In a nutshell
Belaga is widely considered to be one of the best places to start explorations of the Sarawak interio. It is a small town located on the river near to many local communities and longhouse villages. It’s less than 100km from the South China Sea coast and has a population of under 50,000 – small but with a burgeoning tourist industry.
Why go to Belaga
Most travellers come here to learn more about lifestyles and to see the culture and nature of Sarawak, but it’s not somewhere you need to stay for too long due to its small size.
It is a good spot to arrange visits to the Kayan and Kenyah longhouse villages that are on the Linnau river. The indigenous communities are typically very welcoming and are great hosts, in their villages you can see different types of housing set ups, traditional costumes, dances and music, manufacturing and farming. You can also see and try some local food like jungle fern and wild boar which is definitely an experience! Tours of the longhouses can be organised with local agents and prices are flexible depending on how long you want to stay and whether you want to include an overnight or trekking element to your visit - expect to pay around MYR100 for a daytrip and upwards from there for longer stays.
Other things to do include exploring the small streets and markets of Belaga, walking along the riverside and generally enjoying being about as far off the beaten track as it’s possible to be in this part of Borneo.
When to go to Belaga
Like most of the Sarawak region Belaga can be visited year round, although sometimes it can be more difficult when the river is high if there have been heavy rains. June and July are popular summer months with less rain and some local festivities taking place.
Where to stay in Belaga
Accommodation is limited, but given the size of the town there are a few different options to choose from. Standards are typically quite basic, although not uncomfortable, and be warned that you’ll probably struggle to get a decent wifi connection! Most can’t be easily found or booked online, although tour agencies in other areas in Sarawak may be able to make recommendations or phone calls if you really don’t want to turn up without a booking.
Hotel Sing Soon Huat is a quiet spot behind the main bazaar with simple rooms and costs from MYR40, it’s popular with backpackers in the area. There’s also the B&B Worldwide Exploration which is another budget choice. Generally your best bet is to turn up and see what you can find.
Where to eat in Belaga
When it comes to food, you’re not going to be able to find extensive western and international menus in this tiny community, but you will be able to find tasty local food at good prices.
Your best bet is to go with local recommendations, but generally of all the cafes in town you’ll see that most have similar menus and pricing. Most of the food is traditional Malay cuisine, so expect plenty of tasty noodles with meat and vegetables. If you visit one of the longhouse communities you may even get the chance to taste some more obscure and unusual dishes, such as jungle fern and wild boar, which are prepared in the traditional ways of the tribes people.
How to get to and from Belaga
Getting to Belaga isn’t too tricky, especially as they now seem to have ended the need to have a travel permit, which used to be required by anyone looking to travel upriver to the town.
The trip upstream from Kapit takes around 5 hours and the boat leaves at 9am and costs MYR55 per person. The journey up river is beautiful and you get the chance to see some amazing jungle scenery, with another bonus being that it’s usually a fairly calm journey. There are some rapids in one section of the river - Pelagus Rapids - but they’re usually not too wild. Just keep an eye on the locals and if they move from the roof of the boat indoors then you should probably follow along too.
Heading back to Kapit is also simple, with a daily boat leaving from Belaga at 7.30am and costing the same - usually this is a shorter journey and takes around 4 hours. There are also daily boats to Bakun Dam that leave in the afternoon at around 3.30pm.
There is an airstrip just outside of Belaga but this is now abandoned and no flights currently operate to the area.
It is possible to access the town by road, and 4x4s usually make the journey from Bintulu. It’s a bumpy journey and takes around 4-5 hours depending on the conditions of the road, and you can either hitchhike (payment of around MYR55 will be expected) or book a private transfer.
When it comes to getting around Belaga itself, you’ll have no problems at all with just walking. It really is a very small settlement and there are only a few streets and a small garden to explore, other than the riverside trails which are also easily accessible on foot.
Is Belaga a safe place to visit?
Belaga is generally considered safe as a small community.
It is a tropical jungle area though so be prepared with plenty of insect repellent and sensible clothes, and visit your travel doctor before your visit.
It’s also worth being aware that you’re in a very remote place so if anything does go wrong in terms of illness and accidents, the medical care in the area is very limited and it’s a long journey back out to one of the more established towns with good hospital facilities and doctors.