Even though it’s a much diminished experience compared to even ten or fifteen years ago, a journey to the upper reaches of the Rejang should still engender a little frisson of excitement. This area was, after all, once synonymous with remoteness and with mysterious warring tribes. Even a century ago, conflict persisted between the Iban and the Orang Ulu, particularly the Kayan. Things had been much worse before the arrival of the Brookes, who wanted to develop – and therefore subjugate – the interior. To that end, James Brooke bought a section of the Rejang from the Sultan of Brunei in 1853, while his successor, Charles, asserted his authority over the Iban and Kayan tribes and encouraged the Chinese to open up the interior to agriculture and trade.
Thus began the gradual pacification of the Rejang. Even today, despite development and modern communications, it’s still possible to glimpse something of that pioneer spirit in these upriver towns, while forts at Kanowit and Kapit hint at the lengths taken by the Brookes to get the region under their thumb. The furthest boats go upriver is the nondescript town of Belaga, reached by a thrilling ride through the Pelagus Rapids. There is, however, another exciting route into or out of Belaga – by 4WD, the road connecting up with the main trunk road near Bintulu. Unfortunately longhouse visits can be difficult to pull off – notable exceptions are a family-friendly longhouse near Kanowit and possible excursions from Belaga – unless you are willing to pay often steep sums for guides to make the arrangements.