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Guide to Sibu, Sarawak: Best things to do, see and eat in this east Malaysian state

Guide to Sibu, Sarawak: Best things to do, see and eat in this east Malaysian state
PHOTO: Tripadvisor

"Where is Sibu?"A common response when I speak of it. So if you've never heard of Sibu or don't know much about it, well, you're not alone. Sibu is a lesser-known destination in Malaysia that is often mistaken for the homophonic Cebu in the Philippines.

Or the island Pulau Sibu in Mersing, Johor. Moving past the confusion, Sibu, located in East Malaysia, is neither a tropical getaway nor a bustling city. And we found that out in our recent visit to this city in Sarawak, where we were charmed by its rustic and laid-back vibes, along with its rich culture and food offerings.

Situated at the confluence of the country's longest river system, the Rajang River — affectionately known by the locals as "Small Yellow River" — and the Igan River, Sibu also boasts a tranquil riverine lifestyle, perfect for those looking to unwind from the hustle and bustle. Looking to Scoot away for the weekend? Here's your guide to Sibu, Sarawak.

Getting there by Scoot

Lucky for us, Scoot with its new Embraer E190-E2 aircraft now flies three times a week (Wed, Fri, and Sun) to Sibu, among other destinations like Miri and Kuantan. We flew in on the new 112-seater E190-E2 aircraft, the quietest and most fuel-efficient single-aisle aircraft that boasts a 25 per cent decrease in carbon emissions and fuel burn.

Even though it is a single-aisle aircraft, seats were of the standard size with ample legroom and seat width, making it comfortable enough to sleep throughout the 1-hour 50-minute journey. With tickets starting from S$72 to Sibu, inclusive of taxes, this might just be that weekend getaway you need.

Getting around Sibu

Unlike many cities, there are no public buses or trains in Sibu. Not that it is a small city, but that people relied on the Rajang River to move from town to town or village to village, until two years ago, when more roads reached the towns and villages.

The easiest way to travel around is via ride-hailing apps like Grab or rent a car to move around. Traffic is mostly smooth and rather orderly, with slower-moving traffic during peak hours.  

Morning adventures

Eat local delights for breakfast 

Stemming from similar influences, the food here seems somewhat familiar, yet it hits on different notes. The nuances in preparation and ingredients give it a different spin.

Just like the Sarawak Laksa. Instead of the coconut and shrimp paste we taste in the Singaporean version or the tangy assam in Penang Laska, the Sarawakian laksa features an aromatic broth, flavoured with spices, dry chilli, galangal and tamarind, served with a side of lime and belachan.

Most notably, it was once conferred the title of "breakfast of the gods" by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. So, you know you have to try it. 

Try: Aloha Cafe located at Jalan Keranji, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Another breakfast delight we enjoyed was the traditional Sibu Kampua Mee. Even though it looks like wanton mee, the noodles here are tossed in soya sauce or shallot oil (we preferred this), and sprinkled with fried pork lard.

The noodles are served with Bian Nyuk, a wanton-like dish with a thinner and more translucent skin that gives us more meat to taste. We recommend having it with soup, yum! The best part, noodles here cost RM5! 

If you are looking beyond the regular kopitiam kopi, try the sweet Three Coloured Kopi (or tea), stirred in with condensed milk and gula apong, not water like in Singapore but a tea-based drink. To freshen up, reach for the Three Sour drink made with lemon, sour plum, and lime.

Try: Meng Chien Cafe located at 3, Jln Long Bridge, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Explore the Sibu Central Market

Walking and shopping around the Sibu Central Market is a great way to immerse yourself in local life. Besides boasting over a thousand stalls, the building also houses their immigration office where locals go to get their passports. 

The largest market in Sarawak supports lower-income locals by offering stalls for as low as RM1 in rental, so when you buy and shop here, you make a difference. You can get everything from fresh produce to dry goods and clothes here.

There are even stalls selling pets and live chicken, that's how fresh! And if you stumble upon home-brewed rice wine, sample it or bring it home for only RM10. Head to the second floor for a mid-morning snack or drink in their hawker centre, plenty of choices here! 

Sibu Central Market is located at Jln Channel, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia. Opens daily 6 am - 6 pm.

Traverse the local streets

Opposite the Sibu Central Market are rows of shophouses from yesteryears, explore the lanes to discover a retro-style salon, wall murals and the popular local confectionary, Xing Kee (63) Confectionary for the Sibu Kong Pia.

The aroma will reach you before you get there as they are freshly baked in the earthen oven. Choose from original or sesame flavours and shop for other traditional pastries there.

Xing Kee (63) Confectionary is located at 10, Jln Channel, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia

Make Mee Sua

Not your typical morning activity but this has to be done before noon when the humidity rises. Ask the locals about mee sua and they'll tell you Ah Sieng Mee Sua. Their skill and precision make them one of the top brands in Sibu — with the best texture and bite, but with everything handmade in the mornings, supply is limited.

Contact them in advance to try your hand at making mee sua. You won't be able to eat what you make (thankfully!), as the final step involves hours of sunshine. But you can bring back ready-packed ones at RM10 (15 servings). 

Ah Sieng Mee Sua is located at Lot 376, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia, p.+60 11-5635 6631.

Afternoon City Exploration

Fuel up with lunch for the day

Fancy a hearty lunch? Head to Hann's Esplanade Sibu for Japanese, grill, burgers, and even bubble tea all under one roof. But if it's local delights that you're craving, give Bian Ding Hu (translated to wok edge paste) a try.

Looking like our local mee hoon kueh, the Bian Ding Hu is cooked from freshly ground rice paste. The paste is heated on the sides of the wok and then cooked with soup, adding fish balls, chicken slices and cuttlefish for the finishing touch. This comforting dish is full of wok hey, making it one of the local favourites not to be missed. 

Try: Treasure Land located at Jalan Ling Kai Cheng, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Dive into culture and history 

Sibu may have a prominent Fuzhou culture but it is actually made up of a diverse population of 27 ethnic groups, including Iban, Chinese, Malays, and other indigenous groups. Visit the Sibu Cultural Heritage Museum and learn about the diverse cultures and lifestyles of the Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, and Chinese communities.

Over a thousand artefacts are on display, each narrating the story of how Sibu came to be. Eagle-eyed folks may even spot a picture of our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew here. Do note that no photography is allowed here. After the tour, make your way to the souvenir shop on the first floor, that's like a treasure trove of local crafts. 

The Sibu Cultural Heritage Museum is located at 18 2, Jalan Central, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia. 

Overlooking the Rajang River is the iconic Eng Ann Tua Pek Kong temple, standing as a testament to a century of heritage and history. Built in the late 19th century, the temple is considered an architectural marvel and a sacred place — it miraculously survived a fire in 1928.

Besides being the oldest temple in Sibu, it's also the best preserved one and probably the only one housing a raintree that doubled as a post office in the past. But it is most definitely the only one that'll give you a panoramic view of the Rajang River. Scale seven storeys up the Goddess of Mercy Pagoda to catch the sun's orange hues glowing across the sky at sunset. 

Eng Ann Tua Pek Kong temple is located at Jln Temple, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Take an afternoon break

Beat the mid-afternoon slump with a cuppa at the ambient cafe, The Coffee Code Sibu. Just like its Singapore outpost situated on Neil Road, its coffee and waffles are the star here. Other popular items include pizza and souffle pancakes.

Otherwise, Mixed Food Borneo will cool you down with its artisanal ice cream crafted with local ingredients like durian, local fruit dabai, gula apong and more. Enjoy a wide selection of patisseries alongside the creamy treats here. 

As the night falls

Cruise along the river

As the sun dips below the horizon, hop on the Sibu River Cruise for an enchanting journey on the Rajang River. Once a bustling artery for ferries and goods, the river now flows with tranquillity. Visit on a good day when the skies are clear to witness the sun paint streaks of pink, purple, and orange across the sky.

The one-hour cruise offers a unique sight; on one side, you'll see people strolling leisurely along the riverbanks, while on the other, you'll be treated to views of Sibu's lush nature. We were left mesmerized!

Sibu River Cruise is priced at RM16 for non-Sarawakians and RM23 for non-Malaysians. Purchase your tickets online and head to the boarding area located at Pulau Babi Wharf, Jalan Khoo Peng Loong, Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Dine in a Longhouse

One of the best ways to learn about another culture is by having a meal at their home. And that's what we did in our Longhouse Experience. We experienced the cultural richness of the Iban community through their ethnic costumes, dances, rituals and local cuisine.

In the longhouse, which houses over 40 households in a communal space, we were welcomed with a traditional toasting ceremony, where every guest will be served a cup of rice wine (non-alcoholic options available).

The night continued with dancing and conversations over home-cooked Iban cuisine. Besides the fresh vegetables, I enjoyed the aromatic dish of chicken and vegetables cooked in bamboo too. If you like, you can also book a homestay experience at the Longhouse. 

Splurge on the most expensive fish

Priced at a hefty RM600 per kg, the Empurau is a wild fish prized for its rarity and a special diet of fruits. These prized delicacies often flock upstream in the Rajang River to where the Engkabang fruit trees grow, waiting to feast on the fallen fruits.

Many, including me, who have tried it, love it for its sweet and creamy texture that melts in your mouth. It's commonly known as the unforgettable fish — unforgettable for its taste or its price tag? You try and decide!

Try it at New Capital Restaurant located No. 46, 1st Floor, Lebuh Tanah Mas, Sarawak, 96000 Sibu, Malaysia. Please call to pre-order the fish in advance.

Nightlife in Sibu

Can't get enough local food? Visit the Sibu Night Market. With more than 100 stalls gathered here, you'll savour local snacks like grilled fish, satay, half-moon pancakes, youtiao with different toppings, and more.

We recommend trying some of the local fruits like the green tangerines, Bintangor or even the juiciest pineapple which doesn't bite back! Without the usual tight spaces like in other night markets, walking around here was easy and breezy. 

Sibu Night Market is located at Jalan Market, Pekan Sibu, 96000 Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia. Opens daily from 5 pm -10 pm.

Nightlife doesn't just end there. Bars and karaoke lounges come alive with friends hanging out and unwinding for the day. Head to Craft 97 Bar & Lounge for locally brewed craft beers or Oxygen Bar, located at the Sibu Cultural Heritage Museum for wine, cocktails, and snacks. The perfect way to end the night!

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This article was first published in City Nomads.

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