The express boat that runs between Belaga and Kapit is apparently nicknamed the flying coffin on account of its long, thin shape and not because it causes slow death to every single one of your nerve endings with its brutal air conditioning. They do leave the door open though so you’re free to wander out along the narrow platforms that run the length of either side of the boat any time you like to thaw out and you can even spend the entire journey on the roof if you like. I would imagine this is a lot like top loading on a jeepney in the Philippines; great views, awesome experience, about as comfortable as being kicked in the arse by a psychotic donkey and your buttocks will never forgive you.
I alternated between hanging off the side watching the jungle flash by and chilling, literally fucking chilling, inside. I woke up from a nap and couldn’t feel my fingers. Or my face. It’s more interesting outside anyway, you get to see some epic longhouses. They’re all concrete these days but some of them are huge. Like, there must have been about fifty doors on one we saw. It’s such a different way to live. Kind of like the terraced houses we have in the UK but with a whole area in front where everyone socialises with each other rather than holing themselves up in front of Netflix and refusing to adult.
When the boat approached a jetty with humans waiting the boatman swung the boat in at speed and headed towards the bank, slamming the engine into reverse at just the right time, allowing people to quickly jump on and off before spinning it round and carrying on downstream. This dude had some mad skills, it’s a pretty fast river, the Batang Renjang, particularly when it gets to the Pelagus Rapids. I mean, there are a few small rapids here and there along the way but this fucker has warning signs. The boatman guided us over waves and eddys and actual bloody whirlpools. I was clinging onto the outside at this point, it was a crap tonne of fun in an “oh shit oh shit I’m going to die” kind of way.
Four hours later we disembarked at Kapit which is a whole load busier than sleepy Belaga with plenty of accommodation options and vehicles everywhere. Turns out you can go everywhere and nowhere by road in Kapit, we asked if you could get to Sibu or Belaga by road from Kapit and were told no, you had to take an express boat, so I’ve no idea how they got all these vans and cars in. But get them in they did and we needed one of them to get us to Rumah Jandok which the locals had told us was the last Iban traditional longhouse. They said even Rumah Bundong was a modern longhouse now. We decided to have a chill afternoon then head out to find a driver the following day so it was morning time when we were loitering around the market, Pasar Teresang, in search of a human in possession of a vehicle.
The woman who owns Dragon Inn told us the level of English in Kapit wasn’t good and warned us that some drivers would try and charge too much. They’ve been know to ask for RM150 for one person, or they’ve not delivered on what they promised. One English girl stayed overnight at a longhouse and she was given a cup noodle for dinner. She was understandably well pissed off. Well we had no intention of staying overnight, I’m not good with homestays, I always feel like I’m imposing regardless of how much money I’m throwing at them. We just wanted to have a look around and take some photos. We spoke to a few blokes who said there were no private cars but we could get a van with the locals but they couldn’t tell us how we’d then get back. Then we found Menggong.
He was sat in a van with his son and asked us where we wanted to go. We told him and he said he’d take us for RM100 for both of us which was actually about what we’d agreed between us that we’d be happy with. His English is excellent and he’s actually a really lovely bloke too. He’s worked in Gabon, Suriname and the Solomon Islands in the logging industry but now lives in Kapit with his wife with every intention of just staying there now, he doesn’t like being apart from his family. He’s from a local longhouse which is concrete these days and has been for about twenty years.
We chatted with him the whole way about his life and told him about ours and when we finally pulled up outside the longhouse he turned to us and asked if we wanted him to come in with us. I was hoping he’d ask though we didn’t want to put him out so we asked him if he wanted to. A big grin spread across his face and he said he’d really like to, this was only his second visit to Rumah Jandok and he wanted to see it. He took as many photos as we did as we crossed a crystal clear stream. This. This is what tourists are after when they say they want to visit a longhouse. It’s fully wooden and it looks old. It feels old. It does have satellite dishes though, the bugbear of tourists who don’t believe tribal or indigenous people should be permitted to progress just in case they want to pop by for a look at their lives.
There weren’t many people about, we made our way along the terrifyingly dilapidated walkway, quite certain that it was going to give way under our weight. Menggong told us when he was little this was what his longhouse looked like. He also assured us the rotting wood beneath us was strong. Oh good. I mean, it wasn’t a long way down, I just didn’t want to break their boardwalk. Nothing would ruin the character of the place like a fat foreigner crashing through your footpath.
Eventually we found a woman who was sat weaving cloth who, it turned out, was the chief’s wife. She didn’t speak any English, we were so glad Menggong was with us. We knew there was a RM65 charge to visit here, we’d been told by the locals in town, but we’d no idea what to do about gifts so we erred on the side of caution and brought them a bottle of arak, which tastes a lot like paint stripper but people seem to drink it by the gallon, and a bag of sweets. Seriously, foreign visitors must be the main cause of tooth decay amongst rural communities. I don’t think the gifts were necessary here but she seemed to appreciate them and it got a smile out of her. We sat with her a while as Menggong translated our questions and her answers. That cloth she was weaving would take her about a month to finish if she went flat out but she has other things to do with her life, such as picking crops from the garden or chatting with friends. A whole month, flat out! It makes you a bit more appreciative of the convenience of Primark. We bought some beads from her and parted with the entrance fee.
It was RM65 for both of us too, not each, and this allowed us to take photos of the inside of the longhouse to our hearts’ content, including the skulls. Because they have skulls. Most longhouses have gotten rid of these relics from their headhunting days, it seems that only Rumah Jandok keeps them around hanging from the ceiling. Despite being a proud full Iban (pronounced ee-ban) himself Menggong was surprised to see them, he told us his grandfather threw all theirs away many years ago. We asked if his grandfather was a headhunter and he puffed his chest out and told us his grandfather was one of the best headhunters in the area, everyone knew him. I love that despite his Roman Catholic faith he can still be proud of his tribe’s history. I mean, killing people is bad and I generally frown upon the casual decapitation of strangers, but headhunting was an integral part of the Iban culture, no one should be ashamed of it.
We didn’t get to meet the chief unfortunately, some people do and he offers them shots of some manner of local spirit which may or may not melt you from the inside out. Maybe we’d need to go there in the afternoon to meet him but then we wouldn’t have found Menggong and I think his enthusiasm made it for us. On the way back he picked up a few people waiting on the side of the road so I’m guessing if you took a local minivan there then that’s how you’d return but I’ve no idea how long you’d have to hang around in the face-melting heat. We’d been told it never used to be this hot. English weather gets shitter every year and Borneo just keeps hotting up but don’t worry, guys, climate change isn’t real. He dropped us back at the market and we said our goodbyes and had a look around Kapit.
It’s a nice little local town where loads of people say hello to you just because you’re a visitor, and there are loads of places to apply food products to your facehole including, and I shit you not, a KFC. Middle of bumfuck nowhere Sarawak in a town that you can only apparently reach by boat despite the sprawling network of roads around the area but there’s internationally renowned fried chicken. Oh, and Pezzo Pizza too behind Dragon Inn where we were staying. All attempts to eat locally were thwarted the second we laid eyes on that, I don’t know what they put in them but it’s as addictive as crack. There’s an indoor market for breakfast and lunch, and a night market which has a stall rocking some damn fine nasi goreng Thai ayam, but no. Hand me the BBQ Meaty pizza and stop judging me with your eyes. We were on the top floor. Try getting up a billion steps after stuffing as much pizza into your digestive system as humanly possible. It’s the kind of experience that makes you realise you need to start entertaining different lifestyle choices before the Japanese start trying to harpoon you for “research.”
Kapit, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Dragon Inn
Useful shit to know…
- The express boat from Belaga to Kapit is RM55 per person and leaves at 7.30am. In theory. We didn’t actually leave until 8am but I wouldn’t push your luck. It took about four hours.
- You can ask around the market that sells fruit and veg for a driver to take you to a longhouse. There are no guides per se, you might be lucky enough to find a driver who speaks enough English and will take you into the longhouse rather than just waiting for you outside.
- It might be possible to catch a minivan with the locals to Rumah Jandok Ulu Yong or at least close by, it was suggested to us by blokes at the market who just so happened to operate these vans. I’ve no idea how you’d get back though and when I asked them they couldn’t tell us so we opted for private transport.
- Menggong speaks excellent English and charged us RM100 there and back for both of us. He’s lovely, if you can find him I recommend him. I didn’t get his number I’m afraid. Well, I did, but I wrote it down wrong like a complete numpty.