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February 4, 2009

Up The River…Part 1

Tom McLaughlin

Sibu, Sarawak, East Malaysia – Christine and I left Kuching via the Sarawak River in the continuing monsoon for our trip up the Rajang River. Rains have poured from the clouds since early December and would follow us into the interior.


Our 40-foot white vessel held two decks with a partially covered stern. Seated in the upper, first class area, we were greeted with a Chinese DVD showing scantily clad Chinese girls dancing to the rhythms of the latest Hong Kong Top 40. The comfortable seats were akin to those of airlines, although not as plush.


On the back deck, card board boxes imprisoned about a dozen crowing roosters. A small greasy haired oriental in a white and blue-patterned shirt with gold chains hanging from his neck stood guard. A black and brown adolescent, mixed breed puppy was caged in a comfortable enclosure, obviously with the rooster man.


The boat navigated the swift flowing Sarawak to the confluence of the Santubong River and then out to the South China Sea. The seas were heavy with huge monsoon-driven waves lifting the boat up and down and around. I could look out the window and see a huge wall of green water take the boat up and then back down again.


The roosters crowed, people threw up and the non-smiling Chinese stewards went through the aisles selling peanuts and other snack foods. The television blared a Chinese fighting film. This part of the voyage took about three hours, well out of sight of the shore.


The vessel finally turned inland. As we approached the Rajang, the seas calmed and fingers of tributaries emptied into the roiling ocean creating a white froth. The pilot chose one and navigated towards it.


We thankfully stopped at one place where goods were exchanged. Bags of chemicals, copper tubing and other supplies related to the building trade were off-loaded for other goods to be moved further along the river.


On both banks, 125 cm-diameter logs with white tags attached piled up in neat stacks. These tailings of deforestation awaited the stabilization of timber prices as the world economy continues in a state of flux.


The waters were very muddy and turbidity was high. The banks were heavily eroded with about three meters of exposed shoreline. Errant logs floated down the waterway with the pilot playing a game of dodge ball trying to avoid them.


As the boat plied further inland, the owner opened a box or two containing a rooster. These fighting cocks were offered for sale. Each bird was tested by putting them close together. The feathers flared and they began to fight, pulled back at the last minute before either was hurt. He continued this process, extolling the virtues of each to the few people interested. He sold two of them for M$360 or US$125. I was told some sold for upwards of M$10,000.


Cock fighting is a major sport along the Rajang. Roosters are placed in the center of a circle. People bet in a maniacal fury during the fight with a winner-take-all approach. The defeated cock lies down and is then cooked and eaten in a curry.


The approach to Sibu saw major wood processing plants on both sides of the mighty river. Saw mills and other facilities turned the forest products into material to be loaded onto ships usually headed for Japan. However, all of these were silent, awaiting an upturn in the market.


Sibu, a Chinese town built by the Foo Chow people from the profits of timber, is the only major port on the Rajang. Two hotels, a market place and several streets, holding shop and houses, hug the shore line. Mercedes, BMW’s, Land Rovers and other expensive vehicles were common here but rare in the rest of Malaysia.


I was told (I am fluent in the Malay language) that these timber barons own mansions world wide, educate their children in up scale boarding schools in Australia, and travel in the very upper reaches of international Chinese society. Except for the cars, none of that was evident here.


I informed the front desk that I was interested in a trip to the eco-lodge north of the rapids. I received a call and a travel agent came for a visit. The cost was an astronomical US$500 for two nights for both of us. This included two nights, transport another two hours from the last landing, plus all meals. Also thrown in was a night jungle walk, a day journey into the forest, and a visit to a longhouse. I tried to bargain the price down but no luck. I said yes.


Next time: Further inland and the eco-lodge.


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