In recent months, I’ve been bitten by a different type of traveling bug: I’m beginning to enjoy traveling in my own backyard. I’ve only starting to realize how much Sarawak, the Malaysian state on the Borneo island, has a lot to offer: lush tropical rainforest, unique wildlife, and arresting indigenous cultures, etc. The three things that Sarawak can offer visitors are: Adventure, Nature, and Culture. And my visit to Semban has all three!
Tugged in the mountains between Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesia), Semban – a Bidayuh (an indigenous tribe in Borneo) village located about 50km outside of Kuching city – is so isolated that modernization hasn’t been able to dilute its traditional way of life until very recently. And in spite of its beautiful locale and intriguing tradition, it remains relatively non-touristy.
The 45-minute drive from Kuching to the trail head at Bengoh dam passed through rolling hills and limestone mountains, covered in lush rainforest. The further we drove along, the more I was aware that we are heading deeper into the heart of Borneo; a land that’s still shrouded in mystery to foreigners and locals who have never ventured beyond the urban areas.
Mr. Sagen, our host and guide, met us at the trail head and led us on a 4 to 5 hours trek on well trodden village paths; a network that connects the handful of villages in the area. Mr. Sagen is an amicable person with few words. He didn’t waste time telling us about the conditions of the trails or how long it’d take. Just as well, otherwise it might have discouraged some of the urban dwellers in our midst, who were going into the jungle for the first time.
About 15 minutes in, we came to the first of three bamboo bridges; two of which span over 20 meters in length. Mr. Sagen warned us to cross it one at a time. When it was my turn, I stepped gingerly, like a tight rope walker in circus. The bamboo creaked with complaints, and it bounced slightly under my weight at the midpoint, as if trying to throw me off-balance into the angry churning river 5 meters below. Ok, I was exaggerating. Once I got over my nerve, it wasn’t so bad. I even stopped halfway to take a selfie.
As the trail wound around the contours of the land, I found myself drawn by the myriads of sound from the jungle; birds I couldn’t identify and insects I dared not name, create a symphony that nature-lover would appreciate. There was no man-made noise (cars, constructions, music, etc), just the sound of nature, and it was very soothing.
Walking further, I saw a few villagers coming towards us from the opposite direction. As they got closer I saw that they were carrying bundles of clothes, utensils, live chicken in a cage, and even a TV, on their back. Some of them were carrying a load as heavy as 40kg! When we came to a rest area, we saw some of these villagers and found out that they were relocating.
Mr. Sagen told us that the villagers were moving out of their villages. When the proposal was approved by the government to build a dam in the area, they had asked the villagers to move to a resettlement area. Each family would be given a new house in the resettlement area, and would be paid a ‘fair’ price for their house and lands in the village. Some had moved but many had decided on a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude. However, when the dam was completed about a year ago, the inevitability of moving had dawned on them and many had only just made the decision to leave their land, where they had been living for many generations.
But there are those who don’t want to abandon their ancestral land and had decided to stay on. These villagers got together and built a new village higher up the mountain so they won’t be affected once the area is dammed.
Mr. Sagen told us that it wasn’t easy for most villagers to change their way of life. Many of them struggle to adapt to an urban life where they constantly need to work in order to survive, as they couldn’t just live off the land like they were used to. But others were happy with the convenience and easy life that this new way of life provides. Some are glad that they could now send their children to day schools, rather than boarding schools.
At the next junction we came across a dozen of shirtless men sweating profusely and resting next to 7 or 8 wooden boxes. Mr. Sagen told us that the boxes contained their ancestors’ remains. They had dug up the graves and were moving them to their new home.
Somehow this scene struck a chord in me. These people are the victims of progress, development and modernization. They are forced to give up a way of life as old as the land they live in, and adopt the “modern” life. What would I do if I were one of them? Would I leave or would I stubbornly stay behind? Maybe leaving doesn’t mean abandoning your culture/tradition; like everything else, traditions and cultures are constantly evolving, and this is but a small natural process. I guess there’s no right and wrong answer.
After two hours of trekking we arrived at Kampung Bojong, with a decidedly desolate atmosphere. There were about 20-30 wooden houses, most of them with their windows and doors shut tightly. There was no one in sight but some chicken and duck roaming freely and pecking in the dirt. It felt like a ghost village. As we walked through it, I saw an old lady peeping from behind a half-opened window, and there was a small shop that sells cheap isotonic drinks. I bought a can, downed it quickly and moved on.
The sun was at its zenith, sweat was pouring out of me as if I was being wrung dry; my arms were so wet they felt like damped sponges. I had stopped in the shade of a big durian tree to catch my breath and take a gulp of water. In this condition, it’s crucial to keep myself hydrated. But sweat was pouring out of me faster than I could replenish.
The trek was getting harder as the trail went up and up. The afternoon sun was relentless and I felt energy seeping away from me. As we came to an opening, Mr. Sagen plucked a gigantic banana leave and used it to shield himself from the sun and walked on, while we, with our pricey Nike caps and SPF30 sunblock, whined silently and withered under the scorching sun.
Just when I thought I was going to be roasted to death, or drown in my own perspiration, I saw an open field up ahead, and a few bright coloured houses just beyond it. With renewed energy I quickened my steps and soon I was sitting at the well-manicured lawn of Mr. Sagen’s house, sipping a freshly opened coconut. I made it! I’ve arrived in Semban
Semban is a quaint little village of about 30 houses that snuggled up the side of a mountain at 410m above sea level. Its isolated setting means the traditional way of life still prospers here until the dam issue (damned issue, perhaps).
Mrs. Sagen made tea and I sat down for a chat with Mr. Sagen. He said that even though Semban wouldn’t be affected by the dam, many of the villagers had been enticed by new house, modern amenities, and had moved to the resettlement area. But most of them moved out mainly because its more convenient for their children to go to school, since the government closed the school near Semban a couple of years ago.
Like the majority of his neighbours, Mr. Sagen and his family maintain 2 houses; the new one that the government gave them at the resettlement area, and his family home in Semban. He spent most of his time in Semban, only going to the new home to visit his son and grandchildren, who reside in the new house. He seemed really happy with this arrangement as he gets to enjoy the best of both worlds.
After a cold shower, I felt revived. My legs were exhausted but my spirit was high; breathing in fresh mountain air and hearing nothing but the sound of nature. I guess this was what the doctor prescribed.
Dinner was served out in the deck at the back of the house: organic jungle ferns and vegetables, free range chicken, and rice from Mr. Sagen’s paddy field. We were hungry and wolfed down everything that was put in front of us.
The last remaining sunlight disappeared and darkness descended on Semban. As there was no electricity, the village was gradually covered in the blanket of darkness. In the distance I heard a generator starting up, Mr. Sagen told me that his generator was broken and he hadn’t had the time to send it for repair. I reassured him that I rather enjoyed the darkness. He lit a few candles and some of us took out torch-light.
Mr. Sagen entertained us with tales from the jungle; scary stories that made my skin crawled. But I loved listening to them.
Mr. and Mrs. Sagen had retired to bed not too long after story telling. Their body clock is in tune with nature. For urban dwellers, it was almost impossible to comprehend going to bed ‘that’ early. But I was exhausted, and the quietness of the place drew me to dreamland. And I fell into a deep and restful sleep.
At 5am my alarm shrieked and I rose reluctantly from my slumber. We left the house at 5.30am and Mr. Sagen led us through pepper farms to the top of a hill overlooking the valley. My body was complaining about the strenuous exercise I assert on it, right after waking up and without breakfast.
We finally reached the top after about 20 minutes. Sitting there with the Bengoh Range creating a stadium-like setting, I felt like a spectator watching a show Mother Nature was putting out for us.
As the yellow glow peeped from behind the distant mountain, I could see a think ocean of white clouds, like grass on a football field, covering the valley below: the jungle, waterfalls and villages were hidden from sight. The breeze caressed the clouds causing it to stir ever so slightly that only still eyes could discern. The whole scene was pure tranquility, and I was drawn into a meditative mood.
Mr. Sagen made us hot drinks while our eyes drank in the spectacular view. I sat speechless with a cup of hot chocolate in my hand. I couldn’t believe that this view has always been here, right on my backyard and I’d never known about it until now.
I realised that I could appreciate it now because I’ve seen the outside world, a decade of traveling around the world has helped me to see the beauty that’s right in front of me. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. If we could only change our perspective, we would be amazed at the beauty that surrounds us.
—————– Part 2