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Rajang River - Myanmar ( Borneo) with Pandaw River Cruises
Journey into the Unkown

by Stu Lloyd

The temperamental Rajang River which reaches 640 kilometres into the heart of Borneo now plays host to a luxury colonial steamer, the RV Orient Pandaw. Stu Lloyd was one of its first passengers.

Cabin boys in crisply creased whites busy themselves with Brasso, buffing railings and fittings to an as-new shine. Ceiling fans whirr with vague effectiveness against the growing humidity. Large pink bodies recline on blue and white deck-chairs, reading Somerset Maugham, The Slaves of Timbuktu and Into the Heart of Borneo. The delightful tinkle of ice cubes as another gin and tonic – ‘I only drink it for the quinine of course’ – is generously measured and poured. Fond reminiscences of cruising the Nile and the great rivers of Burma. Then the dull resonating tone of a gong serves as a clarion call to a sumptuous three course lunch.

Raffles Hotel at the height of the Raj? No, the mysterious heart of Borneo, 2009.

Rajang River - Myanmar ( Borneo) with Pandaw River CruisesWith teak-panelled air-conditioned stateroom cabins with louvred doors, and a grand dining room dishing up international gourmet meals with a wine list to match, it’s easy – all too easy! – to slip into a somnolent tropical languor in which the boat itself becomes the destination. Especially as Redmond O’Hanlon, who wrote the seminal book on this island, says: ‘The low, monotonous, distant banks of mangrove swamp seemed to stand still, hour after hour’. The visual monotony is sometimes broken by gargantuan longhouses from the post-galvanised neo-eyesore period.

But .... our local guides caution against complacency in this area that receives 200 inches of rain per year. ‘Four or five hours after rain upcountry, the water level and currents change,’ says Louis, of Chinese and Iban descent. (The Iban, also known as Sea Dayaks, were the original traders and pirates of these waterways.) ‘The Rajang is impossible,’ agrees Andreas, himself Kayan tribal royalty from upriver Belaga. ‘Every year a few will die at Pelagus Rapids. I put on the itinerary ‘No princes or princesses’, meaning be prepared for contingency.’

If we weren’t we are now. Just looking at the high water mark on Kapit’s 1880 Fort Silvia is enough to humble us: 62 feet above mean in 1934. ‘Bloody hell, look at the volume of water,’ says our skipper Sean from Devon, a former officer on the QE2, extrapolating that level across to the far bank. ‘Glad we weren’t here.’

The average depth of the Rajang varies from between two metres to 22. The Orient Pandaw, modelled on the original Irrawaddy Steamship Flotilla boats dating back to 1865 however isn’t fitted with a depth sounder. Although over 55 metres long, with two 500 horsepower Cummins diesel engines, the vessel draws less than two metres of water, making it ideal to explore the shallower sections of these byways.

After the tiny town of Kanowit, Sean decides to detour us along a little tributary. Suddenly all the passengers take their nose out of their books and cling to the bow railings, watching excitedly (and I daresay a little anxiously) as we edge our way upstream, with our pilot Sahari – who grew up on this river on dugouts, tugs, and barges – scanning the water for clues, and Sean using the manual joystick instead of the big wheel to micro-manage the rudders.

Entire villages cram ramshackle wooden jetties to witness the imposing sight of the stately steamer make its way up these waterways where no vessel like this has ever been seen before. School children cheer. ‘I’ve never been treated like the Queen before,’ quips a passenger sitting regally on a wicker chair. Three blasts of the horn. More cheers. A highlight is a three point turn executed with the boat filling fully the width of the Belah River. But the amazing thing, and this recurred along the length of the river even in the smallest, poorest little outpost, is that the locals all had digital cameras and mobile phone cameras. In an ironic reversal, it was us that felt like the zoo attraction.

Rajang River - Myanmar ( Borneo) with Pandaw River CruisesYou see, Sibu, the major provincial city near the mouth of the river, only receives 2,000 tourists a year. And only a handful of those would venture further up-river. Kapit, the biggest town up-river doesn’t have an airport anymore – it can be reached only by express boat, long vessels resembling something from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, driven by 1100 horsepower engines that thunder along at up to 27 knots.

It brings to mind James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who wrote: ‘It was such a situation as an excitable mind might envy. The reflection that we were proceeding up a Borneon river hitherto unknown, sailing where no European had ever sailed before; the deep solitude, the brilliant night, the dark fringes of retired jungle, the lighter foliage of the river bank, with here and there a tree flashing and shining with fireflies …’

It was Brooke who tamed the now-Malaysian state of Sarawak: ‘I have a country, but oh, how beset with difficulties, how ravaged by war, torn by dissensions and ruined by duplicity, weakness and intrigue.’ He rid the waters of pirates, but piracy still abounds in the DVD shops of Kapit.

We receive a sobering reminder of the dangers of these waterways one night. A tug (lit by a single feeble red light and towing a massive timber barge) cuts a corner. Suddenly our boat scrapes the bank, the engines are slammed urgently into reverse. An angry blast of horn. The danger is averted. ‘A bit of lawlessness out here makes it exciting, but …’ says Sean afterwards, ‘I could’ve put us into the trees, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.’ Well, it might have – I could’ve spilled my rum punch.

We do go to ashore, deliberately, for a variety of excursions. At one kampong (village) Andreas explains the local lifestyle and introduces some of the traditional medical benefits of flora such as sipeh which fixes everything from stained teeth to acting as an antiseptic. Elsewhere we stop at a sago factory (little more than one belt driven machine and some braziers) and some brave punters sample sago worms, maggots-on-steroids which apparently taste ‘nutty’. Sago is the local staple rather than rice which yields only one annual harvest in Sarawak. At another nondescript place, we pull up in the mudflats and enjoy a short but sweaty jungle walk with chief Voraya who demonstrates ingenious animal trapping techniques.

But the highlight, perhaps of the whole trip, is the longhouse visit in the hills behind Kapit. Longhouses are a communal family way of living adjacent, sharing resources and responsibilities. This rickety wooden structure, 130 years old, sits proud, raised 15 metres above the surrounding slope. Satellite dishes poke incongruously from its shingled roof yet, inside, a basket of sacred skulls – a remnant of their headhunting days – is still suspended from the ceiling. James Brooke wrote on seeing the same thing: ‘Over our heads dangled about thirty ghastly skulls.’

A colourful welcoming ceremony is performed in which a feather is plucked from a chicken before it’s slaughtered, sets of nine plates of food offerings are laid on the floor, and tuak (high octane rice wine) is shared liberally. A young man and lady in traditional garb – he in feathered head-dress, she in splendid beadwork – treat us to a dance and sheer beauty respectively. In dowry Ariana would attract several musical gongs, the preferred currency of bridal attraction.

On reflection, this whole pioneering journey parallels berjalai; what the Iban men consider the Journey into the Unknown: a rite of passage that transitions them from boyhood to manhood, collecting more tattoos the further they travel.

A fellow passenger, a former Rear Admiral of the Royal Australian Navy, puts it another way: ‘The whole thing strikes me as a little cavalier.’ Yes, but that’s the Pandaw spirit. And Rajah Brooke certainly wouldn’t have had it any other way, old chap.

Photos by Stu Lloyd copyright 2009, all rights reserved.

Stu Lloyd travelled as a guest of Pandaw Cruises

 How to get to Sibu, Sarawak, Borneo:

Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia fly several times daily between Kuala Lumpur and Sibu, Borneo. See AirAsia at for the best fares. Pandaw includes return transfers from Sibu Airport to the vessel.

For more information on Pandaw Cruises go to


 Stu Lloyd

[email protected]

Stu has had six books published, and contributes to The Australian, National Geographic Traveler, New Zealand Herald, Asian Geographic, and a number of in-flight magazines. Visit

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