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A ride on Kuching’s Perahu Penambang (Pak Tambang)

The Perahu Penambang is a boat ride service across the Sarawak river.  Perahu means boat in Malays.

The ride connects Kuching City to the Malay villages across the Sarawak river.

Usually steered by men known as Pak Tambang, the service has been around since the Brooke era and was an important mode of transportation for locals then.

I’ve used the Perahu Penambang extensively during my teenage days as it is the fastest way to go to Kuching City from across the river.

Today, penambang boats have become a unique tourist attraction.  Since the Darul Hana Bridge was built, many prefer to walk to get to the other side.

Recently, I decided my daughter should try the penambang herself and brought her on the boat ride.

A penambang boat cruising pass the DUN building. – Photo: CyrilDason

Getting on Perahu Penambang

In order to ride the perahu penambang, we had to go to the Kuching Waterfront.  The Kuching Waterfront is just five minutes away from the Waterfront Hotel Kuching.

I parked my car at a vacant parking space near the Darul Hana Floating Mosque (Kuching Floating Mosque) and we walked to the nearby jetty which is the pick-up point for the penambang.

As we walked to the jetty, a Pak Tambang rowed his boat slowly towards us. Once the boat arrived, a tired looking man stepped out of his boat, on to the jetty.

He asked us if we want to go across the river and I told him yes.

We got into the boat, and without wasting time, he started navigating away from the jetty.

One of the Penambang which had turned into a ‘tour ride’. – Photo: CyrilDason

The Penambang experience

The experience of the penambang boat begins from the moment I step into the boat. It is at this moment I could tell the regulars from the first timers or newbies.

Newbies get nervous upon entering the boat. Some scream a little as the boat rock from left to right. Others hold on tight to the boat frame, worried the boat would capsize.

These moments are usually greeted with smiles from experienced riders like myself whom had used the boat thousands of times.

Newbies getting in and out of the penambang boats are always interesting to watch. – Photo: CyrilDason

But still, I do get nervous when we finally sit in the boat. This happens when other passengers fail to realize the need to balance the boat and seat as they like, ignoring the boat balance. This is when the Pak Tambang would sometimes order the passengers to switch sides or seats.

As the boat is pushed away from the jetty, the aged Pak Tambang uses his strength and wisdom to navigate further into deeper areas of the river which would allow him to use the engine.

The Pak Tambang pulling a string to start the engine. – Photo: CyrilDason

Once the boat reaches a safe distance, the Pak Tambang pulls a string connected to the engine and steers the boat across the Sarawak river.

The uneventful ride across the river is calming and unique. I love how the wind blows directly to my face while water from the Sarawak river splashes into the boat as the boat cruises.

Enjoying the penambang boat ride. – Photo: CyrilDason

I observe how the Pak Tambang expertly navigates the river current reminiscing the days when I’ve personally seen them needing to row the boat with brute strength just to bring their passengers across the river.

During those days the high tide meant that Pak Tambang’s had to steer his boat further up before expertly navigating it back at the correct destination.

It was these moments that made the penambang ride special.

Disembarking an experience

Disembarking from the penambang presents another sort of entertainment. This is true if there’s plenty of newbies on the ride.

penambang boat
The Pak Tambang uses his bare fingers to touch two wires which in turn shut down the boat engine. – Photo: CyrilDason

First timers tend to get rather anxious about leaving the boat.  As the boat rocks from left to right, many newbies aren’t sure what to do upon arrival at the destination.

Their small screams and nervousness brings smiles to me as the Pak Tambang tries his best to balance the boat while collecting the fees, and helping passengers out.

It’s an experience one won’t get elsewhere.

Paying the Pak Tambang

The penambang used to charge 30 cents per head in the 90’s. I was told it’s now RM1 per passenger.

During the good old days, passengers would pay the fee by leaving the money on the boat’s deck as they disembark. This was done because the Pak Tambang would be busy balancing the boat as passengers disembarked.

Aside from that, collecting coins wasn’t easy especially if you are trying to balance the boat.

These days, you could pay the Pak Tambang directly because there’s not many passengers.

I paid the Pak Tambang RM10 for the three of us because I knew that their income had been declining over the years.

The penambang at a jetty at Kuching Waterfront. – Photo: CyrilDason

A dying trend

People don’t use the penambang as much as they used to.

I managed to have a quick chat with one of the Pak Tambang and he admitted that there’s a decline in riders. The newly built Darul Hana bridge had added to the sharp decline of passengers in recent years.

The Pak Tambang I spoke to admitted that it is hard to earn these days

I could guess he was right based on the number of trips he made that day, and the number of passengers he carried.

I also noticed there were less boats plying the river route.

The penambang boat passing under the newly built Darul Hana Bridge. Photo: CyrilDason

Before the Darul Hana Bridge was ready, trips across the river were rather frequent and there was always a queue during peak hours.

This time around, the three of us were the only ones and there was only two boats.  It was rather sad to see penambang boats are slowly diminishing.

Hope for the future

There seems to be effort to help these Pak Tambang in recent years, but I am not sure if it’s enough.

According to a conversation I had with one of the Pak Tambang, he is unsure about what the future holds.

Nonetheless, I do hope that the traditional penambang boats would live on.

With that said, I do hope that if you are reading this and you do intend to ride the penambang boats, do give more as a sign of support.  It would be a sad day when there’s no more Pak Tambang’s around, hence why we need to support them.

For a video of the ride on the penambang boat, check out my Youtube video. Do subscribe!


Related articles to Penambang

If you like stories like this, and want to read more about Kuching, check out the links below.

Cyril Dason

Cyril Dason was born and currently lives in Kuching. He loves jungle trekking, clean rivers and chilling out with friends.

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