Three days ago I was in Kapit, a frontier town as far into the interior of Borneo as a foreigner can go without a permit. Just a generation or two ago the inhabitants of this region were pirates and headhunters. I was walking down the street early in the evening and there was a family walking in front of me – parents and two daughters, maybe 12 and 14. The younger daughter looks back, sees me, gets a look of terror on her face, gives a little scream, and runs and hides behind her mother, proving that all things are relative to one’s frame of reference.
I arrived in Kuching, the largest city on Borneo, on Wednesday. It seemed pretty exotic, with a city center that looks like it hasn’t changed much since the days of the White Rajahs. There is a tourist infrastructure and you see a decent number of tourists around town.
On Thursday I took an express boat to Sibu, and I didn’t see another tourist until I got back to Kuching a few days later. Things go from exotic to primitive pretty quickly once you get away from the coast in Borneo. The trip to Sibu takes 5 hours to travel 200 miles through the South China Sea then up various rivers. The Batang Rajang is several miles wide at its mouth and maybe a mile wide at Sibu. The flow is tremendous – the water is brown for several mile out to sea at it’s mouth.
Mostly there is just jungle down to the riverbank, but every few miles there is a long building that looks like a motel or strip mall. These are the modern versions of the long houses that the Iban live in.
I stayed overnight in Sibu and in the morning took a ‘Flying Coffin’ (so named because of their shape and speed, not their safety record) upriver 80 miles to Kapit.
Kapit is literally off the map – Google Maps shows it miles from its actual location. The only way into Kapit is by boat or helicopter. Once you reach the edge of town the only way to go further is to cut a path through the jungle.
The only problem I’ve had on this trip was when I went to leave Kapit there were no seats available on any of the Flying Coffins that day. After I pleaded and told them I had to leave that day they let me on one of the boats, but I had to ride on the roof with the luggage. It’s good I took this trip now – next year I may be too old for this sort of thing.