I couldn’t help but look back nervously as the bullet boat roared away up the brown Rajang River. The tiny rental car, nicknamed the Pearl, grew smaller on the pier where we’d left her. No roads lead to Kapit. The only way to get there and scope out the Weekend Kapit Market, and search for rare jungle durians like Durio dulcis, was to take a leap and venture up river.
Why Go To Kapit?
Kapit’s out-of-the-wayness is part of what makes it a tourism destination. If it were connected to the rest of the world by road, some of it’s charm would dry up. Probably, so would the unusual jungle produce available at the Kapit Market.
It’s not like Kapit doesn’t have cars, and roads, and quite a lot of traffic actually, it’s just that the cars are stuck. No reasonably passable roads connect the cool, hilly river port with any other city — not even to Song, just 44km down river.
Other tourists come here to stray into the Borneo boonies and visit a few longhouses. The area is hilly, and cool, and usually shrouded in a comforting blanket of low clouds. As an Oregonian, I liked the green drippiness.
Why was I going to Kapit? Durians durians durians. There was a rumor that the red-skinned durian, Durio dulcis, can sometimes be found at the Kapit Market. It was worth it to me to check this out, even if I found nothing.
That’s part of the hunt. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not, but either way you learned something and went somewhere new.
Getting to Kapit
The usual way to get to Kapit is to take a 3-hour ride on one of the long, enclosed bullet boats from the Sibu ferry terminal near Sibu Market. Boats depart for Kapit every half-hour or so, starting before 6am until the last boat at 2:30pm. You can check the official boat schedule, but be aware that timing in Malaysia is flex. Just be early and ready to wait around.
Our hotel window in Sibu looked out over the ferry terminal, so that I could watch the boats maneuver around each other and up and down the river all day and night.
To Kapit From Kanowit
Being unconventional me, I decided to take a different route to Kapit. I’d heard the Kanowit Weekend Market often yielded horticultural surprises, so instead of getting on the boat in Sibu, we drove to Kanowit and stayed a night at the lovely longhouse there.
The next morning, we waited for a boat to pick us up. At the Sibu terminal, they told me that three boats stop daily in Kanowit enroute to Kapit: 9:30AM, 12:30PM, and 3ish PM.
I tried confirming the boat schedule with the longhouse headman, Benjamin Angki. He said there was only one boat, at 3ish. A nun at the Kanowit Market said there was only one boat, at 9:30AM. Nobody had heard of the 12:30PM boat.
We settled at the pier and watched several Express boats speed by before one of the bullet boats nosed up. It was only going as far as Song, but, with several hours to kill before the 3ish boat arrived, we decided we might as well explore Song too.
One hour later and 20RM later, we were in Song.
All About Song
I like stopping at random places just to take a look. I thought we’d walk around the town, visit the market, see if anybody was selling any interesting Durios, and head onwards to Kapit.
Instead, as we stepped off the boat onto the cement pier, we were swept up by All Blacks Guide Service. He was a middle-aged man in a collared shirt who looked like every cab driver I’ve ever met in Kuala Lumpur (except the nice Sikh guy). He was friendly and seemed to know the boat schedule.
He offered to take us to a longhouse nearby for the afternoon and return us to the pier in time to catch the boat to Kapit.
My default position is “No.” If I’ve just landed somewhere — airport or tiny boat pier– I’m not going anywhere until I’ve figured things out. Since we’d just come from a longhouse in Kanowit, I was more interested in exploring Song and eating lunch than going on what sounded like a tourist trap.
My companions, though, were interested enough to talk to him about the venture. As we stood with him, another boat came and went. I walked away to ask where it was going.
Kapit. It was the mysterious 12:30PM boat, just behind us. We’d missed it.
Saying goodbye to All Blacks, we looped around the two streets that make up Song. At mid-day, the market overlooking the river was nearly deserted, with just a few sleepy people selling vegetables and sad-looking cempedaks. There were no durians.
I saw two hotels, the Capital Hotel, and the Katibas Inn.
My conclusion: Just go to Kapit. And watch out for touts.
Weekend at Kapit Market
I woke up dark and early Sunday morning to see what was happening at the special weekend market, called a Tamu. The weekend markets in Malaysia are usually extra big.
At 6AM, a few vendors rustled around in the darkness.
At 7AM, the market was sleepily awake and a few Iban vendors stretched their tarps along the sidewalk across from the Post Office. It was a quiet, cool morning. I went running.
When I got back, around 9AM, the market was so crowded I could no longer walk down the sidewalk.
Shoppers pushed past each other, stepping around and over piles of fruits and vegetables. It was loud, with the hubbub of a lot of voices compressed into a small space.
In many ways, the Kapit Market was like almost every market I’d been to so far in Sarawak.
There was a large building chaotically criss-crossed with long rows of vendors.
There were a lot of people sitting outside the building, with their fruits and veggies piled over tarps on the ground.
But here there was stuff I’d never seen before. Some of it I didn’t want to see.
I’d been warned I might see some unusual animals at the Kapit Market.
I think these were Civets in life, an animal closely related to the mongoose. Civets have given their name twice to durian. The durian’s scientific name, Durio zibethinus, is derived from the scientific name for civets, because early explorers thought the fruit and the animal smelled similarly (i.e. they both stink). In the Malay language, civets are called “Musang” — the same as the “Musang King” durian variety.
Civets are frugivorous, and apparently people believe that this fruit diet gives their meat a sweet flavor.
“Bull!” said my friend when I Whatsapped him to ask what these unfortunate critters were. “No fruity taste. Red meat, a bit chewy.”
They’re protected under Malaysia’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, but in reality, the further upriver you go, the fewer laws are enforced. RIP, little guys.
Pulasan (Nephelium mutabile)
A less grim find was these three types of sweet, delicious Nepheliums: yellow and red rambutans, and pulasan.
Pulasan is one of my favorite fruits. It’s a close relative of rambutan, with a weirdly nubby, purple shell with a texture like styrofoam or insulation. I don’t enjoy opening them. I also don’t like touching styrofoam or insulation.
But I do enjoy eating them, because Pulasans are juicier, softer, and sweeter than rambutans. They taste like grape juice from concentrate. I have no idea why they’re not just as popular and common as rambutans, unless other people have similar textural issues when opening them.
Engkala (Litsea garciae)
Engkala is almost a hallmark of a good jungle produce market. It’s always rare — even here, there was only two people selling it — and it’s shelf life is like nill. I don’t even really like it, but it’s so pretty in pink I always feel happy to find it.
I was extra happy, because my friend adores them. She did a little happy dance when we found them.
My issue is again, texture. Somewhere between an unripe avocado and white, clumpy yogurt, Engkalas are creamy, a little bit sweet and just plain strange. Still not my cup of tea, but then, it took me five or six attempts to appreciate the Balinese white mang0 (Mangifera caesia), and it might have taken you several attempts to like durian.
And look at you now, patrolling this durian obsessive website. So I think it’s worth giving Engkala a few more tries.
Tampoi Paya (Baccaurea bracteata)
I’d had the sweet, white-fleshed tampoi before, but never it’s corn-yellow cousin.
There’s not a lot to eat inside these, but they taste really nice. They’re more sweet-sour than the white ones, with the same lovely soft, juicy, strangely fluffy texture.
They’re really pleasant, and you can quite easily consume a kilo of them without actually having eaten any calories.
Ginger Fruits (Etlingera elatior)
I was sucking on the sweet marshmallow of tampoi and enjoying the ruckus of the market, when my eye strayed over this.
What is this?
It was obviously a plant, but not one that I’d seen before. That was exciting. But in the chaos of the market, the vendor ignored my attempts to inquire. It was too loud, or my Bahasa Malaysia was too terrible, or she spoke Iban. It remained a mystery until I could ask the fruit geeks on Facebook.
It turns out that this is the fruit of a torch ginger. The waxy, pink flower is one of my favorite herbs, and is an important ingredient in laksa soup. Somehow, it never occurred to me that the flower turns into a fruit.
To find out what it tastes like, watch the Weird Fruit Explorer’s review.
Pantu Sago Root (Eugeissona utilis)
Something about the burnt umber striations of these roots caught my eye. I just thought they were pretty, so I snapped a photo. Later, when I wanted to figure out what they were, I realized just how rare this find was.
This is the aerial root of a wild sago palm. People used to eat them when they ran out of rice to eat, but the only tribe that made them a staple were the people who lived deepest in the forest, the Penan. Pantu roots are so rare, there’s little information about them online. I wouldn’t have figured out what they were without the help of a local friend and this awesome book by my friend Quentin. Check it out, the illustrations are amazing.
In fact, his wife, Karen, is the one who did the illustration for the Botanical Durian T-shirt available in my Shop.
In hindsight, I wished I’d bought a Pantu root to take with me and convince someone to cook it for me. If you want to try something new, there’s always a way. Next time, Kapit.
Best Mawang Ever (Mangifera Pajang)
The best find in Kapit was hands down this Mawang.
It’s hard to trust a Mawang mango.
Many of them are sour enough to peel paint. Some have a latex in the skin that will literally burn your lips. Some are so fibrous there’s nothing to cut but strings floating in juice.
But if you find a good one, it will change everything you thought you knew about mangoes. A good Mawang is meaty, with a strong mango-meets-tomato flavor. The ones we found in Kapit were so sweet they tasted like they had little bits of crystallized sugar in them, but were also savory. They were all I wanted to eat, which was great because otherwise I would have been disappointed in our trip to Kapit. Because….drumroll…
There was like no durian
The few tiny piles of durian fled the market by the ikat. There hadn’t been many to start with, but by the time I’d finished my loop of the stalls and was interested to buy, they were gone. Snapped up, just like that.
Our friends, who’d been in Kapit just 10 days prior, had told us the season was peaking. In just that amount of time, we missed the whole season.
That’s just how it works with durian. Otherwise, could we honestly call it a hunt?
Since it was clear there was no durian to be had in Kapit, I set about with my phone and a photo to see if I could rustle up news of Durio dulcis, my mission’s focus.
I learned a few key things:
- They call it Isu Unggu, the purple durian, not the red durian. Asking for red durian will get you a blank stare; purple durian, a nod.
- It was in season 3 weeks ago.
Drat! But with telephone numbers and info in hand, I’m ready for the next durian hunt in Kapit.
Where We Stayed in Kapit
We arrived in Kapit late, around 4:30PM on a Saturday evening. It was just about to rain.
Unfortunately, the first five hotels we looked at were fully booked for the weekend, especially since we were looking for a room for three people.
We ended up at the Ark Hill Inn, just across the street from Kapit Market, for 105RM per night. It was perfect. Our room looked down on the corner of the market building (and also the dumpsters), so I could watch the comings and goings of the vendors.
If you want to book ahead, it appears that the Hotel Meligai is the only one with online booking. The price is actually comparable, so in the future I would probably forgo the stress and rainy quest for accommodation by just booking ahead.
You can also call Ark Hill at +60-84-796168.
After two nights in Kapit, we got back on the boat and headed down river to Kanowit. The trip went faster, since we were flowing with the river. As we neared the Kanowit pier, I stood up and watched as our The Pearl came back into sight.
I didn’t find exactly what I wanted — this time. But Kapit is the kind of place that takes some patience.
It takes hours out of the way to get there. Except for the hotels mentioned above, there’s no way to make a booking ahead of time.
There’s no real way to know what you’ll find in Kapit, until you go.
I plan to go again.
How to Go to Kapit Market
Take a boat from either Sibu or Kanowit. Here’s the boat schedule from Sibu.
Here’s a breakdown of how much it cost us:
- 20RM Kanowit –> Song
- 12RM Song –> Kapit
- 30RM Kapit –> Kanowit
Use this map to find the Kapit Market, or to navigate to other locations of durian interest!