The Orang Asli People of Peninsular Malaysia

Welcome to my first post!

One of the elder & much respected orang-asli members of the Bateq tribe

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I had two different experiences of two very different orang-asli tribes whilst travelling around Malaysia. The first of which while I was volunteering in the rainforest in the centre of the peninsula, the nearest big town being Gua Musang. I was a conservation volunteer helping to set animal sensors up to catch images of endangered species such as sun bears, Asian elephants and wild boar. I also took part in jungle treks, led by a member of the Bateq tribe, to see if we could see any signs of poaching, logging & snares – which are all still huge problem in this part of the world.

I spent a few nights camping in the jungle with this tribe, they taught us how to cook meals in bamboo (not as easy as it sounds). They took us through the whole process of gathering the bamboo from the forest, washing it out, and cooking rice and vegetables inside leaves (I’m not sure which kind of leaves – but this tribe know exactly what they were doing so we just followed them). The thing that I noticed most whilst spending some amount of time with this tribe was their heightened sensory perceptions. I noticed them reacting to noises which I almost couldn’t hear, and they could see animals in the trees which a person from an urban environment would never notice.

The Bateq tribe speak their own language (Batek) as do many of the different tribes living around Malaysia. A lot of them can speak some Malay & depending on which tribe some can also speak a bit of English if they’ve been exposed to tourists. In this particular Bateq village some members from a group called Fuze Ecoteer hold optional English classes for the kids, this is to help in the future as they can interact with volunteers coming to their village which is also a source of income for them. The orang-asli population is around 150,000 and 80% of these people are below the national poverty line. This particular tribe are now semi-nomadic due to the government providing them with permanent huts to live in, but the majority of the Bateq still go into the jungle for days at a time to hunt there.

I did a bit of research about the orang-asli, they haven’t always lived in extreme poverty because about 50 years ago the rainforest was still abundant with everything they needed to survive from. However, deforestation started to happen so as to make room for palm-oil trees and other exports. Now some tribes are actually competing for resources with elephants, because so much of the forest has been taken away that the elephants needed to move to find more food. They are surviving off of the banana trees and other crops in villages that the orang asli live in. The elephants remember where to go to find the food and so it’s becoming an increasing problem for the orang-asli.

The government provide permanent infrastructure for these communities so they can access healthcare & schools, which in a way is great as they can learn about important matters such as personal hygiene etc. On the other hand, because they’ve moved the villages to certain areas, resources are not as abundant and overcrowding is becoming an issue. Some of the elder members of these villages feel it might have been better for them had they just been left alone.

My experience with the Bateq tribe was unforgettable, waking up in a campsite in the middle of the jungle to the sounds of all sorts of wildlife and the elder members of the tribe laughing and joking with eachother was an amazing experience and one in which most people will never encounter. The skills they have are unmatchable, overnight it rained so much that we were trapped at one side of a very deep and fast flowing river, and the two 80+ year old women were carrying almost all of the equipment across and laughing at my friend and I (both in our 20s) because we were struggling so much to keep up with them!

The second experience I had living in an orang-asli village (Peretak village) was about 1 hour away from Kuala Lumpur, near a small town called Kuala Kubu Bharu. The Temuan tribe live here in permanent government housing near the . I was volunteering in a small guesthouse which a man called Antares had built, he is Malay and married to a woman from the Temuan tribe called Anoora. These houses were much bigger than the houses the other tribe had, which I later found out was because this tribe had been relocated due to a huge dam the government had built to reduce flooding in the area. Their original village is now under the water. I didn’t interact as much with this tribe but I think some of them seemed to have jobs in the local town. They also make a bit of income from charging tourists 1 ringgit to go down to the river.

Some of this tribe still go into the jungle to hunt for resources, and they do all of their washing down by the river which is a really interesting thing to see happening. I loved how relaxed everybody in the village seems and how friendly everyone was. I noticed that some of them were wearing headscarves and found it quite unusual, so I asked Antares why this was the case. In Malaysia, the government actually give Muslim men 10,000 ringgit if they marry a member of the orang-asli. Which then obviously means the woman becomes Muslim by marriage. I know to be legally classed as “Malay” you need to follow Islam but not fully aware of the ins and outs of why this deal exists.

Peretak village was a magical place and I would recommend anybody who needs to recharge their batteries to go and stay at Fusion Longhouse. You will meet the most interesting and entertaining character ever (Antares), he is open to talking about anything and definitely has a lot of jokes and wisdom to share with you! I left after 2 weeks and wish I could have stayed longer, I most certainly will be back there in the future.

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