By PETER SIBON & LH CHENG of Eastern Times
SIBU: Express boats plying the mighty Rajang River will see a decline, if not a complete cessation, once the road linking Sibu and Kapit is finally realised. The Chairman of Third, Sixth and Seventh Division Express Boat Association Lau Hieng Choon, Secretary Ling Kuok Hee and a Committee Member Ling Heng Seek are of the opinion that the (express boat) service here will definitely disappear.
"We are not facing a dilemma. The bare fact is that the express boat industry is a sunset industry. With the road system in place we are bound to be on the losing end.
"In this time and age development is crucial and inevitable. We cannot stop the government from developing the country. They, however, said the inevitable disappearance of the express boat service was not a new experience to them.
"We have experienced it before. After the road connecting Sibu, Sarikei and Bintangor was completed, boats plying the route ceased operation within half a year.
"And when Sibu was connected with Maradong after the completion of Maradong Bridge, the next day, the express boats stopped serving the route. Not that we did not want to provide the service, but there wasn't any passengers," they said.
The association has 152 members and each has at least an express boat.
"However, since the cessation of the Sibu-Sarikei/Bintangor service, many operators have either retired or ventured into other businesses.
"The golden era of express boats was in the 80s, with 51 express boats serving the Sibu-Sarikei/Bintangor route alone. You can imagine how busy the wharf was then. Every 15 minutes, there was an express boat leaving for Sarikei or Bintangor," they said.
Yet, the service just stopped within half a year after the road link was completed. "Water transport cannot compete with land transport. People with cars prefer using their own vehicles. They are not controlled by any schedule.
"Those without cars prefer to use buses because they are safer. One does not use water transport if there is an alternative because the latter is perceived to be more dangerous," they said.
On the fate of those express boats that used to ply the Sibu-Sarikei-Bintangor route, they said that they were either sold to operators in Cambodia, Burma, or Thailand. Others were moved elsewhere within the country like Langkawi and Pulau Ketam.
Express boats have served the people along the Rajang for about a century. It is the oldest mode of transport here, serving the people from Kuala Rejang, right up to Tanjung Manis, Sarikei, Bintangor, Sibu, Durin, Kanowit, Ng Tap, Ngemah, Song, Kapit, Putai, Pelagus, Belaga and Bakun.
On their future plans Lau, Ling Kuok Hee and Ling Heng Seek said: "We have our own plans. If there is no more business opportunity here, we may have to move our business to Vietnam, Burma, Thailand or Cambodia."
Meanwhile, Sibu Member of Parliament Datuk Robert Lau said the express boat service was still very popular at the moment because of the absence of roads leading to major towns like Song and Kapit, and in upper Baram up north.
"I have made a suggestion before that since AirAsia has already connected Sibu with the rest of Malaysia, perhaps they (the express boat business operators) should team up with AirAsia and local tour operators to provide tour package along the Rajang River. He added that many tourists were eager to see unspoilt scenery along the riverbanks. "That is why the Pandaw Cruise is getting very popular now," he said.
In West Malaysia, "take the express" means catching an express bus. In Sarikei and other riverine towns along the Rejang River, it means hopping onto an express boat.
In the early 1960s, a few brands of powerful high speed marine engines competed for implementation in the express boats. Finally, only the two most popular brands, Caterpillars (USA) and Duetz (Germany), were left. These two brands were
famous for their tanks in World War II. They were too noisy and no express owner would use better silencers lest the engines might lose power. When the express boats competed with one another, they reduced their fares to MYR$1.00 on the Sarikei-Sibu route.
Toot! Toot! Toot! When was the last time you took an express? Watch this Sarikei video.