JERANTUT, March 16 — Besides its dense 130 million-year-old virgin rainforest, Taman Negara’s Orang Asli community is also a unique attraction for visitors to the park.
These indigenous people belong to the Batek tribe — a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers — and they are a shy lot, as this writer found out during a recent visit to the national park by media members and tour operators, organised by Han Rainforest Resort in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia.
Arrangements were made for us to visit the biggest Batek settlement, Kampung Orang Asli Dedari, in Taman Negara, which is located close to Sungai Tembeling and only accessible via boat from Kuala Tahan.
About 10 families live there and the minute our group arrived, the children and women scampered off into their huts, which are made of branches, rattan and bamboo.
They were obviously bashful about meeting outsiders but, fortunately, their “Tok Batin” or headman, who only identified himself as Sena, was more friendly as he is probably used to meeting tourists.
Taman Negara is home to an estimated 1,000 members of the Batek tribe, and while some of them have settled in permanent communities, others still move from one temporary dwelling place to another, mostly located not far from their “lifeline”, Sungai Tembeling.
For their food supply, the Batek are largely dependent on forest produce, such as fruits, yams and small animals like monkeys and squirrels which are hunted with a blowpipe.
Forest, their ‘supermarket’
Like his fellow Batek, Sena, 48, is dark-skinned and short in stature and has a round face and thick curly hair. None of the children at his settlement attend school and they spend their days helping their parents to hunt, fish and pluck fruits.
The Batek have their own language but, explained Sena, the village headman had to be someone who could converse in Malay and have the ability to identify and collect useful herbs from the forest.
He said his community preferred to lead a simple and peaceful life, where the men go hunting and fishing while the womenfolk cook and look after the children.
He said their daily sustenance included shoots and herbs like ‘umbut’ and ‘bayas’, and tubers like ‘ubi takup’ and ‘ubi keluna’.
“On some days, we only eat rice and we find this delicious too... we’re poor and we only get to earn some money on and off,” said the father of nine, who has been the Tok Batin for 16 years.
He said ever since tourists started stopping by at his village a few years back, he and his fellow villagers have been able to earn a small income by demonstrating how to make a fire without the use of matches and how to use a blowpipe. The women make bangles and necklaces out of rattan and bamboo for sale to tourists.
“Sometimes we make about RM200, which can last us for two months,” said Sena, adding that the money was used for welfare purposes or to buy rice and meat.
He also complained that his people were often cheated by traders whenever they went to the nearest town by boat to buy rice or other foodstuffs.
“When they give a RM100 note for a bag of rice, they (shopkeepers) don’t return their change to them. They are taking advantage of us because we don’t know how to count.”
The Batek are animists and do not subscribe to any organised religious beliefs. As far as they are concerned the rivers and forests are animated by spirits, for which they have great respect.
According to Sena, their households have two stoves — one for cooking the meat of animals hunted from the forest and the other for preparing meat purchased at the market.
“It’s our belief that we would be struck by heavy rain and thunderstorm if we use the same stove to cook both kinds of meat,” he said.
The Batek do not believe in having elaborate celebrations for weddings or other functions. Dam, 43, who also lives in Kampung Orang Asli Dedari, said an unmarried man was considered ready for marriage if he could prove that he was a good huntsman. Each young man is given a blowpipe and after each successful hunt, the headman carves a line on it.
“If a man has many lines carved on his blowpipe, then it’s proof that he is ready to get married and have children,” said Dam, who has four children.
And, before a couple tied the knot, they would have to spend a night together in a house, he said, adding this was a “test” and that if one of them was not in the house the next morning, the marriage would be called off.
“We want to test their love for each other,” he said, adding that the Batek men and women were very loyal to their spouses and would not remarry if their partner died.
As for funeral rites, Dam said the body was neither buried nor cremated but left inside a shelter which is then placed on top of a tree, about 40 metres above the ground, deep in the jungle.
“After some years, we will return to the place to see if the skeletal remains are in the shelter or have fallen to the ground. If they have fallen, then the departed person had committed a lot of sins,” he explained. — Bernama