Travel Features > Up the Ulu

Killing Time On The Lower Rejang

Mike Reed investigates Kanowit, and a fish dinner that's worth splashing out for.

This sleepy little town on the banks of the mighty Rejang River is virtually undiscovered by visitors, which is surprising because Kanowit is so easy to get to from Kuching, making it the perfect jumping off point for exploring the Rejang, with its hundreds of tributaries and thousands of longhouses.

A small administrative and market town, Kanowit is perched on the South Bank of the Rejang about 55 km from Sibu. There's not a great deal happening here, but that's the main attraction. The town centre is formed by three streets of 1930's Chinese shophouses near the waterfront, almost half of which seem to contain coffee shops.

These coffee shops are crammed full of local Chinese and Ibans from the upriver longhouses exchanging gossip and enjoying the area's favourite recreational activity - eating. In the mornings you'll find all manner of tasty noodle dishes and pau (steamed buns) on offer, but in the evening those places that are still open offer some of the most exotic gourmet treats in Borneo. We're talking fish here - serious fish.

The Rejang is home to a number of rare and delicious white-fleshed fish, most notably Ikan Empurau and Ikan Semah, that are much prized by local gourmets. These fish are swimming gold mines - a single kilo can often cost RM 100 or more. If you don't fancy breaking the bank for a fish supper, try the local Ikan Patin. This densely-fleshed fish is a little oily for some tastes, but in the Rejang they seem to put on very little fat. Steamed Teochew style, it's probably the most delicious of Sarawak's affordable river fish. Other delicacies on offer might include fresh wild boar, venison and even labi-labi (soft-shelled river turtle). Don't expect any flashy seafood restaurants; the best cooking is done in coffee shops where menus are non-existent, so just poke your nose into the kitchen and ask what they've got.

After a feast fit for a king, you might be surprised to discover that sleepy old Kanowit has a little nightlife. There are two karaoke pubs in town, but the best place to go is Prince's Disco next to the district hospital. For the first week of the month (i.e. after payday) it can get really lively in here, and the locals are always pleased to welcome visitors.

After your night on the town, you'll have to find somewhere to get your head down. The choice is simple; the Kanowit Air Con Hotel (084-725155) or the Harbour View Inn (084-753188). Both offer clean and simple air-con rooms with attached bath, TV and phone for around RM 40. You could also see if the Government Rest House has any rooms available. Just ask at the District Office. In fact you can ask anything at the district office; these friendly folks have been tasked with developing tourism in the area, so they might as well start with you.>

If you want to go exploring upriver, there are plenty of express boats to Song, Kapit and beyond, and lots of smaller boats going to nearby rivers and longhouses. Just ask at the district office or in any of the coffee shops along the waterfront. With any luck you'll get to visit some of the most hospitable and charming people in Borneo, but that's another story.

Kanowit is a 5-hour drive from Kuching, branching off the Pan-Borneo Highway just before the Durin Ferry. There's one direct bus from Kuching daily, or take any bus or express boat to Sibu or Sarikei and catch a local bus or express boat to Kanowit.

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