BAKUN: A journey of unexpected surprises

By Lester Geres

For city folks such as I, a trip out of the urban jungle presents a much-needed opportunity to reinvigorate the mind, body and soul, and broaden one’s horizons. So when opportunity knocks, I will answer without a moment’s hesitation. That opportunity came knocking last October, when I was invited on a media familiarisation trip to Belaga, a small district in the Division of Kapit, Sarawak. Having never been there before, the trip was a journey of discovery of many things previously unknown to me. And I got to make new acquaintances, with whom I shared an exciting week-long adventure.

The journey took about four hours, and involved a plane ride from Kuching to Bintulu at 7am, then onwards to Belaga via 4×4. Leading the convoy of three vehicles was Kenneth Jarit from Borneo Touch Ecotour Sdn Bhd, an ever-cheerful chap from Uma Belun in Sungai Asap. Around 2.30pm (after breakfast, lunch and a ½hr car trouble), we finally arrived at the security post at Bakun Dam to register before proceeding to the jetty further in.

A general view of Bakun jetty

One with nature

Waiting for us at the jetty was Luhat, a man of Kayan descent who owns and operates Belanum Bay Floating House and Mebong Cove Villa on Bakun Lake. With a huge smile on his face, he ushered us onto our speedboat, all set for the day’s little adventure. Boat loaded, we set off from the jetty and made for Mebong Cove Villa, located some 25 minutes away. Along the journey, we were taken aback by the beauty and serenity out there on Bakun Lake. What was then a mountainous region with snaking rivers along which longhouses once stood, is now a single vast lake the size of Singapore. Formed as a result of a mega hydroelectric dam project completed in 2010 and commissioned in 2011, the lake’s bluish green water, with layers of mountaintops in the background and leafless branches above its surface make for a surreal scene.

A different setting during sunset at Bakun Lake

Not half-an-hour in, Luhat’s Mebong Cove Villa came into view. It’s a sizeable wooden lodge built atop a small private island right on the lake. Accessible only by boat, the villa looks quaint yet particularly inviting. Its lights are powered by solar energy, its compound surrounded by lush greens and parts of its outdoor area are covered in passion fruit vines. The eco-friendly property is mostly open concept, with no door at the main entrance. The outdoor living area connects to the kitchen through a sky-lit hallway that allows for natural breeze to pass through.

The best thing about staying out on Bakun Lake is that there is very little to no mobile connectivity. That means less time spent looking at your phone screen and more time reconnecting with nature. And that was exactly what we did. After checking in, we headed back to the boat and made for Belanum Waterfall just 15 minutes from the lodge. It was already well after 5pm by the time we arrived at the waterfall, but still enough time to jump in and enjoy the cooling water from the multi-tiered cascades before we headed back to the lodge just before sundown.

Back at the lodge, a hearty barbecue meal was just waiting to be ravaged by us hungry lot. On the menu were home-cooked Kayan style dishes such as pounded tapioca leaves, deep-fried freshly caught tengadak fish, stir-fried baung (two spot catfish) in soy sauce, coconut shoot soup and of course, BBQ meats. To cap off the night, we had some “burak” (a version of tuak) and danced the night away to traditional Kayan sape music.

Casting net into the lake next to Belanum Waterfall to catch fish for dinner

On the next day, it was onwards to Uma Belun Leo Dian Kayan longhouse in Sungai Asap, also called Uma Belor. But before we left Mebong Cove Villa, we headed to the jetty that Saturday morning to find it transformed into a market unlike any other I’ve ever been to. In place of meats from domesticated farm animals, visitors will find bush meat such as wild boar and river fish like kaloi, tengadak and semah. Jungle produce and snacks are sold there as well.

After the market we headed to Mengelau Waterfall, about an hour from the jetty. The best view is the upper tier, which required a climb over a big boulder to get to. It was all worth it as we beheld a magnificent view of a partially hidden cascade that dropped into a medium sized pool below it. We spent about a solid hour there before we headed back to get our things from the lodge and return to the jetty for the next journey.

Belanum Waterfall

Bakun Lake certainly is a place of many pleasant surprises. Who knew a giant man-made lake could hold so many hidden treasures such as what we’ve experienced during our time there.

A huge dose of culture

An hour later by road, we arrived at Uma Belor longhouse. It’s an impressive longhouse made primarily of wood, with seven blocks altogether, making it the longest interrupted longhouse in Sarawak! It’s a great place to stay, where you get to experience local lifestyle such as farming and tending to vegetable farms. One can also make arrangements for cooking lessons or see how the ‘burak’ is made. Browse and admire local handicrafts or take a short trip to the graveyard nearby to see the unique burial houses of the aristocrats, with intricately carved roof ornaments. And of course, you can also arrange for a traditional ‘Datun Julud’ dance lesson to the beautiful sounds of sape (traditional Orang Ulu lute).

Head over to Uma Baha longhouse, Apau Koyan to experience more culture. Their grand entrance is a show of the cultural grandeur of the Orang Ulu folk. But most impressive is their Belawing Pebeka Tawai – a stunning traditional tower that took three months to complete. Painstakingly carved out of two belian logs, it measures 80ft and was officially declared “Tallest Belawing Tower” by the Malaysia Book of Records on Oct 27, 2019.

We were lucky to have been there in conjunction with Pesta Apau Koyan. Held once every two years, the festival holds great significance to the people in the Apau Koyan area, who were relocated to the area when the building of the Bakun dam commenced in the 1990s. The festival brings together longhouse folks in the area and attracts visitors from as far as Bintulu, Miri and beyond, who would go around trading stalls on both sides of the road to find everything from food to beautiful handicrafts, sold at very reasonable prices. There are also various events held on the stage inside the main venue, including tug of war, Datun Julud competition, karaoke and plenty more.

A mother carries her child in a baby carrying basket of the Kenyah called Ba’ as she looks for things to buy at the Bakun market

The Bakun weekend market is set in a very small venue at the Bakun jetty, and is held on Saturdays

But the most exciting aspect of the festival, for me, was the ‘Pondok’ competition, where representatives from different longhouses in the area came together to build life-sized replicas of their traditional homes. It was very fascinating to see these replicas called ‘pondok’ with their unique decorations both inside and out. We also got the chance to step into one of these ‘pondok’ to try some of their traditional food and chug in more of their ‘burak’. It is certainly good to hear that this collection of ‘pondok’ will become a permanent fixture, so visitors will be able to view them any time of the year.

Lovely ladies all dressed in traditional attire, posing at one of the ‘pondoks’ at Pesta Apau Koyan in Sungai Asap


Time to say goodbye

After four days of culture and nature experiences, we finally headed back to Bintulu and then off to our respective homes the day after. It’s sad to leave all that behind and come back to the stresses of city life. But at the very least I can look back at the photos and be glad that I took that step out of my comfort zone and went on a journey of unexpected surprises.

For more information:
Borneo Touch Ecotour Sdn Bhd
Rickett Commercial Centre, Lot 2065, 2nd Floor, Jalan Tarap, 98710 Limbang, Sarawak.
T:  +6013 566 2925 (Kenneth Jarit)
E:  [email protected]
W: BorneoTouch.com

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