Friday, October 18

Central Sarawak revisited


Decorated longboats moving towards the riverbank for the ‘Seraheng’ ceremony.

THE first half of my twenties was, I could say, wild. I was skipping from one company to another for the sole purpose of finding a job that actually pays in order to please the people who barely know me well. But I digress.

During that particular time, I went and stayed in a few places in the Central Sarawak region. For a short time, I stayed in Sibu due to family errands – when I was a mere technician working for a factory at Mukah-Balingian Road.

While there, I stayed in a fully-furnished employees’ quarters. On weekends, I would travel 38km to the small Mukah town to get my food rations. Fish sold at the wet markets there were fresh from the sea.

But it was an entirely different experience for me when I revisited the region in April this year. Thanks to the Sarawak Tourism Board, I, alongside other reporters, had the opportunity to explore the region even further.


Green River

As I recall, it was a fast-paced journey on the first day. After touching down at Sibu Airport, introducing ourselves  to our tour guide, Ling How Kang, and having lunch in the town, we went to the docks, boarded a speedboat and spent the rest of the day cruising along the Rajang and Igan Rivers into the Melanau heartlands of Dalat, Oya and Mukah.

While Ling shared the history of the rivers with the passengers, I couldn’t help but soak up the beautiful riverine scenery. It seemed fitting for me to open my phone music playlist and played Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River.”

After a four-hour boat ride, we arrived at Dalat. Before reaching the town, we dropped anchor at Kampung Sungai Kut. One of the things that caught my eye was the villagers using boats to send their children to and from the primary school.

Back in Kuching, vehicles  jam the streets and highways with drivers rushing to their destinations. In Kampung Sungai Kut time seems to slow down. Traffic jams are the least of its problems and the villagers seem to take things easy.

After snapping photos and having our fill of experiences at the kampung, we boarded the speedboat and headed straight to Dalat township.

Prayers were chanted and offering placed in the ‘seraheng’ to appease the spirits.

Melanau heartland

On arrival, the St Bernard Roman Catholic Church graced us with its presence. Fondly called “The Church by the River,” the parish was named in memory of Father Bernard Mulder who set up the first mission in Sungai Kut to establish the Catholic faith in Dalat in 1885.

We then headed to Lamin Dana, a homestay in Kampung Tellian Tengah, Mukah, where we spent two nights. Earlier, we visited the small town of Oya and got to meet the locals and try the famous “mee udang.”

We moved on to Mukah after sightseeing in Oya town. We dropped by a place at Kampung Judan where the Melanaus made “kuih sepit” and other traditional snacks.

We feasted our eyes (and mouths) on the snacks which were delightfully scrumptious. Before continuing our journey, we bought some of the snacks for on-the-road nibbles.

We arrived at Lamin Dana in the evening and were greeted by Diana Rose and her crew.

Villagers gather together
to feast.

Melanau experience

Lamin Dana is described as a homestay, delivering the authentic Melanau experience because of its location in Kampung Tellian Tengah.

We stayed for two nights on my first trip there. When I was in Mukah a few years ago, I had not been to Lamin Dana or Kampung Tellian Tengah.


Who’ll Stop the Rain?

On the second day, we had our raincoats and umbrellas at the ready as it was raining the whole morning. But it didn’t stop us going on a sightseeing cruise along the Tellian River. Before that, Diana took us on a short tour of Lamin Dana, and explained to us the history of the Melanaus and how the homestay came to be.

It was interesting to learn about the history of the Melanaus and I’m sure other tourists will also learn a thing or two from the experience.

After the tour, we grabbed our raincoats and boarded the boat for sightseeing along Sungai Tellian.

During the cruise, a villager named Sidu Kadi explained to us the presence of sago trees along the riverbanks and their significance to the livelihood of the Melanaus.

I have known for a fact that the Melanaus have been cultivating sago palms for generations since sago is the only crop that grows well in peat swamps.

The Melanaus never cease to amaze me. With their ingenuity, they are able to cultivate a sago trunk and make various food products from it. One of these is the Melanau sago biscuit called “tebaloi.”

After cruising the Tellian River, we went to a tebaloi-making place at Kampung Tutus Hilir where a Melanau family has been operating  the business for more than two decades. There, we witnessed tebaloi-making first hand.

From what I observed, the process began witha dough and a mixture of sago flour, desiccated coconut, eggs and sugar. The dough was placed on a banana leaf and flattened with a rolling pin. The flat dough was then placed on top of hot amber for a while.

The dough, still half-cooked, was then cut into four-by-fours. A heavy block was placed on top of the biscuits to further flatten them.

Linut – an interesting local delicacy.

Traditional dish

We returned to Lamin Dana later that afternoon and were greeted by its ever friendly staff and authentic Melanau traditional dishes.

Among them was “Linut,” an interesting dish made from fresh sago, tasteless and best served hot with a gooey and sticky texture to it. Linut is best eaten with belacan (shrimp paste) or sambal (chilli paste) for extra flavour.

Later that evening, I got to observe the villagers preparing for the “Seraheng” festival. Villagers decorated their longboats with nipah leaves woven into various shapes and sizes.


Times They Are A-Changing

Looking back at history, the Kaul Festival is essentially a Melanau ritual to appease the spirits of land, sea, forest and farms.

In the old days, the ritual lasted for days. In today’s fast-paced world, the Melanaus have opened their arms to embrace change to adapt to the modern world.

The Munsuh waterfall in Ulu Sarikei.

On the third day, I had the chance to observe and experience the Festival, and I dare say it was different from what I previously experienced at Lamin Dana a few years ago.

Gone are the display booths, food stalls or speeches by politicians – leaving only a traditional celebration with longboats decorated with nipah leaves and villagers clad in traditional Melanau attire.

From Lamin Dana, we cruised along the Tellian River and moved towards the riverbank, the venue of the Seraheng ceremony.

Villagers in their decorated longboats cruised towards the festival site, with the “Bapa Kaul” leading the fleet.

The Bapa Kaul carried the Seraheng, a decorated basket, hoisted on a bamboo pole. As the boats settled on the riverbanks, the Seraheng was carried to the festival site.

Offerings to the spirits were placed in the Seraheng and a prayer chanted by the Bapa Kaul which I assume was to invite the spirits to accept the offerings.

A feast was held after the ceremony. The villagers gathered for a thanksgiving feast. It was with a deep sense of pride for me, as a Sarawakian, to see the Melanaus come together and celebrate in harmony and unity.


Return to Sibu

We journeyed back to Sibu after a two-day trip to Mukah. We bade farewell to Diana and her crew at Lamin Dana, then boarded the bus for a three-hour drive to Sibu.

The ride was bumpy due to the work on the Pan Borneo Highway. It was raining heavily and no one was seen working at the site that day.

We arrived in the evening and checked into a hotel at Jalan Pahlawan just beside the Sibu bus terminal.

The next day, we went sightseeing in Sibu town. One particular place made my day – a house where “mee sua” is traditionally made. One of my hobbies is cooking and it was really interesting and educational to see how the vermicelli noodles are made. The mee sua business is run by Ting Cheng Sieng and his wife who have been making the traditional noodles for more than 30 years.

Ting explained to us the noodle making process. First, 25kg of flour is kneaded by hand. After that, the dough is rolled into a long strand and then into two sticks.

The rows of dough are left on the tray for a while before they are stretched by hand and left to dry under the sun. If it rains and there isn’t adequate sunlight, the noodles are considered damaged and new batches have to be made.

On the day of our visit, it was cloudy, and without proper drying under the sun, the noodles had to be discarded.

Aside from the mee sua-making place, we also visited a few other places, one being the Sibu Central Market. The familiar sounds of hawkers and traders plying their ware reminded me of home.

Items such as fruits and vegetables were sold fresh. The traders waited patiently for customers to show up.  Some of the stalls that caught my attention were those selling live chickens wrapped in newspapers.

From the wet market, we went over to Lau King Howe Memorial Hospital, built in 1931 and completed in 1936 at a cost of RM82,000.

The Memorial Hospital is the remnant of a larger complex, originally planned to have four building blocks – the Steward Ward, the Brooke Ward, the Second Class Ward and the X-Ray/Physiotherapy Unit. These blocks were to have accommodated the surgical and paediatric wards as well as the labour room.

The hospital was named after its founder, Lau King Howe, the son of a pastor from Nan Yu Village in Hou Guan District of Hokkien Province. He was 47 when he arrived in Sibu.

Before setting up the hospital, Lau ran a rubber tree plantation on the east side of Sibu and made his fortune.

In 1930, he proposed to the Brooke government to build a more modern hospital for Sibu and agreed to bear 50 per cent of the cost. The hospital which bears his name was subsequently set up.

Various medical equipment of the time are on display in the Lau King Howe Memorial Hospital Museum – such as the floor-mounted X-ray Column and the Fluoroscopy Image Intensifier. A model of the original hospital is also on display.


Better Run Through the Jungle

On the last two days, we journeyed into the Iban heartlands of Ulu Sarikei. Getting there  was a roller-coaster ride. From Sibu, we first headed to Bintangor, then Sarikei town before proceeding overland to Ulu Sarikei where we stayed the night at Rumah Nyuka longhouse at Lubuk Lemba, about 85km from Sibu.

It is learnt the longhouse is the first homestay programme approved by the Tourism Ministry in Sarikei Division.

I felt I was on familiar ground. I have been to a number of longhouses mostly to attend Gawai and visit distant relatives.

It wasn’t exactly my first experience being in a longhouse at Lubuk Lemba but it was my first stay in one in Sarikei.

We were welcomed by the longhouse folk who put on various traditional performances and served us home-made rice wine.

The performances were impromptu with one of the performers, Andrew, not wearing full traditional Iban warrior attire for the ngajat. But we were entertained, nonetheless. Some of us gathered on the ruai to chat with the longhouse folk and drink tuak.

We swapped accounts of our experiences and had a good time and laugh, sharing them. This, I would say, is an authentic Iban longhouse experience, and I’m sure other tourists will find this place interesting.

Three of the reporters and I stayed in one of the rooms belonging a longhouse couple – Bungkong Bakit and his wife. They extended us their warm hospitality and we couldn’t have asked for more. We thanked them gratefully for letting us stay the night in the longhouse.

The next morning was particularly interesting. The longhouse folk were up at the crack of dawn to carry out their daily routine. An elderly woman started drying paddy under the morning sun while some of the dwellers dehusked peppercorns.

Andrew, who performed the ngajat, also dried his home-grown pepper   to get the spice ready for the market.

From my observation, the longhouse folk depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Acres of land are dedicated solely to cultivating pepper.

They also tap rubber.

The latest addition to their honest work is oil palm plantation. Some of the villagers ride their motorcycles to work in the plantation.

After touring the longhouse area, we went for a two-hour jungle trek to the Munsuh waterfall, accompanied by the longhouse folk. There were rows of pepper plantations along the way.

As we went deep into the jungle, we were surrounded by lush green tropical vegetation. Here is a note – please wear proper shoes when you go jungle-trekking. Some of the trails were muddy and we had to cross several small rivers and narrow bridges.

I had never cared much for anything else while trekking to the waterfall. Trudging through the jungle gave me peace of mind – all the problems seemed to disappear.

On arrival at the waterfall, the longhouse folk wasted no time preparing lunch while the rest of us took as many photos of the waterfall as we could. Some of the group, me included, dived right in to cool off.

We were treated to “manuk pansuh” – chicken cooked in bamboo and “umbut,” the shoots of a palm tree stem. Both are delicious.

Once we were done, we returned to the longhouse, taking about an hour and a half. The trek back seemed shorter, probably because we didn’t make any stops along the way.

As soon as we arrived at the longhouse, we went to our rooms, packed our bags and bade farewell to our generous hosts.

Just when I was thinking about prolonging my stay, I had to pack my stuff and return to Kuching. I felt like being at home away from home. I wish I could have stayed little bit longer.


More areas to explore

While returning to Kuching, I was thinking about all the things that had happened during the trip – the excitement, the experience and the food. It was an eye-opener as I had visited and seen some exciting new places.

Although places like Sibu and Mukah are not new to me, there are, admittedly, some areas there that I have yet to visit.

The Central Region of Sarawak is home to many diverse cultures with their respective traditions and practices, endless varieties of food and snacks, friendly and charming locales and unexplored flora and fauna that remain hidden to the rest of the world.

I believe there are other unexplored areas in the region and when you have the chance to visit, have a good time and try something new once in a while.