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.
KAPIT is the main commercial centre upriver from Sibu, and it looks it too, trapped in an architectural no-man’s-land between the modern town it could become and the rustic backwater it was a generation ago. New municipal buildings and even a small shopping complex springing up right on the riverbank are pulling focus from the nondescript concrete blocks of earlier decades, and the place feels like an utter jumble, despite a certain appealing energy. If you do end up in Kapit, you may well stay the night – either because you can’t face the journey to Belaga in one go or because this is as far as you intend to get – so it’s just as well that it holds a couple of minor sights, notably the old fort. Although the town holds several banks and a couple of internet cafés, there’s not much else to do beyond wandering the riverbank or having a look around the town’s market.
Belaga-bound boats make frequent stops upriver from Kapit, and some passengers decamp to the roof for views of longhouses as the Rejang narrows. Forty minutes from Kapit, the Pelagus Rapids is an 800m-long, deceptively shallow stretch of the river where large, submerged stones make the through passage treacherous. According to local belief, the rapids’ seven sections represent the seven segments of an enormous serpent that was chopped up and floated downriver by villagers to the north. Further upriver, the population shifts from being largely Iban to featuring a mix of other tribes, including the Kayan and Kenyah.
Five hours on from Kapit, the boat finally reaches tiny BELAGA, 40km west of the confluence of the Rejang and the Balui. The town started life as a small bazaar, and by 1900 pioneering Chinese towkays were supplying the tribespeople – both the Kayan and the then-nomadic Punan and Penan – with kerosene, cooking oil and cartridges, in exchange for beadwork and mats, beeswax, ebony and tree gums. The British presence in this region was nominal; Belaga has no crumbling fort to serve as a museum, as no fort was built this far upriver.
The first sight that confronts new arrivals climbing the steps from the riverbank is the town’s slightly shabby tennis and basketball court. Next door a small garden serves as the town square, containing a hornbill statue atop a traditional-style round pillar bearing tribal motifs. There are only half a dozen streets and alleys in the centre, and while quite a few shops sell provisions, there’s no market, though Orang Ulu traders may arrive at weekends to sell jungle produce in the streets.
Having made it all the way here, the best thing you can do is luxuriate in Belaga’s tranquillity, a welcome contrast from Kapit. Short walks lead through the Malay kampung just downriver or along the start of the logging road at the back of town (head away from the river till you hit the street with the town’s bank, turn left – south – and keep going), head out this way and you’ll spot quite a few surprisingly smart modern houses. In the morning, picturesque mists settle on the Rejang, while in the evening you can play pool with the local youths (there’s a small venue on the main street, Jalan Teo Tia Kheng, facing the square).
One explanation for the nickname “flying coffins” – formerly attached jokingly to the Rejang express boats – is that they are indeed long and narrow, and feature aircraft-like seating. Otherwise they are serviceable, if not massively comfortable or user-friendly: boarding means stepping off the jetty onto the boat’s rim or gunwale and walking around until you reach the entrance hatch. You may also have to fling your luggage atop the roof yourself, although sometimes staff are on hand to help load and unload.
Several companies operate the boats, but look out for people selling Bahagia and Husqvarna tickets at the boat terminal; both stand out for having more comfortable boats that are also more likely to leave on time and to have windows through which you can see clearly – though the jungle views get monotonous after a while. Otherwise you’ll have to be entertained by the onboard DVDs of Hong Kong soaps or gory Hollywood action flicks.
The Kayan and Kenyah
The Kayan and Kenyah
The Kayan and the Kenyah are the most populous and powerful of the Orang Ulu groups who have lived for centuries in the upper Rejang and, in the northern interior, along the Batang Baram. The Kayan are more numerous, at around forty thousand, while the Kenyah population is around ten thousand (with substantially more Kenyah over the mountains in Kalimantan). Both groups migrated from East Kalimantan into Sarawak roughly six hundred years ago; they were pushed back to the lands they occupy today during the nineteenth century, when Iban migration led to clashes between the groups,
The Kayan and the Kenyah have a fair amount in common: their language, though of the same family as the other Bornean tongues and Malay, has a singsong quality that sounds like Chinese, and they have a well-defined social hierarchy, unlike the Iban or Penan. Traditionally, the social order was topped by the tuai rumah (chief) of the longhouse, followed by a group of three or four lesser aristocrats or payin, lay families and slaves (slavery no longer exists). Both groups take pride in their longhouses, which can be massive.
Artistic expression plays an important role in longhouse culture. The Kayan especially maintain a wide range of musical traditions including the lute-like sape, used to accompany long voice epics. Textiles are woven by traditional techniques in the upriver longhouses, and Kayan and Kenyah woodcarvings, among the most spectacular in Southeast Asia, are produced both for sale and for ceremonial uses. One artist, Tusau Padan, originally from Kalimantan, became much revered. He used mixed media of vibrant colours to create the flowing motifs he applied to painting and textiles – adorning burial poles, longboats and the walls of many Ulu Sarawak chiefs’ homes. Some Kayan still drink potent rice wine, although now that nearly all the communities have converted to Christianity, alcohol is harder to come by.