Peppers in the market in Sibu
I wanted to relive that journey upriver on the Rajang for at least a few days. The thought of finding old villages where the people still lived in longhouses and had kept their skulls as a reminder of the old days seemed quite adventurous and romantic. Even after PNG, this still had its appeal.
It is surprisingly hard to book travel in Sarawak. The one “hotel” located upriver is called the Pelagus Rapids Resort and they are notorious for not responding to reservation inquiries. I nonetheless tried but had no luck. That is when HK Ling came along.
I read about HK in the Bradt guide to Borneo. He runs Greatown Travel, a regional tour operator based out of the town of Sibu, which is a 45 minute flight east of Kuching, Sarawak’s “major” city. HK was able to make all of the reservations I needed in Sarawak and put the tour together with no problem at all.
Sibu is actually a pretty sizeable town, located at the confluence of the Rajang and Igan rivers. Despite its one stop light town sized airport, the population is actually about 260,000 people. We were only coming to Sibu because we had to – it is the place you catch the ferries to take you upriver to our eventual destination – but we had to overnight. As a native of Sibu, HK was kind enough to spend his entire day taking us around.
There aren’t a lot of sights, per se, in Sibu. We went to the Central market, the largest in Malaysia, which had lots of colorful fruits and veg from the jungle, wandered around the “downtown” area, including a visit to the pagoda that overlooks the floating supermarket, a flotilla of ships that brings groceries to all of the longhouse villages within a 6 hour radius, and that was pretty much it. There is such a dearth of actual sights, that HK took us to see a cruise ship run by a travel company that takes tourists (the very, very few that there are – largely because the travel infrastructure is so terrible in Sarawak) upriver in style for 9 days/ 8 nights.
However, Sibu has some awesome food. We had HK take us around town to all of the best foodstalls (where we gorged). We purposefully did not eat lunch so we could arrive in town and graze for the rest of the day. We ate heaping plates of 3 different types of noodles, including the local specialties of kam pua mee (pork and noodles) and mee sua (chicken and noodles), 6 satay sticks, 4 fishballs, 3 “half moons” (pancakes filled with butter and peanuts – a local treat), 6 shumai dumplings, two pork buns, etc., etc. It was awesome, and all for, get this, just about $5.
HK spent the time eating and speaking with us about life for a typical Sibuian. It is pretty good. Despite the relative remoteness, they have everything here. Good hospitals, roads, infrastructure, telecom, internet and food. There is very little to no poverty and plenty of jobs due to the river and an excellent ship building industry. Kids attend school to the age of 18 and people seemed generally happy. Sibu does not get lots of tourists – HK says almost none - so Ms. Cupcake and I were a bit of a human zoo. Everyone was staring at us and laughing (not that different from home, I suppose) and very, very friendly. Walking through the market, lots of people waved and smiled. HK says that Sibu is one of Malaysia safest cities, so it was very comfortable walking around.
We ended the night at the Ramadan market, picking up some dinner at the stalls to take away and eat on the balcony of our hotel watching the sunset over the Rajang. Who would have thought that Sibu would have been such an enjoyable place? HK certainly would have, so here’s to him for an unexpectedly great day.
Now here’s to hoping we don’t get food poisoning from all of the street food!