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Self-Drive Sarawak - Roads, Rivers and Rainforests

Mike Reed hits the road for a Borneo adventure on four wheels

Day 2 - The Mighty Rejang

Day 2 is a pretty arbitrary term. If you're having fun at Batang Ai or the Skrang River, you could well end up spending a few days here, but as this is meant to be a whistle-stop tour of Sarawak, I'll assume you're just staying the night.

Back on the road after a hearty breakfast, the journey north continues. Betong, a small town about 30 km from the Batang Ai turnoff, is a good place to stop for a mid-morning snack (or breakfast if you skipped it earlier). Betong is a typical Sarawak country town full of old wooden shophouses mixed with modern civic buildings, but has one very noteworthy piece of architecture. Fort Lili was built by the first White Rajah in 1858 to help subdue the querulous Ibans and Malays of the Saribas River, With its basic wooden construction it hardly looks capable of withstanding a concerted attack, but the fact that it's still there speaks volumes for the toughness and durability of belian, or Borneo iron-wood.

From Betong onwards, you'll soon notice the variable quality of road maintenance in Sarawak; driving in a straight line is impossible because of the frequency of large potholes in the road. At night this stretch is pure murder (a friend of mine who drives this stretch weekly at night needs new shocks on his land cruiser every three months), but in daylight it shouldn't present any problems. After about an hour and a half the road improves dramatically as you approach the turn-off for Sarikei, an excellent place to stop for lunch.

Sarikei is a busy riverside town and the main transit point for all the long distance buses and express boats in central Sarawak. Therefore there are literally dozens of places to eat, from simple hawker stalls to opulent Chinese restaurants. This is also where you'll get your first glimpse of the mighty Rejang, Malaysia's largest river, which is so wide here that you can just about make out the opposite bank on a clear day. The most unusual feature of the bustling waterfront is a twelve foot high pineapple statue, paying silent tribute to Sarikei's most famous export. Locals will assure you that Sarikei pineapples are the finest in the world. From Sarikei it's just an hour and a half to Sibu, provided the queue for the Durin Ferry is not too long. If you have to wait for the ferry, Durin is a good place to buy local handicrafts.

The gateway to the Rejang Basin, Sibu is Sarawak's third largest town, and owes its remarkable prosperity to the enterprising Foochow Chinese, who migrated here in the late 19th Century. The town is a chaotic mix of wooden shacks, modern high rises and colonial era buildings, with a frontier town atmosphere that is certainly unusual for a place that's been in existence for more than a hundred years. The busiest area is the waterfront, crammed with berthing express boats and dominated by a seven storey pagoda and a century-old Chinese temple. The pasar malam (night market) is the best in Sarawak, with stalls offering countless local delicacies such as stuffed dumplings, barbecued fish and duck and delicious Malay and Chinese cakes. If roasted flying fox and barbecued snake sound good to you, check out the Lembangan Market, with 700 stalls selling virtually every type of jungle produce imaginable. Another place worth visiting is the Civic Centre Museum (excellent handicrafts).

There is plenty of accommodation in Sibu, ranging from 4-star hotels to budget hostels, and everything in between. The town is also full of food outlets, and even boasts a KFC and McDonalds. If you want to head up the Rejang into the heart of Borneo for a few days, just jump on an express boat for Kapit, or drop in and see Frankie Ting at Sazhong Trading & Travel (4 Central Road, Tel: 084-334222) for some really serious upriver safaris.

Day 2 Alternatives

If the frontier town charms of Sibu don't appeal to you, an excellent alternative is Kanowit, a delightful little river-front town which offers great food, very friendly locals, and the certainty that you'll be the only tourists around.

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