Laidback Limbang – an ideal hideaway

LIMBANG is geographically peculiar, being sandwiched between two parts of Brunei.

This division in Northern Sarawak is connected to other parts of the state and Sabah by air. There are daily flights from Miri, Lawas,

and Kota Kinabalu by the MASwings ATR 72–500 – a twin-engine turboprop short-haul regional aircraft, smaller than a turbojet commercial airliner, with only two flight attendants and a toilet on board.

On May 24, I went on a working trip to Limbang with members of 1Malaysia Sarawak Advisory Council (1MSAC).

We took off from Miri at 9am.

The flight over the rainforests at low altitude was a dream opportunity to view and photograph Limbang’s breathtaking landscape before touching down half an hour later at the airport, about 5km from town.

Visitors can also drive to Limbang, where the network of roads links it to both central Brunei where its capital Bandar Seri Begawan is located to the west, and its Temburong District – an enclave separated from the rest of Brunei by Malaysia and Brunei Bay – to the east.

Those driving beyond Brunei to places such as Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu have to pass through the Sultanate. Noticeably, overland trips offer a much closer look at the natural beauty of the rainforests than the journey by air.

Limbang is well-known for several beautiful mountains, one being the 2,423m Gunung Murud  – the loftiest in Sarawak, partly located in the Lawas District and accessible from Ba Kelalan.

The population, like the rest of Sarawak, is very diverse. The major groups include the Malays, the Kedayans, the Lun Bawangs, the Chinese, the Bisayas and the Ibans, with smaller numbers of Bidayuhs, Kelabits, Melanaus, Penans, Tabuns and Tagals.

Upon arrival, we were given a warm welcome. After the customary greetings, we loaded our luggage onto a four-wheel drive vehicle (4WD) and drove to Rumah Ejau near Ulu Lubai, pampering ourselves with food and drinks.

We passed through two schools – SK Nanga Merit, which is connected with the main road by a steel bridge; and SK Ulu Lubai, one of the country’s top performing schools amidst lush jungles, and aptly dubbed by some as the ‘Jewel in the Wilderness’.

“A competitive spirit and strong parental support help ensure the success of SK Ulu Lubai, not forgetting the dedicated teachers who also give free tuitions. Most of the pupils speak English,” school headmaster Jaul Bunyau said.

He pointed out that SK Ulu Lubai ‘is a very ordinary remote school as far as the infrastructures and facilities are concerned, but extraordinary in terms of performance’.

The school won the ‘Gold Medal for Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award’, was a finalist of the Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award 2009 (Malaysian Government and Commonwealth Secretariat), and was nominated for the Unesco Education of International Best Practices 2010.

SK Ulu Lubai, which now has 25 students, also bagged the top prize in Council of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) Best Practices Award in 2011.

We had to go through a long, narrow and hilly gravel road for almost an hour before arriving at Rumah Ejau at 10.45am.

Water Supply Project

Meeting the longhouse folk for the first time was a fascinating experience.

Rumah Ejau has 16 doors and most of the dwellers are Ibans, originally from Sri Aman, Lubok Antu and Sibu.

This longhouse is one of the most recent beneficiaries of the iM Sarawak Water Supply Project.

Our objective was to see how the project had benefitted the residents. Limbang MP Hasbi Habibollah was present to share with us an overview of the scheme.

“Water is one of the basic necessities in life. With uninterrupted clean water supply, the villagers are now able to enjoy better lives and good health,” said Hasbi, a member of the 1MSAC.

According to him, the project is aimed at improving the livelihood of Rumah Ejau residents by providing them with dependable water supply through a community-based project. The main pipeline has been changed from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The main HDPE pipe spans about 6km, from the Sungai Mundop Dam to the longhouse.

“The project is part of iM Sarawak’s holistic approach to addressing the overall needs of the various communities in the state. It’s one of the Malaysian government’s initiatives to improve the living standards of the rural population,” Hasbi added.

Over the past two to three years, iM Sarawak has implemented clean water supply projects for nine longhouses in Limbang District, installed a fire extinguisher system for the longhouses and floating water pumps at a number of selected locations, as well as run educational programmes by providing books and supplies to rural schools.

We were shown around the longhouse, before being brought to see the water pipe nearby, which supplies 24-hour clean water to the longhouse.

After Hasbi and Tuai Rumah Ejau Kedit delivered their speeches, we were treated to a spread of traditional delicacies, including the ‘kuih jala’, and ‘tuak’ (local rice wine).

Later in the afternoon, we went to the 34-door Rumah Tugang in Ulu Lubai. There, I was privileged to meet a man, believed to be over 100 years old, and to witness a woman weaving the tikar bemban (traditional mat with exquisite motifs).

At 2pm, we finally checked into Purnama Hotel. The air-conditioning was a refreshing relief after a hot, busy afternoon.

The Purnama is the biggest hotel in Limbang – with 218 rooms (including deluxe rooms and suites) as well as ample conference, meeting and banquet facilities with a seating capacity for 1,000 people.

The hotel – adjacent to a 120-lot shopping complex and close to local government offices, the town mosque and other places of interest – is the tallest landmark at Limbang Commercial Centre and it provides guests with a panoramic view of Limbang River. I highly recommend it to those looking for a good accommodation in Limbang.

Interesting activities

Limbang is a popular weekend destination for the neighbouring Bruneians and a popular jungle trekking spot to Gunung Mulu National Park, reachable via the 11km Headhunter’s Trail. It was rather disappointing that I could not to go trekking due to my limited stay, but on the whole, the day’s programme was still very exciting.

Day two of our visit brought us to several interesting places, including Limbang Waterfront, Taman Tasik Bukit Mas, Limbang Regional Museum, Pasar Tamu and Limbang Plaza.

The wooden Limbang Regional Museum, 200m upriver, has a modest collection of archaeological finds and ethnic artefacts. The building used to be an old fort, built in 1897. It was burned down in 1989 and rebuilt on the same site, with the original design and architecture being restored.  On display are remnants of the history, culture and artefacts of the region such as bamboo band and bark clothing, as well as the tools for salt-making, beadwork, brassware and basketry.

Taman Tasik Bukit Mas is a recreational park at Bukit Mas, Limbang’s iconic feature. It is an ideal place for recreational activities in the evening. Various facilities have been set up such as a children’s playground, a small lake, a barbecue site, a suspension bridge and a public toilet.

Limbang Plaza is located at the town’s centre and is often dubbed the ‘Definite Centre of Limbang’. It has three main components – the Purnama Hotel, the shopping mall and a host of government offices.

Then there is the Pasar Tamu, a market for the village folk to trade in Limbang, attracting not only the locals but also the Bruneians.

At 1pm the next day, I boarded my flight home to Miri. Although I did not get to see as much of Limbang as I wanted, it was still an experience of a lifetime.

I look forward to visiting Limbang again, especially during the Buffalo Race Festival, also known as Pesta Babulan.

Traditionally significant to the Bisaya community, the festival usually takes place in June.

For me, Limbang offers an opportunity to enjoy distinctive lifestyles and cultures rarely seen elsewhere. Away from the busy city life, it allows the local communities to continue practising their culture and traditions and at the same time, co-existing in harmony.

Above all, it is an ideal place for those seeking a laidback lifestyle set amidst beautiful natural surroundings.