Peninsular Malaysia is a multicultural land. There are Malays, Chinese, Indians, as well as many other people from foreign origins, including Europeans. But before all of them came in the Malay Peninsula, there were other, older inhabitants. These ancient people still live in Peninsular Malaysia today, and they are called “Orang Asli“- the aborigines of the country. Let’s make a journey to the places, where these people live, and explore their unique culture and lifestyle.
Who are Orang Asli
Thousands of years ago, the first known people arrived in the Malay Peninsula. They were black, with curly hair, a bit like Africans, Papuans or Australian Aborigines. Nobody knows when the first of them came, and nobody knows where did they come from. Probably they came from South Asia. Maybe they have some distant relations with the Africans, and the black-skinned people of Australia and Oceania, although the genetic research can’t confirm it clearly.
They were Negritos- nomadic hunters and gatherers. The whole Malay Peninsula has been covered by lush equatorial rainforest, and these people lived there, in temporary villages, made by wood and straw. And they were the only people inhabiting this land, until around 2000 BC.
Then, another group of people came. This time they were Mongoloid. They came from today’s Yunnan or the northern part of Indochina, and they were Austroasiatic, related to today’s Hmong people. They had a different way of life- they established constant villages and did some agriculture. For this, they removed some parts of the jungle and pushed the Negritos from their areas.
Later, the third group of people came. It happened around 1200-1000 BC. They were Austronesians- probably again came from Indochina, or today’s Taiwan, now called Proto-Malays. When they came, they established more villages and had to share the land with the first two groups.
The new era in the Malay Peninsula
Eventually, the fourth group of people came to the Malay Peninsula around 300 BC, again Austronesians. Unlike the first three groups, the fourth was more advanced and in general, many more people. They were called Deutero-Malays, and they are today’s Malay people, making more than 60% of today’s population of Peninsular Malaysia. They started a new chapter of the peninsular’s history, establishing not only villages but also cities, kingdoms and even empires.
But, what happened with the first three groups? They remained in Peninsular Malaysia to this day, but after the Deutero-Malay invasion, they became a minority. During the whole history of kingdoms, wars, European colonial rules, and all other events from 300 BC until today, they survived in remote areas of the Malay Peninsula. Now, they are called Orang Asli, which means „aboriginal people” in Malay.
Orang Asli tribes and areas
These are Orang Asli, the people from the first three waves of migration in the Malay Peninsula- three groups of people. Today, these groups are Semang- Negritos, Senoi, and Proto-Malays. Every group is divided into 6 tribes- in total 18 tribes of Orang Asli people. Let’s get into detail.
The Negritos are the first known settlers of the Malay Peninsula, so they are the oldest inhabitants of this land. They have spread not only in Malaysia, but in some other places in Southeast Asia- the Andaman Islands, Southern Thailand, and the Philippines. Probably they have reached Indonesia too, but today they can’t be found there. As I mentioned, they look quite similar to the Papuans, the Melanesians, and the Australian Aborigines, but the relationship with them is unclear.
Semang (Negritos) division
In Peninsular Malaysia, they are called Semang. Today they are around 4860 people and live mainly in the northern part of the land- in Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Pahang states. Here are they:
- Kensiu. It is a small tribe of around 280 people, mostly living in Lubuk Legong village in Kedah, near the border with Thailand.
- Kintaq. This is the smallest tribe, around 240 people only. They live in Perak, in only one small village near Gerik City, and they are more nomadic.
- Lanoh. It is another small tribe of only around 390 people. They live in Perak near Gerik City too and are neighbors with Kintaq. They have several clans, some of which like Semnam and Sabub’n are unclear whether they are considered Lanoh or not.
- Jahai. They are the largest tribe, consisting of around 2350 people. Jahai live in the mountains shared between Perak and Kelantan, mainly near the rivers. They are more nomadic people.
- Mendriq. It is a small tribe of only around 260 people, and live in Kelantan, at the northern borders of Taman Negara.
- Batek (Bateq). Batek tribe is the southernmost Semang tribe, the second largest one, consisting of around 1360 people. They live mainly in Taman Negara, in Pahang, Kelantan, and Terengganu, and are divided into three sub-tribes- Batek Deq, Bateq Nong and Batek Mintil.
This is the largest Orang Asli group, consisting of around 60 000 people, with two big tribes (Semai and Temiar) and four small tribes. They are the second wave of migrants in the Malay Peninsula, who arrived around 2000 BC. Senoi are Mongoloid, Austroasiatic people. Today their 6 tribes live mainly in the middle part of Peninsular Malaysia. They are not nomads like Semang but live in their constant villages. And they practice swidden agriculture, as well as some hunting and gathering too.
These are their 6 tribes and their distribution:
- Semai. This is the largest Senoi tribe, with more than 50 000 people. They live in many small villages mainly in the area around the border of Pahang and Perak states, including the Cameron Highlands. Semai are known for their tradition of nonviolence.
- Temiar. It is another large tribe, with more than 32 000 people. They are neighbors of Semai and live around the border with Perak and Kelantan.
- Mah Meri. It is a small tribe, currently around 2200 people only. They live in several villages, mainly in Selangor state. Most of them are located on Carey Island. Mah Meri are known for their carving skills and Sewang dance.
- Jah Hut. It is another small tribe, currently around 4000 people. Their villages are located in Pahang, in the jungle areas between Jerantut and Temerloh.
- Semaq Beri. Again, one of the small tribes, currently around 2500 people. They are more nomadic than the other Senoi tribes and live around the border between Pahang and Terengganu states.
- Cheq Wong. This is the smallest Senoi tribe- only around 900 people. They are non-violent people, heavily suffered by the Japanese during WW2, and the Communist rebels later, which is the reason for their small population. Today they live in Krau Wildlife Reserve, and Raub, in Pahang.
These people belong to the third wave migrants to the Malay Peninsula. They are Austronesians, although their origin is unclear. The Proto-Malays came around 1000 BC or maybe earlier (according to one of the theories in a series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BC), and mixed with the first two groups. They also consist of two big tribes- Jakun and Temuan, and four small tribes.
Actually, Proto-Malays are a larger group of people, who spread in today’s Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So, a significant part of them live outside the Malay Peninsula, and only those who live there, are a part of Orang Asli. Today, the Proto-Malays in Peninsular Malaysia live mainly in its southern part. They are more related to the sea, rather than the jungles of the interior. Thus, they practice not only agricultural activities, but also fishing.
In Peninsular Malaysia, they are divided into 6 or 7 tribes (as two of the tribes are considered as one by some sources):
- Jakun. They are the largest Proto-Malay tribe in Peninsular Malaysia. Jakun live around the border between Pahang and Johor, in villages around places like Mersing, Endau-Rompin National Park, and Segamat. Today their lifestyle has changed significantly, due to the efforts of the government to make them „more civilized”.
- Orang Kuala. This is actually a larger tribe, called Duano’, living on both sides of the Strait of Malacca. And only those of Duano’ who live in Peninsular Malaysia are called Orang Kuala- around 4000 people today. Today they live in temporary or constant villages in the mangrove areas of the western Johor coast.
- Orang Seletar. It is a small tribe, consists of around 1500 people. They have been sea nomads, one of the „Sea People” (Orang Laut). Orang Seletar used to live in the mangrove forests around the Strait of Johor, in both Malaysia and Singapore. But now they live in several constant villages only in Malaysia (in the southern part of Johor) and abandoned their sea nomadic life.
- Orang Semelai. This tribe consists of around 9500 people, living in two groups in the states of Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. They live in constant villages and are known for their unique music.
- Temuan. This is the third-largest Orang Asli tribe, consisting of around 20 000 people today. They are spread between Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, and Melaka, in many constant villages.
- Orang Kanaq. This is the smallest Orang Asli tribe, with only around 100 people. It is interesting that they are actually not a local, „original” Orang Asli, but are Proto-Malays who first lived in Sekanak Island or Riau Archipelago, Indonesia. Then, they moved to the Malay Peninsula some 200 years ago, and now almost all of them live in a small village in Johor, called Sungai Selangi.
A disappearing tribe
There is another tribe, which could be the 7th Proto-Malay tribe. It is Temoq tribe, a small group of people living in two villages, in the areas of Jakun and Semelai tribes. But their number was so small that the tribe was considered extinct, or just a part of one of these big tribes.
How we met Orang Asli
When we planned our geographical trip around Peninsular Malaysia, first we identified the most important and representative places to visit. But we wanted also to explore the culture of this land. We could easily see the culture, lifestyle and traditions of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and the Creole groups of people. But Orang Asli, although they are only a small minority, present very interesting and unique information and impression, not only as a part of the cultural face of Peninsular Malaysia but also from a historical point of view.
That’s why we wanted to include a touch with Orang Asli in our Peninsular Malaysia itinerary. But how could we do it? In many countries, some minorities have their touristy „minority villages”, or „tribe villages”, with renewed houses in their traditional style, souvenir shops, folklore performance, and many other attractions related to their culture. You just find these villages on the map, check the information about the transport and accommodation, and just go. But it is not the case with Orang Asli.
The lifestyle of most of the Orang Asli people today
Most of Orang Asli live in relatively poor villages, separated from the big cities, and aside from the main roads. You can go there, but you can’t see anything „representative”. Today they wear modern clothes, and from the first sight, they look no different than the Malays around them. If you go to some of their villages, you would not see anything special, you would even not recognize that they are not Malays.
Mah Meri Cultural Village
However, there are exceptions. An example is Mah Meri tribe, which lives in Carey Island. They have their touristy MMCV (Mah Meri Cultural Village). It is one of the few places, where you can see Orang Asli culture and lifestyle, although it is „adapted and polished” for the tourists. You can see their carvings, their original clothing, their houses, as well as their attractive Sewang dance. So yes, it is touristy, it is „not very original”, but at least it is interesting and educational. And it contributes to preserving Mah Meri’s authentic culture.
Semang (Negritos) lifestyle
Another exception is the tribes of Semang (Negritos). At least, they are not Mongoloid, so they look different. But since most of them live in very remote areas, it is difficult to reach and see them. Some Semang like Kensiu tribe live in a constant village and you can visit the village. However, you will not see too much „authentic” there- they wear modern clothes, live in a „modern” houses, and it is not adapted for tourism. Besides, they live in some level of poverty.
Batek tribe in Taman Negara
Anyway, a good opportunity to meet some Semang people is to visit Taman Negara. In the oldest rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia, there are several Batek tribe villages. Yes, today they have already adopted some sides of modern life- modern clothes, plastic bottles, etc. Also, for the sake of the tourists, they have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, and many of them have learned Malay, English and even some Chinese.
But in our opinion, if you want to explore Orang Asli, one of the first things you have to do is to visit some of the Orang Asli museums. There are several museums in this theme in Peninsular Malaysia, among which the most accessible one is the museum in Kuala Lumpur, located just right next to the National Museum (where you can also see some Orang Asli artifacts). All of them are very small, but the best and the largest one (but still small) is the Orang Asli Museum in Melaka. So we included it in our itinerary.
Orang Asli Museum in Melaka
This museum is located in a cluster of tourist attractions, near a town called Ayer Keroh, some 16 km far from Melaka. It is established in a small traditional Temuan tribe longhouse. There you can see general information about Orang Asli, models of their houses, their hunting and agricultural tools, their art, as well as some old photos and stories about some more famous Orang Asli people. Entrance fee: 2 RM for adults, 1 RM for children.
We included the Orang Asli Museum in our itinerary, along with the nearby Taman Mini Malaysia & ASEAN Park. And if we had more time, we would also visit the other nearby attractions like Melaka Zoo, Bee Museum, and Crocodile Farm. But we were focused on the educational side of our trip, so we could be better prepared to meet Orang Asli people face to face. And it happened in Taman Negara.
Our meeting with Batek tribe in Taman Negara
Taman Negara is the wildest area in Peninsular Malaysia. It is an equatorial rainforest, considered as one of the oldest rainforests on the Earth, older even than the famous Amazon rainforest. So, we chose it as an important part of our Peninsular Malaysia itinerary. We enjoyed jungle trekking, river cruise, we were bitten by leeches, and we could feel the jungle life in full.
So, we decided that this is the best place to meet Orang Asli. In Taman Negara, they are the people of Batek tribe, Semang (Negritos). Batek themselves are divided into several clans. Some of them live deep in the jungle and still follow their nomadic lifestyle, far from civilization, still wearing their old jungle clothing. But others recently settled in constant villages and adopted something of modern life. We had to meet with the latter of them.
Our combined Taman Negara trip included rapids shooting on Tembeling River, and visiting a village of Orang Asli. There are two villages near Kuala Tahan, at the bank of the river, and we visited the nearest one.
In the Orang Asli village
We stopped our boat and ascent to the village. It was 5-6 wooden huts with straw roofs and several smaller wooden constructions. We chose one of the wooden benches beside the huts and our guide started to explain to us everything about the Batek tribe. And this is what he shared with us.
Batek people’s nomadic life
Our guide: „Do you see their huts? Who do you think has built these huts?”
We all thought that their huts were built by the men, as it is normally in most of the cultures in the world.
Our guide: „No, the women built the huts, the wives. The men’s work is to go hunting and bring food from the jungle. The women build the village, every wife builds her own family’s hut. Batek have been nomads for thousands of years. Their villages are only temporary. They wander through the jungle in search of good and strategic places, according to the season. There the women build the new village, while the men go hunting. The people remain in the village until there is some change. Another important reason to leave a village is the death of a local villager.”
Batek people’s marriage
We asked: „How about their marriage? How a new family is usually establishing?”
Our guide: „When a Batek boy grows, he goes to the jungle to find a girl from another village. When they meet together, first they live separately from their society. To be accepted are a married couple in their village, they have to pass an exam- the boy has to go to the jungle with his blowpipe and bring food (animals) from there. And the girl has to build a new hut. If they do it successfully, they are officially married. If not, they have to practice and try again in the next exam.”
Making fire for blowpipe arrows
A man of the village came and started to make fire from dry straw and wood, using a straw rope. He made it for less than 20 sec, and he did it to make a special glue, by which he could make new arrows with poison. While he was doing it, our guide was explaining in detail everything about the tribe’s techniques.
Eventually, he was ready, and we all got to one of the targets. First, the man showed us how to blow the arrow, then we all tried. We discovered that it was not difficult. Not because we were very good at it, but because the men of Batek knew how to make it perfect, so it didn’t need too many skills.
The daily life of Batek in their village
Then, we walked around the village. I can say that it was just a normal „working day” for the villagers. It was their work- to demonstrate their life, traditions, and skills, and in return, they receive their revenue from the government. They were wearing modern clothes, and they could talk to us in simple English and Malay. They had to do it every day, but they still haven’t abandoned their hunting in the jungle.
We saw a small baby gibbon. It was found by two of their children in the jungle, without its mum. So they rescued it, and now it was their favorite pet of the village. The villagers were very friendly to us and taught us how to say „hello” and „thank you” in their language (unfortunately, we forgot it).
Then we asked about the age of the man who demonstrated fire and arrow making. Nobody knew his age, including him himself. The people of Batek don’t count the months and years. And it is no strange, the weather in Peninsular Malaysia is almost the same, there are just a bit wetter and a bit dryer seasons. Although already a bit touristy, the village and its people gave us nice impressions about the life of Orang Asli, the oldest aborigines of the Malay Peninsula.
We left the village, and on the next day left Taman Negara too. Then we proceeded to the Cameron Highlands. Now we could say that we were on our way to explore Peninsular Malaysia deeper. And along with the history, tropical sea paradise and lush equatorial rainforest, the friendly smiling faces of Orang Asli people remained in our hearts.
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