Exploring the magnificent interior of Belaga

A homestay on an island in the Bakun Lake.

By Lian Cheng

Hidden in the deep interior of Belaga, in the upper reaches of the great Linau River beside a primary school, is Lusong Laku, one of the most majestic and magnificent waterfalls in Malaysia.

It is a gem hidden deep in the heart of Sarawak, reachable only by those who have the tenacity and determination to seek it. That has been why, despite narratives of various forms online, it is very much unknown.

From Bintulu, it takes between six to eight hours by four-wheel-drive (4WD) to get there. Apart from the fact that it is deep in the interior, close to the Indonesian border, the last leg of the journey — a 34-km stretch of road — is treacherous and dangerous, making it harder to get to. Yet precisely because it is far, it is seldom visited and thus, still pristine and untouched.

The Niagara Falls of Malaysia

Lusong Laku, the Niagara Falls of Malaysia.

The Lusong Laku Waterfall, which has been nicknamed by some adventurous souls who went earlier than anyone else as “the Niagara Falls of Malaysia”, did not fail to impress.

The meandering river first snakes silently through the mountainous highland, without catching much attention, building up the tension in preparation for its final act – the plunge.

And boy, it is a relentless, merciless and thunderous plunge.

The huge amount of river water gushing down may not be crystal clear but it is like an ancient existence – unpolished, wild and solemn.

Set against the backdrop of a lush, tropical jungle, Lusong Laku does not need man-made effort to make it grand and powerful. There is no cosmetic effort or additional touch up. There is no looking back, no hesitation and no giving way to any external interference. It is just an original block waterfall, tirelessly and fiercely pushing itself down one giant step amid thunderous roars.

Believe me, Lusong Laku roars.

Yet strangely enough, when you are there, you feel the silence – a resounding silence amid the non-stop downpour of river water. Following the silence is a strange sense of tranquility and serenity. It is as if Mother Nature has suddenly come alive and is speaking to you. At this stage, it is my belief that whatever Mother Nature wants to relate to you, only you can hear.

According to Jimmie Jonical Bilong, headmaster of SK Lusong Laku, a primary school by the side of Lusong Laku, when the water level is low, the waterfall will appear smaller in width but taller in height. He has witnessed the waterfall at its tallest, standing at 10 meters high when the water level as at its the lowest.

But Lusong Laku swells and shrinks, depending on the weather. On JUly 3, 2020 when  we visited it, although it was during Southwest Monsoon season, which is supposed to be dry season, it was the opposite. The Linau River, which feeds the Lusong Laku waterfall, was at its medium width of about 60 meters and the Lusong Laku Waterfall was at its medium size of about eight meters.

SK Lusong Laku and the Buvung Waterfall

The relentless plunge of the great Linau River gives birth to Lusong Laku.

SK Lusong Laku was put together in 1987 by a logging company for the children of the surrounding four Penan villages consisting of more than 500 Penans. The school, which presently has 156 students, including 25 preschool children, was converted from a timber camp. That made the school unique and unpretentious. Situated right beside the ancient Lusong Laku, the school effortlessly formed part of the grander picture – green, serene and natural.

For Jimmie, Lusong Laku is a place of great tourism potential. This was proven by last year’s event where a group of 80 people made up of visitors from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Brunei who found their way here. The whole group camped at the school compound in an open space just beside the waterfall and reportedly had a fantastic time there.

Like this group, there are many things visitors can do here. First of all, it would be quite a rare experience to sleep beside a waterfall where you slowly sink into deep slumber amid the thunderous lullaby of the waterfall. At night, you may have a bonfire and a barbecue while enjoying the peaceful nature surrounding you and the starry night. If camping is not your cup of tea, you may try the two homestays nearby.

Apart from Lusong Laku, about one hour’s hike away, there is in fact another waterfall – the Buvung Waterfall, so named by the Penan community here. Although smaller compared to Lusong Laku, this is a three-tiered cascading waterfall.

The trail to reach Buvung Waterfall from Lusong Laku is a walk by the Linau River, which allows the visitors to examine every nook and cranny of this stretch of the river. Last year, out of the 80 visitors, 30 managed to make the hike and visit Buvung Waterfall.

For Jimmie, any visitors coming to Lusong Laku, will get much more than what they paid for. He welcomes all visitors with open arms and good faith on the condition that visitors must first write in to the school to get proper approval and that visitors be prepared to give back something to the Penan students in the school, whether it be stationery, books or anything which will be of help.

The off-road challenge

The long and winding logging track leading to Lusong Laku.

For those who are keen to do off-road adventuring, the road to Lusong Laku offers exactly the kind of thrill they seek. That stretch of 34 km from Tegulang to Lusong Laku offers an excellent challenge for an off-road challenge fanatic to try out their driving skills and the strength of their rides.

From Bintulu to Tegulang, it is about 230 km and it took Dennis Lani only four hours. This stretch of road, part of it being the notorious Bintulu-Bakun Road, is now relatively good. However, a word of caution. Beware of the traps here and there! In some parts of the road, a pothole as big as three feet in diameter may just suddenly appear in the middle of nowhere. That makes this stretch of road excellent to test the reflex of drivers. For the alert and good ones, they will be able to avoid all treacherous potholes but for those who slow to respond, it may be quite a bumpy ride.

If the first 230 km is an appetiser, then the 34km stretch of logging track from Tegulang to Lusong Laku is a main dish. This stretch of road calls for respect and attention, even from experienced local tour guide and constant traveller of the road like Dennis. This can be seen as Dennis is obviously worried that the weather might take a bad turn that day (July 3, 2020) when he took us there.

“Pray that it will not rain. And we must get out of this road before dark falls,” – this was the exact quote of Dennis.

This nasty stretch of road is a long and winding mountainous road. There are muddy stretches where one’s ride may get stuck, or slippery stretches that cause your vehicle to slip and lose control but the most treacherous part is the high cliff on one side and the deep ravine on the other. Any mistake means a plunge of a few hundred feet. It thus not only takes courage and experience to drive on this road, it also takes a lot of faith for those who are willing to be passengers.

The fact that the teachers of SK Lusong Laku have to pay RM1,600 to hire a vehicle to reach the school reflects how treacherous and this stretch of road is and how bad is the condition of the road and the damages it can cause to the vehicles travel on it.

The culturally colourful Apau Koyan

Apau Koyan, formerly known as Sungai Asap, is a place of interest especially for those who have a deep interest in culture.

Before the Bakun Lake came into being, Apau Koyan was a highland of rivers, waterfalls and forests inhabited by more than 15 tribes including the Kenyah, Kayan, Penan and other smaller sub-tribes.

When the Bakun Dam was built and impounded on the Balui River, these 15 affected tribes amounting to more than 10,000 were resettled at the present site of Apau Koyan through the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme.

Apau Koyan, a meeting place of 15 tribes of Sarawak (Photo courtesy of Sarawak Energy Berhad).

It is commonly stated that there are “15 longhouses” in Apau Koyan. This may lead visitors to the region to imagine that the whole settlement consists of only 15 longhouses. In actual fact, “15 longhouses” means the longhouses of 15 tribes. The bigger tribes such as the Kenyah and Kayan have more than one longhouses due to their population size.

For example, the Kayan community has seven longhouses and they are all linked to each other, making it the longest longhouse in Apau Koyan. Even though there are actually seven longhouses, they are addressed as one longhouse.

While these tribes used to live 10 to 20 km apart from each other, now they live almost side by side, about 1 km or less from each other. This is to say, Apau Koyan is the meeting place of 15 tribes. One can only imagine how colourful are the cultures of this place.

Visitors may take a sneak peek at Orang Ulu culture at Uma Belor, Apau Koyan (Photo courtesy of Sarawak Energy Berhad).

At the longest longhouse of Uma Belor, there are handicraft workshops allowing visitors to experience the handicraft making process – the putting together of the beads, the Selamput, the woodcarving and the making of the colourful “Hong”, the hat of the Kayans. One may also take a glimpse of how “sape” (the Orang Ulu guitar) is made.

Staying at the longhouse for one day will open the opportunity to visitors to experience local lifestyle especially savouring the local traditional dishes of the various tribes.

Visitors may also be brought to visit vegetable farms of the local farmers and harvest from the farm before the produce being turned into a dish for the visitors to savour that day. Visitors may also learn how to make dishes with all the local ingredients. There will also be opportunity to learn how to make “burak”, the rice wine of the Orang Ulu, similar to “tuak”, the rice wine made by the Iban and the Bidayuh communities.

At the house of Kenyah – Uma Baha, visitors will find another gem of Apau Koyan – the 80-meter tall Tungun Belawing Pebeka Tawai which made it to the Malaysia Book of Records as the tallest Belawing Tower in Malaysia.

The 80-meter tall Tungun Belawing Pebeka Tawai at Apau Koyan, the tallest Belawing in Malaysia’s Book of Record. (Photo courtesy of Murum assemblyman Kennedy Chukpai Ugon)

The Belawing made from the Belian wood is an embodiment of Orang Ulu culture. The tower displays Orang Ulu motifs such as hornbills and dragons in their most graceful forms.

The Belawing stands proud under the sky, signifying the new journey of the 15 tribes who may have been forced to join the mainstream but who have started to make a place for themselves, not only in Apau Koyan but in Malaysia and throughout the world.

The Bakun Lake and the Murum Lake

A homestay on an island in the Bakun Lake.

Some 40 km from Sungai Asap is the renowned Bakun Lake, which came into being after the impoundment of the Bakun Dam. Occupying some 675 sq km, which is about the size of the Singapore island, the Bakun Lake has become an iconic feature of Sarawak. The vast picturesque landscape made up of big stretches of bluish water and the numerous green islands constantly welcome visitors with open arms.

To appreciate the beauty of the lake, visitors should take it slowly. Do it during early morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the scorching equatorial sun. Sit in the speedboat with families or friends, sip a bit of coffee or wine and let your mind be open to absorb the sound and the serenity of the lake. One may do a bit of fishing as well, but still nothing beats the blue sky, the turquoise water, the small green islets, the calls of birds and the whispers of nature.

If visitors happen to be there on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, another good place to go on Bakun Lake is the Bakun Lake Market that sees the sale of jungle products, farm produce and wild meat. For two mornings in a week, usually, the place is packed with locals as well as outsiders who would drive all the way from Niah, Bintulu, and even from Miri, just to have an enjoyable day out. There are also those who travel for the freshwater fishes of Semah, Tengadak and Empurau which are now so rare and thus expensive.

The Bakun Lake is not only a good place for soul searching, it is also an excellent place for outdoor activities. Many islands in the lake are now being used as sanctuaries for flora and fauna endemic to the place. They are thus excellent for bird watching, trekking and hiking and picnicking. And a night on the Bakun Lake is a must for visitors who are traveling to the area.

A sleepover at a jelatong at least for a night offers visitors a totally different experience. A jelatong is a floating house built on the lake. The scene of a jelatong situated on the lake itself is already an amazing and romantic sight, but imagine how visitors can be part of the picture by spending a night there.

Spending a night at the jelatong means more interesting activities on the lake. Visitors will first be taken for a swim at the Belanum Waterfall which is a waterfall on the lake itself. Visitors will also be offered the opportunity to fish at the Belanum River. Any lucky catch of the day will be the dinner for the night. The fry of Semah and Tengadak, Empurau are aplenty and quite easy to catch. But to get a big one, it will really depend on the visitors’ luck as they are now becoming very rare.

Dinner at the jelatong is another wonderful experience. Visitors will be offered the fish they catch at the Belanum River apart from other local delicacies. They may not be the most expensive meal but it is the meal that is you can only find here and that makes it special.

Starry Night at the Floating House on Bakun Lake

The scenic Bakun Lake (picture courtesy of Sarawak Energy Berhad).It is definitely a rare experience to spend a night at the jelatong. The greatest amazement comes when all the lights are turned off and visitors retire for the night. At this time, visitors may find themselves in a place they have never been before – a world of total darkness.

In urban or suburban areas, somehow and somewhere, there is light, even amid a total blackout. But not here on Bakun Lake. When the light is off, you are enveloped in total darkness, except the moonlight and the twinkle of the stars when the weather is good.

In the pitch blackness, the sound of nature – that of dripping and running water, of noisy crickets, or the calls of night birds – suddenly become so clear. And on a day of fair weather, visitors may look up into the sky to find it is fully adorned by the twinkling light of the stars. The stars may appear to be so near that, visitors may mistake them for fireflies. You might be lucky and actually be looking at real fireflies – and that will be a double delight for fortunate visitors.

Batu Tungun

Batu Tungun, the Penan’s “stairway to heaven”. (Photo courtesy of Murum assemblyman Kennedy Chukpai Ugon)

On the right bank of the Murum River, stands a tall rock that points to heaven. It is Batu Tungun, the sacred rock of the Penans. To the Penans, Batu Tungun is the “stairway to heaven”, a place linking earth to heaven, where their ancestors are heading to ascend to heaven on the day of their passing.

One should not take Batu Tungun for granted. Despite its significance, the sacred rock could have almost been blasted away during the construction of the Murum Dam due to the ignorance of a foreign contractor. Belaga assemblyman Datuk Liwan Lagang quickly intervened and the Murum Dam design was changed so that the rock would remain safely preserved.

Now, every year when Pesta Batu Tungun is held, thousands of Penan will turn up to attend the mass prayer.

For visitors, there is a chance to get more up close and personal to Batu Tungun. Just engage a tour guide who knows the trail to Batu Tungun and visitors may embark on a trip to seek the stairway to heaven.

Get a tour guide

Lusong Laku, Apau Koyan, Bakun Lake as well as the Murum Lake are all potential tourist destinations that await both domestic and overseas travellers. To ensure an enjoyable trip, it is advisable to engage a local tour guide who knows every nook and corner of the whole area.

For those interested to go Lusong Laku, interested visitors may contact Dennis Lani (0198065597), Amit Ului (01125023551) or Yudep Apoi (0166405488).

And for those interested to spend a few days at the Bakun Lake or Apau Koyan, they may get in touch with Nora (0128736840), Daisy (0128582241) or Luhat (0178093764) from Homestay Koperasi Keluarga Ubong & Igang (U&I) Belaga Berhad.

For a stay at a jelatong at the Murum Lake, contact local homestay operator Kawas Tedong (0178585105). — DayakDaily