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The Tambangs of Kuching

Mike Reed takes to the water for an alternative view of the city

Kuching is a city that grew up around the Sarawak River, which has led to the city having one of the most unusual public transport services in Malaysia - the tambangs.

Tambang is the local name for a sampan, a small wooden boat about 5 metres long, with a pitched roof covering bench seats that run along either side of the boat. The tambang has two main sources of power, a small single-cylinder diesel engine and a pair of forward-facing oars which are also used to assist with steering. The tambangs are still an essential component of Kuching's public transport network, linking the Malay kampungs on the north bank of the Sarawak River with the Kuching Waterfront and city centre on the south. They are heavily used by commuters, housewives and schoolchildren, saving a lengthy detour via the bridge at Satok. They are also a great way to discover the city and its people.

Riding a tambang is simplicity itself. You just walk down to any one of the jetties along the Kuching Waterfront and wait for the next tambang to arrive. If it is late in the evening and none seem to be operating, a brief whistle will do the trick. Boarding is a slightly precarious affair for the uncoordinated, but the boatmen will happily offer a steadying hand. Passengers sit along the two wooden benches, distributing themselves carefully to avoid unbalancing the boat (large Caucasian tourists please take note!). The boatman then casts off, steering the boat with the oars into the fast-flowing river.

This is where first-timers can become a bit disoriented. The tambang is supposed to be heading for the Astana, say, but it appears to be drifting down-river in the opposite direction. There is a good reason for this; the Sarawak River is subject to very strong tidal flows and at times can easily flow at 6-7 km per hour in either direction. The combined efforts of the boatman and his tiny diesel (which would look more at home on a lawn-mower) are not sufficient to blast the boat directly across river against such a strong current. Instead, the boatman manoeuvres the tambang from the sheltered water into the tidal flow at just the right point, and lets the current do the hard work, sweeping the boat round in an exaggerated curve which finishes well upstream from the landing stage.

As you near the landing jetty, the boatman stands and leans into the oars for all he is worth, pulling the boat smoothly out of the current and against the shore. Each passenger disembarks, leaving the 30 sen fare (it should have gone up from 20 sen by the time you read this) on the seat next to the boatman.

The view of the river from a tambang is fascinating. You get excellent close ups of river life; children fishing from the jetty of their kampung house; men setting prawn nets and fish traps; buildings that look entirely different when viewed from the water. However, the tambang ride is over in a few brief minutes, so if you're serious about getting to know the river, hiring a tambang by the hour is the answer.

There are few better travel experiences in all of Borneo than meandering slowly up and down the Sarawak River in a chartered tambang. After a little negotiation, you can usually strike a deal at RM 20 per hour or even less. Bring a decent camera with a zoom lens; the obliging boatman will take you anywhere you want to go and you can get some remarkable shots of waterfront life, old palaces, Malay villages and gilded mosques. This is one of Sarawak's great travel bargains; a delight any time of the day, superb at sunset and truly unforgettable at night.

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