A journey into the dense rainforest of Malaysia reveals the nomadic Batek tribe and their traditional style of vernacular architecture
I am back in primary rainforest in peninsular Malaysia looking for an indigenous group called the Batek (or Bateq). The Batek are one of Malaysia’s 133,000 Orang Asli, which simply means ‘original people’ in Malay. Of the Orang Asli there are three groups, further divided into 18 ethnic sub-groups, representing 0.5 per cent of the national population. Interestingly, despite their small number, the Orang Asli are not homogenous. Each group has its own language, culture, traditions and, to a certain extent, architecture. Yet as urbanisation intensifies, it pits traditional and modern lifestyles against each other. Many Orang Asli have now left their ancient tribal heartlands to live and work in urban areas.
However, the Batek still follow a nomadic lifestyle. As with other tribal groups, urbanisation, development and the logging of their traditional habitats has resulted in their numbers falling and has pushed them deep into the protected national park of Taman Negara. There are an estimated 750 remaining Batek living in this dense rainforest in an area over twice the size of London. The best way to access the remote region is by water, down the Sungai Tembeling river on a traditional wooden long boat. The journey is lengthy, but it offers the chance to contemplate the density and vastness of the rainforest.
The two main tribes in the area have built around 20 villages between them. I am with a local Malaysian man called Musa who spent three months living with one family group in a village near the river’s edge. This group is the object of my visit. Musa tells me he had planned to live there for six months, but found the lifestyle too hard and left. Not much is happening in the village when we arrive. It is hot and the men and boys are resting on bamboo benches. The women and girls are all inside; only curious heads poking out indicate their presence.
The village comprises about a dozen huts, all of which are rectangular in plan and raised on stilts. The settlement is oriented parallel to the river in a sandy, man-made clearing. The raising of the huts is nothing to do with the proximity of the river but rather to encourage air movement beneath the building. Humidity here ranges from 30 to 90 per cent and to counter this, the men wear little clothing. The shape and size of the huts are determined by the limited roof-span and by palm widths. The structure is made from assorted hardwood branches lashed together, while the walls are bamboo, which is hammered flat and held in place by two sticks on either side. Roofs are pitched and overhang the bamboo walls.
It is heartening to see that, despite interaction with people from the nearby Malaysian village, corrugated metal sheeting hasn’t yet reached the Batek. Instead all the roofs are constructed in atap, traditional leaf thatching. Leaves are removed from the plant’s spine and re-sewn into a tile. Batek women, who are taught to weave from an early age, make all the roofs. The men make the huts and have been trained to do so since being given machetes when still young. I ask why the men can’t make the roofs and am told they are too hasty in the sewing and leave holes. I am also told that it takes one day to build a hut. I reply that I’ve been working on a house that has been on site two years.
One end of the village acts as its communal heart. Here there is an open-sided hut for shelter from the sun and rain along with an impressive bamboo table for communal dining. Virtually everything in the village is shared, including the food, whether it has been hunted or gathered. Food is divided for the entire village with immediate family receiving portions first, then the extended family, then other families. When game is caught (such as monkey), members of the hunting party eat the offal and tail first, because these parts are the fastest to cook. Then the meat is divided so that each family in the camp gets some, with portions adjusted according to the size of the family. As with most tribes, the sharing of resources is not an act of kindness, but born of necessity.
The Batek also believe that all food belongs to the forest, so a person in possession of food has a moral duty to share. In addition, upsetting someone in the village may not only cause anger among the community but also to the spirits. The fear of supernatural reprisal is enough to ensure the Batek are a peaceful society. This also explains the social importance of communal meals and the grand bamboo dining table, complete with bamboo benches large enough to cater for the entire village. Bamboo is tied together using bark lashing to form benches, while the table top is constructed from flattened bamboo similar to the walls of the huts.
Although there is little activity in the village, soon there will be a mass exodus as the village relocates to another site. Though this may seem strange to us, the Batek have no concept of land ownership. Rather, they are just stewards, looking after the land. So they have no difficulty in moving every five months to allow the forest to replenish. All Batek are animists, without organised or codified religious beliefs. Instead they see the world, especially the river and jungle, as being animated by spirits. It is the respect for the spirits that command the entire village to move if someone dies. The departed are very important and are considered to act as intermediaries between this world and the next.
Uprooting the village is just the start of a hugely elaborate burial ritual, in which the body is brought by procession to a hut, similar to the ones in the village, but constructed in a tree some 50 metres high. The body is covered and left with its possessions alongside it, together with food for the spirits. It is then left undisturbed for two to three years, upon which time the village returns to procure a bone from the skeletal remains. This is then buried, so returning the family member to the forest.
Although sharing is at the heart of village life, some items are considered personal property, such as a blowpipe for men, or a hair comb for women. The blowpipe is a work of art, hollowed from two trunks of young palm using monkey bone tied to rattan. Once hollowed, a piece of cane is used to make the smooth barrel bore. Resin seals the mouthpiece. The darts are made from pine leaf, which is thin and flexible. The dart’s plug creates an airtight seal. The tips are then dipped in a natural poison that can paralyse and kill a man. With monkeys watching from the trees, a villager demonstrates how it’s used. Amazingly he’s accurate to the millimetre from a distance of over 30 metres.
The duties of the men here are simple: make huts (without roofs), make blowpipes, go hunting and mate. Mating is done solely from within the village and the family units are large. When the family expands, the huts aren’t extended as in the longhouses of other parts of the Malaysia. Instead the village just makes a new hut, as it only takes a day. Apparently having eight children or less is to be seen as a lazy man. I’m asked how many children I have - I have none. I’m made to feel very lazy.
Other personal items are acquired through interaction with the local Malaysian village. One boy, dressed in more westernised clothing, shows me where the food is cooked and how the fire is started. He uses two carved sticks and when one breaks, pulls out a classic red Victorinox Swiss Army knife and carves another. After some considerable effort the tinder is glowing and he tries igniting dried palms. When this fails he pulls out an old lighter and sets the lot on fire. Inevitably, the Batek way of life is changing, but not as hugely as it might be. Except for a few pieces of man-made tarpaulin, Batek architecture remains as it has been for thousands of years. There is no design here, so development is slow. Changes only occur when present solutions fail. Then the problem is tackled on a one-to-one scale using whatever is at hand.