For travellers, central Sarawak offers rather slim pickings compared to Kuching’s hinterland and the north of the state. Those visitors who venture here tend to be drawn by the prospect of travelling into the interior along the Rejang (also spelled Rajang), Malaysia’s longest river. All such trips start from the bustling city of Sibu, some 50km inland near where another major river, the Igan, splits away from the Rejang. Express boats depart daily to zip up the Rejang to Kapit, beyond which, through the Pelagus Rapids and on to the sleepy town of Belaga, eight hours from Sibu, the Rejang becomes wild and unpredictable and the scenery spectacular. There’s not much to do in either Kapit or Belaga though, and while there are longhouse communities near both, as well as east of Kapit along the Balui River, public transport is thin on the ground, so it’s best to regard the Rejang journey as an end in itself or else fork out for (pricey) local guides to arrange trips for you.
With Sibu being so far from the sea, and the coast here dominated by mangrove swamp, the main trunk road runs deep inland until it finally hits the coast again at Bintulu. Halfway along, a side road leads off through a chink in the vegetation to the coastal town of Mukah, which has an appealing museum-cum-guesthouse nearby. Bintulu itself is a nondescript but (thanks to oil and gas) prosperous town, whose main attraction is as a base for Similajau National Park, easily reached yet appealingly quiet.Read More
From its humble 1850s origins as a tiny Melanau encampment, SIBU has grown into Sarawak’s third largest city and its biggest port. Nearly half its quarter-million population are ethnic Chinese. Unusually for Malaysia, many are Foochow, descended from migrants from what’s now Fuzhou in southeast China. Their diligence is often credited with helping the city become the commercial centre it is today. Its Foochow flavour aside, Sibu is also identified with Sarawak’s controversial logging industry, which helped the city recover from the Japanese occupation, when many Chinese were forced into slave labour. Sibu subsequently became, for a time, the centre for timber processing in Sarawak. Investors, many drawn from long-established Chinese families, made large fortunes as a result.
Today the city retains one glaringly obviously link with the timber industry – its tallest building, a downtown office and shopping development, is the headquarters of the major logging concern, Sanyan. More interesting for visitors are an excellent though small history museum and the city’s waterfront, with its Chinese temple nearby. Boasting a huge central market, too, Sibu has enough to keep you occupied for half a day, which is just as well as most travellers en route to or from the upper Rejang spend at least a night here.
- Up the Batang Rejang
The coast from Sibu to Bintulu
The coast from Sibu to Bintulu
The drive from Sibu to Bintulu is mundane, the roadscape lacking the grandeur of southwest Sarawak’s mountains, with occasional glimpses of (usually modern) longhouses by the highway to perk up your spirits. The chief point of interest on this coastal stretch is Similajau National Park, a strip of forest with isolated beaches half an hour’s drive beyond the industrial town of Bintulu. With plenty of time, you could also get a dose of the culture of the largely Muslim Melanau people by diverting off the trunk road to the small coastal town of Mukah. While not of huge interest in itself, it’s a potential base for the Melanau village of Kampung Tellian, which has an interesting heritage centre, Lamin Dana, that you can also stay at.
Forty years ago, BINTULU was little more than a resting point en route between Sibu (220km to the southwest) and Miri (210km northeast). Since large natural gas reserves were discovered offshore in the 1960s, however, speedy expansion has seen Bintulu follow in Miri’s footsteps as a primary resources boom town. Today some quite prosperous neighborhoods can be seen on the outskirts, though the old centre remains as unassuming as ever. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Sibu – lacking Sibu’s few sights, but with somewhat better eating. There are only two reasons why you might want to stop over: to use Bintulu as a base for the excellent Similajau National Park or, if you’re heading south from Miri, as a springboard for Belaga and the Batang Rejang. You can also reach Niah National Park from Bintulu, though it’s easier from Miri as backpacker lodges there organize trips, while any express bus headed to Miri can drop you at Lambir Hills National Park.
Similajau National Park
With its sandy beaches broken only by rocky headlands and freshwater streams, the seventy-square-kilometre Similajau National Park has something of the appeal of the highly popular Bako, near Kuching. Enjoyable trekking makes for a great day-trip, and there’s even good, reasonably priced accommodation – if only the place were served public transport, it would figure much more in visitors’ itineraries. Though wildlife is not a major highlight, the park is well known for its population of saltwater crocodiles (signs along the creeks pointedly warn against swimming), with a few dolphins also sighted each year off the coast outside the rainy season. Birdlife includes black hornbills and, in the mangroves, kingfishers.
The Bakun Dam
The Bakun Dam
The massive Bakun hydroelectric dam (wsarawak-hidro.com), 37km east of Belaga on the Balui tributary of the Rejang, has been dogged by controversy since the project got the go-ahead in the 1990s. The 200-metre-high dam was designed to generate 2400 megawatts – much more power than Sarawak could use – but construction would flood an area of rainforest the size of Singapore, displacing ten thousand Orang Ulu and destroying many thriving longhouses.
Furious environmentalists and human-rights campaigners asked what was the point, and for years their concerns seemed vindicated as the dam was beset by delays. First, the Asian economic crisis of 1997 put the project on hold, but even so the government continued to resettle local communities to Asap, two hours’ drive along the logging road connecting Belaga with the coast. When construction resumed it lumbered on until, in mid-2011, the dam finally began operation. However, it will not run at anything near capacity, since there is still no obvious market for the surplus power (one idea, to lay a submarine cable to Peninsular Malaysia, would be technically challenging and prohibitively expensive). Despite this, yet another dam is already being built just upriver at Long Murum, and there’s talk of building yet more dams on the Rejang and Baram rivers.
Attempts have already begun to create tourist facilities at the dam lake, as has been tried with limited success at Batang Ai and Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu. Sibu’s tourist office has details of a Kenyah longhouse that accepts guests, and whose inhabitants have a fishing lodge on the lake itself.