Bidayuh is the second largest ethnic group in Sarawak after the Iban. The number of Bidayuh population in Sarawak is around 200000 people. Bidayuh people can be usually found in Sarawak and in West Kalimantan. Yet, like any other ethnic groups in Malaysia, the Bidayuh people also have their own culture. If an Iban popular feature is the tattoo, Bidayuh are well known for the use of bangles.
Back in 2009, during my first semester at the University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), my friend and I decided to do a research on the Bidayuh people and on their unique culture. In September that year, we planned a three-days trip to Kampung Semban, the last Bidayuh village where folk cultural habits are still observed to some extent.
Kampong Semban is located in the Padawan area, 3000 feet above sea level. Our journey began by car from my house, and proceeded towards the foot of the hills. The only way to reach Kampong Semban is still on foot (helicopter is an option too). Our walk started at 9am; there where three of us: my friend, I and our guide, a missionary named Ps. Noit. During the hike, we passed by several hamlets where we met local villagers.
The road was rough and the walk tough, especially challenging for those who are not used to hiking, and for those like us who carry lots of food supply. Along the first part of the journey, we faced rain, treacherously high hills and even had to cross an unstable bamboo bridge. After an hour of walking, we reached the village of Kampong Taba Said, where we stopped to take a rest and eat.
We then continued our journey, aware that to reach our destination we would have to pass two more villages, namely Kampong Bejong and Kampong Rejoi. It was only after over six and half hour of walking that we reached the top of the mountain, where Kampong Semban village is situated.
Kampong Semban is an extremely beautiful village, the only one situated in this mountainous area. Clouds are everywhere, especially after it has rained. The air was fresh, and the water at the waterfall was incredibly clean. From the village, the clear 360 degrees views of the whole area were amazing. Our bed for the night was provided by one of the villagers, who was Ps. Noit’s friend. We were so tired from the effort that we fell asleep right after food.
The following day we started our research on the symbolic use of bangles amongst the Bidayuh people. We managed to meet two local women who still wore bangles: 84 years old Anu Anak Gaek, and Peluk Anak Abeh. According to Anu, she had been wearing bangles in her arm and legs since she was 10 years old. Peluk said she was 5 years old when she started using them. They explained about the practice of wearing bangles amongst the Bidayuh community, a custom passed from generation to generation.
The bangles are made from copper and worn only by the Bidayuh women; they can usually be found for sale in Kuching town stores. The bangles they used in their arms and forearms are called Luyang while those in the legs are called Lasung.
It was so much interesting and mesmerizing, hearing about the symbolic and practical use of bangles by the Bidayuh community: they were believed to protect people in times of war with other ethnic groups; they were used as a body accessory during ancient times; they are worn during harvest festivals like Gawai Dayak, where women dance showing off colourful bangles that give off a nice sound when shaken by movement.
Learning that the custom of wearing bangles was disappearing amongst the Bidayuh people at Kampong Semban was disappointing. Anu admitted that modern times and technology drive away the younger generations, who moreover are reluctant to use bangles as they find them uncomfortable and painful, especially at the beginning. She also said that as the use of bangles is of animistic origins, this custom is now being banned by the Catholic Church.
We left the village the following day, contemplating the results of our short research, which were not so promising. We learned that due to the construction of the Bengoh Dam, villagers would have to move to a new location. We also found out that at the time there were only 5 people left in the village who still used bangles, all aged 50 or above. Definitely not good signs for the future of bangles, apparently a dying tradition.
Despite these findings, we returned fully excited from the trip, and with plenty of unforgettable memories from the trek and from Kampong Semban village and villagers. I fully recommend the place, especially to hikers and nature lovers.