And Out Came the Lions (Clubs) in Remote Malaysia
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

Piggybacking a Catholic aid expedition to remote aboriginal villages, a travel writer realizes that sometimes, far-flung places and peoples are better off remaining out of help's way.

Borneo home on the lake

Spikes of grey wood twirled out of the water’s surface like the curls of an ageing, long-haired underwater creature. Almost two hours ago, we had jumped into a small dinghy and started sailing across the surface of this lake. The Chinese man seated beside me on the plank of wood we had for a seat had forgotten to bring his sun hat, and was sheltering his sunburned ears and neck with the palms of his hands. And even though I had brought mine, the unforgiving heat still rocked like a jack-hammer over my head.

“Look over there,” said our chaperon, Mr. Ng, a small yet firmly muscular Malaysian Chinese man, pointing at a thin forested crest that dunked into the lake before us.

Boating over Temenggor Lake in Borneo

“We have arrived, at last,” he said relieved.

It was a comforting message after that hot, uncomfortable slog. The sight of the gaunt men and women waiting before barracks that rose like corrugated iron mushrooms on that forlorn shore, however, certainly didn’t make for the most choreographic of welcomes.

Invitation to the Edge of the World

Press the rewind button to about six weeks before, when research for a magazine article took me to the village of Lenggong, deep in the interior of the northwestern Malaysian state of Perak. This quiet backwood is actually the site of the Lenggong Valley, Malaysia’s least-known UNESCO World Heritage Site — probably because the series of archaeological discoveries found here don’t fit the school textbooks. There’s a 3.8 million-years-old meteorite crash site and also the bones of 11,000-years-old Perak man. The latter proves that the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were aboriginal peoples from Africa, people who took centuries to migrate to Southeast Asia on foot. This doesn’t bide well with the Malays, Malaysia’s majority group, who, based on their claim to be the original inhabitants of the Malay penisnula, have more or less ran this multi-ethnic country with an iron fist for the past 60 years.

Setting socio-politics aside, it was on that visit that I and my Malaysian wife Kit met Mr. Ng. He owned a small hotel and acted as the town’s spokeperson: he answered (in Mandarin, through my wife’s translation) all my queries to help the reputation of his native Lenggong. His helpfulness carried on well into the night, when, clasping a chunk of local delicious river fish belly between the tips of his chopsticks, he proposed we joined him on a visit to three remote orang asli (the aboriginal people of Malaysia) settlements.

They were quite special: perched on the deep southern limits of the Temenggor Lake — a huge man-made dam that extends like a giant oil spill in the north central part of Peninsular Malaysia, only a few kilometers south of the Thai-Malaysian border.

“It’s a duty of the Lions Club, of which I am a member, to bring aid to these people,” Mr. Ng said proudly. He then explained that one of the activities of the club, which is largely a Catholic association, was collecting food supplies and transporting them every few months to three villages on the southern half of the dam. “Maybe you can join us, and see how they live. They need all the help we can give them.” 

Floating home in Malaysia

The People That Malaysia Forgot

Come to Malaysia on an international flight to Kuala Lumpur, and you’d be hard-pressed to believe there are still places as wild as the Temenggor Forest Reserve. Let alone people like the Temiar and the Jahai, two of the dozen aboriginal groups who inhabited Peninsular Malaysia’s jungles long before the British made the region their rubber-and-tin cash cow.

In general, orang asli communities in Malaysia have been displaced, their lands taken away in favor of city development or creating space for palm oil estates. Most have been resettled in concrete homes “generously” bestowed by the Malaysian government, and ended up losing their original forest skills to the lethal allure of the cheap booze that numbs their minds, and the dangdut and techno music that blasts from their newly found homes' karaoke sound-systems. But the southern limits of the Temenggor Lake where we were headed is a place that wild elephants call home and the last Malaysian tigers chose to roam. These animals stay as far from human beings as possible and in these lands even the orang asli live a different life.

“When the dam water was released, the aborigines didn’t abandon their ancestral land,” explained Loh Kan Hooi, a female Pastor and a native of Lenggong, who started working with the communities of Kampung Kertai and Kampung Kelian in 2012. “Many of them drowned, and those who managed to survive on higher lands are now completely cut off from civilization.” Indeed, to reach the battered crest of Kampung Kertai and his bunch of corrugated-iron roofed homes, we had sat on our haunches for two and a half hours, squeezed like sardines in a small motorized boat, from the Pulau Banding jetty, where the lake meets the highway.

That was where we loaded up our chartered boat with a bunch of provisions that included bags of rice, bottles of cooking oil and other amenities such as toothpaste and sweets for the children. But after an hour, the undulating coastline that encases the dam had already become a familiar, endless sight. We were alone in the middle of nowhere, and mobile phone reception had left us half hour ago.

“To the south of the aboriginal villages there’s only jungle they can forage for simple food. But to get out to Pulau Banding, the cost of renting a boat is the equivalent of about a hundred dollars,” said Mr. Ng. The tribes, who lived without using money, and also lacked electricity, had no means of getting out.

Preaching to the Wind

I was almost falling asleep when the dinghy finally moored in front of Kampung Kertai and we were asked to get off. A single file of people with the curly hair of Africans and the facial features of Austronesians was already looking at us: their skin tone was as dark as their future on that chunk of forgotten land. They only came alive when we started unloading the provisions on the shore, and some of the men came forward to help us. They didn’t say a word, keeping their eyes on to the ground to avoid contact with ours.

Borneo supplies and provisions

The Pastor went to look for the village women and children, and found them waiting on a bench under the corrugated-iron roof of what looked like a rudimentary community hall set next to the thicket. We gathered around the women, and learned in battered Malay that most of the young men were still out in the jungle looking for food. Speaking of the Devil, one of the Lions Club’s members came forward with one of the translucent gift packages, some fruit clearly visible under its shrink-wrap, and placed it before the women.

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Read this article online at: And Out Came the Lions (Clubs) in Remote Malaysia

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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