About Sri Aman, The City of Peace
Sri Aman is a small city facing the Batang Lupar River in a wide, bumpy agricultural plain meandering into the pepper-filled mountains of the Indonesian border.
It’s a city populated primarily by ethnic Ibans, with a strong Chinese influence. There’s a Quan Yin Temple on the riverbank, plenty of churches and Chinese shophouses, and a mosque just a little outside of the town.
The city feels sluggish, especially now that the esplanade along the river has been boarded up for repair and the Pasar Tamu (main market) migrated 800 meters away from the city center into the “suburbs” of a new development.
Also, the crocodiles are getting more active, so fewer people are surfing on the river. Yes — surfing. The city is mildly famous for a strange phenomenon called a Benak or Tidal Bore, in which the river runs backwards from the sea for awhile every afternoon.
You can read about my Benak surfing experience in Sri Aman in this 2012 Blog Post about Sri Aman. I can’t really say I surfed it. I sat on the board and the wave happened.
But the big wave only happens once per month during the King Tide, and the BIGGER wave only happens once a year. That’s when there are surfing competitions and an actual event.
Most days, the benak looks something like this:
Most tourists, if they ever stumble into The City of Peace, overnight here on their way to the Batang Ai longhouses. But since the Batang Ai Hilton has stopped operating tour packages most packaged tour groups no longer pass through Sri Aman. If you look like a Western foreigner, you will get *a lot* of rubber necking here.
But it’s a place that’s quiet, has a great market and fairly amazing fruit selection, some comfortable and affordable hotels, and might be the little sliver of chill-out & peace-out that you’ve been looking for on your trip to Borneo.
Pasar Tamu New Market
The new Pasar Tamu in Sri Aman opened in July of 2018, replacing the old cluster of umbrellas and tarps that spread out willy nilly around the old Tamu in the city center.
The city definitely feels colder and more empty without the old Tamu in its heart, but the new Tamu is definitely more spacious; protected from the rain by a large covered area, and with far more vendors.
Note that there are two other markets in Sri Aman City, a vegetable market and a basically a Hawker Center/Eating Cafeteria. Neither are exciting Fruit Hunter Destinations. The Pasar Tamu is the action.
The Pasar Tamu is busiest from 7am to 9am. Most vendors close up and go home by 11am, but a handful stay on until 5pm.
Remember that because most people at the market are Ibans, they may use different names for fruits and durians here than in other parts of Borneo.
Here are some fruits with their local names that we found in Sri Aman!
Mempalam (M. laurina)
The water mangoes, or Buah mempalam, are tangy juice bombs in a thin ugly mottled skin.
The taste is sweet and sour and overwhelmingly refreshing, like a burst of tangy orange juice. You can’t slice it open without juice gushing down elbows, chins, shirts and onto your toes.
These are really common in the market and cheap – a basket goes for Rm1 or Rm2.
Kuini (M. indica x foetida)
These bright green mangoes have a thicker skin than the balloon-like mempalam, and are best when still firm and before they’ve developed black spots on the skin. They should be green when you eat them, and they should not have much give when squeezed. If they fell of the tree and made it to market, they’re probably ready.
Buah Embawang (M. panjang)
The sour version of this giant mango can also be called Buah Kembang, but the sweet versions are hefty, sweet and somehow savory, like if you’ve ever blended mangoes with tomatoes. Be wary of the thick skin, which contains a latex which can sometimes burn your skin. Eat with care, and copy the slicing method of the fruit vendor.
These are sold by piles of three as well, same as durians.
Mangga (M. indica)
There are a lot of regular, non wild-species mango varieties at the Sri Aman market too. Some to watch out for include:
- Pisang Mango (Banana mango)
- Apple Mango: Perfectly round
- Dato Mulhadir: This whopper of a mango easily weighed in at 2kg by itself! Massive! With lemon-yellow flesh it’s full bites of very smooth, buttery mango.
- Dato Najir: Very similar to Dato Mulhadir, this had a little bit darker flesh and was sweeter, but same smooth buttery texture.
Cempejak (Cempedak x Nangka)
I might have to vote this Best Fruit in Borneo. There, I said it.
There are two varieties of this odd but excellent hybrid between Jackfruit and Cempedak — one orange, and one yellow. My favorite is the yellow. It is honey sweet with an acidic lemon zing, very smooth and sloppy with an orange juice that gathers where your fingers pinch the fruit flesh. It’s absolutely delectable.
The orange version tastes quite a bit more like a Cempedak King from P. Malaysia, it’s very sweet but heavy like a cempedak.
Pedalai (A. elasticus or A. sericarpus, same thing)
These enormous Artocarpus fruits are intensely sweet, like clusters of sugar cubes stuck onto a central core. Make sure to get these when they are just barely soft, otherwise an unpleasant gasoline/onion aroma develops. Super fresh, it’s sugar all the way.
The flesh is soft, but not particularly juicy. There is a large seed inside, requiring you to suck the flesh away from it. These are mo
Dabai (C. odontophyllum)
Dabai is a fruit that is easy to get obsessed with. It’s fatty and savory and just more-ish. There aren’t any established grafted varieties of Dabai that I know of floating around Sarawak, but you will notice several different types when you come to the market. Best idea: try them all!
They are sold by a tin-can sized scoop called a Kong.
Engkala (Litsea garcea)
The trick to these beautiful pink fruits with the acorn-like cap is that they have to be soft like a jelly-sack before you eat them. If you’ve ever experienced Hachiya persimmons, which kind of dry-out and burn your mouth if you eat them at all underripe, Engkala are similar.
These are fatty fruits with a oozey green flesh that tastes somehow like Italian food or cheese. If the flesh is firm or at all rubbery, there is a chance your throat will burn or feel spicy.
One trick is to gingerly squeeze and massage them between your fingers, then leave them for a few hours to soften up. That’s the best way I’ve found to eat them. Locals often flash-boil them to get rid of the irritating chemical, whatever it is.
Rian Isu (Durio graveolens orange)
Small and round like oversized tennis-balls, these are plentiful in Sri Aman and the most common “wild” durian — although most grow in people’s backyards and were planted on purpose because they are delicious.
The flesh is really thick and sticky, like a cream cheese, with a strong, very sweet and peanut-buttery flavor. These ones seem to fall a bit underripe and waxy, and taste best if you leave them for a day to soften. People do sometimes harvest them early by prodding the durians off the tree with a long stick, but the trees do get really tall so early harvest is still not the norm, in my experience so far anyway.
Rian Isu (Durio graveolens yellow)
Locals also call the yellow versions of D. graveolens “Rian Isu”, without any clear distinction. They do however taste distinctly different. The yellow are far stronger in flavor, taking that pleasant nuttiness of the orange and layering an almost nail-polish-remover or rubber-sniffer headiness. It’s alcoholic and drunk-making for sure.
Rian Isu — Suluk? Maybe?
There’s also no distinction for these larger, oblong, pointy, long-thorned and yellowish durians that look to me like some kind of hybrid (maybe a Suluk?). Locals just call them “Rian Isu” like all the normal D. graveolens.
Whatever they are, they’re super. Fleshier than a regular D. graveolens, and some how lighter in texture than a pure D. graveolens, these have all the nuttiness and sweet density that I crave from the wild durians. The yellow ones are particularly nice, the qualities of D. zibethinus toning down the chemical-flavors and highlighting it’s alcoholic, syrupy density.
I was surprised to find these D101 in the market, since D101 is actually a Malaysia-registered variety from Peninsular Malaysia. But even though these durians were from trees less than 15 years old (a new introduction), the quality was surprisingly good!
Mild and nutty, with a pleasant sweetness that didn’t make my teeth ache, these were reliably good and flavorful compared to *most* of the other durians we saw in Sri Aman.
Lots of other durians
Other than the D101 and a possible Tembaga (D118), I didn’t see any other Malaysian-registered durian varieties.
The majority were almost all Kampung, sold tied together in threes called Ikuts. Like all kampung ikuts, it’s a big hit or miss. You’ll sniff out one good one in the tie-up, only to have to buy 2 so-so durians at the same time.
We managed to talk one or
Where To Stay
For a small town, there are quite a lot of hotels. Most, like the Hotel Champion, Regent Inn, and Ashiran Hotel, are located on the 2nd and third floors above the Chinese shophouses. Exactly how there are enough tourists to fill all of these hotels is a bit mysterious to me.
Here are four hotels that might catch your interest:
This brand new hotel just 100 meters from the Pasar Tamu opened in October, 2019. It’s a small 3-story shop lot in the newest shopping center adjacent to the market. It’s a very convenient location!
However we looked at just 2 rooms before making up our mind to book elsewhere.
The Deluxe Twin, while graced with enormous windows and plenty of light, as well as air conditioning, had hair on the floor and was otherwise lacking in attention to detail regarding cleaning.
The Budget Queen (Rm55/night) was large and modern, but had no windows and smelled heavily of cigarette smoke.
The staff where exceptionally friendly, so this might still be a good option if you’re looking for a budget convenience.
You can book ahead by WhatsApp: +60 11 3383 3341
Across the street from Viva Hotel is Sri Aman’s imposing 10-story hotel — the tallest building in Sri Aman — and a 3-star hotel.
Completed in 2014 (before my first visit to Sri Aman), the hotel was the start of the development that now includes the Pasar Tamu and the shopping center with Viva Hotel and other big plans for this little town.
I’d made a mistake and immediately dismissed Seri Simanggang as out of our price-point for a longterm budget without doing my research.
On their website, rooms start at Rm168 ($41 USD), but then I found it on Agoda.com for as little as Rm82 ($20) per night! This had me wishing I’d tried out the 3-star hotel.
OYO 89663 Theater Inn
Another brand-new hotel, Theater Inn is part of the OYO group, an Indian-owned franchise. The rooms are new and modern and friends who stayed there said it was quite clean.
It’s also the best budget option, with rooms for as little as Rm50 when you walk in (but no window in those rooms). Check it out on Agoda.com.
I’ve stayed at the Mega Inn each of the 4 times I’ve visited Sri Aman.
This last visit, I chose Mega Inn because I remembered the spacious Family Suite rooms on the top floor, each with a writing desk, a small table refrigerator, extra chairs, and plenty of room to do yoga.
Another bonus: the hotel offers free hot and cold water and has a small area to do basic food prep. There is WiFi on each level, but it’s slow to the point of doesn’t always work, so we mostly used our own Hotspot to work.
While we actually loved the room, I do think that the aging Mega Inn is being challenged for value by Theater Inn. The hot water shower was a daily maybe and we lost water all together for a full day. The plumbing definitely needs an update.
When I come to Sri Aman again (and I will), I’ll definitely consider Theater Inn or Sri Simanggang.
How to Get to Sri Aman
By Bus: The new bus station in Sri Aman is actually on the backside of the Pasar Tamu, in the same building. Several bus companies ply the Kuching <–> Sibu route. You can look for schedules and book ahead on Easybook.com
By Taxi/Private Car: Taxis are sparse in Sri Aman and as of writing there are no Grab drivers here yet. We met three taxi drivers, all of whom refused to venture outside of Sri Aman city limits. But if you need to go somewhere nearby, here are their phone #’s:
- Ah Liam: +60 19 888 7469
- Ah Yap: +60 19 887 6286
Rent A Car: We rented from Yusuf at Green’s Car Rental and Towing Services. He replied promptly, speaks excellent English and was overall very friendly. We had a good experience and I feel I can recommend it. Check out his website.
Enjoy your peace in Sri Aman!