about safety are below). Sunscreen is a must on sunny days.
Finally, we feel in the Borneo of the adventure novels, the Rajang is a majestic river and its shores are lined by what looks like a jungle. It may be that just behind that line of trees a palm oil plantation lays, but you won’t know, so…
The boat goes fast, around 50km/h but does many stops, basically every village along the river, but this is the interesting part. Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman and Tanjung longhouses are all around, each so different from the others, some two-story-high, some very colorful. People fish and move goods on small longboats, plant or harvest pepper, everywhere is human activity, like if this is a city, and Rajang river its main road.
As all of this settlement have basically no roads, they are very isolated, with the river as the only connection between them. Here the traditional lifestyle that the people resettled from Bakun are longing for is to be found. Halfway to Kapit are the Pelagus rapids, nice but not so spectacular. We meet a boat going upstream which struggles a bit, passengers greet each other from the roof. There’s an overturned old boat near the shore, that states how tricky these rapids can become.
Kapit to Sibu
Arriving in Kapit the river becomes larger, busy with logging barges. Some industrial complexes surround the city, which looks ugly from here, and it quite is according to some people’s accounts. We decided not to stopover here, just waited 40 minutes for the new boat.
This time we are forbidden to stay on the roof, the boat goes fast and does just one more stop, no more longhouses around. This part of the ride is boring and Air-Con freezes our brains. We arrive at Sibu at around 6 pm.
Homestay in a Longhouse
Longhouses (Rumah panjang/Rumah Betang) are the traditional houses of Borneo natives (generically called Dayaks, which includes many different ethnic groups). Most of these are made of timber, raised off the ground on stilts and divided into a more or less public area along one side and a row of private living areas lined along the other side. This allows many families to live in close quarters, usually relatives but not necessarily.
Staying in one of those houses is a great way to experience the real Borneo lifestyle. Though we haven’t done that there, a great area to do this are the shores of the Rajang river: the public boat does many stops at several longhouse villages where no road leads. Just go off at one of these stops and ask around, most likely someone will be willing to make an extra few bucks, if not they will probably point you somewhere else.
We stayed in a Long House in Sungai Asap, the area where many Dayaks were relocated for the construction of Bakun Dam. Check our reportage in the linked articles.
From Sibu to Kuching by speedboat
As said before, it’s possible to get as far as Kuching by boat, and that’s what we did after spending a few days in Sibu. The price is 45RM, it’s not possible to book in advance so you need to be at the port at least 30 minutes before departure. Schedules are ever-changing so ask at the port office, when we were there, there was just one boat per day setting off at 11 am. The distance is about 300km, most of which on the sea.
The first part on the Rajang delta is nice, lined with mangroves. The sea part though was quite scary, it was monsoon season and the sea was rough, the boat heavily rolling from side to side. Definitively not for the seasick people. The boat is similar to the river one but bigger, with two floors. The top one has a nicer view and an open deck on the stern with wooden benches, this is where the luggage goes. Keep in mind you’ll feel the sea more on the upper deck, of course.
There are many records of sunk speedboats, this mainly happens when the boat is overloaded, so avoid this trip during special holidays. Staying on the roof is at your own risk, don’t mess around or stand on your feet. If staying outside is too dangerous usually the crew will forbid it. On the boat from Sibu to Kuching we were quite scared, and so were some other passengers, maybe avoid it in monsoon season.
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