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Published: March 26th 2011
So, i'm sitting in between a local MP and a big time property developer drinking bad red wine that passes as OK port. Slimy chickens feet are served followed by clear gloopy sea cucumbers - a delicacy that proves people will think anything tastes good if they are left in the middle of nowhere for long enough.
Sibu in Malaysian Sarawak is not in the middle of nowhere, but its having a good go at it.
The nearest decent sized town heading west is at least a 12 hours drive, the road in other direction leads to Brunei... if you can make it through the jungle. That jungle is dotted with villages and houses but generally, there isnt much there if you turn off the track untill you get down to Borneo.
I looked on Trip Advisor mobile site for Sibu and clicked on the ''things to do in Sibu'' button...
''There are NO things to do in Sibu'' it reported.
Sounded like an excellent place to go.
Sibu is a bumbling, boiling town on the edge of an ambling river that sleepily makes its way out of the Sarawak jungle. Chinese coffee shops and busy, noisy food
courts dot the corners of the town and down on the riverside the sleek river taxi boats lie looking like sleeping swans. These shoot up and down the river with their hulls reinforced to protect against debris from the logging upstream. With only a few roads around here, these ferries are the real transport for people around here, carrying village people from the many, hidden river villages to town for a few ringitt.
Upstream, there is deep jungle and untouched mountain tracks. Longhouses here are not a tourist attraction but a genuine community where families live together. The local museums and heritage centres recount the stories of the many local people of Malay and Dayak heritage, the Chinese settlers who came here a hundred years ago, The British Empire who tapped the rubber trees and also the stories of the Japanese invasions in WWII.
Sibu has history seeping out of it like the sap oozing out of the rubber trees. Everyone here can tell you of 'Raja Brooks' a white, English explorer of the early Victorian age who settled here, learnt the language and created trade for the local people, earning their respect so much he become the famous
Somehow i've stumbled into this huge banquet and am surrounded by notable local townsfolk. I'm the only white person in the room, maybe the building... or possibly the whole town. I havent seen one European traveller here yet but have been warmly welcomed and encouraged to glug the local grog.
Maybe this is how Raja Brooks felt at times.
Somewhere in the middle of this 10 course banquet I asked the MP if they have many tourists here.
''Oh no'' he says ''no tourists in Sibu''
''Why not?'' I say
''Oh well... there is nothing for tourists here''
Sugary birthday sponge cake comes round and is served to everyone on the same plates as the sea cucumbers. Birthday cake is easy to eat with chopsticks, especially the icing.
Next comes a meaty local stew over rice. Sarawak food is based on robust gravys rather than the lighter soups in many asian places. And the dessert appears in the middle of the meal sometimes.
Another round of the sickly wine is downed with a local version of ''bottoms up'', the women avoiding the boyish drinking atmosphere that is rising around us
and making the mens faces turn a shiny red colour.
The night outside begins to storm in the way thunder broods in the tropics.
With the unexplored jungle tracks, the cheap, tasty food and the depth of the history and breadth of the wildlife to discover here, it seems that soon travellers and backpacking explorers will start arriving in Sibu. Flights from Kuala Lumpar are cheap now and travellers are keen to beat their way off-the-beaten-track.
If you're a traveller, there is loads to discover in Sibu. But as for now, there is nothing for tourists here.
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