Friday, October 16, 2009

A Rare Excursion to the North Borneo village of Kampung Mongkos ( SARAWAK MALAYSIA)

By Clive Freeman Jul 31, 2007, 6:02 GMT

Sarawak, Malaysia - The bus edges its way along a narrow, bumpy path, flanked by thick forest and soaring coconut trees, before halting in a sudden clearance, scattering a group of indignant chickens and ducks in the process.

Western media representatives alight from the bus to be greeted by a song, rendered by local musicians playing bamboo instruments. We have arrived in Kampung Mongkos, a remote village in a dense jungle area of northern Borneo, close to the Indonesian border.

For most of its history, Kampung Mongkos has had little contact with the outside world. Not that that was necessary, the isolated community has always been self-sustaining, due to its abundance of tropical fruit, vegetables and crops.

Its 1,049 inhabitants, content with their simple way of life, live in homes of rickety wooden construction or in the traditional village longhouse, amply spaced for large-sized families.

They own the land on which they live, having toiled in earlier years to slash down trees and help clear forest vegetation, observes Benedict Jimbau, a Sarawak Tourism Board executive, who has accompanied us on the trip north from Sarawak.

Disputes about boundary lines are rare, but if they do occur then the village chieftain, a respected figure in these parts, is called in to arbitrate.

'He adjudicates in all such matters,' notes Jimbau.

Originally, the traditional Kampung Mongkos longhouse was home to 70 families. After it was demolished, it was replaced by a new, somewhat shorter longhouse in the 1950s, albeit with accommodation for more than 20 families.

On our arrival in late July, the whole village turned out to welcome us in the traditional 'longhouse.' Singers beat rhythmic tunes on bamboo instruments; village women performed elegant dances in traditional costumes, while their impish bare-footed off-spring do everything to gain the attention of visitors, squatting on floor mats, eating up the atmosphere.

It's the first time the village has ever played host to western scribes.

Ever since its creation more than a century ago, Kampung Mongkos has been a peaceful place. Even in World War II when the Japanese invaded the country, its army units never set foot in the village. Heading instead to Kuching, the Sarawak state capital, two hours drive to the south.

Later, in the 1950s, when there was an armed territorial dispute with Indonesia, the village again came through unscathed, although locals point to a solitary stray bullet thudding into the longhouse wall.

'It's always been peaceful here,' maintains KK Daka Anak Baba, 60, a friendly faced farmhand, who has spent his life toiling in the forests and paddy fields. Married with nine children, he says:' The village is like one big extended family. Everybody knows one another. There's rarely trouble here.'

When a crime is committed in Kampung Mongkos, which is seldom, the chieftain and village elders decide what should be done with the offender. Otherwise, the village falls under Malaysian laws and regulations.

Villagers speak of the Bidayuh community placing great faith in the jungle 'spirits' who, it's said, are there to protect them from war and conflict. In the village square a statue stands proudly, honouring the spirits who 'protect our village from all harm.'

In the last century missionaries were active in Kampung Mongkos. Today a Roman Catholic Church can be found in the village, as well as a medical health centre, and a two-tier wooden building housing a store and restaurant. Most, but not all the Bidayuh are Catholics.

With two colleagues, this dpa reporter is invited by Anak Baba to overnight at a property he runs on an ad hoc basis as a guest-house. The premises are modest, equipped with the barest of facilities. A bucket of water is used to flush the toilet.

Malaysia has more than 200 communities of all races including Bidayuh, Iban, Kayan, Kenyah, Lun Bawang, Malay, Melanau and Penan. Sauntering through Kampung Mongkos, the sound of monkeys, cicadas and crickets reverberate, as do the shrill cries of the magnificent hornbills.

Curiously, though, one rarely catches a glimpse of monkeys in the forests surrounding the village.

'They gobble the crops and can be a nuisance,' says an old man, emerging from the village store. Later, I learn that like foxes in Britain, monkeys are regarded as the farmers' pest in parts of Borneo, and are shot to reduce numbers.

On home porteos, however, I do spot occasional monkeys kept in cages, presumably as pets.

Asked if he's ever contemplated leaving the village, Anak Baba says: 'No, my life is here where I have my relatives and friends. Some of my children do, however, work in other parts of Sarawak.'

For Kampung Mongkos the nearest town is Serian, about 40 minutes' drive from the village. A transit town between Kuching, the state capital, and places further north, it remains a favourite stopping-off point for tourists.

'Some of our fruit, cocoa, rubber, maize and soya products are sold in Serian and neighbouring communities,' notes Anak Baba proudly.

Footnote: In more recent years German, Scandinavian, French, Dutch and British back-packers have been arriving in Kampung Mongkos, curious to lean more about a village which for decades was virtually unknown to the outside world. Now incorporated into a 'community homestay programme' it offers cultural programmes in the Bidayuh village and overnight stays at low prices.

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