A week with the Lun Bawang people 1/4
In the week before Merdeka, I made a trip to the Long Semadoh area in Sarawak which is made up of 11 villages. I had been putting off this trip for quite awhile. My purpose was simply to discover what Merdeka meant to the people in remote villages in Sarawak. The conclusion was much different from what I had anticipated.
The trip was made possible by my friend, Sia Bee Keng who is a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, and her husband, Dr Francis Lisa Muga. Francis is from the Lun Bawang tribe. They were making a visit to his home village of Long Semadoh Naseb in the 5th district of Sarawak. I was most fortunate to be allowed to tag along as he would know of all the interesting places to visit. I was also counting on meeting the villagers and sharing a few meals with them.
The trip started out with our arrival at Kota Kinabalu airport. Long Semadoh is closer to Kota Kinabalu rather than the state capital, Kuching. Another option is to fly into Lawas and hire a 4WD for the 3 hour drive to Long Semadoh. We were picked up by Francis’s brother-in-law, Stanley Sedulamit who is also Lun Bawang in his 4WD.
The village of Long Semadoh Naseb takes almost a full day to get to. From Kota Kinabalu, Stanley drove us to Lawas which is about 3 hours away. So far so good as the road is fairly good and is part of the Pan Borneo highway.
We stayed the night in Lawas before the final leg of our journey to Long Semadoh. During the ride to Lawas from Kota Kinabalu, we stopped at Beaufort where time seemed to have stood still. While we were there, I came across a snooker hall and imagined spending a whole day there listening to stories of the patrons. Sadly, I did not have time but there was such a beautiful light bouncing off the wooden walls and floor.
Lawas was developed in the early 1900s and Dr Francis mentioned how the town was like when he was a young boy. We managed to visit a Chinese village while we were in Lawas. It seemed time had stood still with an old car from the 70s apparently still working. Although the shop fronts were narrow, it was deceiving as the shop extended a long way back. That’s how it used to be with the old shops with the place of business at the front and living quarters at the back.
Francis recounted how as a young boy, it took days to hike from Long Semadoh Naseb to Lawas. I asked him about how he slept every night and he said that it was never a problem as it is customary for villagers to offer a place to sleep. Even today, the sense of hospitality comes naturally to the villagers.
The next morning, we all piled into Stanley’s 4WD and we were on her way to Long Semadoh Naseb, the village Francis grew up in. I observed that the road was in pretty good condition but obviously spoke too soon as the paved road soon turned into a pothole filled ride up the mountain.
From Lawas, it takes 3 hours by 4WD to get to Long Semadoh Naseb. The road was built by army engineers and used to double up as a logging track. The road is rather bumpy and filled with potholes big enough to swallow Perodua Kancils whole. I’m exaggerating of course but the drive there is definitely tiring. Apart from my cameras, the most used item was the neck pillow I had brought. The neck pillow made the ride that much more bearable. It is not possible for an ordinary car to make the trip to Long Semadoh. Those in glorified 4WDs like SUVs can forget about driving there too. You can hire a 4WD to take you to Long Semadoh or any of the outlying villages from Lawas. Out here, there are no buses going up to the mountains.
Along the way, we passed some villages and made a stop at the Tagang Project in the village of Long Lidung, Lawas. The view on the narrow road leading up to the first house on the hill was absolutely breathtaking. From there, we could see another house at the top of the hill and on both sides, rolling hills. Raut Kading, who manages the facility showed us how to feed fish by hand at the river that runs through the facility. There is something about clean air making the heat more bearable. I could feel the temperature dropping the closer we got to Long Semadoh.
The drive although tough was interesting with views of paddy fields and the valley below. Along the way, we also come across large pipes which were used to pipe gas. Stanley would make stops along the way so that I could get out of the car and take in a view of the valley below with its beautiful houses. It could have been a scene from the Swiss Alps. Indeed, I am not the first to have gotten this impression as a number of writers have described the area as being reminiscent of the Swiss Alps especially with how some of the houses were designed.
We were greeted upon our arrival at Long Semadoh Naseb by a wooden signboard indicating Long Semadoh Naseb, Bakelalan and Lawas. My first impression of Long Semadoh was that of peace and quiet. The combination of fresh air and cool weather makes this place so easy on the mind.
The village of Long Semadoh has electricity 24 hours a day due to a project by Sarawak Power Berhad to install a hybrid solar power station. Until 3 years ago, electricity was only available at night when the diesel generators were switched on. However, there are still no phone lines or internet access. This has to be sorted out if the villagers hope to attract more visitors to their community. Planes used to fly into Long Semadoh up till 10 years ago. However, the lack of an airport here should not be a hindrance to tourism as visitors can fly into either Lawas, Ba’ Kalalan or Bario airport and catch a 4WD to the village.
The people here are very particular about how Ba’ Kalalan is spelt as the apostrophe after the word ‘Ba’ emphasizes the name of the village correctly. The signboard outside the village did not reflect it though.
Most of the villagers living in the area are of the Lun Bawang tribe. They were originally known as the Murut people. These people are indigenous to the highlands of North Kalimantan, the Temburong District in Brunei, southwest of Sabah and the northern region of Sarawak (Limbang Divison). They also go by the names of Lundayeh or Lun Daye in Sabah and the Krayan highlands in Kalimantan. Alternative names include Lun Lod, Lun Baa’ and Lun Tana Luun.
A popular export from the region is Bario rice which sold at a premium in Peninsular Malaysia. The Lun Bawang people also rear animals like poultry, pigs and buffaloes. Hunting for wild boar is also a popular activity. During the week I was there, I must have had wild boar meat every day.
Long Semadoh is located right next to a tract of rainforest that is untouched by the logging companies. The villagers are proud of this fact. Some of them were involved in a recent trek organised for journalists between Ba’ Kalalan and Bario. It was organised by Forum Masyarakat Adat Dataran Tinggi ( FORMADAT, a grassroots initiative comprising communities from Bario, Ba’ Kelalan, Long Semadoh and Ulu Padas in Malaysia, as well as Krayan and Krayan Selatan in Kalimantan). Ba’ Kalalan and Bario are the two villages most tourists know about and there is a flight into Ba’ Kalalan 3 times a week. However, the villagers are keen to put Long Semadoh on the tourist map too.