The Borneo island is one of the least explored islands in the world, even though it’s the 3rd largest island in the world. It’s therefore not surprising that there are mysteries to discover and adventures to be had. Even though I was born and raised on this exotic island, there are things that I’m just discovering. Couple of months ago I found out that there’s a village above the clouds with ‘ring ladies’ in Sarawak (Malaysia) near the Indonesia border. So I gathered a few friends and we hiked to Semban; a tranquil village stuck in the mountains away from civilisation. I sat down the friendly and very easy-going homestay owner and had a chat with him.
Q: What’s your name and how old are you?
S: My name is Sagen anak Adam and I’m 54 years old.
Q: What ethnicity are you?
S: I’m a Bidayuh; the second largest ethnic group in Sarawak.
Q: How many people lived with you?
S: There are 4 of us: my wife, my 2 grandchildren and myself.
Q: Where are your children?
S: My son and his family live in Kuala Lumpur, and my daughter and her family live in Kuching.
Q: You are born and raised here in Semban?
S: Yes, I was born here and live here all my life.
Q: You speak very good English, where did you go to school?
S: I studied until primary 6 in the school we used to have here in the village, and then I went to a boarding school nearer to the city for my secondary education.
Q: Did you like studying? Why didn’t you continue your study after that?
S: Yes, I enjoyed studying and I was the top student in my class. But my father didn’t have money to me for further study.
Q: Were they very poor? What were your parents’ occupation?
S: They were both farmers. We weren’t poor, we just didn’t have money. We planted paddy for self consumption and everything else we got from the jungle. We didn’t need money so they didn’t have the money to send me to continue my study.
Q: What did you do after you finished your secondary school?
S: When I finished my secondary education, I came back and helped them. And I’ve lived here ever since.
Q: So you’ve never worked in town or city?
S: I’ve never lived in a town or city, and I have never done any other job besides being a farmer.
Q: Your family only planted paddy for self consumption?
S: Yes, we only planted enough for self consumption. Then in 1990, we got the pepper planting scheme from the government and started planting pepper to make money.
Q: How many people live in Semban village?
S: In the past, there were about 450 people. But now there are only about 250 people left.
Q: What happened?
S: People moved to the resettlement areas with school and medical facilities, in Bau and Sematan nearer to Kuching city.
S: Because of the Bengoh dam that has recently been completed. Once it starts operation, the villages in the lower altitude will be submerged under water.
Q: Will Semban be affected?
S: Indirectly yes. Semban is on a higher altitude so it won’t be submerged, but the access road will be. So once the dam starts operation, the road to and from Semban will be twice as long; about 10 hours trek in a tougher terrain.
Q: Does the government pay the people for uprooting them from their land?
S: Yes, the government pays each family a sum for the house, lands and farmlands; the amount is in accordance to the size of their land. On top of that, they are also given a new house in the resettlement area.
Q: Were the people happy to accept the offer?
S: Some were happy, because the government paid them the real market price which was quite a substantial amount. There were many of us who weren’t happy, but there’s nothing we could do.
Q: So half of the villagers in Semban have moved to the resettlement areas?
S: Yes, most of those who have moved have children studying in schools in or around the city. So moving to the resettlement areas was a better option for the family. There are some families, where the husband stays on in Semban while the wife and children moved, but they would return during holidays.
Q: But you are not moving?
S: No. I’ve been to my new house in the resettlement area for 6 weeks, but I didn’t like it there. Living in town area cost too much; I had to spend money just to live there and couldn’t earn any; I was spending my savings. So I returned to Semban. Here in the village I have my homestay business and my farm. I can survive if I don’t work, but in the city, I would have to work everyday in order to survive.
Q: You mean you can live off the land?
S: Yes, I have my paddy field, and I get vegetables from the jungle. I also rear chicken and duck. Sometimes I hunt wild boar and dear for meat, but unfortunately it’s not so easy now as there are less of them.
Q: You really like living in the village?
S: Yes, I do. I feel safer, happier and freer here. I’m free to go anywhere I want. I can go to my neighbour’s house for a chat without having to first call them. I could fish and hunt when I feel like it. But in the city I can’t do that. So I only go to the city when I have business to attend to, or errands to run; that would probably be once every 4-5 months.
Q: But there’s no electricity in the village.
S: Yes, there’s no electricity here. We wake up when the sun rises and go to bed when it’s dark.
Q: How and when did you start the homestay?
S: Visitors have been coming to Semban on and off for many years; mostly government officers. When I was young, whenever there were visitors, I was the one designated to entertain them because I speak good English; that meant putting them up in my house. So I started thinking about starting a homestay business when more and more people started to come to Semban. In 1990 my homestay officially started with only a handful of visitors for the first few years. Then in 2008, because of the dam, this area got a lot of attention, and there was a surge in visitors coming to Semban. The last 2 years have seen the highest number of visitors.
Q: Are you the only homestay in Semban?
S: No, there are 2 registered official homestay in Semban, and I was one of them. I try to spread the profit among the villagers. For example, when there are too many guests, I will send them to my neighbours so that they could earn some money that way too. And when my wife can’t cope I’ll pay some of the women to come and cook the meals for the guests.
Q: What do visitors like to do in Semban?
S: In the beginning I didn’t have any idea. Then they started asking me if there were waterfalls, if they could go see the sunrise, and who were the ‘ring ladies’. Only then I started to become a guide too, arranging their itinerary for them.
Q: Do you make more money with the homestay business?
S: Well, the profit I make from my homestay is like a bonus. I don’t need this money as I can live off my land, whatever I need, I can get it here. But the money does help my family; I usually send money my son and daughter who need more money living in the cities.
Q: I can see that things are going well for you.
S: I am happy with my current situation: I’m living in my own house, on my own land, and all I need is provided for. Although things will be difficult once the dam starts operation, I’ll deal with it when the situation comes.
When you are in Sarawak and looking for an off the beaten path thing to do, why not consider a trek to Semban. It’s easy to spend a day or two in the peaceful village in the heart of Borneo. Getting to the trail head at the dam may not be straight forward, and officials at the dam’s office are weary of foreigners going there by themselves, so please contact me and I can make arrangements for you.