Friday, March 20, 2009

A Long Boat Trip To Belaga

The express passenger boat left punctually from the multi million dollar terminal in Sibu at 5.45 am.There weren't many passengers, which led me to think that nowadays more people choose to travel by road to Belaga instead of taking the long and torturing boat journey.I was wrong. For the kapit to Belaga sector the boat was terribly packed to its full capacity.The map above shows the locations of Sibu, kapit and Belaga as well as the porposed hydro dam projects in Sarawak.


More than 3 hours later at 9.30 am we arrived at Kapit. Greeting us at the wharf is the nearly completed terminal which looks very impressive. The brief 20-minute stop here allowed passengers to disembark and new passengers to embark and also to buy stuff like lunch box and drinks for the ensuing 6-hour journey to Belaga. Here more than 50 passengers jam-packed the boat and I was left without a seat because I had earlier left my seat to take photos of Kapit.

The Bakun Mas 4 left Kapit with a full load and if it was not of the drizzly morning, I would have secured myself a place on top of the boat where I could enjoy shooting the scenery unobstructed all the way to Belaga.

I have to be contended with just standing room near the entrance, but the open space provided me opportunities to take photos of the scenery on both sides of the river bank. Two women with young children had to sit on the steel steps at the left entrance. Here I also made several friends who came up to have a puff as smoking was not allowed inside the airconditioned cabin.

Around 10.30 we were passing through the Pelagus Rapids. The water level was quite high and it was not possible to see and take photos of the rapids with the huge rocks on both sides of the river.Nevertheless, the ride through the rapids was exciting and it kept me in suspense for a whole 15 minutes.

After passing through the rapids, the rain had also stopped. The forests and mountains were still enshrounded in the clouds.The air was cold and very fresh.

Throughout the journey, we saw very ugly and pathetic sights of serious erosion on both sides of the river bank. Countless jetties and even some homes had been washed away, bringing great inconveniences and hardship to the longhouse folks. Very evidently there have not been much efforts by the government to prevent or to minimize erosion, nor has there been any effective policy to protect our rivers. If this is to continue unchecked for another decade, the banks of much of the upper Rajang will be broken beyond recognition and beyond repair.

While most of the erosion was caused by the waves of powerful motorized boats and ships, others were caused by logging companies who bulldozed the land right at the river banks to build log ponds, offices,workshops and living quarters.

An interesting and pleasant sight of a tree with red leaves standing out from the rest in the forests above Pelagus Rapids.

A charming Punan girl at Punan Bah. Punan Bah is one of the oldest Punan settlements in Sarawak with a population of about 1,000 people. It is about 80 km from kapit.It was indeed very sad and untimely that while the Sarawak Government was in the process of turning this Punan village into a heritage site that a morning fire completely razed 3 of the longhouses on May 5, 2008.

The fire made more than 200 people homeless and also destroyed 4 units of 200-year-old burial pole. Two of the partially destroyed burial poles are seen here in the above picture. Almost a year after the devastating fire,why is there still no effort made by the Sarawak Museum to salvage these old treasures?

This is a very long longhouse.There are very few traditional longhouses left in Sarawak. Many of the modern longhouses are concrete and look very similiar to the terrace houses in the city.

The boat just rammed into the sandy or muddy bank to allow passengers to disemabark. I remember three decades ago I was very amused to see even the Orang Ulu ministers leaving their longhouses bare footed. I thought they were not used to wearing shoes, but infact it was the environment which forced them to only wear shoes once they reached the cities.

The time was 2.56 pm. Belaga was almost in sight, just another 2 more turns and after more than 8 long hours.

At 3.10 pm, the boat finally moored at the concrete jetty at Belaga Town. What a relief!. I hurried up the steep jetty and walked towards Belaga Hotel where I would stay for the night. But before check-in, I ordered food first at the coffee shop on the ground floor of the hotel as my stomach juices had been churning noisily. After filling the stomach and a quick cold shower, I wasted no time feeding my camera again with images of Belaga Town. Ten years ago I was here at this wooden coffee shop (above). Ten years later it is still there and I am not able to notice any physical change.

Many of the shophouses in Belaga are half concrete and half timber. The ground floor is concrete while the upper floor is wooden. There are less than 50 shophouses, the majority of them owned by Chinese Hokkien and Foochow.

A view from the roof top of the Belaga Hotel

The 3 rows of shophouses facing the river are the most popular.The biggest and worst flood in Belaga was in 1987. Water level reached more than 70 feet high and it entered these shophouses.Another big flood which was as bad occurred in 1995.

The wharf area is almost empty nowadays.The Bakun Dam has blocked the water passage to the upper reaches of the Rajang River which is called Balui River after Belaga Town. Most of the people affected by the construction of the dam had been resettled in Asap and Koyan areas, some 50 km below the dam near the Bakun Highway.These people no longer patronize Belaga Town as it is easier for them to go to Bintulu by land. Moreover there is also a small township in Asap which provides most of their necessities.
Petrol kiosks in Belaga are just very basic structures with zinc roof and wire fencing. There are also floating petrol kiosks such as the ones below.Fuel in remote places like Belaga can be very expensive especially during drought when ships can not transport it up river.



The symbol of Belaga is a rhinoceros hornbill.The huge bird sits on top of a beautifully carved log in a small park (below) infront of the town.

Tiong Hua Teng, 76, owns the Belaga Hotel. He is one of the earliest Foochow coming to settle down in Belaga in the year 1957. He narrated that it took him a week to travel from Sibu to Belaga, first by motor launch from Sibu to Kapit and then by longboat from Kapit to Belaga.

Besides operating the hotel, his other businesses include a coffee shop/restaurant, licences to sell ammunition and petrol. Although all his sons are not living with him and helping him run the businesses,he now finds more time toiling in his fruit gardens. Mr. Tiong offered to join him on his routine morning visit to the durian garden where he also fed his two loyal dogs. Later he also drove me in his faithful old Toyota land cruiser to visit several places outside the town.


Like many other rural towns in Sarawak, Belaga folks are not restricted to install satellite dishes to view their favourite TV programmes free of charge. The back lanes are also the place where chickens are reared in steel cages but the environment is kept reasonably clean.

Belaga Post Office

Belaga Clinic

Belaga District Office

Belaga SESCO power station.It is very unlikely that being the town nearest to the Bakun Hydro Dam, it would directly benefit from this mega energy project in future.

A new and modern clinic is currently under construction in Belaga.It will be the biggest and best gift for the people here when completed in 2010. Presently urgent medical treatment has to depend on the flying doctor service. Seriously ill patients are flown by helicopter to better staffed and equipped hosiptals like in Sibu or Kuching several hours away.

Belaga is a very friendly and safe town. A helicopter from the flying doctor service was seen parked near the clinic. The small landing pad is not fenced and security personnel is not required to guard the helicopter. Children were seen cycling around the helicopter and touching it.

If we hang the woks like these behind the food stalls I believe they won't stay there safely for a night in the towns and cities.But in Belaga no body would steal them.

My sleep was interrupted early the next moorning when the cocks started crowing nosily. I went to the jetty to take this picture. Unlike the past, the jetty was not bustling with activities in the early morning. It was a big disappointment as I had anticipated to catch farmers coming in with basketful of jungle produces and hunters laden with wild boar or deer and fishermen carrying the much prized Empurau or Semah fish. Later in the morning I departed Belaga in a chartered longboat to Bakun. I will blog about Bakun in the next entry.


12 comments:

Daniel Yiek said...

Wonderful post. Love the woks on the wall.

nelson said...

nice shots that you have taken. It was a sad story of the upper reaches of the mighty rejang river. Erosion, improper deforestation and underdevelopment. If the erosion and deforestation continue, I don't see why Sibu is flooded every year. Kapit has to be linked to Kanowit to Durin highway to SIBU. It is around 100km and spending RM1 billion (say RM10million per km) at it is better than buying 18 sukhoi-30MKM for 900 million US dollars (around RM4 billion). As for Belaga, their MP Billy Abit better make full use of the road link from bintulu and also Bakun dams. aquaculture and tourism industry can flourish if they plan well. why not organizing the most extreme jungle trekking package (other than amazon). there is no time to waste anymore before the youngsters leave belaga for better lives in cities like kuching or kl.

nelson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ubek said...

nice picture and beautiful word you have there.What nelson say is true.Could not agree more.I always wanted to went to this kapit and belaga.Must be a nice place to go.Way to go bro!!5 stars for your blog.

Bengbeng said...

I love the narrative Philip and the pics which accompany them. Easy reading style. I enjoyed this post very much. Waiting for the next

sarawakiana said...

Wonderful and out of this world journalistic write up.
Like Daniel I like the woks and the helicopter photos.

The early morning scene is just a little too early. Where would the sun be?

Aaron C. said...

Wooo.. Belaga seems fun to go and snap pictures of. HAHA. Well, hope that i am able to visit the whole of Sarawak at the end of the year. If time is willing that is. Oh yea. Dad told me bout the job on April. I am interested. Do you need helpers? If, yes, then I can help you dig out some from my college's photography club members whom I think are all willing to help . HAHA.

abana said...

Was the forest and mountain photograph took at the same location of your previous banner?

Philip said...

Daniel:Thanks. It is a rare sight to see so many woks hanging on the wall!

nelson:I believe the Bakun areas offer enormous potentials in the tourism sector.Good planning, good strategies and good management of the resources are very crucial factors to successful tourism business.Both private and government should work closely together.People in Belaga are furious about the broken promises to link them by road (just 27 km) to Bakun.And people in kapit are so fed up already for the decades of empty talks about Sibu-Kanowit-Song-Kapit road link.I have known YB Abit since 1997. Look like he now is very reluctant to leave the comfort of his Kuching home to pay a visit to his Hulu Rajang Constituency.

Ubek: Thanks for dropping by. You must go up the Rajang one day. May be one fine day you, nelson and I travel there together.

Bengbeng: Thanks...and the new post is up for you!

Sarawakiana: Because of the high mountains blocking the rising sun, the day breaks a little bit late in places like Belaga. For that same reason, the sun sets earlier in mountainous regions.

aaron:You should visit all the places in our home state, Sarawak.It's worth it. Yes, I do need helpers. I will inform you once Pek Tong confirms with me how many he can get for me at the end of March or early April.Thank you very much.

abana: Different locations.

Anonymous said...

I really feel like I have been on a great trip. Thanks

Monica James said...

Hi,
Great post with beautiful post.
I feel, i have been on this trip.

Thanks for Sharing.

Stef Julan said...

I just came across this blog. Cried when viewing those pictures. Things changed a lot.Spend part of my chilhood in Belaga.hometown indeed.things are better back then & it's only what once was ours flashback left.