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Belaga, relaxing town in the interior of Sarawak

In the interior of Sarawak, many different indigenous groups still live in their traditional longhouses. The relaxing town of Belaga is a good base to visit some of these longhouses. But it can be difficult to reach this town itself, and to choose the right option for further exploration.

We take the boat and bus back from Niah Caves and arrive in Bintulu. This is just another Asian city, with nothing much of interest, other than the airport which is located in the middle of the town. It gives the city its 15 minutes of fame via a spot in the Guinness Book of Records. For us, it's the place from where we can take another boat to the hinterlands of Sarawak. They only real road in Sarawak is along the coast. In the hinterlands are just rivers and dirt roads used by the loggers. At the river, we see a timetable for the boats, showing regular departure in the morning. So we decide to take the early boat the next morning.

When we arrive at the quay the next morning, we find out there is no boat leaving at all. The information on the time table is not very up to date. The water in the river is too low for boats to reach the hinterland, which nobody told us the previous day. Luckily, there are some people heading for Belaga in the hinterlands by jeep, and they are willing to take us, together with another couple.

The logging route to the interior

The first part of the trip is a paved road to Tuwau, which is also considered to be an isolated town. We learn why when we move on via a dirt road, which ends at a large logging center. A huge open spot with large logs, bulldozers, and excavators. A bit depressing, really. From here, Tuwau can only be reached by a 200 meter boat trip. But we are not interested in Tuwau, and decide to move on to Belaga by jeep.

We continue following the dirt roads. They are very steep up and down, and occasionally we pass large trucks with logs, climbing the steep roads in a very slow pace. The actual visual effects of the logging are limited. Officially only a small number of trees per hectare are taken. At least, we see no large oil palm plantations. But deforestation is also a big problem here, and we realize that the complete ecosystem is in danger here.

Relaxing Belaga

All of a sudden we arrive in the outskirts of Belaga. It is completely different from what we expected. There are apartment complexes, decent roads, and everything looks clean.

Belaga tour operators

The increase of tourism in the interior of Sarawak also attracts some dubious "tour operators". There are many stories about such operators offering expensive tours from Belaga. Often these tours do not live up to the expectation, and the behavior of some guides is questionable.

Our contact Daniel Levoh is sometimes also mentioned as such a fraud. But our experiences with him were OK, although the guides he sent with us were not the best imaginable.

Our advice can only be to be careful choosing tour operators or guides. Do you think it's expensive? Shop around, and ask tourists who already did the trip. Is there no reference at all, and you still want to go? Arrange to pay only half the price upfront, and the rest after the trip.

Eventually we stop at the river, where a small park is located including a playground, and tennis and basketball courts. Strange, but it has a quiet, relaxing feel to it which appeals to us.

After lunch and checking in in a small hotel, we set out to explore the town. The center consists of three streets with Chinese shops, as almost everywhere the Chinese also take care of business here. The rest of the town stretches along the river, where many nice old houses can be seen. Eventually we end up at the terrain of the local school. Many children are busy in the playing soccer, working in their garden projects, or hanging around. Every now and then some of them approach us for a small conversation, practising their English, with a lot of nervous giggling.

The rumour that some tourists arrived spreads quickly, and we are approached by different people offering their tours. Most of the tourists come here for a visit to the longhouses along the river. These are communities where local people from different tribes are more or less living their traditional lives. Obviously, we are interested, but the prices for the tours are very high so we decline these offers. The alternative method is to receive an invitation from a longhouse resident, and the visit would only cost you a gift. But the question is how to get such an invitation.

Daniel Levoh

In the evening at a food stall, and later in the park, we are approached by a deaf mute girl. She tries to convince us to come with her, and in the end we do that. She brings us to Daniel Levoh, who owns a small pub, and offers some tours for tourists in Belaga.

At Daniel's we take a beer and chat a little. He tells us he is from the Kenyah tribe, one of the longhouse tribes in the region. He also tells us how to distinguish the other locals walking by: who is a Kayak, Iban, or headhunter. When we leave, he asks us to have breakfast with him the next day, and he will see what he can offer us.

Longhouse seen from the RiverAt breakfast, Daniel starts where he stopped the evening before: with talking. In the meantime, we try to figure out what he can offer us. In the end, he takes us to a boat to bring us to one of the longhouse along the river. Two guides are joining us, necessary to lead the boat through the shallow waters. We pass several longhouses, before we stop at one of them after one and a half hours.

A Kenyah Longhouse

A bit uneasy we arrive at the longhouse. Our guides bring us to the school first. Like all the other schools we saw in Asia, it is made of wood with different rooms, children in uniform, and old teaching materials. Apparently it is part of the longhouse community, or added to it by the government.

From the school we are led via a bridge to the actual longhouse. The stairs bring us to the long porch, in front of the complete length of the longhouse. The people around are only children and elderly people. They are staring at us as we walk by, not knowing what to say or do. We expect the guides to introduce us, show or tell us something, but nothing happens. It ends up in an uneasy get together, where we walk around, shake hands, and give cigarettes and candy. But we forget to take pictures of the tattooed elderly people with long stretched earlobes. Before we know it, we are back in the boat.

Our guides promise us to take us to a second longhouse, but as we arrive we hear we are not welcome. Later we learn that there was a recent death in that longhouse, and during the mourning period no guests are received. A bit disappointed we arrive back in Belaga.

Daniel Levoh in a Kenyah longhouseDaniel prepared a lunch for us, and promises to take us to another longhouse in the afternoon. This one can be reached by car, and so it is a more modern one in all aspects. Daniel is more of e guide than the other two, and he leads us to the rooms and introduces us. We get to try the self-made cigarettes and beetlenut (which we decline), and he gets someone to climb a tree for some coconuts for us. Meanwhile, we are playing soccer with the children. All in all, this is a completely different longhouse experience. Less interesting maybe, but we feel more comfortable.

Speedboat to Kapit

Because of the low water, the boat schedule to Kapit is irregular. When we hear that one is going the next morning, we decide to take it since it is unclear when the next one will leave. We help the locals to get the cargo in the boat and off we go. We amaze at the speed of the boat. This way, we don't see much of the surrounding jungle. But it makes the journey much shorter, and it is a comfortable boat, so we don't complain. Halfway are a few rapids showing why the normal, bigger boats cannot make the trip anymore. But other than that, there are no problems reaching Kapit.

Kapit is still located in the hinterlands of Sarawak. But it's a bigger and less laid back town compared to Belaga. We decide not to stay here, but to take the next boat to Sibu, departing an hour after our arrival in Kapit. This boat is a regular one, the river is much wider here and there is no problem with low water levels here. A few hours later we arrive in Sibu. From here we take another boat to Kuching in the morning. It would also be possible to take a (night) bus, but we quite like travelling by boat.

Sibu doesn't have much accommodation. We check in at the guesthouse belonging to the church. There are some strict rules to take into account here, but we don't mind. Other than that, Sibu is yet another Malay city, nothing special apart from the Chinese temple with pagoda, but we have seen many of these before.

We enjoyed Belaga as a nice relaxing place in the hinterlands of Sarawak on Borneo. It is a bit difficult to reach, but it is worth the trouble. It might also be a bit difficult to experience everything the hinterlands have to offer (longhouse visits) when you're travelling on a budget. But even if you have enough budget: be careful with choosing your guides!!

Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: Kuching

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