The last planned activity we had in Taman Negara was to visit an indigenous tribe called Orang Asli. These people have been living and hunting in the forest for generations. This tribe is the only one still under federal protection and is the only group still allowed to hunt in the protected forest. We were looking forward to seeing their way of life!
We met again at Wan Floating Restaurant and prepared to head out. It was a beautiful and hot afternoon, the sun was shining, birds were singing and we were boarding a boat. After a short float upstream (5-7 minutes) on the Teresek River, we disembarked and began to climb a very steep sandy embankment. The tribe lived up this hill.
When we wandered in we saw small figures running around the compound and shy eyes peeking out from behind tattered curtains. The houses were small huts made from natural materials and there was brightly colored laundry hanging outside.
One thing that struck me was the amount of trash lying around. For a nomadic people, I didn’t expect to see so much waste! But we learned that the Orang Asli people understand very little about waste management or how it affects their environment.
We sat down under a canopy where our guide began to tell us about this tribe. “Orang Asli” literally means “original people” in Malay. These people are indigenous to the land and are thought to have been living in Taman Negara for around 8,000 years. This particular tribe was of the “Negrito” category which contains 6 different tribes. We visited the Bateq (pronounced Ba- took) tribe. We learned that these people (as well as each of the other 60 tribes) speak their own language and live off of the land. They hunt animals like monkeys and birds for food, and get water from a small stream rather than from the Teresek River. They tend to stay in one place until something like a death happens, at which point, the chief decides to leave and move on to another place.
Up until a few years ago, these people didn’t own clothes, but as they began allowing more tourists in to see their way of life, they began to assimilate (at least most of them have).
One interesting fact we learned is that once the children reach 10 years of age, they live in huts of their own with their peers. They are responsible for the construction of their homes and from this time on, they live with other children around their age. We were also warned that children learn how to use machetes and knives from a very young age and that we should not be alarmed if we saw kids carrying them around.
After being debriefed on the tribe, we were able to watch two demonstrations: the first one showed us how they make fire using rattan (a skinny but strong jungle vine), a specially carved piece of wood, and some kindling wrapped up in a leaf.
A very shy man came up to show us how to make fire. We later learned that he was the chief of this particular group. He carefully placed the rattan under the wood, lined up with ridges carved specifically for the rattan. He put his foot on top of the wood to hold it steady and then he began to pull the rattan back and forth speedily. It wasn’t long before we saw smoke begin to form. There was also another small hole in the wood which actually creates the embers. Then, he took the piece of wood to the kindling and brushed out the embers and gently blew on it. Soon we had a small fire! It was pretty cool to watch him! Trent also tried it out. It’s harder than it looks!
The chief of the tribe
The second thing we got to learn about was how they hunt. They use poison dart guns. The guns are fashioned out of three carefully sized bamboo pieces that fit together. The darts themselves are palm spikes dipped in the venomous sap from the Ipol tree, and the outer part of the dart was made from a resin called dammar. The people use a special leaf to buff it until it is smooth before being able to use it. They also have special cases that carry these darts when they are not in use.
The chief showed us how to use it, aiming at a target at the end of our tent. He was deadly accurate! Then we each got a turn to try. Trent went first and was much more successful than I was. He didn’t hit the bull’s eye, but he came pretty close! When it was my turn, I didn’t blow nearly hard enough. I didn’t realize how much air was needed to make it to the mark! Mine fell far short of the target… wah, wah, wah. It was cool to try anyways.
In the middle of this demonstration, a large, strangely masked bird appeared and literally walked through the middle of our group. I had never seen this kind of bird before. When we returned and researched it, we found out that it is called a “Crested Fireback.” It was a beautiful bird with such vivid feathers!
After the demonstrations, we interacted a little bit with the people, who were very shy. The kids were a bit suspicious and the adults kept to themselves. We did get to sneak in one photo with two very cute kids (two of the chief’s children) and wander around a bit more. I got to take lots of candid photos!
Cooking utensils used by the Orang Asli people
I have to say, this place and these kids reminded me so much of home where I taught Somali refugees for two years. These children made me nostalgic of the kids I taught and love back in San Antonio. All in all, it was a very cool experience and we enjoyed learning about the ways and lifestyles of these indigenous people!
Some of the Somali kids I worked with in San Antonio.