With a long coastline, plus lakes and rivers, it comes as no surprise that boat journeys are still important in Malaysia. For some isolated communities in the Borneo interior, river travel is still the only contact villagers have with the outside world.
The historic ports of Melaka (Malacca) and Penang were once vital trading hubs for goods coming into and leaving the country. A ride across the harbour provides an insight to the continued significance of this maritime trade to Penang. In other parts of the country, visitors head along wild rivers to see equally wild animals. Here are five iconic Malaysian boat journeys.
1. Kinabatangan River Cruise
Sabah’s Kinabatangan River is home to a menagerie of native plants and animals. The hub for nature-based tourism is the small village of Sukau on the Menanggul River which flows into the Lower Kinabatangan River. Here tourists can stay in simple chalets and travel by small boat to see primates such as the Proboscis Monkey, Orang Utan, Long-tailed Macaque, Bornean Gibbon, and Pig-tailed Macaque.
The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary provides protection for these animals as well as a wealth of birdlife. Due to ongoing potential security issues in parts of eastern and coastal Sabah at the time of publication, visitors are advised to check with their country’s state department for any travel advisories to this region.
Contact: Borneo Dream, www.borneodream.com
2. Kuching River Sampan
The Sarawak capital of Kuching is bisected by the 120km-long Kuching River. This wide, muddy and meandering river separates the commercial heart of the city and the rather sleepy village life on the southern bank. Crossing the river on a sleek sampan (or tambang) is one of the cheapest boat journeys in Malaysia.
While it only takes five minutes, it provides access to a closer inspection of the Istana (official residence of the Sarawak Governor), the wildly futuristic new Sarawak State Legislative Assembly, and the somewhat out of place Fort Margherita which once served as a fort to protect Kuching. More elaborate sunset cruises in large riverboats also operate on the river.
Contact: Sarawak Tourism Board, www.sarawaktourism.com
3. Malacca River Cruise
Melaka’s historic and commercial centre is dominated by old two-storey Chinese shop-lots. The Malacca River is also an historic landmark, and it’s possible to go on river cruise to gain an insight into the lifestyle of the people living along the river and to learn about the past.
Boats (20-40 seater) leave from Muara Jetty next to the Quayside Heritage Centre near the Maritime Museum and head upstream through the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The return journey takes about 45 minutes, and foreign visitors will pay 50% more than the locals.
Contact: Malacca River Cruises, www.melakariver.com
4. Pahang River, Taman Negara
Malaysia’s largest national park is home to a vast expanse of lowland rainforest. The sampan journey into the park is formany, one of the park’s highlights. Depending upon the level of the Pahang River, the journey could take as long as 2.5 hours. The low, sleek sampans are shaded, and the journey is quite refreshing as the wind whistles past.
The undeveloped park is on one side of the river while villagers farm the riverbanks on the other. Within the park, a boat journey along the Tahan River to Lata Berkoh, through avenues of huge trees casting cooling shade, is one of Malaysia’s most serene boat journeys.
Contact: Han Travel, www.taman-negara.com
5. Penang Ferry
Though not on a river, this is still a boat journey worth taking. Penang Island is now connected to the mainland via two bridges; however, many continue to use the car and passenger ferry which departs from the terminal in Butterworth to arrive on the island at Pengkalan Weld.
It is an interesting and cheap ferry journey to appreciate how important maritime trade still is for Penang. Butterworth is a transport hub with not only the ferry but also a bus station and train station. Trains operated by the KTMB depart from Butterworth Train Station for Kuala Lumpur and the south or to the border with Thailand.
Contact: Penang Global Tourism: www.mypenang.gov.my
Source: Senses of Malaysia September/October 2014
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