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January 12, 2011

Another River Adventure

Tom McLaughlin

Seri Aman, Malaysian Borneo – I am just getting around to writing about one of the towns we visited before the birth of my son Dzul. We were on our way to Brunei on the only road north in Borneo when he suddenly decided to greet the world a month early a few towns later. See previous columns about that adventure (


A river town on the Batang Lupar, Seri Aman is known for the tidal bore that travels everyday up the river. Wave height and velocity depends on the moon. A tidal bore, according to the Internet, is the leading edge of the incoming high tide.


Unofficial observations, it has never been “officially” monitored before, say that the wave height can reach three meters and travels between 7 and 18 k/hr. The high tide, unfortunately, when we were there, was at night and it seemed like a mere ripple using a waning torch, flashlight to Americans.


Perched on the only hill overlooking the river, Fort Alice guarded the river during colonial days. The second white rajah Charles Brooke, a relative of the bumbling first one, built the structure to defend the town against Iban attacks.


The troops of the rajah and the Ibans engaged in farcical skirmishes where very few, if any, were wounded or killed. There was one white soldier who did lose his life, but details of the battle are sketchy and probably had more to do with swilling gin than any heroics. Truth be told, the Iban could have ousted the English whenever they wanted, but found them useful. The structure, in disrepair, has been promised funding for restoration.


Seri Aman means “beautiful peace,” and it was here in 1973 that the government of Malaysia and the communist insurgents signed a treaty ending 20 years of real conflict. In the round-a-bout entering town, a huge dove, about 20 meters high with wings spread out in alabaster white and bright yellow beak, welcomes visitors. I believe a holdover from the1970s anti-war protests.


The accommodations are in the negative star arena but are at least clean and moderately comfortable. There are four “hotels,” and I use that term very loosely. Food reflects the different styles and tastes, as each part of Borneo has its own flavors. There are many pepper farms along the road and this crop reflects the cooking.


Each year, during the spring tide where the tidal bore is most pronounced, the town holds a festival. Locals told me that the youth often use surf boards to ride the bore as it comes up the river, but their idea of a surfboard and mine are probably not the same.


A carnival atmosphere attempts to attract tourists from all over, and locals say many Mat Saleh (westerners) come for the occasion. At other times, they bypass the town for Sibu and points further north.


Other than festival time, they rarely see a white westerner, let alone one who speaks the local language, and I sincerely enjoyed answering the people’s questions and their tales of the crocodiles along the river. I teased that the crocs would probably like to eat western people but they assured me, as if I was worried, they also like the locals as well.


For other articles on Borneo, see Tom’s blog at Tom is also on Facebook at Borneo Tom


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