Travel Features > Disappearing World

Endangered Species
The Tambang Operators

Mike Reed bemoans a disappearing lifestyle

Kuching's tambangs may not be around for much longer. The Sarawak River Board is making noises about modernising the city's water transport, and replacing them with modern passenger launches. Reasons cited include safety and efficiency, but to the best of my knowledge there has never been a tambang accident on the Sarawak River, and the tambangs provide a frequent and convenient service; a recent survey showed they carry more than 5,000 passengers per day.

The real reasons are probably to do with image. These simple craft, relying partly on human muscle power, do not really portray a picture of a dynamic, modern nation. But nor do the gondolas of Venice and nobody wants to do away with them. Or could it be that these slow moving craft inconvenience a new-wave of hydro-hooligans, the yuppies that race their jet-skis along the river every afternoon, performing for an envious audience of kids watching from the waterfront.

Whatever the reason, if the tambangs should disappear, two groups of people will be affected, the passengers and the boatmen. Larger craft will mean less frequent services, and probably higher charges. One of the arguments put forward is that the new boats will be able to carry motorcycles, but then if you've got a motorcycle you should be perfectly capable of getting on it and riding it over the Satok bridge.

The most severely affected will be the boatmen themselves. There are over 2,000 boatmen, mostly Malay fishermen and farmers from nearby Samarahan, who take it in turns to operate the 79 tambangs, on a 10-day per month basis, 24 hours a day. For many of these people the tambang is their main source of income, even though they only make between RM 10 and RM 20 most days. There is no way any new service can find employment for 2,000 people (Sarawak's largest industrial conglomerate only employs 2,500), and most of these men are in their 40's or 50's, probably too old to retrain for another job. It looks like most of them will have to return to subsistence farming, and their future looks bleak.

None of this has happened yet; it is not by any means confirmed, and other government departments oppose the change. But even if the tambangs are left alone, it is almost inevitable that most of them will disappear, with just a few tarted-up specimens left for the benefit of tour groups. The boatmen are getting older, and there are very few young people who are interested in poorly-paid and physically demanding work. So while they're still around, try to make the most of the tambangs. And when you pay your 30 sen, think about leaving a small tip, because the boatman could be facing a very uncertain future.

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