After a 3 hour trip by express boat from Sibu up the Batang Rejang, the longest river in Borneo, travel pal Jim and I arrived in Kapit. I liked the look of the place immediately. The plan was to spend a few days in this riverside forest settlement before going on to the Pelagus Rapids and to what was called a resort there, both on the river.
The room I’d booked in Kapit was in a real dump of a hotel and we didn’t stay. It’s a thing that happens when I arrive at a dump, my feet turn me around and walk me out, paid or not, in this case fortunately, not. We walked up the road and into the town where I spotted a guest house listed in Lonely Planet, located above a fried chicken joint and it looked good. There aren’t many places to stay in Kapit because there aren’t many visitors, from what I could tell. That’s the main down side of arriving in a place fairly off the beaten path, the choices can be slim. But I was happy in my room up the stairs and the family who ran the place were lovely and happy to have us.
Around the corner was a traditional Chinese coffee house. It served a very limited number of items, mainly coffee and breakfast noodles then closed early in the day. If I had to live on one thing for the duration it would likely be noodles so for that reason and for the atmosphere, I went by every day for breakfast while I was in Kapit.
There wasn’t much to do but that’s never stopped me from liking a place. Some places I just find likable and how could one not be happy surrounded by tropical forest, no roads in or out (probably the same, had there been any), a local market, fresh food and rubbing elbows with, I believe former, head-hunters, identifiable by the tattoos on their throats. They looked friendly enough but then I’m a sucker for an interesting tattoo.
The museum, formerly a fort, was closed the days I was there, or maybe every day, I don’t know. It was built by the first White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke, who founded the town after declaring himself ruler in 1842. It appeared to be in excellent repair and was renamed Fort Sylvia, after the Ranee of Sarawak, wife of Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke, the last White Rajah who stepped down just after World War II, in 1946.
Produce from the forest and local farms.
Fort Sylvia, Kapit.
After a few days it was time to move on up the river. I called the place I’d booked to stay a while on the Pelagus Rapids and made arrangements to meet their boat at the dock. It was a small one, never my favorite, although I’d soon come to realize it was a Cadillac compared to the canoe they’d put me in later for a longhouse visit.
Jim and I were delivered, after a wild ride, to the Pelagus Resort, a good-sized place with an outdoor restaurant and huge deck, interesting buildings designed with an eye toward longhouse living, elegant large rooms with views of the rapids rushing just outside. There was an impressive staff and we soon realized we had the entire place all to ourselves. I still don’t understand why no one else was staying in this beautiful place. True, a bit more than a bit off the beaten path and I’d had to be relentless by email to make the booking, but now I knew it wasn’t because it was sold out. It will remain forever a mystery to me but there are worse things than having a resort and staff at one’s entire disposal and I don’t expect to have the experience again. I had service and meals cooked whenever I wanted them and was left alone when I wanted that. All quite wonderful.
I spent my time reading on the deck, watching the occasional express boat go by on its way to Belaga and local men in motorized canoes wrangling logs stuck in the rapids that had escaped from the big gangs of trees lashed together to be moved down to Sibu. Just like cowboys, they pulled up to the escapees and while moving alongside, lassoed the log and towed it to the bank. Very dangerous work, I was told, but profitable enough for these forest men to make it worth the effort.
Jim went for a hike in the forest one day with a guide and returned with leeches on his legs. Sitting and reading and watching log wranglers, I’d been spared his fate. But I did learn secondhand that rattan is not bamboo, but a vine that grows in the forest. That still amazes me.
Leaving Kapit with the essentials, my suitcase and lots of toilet paper.
The Pelagus Resort, all to ourselves.
We were loaded into the aforementioned canoe one day and taken to visit an Iban longhouse community. Like everywhere, some neighborhoods are better than others and we passed several rundown longhouses before arriving at a very nice one. We were met at the dock by children who accompanied us up a long wooden walkway to the main house. It was essentially a one story apartment building, a number of family quarters with a front door opening onto a wide communal hallway where group activities take place. The individual apartments had rooms going back to the rear of the building with the kitchen at the back. We sat on mats in one family’s main room and chatted for some time, an unexpected and enjoyable experience. There were few people at home, most off tending their farms in the forest. But those that were there, mostly children and older people, were charming. I took very few pictures as it just didn’t seem polite under the circumstances.
The time spent at the wonderful hotel on the rapids was relaxing and carefree, until it was time to leave. It had been arranged with the corporate office in Kuala Lumpur in mainland Malaysia, with whom I’d booked, that we’d pay by credit card on leaving. But when the time came to do it the phone service was out so no credit card service either. These things happen sometimes, as all travelers know, up the river without a data connection, so we managed to scrape together what we owed in cash and were taken down river in the little Cadillac to catch our express boat back to Sibu, the airport and civilization. But I still remember my time on the Rejang as some of the most truly civilized time I’ve spent anywhere, with kind women, boldly decorated older men, just my type, wonderful food and as I mentioned last time, I sincerely hope to return before time runs out. I’m waiting for that Airbnb listing in Kapit.
Next installment, hanging out in Kuching, capital of Sarawak.
To follow PortMoresby's series on Borneo, click HERE