December 16th, Miri, Malaysia – After some thought we decided not head to Batang Ai for a remote possibility of seeing orangutan (we will have other opportunities in Sabah) but instead, inspired by a book I read on our trek in Kalimantan, chose to head up the Rejang River to visit the longhouse communities of the various native tribes. We had made arrangements to stay at the Pelagus resort on the river, and when we met locals on our first night in Kapit who could arrange a visit to a more ‘authentic’ longhouse we had some doubts about our choice. As it turned out this became one of the more interesting cultural experiences of our trip, but I will get to that later.
The interior of Borneo is primarily accessed by its many rivers, and the Rejang is the biggest of them all. While it is not terribly long by global standards its total annual flow is one of the highest in the world. Called the ‘Heart of Borneo’ by the British naturalist Redmond O’Hanlon (whose book of the same name inspired the journey) the upriver jungle along the Rejang, Baleh and related rivers are lined with longhouses, logging outfits and coal mines; all the way to the dam they are sure will be completed someday. Though time constraints, permits and my wife would not allow me to completely recreate the journey up the rapid rich Baleh and through the mountains along the Indonesian border (despite finding a guide willing to take us even though he said the mountain was unclimbable), I wanted to get some feel for life along the river and in these communities. Probably the most striking feature of the river are the logging outfits; boats ply the timber downriver for shipment around the globe, the express boat upriver stops at nearly every timber station to unload passengers, typically local Iban and Orang Ulu working for the companies, and huge plots of ex-jungle are obvious as you ride past. As you see the logging and the mining it begs the question at what cost is this activity taking place? It does not seem to me to have a simple answer; many factors must be weighted on each side such as the loss of the rainforest and subsequent loss of habitat for unique species of flora and fauna to the economic benefits of employment opportunities for the local Iban and Orang Ulu communities. It seems to me though that something is probably wrong when over the course of a few years the area around Pelagus goes from hearing Gibbons and Monkeys daily to never hearing them at all (it has been a protected forest for three years but from my conversations with the staff it seems they were about two years too late), the river goes from clear to brown water (likely due to increased soil being driven into the river instead of feeding trees) and the once abundant fishing dwindles to a trickle, and the prudent decision would be to stop the activities that changed the ecosystem (such as the logging, mining and dam building) until you can determine what the long-term effects here and on a larger scale may be. Policies, such as Bush’s on global warming or ANWR (yeah I need to deliver cheap shots every once in a while, especially when I have been reading U.S. press and a recent article on the renewed push to drill ANWR) or the Malaysian government, seem to be quite shortsighted and backwards. Essentially their ‘policies’ of waiting for science to ‘prove’ the downside is the equivalent to the poor Cambodian farmer who is waiting for someone to prove that the land mines have not been cleared before he stops walking; we all know how the proof usually shows itself.
After the logging, the people are the most noticeable aspect of the river life; watching them traverse the river in everything from traditional longboats to modern speedboats, the people are inseparable from the river itself. Kapit is the biggest administrative center on the Rejang, though it is by no means a large town and does not have the seedy port feel you often find, and as such hosts a variety of people including Iban, various Orang Ulu tribes, Malay and Chinese. The communities up and down the river come here to trade their produce and handicrafts, making the market a fascinating place for people watching and trying exotic fruits, vegetables and fried stuff (you never know exactly what it is until you try, and even then you are just guessing). Unfortunately, other than local produce, everything sold here is controlled by a Chinese cartel and overpriced, this has had a large affect on the local communities not only because of the direct costs but also because it restricts external investment in the area and suppresses the potential employment that would come with it (the resort is highly affected by the prices and it helps keep them from expanding operations). About 45 minutes upriver from here is the resort overlooking the Pelagus rapids. It was established by the Sarawak government to promote ecotourism in this area; apparently to bring a less destructive source of income to the interior of the country. The resort is managed by the Malaysian Regency Hotel company and is having difficulty. The managing director of the company was at the resort during our stay (he has a strong affinity for this location and the resort otherwise he would have dumped the property long ago) and we had some good conversation about the forest, the resort, the locals and a brainstorming session on marketing and funding options. He took a liking to me and Karen and jokingly said I should take over managing the resort, but that aside he also told us to call him when we were on the peninsula and so we could continue our conversation while he hosted us at his company’s beach resort; we may just take him up on that offer. This resort is usually pretty empty despite being surrounded by great secondary jungle with some decent trails (though we took some adventurous less utilized routes and somehow ended up with more leeches than in the pristine forests, and we are talking in the dozens) in a very serene environment. This week however the place was entirely full (or so a German couple we had met in Kuching and again in Kapit was told), actually only about half the 40 rooms were occupied, and they were occupied by Brats. That’s right, Bright Roving Annoying TeenS, a group of young journalists-to-be, mostly from the Kuala Lumpur area, in a program organized by the country’s leading English daily The Star. This is the kind of cultural encounter you often overlook when running between ancient temples and ‘must-see’ tourist sites, and it was very interesting to talk with the kids and the staff. They run a year-round program and at the end of the year pick the cream of the crop from different backgrounds to come together and spend four days in this resort interacting with the local communities learning cooking, weaving, blowpipe usage etc.. The experience culminates with a kid-run Iban style performance retelling what they have learned. As the only non-BRATS here we were dragged into the festivities, and had a quite a good time. Since the program is run by the newspaper they have a reporter covering it and he spoke with us for quite some time about it; as a result we will likely be mentioned in the article on the event in the next few days. One last comment on the kids, I was a camp counselor for many years and can authoritatively say these are overachieving dorks; perfect group to be staff for or to share a tranquil resort with.
Our own visit to an Iban longhouse along the river was interesting and a bit awkward. The longhouses are named for the current chief, when the chief passes on and a new chief is appointed the official name changes as does all the addresses of the community (imagine what it would be like if we changed addresses every time we had a new mayor). We were introduced to the chief who invited us in to sit and have a drink of rice wine (quite a different type of alcoholic beverage from what we are used to). He did not speak English but we had a guide through whom we could do some translating and as we sat there the entire population gathered around to admire the visitors. We spoke with some who knew English and worked through our guide to communicate with others but for the most part we just watched the daily life going on around us which included drying banana leaves for rolling tobacco, chopping wood for cooking, boat sealing for transport etc. These headhunters of old had a few skulls around, but not nearly as many as I was expecting and every door had a cross or crucifix on it; located right next to the families’ offering boxes where food is left to appease the spirits. The longhouse itself was made of concrete as most are nowadays; many tours emphasize their trips to ‘authentic’ longhouses as if a building made of wood is more reflective of the local way of life. In reality it is only reflective of an idealized version of what these ‘primitive tribes’ should be like if not for our corrupting influence. From conversations with the locals and my own observations, the new building material and the noticeable reduction in skulls hanging in front of the doors is not a shame just natural progress. The concrete is cheaper, lasts longer, reduces the loss due to fires and does not require more destruction of the forests; all in all sounds like a smart choice. What is still authentic and of much greater importance is the continued communal lifestyle of the longhouses; the families still work and live together with a strong sense of community, the kids who work in cities around the area come home for holidays and special events to celebrate with the community and people we met in Kapit and elsewhere heavily identified with their home longhouse community.
The next stop was the Naih Caves; the caves themselves are nice though not spectacular. The great cave is a very large deep cave which houses many bats and swiftlets (whose saliva left behind in their nests provide the key ingredient to bird’s nest soup, a delicacy I have no need to try) and the painted cave has barely visible markings. While the site was not a must see for us, as is so often the case, the journey proved to be more interesting than the destination. We were attempting to make it all the way to the caves from Kapit; this required a 2.5 hour boat ride followed by a 5.5 hour bus ride to the highway junction for the town followed by another bus or taxi into town. Having tried it I can confirm that you have to be really lucky to make it from the 9:30AM express boat to the caves in one day on public transport; we were not so lucky. We had no trouble getting to a bus as they run hourly, and everything seemed fine as we headed up the Borneo highway in the afternoon rain; all that changed when we got dropped at the intersection. The intersection consists of a rest stop with a couple of gas stations, food and shops. We just missed catching the last local bus that would take us to town and though we were told there would be private taxis around, none were to be found. I wandered around in the pouring rain asking every car in the highway rest stop if they were heading that way, no luck. Eventually the army of teenage girls who work at the stop took pity on me (though they seemed a bit disappointed when they learnt I was married) and decided to help. They convinced their boss to give us a ride on his next trip back to town; apparently he has a monopoly on the nearby towns’ teenage girls providing employment for all of them. He provides transportation for them to their homes and had one more group going up to Naih that night, and he didn’t even want us to pay for the usually pricey ride. There was one drawback though; we had to ride the 20 minutes in the back of a pick-up truck in the still pouring rain. Needless to say it was quite a joy to find ourselves in a decent hotel room drying off after a long day of not quite as planned travel,
Now we are taking a rest day in Miri doing laundry and making onward plans. Tomorrow we will head into Brunei to rub shoulders with the wealthy citizens of the Sultanate and then it is over to Sabah where we will try to arrange accommodations in some of the pristine jungle areas.