The next day I found myself in a Flying Coffin on my way up Borneo’s Rejang River, to Kapit and, later—hopefully, Belaga. Functioning much like aquatic trains, the Flying Coffins are so named due to their shape and not as a reflection of their passengers’ mortality rate. They’re used not only to transport people, most of them locals who work in Sibu but live in a smaller riverside settlement, but also to shuttle equipment and cargo to these remote towns and villages. I’d traveled by Flying Coffin before and quite enjoyed it. The “deluxe” class included roomy, comfortable seating and showings of bootlegged movies. It was also less crowded, with only four other passengers besides myself—though one of them, an old Chinese man, managed to make a pest of himself by watching YouTube videos at full volume on his phone.
The windows on the Flying Coffins aren’t ideal for river watching, dirty and smudged to the point of being frosted, so I occasionally left the seating area and climbed outside. The Rejang is the color of cafe-au-lait, its currents highly localized and snaking between and around boulders, many of which hid just beneath the water’s surface. Those who plied these waters learned to navigate its secrets quickly or sent their crafts to the bottom. In fact, when the water level proved to low the route to Belaga became impassable, the town cut off save by lumber roads only accessed by powerful 4X4.
Candy-colored long tail fishing boats bobbed here and there. Small shacks clung to the river’s edge, as though preparing to dive in roof first. People bathed or brushed their teeth, standing waist deep in the water. Demurely, the women held towels to their breasts as they rinsed their hair or scrubbed an infant. Everywhere the jungle seemed in retreat, pushed back from the river by industry too often left unchecked.
We stopped at Song, a town roughly halfway between Sibu and Kapit. People got off and people got on, most lugging enormous sacks, boxes or bundles.
Soon enough we arrived in Kapit. Kapit had been one of the highlights of my first trip to Borneo. The port is a crush of activity, people carrying everything from towering stacks of eggs to clanging tanks of propane. Still, everyone proceeds in a relatively orderly manner, up the sun-baked ramp and to a crowded parking area.
I stopped, as I had the first time, and looked around. The Flying Coffins sat in rows, still disgorging their passengers while cargo was unloaded. Just a tad up river, smaller boats clustered like flower petals. Beyond, making their slow but steady way up or down the river, haulers carried great stacks of lumber, faded cargo containers or, in one case, a cement truck.
Once I’d soaked up the port area for a few moments, I made my way into town and located my hotel. I’d only be staying a night so I wasted no time, simply dropped off my pack and set back out again. The last time I’d been there I’d fallen in love with the local market, a place where the local indigenous people came to buy and trade fresh food and handicrafts, as well as simply socialize. Despite a notoriously bad sense of direction, I was reasonably certain that I could find it again but, when I reached what had to be its location, I found only plywood walls: the entire market area was being renovated, the whole thing closed off.
Though disappointed, I didn’t despair. I simply wandered, uncovering little pockets of beauty in somewhat rough and tumble hamlet. And there were the people. Everywhere I went people asked me for a photo, stopped to chat as best they could, or waved me over to join them. Like the two young men in dirty clothes seated on the curb. I wandered over and sat with them. One of them spoke little, just grinned while his buddy did all the talking, this second guy’s English broken and stilted but serviceable. They had finished work for the day, he explained, and were now enjoy a drink before dinner. He showed me the bottle of reddish-brown liquid between them as proof. He filled a plastic cup and handed it to me. It was sweet on the tongue and hot on the throat, not unlike bad rum. Maybe it was bad rum. We chatted a tad longer but, as the sun was going down, I thanked them for the drink and set off.
I wandered a while longer, taking in the town, grabbing some food in a small shop, then returned to my hotel. I’d have to get up early the next morning to catch the only boat of the day to Belaga. If I missed it, I’d likely miss Belaga.