El Dorado in Spanish means “the golden one”. It was a term originally used to describe a mythical tribal chief of the Muisca native people who lived in the Andes Mountain of Colombia, South America. During the investiture ceremony, the new chief covered himself with gold dust and later washed himself in the Lake Guatavita.

The association with El Dorado changed over time, from being the name of a man, to a lost city of gold, and finally used in reference to any place where wealth can be rapidly acquired.

Malaysia’s El Dorado is the underground mine at Sungai Lembing, Pahang. It is also dubbed as the El Dorado of the East.

Sungai Lembing is located approximately 42km from Kuantan. It is a mining town that was rich with tin reserves as well as gold and copper. Small-scale tin-mining started there in the 15th century.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants expanded the mining activities by using open-cast mining.

In 1888, Pahang Corporation, a British company, was awarded a mining concession for a land with an area of 5,180sq km to carry out underground mining. This marked the beginning of underground tin-mining in the country.

Mining intensified when Pahang Consolidated Company Limited (PCCL) replaced Pahang Corporation in 1906. Sungai Lembing grew rapidly; it became a prosperous town and the population grew to over 10,000 during that glorious time. The inhabitants enjoyed numerous amenities, such as schools, hospitals, shops, a police station, residential areas and a good transportation system.

In 1985, the world price for tin collapsed, forcing PCCL to cease operations. This eventually transformed Sungai Lembing from a busy town into a sleepy and under-populated settlement.

Nevertheless, it has managed to retain its unique charm, in terms of history, location and physical characteristics. Wooden houses built for miners and rows of pre-war double-storey shops are still intact but many are unoccupied.

The main road in the town centre is shaded by large, lovely, decades-old trees. There is a scenic 320m-high hill, known as Panorama Hill, that offers hikers the opportunity to enjoy spectacular views of mists and the beautiful sunrise.

But, of course, the pull is the town’s heritage, the enormous subterranean underground mines spanning 322km in length and 700m in depth, which are the longest and deepest mines in the world.

Despite having been mined for nearly 100 years (1888 to 1985), Sungai Lembing still has abundant reserves of tin, amazingly.

It really deserves the title El Dorado of the East.

In June, my family and I visited the mine. We arrived at the site at noon, under a clear sky and hot sun. (There is an entrance fee of RM15.60 per adult. The fee covers the train service that takes visitors into the mine shaft to a depth of about 100m.)

The train cruised slowly and took about a minute to reach the stop point. We then proceeded on foot into the tunnel. The tunnel was lit up by electric bulbs, providing sufficient visibility. The air was chilly.

The surrounding walls have been fortified with concrete, replacing the original wooden 20cm by 20cm pillars.

The ground was wet and underground water was flowing through the side drain. We were inside the first storey mine shaft, about 30.5m underground. The mine tunnels were dug in vertical layers (or storeys), approximately 30m apart.

Only the first storey is accessible. The remaining ones below were flooded after mining activity stopped.

Water pumps are used to draw water out, to keep the first storey accessible to visitors. Although the total length of that tunnel is 322km, visitors are allowed to venture up to 600m only. Along the way, there are signages, models, mining artefacts, soil samples and a television documentary about mining activities inside the tunnel. We covered the 600m, then turned back and came out of the tunnel through another exit.

On the way to the mine, we also stopped to see the iconic Jambatan Gantung Kolong Pahat, a hanging bridge across Sungai Kenau that connects to the miner’s old living quarters.

It was built around 1888, using cables from the mine shaft lifter and wood from the nearby forest.

It was a satisfying excursion, visiting the longest and deepest underground mine in the world, learning the rich history of Sungai Lembing town – at one time the richest town in the country – and enjoying the beauty of mother nature from Panorama Hill.

Panorama Hill

The writer and his family on the summit of Panorama Hill.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

This occasional series, Lost & Found, highlights the hidden ‘gems’ of Malaysia – destinations that are lesser known or are being rediscovered. If you have any places to recommend, e-mail us at star2travel@thestar.com with the subject ‘Lost & Found’. If you are also interested to write for us, let us know too. We reserve the right to edit all submissions. Contributions will appear in print or online at Star2.com.