We were also honoured to meet the oldest living resident of the ex-Belum village - Pak Ishak (or in the local dialect "Pak Sahak"), who, at a whopping 104 years old is still steady on his feet, with all his wits about him and a fantastic memory to boot! Again, I feel there must be something in that rainforest that lends such a youthful air to the people.
Pak Sahak was another rich source of invaluable information about life during the pre-war days and also during the war, meeting Japanese soldiers and all.
He also told us lots of wonderful folk tales and legends about the Perak River and its tributaries, inc. Sungai Merah and Sungai Machang. He told us about legendary saints in the neighbourhood - in fact, the Merah River was not named because of its reddish colour as popularly believed, but after Tok Merah, a saint.
He told us fascinating tales of the river guardians and spirits e.g. the lime-green viper with a diamond head guarding the spring which is the source of Sungai Machang...
He told us of the site of another village in the area (they were pretty nomadic back in those days and moved after every harvest) which had sacred trees and plants... whoever plucked the durians or rambutans or whatever fruits on the trees to bring home, would find that they would have all turned into stone before they had a chance to be eaten.
He also told us of funny stories of life in the jungle, like how sometimes the men would find leeches and bugs in the most unlikely and painful places on their anatomies (!) and which plants they would put on the sores to make the pain ease... great stuff!
If you have the chance to just mingle with the villagers of Kg Belum Baharu, I'd urge you to do so. Just hang around the stalls, visit the shops, walk around... they're very friendly, if a little shy but am sure would be very pleased to have a chat.
This is Mak Teh, wife of Pak Teh. Lovely lady, 49 years old but looks 10 years younger at least, no? Must be something in the air or the food up there, everyone's so vibrant and healthy in this village!
She was appalled that her husband did not send word to her informing that we would come visiting after coming out of the Royal Belum. In fact, she was rather disappointed too that he didn't inform her my mother was there on the expedition or she would have gone as well, bad knee or not! She was shaking her head in disbelief and commented on how surreal it was to see my mother sat on her sofa and even thinking about coming to this lil old village out in nowhere...
It was pretty last minute though and we felt for her cos she would've loved to have made us lunch or at least serve us some local delicacy... but her presence and that of her family was more valuable to us than anything physical she could have given us.
This is Pak Teh, the Head Villager or "Tok Bathin" of Kg. Belum Baharu. 78 years old but fit as a fiddle and could outpace anyone trekking into the Royal Belum rainforest.
He was an invaluable source of information about everything we wanted to know about Royal Belum.
He told us stories of life in the old Belum village, deep in the greenery of the jungle, before they had to be evacuated due to communist activities and insurgency during WWII.
How the British residents ("Tuan Berkeley, Tuan Atkin..") would come by on an elephant to collect taxes (!) from the villagers. Something like 60 sen per square meter.
How they used to go up to Thailand to buy groceries and sundry goods since it was much nearer than going to the nearest town in Malaysia.
How the Siamese used to come down and excavate for gold at a small mine near Kg. Chepor (which he took us to visit).
He told us about the river trails, the different herbs and plants we saw along the way, the animals and how to spot them by their droppings, their footprints, the markings they make on the trees, the remains of their feed (fish scales, bones...)
It was truly like going back in time to hear his accounts.
According to Mak Teh, she never sees her husband happier than when he's asked to guide expeditions and visits into Royal Belum. He'll make off with a kain pelekat, a towel, a parang and a beaming smile on his face.