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From Kelantan to Borneo Highlands

By June 17, 2020 August 16th, 2020 No Comments

From Kelantan to Borneo Highlands

Published on November 30, 2017 | by erikawithak.me
Crossing a traditional bamboo bridge to a farm hut.
Best of luck for the exams!
Pencils for a young student.
Crossing a traditional bamboo bridge to a farm hut.

Sixty years is a long time, but I believe in the philosophy that it’s better late that never. So despite the physical distance between the East and West, I finally caught up with my primary school classmate from Kota Baru

It was meeting of people from two cultures — from a traditional Islamic State in the East Coast of Malaya and the predominantly native-based Sarawak.

My classmate Mustak Shaik, 69, is the son of founder of the famous Kelantan Match Factory, Dato A.G. Shaik from Gujerat in India who made Kelantan his home in the early 1900s.

Leader of the Malaysian Indian Association of Kelantan, Shaik established the match manufacturing company in 1933 and went on to produce millions of boxes of matches. Later his son Mustak was picked to helm the business.

But 50 years later when the era of the disposable lighter affected the match box trade, Mustak moved onto greener pastures and do social work to uplift the economy and life of his place of birth, Kota Bharu.

In 1959, two years after Malaya’s independence, Mustak and I were nine-year-old students of Sultan Ismail Primary School in the Kelantan capital.

My father Dato’ Sri John George Ritchie had been sent by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to the Islamic-based East Coast State to bridge the gap between Kelantanese and the Federal authorities.

Even though my father’s short stint in Kelantan ended when he was sent to the Tunku’s home state Kedah as Chief Police Officer in 1960, the bond between Mustak and I remained intact.

Finally after six decades I managed to convince Mustak to visit Sarawak for the first time ever. It was an eye opener for Mustak.

Born on June 25, a day before my birthday, I introduced him to a renowned and exemplary State comprising a truly multi-racial Malaysian community.

During his weekly-long stay, Mustak who has lived among Malaysian hard-core members of Party Islam (PAS) found it “refeshing” meeting a different breed!

It felt “strange” to sit among people of different races and religions, having an evening in an open-air market where the Malays, Dayaks and Chinese bunched together.

Mustak quipped, tongue-in-cheek: “Our religious people would be appalled that Muslims and non-Muslims would sit together as if they are family”.

Mustak checks out a traditional Bidayuh bamboo drying stage.
Meeting an old ‘Simbug’ (grandmother).
Kampung Assom — a village in a valley.

Mustak wanted to see for himself and meet a true blue-blooded natïve Sarawakian and so I introduced a remote “tribe” about 60km from Kuching.

So off we went to Kumbug (pronounced as Comeboog) and Assom (Asserm) — two villages in the Borneo Highands — which is still so isolated, that few City folk have ever visited the enclave.

When I first “discovered” Kambug 15 years ago, it was a harrowing drive over a narrow roller-coaster road to get to the foot of the hills.

Getting there was one thing, but it was interesting to watch a group of natives with their “tambok” baskets strapped at the back, who had just arrived from across the Kalimantan border.

They had walked from Tembawang Goon, to get to Kambug — a traditional border outpost used by their forefathers since time immemorial.

Edward, the son of Kambug village elder Raag who runs the only shop there, told me that before the formation of Malaysia the people of Kumbug and the Sarawak villages of Assom, Parang, Sapit, Kiding and Kakas were one people.

“Even before the government put up the border stone demarcating both countries in 1963, our peoples had already used this well-travelled route for generations”, he said.

There was only one period during Confrontation between the two countries, that Kumbug and the Bidayuh villages beyond that were declared as “black” areas.

The Indonesian army and Sarawak communists used the village Sapit, adjacent to Tembawang Goon, as their entry point while carrying out raids until the British Army’s Gurkha unit set up their base.

Even then it was normal for the tough menfolk and women with their red betel-nut-juice-stained lips and teeth, to make this weekly trip to through the jungle and bamboo bridges to get to Kumbug.

But in recent times, Kumbug has seen great changes. The road to the 2,000ft village of Sapit is now paved.

Kumbug’s small primary school which has students from both sides of the border, is also a role model in for what was once a poverty-stricken area.

Armed with this information, I was able to take Mustak on a journey to his first Dayak village.

Since Mustak, a former Kelantan Rotary Club president had brought with him 100 sets of pencils and erasers, we handed out the gifts to the children from one primary school and families of several people I knew.

It was encouraging to know that a pre-school kindergarten was also being built not far away.

We then explored the new three-kilometre road the government had built from Kambug to Sapit that is now accessible by car.

In 2010 when I was 60, I used to ride my 110cc Yamaha motorcycle up the winding jungle path to Sapit nestled in Padawan hills.

A long and steep up-hill ride, it was particularly dangerous on a rainy day because there was little room to weave through the slippery five-foot wide partially-cement path.

Only once did my motorcycle slipped backwards on a 60 percent incline, but I managed to hold onto the vehicle before it toppled into the valley below.

It was refreshing to discover that my friend, the ailing former Member of Parliament for the constituency Datuk James Dawos, had kept his promise and built the immaculate Kambug-Sapit stretch before he retired.

From Kambug we drove to Assom; a famous stop-over for visitors. Old friend Na’u (Na-oo) was there but village catechist Edward Sundis was out shopping at downtown Kota Padawan.

We met a few old timers and visited a traditional Bidayuh farm on a hill planted with pepper and pineapple.

A new tar-sealed road had been built over the rolling hills next to the farm, but the inclines were still a harrowing experience for the faint-hearted.

Mustak was pleased to know that the Bidayuh were always ready to received visitors from all parts of the country.

To promote Bidayuh culture, Sarawak’s second White Rajah Charles Brooke planted the first rubber trees along the road to Benuk Benuk while Vyner promoted Annah Rais longhouse but not beyond. Both villages are now popular tourist sites.

With its pristine jungle, waterfalls and sparking clean rivers, the Borneo Highland region is still top on the list.

But it was a revelation for our Kelantan visitor who gave the short visit top marks form our short trip. Kambug and Assom beckons and it won’t be long before they too will receive their fair share of fame.