Sungei Lembing - Pahang Malaysia
It’s funny how, as one grows older and one would imagine, wiser, there is an inclination to return to the woods. To a place all too familiar and all too much like home. Not necessary the home that was but the home that becomes.
Few places thrill me as much as Sungai Lembing. It’s a time warp. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll goes like this, ‘Well, in OUR country,' said Alice, still panting a little, `you'd generally get to somewhere else--if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.' . `A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. `Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!' `I'd rather not try, please!' said Alice. `I'm quite content to stay here--only I AM so hot and thirsty!'. To read, go to http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext91/lglass18h.ht... .
You see, that’s what happens in the city, we’re always running to get somewhere, something or someone. When at Sungai Lembing, the running will only ever get you to the same place so why run?
Sungai Lembing Then
Sungai Lembing is an historic town. A village that started out as an outpost deep in the jungle of Pahang way before the British came on an exploratory search for tin. A few neglected tombstones a short distance away from dwellings mark the presence of immigrants from China who sailed in to the coast of Malaya during the later part of the Qing period in the late 1800’s and trudged through the jungle in search of riches. Immigrants moved in to pan for tin in richly laden Sungai Kenau and its tributaries in these early years. The area was so rich that after heavy downpours, tin got washed down out of the hills and jungle and into the rivers. Then, the British arrived and opened Malaya’s first deep shaft tin mine in 1905. The Industrial Revolution that occurred in Britain during the 18th and 19th century was sparked off by a spurt of inventions and technical breakthroughs. Raw commodities such as rubber and tin were in demand. The British scoured the lengths and breadths of their colonies for raw commodities. This continued way into the 20th Century and right up till 1957 when Malaya became Malaysia through independence from British rule. Despite the high cost of opening and maintaining a deep shaft mine, the Pahang Consolidated Company Limited, (PCCL), which was under British control, was signed to a 77year lease with the then Sultan of Pahang, to mine the area. The mine flourished and the company voraciously tunnelled deeper into the mountains in search of more tin to feed the revolution.
Soon, the sleepy hollow known as Sungai Lembing ballooned into a boisterous community of miners and families. By the 1950’s half of the 1,350 men working for PCCL toiled in the pits of the mountains. As they worked, the shafts snaked further across to the other ridges of the surrounding hills and punched deeper into the bowels of the earth. By the end of the mines’ tenure, the total tunnel length was 322km, with a depth of between 610m and 700m and there were at least 6 main entrances into these shafts from all round the hills. The 2 mines at Sungai Lembing were Myah Mine at 700m deep, and Tabeto Mine 488m
The miners that worked in the tunnels were mainly of Chinese race. Their typical day’s work started early in the morning. They crammed into a small open lift, and descended some 100s of feet to their work stations. In dark, damp conditions, the miners toiled laboriously for 6 hours and were rewarded with a wages of that commensurate with their job. In 1950, that was $40-$44 per day.
In the early years, the tunnels were manually dug into and later, dynamites were used to crack them open. Iron hammers were then used to dislodge rocks laden with tin from the walls of tunnels. These rocks were then loaded onto an iron cast trolley and lifted up to the surface via the same lift system the miners used. Once at the top, the trolleys are pushed onto tracks and then to the smelting and processing plant located at the bottom of the cliff. Once processed, the tin was then loaded onto flat bottom boats and were floated down the river to Kuantan.
The British miners and managers lived a good life. PCCL made sure that their workers were given the best. They set up a huge convenience store that sold almost anything imported one could get their hands on in Malaya at the time. All duty free! Alcohol, imported tinned foods like baked beans & spam, cigarettes; you name it. The store was like a huge warehouse with shelves of goods reaching storeys high. And to think supermarket is a recent creation! The latest movies were shown at the theatre and night life was bustling. These privileges were also extended to the locals living within the 5 square miles of the valley. However, outsiders were not allowed to walk freely into town. A checkpoint was set up at the entrance into Sungai Lembing. PCCL was also responsible for the wellbeing of the town and provided townfolks with roads, electricity, schools and healthcare. (Unfortunately the beautiful wooden hospital located on a ledge up above the playing fields, was dismantled recently)
Cold weather in the early years brought out men in suits and women in cardigans. The surrounding jungles enveloped and cocooned sungai lembing, keeping it cool and agreeable with the British. The main transportation in those early years was by boat. In 1892, the Company commissioned a stern wheeler (steamer) which would eventually connect Sungei Lembing and Kuantan and hence, contact with the outside world. Unfortunately, due to recent logging in areas around and conversion of land to plantations, Sungai Kenau is no longer accessible by large boats. Silting has just about done it in for the river and flooding is not as rare as it used to be. A recent town flooding was in 2007.
Sungai Lembing today
The mine closed in 1986 when world tin prices fell to an all time low. Sungai Lembing had survived and prospered on the mine for 80years. Suddenly there was no work for residents. They relied heavily on the mine and the company. Now there was only agriculture and fishing. The younger generation found it difficult to eke a living here and left to Kuantan and other towns to start their new life.
For a while, Sungai Lembing faded away. Only the aged were left behind. The town was left to its own. Despite that, the townspeople proudly maintained their town, keeping the shops going and the local chinese association alive. The Malay community lived a little further out of town and carried on with their lives as they has been for generations.
A recent interest in the town through media coverage has sort of, thrown sungai lembing back on track if not too late. Although many have left their hometown and shops along the parallel streets have closed one by one, there remains fire from within. A few younger people have even returned home to carry on family trade and traditions. This, is promising indeed!
You know what’s great about Sungai Lembing? Its people. Sometimes I really wonder what it is all about when government party members maintain this race disparity. In small towns, people of different colour and creed live alongside happily whether in Kota Bahru, Kangar or Sungai Lembing. Chatters with each other in the early mornings at the morning meat and veg market mark more of what Malaysia tries to portray to the rest of the world… racial harmony. What makes it difficult to grasp this ideology of racial harmony in ‘urban civilisation’ makes it all so clear when we leave all that in the cities behind and get down to basics.. friendship. Even the stray dogs running around town look amazingly healthy. They wonder in and out of shops and premises without fear of getting pelted or scalded with boiling water. That’s what’s missing too in the city, humanity.
What to do In town
The museum is housed in the old Mining Manager’s house up on the knoll. There’s quite a bit on the mining history in Sungai Lembing and also some paraphernalia of the past.
Open everyday except Mondays. Times: 9am to 5pm except Fridays 9am to12nn, 2pm to 5pm
Sungai Lembing Museum, Sg. Lembing, 26200 Kuantan, Pahang Darul Makmur, Tel: +60-9-541-2378, Fax: +60-9-541-2377
There’s an old fashioned Photography Shop at the corner, right next to the newly erected food court where visitors can purchase black & white copies of old photographs of Sungei Lembing as well as the mines.
Update: The photography shop has been turned into a guesthouse. Slowly but surely sungei lembing is changing.. update July 2014
Entrances to the minesJust up the slope, a short distance from the Mine Museum are entrances to the mines
Although most of them have been sealed, there are 2 small cracks in the wall that shows an interesting story may be woven from this. A cold gust of wind comes gushing through from the deepest bowels of the mines as I standing at the entrance of this tunnel. The walls within are slippery and smooth, having been constantly bathed in water runoffs. One of the reasons why the tunnels are now sealed is because the lower levels of the mines and the shafts have been flooded through. This makes it extremely dangerous to enter.
As I scanned the area.. I could faintly see the rail tracks running from the entrances down to the cliff where the trolleys would have been tipped over and the conveyor belts would have transported the rocks and ore to the plant at the bottom of the cliff.
As of 2015, the Sungei Lembing mines have been cleaned up and reopened...this time, to curious travellers. The tunnel has been cleaned up and some displays have been placed in parts of the tunnel. The lift is still in place but of course, no longer functional. For more go here at http://sungailembingmines.com.my/
|Admission and Rates|
For a 360° view of sungei lembing, the best place will be at the top of Panorama Hill and the best time would definitely be at sunrise. To get to Panorama Hill, drive down past the morning market to the end of the road. Drive up the slope and there’s a path leading up panorama hill. Best to leave at about 5.45am. It’s a 1200m high and takes approximately 1hr. Bring along torchlights for when going up.
For those used to a morning walk around your neighbourhood, this may be really just a walk in the park. For other urban dwellers whose idea of a walk is at the mall, then be prepared to get up a little earlier to get there in time for the sunrise
Where to Eat
Traditional method of Roasting Pork
This is a Sungei Lembing specialty and it’s really quite an experience but it’s only available on Friday and Saturday nights, 5.30pm onwards. It’s kinda difficult to find the house where it’s sold. But there’s a little sign but of course, written in Chinese that leads the way through a labyrinth of houses. Ask for directions and pretty often, a local will take you there. Just follow the bike. Everyone rides a bike in Sungei Lembing.
The most amazing thing about this house is that it has a little Malaysian styled barn in the gardens, with hardly any walls to prop it up but it houses a huge kiln. This clay and brick kiln is fired by wood at the bottom. At the top of the kiln, some 9 ft from ground, a sinister scene reworks my mind. There were meat hooks hanging off the wall, cleavers on chopping boards and a man standing over a glowing manhole in his full length industrial apron. Aromatic woody smoke wafted out of the manhole. In the manhole hangs an adult sized pig, roasting to perfection. It takes hours to prepare the roast and starts early evening. Some customers even drive all the way from Kuantan some 40km away, just for a few kilos of the roast pork to take home. They’re amazingly tasty pork cracklings and what makes it worth all the more is having a chance to see at least a part of the process. Just try not to stand too close to the manhole…
A-259, Jeram Takar, Kampung Kuala Kenau, 26200 Sungai Lembing
There are few places to go for dinner and Hoover must be one of the more popular ones as it’s always full but not always with tourists. It thrives on local businesses. The pricing is more than reasonable. We had steamed fish dish, a vegetable dish, a soup, a chicken dish and an egg dish for RM40. If you know the Hakka dialect, all the better. Sungei Lembing has a large Hakka community…
Sungai Lembing Biscuits
The traditional Sungei Lembing biscuits started during the mines period. The biscuits were baked by a cook who worked with an English manager and would bake fresh biscuits everyday for afternoon tea. Although the original recipe died with the cook, the biscuits sold at Sungei Lembing is a close as it gets. If you remember the old schooldays of 40’s and 50’s, these sungei lembing biscuits would definitely would bring back memories.
A mee jawa stall run by Warisah Junus is forever popular bringing folk from Kuantan some 40min drive away for a fill. Located on mainstreet, its not difficult to find
Sister Fong's "Mountain Water" Tofu
Also located in the food court, Sister Fong's tofu is pure as pure goes. pure white, pure mountain water used , pure light and healthy. It's so smooth, it's a joy to eat on its own just for the sake of tasting its fine texture.