I hesitated before writing down the Kanowit Weekend Market on my durian hunting itinerary. I was thinking about the 80-20 rule. It’s supposed to be an efficiency hack, but it’s also my durian hunting philosophy. If I know something about where I’m going 20% of the time, I’m probably going to find something interesting. Probably. I added Kanowit to the unknown 80%.
The road ends in Kanowit. It’s about a 45-minute drive east from Sibu along the Rajang River. To continue further east, to Song or Kapit, you have to ditch your car and get on a boat. That was our plan.
But first we wanted to see what Kanowit was all about.
Here’s everything I knew about Kanowit before we parked our car in front of Fort Emma and wandered, squinting in the harsh 1 PM sunlight, down the deserted esplanade toward the pier:
- Sarawak’s White Rajah, Charles Brooke, built Fort Emma because the Brunei empire was encouraging local Malay tribes to kill all the Europeans in the area. There was a battle.
- Fort Emma is now a museum.
- Fort Emma is probably always closed.
- Kanowit has lots of Iban longhouses in the area.
- The Iban people bring a lot of wild or native produce to the Saturday morning market.
- Wild or native produce often means wild durians
- Almost nobody goes to Kanowit.
Where to Stay in Kanowit
We spotted a small hotel right across the street from the river pier called the Harbour View Inn (here’s their Facebook Page). We didn’t stop and check it out.
Instead, after walking a circle around the city (Shell station, cool 1930’s architecture, deserted wet market, trendy welcome sign) we got back in our car and headed out of town.
I’d been texting with Benjamin Angki, the headman at a nearby longhouse who offers a homestay program and a small chateau by the river for visitors.
“I am sitting by the river in front of the longhouse,” he texted as we left Kanowit.
Rantau Kemiding Longhouse: Benjamin Angki’s Homestay
Following Angki’s directions, we followed the road closest to the river past the St Francis Xavier’s Church, under a bridge still being constructed, and past a few other longhouses before reaching Rantau Kemiding.
It took us about 10 minutes to drive the 4km along the narrow road fringed with gardens and orchards. I saw a lot of mango trees and durian trees, but no fruit at all in the trees.
When we arrived, Angki was sitting by the riverside with some other elders. He showed us to the small, sunny building constructed for tourists, apologizing that the water flow was low.
We didn’t mind. The house was great.
The house has two bedrooms, a living room with comfortable seating, and a separate bathroom and washroom. We took one bedroom for 70RM per night ($16USD), plus 10RM for an extra mattress on the floor.
This is the room after we’d slept in it. It was sunny, bright and clean, cooled with AC and even including a small refrigerator.
It was a hot afternoon, so the first thing we did was jump in the river. Then the kids came home from school, and it was time to meet the longhouse residents.
About the Longhouse
Rantau Kemiding was both one was one of the biggest and nicest longhouses I’ve visited. It was built in 1936 and stretched for 200 or 300 meters along the road, a long, uniform row of yellow patio and potted plants. Paired with the patchwork blue roof, the house looked cheerful and cozy.
You really couldn’t tell how big it was from the outside.
Inside the narrow doorways, the longhouse opened to a wide, cool hallway where the kids kicked around a pink ball, pounding barefoot over the smooth boards.
The longhouse has 64 doors, each hiding a shotgun apartment with multiple rooms. Crossing through one of the doors felt like walking into an optical illusion. The apartments were so much bigger than I expected. We walked through three of four rooms, connected by a single hallway, to reach Monica’s kitchen.
She poured us tea, and we settled in to chat, cook some vegetables, and find out if they had any durian in the area. I really had no idea what we might find. Or not find.
Cooking Iban-style Veggies
They were the hosts, but I had the feeling that we were the source of entertainment. It was a quiet night.
Helen was already sitting at the kitchen table when we arrived, sipping tea. We peppered her with questions about life in the longhouse, and if there were any neat durians in the area.
The durian season was over around the longhouse. She and Monica both said that Durian Isu (the orange-fleshed one) was their favorite, but they weren’t easy to find anymore.
Then, I guess because we expressed so much interest in the local plants, Helen said something to one of the kids hanging around, who returned with a bag of dark green leaves patterned with grey.
“This one is Iban,” Monica said.
Daun Cangkok Manis – Sweet leaf
Helen began preparing the leaves to cook, stripping them off the thin stems and shredding them with her fingers. We nibbled it raw, which made her smile. One of the kids took a cautious piece, and made a face.
I don’t know how she didn’t like it. This leaf isn’t bitter at all. It tastes really good. It’s surprisingly sweet with a nutty flavor, which is why in English we often call it “Sweet Leaf” (The latin name is Sauropus androgynus). I’ve often eaten it in salads in Australia and Hawaii.
After boiling, the sweet leaf became really chewy. It still tasted good, but I honestly preferred it raw.
Either way, it tasted much better than another leaf the ladies munched raw, called Daun Bungkang. This one tasted like astringent ginger mixed with black tea. It was so bitter it made my face screw up, making the ladies laugh. They say they use Daun bungkang to flavor steamed fish, but they also like the flavor raw.
Some cultural differences I will never understand. That leaf was horrible.
I had to eat some kedongdong to get the flavor of the horrible leaf out of my mouth. As we’d sat there, Helen had also peeled a pile of small green fruits to accompany dinner.
These are spondias dulcis picked immature, so they are crunchy, starchy, and a little bit sour. Fully ripe, they turn yellow, soft and juicy.
At either stage, they have a really pleasant, slightly umami sweetness that pairs well pretty much everything.
After dinner, we said goodnight and walked across the road to our little house on the river, excited and hopeful to find something interesting at the market in the morning.
Kanowit Weekend Market — The Tamu
I was startled as we re-entered Kanowit around 8AM on Saturday morning. There were no parking spaces. There were fewer than no parking spaces. The street had a double or even triple layer of cars as people parked each other in.
We drove in a slow-moving circle around Kanowit, observing that most of the activity seemed to be around a single square block.
The entire circumference of the block was strewn with produce and people. It was hard to walk without bumping into someone’s swaying shopping bag of pink ginger roots or
But it was a flash market too. By the time we departed, around 9 AM, the market had almost dried up. Vendors packed up their tarps and left empty spaces in the sidewalk.
Even in the time it took me to walk a single lap, the huge mangoes I’d noted to come back for had disappeared.
Maybe the sense that the market was ending helped drive the flurry of activity around this lady’s langsat. There was a real run on them, with people standing around her holding out their quivering ringgits while she scooped the round fruits into her scale as fast as she could.
I watched for about 10 minutes as she kept going, unceasing, scooping,weighing, and pouring into plastic bags, then repeating, then repeating, until two entire tubs had gone. Then she also packed up and left.
Luckily I’d already bought my bag.
These are a local species of longan with bumpy skin that makes them look a little like a yellow lychee.
The flavor of these is usually stronger than normal longan, with a sweet mustiness that took me awhile to learn to like. I like them now, and would have bought some but they too evaporated during my first lap of the market.
Heart of Palm
I almost picked up a basket of these white, crunchy vegetables just because I thought they were so beautiful, glowing pearly white in the morning sunlight. They are the interior core of a palm tree. They can be from a lot of different kinds of palm, but when I asked, the vendor said it was from the Sago palm.
I think you have to bake or otherwise cook this heart of palm to eat it, which is why I didn’t buy it. But I’m going to have to look that one up.
When we pulled up to the market, I breathed a sigh of relief. There was durian everywhere. It seemed like every vendor had at least a couple of bundles of durian, tied together with pink or yellow plastic twine.
The durians were sold in bunches of three or four durians for anywhere from 10 to 30 RM per bundle, depending on the quality.
We walked a lap looking for wild durians or anything that looked particularly good. Having made our selections, we grabbed a few bundles. Our car stacked with durians, we headed back to the longhouse for a durian breakfast.
We cracked the durians open on the steps of the longhouse. I was hungry, and the durians smelled amazing.
They were some of the best durians I’d tasted on our Sarawak trip. This one in particular got my attention, with its unique herby flavor and buttery texture.
We’d bought extra durians to share with the kids at the longhouse. The littlest ones were into it, but the older kids didn’t want any. That was perfectly fine with us. The durians from the Kanowit Market were really good. We easily ate them all.
But I’m spoiled these days. I wanted to find weird jungle species of durian. And so we said goodbye to continue the hunt and try going somewhere new.
Saturday morning is the time to be in Kanowit. It gets crowded and boisterous, and the market is great (even if we didn’t find jungle durian). Make sure you go early, because by 9AM most of the vendors were packing up and gone.
I imagine that sometimes there is wild durian, and we were just there at the wrong season. But I don’t know for sure.
That’s the thing about durian hunting. You have to embrace that while there’s a lot you don’t know and will never find out, it’s the trying that matters. Twenty-percent of the time, you find some durian that’s really cool. And the rest of the time, you get to have all kinds of cool experiences.
Thanks to the Rantau Kemiding Longhouse for hosting us!
Getting to Kanowit
We drove from Sibu to Kanowit, an easy 45-minute jaunt along a good road lined with durians trees, although after Sungei Stubau we didn’t see any durians hanging in them.
From Kanowit, we left our car and took the boat to Kapit. The boat heading from Sibu for Kapit stops three times per day in Kanowit: around 9:30AM, 12:30PM, and 3PM. Keep in mind that these times are approximations, and like waiting for a bus you should get there early and be prepared to hang around.