Up the Rajang: Belaga Durian Guide
Belaga is a very small town on the Rajang River, the longest river in Sarawak. It’s further than Sibu, or Song, or even Kapit. Past the Pelagus Rapids along about 120km of brown, ever narrowing river, you’ll find your way to Belaga.
So far from the coast, I imagined Belaga to be up in the mountains, with cool misty mornings, and hopefully a durian season that comes far later than the low-lying coastal areas.
We’d just finished three Borneo Durian Tours, and it was already beginning of February and Durio kutejensis time every where else. I hoped that so waaay up there, we could catch the peak durian season and some really wild Belaga durians. And maybe, just maybe, we could even find the bright-red Durio dulcis.
Which we did. Score!
This blog post includes:
- Describing Belaga Town
- Where to Stay in Belaga
- Durians at the Belaga Tamu
- Arriving to Belaga by Road
- Leaving Belaga by Express Boat
- Durian Hunting Map
About Belaga Town
Unlike my expectations, Belaga was not cool and misty. It was somewhere between roasting and char-broiling.
By 7am, when I left the hotel to see if any durians had showed up at the local tamu market yet, I had to wear my sunglasses against the glaring blue sky and sweat trickled down my spine.
The central business district consists of three rows of Chinese-style shophouses habited by several convenience stores, restaurants, and hotels. There’s a BSN Bank ATM machine, which appears to be the only bank in town, and a tiny outdoor market selling mostly vegetables that wrapped up and was empty by 11am.
But the little market is not where the durian action takes place. Durian is sold almost exclusively in the dusty parking lot along the river.
Warning: There Be No-See-Ums in Belaga Town
Every where we went in Belaga we were chased by swarms of minuscule, hard-shelled little midges that we call “no-see-ums” in America.
At first I paid them no mind. After years in Southeast Asia, I barely react to mosquitoes, but oh-my did my skin crawl after just one morning watching the ladies unload durians from the river.
I didn’t even realize how bad it was until I felt something trickle down my ankle. It was blood. I’d unwittingly been scratching, and to my horror my legs had become one mottled pink bite, the welts so close together they had melded into a blotchy, shivering itch. It was bad.
But not bad enough to leave the Durian River Market. So you know the durian was good.
Where to Find Belaga Durian
My not-so-evil plan to hit Belaga’s Peak Durian Season worked — there were durians everywhere!
There were durians in restaurants, in backs of trucks, and in piles in front of people’s houses. And so many types! We saw orange and yellow Durio graveolens, plenty of kampung and named varieties of Durio zibethinus, a few early Durio kutejensis, and yes — even our treasured Durio dulcis.
But the majority of the durian stayed along the river front.
By 8am, people laden with baskets milled up and down the muddy embankment, adding durians to the piles, which swelled and suddenly disappeared completely into the beds of trucks lurking nearby to carry them away to Bintulu or Miri.
All the durians are brought to Belaga Town by river from the many small Kayan or Sekapan communities and longhouses along the Rajang.
The Sekepan tribe is a very small tribe endemic to Belaga. Their culture shares some commonalities with the Kayans — like the elderly ladies wear black tattoos to the elbows and stretched earlobes — but they have their own culture, their own language, and their own durian surprises.
In Sekapan language, durians are called dekzan. The ladies at the river front were selling them by the tompok, or pile, for Rm10 per 3 durians. They were getting gobbled up by the trucks heading to Bintulu or Miri, so I decided to hurry up and check them out.
Within minutes I detected an interesting smell. One of those durians was numb. I just had to find it.
And so it was that we opened our first Belaga durian hunt with a super numbing, bitter, gassy, it’s-cold-on-my-tongue-but-hot-outside durian.
It was a good omen.
The second shocker was finding these D2 durian brought to the market from Sekapan Panjang.
It’s a durian that I like, but one that I don’t find very often even on Western Malaysia. It originates in Malacca, near Kuala Lumpur, in the 1930’s. This far up river, I was expecting to find ancient kampung trees, not named varietals from Semenanjung.
Don’t believe me that it’s a D2? Check this out:
See the tiny spikes in between the big spikes? The green netting? The slight brown tinge to the tips, the very prominent seam, the slightly pear shape? And they were damned hard to open thanks to the tough shell at the stem-side.
The next morning, we even found Musang King … but it had already been sold to a “China guy.” Figures.
But still, I was wondering if maybe Belaga wasn’t quite as “wild” and different as I’d envisioned. Until we met these:
There were Durio graveolens the size of my head in Belaga. They were unusually big, unusually soft and wrinkled, and unusually fleshy, with a tiny little seed. All I could think was that these orange babies must have come from some seriously old, powerful trees.
And they had their own name. The ladies at the market referred to them as Terbudak (Tuh-boo-dah-k). They were using the Sekapan language. Suddenly every piece of durian terminology I’d learned every where else in Borneo was useless.
Now that was interesting.
Pijak or Pakan
Locals don’t really consider this little Durio kutejensis a durian. It’s too sweet, too fruity, and it’s too super easy to open. The little old lady selling it in Belaga opened it by pressing the durian between her tattooed palms until it cracked.
Pijak literally means you step on it.
She said of all her trees, only this one was fruiting right now, the others not yet. Pijak rings in the end of the durian season, so we were still in time for the other goodies!
This bright red Durio dulcis isn’t often sold at the river front, but I don’t know why. It’s amazing.
Our second morning in Belaga I mentioned to one of the locals that I was studying durians. When we came back for a second sweep later in the morning, there was a box of this super rare durian waiting for me. In Malay, locals call it tai, but in Belaga they called it Nyao.
It was the best Durio dulcis I’ve ever had. I don’t like the overpowering peppermint/nail polish sweetness they can have. This one was surprisingly fleshy and thick, with a milky sweetness and just enough peppermint to make it interesting.
Did we want to see the tree? Yes of course! We made arrangements, and that afternoon we boarded a boat to one of the Sekapan longhouses to learn more about their language, their culture and of course…their durian!
Where we stayed in Belaga Town
For such a petite town, I was surprised to count five (5) hotels.
We could have stayed at the Belaga Hotel, or the Belaga B&B, or Danny’s Corner, run by the infamous Daniel Levoh (who we didn’t manage to meet up with).
We also had our choice of either of the hotels run by the Sing Soon brothers — Sing Soon Huat and Sing Soon Hing — but on a recommendation from a local friend, we went with Sing Soon Huat.
We decided to go luxurious and picked the most expensive room. At Rm50 per night (plus the dratted Rm10 tourism tax) the room featured not only a double and twin bed, but a box television set, an air conditioner, and a hot and cold water shower.
I hadn’t seen a box television set that retro in years. I tried to turn it on to see if it was color or black and white, but it didn’t work.
If I were to choose the room again, I would go for a room on the second floor (we were on the third), because with the tin roof and the retro air conditioner, our room was hot in the daytime.
Good thing we were so busy exploring Belaga we didn’t need much time inside!
Driving to Belaga from Bintulu or Miri
There is one road to Belaga. It starts on the old highway between Miri and Bintulu, and the road was nice and paved and pleasant for the first 2 hours, until we arrived to the Bakun Dam intersection and turned right.
There the paved road abruptly ends, and the dirt begins.
The driver sighed. He tapped on the car clock, which read just before 6pm.
“Only 30km,” he grumbled. “And we won’t get there until after 7pm. Just watch.”
He was right. The road to Bakun dam was paved by the energy company that built the dam, with the plan to sell 70% of the energy to Kuala Lumpur on the other side of the ocean via a submarine cable. No one ever bothered to finish the paving job to Belaga.
I’d heard the road required a 4wd, so instead of renting my own little car I arranged transport with Mr. Bawang, who drives daily to Bintulu to sell off jungle products and pick up supplies for convenience shops in Belaga.
He charged us Rm50 per person, which was very fair — but definitely don’t expect a private transport level of service. We waited 2 hours past our agreed meeting time in the lobby of the Kemena Plaza Hotel for the Mr. Bawang to finish his pick-ups, and then nearly 2 hours more before we finished the other errands — loading nearly 1 ton of mandarin oranges for Chinese New Year, stopping at a mechanic, doing other miscellaneous pick ups — and finally left Bintulu.
It was very dark when we got to Belaga Town, so we didn’t even catch a glimpse of the durian glories until the morning.
Leaving Belaga by Boat on the Rajang River
There is one public Express Boat that leaves Belaga most mornings, but not every morning.
If the river is too low to pass the Pelagus Rapids the boat simply doesn’t run. It’s best to make sure the Express Boat is running before making plans to travel by river.
The boat is one of those long, narrow coffin-rockets common on the Rajang River. But Express Boat is a misnomer. More like Bus Boat. Ours slowed and nosed its way up the muddy banks at many many longhouses on the way to Kapit.
But it’s a beautiful and pleasant ride, especially if you sit on top and bring snacks. Ahem
Nobody minds if you eat durian on the top of the boat and throw the shells in the river.
Which is great, because it’s a long ride and you’re likely to get durian deprived. The boat can leave any time between 7:30 and 8:00am, but ours departed around 7:50am. By the time we arrived to Kapit, it was after 1:30pm, making our total journey a little more than 5 1/2 hours.
Five and a half hours without durian? Not if we don’t have to.
I loved learning about the unique culture of the Sekapans, the mixture of really ancient durian trees with established modern varietals, and the surprise of finding some really good Durio dulcis.
I honestly could have stayed longer in Belaga. There are so many small longhouses along the river, I dreamed of getting my own little boat and longhouse-hopping all the way to Kapit Town.
But maybe that’s for another year.
I think I’d had enough of the no-see-ums anyway.
Getting to Belaga
There are two ways to get to Belaga; by road or by Express River boat. This blog post ↑ ↑ has a lot more details about our journeys to and from Belaga, so scroll back up to get our advice.
Use this map of Malaysia to navigate to other durian hot spots! Each pin has a blog post just like this one to help you figure out where to go, how to get there, where to stay, and what durians to look for when you arrive.