Village in the clouds – Semban

We chose to do the least touristy tour we could find, a 3 day 2 nighter staying in a Bidayuh (that’s a tribe) Kampung (village) of Semban, perched high in the Bungo mountain range just south of Kuching. According to the tour info “the remoteness and difficulty of the terrain has ensured that the village still maintains much of its traditional way of life. The village is known for its last remaining group of old women who still practice the wearing of brass coils on their arms and legs”. We were to be met at the start of the trail to the village by our village host/guide and stay with him like extended family. The tour was limited to 7 people. We were the first to book 2 days before but of course this being peak season there ended up being 7 of us. We had hoped that the ‘moderate to difficult trek’ involved to get to the village would put people off.

IMG_1859The night before we bought 2 big bags before our group briefing at the lodge of the tour company, then returned to our hostel and rationalised our rucksacks down to the bare minimum. Of course for us this still included full camera kits and full first aid kits etc. We also set aside a mozzie net, some repellant and a couple of items of clothes to send back to Dave while we were at it. We got our bags, including daysacks down to about 7kg (when we flew Miri to Kuching the big rucksacks alone weighed in at 15.7kg and 16.3kg (Emma is carrying more clothes than Marie)). The tour people were going to provide us with 3 litres of water for the trek and had told us that 1 litre = 1kg so we were going to be humping 10kg a piece. We thought we’d done well until everyone else rocked up with small bags, though some later turned out to be barely carrying clean undies and had to wear damp clothes because it is damp in the hills and everything is really slow to dry.

We left Kuching at 8:15am and after stopping briefly on the outskirts of the city for Laurence the tour guy to buy us some frozen chicken for dinner and noodles for lunch we arrived at the start of the trail to the village by the newly constructued Benogh Dam at 10:30. We had to pass through the dam security checkpoint to get there and it is still politically sensitive enough that we weren’t allowed to photograph the dam.

IMG_1862The access to Semban and other villages in the area will be cut off when the dam is activated and the valley flooded so the villages are being relocated. No one is quite sure when that will be, the longest prediction we heard was 2016. The dam has been built in a really narrow gorge so its span is small but it is incredibly deep. When filled the reservoir will fill the huge natural basin and swamp a massive area of jungle on such a scale that it is hard to imagine. We would like to return one day and see the vast change it will make to the landscape.

Tayra (our host and guide) met us at the trailhead with a porter to carry up our food provisions. Everything in the village is grown there, harvested from the jungle or carried up by hand, and the provisions ensured that we weren’t a burden on the village. Once he was loaded the porter was off and we didn’t see him again.

IMG_1876The trail to the village was a well worn footpath through the jungle with numerous hand-made bamboo bridges spanning rivers and streams. Measured on a straight line basis point to point the distance we were told was 12km. In reality the path went up and down, up and down, and then after another village a steep hike straight up. Whenever it is steep the villagers have have placed bamboo to make steps. We asked how many there are and weren’t prepared for the answer: 7,400! Luckily when we asked he thought we’d done about 6,000. The ascent between the start and the village was only 300m, but the ups followed by the downs probably added easily another 200m on.

Trekking through the full heat of the day (usually about 34 deg C) and with high humidity we had been advised by Laurence at the briefing to buy one of the many cheap souvenir t-shirts for sale in Kuching as on the trek we would ‘sweat more than we ever have in our lives’ and no matter how many times are t-shirts were laundered the next time we wore them and got warm the smell in the fibres would return. We’re sure he meant boy sweat as no girl can sweat that bad! Nevertheless Marie had bought one anyway. It was blue and she was worried that because it was cheap the dye would run and turn her into a blue smurf (it didn’t). We were lucky, there was cloud cover for our journey up and we were incredibly grateful for that!

Our group consisted of a young Brit who was a final year medical student (very handy we thought!), a South African born Australian coal miner and a German couple with their adult daughter. The German woman found it the hardest even though she was barely carrying anything except her water, but overall she only slowed us down a little. It took us 5 hours with a 1 hour stop for lunch. On the outskirts of the village we had stopped by Tayra’s ‘garden’ (farm) and he had talked us through his crops as he harvested some for our dinner.

IMG_1916It was tough, we did sweat more than we ever had before (and as a result the camera barely came out) but surprisingly it didn’t kill us. We were really happy when we
finally arrived though! We flopped on Tayra’s bamboo deck and while we absorbed our new surroundings Tayra’s wife Marina gave us all tea. When we had recovered we were shown our rooms. The tour guys have helped them to split their sleeping area into 3 small rooms for guests and built a separate room for them. Basically each was just wide enough to fit a double mattress on the floor, with a small space at the end of the mattress and a plenty of hooks in the walls. The plyboard dividing us from the German girl didn’t go all the way to the ceiling but was sufficient to provide privacy. We also shared a lightbulb with her. The village generator is switched on each night between 6:30pm and 10pm, but it turned out that our lightbulb didn’t work anyway, and the small window let in little light so it was dark in there most of the time. This was only challenging in making sure that we didn’t lose things. The 2 guys were in their own building just above us, higher up the hill. We nicknamed it the bachelor penthouse. Each bed had a mozzie net and Tayra said we were to use them and tuck them in well, not for the mozzies but because there were insects that sometimes crawled into your ears!

IMG_1937The tour guys had also helped them to build a guest bathroom at the back of the house. They’d kindly put in a western toilet but the shower was mandi style (that’s a big bucket or other container of water with what effectively is a plastic pan so that you can throw it over yourself. In hot climates that may sound bliss, but in practice its a nasty shock to your body and is a horrible thing to have to do to yourself). The big gap between the walls and the roof meant it was rather open air and only offered modest privacy.

We ‘showered’ then had free time to explore the village. There are about 90 houses in the village although many are empty as some villagers work away in the city. The population also fluctuates and we were given figures between 100-400 depending on who is home. There are no schools so the village children weekly board in larger villages that have schools. The secondary school kids have to do the same trek that we did every week. We didn’t stray far from the main part of the village in case we got lost. Snakes were not a concern as we’d been told that the villagers hate them and think they’re evil so if someone finds one big or small they hack it into little pieces. Marie was well pleased with that! Many of the village women were quite shy so didn’t talk but would smile at you if you smiled first. The men are more confident, maybe because they have been taught English and have had more opportunity to practice. We bumped into Marina’s brother who was very chatty and had really good English but was still difficult to understand as he was missing all of his front teeth on the top and bottom.

IMG_1988Dinner was served Bidayuh style, on the floor with several dishes to help ourselves to. The basic village shop (all items are portered up) had opened at 6pm when the owners had returned from the field and we’d all soon dived in for beer and coke, we felt like we’d earnt it! Tayra ate with us. We all sat and chatted until long after dinner, until eventually Tayra sent us to bed. It was only 9:30 but it was better we were in bed when the power went off at 10 and besides we were to get up at 5:30am to watch sunrise. If it was raining we’d get a lie in until breakfast at 8am.

In the night it poured with rain and woke us all up. Tayra woke us up at 5:30 and we got up promptly, dressed by torchlight and were first outside. It was still raining gently. Tayra must have heard us say its raining as he quickly dived out and checked the sky. “No stars” he said “sorry, sorry we don’t go,” “back to bed.” We wished we’d moved a bit slower. After the heavy rain the air had cooled down nicely and we’d been comatose when we’d got the wake up call. The coolness made it easy to go back to bed but unfortunately we all had to go back to sleep with the cockerels crowing in the background.

After getting up for the second time and breakfasting we hiked to a waterfall called Pua’an Shushung. Marina came too as we were having lunch there. We were mildly horrified to find the 1 hour walk to be downhill. It was a beautiful waterfall. Tayra started a fire the jungle way and had harvested some young bamboo to cook our chicken and rice lunch in over the fire. The rice was wrapped in leaves which when opened formed our plates.

IMG_2059You couldn’t get close to the waterfall without clambering over slippery rocks. The chance to swim in the pool at the bottom was included in the tour advertising so Tayra obviously felt obliged to ask if anyone wanted to swim, but he said the water was freezing and the rocks so slippery that often even he falls. We could tell he didn’t really like having to take people over them and risking injury to himself and his guests. Some people chose to do it, we opted not to. Freezing water was not appealing – we can do that at home anytime – and we had washed our trek clothes as soon as we’d arrived the day before and they still weren’t dry and we didn’t fancy having a second wet set to deal with. The people that did swim did so in the clothes they were wearing and had to walk back wet – yuck! That sounded like a recipe for making yourself sick to us. Instead we clambered over some big rocks in the river and sat in the sun admiring the waterfall.

When they returned lunch was ready. Rice is very precious to Bidayuh because it is so labour intensive to grow and harvest. We had been warned only to take what we could eat and not to leave a single grain. We were also to take great care not to drop any, particularly at the waterfall as this would upset the river spirit. As a result eating lunch was a slightly nerve racking experience.

IMG_2168The hike back to the village was not as bad as we’d feared it would be. We had free time again but no one felt like walking anywhere so after showering we all hung outside until dinner. Actually everyone was waiting for the shop to open for beer and coke again. We also had to buy some for the guests we were expecting after dinner – the only touristy bit of the tour was that on the second night Tayra invited some of the old women with brass coils to his house. We were to supply the party atmosphere (beer and coke) and in return they would teach us the Eagle Dance. A big storm started just before dinner and it poured down. Consequently only 2 old women and a guy that played a traditional instrument braved it out. It was fun, the old women were great. In between sets they drank beer and coke and chewed betel nuts. The Eagle Dance is slow but much harder than it looks. They seemed to enjoy watching us try and fail anyway. The brass coils are wrapped around their arms and legs when they are 12 and stay on for a lifetime (unless they get very sick). You can see by how the coils are how they have stopped the bone from growing. On their legs they have very little calf muscle and what they have seems to have grown below the coils. Tayra sent us to bed at 9:30 again as we were going to get up for sunrise attempt 2.

Up at 5:30am again. This time the sky was clear and nothing but stars. We hiked up past the bachelor penthouse and up the hill by torchlight, it was a short but steep climb. We stopped at the top of a pepper field where we had a clear view of the natural basin created by the mountains. The valley was covered in cloud, hence the nickname “village in the clouds.” A thin layer of cloud over the mountains meant we didn’t get a perfect yellow orb rising, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We sat and watched daybreak for the best part of an hour.

IMG_2262We returned, breakfasted and were heading off by 8:15am. With clear skies it was obvious it was going to be a hot sunny day. Luckily the dampness kept it cool for a while. With a couple of 5 minute rest stops it took us 4 hours. It was scorching at the trailhead. Tayra and Marina changed at the shop into modern clothes and caught a lift into Kuching with us. But first we took a detour as Tayra wanted to show us his new village (where Semban is being relocated to). With the dam finished construction has turned to the new villages. Tayra is excited about the move, when we asked and he said about 50% of the villagers wanted to move and 50% didn’t. The government relocation package is a new house and 3 acres of usable land each. We were shocked when we got there. The sealed road ended at a huge flat expanse of cleared jungle. House foundations are sticking out of the ground. Then Tayra explained that Semba is to go in one quarter and 3 other villages in the other quarters. There would be schools and shops and electricity 24/7, and of course what for them is basically drive on access. It is not hard for us to imagine what an impact the move will have on their way of life, nor is it hard to understand why some of the villagers are happy to move. Life will certainly be easier, but what of their traditional way of life will survive remains to be seen.

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