River boats make a splash in tradition and tourism

Boat driver Rosman Abu Talib on the Iban traditional boat.

KUCHING: Traditional boats (the sampan or locally known as tambang) are still an important form of transport in Sarawak, with its vast network of rivers. Where once the boats were mainly for fishing and transport, they have now become tourist attractions too, with tourists taken on sightseeing tours of the city.

Tourists can hop on board for a reasonable price and cruise along, past some of the city’s famous landmarks and heritage buildings such as the Astana (official residence of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri Sarawak), Sarawak State Legislative Assembly as well as the Fort Margherita (a fort constructed by Charles Brooke in 1879).

Tourists can also find traditional Malay villages along the riverbanks and drop by at the cake shop across Kuching waterfront for a taste of the Sarawak layer cake.

The fare is RM19 an hour for adults and RM9 for children.

Rosman Abu Talib, who had been driving tourists in tambang for the past eight years, said business has always been good especially during the June and December school holidays.

“People enjoy going sightseeing by taking a cruise by tambang. It’s a different experience. If they’re lucky enough, they can even spot crocodiles in the river,” he said, chuckling.

The Malay and Iban traditional boats parked at the jetty.

But the crocodiles are harmless, he said, and had never harmed anyone.

Rosman, 40, lives downstream at Kampung Pulo. He also builds traditional boats for his employer.

“I don’t build my own boats because everything is modern nowadays. We can also walk across the Darul Hana bridge (connects the Kuching waterfront to Petrajaya) to get to the other side of the river. We don’t really need a boat like we used to before,” he told FMT.

Traditional boats seen meandering along the Sarawak river under the Darul Hana bridge connecting Kuching waterfront to Petrajaya.

Rosman said the boat-making skills were passed down in his family from one generation to the other. “My father, grandfather and great-grandfather earned their living as boat drivers and boat-makers. The boats built by my great-grandfather in 1929 are still parked at the riverbank near my home.”

“Although they’re a bit faulty now but their basic foundations are still strong,” he said.

Iban, Malay and Orang Ulu traditional boats show differences in designs and patterns. A Malay traditional boat has a zinc roof, while the Iban and Orang Ulu use bamboo.

A Malay traditional boat.

Other boats used as river taxis belong to the Malay community living at the riverbanks, he said.

“There are a lot of ethnic groups in Sarawak and it’s quite sad because most of the younger generation today are unaware of the history of traditional boats and the skills involved.”

“Traditional boats must not be forgotten. Our children must be taught about the hardship that their ancestors experienced as fishermen and boat drivers.”

He was glad that his second child had shown interest in boat-making. “I will definitely pass down my skills to him, just like my father did to me,” he said.