A longhouse on the Rajang river
Unfortunately, that sounds a lot more glorious than it is. The surrounds are indeed magnificent, but the “resort”, especially for the cost and the title, is not much to speak of. It could be incredible with such a great location and concept, but its owners have stopped caring about it and there is a severe lack of staff. This has resulted in very few guests (we are 2 of 4) at a 40 room lodge. Several of the characteristics, both positive and negative, are similar to our places in PNG – all of the staff are local tribesman (Kayan, Iban and Orang – Ulu), the sight is extremely remote, the lodge was built in local fashion, there is only electricity for part of the day, supplies are quite difficult to come by logistically – but the lodges in PNG were executed to perfection whereas these are not.
This place literally feels like Bates Motel in Borneo. The staff is nice and clearly tries very hard but there is only so much they can do. The lodge is one of the (in my opinion) few examples of privatization gone wrong. The Sarawak government used to own and operate the hotel. Back then, it was a top notch operation. In the late 90’s, the resort was concessioned to a private company, a Malaysian hotel operator, Regency, and it all went south from there. We had been warned before we arrived – there are some very measured critiques on TripAdvisor that told us what to expect - and it is essentially exactly that - no better, no worse. The issue is, as I indicated yesterday, that the travel infrastructure in Sarawak is quite poor, and if you are 1) a bit pressed for time, 2) not interested in an actual longhouse village stay or camping and 3) nonetheless want to get significantly upriver on the Rajang, there are almost no alternatives.
I will say, though, that it is worth going as far up the river as possible. We left Sibu this morning at 5:45am on the express boat to Kapit, another town further up the river where the resort was going to pick us up in a speed boat. Think of the express boats between Kapit and Sibu like the Accela train between Washington, D.C. and NYC. They leave every hour, are full of merchants going back and forth, and are, all things considered, quite comfortable. They are air conditioned and even show bootlegged Chinese movies (sometimes with subtitles, sometimes without) on flat screens during the ride. All in all, not a bad experience.
We arrived in Kapit about 9am and set out to explore. Unfortunately, we had our bags with us so it was a bit like harkening back to our backpacking days, trudging around a strange foreign town with luggage in tow. We asked some locals for a recommendation for where to get the best noodles for breakfast and were promptly informed that Soon Kit was the place to go. We had some excellent kam pua mee and mee sua (the street food yesterday clearly did not make us sick) and relaxed for a bit. Kapit, like Sibu, is heavily Chinese influenced. You feel like you are in backwater China more than Malaysia. Iban tribesman wander through the town (you can tell from the tattoos), but the vast majority of the town is Chinese. We walked through the market full of jungle produce and eventually we met the guy from the resort who had come to get us. He had two Italian women with him who would also be joining us (we are all four guests).
As we sped away from Kapit, both sides of the river had signs of logging. Logging in Sarawak is now only done on a sustainable basis, with everything being lorded over by an intense reforestation regime, but it was still a bit of a sight for sore eyes. Sarawak is otherwise pristine jungle but for these pock marks along the way. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to get us as far upriver as possible – to escape the signs of logging. About 30 minutes from Kapit by speedboat is when we stopped seeing any visible signs of logging and we are still a bit further up. It is for that reason that I say it is worth getting as far upriver as you can.
The truth is that the place is not really that bad. Our PNG experience spoiled us a bit in terms of expectations for remote accommodation, but the surrounds truly are something to behold. It is pouring now and looking out over the veranda to untouched rainforest and clouds, Sarawak looks just as foreboding now as I am sure it did to the British explorers a couple of centuries ago. I suppose that that is really all I was looking for.