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Belaga bazaar: A visit to the heart of Sarawak

Jalan Teo Tua Kheng is a street named after one of the early Chinese settlers in Belaga.

If you look at Belaga town on the map, you will definitely notice that it is slapped roughly in the middle of Sarawak.

According to historian Chang Pat Foh, the name Belaga actually derives from a type of fish – the Betta splendens – otherwise known as the Siamese fighting fish.

Others, however, say the name comes from the word ‘Berlaga’ which means ‘fighting’ because the local communities were always fighting against each other for survival.

The whole Belaga district is located on the upper reaches of the Rajang river, about 120km of Kapit.

As for Belaga bazaar, it is situated at the confluence of Belaga and Balui rivers, tributary of Rajang river.

There are many ethnic groups living along the Belaga and Balui rivers such as the Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Punan, Sekapan, Ukit, and Tanjung.

These people of Belaga are connected to Kapit via river about 4.5 hours away by boat.

The town can be reached by car in 4 hours from Bintulu using the Bintulu-Bakun road and the infamous uneven, roller coaster-like 34 km Mejawah-Belaga road.

Back in 1893, Sarawak Gazette reported that there were 14 shophouses in the bazaar with 15 more under construction.

District office cum public library in Belaga.

Why Fort Vyner was built

Though its history can be traced back to the 19th century, there is no tangible remnant of its past found at the bazaar.

This is because the oldest government building – Fort Vyner in Belaga – was burned down on March 23, 2015.

Fort Vyner held many stories little known by most Sarawakians.

One of those stories is of how the fort came to be built.

According to an associate research fellow at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Jayl Langub, the deaths of two Brooke officers triggered the need to build Fort Vyner.

It was in 1859, when those two Brooke officers – Fox and Steele – were murdered. They were actually manning Fort Emma in Kanowit.

The two main suspects, Sawing and Sekalai, fled up the Rajang river to take refuge at the Kejaman longhouse at Tuju Matahap, just above the confluence of Belaga and Balui.

The then Resident of Third Division Sibu, Hugh Brooke Low was then assigned to build a fort in Belaga.

He jotted down in his journal how he put together a team of 869 people from various ethnic groups including Iban, Malay and Sihan to build the fort.

The fort was finally completed on January 13, 1884 and was named after the third White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke.

Over the years, the building housed a number of government agencies including the district office, post office, police department and Sarawak River Board (SRB).

One of the more modern shophouses in Belaga.
One of the more modern shophouses in Belaga.

An antique shop in the middle of Sarawak

Although the fort is gone, one of the few early shophouses in town still stands to this day.

There, visitors will find an antique shop like no other.

Owned by Teo Hee Tong, the shop houses more than indigenous artifacts but also memories.

According to Teo, he bought the antiques from local people who sometimes were in need of fast cash, whether it was to pay for funerals or to foot medical bills.

From antique brass boxes to Orang Ulu beads, Teo’s shop can easily mistaken for a mini museum.

While some who sold their family heirlooms to him were fortunate enough to be able to repurchase the items, others never returned, leaving Teo with a handsome collection in his shop.

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A visit to Belaga

Belaga is often marketed as the heartland of Sarawak, and a good place to start exploring the Sarawak interior.

Unfortunately, the reality is that not many are willing to go that distance.

With a few shophouses, the town is considerably small with less than 40,000 people spread out over 19,400km2 area of Belaga district.

The population also decreased significantly since the building of the Bakun dam in the 1990s with more than 10,000 local people living along the Balui river uprooted and resettled in Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme.

The longhouses not affected by the dam are located nearer to the bazaar.

Undeniably, the bazaar is no longer as merry or as busy compared to days prior to Bakun dam.

But once every two years since four years ago, the town comes alive during the Belaga Regatta.

The biennial programme will be held this year from September 27-30.

Some of the other activities are a decorated boat contest, Belaga Rainforest Challenge trail, decorated cottage show and cultural night.

This is the perfect time to plan a trip to this interior town. While you’re in Belaga, don’t forget to try the town’s food specialty – Mee Sup Ikan Labang (Labang fish soup noodle).

The only gas station in town.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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