Brunei

Belait interior

Kuala Balai

Before the oil boom, the main settlement in this part of Brunei was the riverine village of Kuala Balai, situated about an hour upriver from Kuala Belait. Between 1930 and 1980 the population slowly dwindled, until the village virtually ceased to exist. Today just a handful of permanent inhabitants remain.

The people from these parts are known as the Belait Malays and have a lot in common with the Melanau people of coastal Sarawak, including their Muslim faith, their traditional reliance on sago processing and their stilted longhouses. Despite the fact that Kuala Balai is now little more than a ghost town, it is possible to get a sense of how things once looked; the old longhouse, which deteriorated many years ago, has been rebuilt as part of a Raleigh International project. There are still one or two old sago processors around, though they
use light machinery now, rather than trampling the sago scrapings underfoot, as was once the way. Just downriver from the longhouse is a small wooden box on stilts. Inside are 20 human skulls, victims of headhunters from as long ago as the 17th century.

As elsewhere in Belait District, tourism hasn't yet taken off and few people visit the longhouse, but there are plans to market Kuala Balai more actively as a tourist destination.

Jalan Labi

The other route into the interior of Belait is via Jalan Labi, a decent road which turns south off the coastal highway at Kampong Lumut, near the border with Tutong District. A little way along the road is Brunei's oldest forest reserve, the
Sungai Liang Forest Reserve
, with ponds, picnic shelters and various well-maintained paths into the surrounding forest. One climbs a steep hill as far as a treehouse (closed for renovation at the time of writing). Close by is the
Forestry Department
building, set back from the road, with a small Palmetum leading up to the offices. There's a tiny forestry museum here, too - the
Muzium Perhutanan
, with two rooms of displays that aren't worth going out of your way for.

The Labi road continues south through undulating rainforest as far as the village of Kampong Labi itself, passing another forest reserve along the way, the
Labi Hills Forest Reserve
. Within its boundaries is the 270-ha
Luagan Lalak Recreation Park
, covering an area of alluvial swampland, which floods to become a lake during the monsoon. The lake (or swamp, depending on the season) is accessible via a 200-m-long boardwalk.

Kampong Labi
, some 40 km south of the coastal highway, is a small settlement that has served for years as a base for speculative (and unsuccessful) oil drilling in the surrounding hills. Tropical fruits, such as rambutan, durian, cempedak and jackfruit, are grown in the area. Beyond Labi, the road turns into a dirt track which serves as an access route to a number of Iban longhouses. The largest of these is the 12-door
Rumah Panjang Mendaram Besar
, home to 100 or so people. Like most of the longhouses in Brunei, this one has piped water and electricity, with the men commuting to the towns to work for either Shell or the government. A nearby trail leads to the
Wasai Mendaram
, a large waterfall with plunge pool for bathing.

At the end of the 12-km track is
Rumah Panjang Teraja
. The inhabitants of this six-door longhouse cultivate paddy, rear pigs and chickens, and grow their own fruit and vegetables. From the longhouse, a well-marked trail leads to the summit of Bukit Teraja, from where there are magnificent views as far as Gunung Mulu in Sarawak. Walking the trail to the summit takes about 1½ hours. Reported wildlife sightings along the way include orang-utans, Borneo bearded pigs, barking deer, macaques and hornbills.

Ulu Belait

Further longhouses can be found deep in the interior, along the upper reaches of Sungai Belait. These are accessible by longboat from Kampong Sungai Mau, which is situated halfway along the Jalan Labi. Of course, it is possible to begin the journey in Kuala Belait, passing Kuala Balai along the way, but this route takes many hours.

The journey upriver into Ulu Belait (Upriver Belait) depends very much on the level of the river; in the dry season its upper reaches are barely navigable. Kampong Sukang, some two hours from Kampong Sungai Mau by longboat, is a community of Dusun and Punan tribespeople, with two longhouses and a hamlet of family homes. The Punan are nomadic hunter-gatherers by tradition, though the inhabitants of Kampong Sukang were persuaded to settle here back in the 1970s. They now farm paddy rather than relying on the old staple diet of wild sago, but they still hunt in the traditional manner using blowpipes and poison darts.

If you're feeling even more intrepid, there is another hamlet of longhouses located at
Kampong Melilas
, located one to three hours - depending on the water level - upriver from Kampong Sukang. These are home to Iban people and, like the Labi longhouses, they are upgraded versions of the traditional longhouse, although this community supports a thriving cottage industry in traditional basketry and weaving. Beyond Kampong Melilas, there are hot springs and plenty of waterfalls; a guide can be arranged at the village.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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