Friday, 16 November 2012

Up Close with The Orang Asli

I experienced my first real encounter with the Orang Asli (indigenous people) community sometime end of June this year. Peninsula Malaysia has three main Orang Asli ethnics. They are Negrito (commonly found in the northern states), Melayu Proto (found in the southern states) and Senoi (found in the central part of the peninsula). I was with two friends looking for new off-roaders campsites when we passed by their village, known as Pos Bersih in Ulu Slim in the state of Perak, some two hour drive from the Kuala Lumpur city centre. The Orang asli we met are of the Semai tribe, a sub-ethnic of the Senoi, which is also the largest ethnic of the three.

Approaching the village, I could see several motorcycles over-laden with petai (bitter bean-Parkia speciosa) coming in and out of the village. Apparently, it could very well be a bountiful petai season now, judging from the abundance of the produce. The village of about 120 houses has a primary school and electricity supply provided by the government. There are also quite a number of single storey uniformed brick houses built in the village. We were later told that they were part of the Rural Ministry’s programmes to build free livable houses for the hardcore poor of the state as well as in other states in Malaysia. Nevertheless the sight of the craftily built traditional Semai huts on stilts are still predominant in the village. Using renewable natural materials including timber and bamboo, the dwellings are often built without using nails while the roofs are made of rumbia (sago palm). Pre-cut holes and grooves are used to fit the timber elements into one another, effectively making it a ‘prefabricated house’.  Pos Bersih definitely lives up to its name. ‘Bersih’ in Malay language means ‘clean’ and it was well reflected in the surrounding areas of the whole village.

The Semai community in Pos Bersih are mostly animist, some profess Christianity while only three families profess Islam. However they are still gripped by their old beliefs of witchcrafts. I was invited by Sani, a middle-aged village headman or ‘Tok Batin’ to come again later in December, as they will be celebrating their annual festival of ‘Genggulang’ which is a festive ritual to appease land spirits for a good harvest and is still observed in many places where the people worship the rice spirit. In this ritual, the spirits are offered sacrificial chickens, flowers, and unhusked rice. Now, the festival has lost much of its religious meaning. It has become more of a cultural event similar to the way the Chinese celebrate Lunar New Year or the Westerners celebrate Christmas. The Semais love to dance and it is in occasions like this that they will perform their cultural dance or ‘Mondek’ from late evening till the wee hours of the morning.

Budin and his newly wed wife.

The river Slim which flows near the village serves as the main water supply to the villagers. The scenic river with its crystal clear water is full of activities in the early morning and dawn with all the villagers bathing and doing their laundry by the river. Interestingly, it is also from this particular river that the district got its name ‘Slim River’.

The Petai that Budin sells. 
We also met Budin and his wife, a newly wed couple of three months who stay in one of the traditional dwellings. His earns his living by selling forest produce like rattan and petai. Budin seemed to be quite content with his life, saying that he enjoys the slow and laid back lifestyle of the Semais. After having a brief chat with Budin over a cigarette, we decided to make our move to our next destination. As a gesture of goodwill, I bought two bunches of petai from Budin at a discounted price before we leave Pos Bersih.

Traditional Semai dwellings still an inviting sight.


  1. gambar kasi lebar dia sama lebar dengan paragraph... baru cun sikit..

  2. What makes them want to remain living like that? Do you know?

    1. I am not so sure myself but according to a friend of mine who works at the Orang Asli Development Department, they are just so used to being the way they are, enjoying the slow-paced life and close to nature, just like their forefathers used to be.


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