We got up around 7:45 to pick up our permit for travel north of Kapit. It’s tight as the permit office is open from 8:00 and the boat to Belaga is at 9:00. It’s even more tight when you find out that the permit office has moved quite some distance out along the airport road.
There are signs posted on the old building, but these are faded from sunlight and actually seem to say “We Are Here” rather than “We Have Moved” so we couldn’t tell when we scouted the place the night before. A nice local informed us in the morning that it’s about a 30 minute walk to the new office, or we could get a van from the market. All fine if you’re planning on it, not so good if you reckon you have an hour to wake up, get your permits and hop on the boat.
So we didn’t bother. Checking a few websites, generally nobody asks for them anyway. And if they do, you tell them you arrived by road from Bintulu where you can’t obtain a permit. They’re only dished out in Kapit. The permits are free, so nobody’s losing out. As far as I can gather they’re more to stop logging protesters from gaining access to the jungle areas, so as long as you don’t look like a hippy or wear a Greenpeace t-shirt you should be fine.
A nice lady at the pier made sure we got on the right boat and we bought some frozen drinks from her. Mine was a vry authentic-tasting banana juice. Green and stored in a re-used water bottle. I have no idea what it’s made from and where the water originated, but I’m not dead yet so it must be OK.
The MR30 journey to Belaga was nearer four hours than three, but comfy enough and it’s a great experience to stand on the side of the boat or sit on the top as it whips through the water at around 60 mph (I don’t do nautical units, sorry). It’s a very different experience to the Mekong trip. The river’s much wider and there are fewer settlements on the riverbanks. Those I did see were impressive in length – they get the name “long house” for a reason.
On the boat we met a French couple and we’ve informally agreed to trek with them. It’s likely we’ll get a better price as a group. They’re also heading to Miri afterwards, so again we’re assured of being able to fill up a 4×4 for the bumpy journey in a couple of days’ time.
After a quick walk around town (and I mean quick – we walked every street in a little over 3 minutes) we located Daniel’s Corner which is recommended as being the best place to sort out a tour. Only it was closed, we assume opening in the later afternoon or evening. Right now, my stomach is wondering why it’s had nothing but banana juice all day so I’m off in search of a Big Mac.
No Big Mac, but egg noodle and… erm… something instead. It was meant to be chicken, but I swear it was fishy. I left those bits at the side of the plate and concentrated on the noodles. Belaga isn’t somewhere you want to be stuck if you’re not a fan of eating the local cuisine.
Anthony and I then took a stroll out of town and into the country for an hour or so, then circled back. There really isn’t a whole lot to do around here, though it’s a pleasant place. Slurping ice lollies we watched one of two football games going on between schoolchildren. A quick email check and we walked around the Daniel’s Corner to catch up with the French couple (Chrystelle and Jean, I think – I’ll correct those if I’ve got them wrong!)
Also there when we arrived was a German girl, Ellie, who speaks very good French and English, and acted as a translator for Chrystelle and Jean. Jean’s English is pretty good, but he had some trouble with Daniel’s accent so it all worked out pretty well.
Daniel tailored a trip to suit all of us, based on requests and ideas he had. While he made some phone calls to guides and houses, we skipped round the corner for dinner. Again, local fare, although Ellie bailed out as it was “too expensive” at MR5 per person. She went to find somewhere charging MR3. In exchange, we got to share a table with the town drunk who kept repeating himself over and over. Harmless enough, but it made conversation harder. We were also joined by Daniel’s deaf/mute (or whatever the politically correct term is this week) daughter. Or niece. I’m not sure which. She’s a giggle anyway – constantly in motion and miming away like a loon.
After our food, we walked all the way back along the street to Daniel’s where he revealed the pricing. Two days, one night for MR260; three days, 2 nights for MR300. Ellie balked and said she’d sort something else out, mainly as she’d already done trecking and needed new shoes before she could step foot in a jungle again. Anthony and I opted for the shorter option while the French contingent settled for the longer one.
Now, Lonely Planet (out of date, though it is) does say that Daniel does trips for MT180 for 3 days. Well, he does. Even accounting for inflation. But you’ll stay in one place for 3 days and take each excursion from there with a long night afterwards. He found that tourists found these boring, so changed plans to allow people to move around and see more things. Of course this means transportation costs, more guides and paying more families for the use of accommodation hence the price rise. It’s around Â£40 for 2 full days, meals, guides, transport. Other than buying gifts for hosts (a quid or so on some exercise books and pencils is very welcome) there’s no more need to put your hand in your pocket.
He also said he’d arrange our transport to the junction on the way to Miri for when we were finished, to save us ringing around. Job sorted, we walked back to the hotel. Ellie was in the room above us, and I spent a good couple of hours nattering to her. An interesting girl – she’s spent 3 years in India and 18 months in Thailand, amongst other things, and hitch-hiked to Belaga earlier today!