I finally got around to exploring Sungai Besar in the north of Selangor when the Covid19 pandemic evolved to be less dangerous. Malaysia kept its international borders closed following a reasonably successful vaccination campaign, but restored domestic movement. At the time, thousands of people indulged in domestic revenge tourism, inundating popular tourist destinations like Langkawi, Port Dickson, and Cameron Highlands. Even smaller destinations were fully booked. This included rural Sekinchan, the go-to place for Klang Valley folk wanting a holiday amongst rice fields.

However, as a slow traveller, my habit is to avoid the places which are heavily promoted. They’re bound to be overwhelmed. I decided to take up the Selangor tourism campaign to #rondaSelangordulu, which aimed to persuade Klang Valley folk to explore our own state first. And if the better known Sekinchan was fully booked, well, you could always continue further north all the way up to the border with Perak. Sure enough, neighbouring Sungai Besar had homestays as well, and had vacancies.

Where is Sungai Besar?

Sungai Besar (literally, ‘Big River’) is a coastal town along the northern Selangor coastline. It’s about 100km from Kuala Lumpur, and only a 20-minute drive from the better known Sekinchan rice fields. Both are agricultural districts in Selangor’s north (yes, Selangor is not all skyscrapers and Klang Valley suburbs). They both have a coastal fishing community as well as rice fields inland.

In recent years, rural tourism has become a thing. As a result, some farmers have diversified into tourism, sometimes converting their heritage traditional homes into homestays, or even building extra chalets.

The difference is in the distance to Selangor’s high density areas. Sekinchan is closer to Kuala Lumpur. This makes it a more convenient destination for city folk who miss the nostalgia of village life. So you will find more and better quality tourism related services in Sekinchan.

Sungai Besar, on the other hand, is still very rural. It has roadside coffee shops, and not a single hipster cafe (note: I have nothing against hipster cafes and actually quite like them). The shops and amusements cater more for locals, rather than out-of-town visitors. In fact, my ex-platoonmate who’s from Sungai Besar, wondered why the heck I wanted to vacation there in the first place, though I think he also felt secretly validated at the same time.

Of course, the very fact that there’s so little to do, is why Sungai Besar is the better rural retreat.

Green rice fields of Sungai Besar stretching out to a horizon of oil palm trees. In the foreground is the raised field limits (batas) around the inundated field, casting a shadow into the dark irrigation channel.
Growing rice plants in Sungai Besar

Tip for foreign visitors: Since Sungai Besar is still quite rural, it’s better to come with a local person, or at least someone who speaks Malay. If you go with someone who speaks both Malay and Chinese, that would be a bonus if you want to go fishing offshore as well, though not essential.

4 things to do in Sungai Besar

Sungai Besar doesn’t have a lot of things to do. (If it did, arguably I wouldn’t consider it a retreat spot, but rather a rural tourism destination.) You are meant to slow down, and enjoy the little things in life, in a place like this. However, to give you an idea of what that means here, I’ll give you four things you could be doing on a retreat in Sungai Besar.

1. Enjoy Sungai Besar rice field scenery

The main landscape in Sungai Besar are the paddy fields. This is the signature activity of the region, and the reason why it’s a draw for visitors in the first place. You can drive around to check out the fields and canals, or rent bicycles from your homestay. Or just have a walk around, and discover the local field-side stalls.

Tip for when to see rice fields: There are two rice farming seasons in a year, thanks to modern agriculture. North Selangor plants around March and September. This gives a green rice landscape around April and October, and golden yellow in late May and November. Harvest time would be June and December. Avoid January-February and July-August periods, as the fields will look barren and there’s less to do.

2. Foodie tour of Sungai Besar rural cuisine

Sungai Besar has a surprising number of field-side/roadside eating places, although which ones are open were quite variable. You can get tips on which one’s trending on social media at the moment, from chatting with local villagers. A takoyaki stall was popular around the time I was there, but it wasn’t open when I looked.

Aside from the evergreen favourites like nasi lemak, chicken rice, roti canai, tomyam, you can also find more local delicacies. Grilled mentarang clams are a local delicacy, foraged from the nearby coastline. If you came when the rice is yellowing, the restaurants would also serve ‘field’ foods, e.g. the haruan fish reared in the rice fields when it was kept inundated, and harvested when the fields are drained. You could even try rural game meat, depending on whether any are available, such as venison, mousedeer, and porcupine.

You could also buy agricultural produce and products, whether to cook at your homestay or to take home at the end of your stay. These include fresh seafood, fruits, and a variety of processed agricultural products. If you didn’t and regret it, look for an Agro Bazaar store on the drive back. It’s a one stop shop for local agricultural products.

3. Explore the Sungai Besar coastline

The northern Selangor coastline has a number of small beaches interspersed with mangrove forest. They’re natural beaches rather than tourist beaches. Most will be deserted and actually not easy to get to. However, if you would like to break your rice field stay with a visit to the coast, exploring these are a good option which still maintains the retreat vibe.

The coastal fishing villages are a hodgepodge of stilt houses. Fishing boats line the banks of the river mouths. Driving around, you’ll pass by water locks that control the irrigation canals. The popular local beach spot is Bagan Nakhoda Omar, the northernmost Selangor beach. Local people simply refer to it as ‘BNO’, which took me a moment to figure out. It still isn’t touristy, although there is a restaurant and some amenities there.

4. Go fishing in the rice fields or at a kelong

Homestays in Sungai Besar typically offer fishing rod rentals. I’m not an angler myself, but fishing sure seems a popular activity in the area. People tend to fish along the main canals that feed the irrigation channels for the rice fields, or from atop the wave breakers along some of the beaches.

Main irrigation canal in Sungai Besar. The water is still, the smooth surface perfectly reflecting the cloudy sky and the banana and palm trees along the roadside. Aquatic plants grow thickly and breach the surface near the right bank of the canal.
Irrigation canal in Sungai Besar. I thought someone should do a kayak rental, but my friends said that’s crazy talk.

There are also fishing charters from Sungai Besar, if you’re a truly avid angler. In fact, there are traditional offshore platforms for fishing in this region. These are called kelong, and nowadays you can even book stays on a kelong (I haven’t tried this yet).

Fishing kelong wooden outpost offshore on the far horizon off the coastline of Bagan Nakhoda Omar.
Kelong in the distance

How to get to Sungai Besar

Sungai Besar is best done as a road trip. While it is possible to get to Sungai Besar town by bus, it is not very convenient for going on holiday. You can get to Sungai Besar town from Kuala Lumpur with the SPT Ekspres bus from Pudu Sentral station, but would still need to get a ride to your homestay from there.

Where to stay in Sungai Besar

While you could stay in a budget hotel in town, it is a much better experience to stay on the rice fields. The distance between the two is negligible.

If you can, try to stay in a traditional village house. There are a lot of lovely options on Google Maps. Bear in mind that these places probably don’t have websites; bookings tend to be made on Whatsapp or Facebook Business.

The accommodations tend to be fairly basic, though sometimes it comes with a kitchenette. On the other hand, some homestays have a swimming pool these days, though these tend to be intended for children. (Note: in rural Malaysia, people typically swim fully clothed.)

Front view of a large traditional Malay house, the wood stained a dark brown and vacant space around the stilts. The stairs going up to the main anjung porch is tiled concrete for the bottom half and wooden the rest of the way up. There are enclosed rooms on the far side of the ground floor, which is beneath the back of the main house. The house is a homestay in Sungai Besar.
D’Sawah Bendang homestay main building

Pro tip: Rice farming involves inundated fields and irrigation canals. There would be mosquitoes, especially at dusk. Bring insect repellant, especially if you tend to attract them.

Places you could combine with a trip to Sungai Besar

While Sungai Besar is great for a quiet break, the good thing about it is that you could easily convert it into a more active holiday. Being further from Kuala Lumpur also means it is nearer to other places, compared to Sekinchan. Here are a few ideas of places to combine with a stay in Sungai Besar, if you want a more active weekend vacation, or if you were considering Sungai Besar as a quiet break in a longer road trip.

1. Explore Sekinchan

Sekinchan might actually be your first choice, but it was fully booked. Staying in Sungai Besar means you can still go to all of the same places. You can explore Sekinchan almost as easily, and some of the attractions are actually halfway in between Sungai Besar and Sekinchan; for example, the hay market Pasar Jerami, where you can also learn about rice farming.

2. Explore the nearby town of Sabak Bernam

Sungai Besar itself is a small town, and not that interesting. However, it is near to a bigger town, Sabak Bernam.

Arguably, Sabak Bernam isn’t a particularly interesting town either. However, it is right on the Bernam river that divides the states of Selangor and Perak.

The Waterfront is a good place to view the river. It is also near to the Sabak Bernam museum, which wasn’t open during my visit due to its timing relative to the pandemic. Fortunately, you can read the history of Sabak Bernam from displays at the Waterfront, which was when I learned that Sabak Bernam used to have its own sultan, before he ceded the territory to the Sultan of Selangor.

Sabak Bernam history

3. Perak River cruise for fireflies

Staying in Sungai Besar towards the border to Perak means you’ll be reasonably close to Teluk Intan. You could pop over to see fireflies there, since it’s just about a half hour drive. Or you could make Teluk Intan the next stop on a road trip.

(Note: you could still see fireflies if you stayed in Sekinchan instead. But it wouldn’t be north in Teluk Intan. Instead, you go south to Kuala Selangor.)

4. See the Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan

Speaking of Teluk Intan, this town along the Perak river deserves to be its own stop, though you could just as easily explore it from Sungai Besar. It is a very historical town, and a former royal capital of Perak. This is because the area was originally settled by refugees from the fallen Melaka sultanate, following the Portuguese invasion of 1511. This is why the Perak royal house is considered one of the successors of Melaka.

It was then a key stop along a railway line during the British protectorate era, when it was re-named from Teluk Mak Intan to Teluk Anson after the planner of its modern layout.

Teluk Intan has fewer historical sites than you’d expect given its history, and those that it does have could use attention. But it does have one that’s locally well-known. The Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan is now a recognised national monument, and still quite instagrammable.

Photo by Nor Khaliza Mat Yunus on Unsplash

Did you know there’s a great city escape retreat destination that’s this close to Kuala Lumpur? Pin for your rural vacation inspiration!

6 Responses

  1. Residing in a traditional village abode would offer a truly enlightening encounter, and simplicity holds its own charm.

  2. Annie says:

    Seems like the kind of place I would like to visit if I was still doing long-haul trips.

  3. I really enjoyed this. I was not familiar with this part of Malaysia. We spent two months in Malaysia, including a month in Langkawi, pre-pandemic. I sure would love to go back and see more of the country. thanks for the great ideas.

    • Teja says:

      Wow, two months!
      I don’t blame you. Millions of people have come and gone from Selangor and KL, and probably never once thought that the state actually has agricultural districts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.