PEOPLE living on the banks of the mighty Rajang will miss the iconic cruise ship soon unless the owners can be persuaded not to take her home to Myanmar in March.
The vegetable and egg suppliers in Sibu, the vendors of delicious dried prawns in Sarikei and the longhouse dancers will miss the foreign tourists. A number of locals will lose their jobs with the company.
These tourists from many parts of the world, mostly from Europe, tend to be from the older age group and affluent. They spend one whole week under one roof on board a luxury vessel, no problem. Away from the hustle and bustle of their world, they hope to see all this wildlife which they have read about in glossy brochures in Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Copenhagen – the orang utans, the hornbills, the longhouses.
They want to see exotic flora and fauna along the river banks. They are willing to spend a lot of money (a huge sum by the standards of the ‘99.9 per cent’ of us, to use the terminology of the Occupy Wall Street Movement) on this trip into the wilds of Borneo. What’s US$3,000 to a European retiree, or an old lady with solid investments? Bali or the Great Wall of China are not for her.
Flying from their home towns via KL or Singapore, the tourists land at the Sibu Airport in the afternoon. The visitors are taken to the Sibu Central Market and the Pagoda Temple on the waterfront.
After two hours, back to the ship. Slowly the RV (River Vessel) Orient Pandaw picks up steam and proceeds up river. By 8pm, the big boat lies at anchor by the Durin Bridge. After dinner, exhausted passengers go to sleep, never mind the humming from the engine room. Others attend a talk or read or watch a video show.
The next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast just like that offered by any five-star hotel, the Pandaw proceeds towards Kanowit.
Here the tourists are shown Fort Emma, part of which is used as an Internet cafe, followed by a visit to a longhouse nearby and a farm somewhere.
From Kanowit, the boat chugs and chugs against the tide towards Kapit, not stopping at Song, the old town on the right-hand bank of the Rajang.
All aboard are ready to savour the nature about them. Yes, the river with water the colour of coffee with condensed milk, river banks eroded by the wakes of express boats, longhouses here and there with the green belt of jungle behind. Cute longhouses with many multi-coloured army barracks.
Whoops, here’s another tongkang laden with timber going down river on the way down to Tanjung Manis destined for Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India and China; some to Europe.
The tour operator points out that logs are one of our main exports, from which we get a lot of foreign money, but that we only log a wee little bit; the forest is protected. The tourists listen attentively.
Whoops – another boat full of logs, and then a mile-long log raft expertly handled by a few sunburnt fellows. Then, vroom! A fast long boat full of passengers on top and below deck – the express boats, another common sight along the river.
At Kapit, the divisional capital of the Rajang, the tourists disembark. They are shown Fort Sylvia, which doubles as a museum. The visitors then walk about in town. Back to the ship before proceeding to a longhouse nearby to see weaving of pua kumbu and dances. The miring would be an endless interest to the foreigners and the dancing (ngajat), which they are encouraged to participate in can be hilarious and an experience to tell friends back home. The night on board the ship away from town, seeing Kapit by night from across the river, would be something to write home about.
Next, up the Balleh. The visit to the service centre consisting of the Mujong Primary School and the medical clinic would be the educational part of the trip. The food cooked in bamboo and
the picnic on the gravel by the river have become subjects of curiosity for friends back home in Europe.
Back tracking, down river and turning to the Rajang again: the next destination is the famous Pelagus Rapids.
Not by the Pandaw but in a smaller vessel. Rapids look like any other rapids elsewhere, only more so – imagine millions of litres of kopi susu cascading over rocks!
Where is the resort?
The above would be the sort of itinerary you would have enjoyed if you were on one of the trips – activities for the tourists to do and see as the tour people may offer them. What else is there to show? The bird-watching in the early morning on the Katibas was interesting but discontinued. Were the birds fed up with being observed?
Kapit is the farthest the Pandaw can go.
The next day would be the fifth day on the Burmese boat. We have not finished the tour yet.
Going down to Sibu, they see the same scenery – tug boat after tugboat pulling logs of various sizes and noisy boats plying at breakneck speed, missing the Pandaw by several meters. On board more talks, more shows, more of the same thing.
Until you are back in Sibu town – the sixth day of the trip. A side visit to a Melanau village to see how sago is being processed would be fun. Still they have not seen a single hornbill or a monkey of any kind, let alone the orang Belanda – the proboscis. Where are the orang utans?
They have seen pictures of the proboscis monkeys or the orang utans – they are to be seen at Bako and Semengoh respectively. Not on the Rajang, mate!
Back to Sibu en route to Sarikei and a visit to Kampung Kuala Rajang, hoping to see the Melanau women weave songket. A group of expert weavers (Kumpulan Songket Rajang) was organised by SEDC in 1991 with help from the Sarawak Craft Council and Kraftangan Malaysia to produce a fine cloth, but hardly any for sale to tourists.
Time to retrace the route to Sibu and a flight home via Kuching or straight to KL or Singapore on the ninth day.
This idyllic living on board the ship will come to an end when the Pandaw joins her sisters on the Irrawaddy – happy reunion after service on the Rajang.
The owners of the boat have cited problems why the Pandaw, meaning white flower in a Burmese language, had to be recalled home.
But the memory of its service to the tourism industry will be appreciated.
It may be recalled that when it first appeared on the Rajang, there was a custom the crew insisted being observed – no passenger was allowed to bring a white flower, plastic or fresh, on board lest she might get into trouble. Was a petal of white flower taken on board deliberately or inadvertently by someone? Or is there some other reason that members of the public are not aware of?
It was a sight to behold, a treble decker ship never before seen on any Sarawak river. People from the longhouses came out to see her sail up and down their river. Soon they will not be able to see it again unless the decision to bring her home is rescinded.
We wish her bon voyage across the sea. Not a vessel built for rough seas between here and Myanmar but in May or June the ocean should be calm so that she will reach home safe and sound.
Its owners want her for service in Myanmar now that some political stability is slowly coming to that country. There is a fleet plying such boats on the Irrawaday; perhaps, there is an urgent demand for another boat there as tourists are likely to flock to that country.
It’s sad to see her go but accept the fact that the White Flower is not ours.
Build our own White Flower
However, if we are keen to see something similar to cater for tourists, we will have to build one for ourselves.
There is expertise locally – that of boat building in Sibu. Use it and construct one like Pandaw ourselves. If the cruise along the Rajang has been economically viable, surely some arrangements can be made to carry on with the business for the sake of the tourism industry. Shrewd investors know better if there is money to be made.
For the rest of us, it is hoped that if a boat like this is to built, the fare for the cruise should be made affordable for ordinary people.
Let us support Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh in his efforts to retain the White Flower of the Rajang so that the tourism industry will not be affected adversely.