I remember a few years back, well actually many many years back, I had the opportunity to meet up with my former teacher from secondary school, Cikgu Awang. I can’t quite remember what he taught me in school but I do vividly remember the moment when he so proudly said to me “Fish laaa.. I’m Melanau and I’m having fish!” while smiling and nodding his head in pride. I smiled back at him and I nodded back in acknowledgement as I totally knew and understood that pride feeling from within. He is a proud Melanau.
So this blog is somewhat centered around Melanaus and their culture. This is what I experienced last year when I travelled from Sibu to Dalat by boat, overland to Kampung Tellian in Mukah.
If you’re not from Sarawak and not quite sure where Mukah is, you are forgiven. Little is known to the outside world about this coastal town in central Sarawak. In my eyes, it is one of those little gems of Sarawak despite developing well into the 21st century, still has that “good old days” charm to it.
If you are planning your trip to Mukah, I would strongly suggest that one start their journey from Sibu. Being the largest town in central Sarawak, Sibu would be your main entry point if you would like to discover travel adventures in central Sarawak. From there one would be able to choose either to go upriver or downriver on Malaysia’s longest river, the mighty Rejang. On this one, you will be travelling downriver. You can drive up to Mukah, but going by river is much more fun. So you take the boat from Sibu to Mukah and once done you go by land back to Sibu and head off back from where you came from.
2017 is Visit Sibu Year and this photo is a collage of Sibu’s signature noodles, the big prawn mee (top left), chao chai (top right) and of course, the Kampua Mee. Must try!! The croc with the Sibu sign is not edible by the way
Sibu to Dalat by speedboat.
So your journey begins in the morning and you explore Sibu town and after having your Kampua Mee, you would then head down towards the wharf and board the one of the pre-booked 6-8 seater speedboat to Dalat. This journey would take about 2 hours and you would get a glimpse of life and the activities along the mighty Rejang.
You’d pass by Sibu’s shipyards which are famous in making vessels , tug boats and express boats. The industry is not doing bad at all as it does get international orders.
Soak in everything and don’t forget to take out your camera or smartphone camera and shoot away. Boats, from barrages to small fishing boats to Express boats, longhouses to plotted houses, sawmills, schools and of course don’t miss the floating supermarket that ply their trade along the Rejang.
The red floating supermarket plying it’s trade along Rejang
After two hours or so then you’d arrive at a sleepy Dalat. I like this “intro” so to speak as it does make me gaze really far. This must have been life back then for Sibu. Probably 50 years ago. Which is a wild gaze. Take a short breather here and enjoy some local coffee. Two hours of fascinating boat ride, deserves to be rewarded with a nice cup of coffee.
One guy checking his nets in Dalat river
Now from the speed boat you would then transfer to a van which will take you onwards to your next destination, Kampung Tellian, Mukah. A nice small village that is really still rustic and authentic despite having sattelite dishes, Wi-Fi, electricity and all the nice modern comfort that we enjoy in the city.
One of the best ways to experience part of the Melanau culture is to have an overnight stay at Lamin Dana Homestay. It’s interior is decorated with Melanau arts and crafts, and the rooms are on twin sharing. It also serves as a Melanau cultural centre where the youths would come and practices their traditional dance and keeping their traditional crafts alive.
Staying in the room during the day can be really “sticky” as the rooms are equipped with ceiling fans. So be prepared to take a few showers a day to cool off.
That is why during the day you shouldn’t stay in your room. Go out and explore Kampung Tellian. Two ways to do this exploration, first either by foot or by a river cruise along Tellian river. Either way both are interesting as you’d get different perspective. I of course prefer a boat cruise.
Lamin Dana Homestay and Cultural Centre
It’s all about Sago
The major highlight of the tour around this rustic village is about their sago industry. The mere fact that they live along the coastal area, Sago is abundant here. Sago remains to this day the staple food of the Melanau community. It’s only in the past 50 years or so that the Melanaus have more or less adopted rice as their staple food.
I’ve been told that most old folks even if they have taken rice for their meal, they would still take some sago, only then they would feel that their meal is complete. Just like my dad, he’d have to have rice no matter what. Even though he’s had a good filling meal. There must be rice!!
If you take the river cruise along Tellian river, it’s impossible for you to miss this thriving ancient practice. You’d definitely come across stretches of Sago logs waiting to be sent to the sago mills to be grounded and strained of it’s starch.
Sago logs waiting to be sent to for processing. each log is about 3 feet long and fetch a price ranging from RM 5 to RM 7.
I was lucky enough during this trip, I saw an Egbert perched on one of the logs.
Kingfishers are also often sighted along this river tour and apart from that, monitor lizards too. Always keep you camera ready
It takes about 15 years for a sago palm to mature before it is cut down and chopped into smaller logs and lined up in the river before sent for processing at the mills.
At the mills these sago logs are grounded and water is used to drain the starch. When the process is finished, the sago starch is packed and sent to the markets to be sold.
Lady feeds the diced up sago logs into a grinder. Technology has assisted this process by leaps and bounds, making it faster and viable to do on an economic of scale.
Beside being sold at the market, the villagers themselves buy the sago starch which they bring back and make sago crackers and also sago pearls. The interesting one to watch is the making of sago pearls.
The sago is sifted using a basket which pre determines the sago pearl size, and then is put on a clay oven and is roasted slowly until it is baked properly.
The clay oven uses firewood and it is because of this that the sago pearls have that nice smoked smell to it.
A lady rolls the sago pearls from time to time on this clay oven making sure it is roasted evenly. Roasted sago pearls are then packed away, either for their own use or sent to the market to be sold.
I respect the lady that does this process. One a nice sunny day, these huts are like saunas. Hot and humid. Maybe that’s why she is feather weight so to speak, all those calories never get the chance to put fat on her. I myself would be a dried prune.
Mukah Fish Market
The river cruise then takes you out towards Mukah river towards the Mukah fish market. Along the way I became more aware of Cikgu Awang’s statement. I see more evidence of his proclamation of fish being a Melanau thing.
Fishing boats and boat making dockyards line up this river. It’s buzzing with fishing activities all around.
Boats parked at a village house. I am assuming that every male in this household is a fisherman judging by the number of boats here.
As we docked at the fish market, I immediately made my way to the umai preparation section. This is a must visit section of the market. It is a show on it’s own. You can spend like 30 minutes here and be amazed at the skills these guys have at preparing umai.
As I arrived at the umai section, there are about 6 stalls set up and have stacked containers containing fine sliced fish. I watched them do their stuff.
The knife is sharpened. Then he takes one fish and starts filleting it. A fish the size of my hand took the fella only about 5.63 seconds! Wow. Another 5.64 seconds later and the other side of the fish comes off. Two fillets in sub 12 seconds! Amazing to watch. From the way the blade ran through the fish, I knew it was razor sharp.
He then takes both fillets and starts slicing it with such blazing speed into smaller strips and then he’s done. Less than a minute. He’s sliced up enough fish for an umai that can serve 3 to 4 people.
Luis Suarez’s fan with a razor sharp knife preparing fish needed for umai. My guess is he won’t have a problem looking for a job in a Japanese restaurant in Barcelona
So a take away container would cost RM 10. Add the marinating ingredient another RM 3 making the total damage come to RM 13. In my point of view, definitely worth every buck. Showmanship, presentation, all so well.
Dubbed the ‘Sashimi’ of Sarawak, Umai basically is marinated fish. The main ingredients are fish (preferred) or prawns, onions, chilies, lime and salt.
Look around further at the market you’d definitely come across the Si’et section. Also another interesting part not to be missed if you are at the market.
Sago worms or Si’et as the locals call them is another favourite delicacy of the Melanau.
Each worm costs RM 1 each. Option either you eat it alive or you could smoke them first. Either way, you should try it. Overcome your fear, you might one day need to rely on these worms in order to survive.
Just next to the fish market is another market with plenty of mini stalls. This too you must check it out. There’s plenty of sago crackers to choose from here. Pandan flavoured, strawberry flavored, good old traditional recipes and a few other more. I bought a few packets as souvenirs to give away once I get back to Kuching. If not the crackers then get the other sago products here. Plenty of options and of course to fit your budget.
So that was the end of the tour and in the afternoon we packed our bags and departed Mukah and headed back to Sibu overland. I still had the images, sights, sound and smell of Mukah in my head. Made me smile and I knew I’d be back for more.
Kampung Tellian, after so many revisits in the past 10 years or so. A lot of it still has the character that I remember on my first visit here. I plan to come again and document more about it’s people and it’s culture. You should too.
One of my favourite photos of Kampung Tellian Mukah. It’s the people that make the destination interesting
I would always recommend guided tours as it gives more meaning to a tour. You would have a guide that would explain things to you thus making your trip worthwhile. Guided tours can be arranged and the one operator that is actively doing central Sarawak tours is GREATOWN TRAVEL. They are located at No. 6, 1st Floor, Lorong Chew Siik Hiong 1A, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia. Tel: +60 84-219243 / 211243
Email: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would want to do this own your own, you would need to drop by the Visitors Information Centre Sibu which is located at Sublot 3a & 3b, Sibu Heritage Centre, Jalan Central, 96000 Sibu, Malaysia. Tel: +6084-340 980
This is not a paid review.