For the budget traveler though, private river cruise are not an option, but there are still a bunch of routes that are connected by public boats for very low fares.
The "fast" boat connecting Belaga, Kapit and Sibu is probably the last public river boat in Sarawak, from Sibu though, it's still possible to get to Kuching by boat, a short part of it being the estuary of the Rajang and the rest on the sea.
The boat ride from Kapit to Belaga is especially marvelous, quite an adventure, and it have been an highlight of our bicycle touring trip in Malaysian Borneo.
the road to Belaga
Around 20km before Bakun dam the junction to Belaga is to be found. This is a old military road, meaning it was built by soldiers and not professionals, and you can see that. It's basically 40km of crazily steep up and downs, something like few hundred meters up on a 25% slope, than down at the same rate, seamlessly. Doing this road by bicycle means pushing almost all the way, a really though one.
Luckily for us just at the beginning of this mess a pick up stopped, wondering what the hell we think we're doing. The driver told us it would have taken two days to reach Belaga and we trusted him and accepted the lift on his truck, Malaysia people are just wonderful! When we saw what was ahead of us we where really thankful.
Speed Boat connections
Price, Schedule and length of the boat trip
- The boat fee from Belaga to Kapit (or the other way around) is 55RM, from Kapit to Sibu the price is 20RM.
- The Kapit - Sibu stretch will take around 4 or 5 hours upstream and around one less going downstream.
- From Kapit to Belaga time spent on the boat varies from 6 to 7 hours upstream to roughly 5 hours downstream.
- The total length of the boat trip is 576km. The time can vary depending on weather and river conditions.
We took the boat at 8am from Belaga jetty, many stairs do get to it, so not very comfortable with bikes and luggage.
A sort of schedule can be found on the Official Website of Sarawak River Boards, but I won't rely on that, ask at the port if you're in Sibu or just some locals in Belaga, they all know.
Arriving in Kapit you must change boat, hopping on a slightly bigger one, so more stairs for you and your luggage.
The boat ride
Belaga to Kapit by boat
The boat has bus style seats inside, the air-con is at 15 Celsius, need a jacket. Windows are narrow and dirty, not ideal to enjoy the view. But here comes the great fun! On this kind of speedboat locals usually stay on the roof, and that is a completely different story. As soon as we see the first passenger heading there we follow, and we won't move from there until we reached Kapit (concerns about safety are below). Sunscreen is a must in sunny days.
Finally we feel in the Borneo of the adventure novels, the Rinjang is a majestic river and its shores are lined by what looks like jungle, it may be that just behind that line of trees a palm oil plantation lays, but you won't know, so...
The boat goes fast, around 50km/h but does many stops, basically every village along the river, but this is the interesting part. Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman and Tanjung longhouses are all around, each so different from the others, some two-storey high, some very colorful. People fish and move goods on small longboats, plant or harvest pepper, everywhere is human activity, like if this is a city, and Rinjang river its main road. As all of this settlement have basically no roads, they are very isolated, with the river as the only connection between them, here the traditional lifestyle that the people resettled from Bakun are longing for is to be found.
Halfway to Kapit are the Pelagus rapids, nice but not so spectacular. We meet a boat going upstream which struggles a bit, passengers greet each other from the roof. There's an overturned old boat near the shore, that states how tricky this rapids can become.
Kapit to Sibu
This time we are forbidden to stay on the roof, the boat goes fast and does just one more stop, no more longhouses around. This part of the ride is boring and Air-Con freezes our brains. We arrive at Sibu at around 6PM.
Homestay in a Longhouse
Staying in one of those houses is a great way to experience the real Borneo lifestyle. Though we haven't done that a great area to do this are the shores of the Rajang river: the public boat does many stops at several longhouse villages where no road leads. Just go off at one of these stops and ask around, most likely someone will be willing to make an extra few bucks, if not they will probably point you somewhere else.
We stayed in a Long House in Sungay Asap, the area where many Dayaks were relocated for the construction of Bakun Dam, we wrote about this issue here with the help of locals (yet in Italian only) another report about Sungay Asap is to be found here.
from Sibu to Kuching by speedboat
The price is 45RM, it's not possible to book in advance so you need to be at the port at least 30 minutes before departure. Schedules are ever-changing so ask at the port office, when we where there there was just one boat per day setting of at 11AM. The distance is about 300km, most of which on the sea.
The first part on the Rajang delta is nice, lined with mangroves. The sea part though was quite scary, it was monsoon season and the sea was rough, the boat heavily rolling from side to side, definitively not for the sea sick people.
The boat is similar to the river one but bigger, with two floors, the top one has a nicer view and an open deck on the stern with wooden benches, this is where the luggage goes. Keep in mind you'll feel the sea more on the upper deck, of course.
pt1: from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom, crossing the Crocker range
pt2: Jungle Train, from Tenom to Beaufort
pt3: crossing Brunei by bicycle
pt4: around Miri, Lambir Hills and Logan Bunut national parks and Tusan Beach
pt5: the caves of Niah National Park
pt6: from Belaga to Kuching by boat (you are here)
pt7: Kuching and Bako National Park
pt8: Rafflesia in Gunung Gading National Park
pt9: Overland crossing from Sarawak to Kalimantan, the secret border of Aruk
pt10: Sambas, a wooden Venice in Borneo
here are some general hints to budget travel in Borneo (by bicycle or not)
Check also our reportages:
Chap Go Mei in Singkawang
pierce your face with swords for the sake of Borneo Gods
Hydroelectric devastation in Borneo
part 1: Interview with SaveRivers
part2: a visit to Sungay Asap