Travel Features > Getting Around

Self-Drive Sarawak - Roads, Rivers and Rainforests

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

Day 3 - The Melanau Heartland

Setting out from Sibu or Kanowit, you proceed north for about 60 km until you reach the turnoff for Mukah and Balingian. The 40 km road that leads to the coast is unmade laterite, and pretty bumpy in places, so this stretch could take a couple of hours. However, your patience will be well rewarded, because this brings you onto a pleasant coastal road lined with palms and casuarinas and leading to Mukah. Mukah is the cultural heartland of the Melanau people, and the centre of Sarawak's sago growing industry.

Sago and fish are the staples of the Melanau. Just wander round the old fishing village that forms the heart of Mukah, and you'll see floating sago logs tied to house jetties, ready to be pounded to extract the starch, which is processed into tiny granules or 'pearls.' It seems that virtually every fourth or fifth house is a boatyard, where craftsmen are hard at work building sturdy and elegant fishing boats. They're never too busy to stop for a chat though, and are pleased to explain the techniques of their crafts and let you wander around the yard. Usually a few village children turn up, desperate to pose for photos and generally show off for the visitors, and within minutes one of the ladies of the boat builder's household appears with a tray of hot, black, sweet coffee and platefuls of sago biscuits. That's the secret of Mukah; it's one of the friendliest places on earth.

Kampung Tillian, Mukah.
Dennis Lau ©Adventure Images Sdn Bhd
Local sights worth seeing include the exquisitely rustic Kampung Tillian, just a short walk upriver, and a disused sago furnace standing next to a very well kept Chinese temple. There's a fair choice of places to stay in town, and food in Mukah is a delight. As well as sago pearls and all manner of sago cakes and snacks, the place is famous for its fish dishes, particularly umei. This salad of raw fish, lime juice, shallots and chillies was invented by Melanau fisherman who wanted to enjoy a delicious meal whilst at sea, without setting fire to the boat. Fortunately they brought the recipe back to land with them and it's now one of Sarawak's best loved dishes. However, if you're not a fan of raw fish, you certainly won't want to try Mukah's other signature dish, the sago worm. It's really the larva of a cicada which burrows into the trunk of the sago palm, highly prized by the Melanau, and eaten poached or fried with soya sauce.

Day 3 Alternatives

Unless you want to press on to Bintulu and beyond, don't even think about it. Mukah should not be missed.

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