Batang Ai and its haunting beauty
By Patricia Hului
The hauntingly calm and beautiful Batang Ai is famous for many things, one of them being the home to Sarawak’s first ever hydropower dam, a concrete face rock-filled dam which can generate power up 100 MW.
A part of the reservoir area also makes up part of Batang Ai National Park, Sarawak’s largest trans-national protected area for rainforest conservation which combines the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary in Malaysia and the Bentuang-Karimun National Park in Indonesia.
As a local, however, I first thought Batang Ai was inaccessible since the location is quite far from major towns in Sarawak.
But during a recent media trip organised by Sarawak Tourism Board, I finally understood why tourists put Batang Ai on their itinerary.
The tourist site provides a unique experience of both the majestic Borneo rainforest and almost untainted traditions practiced by its local Iban communities.
Located some 250 kilometres from Kuching, we managed to make a few stops in Serian, Lachau and Lubok Antu along the way before finally arriving at Batang Ai jetty where we met Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat guest relations and activities manager Ramona Ngalih.
After that, we enjoyed our serene and calm boat ride to the resort located about 20 minutes away.
Canopy walk and ancestral tombs
Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, which used to be under the management of Hilton Hotels, was taken over by Aiman Agro Park Sdn Bhd early this year.
Renamed Aiman Batang Ai Resort and Retreat, the new management is by Aiman Agro’s subsidiary Planet Borneo Lodge Management Sdn Bhd.
Shortly after our arrival, Ramona took us for a short hike through the rainforest to a canopy walk.
On our way there, we came across a grave, cordoned off with plastic chains. Although it was refinished more recently in concrete, the grave was marked in the traditional Iban way with a ‘tajau’, a large earthenware jar which is typically kept as heirlooms.
Ramona explained that this 120-year-old grave belonged to a popular Iban chief Jamit Ngumbang.
On top of the grave were food and drinks placed there as offerings to appease the soul of this late warrior.
Ramona shared that a miring ceremony was usually carried out by his descendants on the grave site once a year here around June.
She also pointed out that Batang Ai had plenty of ancient graves like Jamit’s, and so it was crucial to visit these great jungle areas with great care and respect.
Then we braced ourselves to walk along the 130m long bridge suspended 50m above the ground.
A rule of thumb for tackling the canopy walk is that you should walk in single file with a gap of about 3m between people walking in front and behind you.
At one point of the walk I could see the Batang Ai lake to the right and the lush rainforest to my left.
Was it terrifying? No doubt about it. Would I do it again? Absolutely!
Living in a reservoir area
Batang Ai is one of Sarawak’s Iban heartlands with several communities living along the network of rivers that flow into the dam reservoir.
Rivers still provide the main access and the residents in Batang Ai are expert boatmen and women, maneuvering their longboats through the lake.
It is widely believed that the Iban communities have been living in the Batang Ai area for over 400 years.
This is evidenced by the terrain of mixed lowland dipterocarp forest and hill dipterocarp with old secondary forest making its way to be primary forest in some of the areas, which means that the Iban communities have been farming here for a couple of centuries at least.
The current farming life of the Iban communities has further changed the topography of the area as they actively plant pepper and rubber trees on their farms.
Though lack of road connectivity isolates the Batang Ai communities from the rest of their Iban counterparts downriver, the isolation still puts them at an advantage in the sense that they managed to retain much of their traditional customs and lifestyles.
For instance, the structure of Nanga Mengkak Engkari longhouse we saw on the second day of our trip was the epitome of what a traditional Iban longhouse looked like perhaps half a decade ago.
The floors were wooden, the walls made from tree bark and the atmosphere inside the longhouse was not as hot as we imagined, thanks to the rattan mat ceiling keeping the heat out.
I noticed there was a dried leaf hanging from each door. I was later told that the leaf – called daun pingan – serves as a protective charm for the residents in each ‘bilik’.
During our visit, the residents apologised for their lack of number when welcoming us, explaining that most of residents went to join the Pesta Benak in Sri Aman.
Nonetheless, they still greeted us with their warmth and hospitality together with ‘tuak’ and their traditional performances.
After the dancers performed their ngajat, we were treated to traditional food such as local paku vegetables and tilapia fish.
Our adventure at Batang Ai was made even more memorable with a trip to a nearby waterfall located about 20 minute by boat from the longhouse.
Personally, it was definitely one of the most fun I have had in a long time, all thanks to fellow journalists, Aiman resort and STB staff who were not short of jokes and adventure.
We spent our time exploring and cooling down in the two tier waterfalls. Some of us even pulling out some basic stunts by jumping off the waterfall.
(Of course, all moves were carried out with safety and precaution foremost in our minds.)
A trip for both foreigners and locals
During my three day and two night stay in Batang Ai, I noticed the place was visited by mostly foreigners.
The resort atmosphere was the closest thing you could get to a UN convention because there were many foreign languages spoken like Dutch, Italian and even Polish.
I hope that Batang Ai will be a site more appreciated by local visitors.
Ancient graves, almost isolated communities, secluded waterfalls; Batang Ai definitely offers more than just its hauntingly calm lake which is worth trip for both locals and foreigners alike.