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Published: April 30th 2013
Many of our fondest memories of our travel life seem to revolve around boat trips. Whether sailing on a felucca around Elephantine Island on the Nile, launching small, candlelit offerings while watching the Arti festival near Varanasi on the Ganges River, rounding a corner and watching hundreds of wintering egrets take flight from the dense green foliage on the banks of a tributary of the Amazon In Peru or arriving at the hidden Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan after a short ride up the Usumacinta River on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. We often remember walking along a hand-crafted dock after our boat crossed the Mekong south of Saigon and finding a jungle restaurant that serves the best fish I’ve ever tasted in my life. It seems that our best trips have been close to or directly related to boat travel.
Modern travel revolves around minibuses on crowded freeways or hurrying through another generic airport to catch another plane to another destination which will be introduced by passing through another airport which looks very similar to the one you just left from. Travelling by boat is slower and less practical but allows you time to feel like you have left
one place before you arrive at another.
On this trip we have taken some excellent trips on boats. Watching crocodiles and monkeys as we made our way up the New River from Orange Walk to the Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize, crossing the crystal blue waters of Bahia Almirante to reach Bocas del Toro in Panama, powering our way upstream, winding our way through thousand foot cliffs in Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas, Mexico or even taking the slow ferry on a scorching hot summer day from ultra-modern Panama City to laid back Taboga Island off the coast of Panama.
We began the second week in Kuching sitting at the common area breakfast table of our hostel listening to our young backpacker housemates tell exciting stories of 10 mile hikes through thick jungles to reach hidden waterfalls or adding to their tattoo collection by visiting the local Borneo Headhunter tattoo shop. Many were planning grueling mountain climbs on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah State in northern Borneo or diving the undiscovered reefs off the coast at some nearby island paradise. The thought of hiking 10 miles in the heat of Borneo or having a former headhunter poking needles with traditional
inks didn’t appeal to us, but our competitive travel juices were flowing and we needed to think of something we could do that might impress our young friends.
We decided to go to some nearby caves to do some cave exploration. It didn’t seem too dangerous and perhaps the cave would keep us out of the sun. The town of Bau is about 20 miles from Kuching and is not too hard to reach by taking a couple of local buses and a short walk. Bau is a small rural town surrounded by beautiful limestone mountains covered by lush jungle greenery. Our guidebook said the cave that we planned on visiting had 99 steps and was a traditional place visited by Chinese pilgrims during religious festivals, so it didn’t sound too hard to accomplish.
We left early in the morning and walked to the local bus station in downtown Kuching to catch our first bus to Bau. It was a nice ride into the countryside. The jungle got thicker as we left busy Kuching and the houses became more traditional as we got farther from town. The modern buildings finally gave way to the many small farms that
lined the curving, single lane road that led us toward Bau. We arrived in Bau by early morning and quickly caught our second bus which led us into the mountains where we would find our caves.
After the short walk from the bus stop we reached the entrance to the cave. We counted the steps as we went up the stairway that led to the cave entrance. We reached 120 before we realized the guidebook was talking about 99 steps within the cave and not just to get to the entrance. As it was still early it really wasn’t too bad and we quickly entered the opening to the cave. It was dark and humid but after passing through the small entrance we emerged into the main cave area, dimly lit by the large opening in the cave roof. The cave was large and had easy walking paths, some even with handrails. We had the cave to ourselves for two hours of exploring and picture taking before we began our much easier route back down the stairway for our return to Kuching.
We were anxious to share our story of our caving adventures with our young friends upon
our return to the hostel. Everyone was interested in the caves and no one had been there, but when they realized that what we described as “the caves near Bau” were better known in tourist literature as “The Fairy Cave” they quickly lost interest and turned back to their discussion of future excursions to the better known Mulu caves that most of them would be visiting during their trip to Borneo.
We took a day off and hung around town, eating at a couple of restaurants that Tony Bourdain had visited on one of his early visits to Borneo and tried to figure out some way we could do something that might be of interest to the younger crowd. To be fair, they were intrigued that we have been on the road for almost 2 years and had travelled to areas outside of Southeast Asia. Still we felt we needed to find something to do that might be fun to share.
We decided that our best bet was to take the an express ferry boat for the 5 hour trip to Sibu, a smaller town located on the mighty Batang Rejang river, the largest in Borneo, and the
gateway to the real “heart of darkness” part of Sarawak State.
We took an early morning cab ride to the Express Boat terminal just down river from Kuching where we would begin our trip. The terminal was bustling with activity. Many people saying goodbye to relatives who were visiting the big city and people loading all kinds of packages onto boats after shopping trips to the larger stores of Kuching.
We got underway promptly at 8 and began our journey down the Sarawalk River towards the South China Sea. The river was busy with fisherman and larger container ships as we passed Bako National Park and entered the open water of the beautiful blue/green water of the sea. The weather was clear and hot and while we spent some time on deck watching fisherman and keeping our eye out for Irrawaddy dolphins, we were glad that the cabin had comfortable seats and cold air conditioning. The ocean was calm and made for a comfortable ride as we lost sight of land and made our way toward the mouth of the great river.
The entrance to the river was clearly visible before we could even see land. The
blue water began to take on a brownish tint as we neared its flow. The Bantang Rejang is a huge river, over a mile wide at points, which breaks into many fingers as it passes through the delta before it reaches the sea. We turned up one and the water turned from coffee brown to chocolate brown as we began to pass logging debris from the many mills that line the waterway. We made a couple of brief stops at smaller towns to unload a few passengers and many supplies. The arrival of the ferry seemed to bring out many local people to observe the coming and going of goods and people.
We reached Sibu in the early afternoon. It is smaller, but has the same basic look as Kuching. Kuching is known as the “cat” city and Sibu is known as the “swan” city, both having kitschy statues of their namesakes prominently displayed near the river.
We made our way to our hotel for the night. It was a cheaper hotel that seemed to cater mostly to Chinese which make up the majority of the citizens of Sibu. Sibu was founded by Foo Chow Chinese who immigrated
here to take advantage of the mining and logging that go on up river. Sibu is the distribution point for the commerce that passes up and down the river. Boats of all kinds are very active on the river at all times of day. Tourists generally use Sibu as a jumping off place for upriver activities that are based primarily on visiting the longhouses of the native tribes. We weren’t going upriver, so we decided to walk around town as the sun was starting to set.
Sibu has an odd “piraty” vibe at first glance that seems common in the river towns of the world. People don’t seem to make eye contact as much as in Kuching. More shirtless men are hiding around corners and the lights in the alleys seem a little darker. We went through the night market which was very festive and filled with families enjoying delicious snacks being cooked in the many stalls. After waving at a few of the local kids and getting smiles from the parents, we realized that what was at first a sinister feel to the town was probably just from not being used to seeing many foreigners walking around. We
grabbed a quick meal in a local restaurant and headed back to the hotel to check email and enjoy the views over the river from our 5th
We returned to Kuching the next day. Still no one was excited about our journey but we enjoyed our trip anyway and were glad to have taken a short “vacation from the vacation”. As always travel by boat was enjoyable and relaxing and again proved that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
We have enjoyed our two weeks in Borneo. It has been the highlight of our trip to Malaysia. The people are friendly and we met lots of inspiring young people who are just getting started in their travels. They were very ambitious and excited and even though most were younger than our children, friendly towards us and really quite interesting once we learned their stories.
We leave soon to continue our adventures in Indonesia. We hope that we enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed the country and people of Malaysia.
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