For over 300 years, a cluster of wooden houses by the beach at Pantai Jengkok was thought to belong to a fishing community. Today, it is revealed to be the ancestral village of the Mah Meri, an indigenous tribe in Malaysia.
With a smile that could brighten anyone’s day, Ribi welcomed us into her simple and humble home. Her belongings are arranged neatly by her mattress, on the floor of the first room. The other room is the kitchen, with a wood-burning stove tucked in the corner.
There is neither lighting nor air-conditioning in her home. Ribi gets by with old-fashioned oil lamps and the embrace of the gentle sea breeze. To get her supply of clean water, she has to ride her motorcycle through the mangrove forest and over bumpy dirt roads to the nearest kampung.
It isn’t a lifestyle most city folk can get used to, but that has been the way of life for the villagers at Pantai Jengkok for as long as they can remember.
Ribi has lived in Pantai Jengkok all her life, but the 58 year old has seen many neighbours and family members leave. Her own children are no exception. Of the 65 houses on the beach, 40 are currently occupied. Only 10 of these are permanent, consisting of the older generation. Most have moved to more developed villages in search of better opportunities, and only return to their hometown over the weekend or during the holidays.
Pantai Jengkok is an isolated stretch of beach separated from the nearby kampung by a river. Don’t bother trying to look up the village on a map – you wouldn’t be able to find it. Untouched by outsiders for years, the sleepy settlement along Pantai Jengkok was finally identified as the long-lost ancestral village of Malaysia’s Maskmen in 2016.
Ribi is a Mah Meri, one of 18 indigenous tribes in Malaysia, and a descendant of the original settlement that first step foot on the shores three centuries ago.
Dual Identity of the Mah Meri
Those who have heard of this mysterious tribe would know about the Mah Meri Cultural Village on Pulau Carey, Selangor. Dedicated to preserving the Mah Meri’s rich cultural heritage, it opens its doors to those who want to learn more about the tribe or take part in the traditional wood carving and leaf origami workshops.
“The Mah Meri people have been around for more than 300 years,” said Mr Rashid Esa, Director of Mah Meri Cultural Village. “Now there are 4,200 Mah Meri people here in Malaysia, of which 2,200 is on Carey Island and the rest are living on the nearby mainland.”
In their tribal language, “Mah Meri” translates into “people of the jungle”. A long time ago, however, they were known to locals and seafarers as “sea gypsies”. Little is known about their origin, but their mysterious past is shrouded in a legend.
According to the legend, they once belonged to a prosperous kingdom in the Malay Archipelago. When the empire crumbled, the people believed it was a punishment from the gods, and left to seek new shelter across the coastal areas of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. To conceal their true identity, they adopted the language of the foreign lands, and changed the name of their tribe to that which we know today.
In Malaysia, the tribe’s nomadic nature brought most of them to Pulau Carey, while their abode by the beach was almost forgotten. Their ancestral site has been presumed lost for centuries. Its existence was only brought to light when several villagers from the cultural village introduced it to Mr Esa and his conservation team.
Based on the similarities in their language, religious beliefs and artistic traditions, as well as extensive research into its background, the team concluded that the community on Pantai Jengkok is related to the Mah Meri people on Pulau Carey.
One Tribe, Two Paths
If you walk along the beach and coastal vegetation, you will reach a curious enclosure close to the settlement. In it is an altar filled with offerings and familiar weavings made from nipa leaves. Like the Mah Meri of Pulau Carey, the community believe that they are protected by ancestral spirits, or the moyang.
The difference? The annual Ancestors’ Day (Hari Moyang) celebration on Pantai Jengkok is not as lively as the one famously celebrated each year on Pulau Carey.
The conservation team notes that while those on Pulau Carey are more inclined to stick to old practices and remain in the cultural village, the Mah Meri on Pantai Jengkok have been more willing to venture out, assimilate with locals and embrace the changes of time. This might have contributed to the dwindling population at the settlement.
That aside, most of their cultural heritage have remained the same. The Mah Meri are skilled in sculpturing, leaf origami, and scavenging for food on the beach and in the mangrove forest. Their people respect Nature just as much as they depend on the natural surroundings for their livelihood.
Reclaiming lost land
Youth emigration for a better life isn’t the only thing that threatens their existence. The decline of the mangrove forests has also led to an increase in coastal erosion and flooding. Over the years, the settlement has had to gradually move inwards.
Since its discovery, the Mah Meri Cultural Village has begun to reintroduce mangroves into the ecosystem, in hopes of revitalizing the natural barrier that once protected these ancestral homes from the ebbs and flows of the sea.
Bringing in visitors is another way the team hopes to help these Sea Mah Meri. Allowing a controlled number of people to visit the village to helps the outside world understand the lives of the sea nomads, and the challenges they face – both by rapid development and by environmental deterioration.
As it can be difficult to access by car, anyone visiting the settlement would have to take a boat ride to Pantai Jengkok. There are hands-on activities such as traditional craft, origami and sand mask making as a tribute to their ancient culture. Visitors can even learn the traditional way of fishing with the Mah Meri men. Spending the night here is an ultimate digital detox. The newly-built common area in the village is the only place with electricity, but the laid-back beach atmosphere makes up for it.
The only catch? Those who step foot in this lost village are asked not to reveal its location when they return home, as it might lead to an influx of unwanted visitors or attention.
With the serene and pristine beach as the backdrop, it’s easy to see why Mah Meri like Ribi chose to stay in this idyllic place. Despite the tides of time, there is still charm in the simple life. It is what keeps the heart of this ancestral village beating to this day. And we can only hope it stays that way in the future.