Away from it all in Belaga

The captain – or pilot? – of our flying coffin to Belaga is manoeuvring steadily through the rapids. When the river gets too wild, we – the white people, are asked to go back inside. In retrospect, it isn’t all that wild and after an hour we can enjoy fresh air on the roof, away from the wrestling DVDs. Around  three o’clock we reach the village of Belaga, deep in the jungle of Sarawak and only to reach by 4×4 for two years now. Until then, Belaga was only accessible by boat across the Sungei Rejang and even now the village is mainly supplied by boat and the locals travel almost without exception over the water.

As we linger through the three streets of Belaga, everyone points us in the direction of Daniel, Mr. Daniel Levoh. Daniel runs a small guesthouse and is the only villager who speaks more than ten words of English. Since our Malay isn’t all that good either, we decide to get in contact with Daniel. Daniel is not at home, but his son lets us in, we are settled again for a day or three.

Belaga is a wonderful place to relax on the banks of the river we travelled over the last few days. Since the construction of a dam farther upstream and a small road towards Bintulu, Belaga has seen some development, but the people along the river live a traditional life. No head-hunters in traditional outfits, of course, but families in large longhouses, self-sufficient and in their minds still far away from the ‘big city’. If we want to see a couple of longhouses, we meet, besides our guide Daniel, the boatman Hussein, who during our trip talks to the boat, its engine and the trees. The largest longhouse we visit is 150 meters long and consists of nearly fifty houses. In exchange for some gifts (rice, rice beer, sugar) we are invited to have a bite to eat with a family. They are just building a new house. No longhouse on stilts, but a conventional house, so that one of the sons of the family can simply sleep inside again. According to the family he died three times in the past couple of years and came back to life and ever since he does not dare to walk up the stairs to enter the house. The poor fellow is mentally disabled, but these people hold a different idea, faith and way of life.

How different this world is, we already discovered a day earlier when we went out on our own. After some signing and drawing we found someone who wanted to take us in his boat on the other side of the river to trailhead towards Sihan. We did not know exactly what to expect, but the butterflies we spot during our walk are magically beautiful. After two hours, a number of wooden cabins appear in the distance: Sihan. With no road or river nearby, we go back in time in Sihan. When we take a look at a hut and are invited to enter by one of the men, Nadieh quickly beats the heat. Everybody wears not only a cloth around their waist, but also a large machete. The hut contains no more than a hammock, a small radio and a few shelves serving as a bed. Of course, everyone here has just as peace-loving intentions as any other people we have met so far, but the moment Nadieh discovered the big gun at the door, she had enough of it. Out of the hut, shoes on and off she goes: “I already pictured myself being served as their meal!”.

After four days of Belaga, we manage to hitch a ride taking us to Bintulu, back to the city, back to kedai kopi’s and night markets.