KAPIT in Sarawak may not be many peopleâ€™s idea of a holiday but for those who love the wild, it will be a wonderful experience. There are always surprises to discover in Kapit.
For those who enjoy sape music â€“ thanks to the Stateâ€™s annual Rainforest Music Festival that popularises this genre of traditional music â€“ you can hear them raw from the Orang Ulu in the Belaga region or buy CDs in Kapitâ€™s many music stores.
Going Up the Rejang
The trip to the little town on the Rejang River is 2Â½ hours from Sibu and can be quite a fascinating experience.
The river is flanked on both sides by virgin forest and dotted sparingly by longhouses, timber clearings as well as small towns such as Song and Kanowit (where former Works Minister and current Tenaga Nasional chairman Tan Sri Leo Moggie comes from). You see Chinatown styled buildings in these towns.
The early morning mist hampers visibility, so try and catch the late morning boat to better enjoy the view of the 590km river and life along its banks.
The air is naturally very fresh, tinged with a whiff of alluvial. The width of the yellowish green river varies, sometimes as narrow as 15 metres, sometimes broader, as it makes its way to the sea. The lush greenery is sometimes interrupted by clearings where logs are stacked up, all ready to be exported.
The economy of the State depends largely on timber. You may even see logs floated down from the upper reaches of the Rejang. I even saw a man who walked over floating logs stretching some 100 metres to inspect them in a drizzle!
Halfway along the journey, one can see more modern, painted longhouses. These are built of planks and plywood unlike traditional longhouses with stilts, a ruai and bamboo floors â€” the type that tourists expect to see!
A ruai is a large, open area in a longhouse where the natives can sit down to socialise or work on their handicraft.
Modern longhouses are huge, with over 50 units of one family each. Very old longhouses, some more than 100 years and built of hard timber can still be found in Kapit as well as in the Baleh and Belaga areas. Some of these have 100 families living in them. If you stand at one end, you canâ€™t see the other end of the longhouse.
Unlike Batang Lupar (the river where novelist Somerset Maugham was said to have nearly lost his life), Rejang River is not infested with crocodiles. Often, you can see people leisurely fishing along the banks or in sampans.
The ride up the Rejang is made so much more enjoyable by all these daily activities of the local folks.
War And Peace
With life going on at such a leisurely pace, itâ€™s hard to imagine that just 100 years ago, headhunters roamed the area. The Ibans and the Orang Ulus were constantly at war until they signed a treaty on Nov 16, 1924, at Fort Sylvia and peace settled on the land. The treaty was witnessed by the second Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Brooke, who also ordered the building of Fort Sylvia that constituted the administrative centre of the region until quite recently.
Heartland of Iban
In London in 1963, a man dressed in tribal costume took the city by surprise. This was the late Tun Temenggung Jugah Anak Barieng, an Iban from Kapit and one of Sarawakâ€™s most respected leaders who was in London for talks on the independence of Sarawak and the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.
The momentous photograph of him with the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, still hangs at Fort Sylvia.
Tun Jugah was buried at the Methodist Church Graveyard in Jalan Selirik, a 10-minute drive from Kapit town.
Kapit is the main town of the Seventh Division, the largest division in Sarawak. It is the heartland of the Iban, the largest ethnic group in the State and comprises Song, Kapit and Belaga. The latter is where most of the Orang Ulu are found.
It has a population of about 100,000, mostly Iban and Orang Ulu farmers, Chinese businessmen and farmers as well as timber camp workers.
Kapit Wharf is the busiest in this last outpost of the Rejang River. Here, speedboats carry passengers to anywhere upriver such as Baleh, Pelagus Rapids as well as to Belaga, home of the Orang Ulu (a loose term that includes Kayans, Kenyahs, Kajang, Penan, Baketan, Ukit, Seping, Sihan, Lisun and Memaloh).
Such a trip is the best way to understand the lifestyle and culture of the Iban and Orang Ulu.
The rainforest also boasts a large diversity of flora and fauna such as hornbills, samba deer, barking deer, sun bears and civet cats.
There are waterfalls, rapids and good fishing grounds for anglers. Those interested in folk and tribal music, especially the sape, will find the Orang Ulu a source of inspiration. Some of the old women have enlongated ears, stretched by years of wearing huge brass earrings and some sport elaborate tattoos.
At the Kapit waterfront, you can see spectacular sunsets with migrating egrets flying back to roost in trees.
Shoot The Rapids
You can also shoot the rapids at Pelagus. The rapids used to act as a defence barrier for the Orang Ulu in their war against the Ibans.
The Regency Pelagus Resort is right at the bank of the Pelagus, an hour by boat from Kapit. Here, you can dine to the rushing rhythm of the rapids and watch hornbills, go jungle trekking or visit Rumah George, a longhouse in Ulu Pelagus.
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For visits to Belaga and beyond, a permit is required from the Resident Office in Kapit. Belaga is six hours by boat from Kapit.
Tale of Two Museums
Fort Sylvia: The fort was initially named Fort Kapit but in 1925, it was renamed after Ranee Sylvia, the wife of the third Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke.
Made of belian wood, this imposing white building in a large compound overlooking the Rejang, was given a facelift 10 years ago when the Tun Jugah Foundation took over the management of the fort and set up a museum. The latter is a great resource centre for those who want to learn more about Kapit and its history over the last 150 years. On the ground floor are rare amber and carvings found in the Merit Pila coal mine.
There are many pictures showing the transformation of Kapit from a little trading post to the bustling town that it is today. There are also exhibits of heirloom jars, brass cannons, brass plagues, medals and pictures of Iban leaders like Tun Jugah. A section is dedicated to pua kumbu (traditional woven cloth), some of which were made by a renowned weaver, Gading Anak Mayau.
Fort Sylvia was the administrative centre for the Upper Rejang Region of the Brooke Administration from 1880 to 1946 followed by the British Government till Sarawakâ€™s independence in 1963.
After that, it housed the District Office and the District Court House. It became the Residentâ€™s Office when the Kapit Division was formed in April 1973.
Civic Centre Museum: Located on the ground floor of the Civic Centre, this is worth a visit as it features interesting pictures, antique tajaus (jars) and utensils as well as cultural descriptions of the various tribes.
Most tourists come here to visit old longhouses. Do bring along some gifts for the tuai rumah (longhouse chief) and children. Donâ€™t turn down the offering of tuak (rice wine). Drink a little if you can.
The following longhouses are recommended:
n Sungai Kain in Baleh: This longhouse won an international award for its excellent pua kumbu. The Japanese International Design Promotion Organisation gave a G-Mark (good design award) for the intricate and exotic designs of the pua kumbu.
n Rumah Penghulu Jampi, Nanga Entawau, Baleh: This is the birthplace of the legendary war hero and local chief Temenggong Koh Anak Jubang.
n Rumah Bundong: 10km from Kapit town.
Where To Shop
The Gelangang Kenyalang is where you can shop for souvenirs and clothes, sample local food as well as get an Iban-style tattoo at a shop on the first floor. One of the shops will even make you a pua kumbu jacket.
Nearby is the Teresang Market where, as early as 4am, Iban people come, bringing their produce, vegetables, tobacco, fish, prawns, snakes and exotic meat such as deer and musang. The best time to be there is between 8am and 10am.
Those interested in ethnic music from the region can find them in music stores here which also carry Iban pop CDs.
Where To Stay
There are many hotels in Kapit, from budget establishments to two-star hotels. A room with air-conditioning in a two-star hotel such as the Orchard Inn and New Rejang Inn, costs around RM50 a night. Orchard Inn is near Gelangang Kenyalang.
Catch a flight to Sibu and then take a taxi to the Sibu Express Boat Terminal where there are regular speedboats to Kapit till about 2pm. The ride takes 2Â½ hours and tickets cost between RM20 and RM30.
AirAsia operates three daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Sibu and back. The others routes are Johor Baru-Sibu (1 daily flight), Sibu-Johor Baru (1 daily flight), Kuching-Sibu (4 daily flights) and Sibu-Kuching (4 daily flights). You can book your flight at airasia.com.my
For more information, check out www.kapitro.sarawak.gov.my/php/main/english/tourism/index.php.