Approach to Mukah


twin_otterI spent a weekend in Mukah, a small town along the coast of the South China Sea not far from Sibu. Mukah is the homeland of the Melanau people, one of the many native tribes of Sarawak. It is a quiet town; there is no industry to speak of beyond fishing and oil palm and sago cultivation. To fly there you have to take a tiny little plane, a Twin Otter, that holds about a dozen people. It flies below the clouds in a non pressurized cabin. There is no A/C, but there are a couple small fans like what cabbies will sometimes mount on their dashboards. You can see the pilots going through their startup procedure in the cockpit, flipping switches and pulling levers. It was a smooth ride both ways this time. I’ve flown once before in a plane like this where I was nauseous by the end from turbulence.

The nice part of flying in a small plane like that was the view: I could see the Sarawak wilderness spreading out below me. Mostly, we were flowing over the vast stretches of peat swamp that cover much of the lowlands.

As we approached Mukah, I could see oil palm plantations, laid out in orderly blocks the open air factories they are. A gridded network of drainage canals and roads ran between the blocks. Interspersed with these were what appeared to be palm-dominated jungle, but with narrow, shallow water ways that seemed too regular to be natural streams, but were far less orderly than the oil palm estates.

I later learned those were traditional Sago plantations. The waterways were man-made canals not so much for drainage but for navigation through the plantation on these dugout canoes. Sago is extracted from the trunk of the tree, so to harvest, the tree is felled, chopped into manageable lengths and floated out of the plantation behind the canoe. Back at the ranch, the trunk is ground down into sawdust. The sawdust is moistened and pressed, the squeezings are dried, and that yields the sago starch.

I visited a Melanau tallhouse newly built as a bed-and-breakfast. It was beautiful and full of all sorts of sago handicrafts as well as some gongs, weapons and knick-knacks of Melanau origin. The proprietor built it in her ancestral village, which is a lovely village built on a tidal flooplain astride a small river. All the houses, walkways and kitchen vegetables were on stilts. Due to the shortage of dry land, even the graves were traditionally on stilts. Behind the tallhouse was a hanging grave: a tree is felled, split and hollowed. The corpse is laid in the hollow and the other half of the timber is fitted back on top and lashed together. The log is then suspended above the high-water line for a long time. The proprietor may have said something about subsequently moving the bones to be interred somewhere else, like on the top of a tall standing deadwood, but I really didn’t catch it so don’t quote me. Regardless of how or why, the grave I photographed is now empty.

Mukah is a small town and like many parts of Sarawak, travel to it by road involves ferries across across major rivers. Here is the first ferry point on the road to Sibu, the closest major town. There are two ferry boats that switch banks every time one of the two boats is full. If you come at an off time, you may have to wait a while for the boat to fill. A bridge is under construction though, and before long the ferry will be obsolete. It was easy to see why the bridge is slow and expensive in coming. All the building materials, including sand and stone, have to be shipped in by barge from other parts of the state. Mukah, being completely surrounded by peat swamp, has no local sources of building material beyond timber.

Downtown Mukah has a lovely riverfront with a large Chinese temple. I was there the day after the hungry ghost festival, a celebration somewhat akin to Halloween, I gather. There were piles of ashes here and there where celebrants had been lighting ancestor sticks and so on. Nearby appeared to be a bus stop or gazebo of some kind, so I went to have a seat. There was some red and white hazard taping around it which was odd. Only as I came closer I saw that it was in fact a tomb of some muslim notable: saint or hero or patron I never found out. The hazard tape was to keep the temple faithful from burning offerings on the poor man’s grave.

The local vegetable market had some nice local fruit for sale: lisak or lisuk, I don’t remember, which, a kind of wild durian. They’re orange inside and not “heaty”, just sweet. The outer spines (duri) are not that sharp. There’s a second common wild durian that has a nutty flavor and is very oily. These were not like that. There were also wild pulasan. Pulasan are rambutan-like fruits that are easier to open; you just “pulas” , or twist, them. Delicious and grapey.

All the photos from my trip to Mukah are available on Flickr. You’re welcome to have a look.