Raman Bahtuin, a Semai tribesman, stands in a clearing in the jungle, telling his visitors about the many things that one can learn in the forest and what a day in the life of an Orang Asli is like.

Raman, or “Pak Raman” as he is known in the community, is 48 and lives in Kampung Orang Asli Batu 12 in Gombak, Selangor; he was raised in the jungle. Today he is part of an initiative called the Jungle School Gombak that aims to educate visitors on the culture, heritage and lifestyle of the Orang Asli.

There is much that people can learn from the Orang Asli. “The Orang Asli have lived their lives in a simple and uncomplicated manner, embracing nature and caring for their jungle, rivers and environment for the past 60,000 years.

“They have perfected their ways of sustaining the environment, co-existing harmoniously with the animals, birds, insects, trees, and rivers by taking only what is necessary – just the small amount of food to sustain their families,” says International Islamic University Malaysia lecturer Dr Norzalifa Zainal Abidin who specialises in Islamic and Malay arts, architecture and heritage, as well as indigenous communities.

Norzalifa is also founder and advisor of the Jungle School Gombak, a social enterprise set up to empower the Orang Asli to earn a living while sharing their unique culture with others.

However, Pak Raman faces a plight common to many indigenous people in Malaysia today.

While the tribal elders desire to continue with their cultural traditions, the younger generations are embracing modernisation. Many have left their communities and moved to the cities in search of work.

Pak Raman himself has five daughters and the eldest is studying tourism management at a local university. It might not be long before the rest leave home to follow suit. Pak Raman is worried that he may not be able to pass on all the knowledge and rich cultural heritage of his forefathers to his children.

He hopes that one day his children will return to fulfil their roles in the community.

“As parents we want our children to fulfil their dreams and we can’t always control their choices. But hopefully some of the (Orang Asli) youngsters will return to help the community,” he says.

As if to demonstrate this, close by, some Orang Asli youngsters are preparing to serve the Jungle School Gombak visitors lunch, cooked the traditional way. There’s chicken roasted over a roaring fire and other dishes that were wrapped in “daun bemban” (donax grandis), inserted into a bamboo bark and baked over the same fire. The visitors watch in rapt attention as rice, tomato chicken soup, spinach, pucuk paku and a simple dessert made of wheat flour and gula melaka are prepared this way.

“This traditional style of cooking is usually passed down from the elders to their children and grandchildren,” Pak Raman says as he explains how each dish is cooked in detail.

Pak Raman and his young helpers later demonstrate other basic jungle survival skills like how to use a sumpit or blowpipe, how to safely build a fire, and how to weave mengkuang leaves to build a makeshift shelter.

He learnt these skills from his grandparents and in turn, his young apprentices have learnt these skills from him.

“In order for the Orang Asli to preserve and maintain their heritage and culture, they need to pass on their knowledge and skills to the future generation,” says Mejar Kalam Pie, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the school.

Mejar Kalam, who is half Semelai and half Minangkabau, is a retired Royal Malaysian Air Force serviceman and licensed nature guide. He understands the issues faced by the indigenous people as he is one of the few Orang Asli who left the community at a young age, but then returned years later to help out.

“I understand what the community is going through because I’ve been there myself. And it is my desire to help the community. We feel a good way to assist is to help them earn a living for themselves,” he explains.

A vital contribution

Orang Asli

Mejar Kalam is a licensed nature guide and knows his way around the forest.

The Orang Asli can contribute so much to the local tourism industry, especially in the areas of edu-tourism and eco-tourism.

There are many types of bushcraft that one can learn from the indigenous people of Malaysia, such as jungle survival skills like foraging for food and making shelter, and using flora and fauna as medicine.

“People from overseas and even locals are interested in learning these things because they are unique to the culture of the Orang Asli in Malaysia,” Norzalifa says.

There are several historical spots in Gombak such as the first British hydro dam near Batu 16 Gombak and the Orang Asli Heritage Trails.

“You wouldn’t have thought that a place like Gombak would be considered a heritage site. But Kampung Orang Asli Batu 12, which seems like a curious village in the middle of nowhere, is actually the heart of the largest ancestral home of the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. There are 18 Orang Asli tribes in the peninsular and 10 can be found in this village alone,” she explains.

The indigenous people can be trained as guides to bring visitors around for a tour.

“In fact, this is one of the goals of the Jungle School Gombak, and it is already happening,” she says, adding that Mejar Kalam regularly brings visitors into the forest.

“But he is more than just another a licensed nature guide. Being Orang Asli himself, Mejar Kalam is able to more accurately reflect what the life of the indigenous people is like,” she adds.

Taking charge

However, Orang Asli tourism needs to be “controlled tourism” rather than mass tourism, to ensure minimal disruption to the jungle and the lives of the indigenous people.

Center for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas believes it is important for the Orang Asli themselves to own and learn to manage the tourism activities that involve their community.

“Tourism activities can be beneficial for the Orang Asli because it will help them to generate income. But such activities must be managed by the community itself rather than externally, or they run the risk of exploitation,” he says.

This “exploitation” is a common problem and happens more frequently that you think in many indigenous communities.

At Kampung Orang Asli Batu 12 Gombak, we meet Pak Andok and Mak Abok, an elderly Temiar couple who are said to be the best weavers in the village. “Each one does their part, everyone has their role – while the men weave rattan products, the women weave mengkuang,” they revealed as they showed visitors their handiwork.

Orang Asli

An elderly Temiar couple showing the woven products produced at Kampung Orang Asli Batu 12 Gombak.

Their home also serves as a collection centre for weaving products from the villagers.

The Orang Asli are talented craftsmen in weaving arts and crafts to make elaborate products such as bubu (a fishing trap), bujam (pouch), cincin belah rotan, mengkuang mats, traditional puzzles and games, and more. But many have faced issues such as exploitation from middlemen who take their products without paying them for what they are worth.

To stop this from happening, the younger generation of Orang Asli needs to be educated and guided in business and management matters. They need to be well-equipped to handle all kinds of “modern” problems faced by their community like connectivity (telecommunications, transport, etc) and even social ills.

Hopefully, through education, more Orang Asli will return to help develop their villages in their own unique way and to also empower the community to keep their culture and traditions alive.

For more info on the Jungle School Gombak, check out: www.lokalocal.com/