sign in a cave in Laos

30 July 2008

Laos snail called Liz - Sinoennea lizae

On a caving expedition to Luang Nam Tha Province in northwest Laos, in January 2006, I collected some snails for identification. They were passed to Wim J.M.Maassen of the mollusc department in the National Museum of Natural History, at Leiden in The Netherlands.

Out of the snails I collected, he was able to describe 4 new species. And he named one of them after me! It is called Sinoennea lizae. The snail is very small, but it is still an honour for me! A big thank you to Wim for this, and also for his interest in identifying the snails.

27 July 2008

caving is fun - Brunei Times

Published on The Brunei Times (

Mud bath, facial for Perak cave explorers

Adventure caving: The rock forming the caves in the Kinta Valley is some 200 million years old. Although caving is not advisable for the unprepared, it can easily be made safe. The golden rule is to have enough lights. Picture: Liz Price

© Liz Price

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I WAS crawling on hands and knees through gooey mud, with my face just inches from the muddy floor, and the boots of the person in front were dangerously close to rearranging my nose. And I was doing this for fun. "Don't worry about the mud, think of it as a free facial," said a witty person behind. As the people in front of me slowly disappeared one by one through the small hole between the rocks, I consoled myself thinking that a mud pack must be good, after all this was free and with no added chemicals, whereas in the beauty salon I could pay a lot of money for such a treatment. So I laid face down and started sliding through the mud bath.

I was with a group of friends adventure caving in Perak. Several Malaysian states are blessed with a profusion of limestone caves. In many places the landscape is dominated by impressive limestone towers rising majestically above the plains. The Kinta Valley surrounding Ipoh is renown for its limestone hills. Many of the hills are riddled with caves, some of which are famous temples, others such as Gua Tempurung are open for tourism, with electric lighting and walkways. And of course there are the wild or undeveloped caves.

Many of the caves are spectacular, with stalactites and stalagmites and other fine formations. Some such as Gua Tempurung have an underground river. This has to be one of my favourite caves in the Peninsula. The total cave is some four km long, and the river flows right through the cave from one end to the other, for a total distance of about 1.6 km. It is really fun to go caving here. Some of the cave chambers are really huge, one is appropriately named Gergasi, or giant.

The rock forming the caves is ancient, with some as old as 200 million years. This limestone rock was originally formed from layers of shells and corals which were deposited under the sea.

These layers compacted, and later on the rock was uplifted into hills and mountains seen today. All the caves are formed by water. Over the years, water gradually eroded the rock, enlarging small cracks and fissures into the passages and chambers seen today. Then the calcite formations developed into stalagmites and stalactites. These formations are wonderful: long stalactites hanging down from the ceiling with the often stumpy stalagmites rising up from the floor to meet them. If they join they become columns. They can be of various shapes and sizes and colours, some glisten as the calcite crystals reflect from the torchlight. Each cave is different, each is a natural wonder. I am often asked why I like to go into caves, and I think part of the reason is the fact that every one is different, and they are all of various shapes and sizes, some are wet, some are dry, some have only horizontal passages whilst others have vertical drops and climbs. And some have cave fauna. It is always wonderful to see the animal life which inhabits caves. Bats are often found in caves, and if they are present there is often a whole variety of animals living on the floor below, feeding on the bat guano. These creepy crawlies include bugs and beetles, spiders, cockroaches, centipedes, flies, and others. In turn larger animals such as frogs and maybe small mammals feed on these. At the top of the food chain is the cave racer snake. Caves are totally dark, and it is amazing to think how these creatures are totally adapted to spending their life in this darkness.

We had been lucky enough to see a cave racer in another cave in Perak. This snake is about 2 m long and feeds on bats. It is non-poisonous and we were able to get some good photos of it as it seemed quite placid and didn't really mind our presence, although I suspect the flashlights disturbed it.

Some caves are of archaeological importance. The oldest inhabitant of Peninsula Malaysia was found in a cave in the Lenggong Valley in Perak. He is known as the Perak Man, his skeleton is estimated to be about 11,000 years old. Several other caves in the area have yielded traces of prehistoric man. Traces of ancient lifestyle, such as pottery, tools, rock paintings and burial sites, have been found in caves.

Caves are fascinating places and caving is a great sport. There are many caves in Malaysia to choose from. It is always good to go with a group of friends and explore different sites. Although caving is potentially dangerous for the unprepared, it can easily be made safe. The golden rule is to have enough lights. Caves are totally dark, so each person must be equipped with their own torch, preferably mounted on a helmet to keep the hands free. And a spare torch should also be taken, along with extra batteries and bulbs. Although caves are made of rock, their environment is still fragile. The calcite formations should never be touched as they are easily damaged and broken. And you should never write on the walls. If you want to mark your route as you go through a cave, use string or paper, and make sure you remove the markers before you leave the cave.

Sometimes you get very muddy and dirty, but it is all part of the fun. That is how I found myself crawling through such a small passage with my face in the mud. For some people it was the first time since childhood that they had crawled and played in the mud. If only our mothers could see us now.The Brunei Times


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18 July 2008

Seeking the Dark side of Batu Caves - WildAsia

Seeking the Dark Side of Batu Caves

LIZ PRICE explores the Dark Cave, one of the many caves at Batu Caves, a limestone hill just a few kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. Find out how to join the Malaysian Nature Society on a tour of the Dark Cave system.

[published on WildAsia 29 Apr 2002]

I was crawling on hands and knees through gooey mud, with my face just inches from the muddy floor, and the boots of the person in front were dangerously close to rearranging my nose. And I was doing this for fun. "Don't worry about the mud, think of it as a free facial". This was what the guide told our party of first time cavers. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. As the people in front of me slowly disappeared one by one through the small hole between the rocks, I consoled myself thinking that a mud pack must be good, after all this was free and with no added chemicals, whereas in the beauty salon I could pay a lot of money for such a treatment. I closed my mind to the thoughts of what we had seen earlier crawling in the mud, lay face down and started sliding through the mud bath.

We were in Dark Cave on an educational and adventure caving trip, run by volunteers from the Cave Group of the Malaysian Nature Society. Dark Cave is one of many caves at Batu Caves, about 12 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. Until now the hardest part of the trip had been the climb up to the cave in the blazing sun - some 250 steep steps. At least we didn't have to go all the way to the top, which is 272 stairs to the Temple Cave. Temple Cave is the main tourist attraction at Batu Caves, and is usually the only cave that the visitors see. So we were lucky to be able to go where most tourists don't. But at a price. We would get wet and muddy in the process. Fortunately we had been warned to wear old clothes and also to bring a change of clothing.

Once inside Dark Cave we were able to recover our breath as we were given a briefing on the history of the cave, its formation, what to expect, etc. Whilst sitting there taking it all in we were watched by a solemn troop of long tailed macaques who were resting in the branches overhead. They looked as intent as us. However, unlike us, they didn't gasp in surprise when we were told that the rock forming the cave is 400 million years old, and the cave itself is 60 - 100 million years old. They had heard it all before, and could probably also have told us that the limestone rock was originally formed from layers of shells and corals once under the sea, and that after the rock was uplifted into hills and mountains, the cave was formed by water, which gradually eroded the rock over the years, enlarging small cracks and fissures into the passages and chambers seen today.

We switched on our torches and entered the dark realms of the cave. The stench of guano, or bat excreta,, was quite overpowering. Our first confrontation was with the cockroaches. There were hundreds of them, crawling all around our feet and also above us, clinging to the roof of the covered walkway. Somebody screamed as a cockroach fell onto her neck. Where was Steven Speilberg - it was like something out of a horror film. All around us the floor consisted of dark brown "soil" which seemed harmless enough until the guide put her hand in it and we realised the soil was actually the bat guano, and was literally crawling and heaving with insects. It was alive. There were bugs, crickets, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, millipedes etc. It was an entomologists paradise.

Our revulsion slowly turned to wonder as we were told how this wriggling mass of life is a vital part of the food chain: the bats are the only animals which go out to feed and so every other creature ultimately depends on the bats. Their guano drops to the floor and all the creepy crawlies feed upon it. Then in turn, the larger animals such as long legged centipedes, frogs and rodents feed upon the smaller ones. High above our heads we could see countless bats flying round like a scene out of a Dracula film. These are the fruit eating bats, and further in we would see the insect eating bats. One person jumped when the guide said we would be lucky to see a snake: apparently the cave racer is well adapted to a life in the dark, and dines exclusively off bats, thereby completing the food chain.

The cave formations were wonderful: long stalactites hanging down from the ceiling with the often stumpy stalagmites rising up from the floor to meet them. If they join they become columns. They were all of various shapes and sizes and colours, some glistening as the calcite crystals caught our torch lights. Many were still alive and growing, all were formed by water. The water becomes saturated with calcium carbonate as it seeps down through the rocks, and this is slowly deposited over the years and builds up into the cave formations. We saw a beautiful flowstone cascading down the wall, we saw straws, gour pools, curtains. Each formation was fantastic. We had been warned not to touch anything. The growth rate is very slow, about 1cm in 70 years. So you can imagine how long it has taken for a 10m high column to form. Some of the stals were pure white, others were creamy coloured, a few were grey and one or two had an orange-red tinge. These differences in colour are caused by the minerals in the rocks, e.g. manganese, iron etc. The most unusual formations were the helictites, these are really thin and small, but defy gravity and can grow sideways and even upwards. Mother Nature certainly had a good imagination when she created this cave.

Further on we came to the longest passage in the cave, and this is where most of the cave fauna live. At first we thought we were approaching a waterfall but then realised the sound we could hear was actually caused by bats flying high overhead. These are the insect bats and there must have been hundreds if not thousands of them. Meanwhile at ground level and on the walls we saw more crickets, spiders, and long legged centipedes. And we were in luck for in the next section we saw the cave racer. This snake was about 2m long and was a creamy white in colour. We were assured it was non poisonous so gathered closer to have a good look, and the snake seemed unconcerned about our presence, probably thinking "here goes another tourist group disturbing my peace and quiet". After all our oohing and aahing during the educational part of the trip, it was time for the fun bit - the crawl in the mud. This is where I found myself lying face down in the mud following the shoes of the person in front, through a tiny aperture that only looked big enough for a mouse. Or a small dog. Incidentally we had been accompanied throughout the trip by a white dog named Calcite. Apparently she joins every caving trip and knows the cave as well if not better than the guides.

Somehow I contorted my body and got through the small hole, only to be confronted by an even smaller one. I had to turn my head sideways and put one arm in front and the other arm behind in order to reduce my shoulder width, then breath out and slowly inch my way forwards through the constriction. Phew! It was a relief to breath again having come back into a slightly larger passage. After those few moments of apprehension of whether I'd fit through or just get stuck, we then had a fun slide down a slope into a muddy pool, with each person trying to make a big splash. We were so muddy by then that a bit more dirt didn't matter. Having slid down we then had to climb up to get out - this time a vertical wall, but with the guides pointing out convenient footholds it was easier than it looked. We were shown a deep hole in the floor, this is part of the pothole series which the experienced cavers descend using ropes - not suitable for us beginners.

And finally we were out. Wet, muddy and exhausted, but exhilarated. And we could only laugh when we realised that for most of us it was the first time since childhood that we had crawled and played in the mud. If only our mothers could see us now. It had been a wonderful adventure in the dark.

Tours to the Dark Cave

There are 2 tours available:

1. The educational tour, run daily on a basis, cost is RM15. Takes about 1-1.5 hours, walking along concrete paths.

2. The adventure tour (as described in the article), cost RM25 per person, and should be booked in advance.

No special equipment is required, just wear old clothes and lace up shoes, and bring a good torch with spare batteries. And for the adventure tour, don't forget to bring a change of clothing to go home in!

Caving by raft, Kelantan - WildAsia

Caving By Raft In Ulu Kelantan

Go rafting in Ulu Kelantan to explore Malaysia's best archaeological cave sites along Sungai Nenggiri. Follow LIZ PRICE as she tumbles on white water to tell the history of Gua Cha and Gua Peraling.

[published WildAsia 7 June 2002]

Sungai Nenggiri in Ulu Kelantan offers exciting white water rafting in spectacular scenery, plus the chance to visit sites lived and worked in by former, ancient inhabitants. The river originates in the south west corner of Kelantan, then flows up to Bertam collecting several inlet rivers along the way. It joins the Sg.Galas, which is turn flows into the Sg.Kelantan before reaching the sea at Kota Bharu. Some of Malaysia's richest archaeological caves are to be found along the river: Gua Cha, Gua Chawan and Gua Jaya. These caves are archaeologically important as unlike other caves throughout the Peninsula, they have been undisturbed by guano collectors. One reason for the lack of disturbance is there are no roads to the caves. So what better way to explore them than as part of a white water rafting trip?

Getting there

I went along with Khersonese Expeditions, who pioneered the Nenggiri. From Gua Musang it is about 30km to Kuala Betis, and the put in point is 16km beyond Kuala Betis, and conveniently close to Gua Cha, which is on the left bank of the Nenggiri. This area is accessible by four wheel drive. The tar road from town turns into a muddy logging track, which is made worse by the procession of trucks taking out logs from the forest. And the first sight of the river is a wide brown ribbon snaking through the greenness of the surrounding forest. Nowadays the river is constantly a rich brown colour and is very silty, proof of all the logging which is taking place in the area. During the journey downstream, on several occasions cleared scars can be seen on the banks as a result from the logging which is taking place. And the once white limestone hills are now stained a brown colour at water level.

Gua Cha

Gua Cha in Ulu Kelantan is situated near Kuala Betis and can be reached by a logging track as mentioned above. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Peninsula Malaysia, due to the number of complete well preserved human burials, the abundance and variety of animal remains and cultural objects. Gua Cha is the largest rock shelter along the Sg.Nenggiri valley, and has been inhabited since 9000 years ago. Do note however, that Gua Cha can be visited before starting out down river.

The site was first investigated by Noone in 1935, then P.D.R.Williams-Hunt briefly visited in 1951. G. de G. Sieveking made the first serious excavations in 1954, followed by Adi Haji Taha in 1979. H.D.Noone only partially excavated the site, and it was G. de G. Sieveking who made the important discoveries. Noone was working at the Perak Museum, and doing research on the Temiar Orang Asli. In the ten days he spent digging, he found stone tools and flakes, pottery and human remains. He recognised the different Hoabinhian and Neolithic layers, the lowest layers (i.e. the oldest) containing the Hoabinhian tools. The term Hoabinhian refers to the pebble and flake tool industry, which was in southeast Asia from 12000-5000 years BP. Neolithic, or New Stone Age, is characterised by polished adzes and axes, and pottery. The Hoabinhians were hunters and gatherers, whereas the Neolithic people were more agricultural bound.

Williams-Hunt was Director of Museums, and although he excavated Gua Cha in 1951, no full report was published. Apart from tools, flakes and pottery, he found a human skeleton laid under limestone slabs. Unfortunately Williams-Hunt died shortly after.

G. de G. Sieveking was working for the Federated Malaya States Museums, Kuala Lumpur, and systematically excavated Gua Cha along with M.W.F.Tweedie of the Raffles Museum, Singapore. Their findings threw new light on the prehistory of the region, indicating that some Orang Asli were here around 10,000 years ago. And they showed the importance of the Nenggiri as a major inland route through the Peninsula. The Hoabinhian tools and burials were found below the occupation layers with pottery, with a few signs of overlap with the Neolithic. The Hoabinhians probably occupied the shelter from 9000-5000 years ago. They had a well developed industry with well made stone implements, and living by hunting and gathering. The Neolithic remains showed burials accompanied by grave goods such as pottery, polished stone tools, shell necklaces and stone bracelets. In all more than 30 burials were found.

Gua Cha has had various names over the years. Noone who first excavated the shelter referred to it as Gua Menteri, after the large stalagmite in the centre. The name may have been derived from an Orang Asli called Menteri who lived in Kampung Gua Cha. The Temiar (orang asli) call the shelter Gua Chos, their pronunciation of Cha.

The rock shelter is in a limestone cliff, and is about 18m long, with a maximum width of 18m, and height of about 13m. The cliff however is not really part of a free-standing limestone outcrop. A small stream runs past the hill and flows into the Nenggiri.

Gua Peraling

Gua Bukit Peraling is at Kuala Yai, on the south bank of the Sg.Perias, and 15 minutes walk from Kampung Tohoi. The rock shelter was discovered in the 1940's, when H.D.Collings recorded it as having great archaeological potential. Williams-Hunt briefly looked at the site in 1951. In 1994 a team from the Department of Museums and Antiquities began excavations under Adi Haji Taha, and they found remains of human burials, and blue Indian glass beads, stone implements and pottery pieces. The glass beads are similar to those found at Santubong in Sarawak. It is estimated that Gua Peraling was inhabited about 2000 years ago. It is a large rock shelter, with two chambers, about 90m long in all, and running parallel with the Sg.Perias.

Gua Bukit Chawas and Gua Batu Cincin

Although these two caves are not visited during the rafting expedition (the cave is 8.5m long and 8.5m wide, and is in a rubber estate), they are new discoveries which are worthy of note. They were found by loggers in 1992, and first excavated in 1993, and findings have shown evidence from the Hoabinhian and Neolithic periods, as well as a pre-Islamic Malay kingdom in Ulu Kelantan from about 1000 years ago. It was probably a Buddhist and Hindu but not Indian culture, and part of the Srivijaya Empire (600-1300 AD).

The caves are 7km from Kuala Betis, and are about one kilometre apart, and only accessible by 4WD. Bukit Chawas has 2 caves: Gua Chawas in which Gua Berhala Kechil is situated, and the smaller Gua Berhala Atas. The initial excavations revealed Orang Asli remains of food remnants and bone tools. Further digging showed traces from the Srivijaya period; ash layers are believed to be from the baking of votive tablets as found in various other caves, e.g. those in Perlis. About 1000 pieces of tablet were found in Gua Berhala Kechil, and show images of Buddha and a Hindu god. The Neolithic artifacts consist of ceramics, polished stone tools, and food remains such as bones and siput shells. Pebble and flake tools are from the Hoabinhian period. Gua Chawas is about 23m long, 10m wide and 5m high. There are some paintings of a family on the roof.

In Gua Batu Cincin evidence was found to suppose the cave was used as a camp site. Pottery and cooking utensils were found from about 2000-3000 years ago, i.e. Neolithic. More recent is an Orang Asli art gallery on the walls, from about 300-400 years ago. These paintings are similar to those found in Gua Sireh in Sarawak. They depict people and animals.

Adi Haji Taha (1993) referred to the caves as Gua Berhala in Gua Cina, at Gunung Biol.

The next caves of note are downriver, and after an afternoon's rafting, one arrives at Kuala Jenera, where camp is made. Interestingly, Mike Gibby described the Jenera as being clear water - when I was there in November 1996, the water was really brown and silty. Obviously logging is taking place upriver. The following day an Orang Asli guide led us along the forest path to reach Gua Chawan.

Gua Chawan

Gua Chawan is situated on the left bank of the Sg.Jenera and runs parallel to the river. The cave takes its name from a formation which looks like a cup. It was excavated by British archaeologist Brian A.V.Peacock in 1962-3, who thought the site was a pebble tool industry from the Hoabinhian period. He found tools and pottery.

Following the cliff upstream there are two small rock shelters, one of which has some nice crystalline formations. Further on is the main one "cave", again just a large rock shelter, the only cave passage being a loop of about 15m. But I did see a solitary bird nest inside. There are some charcoal marks about 15m long on one wall, carbon dated to about 1000 years old, which may have been from a fire used to make the votive tablets. Maybe they were made here, and used in Gua Berhala Kechil. There are a lot of large stalactites hanging down from the cliff. The rock shelter is about 100m long, and 10m above the river.

Beyond Bukit Chawan is another limestone hill, and across the river is the Orang Asli settlement of Pos Gemala. We had a traditional lunch here, quite a scenic spot with the white hills rising tall out of the green forest. That night we slept in Gua Jaya, which is just downstream on the Nenggiri.

Gua Jaya
Today the only access to Gua Jaya or Yahaya is from the river. The Orang Asli took us in their boat, and mooring under a low overhang, we had to scramble to the bank and climb up the steep slope using convenient tree roots. The cave is about 10m above the river. The main chamber is large, about 36m long and 23m wide with quite a lot of guano on the floor, but very few bats. About 1500 pottery shards were found here by Peacock in 1962-3, and he suggested the cave was used as a kiln. There are some charcoal drawings of matchstick figures. At the end of the chamber a climb up and over some fine, small gour pools leads into the next, smaller chamber. Here I saw a nest of braken, and some unidentified paw prints. Following the cliff face in the other direction, i.e. upstream, a climb leads up into a short passage, but it doesn't actually lead anywhere.

The next day is spent rafting down to Kg.Keldong, which again has limestone outcrops, although we were unable to visit any. There is a small hill on the left bank, opposite the resort, and behind the resort is Batu Keldong. On the final day, we went past several fine deeply undercut limestone hills before the put out point is reached at the road bridge at Kg.Setelu (Setar). From here, a 4WD ride took us back to Gua Musang. I travelled this road with the Cave Group in 1992 in an ordinary car; today the road has become so bad that a 4WD is necessary. There seems to be a lot more logging activities generally in the area.

Using evidence gathered from all these caves in Ulu Kelantan, the archaeologists can slowly piece together the history of the area. Archaeological evidence from Thailand can also help complete the picture, as there were no borders in those days. The caves were probably used as shelters and campsites during the nomadic lifestyle of these ancient people. Perhaps the Semangs have descended from the Hoabinhian, as they have remained largely hunters and gatherers, whereas the Temiars are the descendants of the Neolithic, as they are more agriculture-based.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.


ADI HAJI TAHA (1993) Recent archaeological discoveries in P.Malaysia (1991-1993). JMBRAS 66(1)77-83.
ADI HAJI TAHA (1985) The re-excavation of the rockshelter of Gua Cha, Ulu Kelantan. Federation Museums Journal, 30:1-134.
GIBBY,Mike (1995) Malaysian waterlines. Malayan Naturalist 48(4)4-7.
GIBBY,Mike (1996) Where in the world? Ibid 49(2)24-28.
NORAINI SHARIFF (1994) Caves hold key to Kelantan's past. New Straits Times, Lifestyle, Apr 29.
PEACOCK,B.A.V. (1965) The prehistoric archaeology of Malayan caves. MNJ 19:40-56.
PRICE,Liz (1994) Archaeological discoveries in Kelantan caves. International Caver 10:36.
PRICE,Liz (1994) Kelantan caves -further discoveries. Ibid 11:40.
G de G SIEVEKING (1955) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1954). JMBRAS 28(1)198-201.
WILLIAMS-HUNT,P.D.R. (1951) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1945-50). Ibid 24(1)187.
WILLIAMS-HUNT,P.D.R. (1952) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1951). Ibid 25(1)183.

Lenggong, Pen. Malaysia's oldest prehistoric site - WA

Lenggong Valley: Peninsular Malaysia's Oldest Prehistoric Site

From the remains of the paleolithic Perak Man, ancient burial grounds, to Negrito cave drawings, LIZ PRICE digs up archaelogical gems in the limestone karsts of Upper Perak.

[published on WildAsia 6 Jul 2002]

Peninsula Malaysia's oldest inhabitant is 11,000 years old, and his name is Perak Man. He is now residing in a museum in Perak, having recently been to Japan for an exhibition. He is a Stone Age man, and was found buried in Gua Gunung Runtuh at Lenggong in Perak. It is believed he was an important member of his tribe judging by the way he was buried, in a foetal position, accompanied by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall and probably aged between 30-55 when he died.

This is the only complete human skeleton which has been found in Malaysia. Also discovered in the cave were some older bones, and remnants of tools and food such as shells and animal bones. The cave was probably used as a camp for hunting, being well situated high up.

The earliest known site of human inhabitation was at Kota Tampan. Excavations which began in 1938 revealed an undisturbed stone tool production area, where pebble tools were made using equipment such as anvils and hammer stones. Some 50,000 pieces of stone have been found and recorded, and the culture is referred to as Tampanian. The workshop was initially dated at 30,000 years old, but this figure has now been revised to 75,000 years.

More recently a team has been digging a site at Bukit Jawa, and this has been dated at 200,000 years old, which is therefore far older than the Kota Tampan workshop, which is just 6km away.

Lenggong can be likened to an open air museum, and is home to legends, skeletons, cave drawings and precious finds such as jewellery, pottery, weapons and stone tools.

The Lenggong valley in Upper Perak is one of Peninsula Malaysia's most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia's prehistory. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100 kilometres north of Ipoh on the Kuala Kangsar to Grik road. It is the site of the oldest known place of human activity in the Peninsula.

Actually Malaysia is a very young country archaeologically having a very recent prehistory. In Africa the predecessors of the human species originated about 3 - 5 million years ago. Their descendants migrated out of Africa and remains have been found all over Europe and Asia, e.g. Java Man and Peking Man, both date from 300,000 years ago.

Malaysia's earliest remains only date back some 40,000 years, from Niah Cave in Sarawak, where a human skull was found. In Semenanjung (Peninsula) Malaysia the story is even more recent, 31,000 years and starts in Lenggong. Incidentally, many people think of the Bujang Valley in Kedah as being one of the oldest sites, but its history only stretches back about 1,500 years.

Lenggong's prehistory extends back to the Palaeolithic or old Stone Age, but most sites are more recent, from the Neolithic or new Stone Age. The Palaeolithic period occurred from 2 million - 10,000 years ago, and the people at that time were the first tool makers, who lived by hunting and gathering. During the new Stone Age the tools had been improved, and pottery was used, and the people practised farming.

All the archaeological remains found in Lenggong have been associated with caves, with the exception of Kota Tampan and Bukit Jawa. These two are Peninsular Malaysia's only Palaeolithic sites. Today it is a rural area a few kilometres south of Lenggong, with small kampungs surrounded by green vegetation and limestone hills. Although the Kota Tampan workshop site is currently on a hillside, and in an oil palm plantation, the original site was on a lake shore.

It is thought that the workshop was disbanded around 30,000 years ago due to a volcanic eruption at Lake Toba in Sumatra, some 250 kilometres away. There is a large gap of some 17,000 years between Kota Tampan and the next archaeological site, Gua Gunung Runtuh. Maybe the Lenggong area became unsuitable for human habitation during this period, but of course nobody today can be sure of this.

Gua Gunung Runtuh is situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah or Elephant's Head Hill. In the same hill other caves have yielded archaeological remains such as stone tools and food remnants, but no more skeletons. The caves were probably used as temporary shelters as seasonal or hunting camps, whereas Gua Gunung Runtuh was lived in for longer periods.

The next oldest site is Gua Harimau or Tiger Cave. It is about 3 kilometres away from Gua Gunung Runtuh and is an isolated site, and was probably used as a burial ground some 5000 - 3000 years ago. Seven human skeletons have been found (but no tiger bones), also bronze axes, and various articles of jewellery such as chains, bangles, earrings and bead lockets. The bronze axes show that there was an early Bronze tradition in Malaysia, as well as in north Thailand and China. It is the earliest use of metal in south-east Asia. Porcelain containers of various shapes and sizes were also found containing meat and siput shells (a generic name for snails).

Archaeological digs in other caves have revealed pottery, axes stone tools and flakes. Also food remains, and in some sites, human bones. Unfortunately some caves have been disturbed by guano diggers and any remains have therefore been lost.

Gua Puteri is a natural tunnel which pierces Bukit Kajang. There are no archaeological findings here, but instead the cave is known for its legends. Two stalagmites are believed to be a prince and princess who guard the cave. Locals say that if children climb up the stalagmites they will fall sick.

Negrito cave drawings have been found at various sites but are not prehistoric, as they are only about 100 years old. Gua Badak is one of the main places for these drawings, situated about 10 kilometres north of Lenggong. The Negritos are one of the aboriginal tribes of Malaysia.

The Lanoh Negrito made the illustrative recordings of their every life. The charcoal drawings were first discovered and documented in the 1920's by Ivor Evans. They were then thought to have been lost by quarrying, but were rediscovered in 1992 and hopefully will now be preserved as a national heritage. Luckily most of the drawings survived the blasting, although some are missing, believed destroyed. And unfortunately modern graffiti covers some of the original drawings.

Unlike cave art at places such as Lascaux in France, which date back some 15,000 years, the Negrito drawings are "modern" art. The Negritos used the caves as shelters during hunting trips. The sketches depict tribal art such as animals, people, trees, mats, and even bicycles and motorcars. Apart from the charcoal drawings, they made white pictures by scrapping away the limestone rock.

The drawings are simple, featuring matchstick men. There is a man carrying a pole laden with coconuts. A bow and arrow symbolize the hunting tools which were replaced by the blowpipe. There are men on horses, a man with an elephant, a hunting party. Animals such as leaf monkeys, monitor lizards and porcupine all made for a good meal and were therefore illustrated.

The Lanoh Negritos are still found in Perak today, generally working on rubber and oil palm estates, although some do still hunt. They are formed into six tribes.

Most of the old troglodytes or cave dwellers of the Malay Peninsula temporarily lived in caves and rock shelters. They lived mainly by hunting, evidence shown by the remains of animal bones and molluscs.

The people may have painted their bodies using red iron oxide. They used stones and slabs for grinding up substances such as salt, and all their tools were made of stones. Flakes were used as knives or scrappers.

So it can be seen that the Lenggong area is very important as it contains much evidence relating to the prehistory of Malaysia. It is the oldest area where remains have been found, and all the sites are situated conveniently within a small area.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

Bogor & Bandung - WildAsia

Bogor, Bandung Bubble with Activity

LIZ PRICE was not want of adventures in West Java, Indonesia as she let Buena Vista take her on an expansive tour of the wild side of Bogor and Bandung.

[published WildAsia 20 Mar 2003]
© Liz Price

If you are bored with the ordinary, stereotypical touristic objects, and shun “mass tourism”, then the Buena Vista Travel Club is for you. Buena Vista, based in West Java, Indonesia, specialises in tours for the adventurous and those craving out of the ordinary activities ranging from abseiling and archaeology to bird-watching. You can visit volcanoes, caves, tea plantations, go white water rafting, river wading and even learn about mountain survival. Having heard about all the options available, I decided to have a look at what was on offer. Buena Vista is in the Puncak Valley outside of Bogor, in West Java. I flew from KL to Jakarta, and took the airport bus straight to Bogor, bypassing Jakarta.

My adventures started immediately upon arrival when I was met by Dr Robby Ko, president of the Indonesian caving association and “big boss” of Buena Vista.

Not wanting to waste any time, he immediately took me to the world-famous Bogor Botanic Garden which lies smack in the centre of Bogor. Apart from the many tropical plant species, it has become well-known for research and conservation, housing probably Indonesia's only specimen of Ficus albipila, a huge strangling fig.

There are guided walks around Bogor Garden, as well as drivable roads. The garden was established during Dutch rule, and opened in 1817. Prior to this, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles had been governor of Java from 1811-1816 and had planned the palace grounds, the palace being on the north side of the gardens. A monument to Raffles' wife can be seen here.

Having enjoyed the splendour of the garden and orchid house, I was fed and watered, and had a quick tour of Bogor town. Bogor was an important hill station during Dutch times, standing at 290m, and indeed still is a pleasant retreat from the city of Jakarta 60km to the north.

Bogor is also known as the “City of Rain”. It lived up to its name as it poured on my first afternoon, but the skies soon cleared as we set off for the Puncak Pass.

Like a Swiss summer

The Puncak Pass is a beautiful 1,500m high pass on a narrow, winding mountain road through small resort towns and tea plantations on the way to Bandung. Buena Vista has its headquarters nestled on the slopes of the pass with great views over the valley. It reminded me of Switzerland in summer, with the green mountains and cool air. Driving up the pass, I saw an amazing assortment of resorts, motels, restaurants and villas; all of these really come alive on weekends and holidays.

I was soon ensconced in my quarters, and very pleasantly surprised by the comfort of it all. There is a selection of rooms, with two or more beds, sofa, tables and chairs, attached bathrooms, and small kitchenettes. I had a tour of the place, and if it hadn't been chilly I would have jumped straight into the swimming pool. There are conference rooms and meeting rooms, lecture halls, an exhibition of caving and other activities, and library. Buena Vista is fully equipped for all outdoor activities.

There are some good hikes in the area, waterfalls and rivers to explore. Just up the road is Cibodas, a beautiful extension of the Bogor Botanic Gardens, surrounded by thick tropical jungle on the slopes of the twin volcanoes Gunung Gede and Pangrango. The Cibodas gardens are the start of the climb to the 2,958m peak of the still active Gunung Gede. To make the climb, you must get a permit from the park office situated near the entrance. Alternatively, you can take the steeper trail to the top of Gunung Pangrango (3,019m). If you are unable to make the 10km trek to the top of the volcano, you can still visit the beautiful waterfalls along the trail.

Driving up the pass through the Gunung Mas tea plantation is particularly scenic in the early morning when the sun's rays appear over the mountain tops. We set off early morning and the beauty of the scenery compensated for my early rise. We stopped at the Puncak Pass Hotel at the top, which is an old Dutch building. The restaurant was doing a roaring trade in breakfast.

As we headed for Bandung, we visited Bunga Raya, an astonishing vast estate of huge houses in different styles, such as Chinese, Dutch, English, Thai, Japanese, and Wild West etc. Some were nice, others were quite garish. It was something totally unexpected. The gardens and grounds were immaculate and there was a Little Venice area. Such opulence. Most houses are just weekend homes for the rich from Jakarta and Bogor.

Beyond this dream world, we drove past kilometres of nurseries and the colours were incredible –– bougainvilleas of every shade of purple and pink, row after row of plants, from shrubs to fruit bushes and bonsai.

Cool and comfortable

Bandung was bustling as it was a weekend and people flock here from Jakarta for shopping at the textile and clothes factory outlets. Bandung is the capital of West Java and Indonesia's third largest city, but is fairly unhurried and is cool and comfortable at an altitude of 750m.

We drove around the congested streets, saw old Dutch houses and big trees, and then of course it was lunchtime. Malaysians are known for their constant ability to eat, which includes snacking in-between frequent meals and Indonesians are just the same, if not worse. My trip turned into an eating tour –– not that I was complaining.

Having filled our stomachs once again, we set off through Lembang with its planetarium and rabbit satay stalls to Tangkuban Prahu. This “overturned prahu” volcano crater stands out from the plains surrounding Bandung, and is a popular spot which can be reached by road. Tangkuban Prahu still simmers and bubbles, having last erupted in 1969. There are also hot springs in the area.

South of Bandung in the Ciwidey area are other scenic attractions which sadly aren't mentioned in guide books, but are well worth a visit. We ate strawberry dodol and kelua jeruk (candied pickles) during the drive, and fried tofu at Lake Patengan in Rancanboli. The lake is in the centre of tea plantations. I stopped to take pictures of three red leaf plants –– poinsettia, cinnamon, and quinine (kina) common in this area.

We then went to Kawah Putih or White Crater at Gunung Patuha. We could drive all but the last couple of hundred metres to the crater. The crater is so pretty, a smallish sulphur lake of creamy-coloured water, not very smelly and gently steaming in places. It has been described as the most scenic crater lake in Java. I managed to put one foot in to feel the water temperature. When I pulled out my leg, it looked like I'd got a plaster cast. Needless to say I stank of sulphur for the rest of the day.

After a drive around the tea plantations came lunch at the delightful Sindang Restaurant in Ciwidey. This is a typical Sundanese place with little bamboo rooms over a fishpond; you sit on the floor and enjoy a feast and live traditional music.

Driving back to Bogor, we visited the man-made Lake Cirata, formed in 1984 when the Citarum River was dammed. We took a boat to the karamba, which are floating fishponds in the middle of the lake, where they rear carp catfish and other species. It was fun walking on the gangplanks which consisted of four lengths of bamboo tied together, some with handrails. A good sense of balance was required, but we nearly had a mishap when four of us got onto one length of plank and it nearly collapsed.

We watched the fish being fed with pellets which caused quite a feeding frenzy. We then had a tofu snack at the floating village shop. My friend was startled when a rat scampered past her. We were told cats also come to the karamba, as they can swim. Swimming cats, rats and fish! An amazing place. A superb fish lunch followed, back on the mainland.

Being a caving fanatic, I wanted to see some of the local caves, so we did a day trip to Gua Boni Ayu which is a fine river cave, south of Sukabumi and Sagaranthen. The Forest Department looks after this cave which is open to the public for caving tours. I was also able to see Bat Cave or Gua Lalay at Pelabuhan Rata on the southwest coast.

This coastline is very impressive with huge waves crashing onto the shore. Legend has it that the Queen of the South Seas, a malevolent goddess, takes fishermen and swimmers off to her watery kingdom, especially those wearing green. In accordance with a seldom publicised “custom” in the hospitality industry, the Samudra Hotel keeps a room unoccupied for the Queen.

We took a drive along the coast to Cisolok and I was surprised to see padi fields extending right down to the beach, the blues and greens contrasting beautifully. When we stopped to buy brown sugar at Cisolok, the car was surrounded by boys and men on motorbikes. I wondered what was happening –– they turned out to be touts for traditional penis enlargement!

Sadly, I ran out of time, and only managed to sample a few of West Java's attractions. It is a surprisingly scenic place for those who enjoy the outdoors. Buena Vista can arrange packages to suit your every whim. My thanks to Dr Ko for being such a generous and informative host.

Caves of Tasik Kenyir, Terengganu - WildAsia

The Remaining Caves of Tasik Kenyir, Terengganu

Malaysia's Tasik Kenyir is famous as the largest man-made lake in south east Asia, but here LIZ PRICE explores two fascinating caves, Gua Bewah and Gua Taat, left unflooded on the lake's southern end.

[published on WildAsia 11 Apr 2003]

Tasik Kenyir is well known as a prime spot for fishing, but we went there for an adventure of a different kind. Caving. A group from the MNS Selangor Branch Cave Group had been invited by Ketengah to survey the caves with a view to developing them for tourism. Ketengah is the Tasik Kenyir Development & Tourism Division (Lembaga Kemajuan Terengganu Tengah).

Tasik Kenyir in ulu Terengganu is the largest man-made lake not only in Malaysia, but also in south east Asia. When the area was flooded with water between 1978 and 1985, most of the hilltops and highlands remained above water level, thus creating about 340 man-made islands. There are more than 14 waterfalls, numerous rapids and rivers. And caves.

Located about 60 kilometres from Kuala Terengganu, it covers an area of 369 sq. km or 260,000 hectares. This makes it Malaysia's largest rock-filled hydroelectric dam. Sharing its border with Kelantan in the west and Pahang in the south, this immense lake also serves as a third gateway to Taman Negara. The hilly regions of Tasik Kenyir contain areas of untouched tropical rainforest estimated to be millions of years old.

Caves of Kenyir

There are two caves accessible to visitors at Kenyir, Gua Bewah and Gua Taat. They are located at the southern end of the lake, and lie within Taman Negara. Therefore permits have to be bought in order to enter the Park. From Pengkalan Gawi (Gawi jetty), which is the main gateway to Tasik Kenyir, you have a choice of speedboat or slower houseboat. We went out by speedboat, the journey took 70 minutes and it was a fun ride, although those in the front got soaked as water washed over the bows. It was actually quite chilly speeding over the lake, especially as the sun was hiding behind clouds. We returned using the more leisurely houseboat which takes about 3 hours.

Before the creation of the lake, there were probably several caves accessible and some were of archaeological importance. However when the area was flooded, most of the caves were lost underwater. Batu Tok Bidan cave in Gunung Bewah was one of those. Prior to its disappearance, archaeologists had discovered Neolithic artifacts such as kitchen utensils, stone adzes and pottery sherds. Mollusc shells with the tips broken off suggests the site was frequently used as a shelter in the prehistoric past. Even a Neolithic burial was found, with broken pottery laid at the foot of the deceased. The Neolithic or New Stone Age era occurred roughly 10,000 years ago. The cave was probably adjacent to two well-known routes used by the aborigines in prehistoric times through Terengganu to Sungai Tembling. The cave was first dug in 1959 by R.Noone, and later by Malaysian Historical Society in 1976.

Gua Bewah

Now there are two remaining limestone hills containing caves. The caves can only be reached by boat. Gua Bewah is the biggest of the known caves, situated in Bukit Bewah. From the floating jetty a steep flight of steps leads up to the big entrance situated 40m above lake level. The cave is basically one huge chamber. A strong stench of guano was noticeable as we climbed up the steps, indicating a large colony of bats living inside the cave. As we went in, it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, and we realised just how huge the chamber is. The roof was high above our heads, and although we could hear the bats, we couldn't see them.

Bats play an important role in the ecosystem, because where there are bats, there will also be other cave fauna. The bats support the whole food chain - their droppings or guano is fed upon by the smaller fauna such as insects and invertebrates which in turn are food for larger creatures such as small mammals, frogs and toads and even the cave snake.

To the left of the main entrance are various pits in the floor which were dug by the museum department. Unfortunately no mention is made of what archaeological relics were found. Old sacks of guano bear testimony to the fact that people once entered to the cave to harvest guano for use as a fertilizer. Today the sacks make a convenient staircase up the guano covered floor. There used to be electric lighting in the cave, but it no longer works.

The back section of the cave is the most interesting containing an abundance of cave fauna such as crickets, cockroaches and spiders. There are not many stalagmites or stalactites, so although the cave is not pretty in that sense, it is really impressive due to the huge size of the chamber. I did a brief survey of the cave fauna, in particular the bats and cockroaches. A report of my findings was submitted to Ketengah.

Gua Taat

Gua Taat is in the hill opposite Bewah and has two entrances. The main entrance is reached by a wooden step ladder, the steps are obviously underwater when the level of the lake is high. The entrance is quite small and low compared to Bewah. Again there are a few pits dug in the floor, and these probably fill up with water during monsoon time, when the lake will overflow into the cave. We saw otter pawprints in and around the pits, I guess the animals catch fish which get trapped in here during monsoon time.

A straight tunnel with a flat roof leads to the back section, where a small stream is met. The passage then swings round to the left, and there are some nice formations. Light comes in from the second entrance, but to reach it entails a belly crawl through a tight squeeze.

Gua Taat was first dug in 1959. Flaked tools from the Hoabinhian period were found, as well as pottery and food remains such as mollusc shells. The Hoabinhian period occurred about 14,000 - 10,000 years ago.

There is a second cave further round, Gua Taat 2, but it is basically just a long rock shelter. It is easy to see why Stone Age man used these caves as temporary refuges, as shelter and protection from wild animals and the elements, and providing a good view down onto the lower grounds below.

As Taat and Bewah may hold more secrets of the past, further excavations are now being planned by the authorities in its bid to unravel the mysteries and secrets of these caves. Ketengah with the cooperation of the State Museum and other government agencies plans to provide better access to these caves.

Managing Kenyir, eastern Taman Negara

Ketengah administers the lake and islands and is taking care to protect this natural heritage and recognizes the value in preserving this area of mountainous tropical rainforest. They are taking steps to provide facilities such as ranger stations, base camps and hiking trails.

Surrounded by a lush tropical jungle, the Kenyir Lake is a popular and ideal retreat for nature lovers, anglers, photographers and also cavers. Activities include fishing, swimming canoeing, boating and jungle trekking. Due to the cleanliness of the lake, Tasik Kenyir has a wide variety of fresh water fish such as Baung, Toman, Kelisa and Lampam. Accommodation such as houseboats, floating chalets and lakeside resorts are also available to visitors.

Thanks to Encik Johari of Ketengah for hosting our visit, and to Yusof of Try Adventure for transport arrangements.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.


ADI HAJI TAHA (1983) Recent archaeological discoveries in Peninsular Malaysia (1976-1982). JMBRAS 56(1)47-63
ADI HAJI TAHA (1991b) Archaeological discoveries in Peninsular Malaysia (1987-90). JMBRAS 64(1)75-96.
NAZIM, (Tenku) (1999) Exploration report. MNS SB CG, Nov. Unpub. report prepared for Ketengah.
PRICE, L (2000) Kenyir's impressive caves. The Star, Weekender, April 15th p29 (2 phot.).

Torajaland, Sulawesi - WildAsia

Life and Death in Torajaland, Sulawesi

LIZ PRICE gets an unexpected invitation to witness a Torajan funeral rite in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and finds their culture and traditions very much alive.

[published on WildAsia 11 Apr 2003]

[Stolen and published on Indonesia and World Tourism News February 26th, 2007 ]

© Liz Price

In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, I was chatting to a local man when he asked me to the funeral of his mother. Taken aback by this offer, as normally funerals are private matters reserved for family and friends, I politely refused. Yet he insisted, saying funerals are happy occassions and it would be an honour that I attend. I was in Torajaland, the centre of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The Torajan population are of Malay origin and came to Sulawesi many centuries ago settling around the town of Rantepao in what is now known at Tana Toraja. Although Islam arrived in Sulawesi in the early 17th century, the people still hold onto some beliefs of their forefathers.

What I knew of the funerary rites was limited other than they can last for several years. When a person dies, the body is placed in the back room of the house and is left there until enough money can be saved to give a decent ceremony so that the deceased can go to the next world. During this time, the deceased is considered to be sleeping and family members regularly attend to offer food and drink. The soul can only go on to the afterworld when the death ritual has been enacted. When it is time for the funeral, there is a procession around the villages so the departed can bid farewell to the living. Everyone gathers at the site for the celebrations, where bamboo pavilions have been erected.

The "Buffalo" in Toraja Culture

The first thing noticeable were the slaughtered buffalo lying in the centre of the pavilions. While startling from a western viewpoint, this is an important part of the funeral ceremony. As the relatives believe that the souls of animals follow the master to the next life, this accounts for the requirement of animal sacrifices at the local requiems. A strong buffalo is needed to carry the soul of the master on the journey to the afterworld.

In Torajaland the buffalo has long been the symbol of wealth and power. The more important the dead person, the more buffalo are slaughtered. In an attempt to impress, the family will slaughter as many buffalo as possible, and quite often this can cause financial ruin. In an attempt to end the practice, the Indonesian government has imposed a tax on each beast killed. As well, one buffalo has to be given to the tax collectors, and one to the church.

Funeral Rites

On the first day, the buffalo are slaughtered in the field. This is considered to be the moment of death of the "sleeping" person. I was only too glad that the beasts had already been killed. The carcasses were laid on the ground and the heads had been placed in a line. Nine heads were displayed. This meant the family had saved up a large portion of their income. Each buffalo cost up to two million rupiah (approx. $400 CDN).

The departed are said to preside over the ceremony and therefore the coffin is situated on a high platform constructed around the house at one end of the field. This was actually right next to the hut where I was sitting. The coffin and trimmings were decorated in bright red material. The children from the family were standing near me, each one dressed in their traditional attire.

The guests began to file in, forming a procession, firstly going past the tax tables. Each group of guests carried offerings tied to a bamboo pole: live animals such as pigs, food or drink. The pigs were killed out of sight at the back of the houses. Each group of adults were led in by the children of the deceased, and the visitors were taken to another hut for tea and cigarettes. I had actually taken a box of cigarettes as my contribution. This procession went on all morning. I was given some local palm wine, and drunk it out of a long piece of bamboo before lunch. This was rice on a banana leaf, with some of the barbecued meat, washed down with more tuak.

After lunch, The remaining buffalo carcasses were beginning to smell having been lying in the hot sun. Each carcass was skinned and butchered, and meat was being auctioned off, and the people were leaving with their share of meat tied to a piece of string. These procedures continue for anything from one to seven days. For entertainment there are buffalo, cock, and kick fighting.

Burial Day

The following day would be the actual burial and the body was being put in the family crypt in a stone grave. There are three methods of burial for the Torajan people. The coffin, plus any possessions which will be needed in the afterlife are placed either in a cave grave, a stone grave or a hanging grave.

There are many caves in the surrounding limestone hills, and for most people the coffin is placed just inside the cave entrance. The wealthy often have a stone grave carved out of the rocky cliff. This costs a considerable amount as it takes a specialist many months to chisel out the tomb. In some cases the hole can be large enough to accommodate the whole family. Sometimes the entrance is sealed with a metal or wooden gate, otherwise it is left open.

A carved effigy of the deceased is made and placed on the wooden balcony built on the rock face. These statue or tau tau look down over the land, and offerings are put in their outstretched hands. The tau tau are one of the most photographed sights in Sulawesi, and pictures appear in all the guidebooks. Unfortunately, theft of the statues by souvenir and antique collectors has become a major problem.

The third burial method is to hang the coffin by ropes and suspend it from the cliff face. This is known as a hanging grave. After some years the ropes inevitably rot and the coffin falls to the ground below. Coffins of babies and children are hung from trees.

All these types of burial mean that valuable farming land is not wasted by space taken up for cemeteries. It is a very scenic area with green valleys and rice paddies dominated by limestone hills. But it is the Torajan houses which provide a spectacular setting in this serene landscape.

The wooden houses are built on high stilts, and have large curved roofs. These roofs are said to resemble ships or buffalo horns: ships to represent the means of transport by which the settlers arrived, and horns because the buffalo is an important animal linking man to his ancestors. All the houses point north, the direction from which the settlers came. Opposite the houses are smaller replicas which are used as rice barns. Both the houses and rice barns are intricately carved, and are further decorated with buffalo horns. It is good to see that these Torajan people have not lost their culture but still practice it today.

Travelling to Sulawesi:

Travel advisories exist due to civil unrest, protests against UN action.
Visa Requirements: 60 day stay without visa

Currency and Costs: $1 CDN= 5000 Rupiah (rp). Exchange rates fluctuate wildy and travellers are advised to carry credit cards and US cash (when no ATMs available). Large denomination bills ($100) get better exchange rates. Most purchases require bargaining but look to your conscience before applying this too stringently. Tipping is generally not expected. Budget rooms can be found from 15 000 rp; meals from 5 000-10 000 rp.

When to go: Travel is possible year round. It's hot and wet during the wet season (October to April) and hot and dry during the dry season (May to September). The best time to visit Indonesia is from April to October. Monsoons can make travel difficult in remote areas and affect underwater visibility for diving/snorkeling.

Getting around: The interior roads on Sulawesi are in dubious shape. Mountain rpads are often clogged by mud and rockslides. When traversing the island, allow plenty of time and extra days. Air-conditioned buses to Rantepao are advisable as it is a long trip: six hours from Pare Pare; nine hours from Ujung Pandang (Capital). The Pelni ship from Maumere (Flores) to Ujung Pandang only goes once every two weeks on a Friday night. Avoid deck class; pay the extra for cabin class, you'll be glad you did. Flights from Ujung Pandang to Denpasar (Bali) cost 555,000 rupiah (note: allow extra days for flight cancellations). Merpati airlines gives 25% student discounts on flights (require copies of your ISIC card).

Health risks:Dengue fever, giardiasis, hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, paratyphoid, rabies, typhoid. Check with your doctor/travellers' clinic for prophylaxis/immunizations.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

Perak Man & Lenggong Archaeological Museum - WildAsia

Perak Man and the Lenggong Archaeological Museum

Outside history-loving circles, few people know that Perak's Lenggong Valley houses Malaysia's most important prehistoric find - Perak Man. LIZ PRICE pays a visit to the newly opened Archaeological Museum and discovers a treasure house of ancient artefacts.

[published on WildAsia 24 Aug 2004]

Perak Man, Peninsular Malaysia's oldest inhabitant, is well travelled, despite his great age of 11,000 years old. A few years ago he went to Japan for an exhibition, and in Nov - Dec 2001 he visited Kuala Lumpur where he was the star in an exhibition entitled Perak Man. Now he is having a well deserved rest and is back in his native Perak, where he is residing in the new Lenggong Museum. He is, after all, one of the most important inhabitants to have lived in Malaysia, because his bones survive to tell the tale.

Perak Man, found in 1991, is the only complete human skeleton which has been found in Malaysia. The cave which was his final resting place is called Gua Gunung Runtuh and is situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah or Elephant's Head Hill in the Lenggong Valley in Ulu Perak. The skeleton has been dated at between 10-11,000 years old, which makes him a Stone Age man, from the Palaeolithic period. The skeleton was found by Prof. Zuraina Majid and her team from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

It is believed Perak Man was an important member of his tribe judging by the way he was buried, in a foetal position, and accompanied by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall and probably aged between 40-50 when he died. He had an atrophied left hand and one figure was deformed. As well as the skeleton, remnants of tools and food such as shells and animal bones were found in the cave.

The first time I went up to the Lenggong area I visited Gua Gunung Runtuh. Although there was nothing to see except for the pits dug in the floor by the archaeological researchers, it was easy to get the imagination going, and to reflect on how Perak Man and his fellow humans had used that cave as a shelter. The Lenggong valley is one of Peninsular Malaysia's most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia's prehistory. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100 kilometres north of Ipoh on the Kuala Kangsar to Grik road. It is the site of the oldest known place of human activity in the Peninsula. Today it is still a rural area, with small kampungs surrounded by green vegetation and limestone hills. Lenggong can be likened to an open-air museum, and is home to legends, skeletons, cave drawings and precious finds such as jewellery, pottery, weapons and stone tools.

Gua Gunung Runtuh was probably used as a temporary camp when the people were out hunting, being well situated high up. In the same hill other caves have yielded archaeological remains such as stone tools and food remnants, but no more skeletons. The caves were probably used as temporary shelters as seasonal or hunting camps, whereas Gua Gunung Runtuh was lived in for longer periods.

Kota Tampan is the site of a prehistoric stone tool workshop, and has been dated at about 74,000 years old. This makes it older than the archaeological remains which have been found at Niah Cave in Sarawak, where one human skull has been dated at about 40,000 years old. But all these findings are still very young compared to those from Africa, where the predecessors of the human species originated about 3 - 5 million years ago.

When I first visited Kota Tampan archaeological site it consisted of little more than a single shelter and a lone notice board, in the middle of oil palm plantations. Now there is the stylish Lenggong Archaeological Museum, also known as the Kota Tampan Archaeological Museum. The building site was chosen as it displays the reconstruction of the Kota Tampan excavation site and it is ideal to locate a museum in such an old palaeolithic-era archaeological area.

The museum exhibits artefacts excavated from the Kota Tampan area. They are housed in a large bright building and are divided into three categories covering the Kota Tampan Excavation Site Gallery, Lenggong Pre-Historic Gallery and the Human Civilization Gallery.

The Lenggong Valley has several sites of archaeological importance, such as Bukit Jawa at Kampung Geluk, and Kg. Temelong where stone tools dating back 100,000 years were found. The nearby Bukit Bunuh finds are more recent at 50,000 years! But the most fascinating and unique artefact is the 11,000-year old Perak Man skeleton. I am not sure if the real skeleton is on display or if it is a replica - I hope it is a replica and the real skeleton is safely under lock and key.

Various other caves in the vicinity were dug by the researchers who found artefacts from the Bronze Neolithic Age at Gua Harimau, and stone tools from the Upper Palaeolithic age at Gua Telok Kelawar and Ngaum caves. Other items on display are the history of human evolution and civilization, dating from Homo habilis to the modern Homo sapiens.

This year a USM archaeology team led by Dr Mohd Mokhtar Saidin were working on an open site in Bukit Bunuh, about 1km away from the museum. The findings were unusual as they included chert stones, which are normally associated with volcanoes. So at some time in the past there must have been a volcanic eruption in this area. This is interesting news and the researchers are still looking into it.

The Museum opened its doors to the public earlier this year, and cost some RM3mil to set up. The Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah, officially opened it in July. He paid special tribute to USM, particularly to Prof Datuk Dr Zuraina Majid and the Museums and Antiquities Department, for their untiring efforts in all their research.

The only unfortunate factor about the location of the museum is that it is "off the beaten track" and won't attract many casual passing visitors. Most visitors would need to know about it and make an effort to go. At Tasek Raban, 3km away from Kota Tampan where the museum is sited, a cluster of chalets costing RM2.2mil, are being built. This is a popular spot for fishing and water sports. When I visited the museum mid-week with a friend, we were the only visitors, and I had the feeling we were the only visitors that day - the staff were certainly surprised to see us turn up (maybe it was the fact we were both mat salleh). But it is definitely well worthy of a visit, as it depicts an important element of Malaysia's past, in fact the oldest part of Malaysia's ancient history.

© Liz Price

Spelunker and the Cave Quandary, Batu Maloi on WildAsia

The Spelunker and the Cave Quandary

Batu Maloi Cave, located in a forest reserve in Negeri Sembilan, is not like other mostly limestone caves in Malaysia, LIZ PRICE checks out this cave dilemma.

[published on WildAsia 21 Oct 2004]

When is a cave not a cave? That of course depends on whom you ask. Generally a caver will say a cave is a natural opening in rock big enough for a human to enter. Most caves are in limestone formations. So I was sceptical when I kept coming across tourist leaflets which described a cave in Negri Sembilan as being 1km long.

I knew there were no limestone outcrops south of Kuala Lumpur, and I couldn't imagine that there could be such a long cave that Malaysian cavers hadn't heard of. There was only one thing to do to satisfy my curiosity - go and investigate.

I found a willing victim - sorry, volunteer - to accompany me. My friend Mick is not a caver but I told him he could enjoy the day out in a forest reserve and wait in the sunshine while I explored any cave I might find.

Pinpointing the location

So one bright morning we set off for the wilds of Negri Sembilan.

According to the tourist leaflets, the Batu Maloi Cave was in the Kampung Tanggai Forest Reserve in the Johol sub-district, 35km from Kuala Pilah. But they neglected to say in which direction from Kuala Pilah, and didn't mark the reserve on the map!

Another write-up said the cave was 10 minutes from Johol and 30 minutes from Tampin. Well, at least from this I could roughly pinpoint the position. I assumed the 10 minutes was by vehicle rather than by Shank's pony.

We set off from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban, and then turned onto the Rembau road. From Rembau we went left onto the Johol road, and climbed up and over a big hill, which was covered in virgin rainforest.

The 884m Gunung Rembau was on our right. It was sad to see the forest alongside the road being cut, presumably for road widening. As we sped down the hill from the summit, there was a police roadblock at the bottom. I think the police were surprised to see two Mat Sallehs on this country road and just waved us through.

As we reached Johol and headed for Tampin, I made a note of time and distance, so I could estimate roughly where Batu Maloi was. After some time, I thought we had overshot. So I stopped and asked some workmen, and we went back to Renggoh and turned off by the school. Six kilometres down this road, we finally saw a sign to Gua Batu Maloi.

Granite, not limestone

There were cows ambling down this lane and they made no effort to get out of the way, not expecting visitors in mid-week. The lane ended near a surau, at a pleasant campsite situated by the river.

A signboard announced that there was indeed a cave, and as I suspected, it was of granite. The board also highlighted the dangers of caving.

We followed the path into the campsite and then got a bit confused as to the way on. We chose a trail which followed the river. We came to a junction after a short while, and I saw a few large boulders by the water.

This looked like the start of the so-called cave and an arrow marked the way in. But neither of us wanted to get our feet wet this early on, so we elected to take the forest path, to see where it went.

It meandered gently uphill, and after a while we noticed a very pleasant smell, which reminded us of honeysuckle. Looking round for the source, I noticed some orange flowers high in the tree canopy.

Then we spied a few flowers closer to us, almost at ground level. This orange blossom belongs to the Saraca, which is a common riverine tree. Although the individual flowers are nothing special to look at, together they provide a bright orange canopy, and their scent is very nice.

Impressive monolith

I was keeping an eye out for leeches, as this was ideal territory for them. Luckily they didn't seem very abundant. This suggested there weren't many mammals around in this area, and indeed we saw none, not even monkeys.

We came to a dilapidated wooden shelter later. I wondered who had had to carry all the materials up here to build the shelter, which had fallen apart through neglect.

Nearby was a huge granite boulder. This isolated monolith was about 8m high and 15m long. It was a very impressive sight.

Mysterious creature?

After a while the trail began to descend. We soon reached the river, and I could see we were above the start of the cave. We decided to continue upstream for a short while, just to explore. We stepped into the clear water and paddled upriver. In this way we got rid of the few leeches that had attached themselves to our feet. Birds were singing on either side of us, and the sun shone brightly though the thick foliage of the tall trees.

We came across another cluster of Saraca trees with the same sweet scent. There were fallen logs covered with bracket fungi. At one point we saw an animal's footprint in the mud, and were very puzzled as we only saw one print. What mysterious creature had left it?

Frogs plopping

The shady spot under the Saraca trees would have been an ideal place for a picnic, but we had nothing with us. So it was time to turn round, and go and investigate the cave at the huge boulders situated in the riverbed. Arrows painted on the rocks marked the way through, although in fact there was only one route here.

This section of cave was a mere 15m long, and had natural light filtering through. Mick, my friend, however decided he would go around the outside and meet me at the other end.

I soon popped out of the first section of cave and plodded downstream to the next set of boulders. Here the cave was a bit narrower and I was glad to have my torch.

A rope showed the way through, and I found the first section had quite deep water. The rush of water between the boulders and the plop of frogs as they jumped into the water when I disturbed them was quite atmospheric.

In the next part, I decided the water was possibly too deep to keep my daypack dry, so I hauled myself up and over some huge boulders and carefully inched my way across the top and down the other side.

Somehow I managed to slip the last few feet and landed in deep water. Luckily I managed to keep my camera dry.

It was fun negotiating this natural obstacle course. It was as if some giant long ago had been playing marbles with these huge stones, and had lost interest and left them scattered in the river bed.

I went through the final section of cave, and found Mick waiting for me on the other side. He had managed to get rather dirty, scrabbling up and down some muddy slopes. We both had fun.

As suspected, Batu Maloi wasn't a cave in the true sense of the word, but it was an interesting place and worthy of a visit.

Phang Nga Bay canoeing - WildAsia

Phang Na Bay: Thailand's Secret Garden on The Sea

The National Marine Park of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is a natural art gallery, LIZ PRICE discovers dozens of islands and treks by canoe to tidal lagoons surrounded by limestone cliffs.

[published on WildAsia 27 Nov 2004]

Have you ever tried taking a photo of a moving bird whilst bobbing up and down in a canoe? I can assure you, it's not easy.

The sea was a bit choppy. As I paddled out of the cave, a Pacific reef egret was wading in the shallows of the cave entrance, looking for lunch. I am not a birder, but it was a good opportunity to take a shot of the bird at such close quarters.

Framing my avian subject would be the stunning views of the nearby limestone islands. The karst towers rose from the Andaman Sea like stately sentinels, and the reds and browns of the rocks were quite a contrast against the blue sky and green sea. It was certainly a picture postcard scene.

Nature's art gallery

The National Marine Park of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is a natural art gallery, full of magnificent limestone islands. I was lucky enough to have a window seat as the plane flew over this amazing bay on its approach to Phuket's international airport.

There were dozens of islands dotted around - some large and some small - and all surrounded by water the shade of blues and greens.

Dozens of boats take tourists each day to this area. James Bond Island, or Ko Phing Kan was made famous when the area was used for filming The Man with the Golden Gun. I decided to be a bit different and do a sea canoe trip to the cave hongs.

Hong is the Thai word for room. Basically these hongs are inland open-air tidal lagoons, surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs. The only way in and out is through the caves. If the cave is quite low, the route through may only be open for about 20 minutes a day, during low tide. Once the tide is high, the cave, or certainly the entrance, will be underwater.

I was picked up early morning from my hotel in Phuket town and taken by car to Por Pier on the eastern side of the island. Here, I joined the other paddlers and we were given a brief introduction before being taken out to the pier.

During the hour's journey to our first destination, we had coffee and lots of fresh fruit whilst being briefed. The guide was very knowledgeable and showered us with lots of information.

It was surprisingly chilly as the boat sped along and I was a bit dubious about having to get into the water. I needn't have worried because by the time we arrived at Hong Island, the sun was shining.

Cave monster legends

The beauty of the place kept me busy with the camera. As the guides launched all the yellow kayaks into the sea, they looked like bananas which had broken loose from the bunch. My guide Rambo manoeuvred up to the steps of the boat so I could get into the kayak, and then we were speedily paddling to the cave entrance.

After the initial low entrance, the cave roof rose and was high above our heads. The water lapping against the cave walls made an eerie sound. I could see why legends tell of cave monsters and mysterious beings lurking in the caves.

My torch picked out some stalagmites and stalactites. Ahead of us the roof suddenly lowered and the walls closed in leaving a gap not much larger than the kayak. I had to lie flat on my back in the kayak to avoid scraping my nose on the roof. I was glad I didn't have to paddle through this section.

We popped out into a hong and gasped in wonder. It was beautiful.

We were surrounded by sheer limestone walls that rose about 100m above our heads, capped by green vegetation. It was like a secret garden, except the floor was sea.

The grey and white cliff faces were streaked with red, orange and black striations. Green pandanus and other palms and shrubs clung to the precipitous walls. A few birds called, but otherwise it was silent. A lost world. We paddled around the hong, admiring its beauty, before returning to the pitch black of the cave.

Like a frozen waterfall

The next hong we visited was equally beautiful; in fact maybe more so as there were mangrove trees. It was fun paddling around the mangroves with their serpentine roots.

The guide spotted a young monitor lizard basking on a rock. It was obviously used to seeing humans for it took no notice.

The third cave of the day contained some beautiful stalactites, and a glistening white cascade of calcite crystals resembling a frozen waterfall. And in the secret lagoon, we spotted a troop of young macaques.

They were playing in the branches just a few metres above the water, so we were able to paddle right underneath them. This was a silly move as the monkeys suddenly decided to let loose a golden shower. I could imagine them laughing to themselves and wondered if they did this to all the visitors. There was no sign of the adults, maybe they were watching from some higher vantage point.

Swooping kites

We returned to the boat and had a scrumptious lunch of fresh fish, chicken curry, tempura and Thai-style soup. I was afraid to overeat in case I sank when I went swimming, but the food was so delicious that I had to have a second helping. We were not the only ones to enjoy the meal - the cook threw scraps of chicken overboard and suddenly the sky was full of Brahminy kites.

These scavengers appeared from nowhere and soon there was a dozen or more, mewing and eyeing up the feast. They began swooping down and plucking scraps of meat from the water. I tried many times to get a photo of them but every time the shutter clicked, the bird had already flown and all I had was a picture of the empty sea or sky. But it was an amazing sight to see so many of these birds so close up.

Colonies of bats

Our next cave was appropriately called Bat Cave. Deep inside were a few colonies of insect-eating bats. They seemed oblivious of our presence, which was a good sign as it meant that the daily visits by the kayaks don't appear to disturb them. There are several tour companies running these kayak trips daily, but luckily they all take note of the eco-tourism rules and do their best not to damage the environment.

We then had some free time for swimming and kayaking. However, most lazed on the boat, still full from the huge lunch. I tried swimming but the current was very strong where we were moored. It was fun being swept along with the flow but hard work swimming back to the boat.

When we got back to Por Pier the tide was right out, so we had to walk the last 100m through gooey mangrove mud to reach the jetty. Luckily, there was fresh water to rinse our feet and legs before boarding the transport back to our hotels.

It had been a great day and a fascinating experience.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

There are several tour operators running these and other kayak tours around the Phuket and Phang Nga Bay areas. The writer opted to go with John Gray's Sea Canoe as she had done a tour with them some time ago.

They are the original company and have been operating since 1983. The guides are all trained in cave kayaking, lifesaving, and speak good English.

John Gray's Sea Canoe
124, Soi 1 Yaowarad Road
Muang, Phuket
Tel : (6676) 254505-7
Fax : (6676) 226077

Killing Caves of Cambodia - WildAsia

The Killing Caves of Cambodia

The Battambang site where hundreds of people were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge is now a tourist attraction. Caver LIZ PRICE ventures into the "Killing Caves", a dark spot in the history of Cambodia.

[Published on Wildasia 3 Oct 2005]

The most famous 'killing caves' are situated in Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia. It shares a long border with Thailand and is now the fifth largest province in the country. The ongoing guerilla war meant thousands of landmines were scattered around the area, which devastated the agricultural industry. However, the province is slowly recovering as the demining groups free up the land.

Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city, but has an atmosphere of a sleepy rural town. The 'killing caves' are located in Phnom Sampeau (Sampeau Hill), 18 km southwest of the town, on the NH10 (renamed NH57) highway to Pailan and the Thai border. It is, however an injustice to call it a highway, as it is more of a dirt road. Phnom Sampeau is a striking limestone hill rising out of the plain and is the first limestone encountered along this road from Battambang.

To get there, I hired a moto from my hotel in Battambang. A moto is a motorcycle taxi. The cost was US$ 6 for the day and luckily the driver spoke good English. We started the journey by riding along small roads through very scenic areas of rice fields and agricultural land. Then we turned onto the highway and I was grateful for the previous day's rain, as the dust was awful. Imagine what it would be like if it was the dry season.

We stopped so I could take photos of Phnom Sampeau. It has a wat (Buddhist temple) on top and is very impressive. I could see why it is sometimes called Sailboat Mountain. We parked at the bottom of the hill and I had to pay $2 admission. Several local boys wanted me to hire them as guide, so I chose one and off we set up the hill. It's easier to walk up the long winding slope than the stairs. We walked fast and about ½ - ¾ of the way up we turned left to the "killing caves".

There is a small wat nearby. There were also donation boxes everywhere. I went into the small hall at the wat where people were held until they were killed. It was used as a prison and torture centre in the 1970's. People were tortured in front of the others, and murdered. There used to be large bamboo pipes from within to the outside to drain away the blood from the slit throats. Since those days the pagoda has been renovated, scrubbed down and refurbished with the images of Buddha, donated and paid for by the local townspeople and surrounding farmers. Novice monks now sleep in this building.

Then we went to the caves. We couldn't enter the first cave as it is now partly blocked by rocks. There is a cage of bones, skulls and clothes outside, as a ghastly reminder of what had happened only a short time ago. Pieces of electric wire used for "electrification torture" and clothes of victims are still there, the remnants of a past the locals want to, but can't forget. Pol Pot had adults killed in this cave. They were told they were going to work. Instead, they were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their back before being walked to the edge of the hilltop and pushed over the edge of the skylight.

I was shown these skylights high in the roofs of the caves. It must have been terrifying for the victims as they could surely hear the screams of their fellow victims, hear the thumps of bodies landing and smell the awful stench of decaying bodies. Often the people survived the fall, suffering only broken bones. But unable to get out, they slowly died of starvation. As more and more people were thrown down, the pile of bodies in the cave grew higher. This meant more and more people survived the fall, and died a slow lingering death from dehydration and starvation, whilst more bodies were being dumped on them.

Sometimes throats were slit with the jagged edges of sugar palm leaves that resemble a rough saw rather than a knife, not a clean cut, more of a rip slicing through essential arteries if they were lucky. It was a quicker death than starving. These barbaric methods were used to save on bullets.

We went to another 2 caves close by. Steps lead down to these caves. Off to the left a steep slope leads to the entrance of the cave where children were killed. The steps continue straight ahead to a third cave which now has a reclining Buddha. Behind this Buddha is the very shattered remains of a Buddha destroyed by Pol Pot. He also had the Buddhist statues destroyed. A small pile of bones and clothes lay inside the cave. Around them old burnt incense sticks protrude from the ground where people have said prayers for the dead and lost.

The caves were littered with bones, but a monk removed most of them and put them in storage. Altogether, thousands of innocent people (an estimated 10,000) fell to their deaths here.

Although I didn't see it I was told there's an area where people were tied up and a hook placed up their nostrils. Then they were hung high enough whilst the Khmer Rouge removed lungs and liver through a vertical slit in the chest cavity. The Khmer Rouge ate these organs and drank the blood mixed with wine to make them stronger soldiers.

Living far away in England during the time of these atrocities, it was pretty meaningless. It is only when you go to Cambodia and visit the caves, and also the "killing fields" near Phnom Penh, that the full scale of it hits you. It is when the young guide, who wasn't even born when the massacres were taking place, starts telling you about the incidents, that it finally hits home. To see the dried blood on the cave walls where the bodies bounced off, to see the pieces of skull and bone lying on the ground, to see scattered pieces of clothes, all adds to the gruesome picture. Many of the victims could not be identified. But as most of them only had one set of clothing, it was possible to see who they were by the clothes left.

From the caves there was a good view across the plains to Phnom Krapeu, Crocodile Hill (I couldn't make out if it was limestone) and the much smaller Chicken Hill. We then continued the climb up to the wat. Near the top I saw a large disused artillery field-gun which was used for defence. This hill was a strategic battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces for much of the past decade. The wat at the top is quite small and not very exciting. Three new temples are being built. There is a good view over the plains on the other side. I could see one hill which is deserted as it still has land mines and is being cleared.

I then went down some 140 or more steps to a cave. This was more of a wang (cockpit) than a cave, as a slope with old steps immediately led out the other side. Apparently this cave was not used as a killing cave, although I thought it would have been suitable as the depth is much greater. There are two statues of Vishnu at the bottom. A small side passage is used for praying. I went back up the steps, then began the long descent to the car park using the stairs.

I went to look at the cliff face where they are just starting to carve a 38m high Buddha. The mural will be 120m long and will take 7 years to complete. Quite a feat! I'll have to go back in 7 years to see if it is completed.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

Trekking in Northern Laos - WildAsia

Among the Akha, Hmong and Khmu: Trekking in Northern Laos

Exiting the tourist haven of Thailand to Laos, LIZ PRICE traverses across dusty highways and leech-ridden trails to discover the diversity of tribes and customs of people having migrated from Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand.

[published on Wildasia 04 Apr 2006]

The hillside was so steep I had to pull myself up using tree branches and roots. The terrain underfoot was really slippery, as the carpet of dry bamboo leaves provided no grip for my shoes. It was actually more difficult than walking on mud as the dry leaves tended to slip downhill whilst I was trying to go up. It was frustrating how the local guides just sped up the hill in their slippers as if it was a Sunday stroll.

And of course there were leeches, even though it was the dry season. Actually I don’t mind leeches as hundreds over the years have bitten me. Quite often I don’t even feel the bite, its only when a bloody patch appears on my socks that I realise the leeches have gotten me. But this day was different; I felt something on my kneecap and looked down to see red seeping through my trousers. I managed to roll up my trouser leg and found the culprit. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a leech bite my kneecap. I didn’t think there was enough blood there to make a good meal.

We were in northern Laos, close to the Chinese and Myanmar borders. We had our base in the small town, or more accurately a large village, named Vieng Phoukha, which lies on route 3 in Luang Namtha province. Very few tourists venture up here as they generally concentrate on the more popular areas of Vientienne and Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site.

However Luang Namtha will soon open up to the world as China and Thailand are constructing a highway through this area to connect their respective countries. Consequently the journey from the border was incredibly dusty. Our rucksacks were on the roof of the pickup and when we arrived all the packs were the same shade of red-brown and covered with dust!

We had entered Laos from Thailand. From Chiang Rai we went to the border town of Chiang Khong, took a ferry across the Mekhong River to Huay Xai. Immigration was a breeze as we got our visas on arrival and found our transport waiting for us. It then took 3 hours to do the 120 km of dusty track. It was absolutely amazing to see the highway construction, vast swathes of terrain had been cleared as earth-moving machines ate up the land and cleared steep hillsides.
Several times we had to stop and wait whilst bulldozers cleared huge boulders and rubble, which had been brought down from the slopes. It really was a mammoth undertaking.

We reached Vieng Phoukha and went to the Eco-Guides office to arrange a trek. This area is the newest trekking area in Laos, and the Eco-Guides Service is a community-based scheme being helped by the Provincial Government and the European Union. They currently offer 4 treks, ranging between 1 and 3 days, which visit various ethnic minority villages.

I was surprised to learn how many different ethnic groups live here. The main ones are Akha, Hmong, and Khmu. Over the years people have migrated around Burma, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The people wear their traditional clothes every day and as we went around the market our guide pointed out the different tribal costumes and hats. The women from two different groups wear their hair in a bun on the forehead, with or without ornaments. Some men sported colourful jackets, but generally the children were dressed in western style clothes.

Our trek started by crossing dry padi fields, and we met a trio of girls who were carrying nets and baskets. Our guide explained that they were looking for animals. These people eat virtually any animal that they can find, so search the padi fields and forests. They use bamboo traps to catch birds and small mammals and they go into caves to hunt bats during the right season. This area is rich in limestone so there are several extensive cave systems, some with some stunning stalactite formations.

The first obstacle on our trek was crossing a small stream using bamboo poles. Three poles spanned the stream and each one bounced in different amounts as you stood on them, which was a bit unnerving. I learnt just to go across quickly and not think about it, but one of our group resorted to crawling across on hands and knees. We then entered the forest and began the uphill climb. I was surprised how cool the forest was. In Malaysia I always find the forest to be a hot, humid and sweaty place, but here in northern Laos the forests were definitely cooler.

We followed a pleasant trail alongside a small river. Then we were surprised to hear a banging sound and our guide Hong Tong told us it was rice-pounding machines. Intrigued we went to have a look. We saw an ingenious system of bamboo pipes attached to a large wooden pounder above a pile of rice. When the pipes are full with water they tip down which in turn forces the pounder onto the rice. I later saw a manual version in the villages where the women were using a treadle system to deploy the pounder.

Throughout the trek our guides pointed out various leaves and shrubs that they use for medicine and food. Lunch was a pleasant meal; we came to a clearing and one guide cut several banana leaves and laid them on the ground as the tablecloth. Then whilst one guide unpacked the food he had carried, the others disappeared into the bushes and came back with an assortment of ferns and leaves. We ate these with sticky rice, some vegetables and Laotian sambal. I found the sambal to be rather bitter despite the strong chili flavour. The bananas were always nice although somewhat battered after being carried for a while.

That evening we stayed in a Khmu village. We arrived late afternoon and went down to the river to wash, even though the villages now have 2 or 3 communal taps. I found the river water so cold I couldn’t fact totally immersion. Luckily I hadn’t sweated too much during the day. We sat around under the house waiting for dinner and lots of villagers came to sit and watch us. The women smoke from long stemmed silver pipes. Earlier we had watched a Chinese peddler selling his wares and I was interested to see he was buying human hair.

As soon as the sun went behind the hills it really cooled down and I was quite cold huddled by the small fire. I was also very hungry so was relieved when we were given plates of pumpkin to snack on. It tasted good and the village dogs enjoyed eating the rinds. After what seemed hours we were called to dinner in the house. The village houses have no furniture, so we sat on the floor. A blue plastic sheet was covered with the ubiquitous banana leaves. Piles of sticky rice were laid out, then different dishes of vegetables, chicken parts and bowls of chicken bone soup. The guide opposite me took the chicken’s head out of the soup and ate it with relish. We had bought a pig for dinner, but all we were given were small piles of fat, there was no meat to our disappointment.

Before we could eat the village headman gave a blessing and we had to toast him with lao lao. This is the local rice whisky and you drink down a small glassful in one go. The people here are all animists, and some groups, particularly the Khmu have a hierarchy of spirits, the most important ones have guardianship of villages and houses. We were told not to pass straight through villages, that we should stop and chat, otherwise the villagers think evil spirits have visited them. The following day we went to a cave and before we entered the guide had to ask permission from the cave spirit. The cave, Tham Nam Eng was really impressive with some very large chambers and passageways, and lots of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

Over the 2-day trek we visited 3 different villages, Akha, Khmu and Lahu, but different groups live together in one village, so we also saw Black Hmong and Hmong Mien. They build houses of differing style and of course their clothes are different. The locals were ok about having their photos taken even though it is a new concept for them.

The best thing about trekking in this area is that the idea of tourism is still new; therefore, the ill effects of tourism have spoiled nothing. And because it is community based, the local people benefit. The project was set up in September 2003 and the guides are learning English. It was certainly a great experience to go somewhere off the beaten track and get away from mass tourism to see villages totally unaffected by foreign visitors.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

Travel Notes
Vieng Phoukha has 4 guesthouses. We stayed at Thong My Xai, which charges approx US$3 per room. Accommodation is basic, and the only electricity is a generator used about 3 hours each evening. Breakfast and dinner can be arranged, or there are local eating-places in the village. Click here for information on travelling to Vieng Phoukha.