Temenggor Dam ~ Temenggor, Perak Malaysia


Field of Mirrors

Ever heard of the Temiar or the Jahai? Or perhaps on a more familiar note - the Senoi or the Negritos?

These are names; names of tribes we call ‘the Orang Asli’. There are 18 Orang Asli or indigenous tribes in Peninsular Malaysia. Many of the tribes prefer to live by lakes where they reap the profits. In Tasik Bera lives the Semelai, in Tasik Chini lives the Jakun and here at Tasik Temenggor are two tribes : one called the Jahai, the main sub-ethnic group of the Negrito; and the other called the Temiar which forms the main group of the Senoi. But the difference is that the Orang Asli people living in Temenggor lake didn’t used to live by a lake for there wasn’t a lake during the time of their forefathers. Not until 1975, when the construction of Temenggor’s Hydro Electric Dam began. Temenggor was in fact, a pristine valley where Orang Asli peoples roamed and lived.

Despite occasional sabotage acts by the Communist Party of Malaya(CPM), the project went ahead and was finally completed in 1977. Within a year of completion, the entire valley was flooded, creating an 18,000hectare pool of water measuring 80km long, 5km wide with a depth of 124metres (at its deepest). The loggers who were retained to work on the areas were taken by surprise by the unexpected rise in water level after the dam was completed. Their equipment is still sitting, idling at the bottom of the lake.

Not only are there logging equipment found at the bottom of the lake but also an entire village called Kampong Temenggor, Padang Cermin (Field of Mirrors) - what used to be a training ground for the anti-Japanese resistance Force 136; and also the Orang Asli’s ancestral grounds.

The villagers totalling 400 were airlifted from the village and relocated to a government-built village by the edge of the lake. No rescue attempts were made to save the stranded animals because of the threat of communist attacks then.

The flooding eventually created 80 islands from the 80 hills that used to make up the landscape of Temenggor valley. The many tributaries bring cool fresh water down from the surrounding highlands and also acts as nurseries for the lakes abundant fish stock.

Dream Therapy

About 5,600 Orang Asli live at Temenggor, made up of the Temiar, the Jahai and the Kinchu tribes.

The Jahai tribe is a sub-group of the Negrito. They are generally shorter, darker skinned and have very tightly curled hair. They lead a semi-nomadic life, engaging in a little bit of hunting, a little bit of gathering, a little bit of fishing and a little bit of cultivation. The forefathers of the Jahai were nomadic people and they lived on lands until the food in the area has been exhausted whence they moved again. Today, many of the Jahai people live in settlements provided to them by the government but there remain a few families who have retained their own villages outside of the settlements.

The Temiar tribe is the other major Orang Asli population residing in Temenggor. H.D.Noone, the first anthropologist to study the Temiars, described them as the ‘happy people’. Also known previously as the Northern Sakai, the Temiar communities were often raided by foreigners. Until as recent as the 1930’s these foreigners captured and sold the Temiar to the slave trade. As a result the Temiar remains to this day - incredibly shy, with a general mistrust of strangers.

These gentle folk have no written script and speak a Mon-Khmer language called Temiar. They live in extended social structures and share their catch as well as their money, clothing and other items. In the Temiar language, there isn’t a word for “to marry”. The old ways of the Temiars did not warrant couples to marry and the practice of polygamy was widely accepted. But as times are changing and influences of other religions come into play, the Temiars now live in individual huts rather than in the longhouses that used to serve their ancestors. However, the tribe maintain the same building structures as their ancestors have taught them.

Many Temiars have converted to the Muslim faith but there are others who practice their animistic ways. They remain strong believers of their ‘religion of psychotherapy’ - also called the ‘Senoi Dream Therapy’. The Temiar individual believes that dreams are a mythical experience in which the person’s soul wanders about the forest in search of guidance. In other words, they communicate with their spirit guides through dreams. Even their dances and songs are dream-inspired. Religious ceremonies for the Temiar often concentrate on performances by spirit mediums at night and it involves an intoxicating performance of choral singing, dancing (bersewang) and trances. It has been mentioned that the women’s choral singing is rendered as one of the finest native choral music in South East Asia!

The basis of the Orang asli’s survival is to maintain the mutual respect they have for their environment as have their fathers and the fathers before them. They ask for little and are contented with living at the fringes of their jungle. But their future may be in jeopardy for there are plans to assimilate them into a show-and-tell performance agenda for future ‘eco-tourists’. There is a danger that one day soon, if not professionally managed, these admirable tribesmen and women will be reduced to showpieces like what the North Americans once did to the heroic ‘Geronimo’ and the Indians.

A day’s trip to the Sira

We stayed at Banding Island Resort (now known as Belum Rainforest Resort) on the first night after arriving late in the evening in time for a beautiful fiery sunset over the lake. It took us roughly 5 1/2 hours (and 300km) on a leisurely drive from Kuala Lumpur to Banding Island and through some of the most scenic roads in the Peninsular. Perhaps one of the main reasons that the area has retained its natural state, is because of the CPM.

From 1948 until 1989, the entire forest of Belum and Temenggor was considered a ‘black area’ and was placed under a State of Emergency. The communist party of Malaya (CPM) were extremely active in the area. According to sources, the East-West Highway was proposed by an army general who believed that with a road cutting through the area would hamper the communists’ movements. So if we were to drive through the area in those days, there would be a 6.00pm to 6.00am curfew on travellers using the road. To be stranded between those times along the highway meant that the traveller would be on his own...no locals would dare enter the area after dusk. During the early years, this road was constantly under threat of being bombed and sabotaged by renegades. But since the signing of the Haadyai Accord in 1989, all that has subsided and peace reigns over the area now. (except for the marching loggers and the rowdy eco-tourists!).

The forest canopy reflects a spectrum of autumn colours, tightly knitted into the blue horizon like a lovely, cosy, warm cardigan. The beauty of undisrupted forest cover is indescribable. The warmth and the voice of the rainforest beckons the unsuspecting to venture into the heart of Mother Nature’s creation. Standing at one with the forest at Temenggor, it is unimaginable ……. we are stepping into a geological prehistory. The ancient limestone hills are dated at 220million years old. Some of the limestone islands at the southern reaches of the lake were once majestic rock cliffs dating back to 400 million years ago….before the Jurassic era which stands only at 22million years ago. These are said to be among the oldest outcrops in Malaysia.

Armed with such rich information about the wonders of the rainforest, we headed off for a day’s trip to scour and explore the area. The one day trip with 2 guides and a boat ride can cost some RM140 to RM210, depending on the distance from the take off-point and back. We hopped onto a speed boat and was whisked away. Skimming over glassy clear water,shooting pass numerous islets along the way.

Upon hearing the wrrrrr of the boat’s engine, Orang Asli children came running to the edge of their little island, frantically waving at us with smiles stretching from ear to ear. We waved back, watching their tiny little faces dissolve into the horizon as our boat bounded ahead - deeper into the upper reaches of the lake’s tributary.

There were many little islands occupied by small groups of Orang Asli and we soon learnt that the other unoccupied islands are for sale. That piqued our interest, for wouldn’t it be a dream come true to own an island….one that you can call HOME? The dream bubbles above our heads soon popped upon hearing the words of warning from our guide,’ But the only problem is that the islands disappear during the rainy season, when the water rises.' Now, wouldn't that be just our luck!

The wind in our hair soon sent those thoughts far away from our minds. Along the way, there were floating barges manned by Thai workers. They were apparently underwater loggers. Armed with just a chainsaw and a breathing hose, they dive as deep as 100feet to harvest the large logs from the bottom of the lake. These men really make a living out of risking their lives.

underwater logging

45minutes into the boat ride, we arrived at Kampung Chiong where we registered ourselves before the trek. It is mandatory for trekkers to register at the post - in case any unfortunate incidents should occur, the authorities are able to trek us. (or identify us!)

Our objective for the day’s trek was to make it to the Sira or the natural Salt Lick.

Now, armed with rich knowledge of the forest after the briefing and the reading - one would believe that it would be a totally enriching experience, right? For many that would be true….but why was it that no one told us about the lee….eeeeeek…ches?! It takes a little while to accustom to the fact that we were no longer in the domain of our little creature comforts and that this is now the domain of creatures’ comfort!

We trekked through brooks that flowed sparkling clear crisp cold water, collected and funnelled down from the surrounding limestone hills. Cupping to our lips, we tasted water for the first time. So sublime it soothed our parched throats like sweet honey from the heavens. Agua de beber!

We were going through the motion as if for the first time. Even the ubiquitous leeches gave us a reason to believe that with such a population of blood-suckers out here, there certainly should be as many hosts too. In most cases, that is true…leeches only survive where there is an abundance of food. Then it dawned on us…there may be quite a few pairs of eyes squinting back at us through the veil of lianas not too far away. A disgruntled sound from a close distance confirmed that we really were being spied on. But it was only a wandering wild boar. Only!

We arrived at the salt lick 1½ hours later. Salt licks are natural salt and mineral pans found in the forests. Animals especially herbivores and sometimes omnivores, visit the salt licks for their daily or weekly supply of mineral supplements of which they lack in their daily diet of vegetation. These areas are extremely important for the well being of the wild animals that live there. Unfortunately, poachers have also found these spots rather fruitful too. Salt licks are usually covered with all types of animal tracks. The Sambar Deers, the Kijang, Tapirs, Elephants, wild boars, the Sumatran Rhino, Seladang or the Malayan Gaur - come down to the licks, usually under the cover of the darkness.

At this particular salt lick, we found elephant tracks crossing everywhere and elephant dung practically lined the path. The guides taught us that if water left in the deep indentation of the elephant print was murky, that meant that the animal had just left the area, if the puddle was clear - that meant that the tracks were probably a couple of days old. The size of the elephant tracks can also tell us the age of the elephant and by examining the tracks and dung found along the trail to and fro the salt lick one can determine the size of the group. The animals also smear mud onto their bodies to clear themselves of parasites and sometimes to seal open wounds from infection and contamination. The male elephants often shovel mud onto their bodies with their tusks. As they leave the area, they smear the mud onto surrounding tree trunks to rid themselves of the boar ticks and also as territorial marking. Males often urinate and defecate around the salt lick area to mark out their territories.

After a good educational tour around the area, we headed off to the river for a cool dip. On the way back to our little boat, we bumped into a couple of orang asli. They were having a simple lunch of fruits and even with so little they had with them, they readily offered us their share.

The trip had been a long anticipated one and although we were a little disappointed that we hadn’t chanced upon any of the wildlife who left a great many clues of their existence all along the way but it had been a great trip …if nothing else, it was a trip of learning, experience and of sharing. Click for more on the Belum rainforest

Update on the Place

The penghulu or head of the Jah Hai settlement. Modernities have crept into the lives of these simple folk. Shy of their nakedness, they have now opted for hand-me-down clothes.

The trip back to Temenggor should have brought much memory flooding back to the good times we spent 2 years ago at the lake. Things change in the tropics as quickly as seasons change in cold temperates.

For many years now, the million year old forest of Belum have been fighting against the mighty force of change. Of the fierce roars of bulldozers that force down its trees and frightening away its inhabitants, displacing them from their natural environment. Some adapt. And for those who don't, they are perilously left to the hands of merciless fate. In the meantime, truckloads of logged timber make their journey along the quiet winding highway that cuts through the forest.

Already parts of the forest have been converted into plains. We were told that some of these areas are actually very close to the village of the Orang Temiar at Sungai Chiong. Pollution has laid its damaging route all the way to the lake. "Kalau mandi air tasik, nanti habis badan gatal", an Orang Temiar complains to us that she has to use only the water from an unaffected river, because her body gets all itchy if she washes up in the lake.

A fairly common occurrence amongst the Orang Asli is to make a trek through the jungle into the border of Kelantan, going all the way to Gua Musang. Many Orang Asli still prefer to take the jungle route, trekking up and down the hills through the lush jungle, and stopping by the river to drink, or wash, or even for a short invigorating plunge in the cool clear water. Early last year, the experience was quite the opposite. One village elder who went on the trek laments that they were walking mostly on logging tracks which used to be deep virgin forests not too long ago. No more canopy to shelter them from the harsh sun, and they could no longer use the now brown river as a dependable source of water.

And recently, there are talks amongst the locals about more logging concessions to tap the resources found in the vast areas of the Lower Belum Valley.

The good news is that all these activities have not seem to affect the elephant population in Belum. Some say there is a herd of 15. Apparently there is a lone male who have not quite been accepted by the herd. It is his bad temperament, we were told. The Orang Asli gave out a helpless sigh when we mentioned the word elephant. The elephants have the happy habit of entering into the Orang Asli plantation helping themselves to the greens there. That might not be a good sign at all because that might mean that there isn't enough food elsewhere. But then again, it could also mean that the Orang Asli plantation has encroached into the elephant's path. We were thrilled to see 4 wild elephants while we were there. 2 big ones and 2 round young ones. Being the dry season, these gentle creatures descended to the lake and stayed close to the water source.

We are also delighted that we had a near encounter with a tiger. We were trekking and some members of the group smelt the scent of a wild beast. Our guide later confirmed that it was a tiger. We had to cut the trek short, but it was worth the sacrifice. We wonder how many more of them still roam the jungles.

The Orang Asli are still there, the Orang Temiar and the Orang Jahai. Like the jungle, they too, have seen and made many changes. The Temiars have relocated their village three times within a period of five years. And the Orang Jahai have decided that they will start cultivating their land; however, not now. Later perhaps.

Technology is not something unfamiliar to the Orang Asli these days. Solar power plates propped up by poles stand upright by their homes. There are altogether three television sets in the small community of the Orang Jahai. It is really hard to gauge how much of this development they are grasping. They have simply leap-frogged several (generations) stages of development, right from tree bark to plastic. Can they psychologically manage this change?

While tapioca still remains to be their staple diet, they have learnt to make tea and have developed new tastes for other food that not long ago was foreign to them. In fact a young man from the Jahai tribe contended that all this new food has made his body weak. " Dah rasa gula. Dah rasa beras. Badan pun dah lemah." Rice and sugar seems to have taken the hunter gatherer out of him.

The lure of modernity is strong, and it is not hard for them to be enticed by its pleasures. While some Orang Asli have successfully found themselves quite comfortable with the modern way of life, a lot of them are still struggling between wanting to be modern and having the heart (and soul) to be modern. Men, both young and old, have found jobs in towns, but more often than not they cannot stay long in employment. A village headman told us with despair written on his face that all his attempts to work resulted in failure "9 to 5 just does not suit me." And the same goes to many others who cannot cope with the stress.

The best thing must be to return to the jungle then? Perhaps, because that is what a lot of them do. But when they return home, they find themselves in more of a situation, because there is no work there! In the end, they find work with logging companies around the area. It seems like a cruel turn of events, because aren't they working towards destroying their jungle, their home? This is a place so sacred to them, and a place they respect as their ancestral hunting grounds. Would working with loggers be a long term solution that would in the end benefit them?

The Orang Asli have learnt to receive visitors into their villages. They are quite quick to hand their visitors book for us to sign our names in, but whether or not they are happy to have strangers coming into their homes is not within our knowledge. This is after all their home, and they are not there to be on display. While they give us the obliging bashful attention, we should show a higher respect to them for letting us intrude into their private space.

Perhaps, we should not even be going into their homes. But, that is what we seem to be doing to them. Entering in to their lives and showing them new technology, and telling them that this is a much better life. But really, is a better life good for them? The Orang Asli are unique. They have developed a lifestyle which have suited them for centuries. And they like this lifestyle, and would love to continue to live this way. It is fair to say that they do like some aspects of the new world. And if they choose our life, can they still continue living their life, and yet have the best of both worlds? What would be good for them is that the modernity that they choose (as opposed to one obliged or impressed upon them) would work to their advantage, and not against them.

There is a small number of the Orang Asli who have found their own answer to this. We were told that there are small pockets of tiny communities of the Orang Asli in the deep jungles of Belum who denounce modernity. They are very happy with their chosen isolation from the outside world. And bravo to them!

Having said all this, there is one poignant moment that put a smile on our faces. We were walking towards an open space, and found a whole group of women, just doing nothing. There they were contentedly squatting around on the hot orange earth. Nearly all women had a child on their laps. Just like their mothers, and their mothers before them. In this picture, the only thing that is missing are the loin-clothes. And that would not make a difference at all. Because something tells us that in their minds they wear it on them all the time.

best time to go

Try to avoid the rainy season as it may get a bit too challenging to trek. The wetter months are May-October, although we get rain all year round.

getting there

By car

From Kuala Lumpur, take the north-south highway and head north towards Ipoh. Passing Ipoh, take the Kuala Kangsar exit, and head towards Gerik. Take route 4, which is the east-west highway. This will take you to Pulau Banding. Journey from KL is about 5 ½ hours. Entrance to Belum Rainforest is best arranged with resort owners in the area, as arranging with State Forestry Department or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks can be a little trying.

By bus

You could catch a coach from KL to Gerik and from there take a taxi to Banding. check out the gerik coaches.

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