Ebb and Flow in Borneo

  • Share
  • Read Later
Neil McAllister / Alamy

Malaysia Borneo Sarawak Belaga main bazaar

Dusky Belaga, pop. 25,300, could be any quaint town in the American heartland. As the sun creeps down, joggers maunder the quiet streets. Old men in wifebeaters gossip and smoke over slow cups of coffee in a café right next door to a licensed ammunition dealer, across the street from a well-kept park with a picket fence. A few kids shoot hoops nearby at a shabby basketball court whose bent rims possibly never even had nets. Somewhere in the direction of the town's lone evangelical church, a weed-whacker hums.

But this is Sarawak, Malaysia — not Missouri. Belaga's Main Bazaar is a row of careworn early 20th century Chinese shophouses. Between the stores and the town's stone jetty stands a giant wooden hornbill, perched on a carved totem pole, missing a wing, paint peeling on its sun-bleached casque. From the kampung a couple of blocks away floats a muezzin's soulful maghrib, mingling in the twilight with the putter of Yamaha motors on the longboats crawling their way up the Batang Rajang, Malaysia's longest river. For hundreds of years, this was one of Sarawak's most vital trade arteries and often touted as the Amazon of Borneo.

Travelers like the erudite British naturalist Redmond O'Hanlon used to come to these parts in search of untouched rainforest and unadulterated indigenous life. His Into the Heart of Borneo recounts a 1983 attempt, with poet pal James Fenton, to "rediscover" the Borneo rhinoceros near Sarawak's mountainous border with Indonesia. O'Hanlon describes wild dance parties at Dayak longhouses, fueled by gallons of tuak, a potent milky rice wine, and enthuses about jaw-dropping tangles of tropical growth along the Rajang and its watery veins, some walled in by lush, 200-ft.-high (60 m) tree canopies.

Good luck finding either today. The pristine primary jungle is gone, an arboreal paradise logged, and both routes into Belaga, by boat or 4WD, show the ugly scars. Smoky 75-seat ekspress boats from Kuching spume up the Rajang (in 13 hours, spread over several legs and days), juddering past sawmills, plywood factories, rusty shipyards and timber barges heading downriver to the South China Sea. The alternative is a bumpy Land Rover ride from Bintulu, a coastal oil town three hours away, much of it on a rutted logging road past denuded ocher hills cleared to make way for palm-oil plantations. These have driven the area's economic boom, but also fuelled its cultural decline.

I arrive by ekspress in Belaga on a sweltering Monday afternoon. The fellow passengers offer a fair representative slice of the Rajang's recent social history: an itinerant Malay dentist who'll pull that blackened molar for $3; Hokkien merchants whose families came from Singapore in the 1870s as traders, glued to the John Woo DVD playing onboard; and longhouse dwellers. Some of the latter are older, with distended earlobes and inked skin, but most are young couples returning from market hubs like Kapit, where Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak, built a fort (still standing) in 1880 to prevent headhunting Iban from paddling upriver to attack their Kayan, Kenyah and Punan neighbors.

The travelers are stocked with provisions (Tiger beer, baby diapers) you can't find at longhouses like Long Dungan, where 35-year-old Web designer Calvin Jemarang takes me to meet his spry 83-year-old uncle Kojan Kabeng, a sculptor and blowpiper, one of the last of a dying breed. Kojan's kitchen lintel is decorated with a radiant succubus motif, and when I ask the legend behind it — in which a hunter is seduced and eaten by a beautiful spirit — Calvin perks up; he has never heard it either. Later, at a nearby Sekapan longhouse, 35-year-old Stephen George proudly shows me an ironwood dugout that can fit 93 rowers. But he only reluctantly shows me his favorite tattoo — a Chinese dragon on an inner thigh, where you'd expect an ancient tribal design.

Dayak customs are disappearing fast as younger generations leave longhouses for logging jobs or work in the cities, growing accustomed to the comforts of an industrialized world — you'll see a thousand gray Astro satellite dishes around Belaga before marking a wild hornbill along the turbid Rajang. I sip limeades with Calvin at a riverfront café on my last night in town. He points to a weathered chieftain's tomb on the opposite bank, a wooden blur amid ferns and rubber and durian trees. The family hasn't maintained it for years, and restoration is unlikely. It's getting darker as the sun dips below Jayong mountain to the west. Soon the day will be gone, and soon so will the tomb and men like Kojan, too.