Life and difficulties of Orang Asli


Orang Asli which literally means “original people” are aborigine people of Malaysia. They live in several parts of Malaysia and estimated population is counted in thousands. We met the ones who live in small villages scattered over the islands of Temenggor lake. The smallest village we saw had only 5 houses, but still it was very lively with many people and kids running around. In 1 house lives always just 1 family, but families here have many members, so the houses can get very crowded.
When looking for the spouse, they don’t have much choice and they are searching only in the surrounding villages, which makes their gene pool very limited, so they are basically all brothers and sisters.

Family life of Asli

Orang Asli are historically animists, but in the last century Christianity and Islam starts to be embraced. Interesting fact is that government tries to spread the Islam among the Orang Asli and there are state-funded programmes where muslim men are given 10 000 ringgits (around 2000 euros) for marrying Asli women.
The government is trying to officialy support them, however some Asli people don’t want any help and refuse it preferring to live in their original wooden houses and some even in the deep forest in the tree houses. Those villages are hardly accessible and people are not registered there. Doctors are visiting villages on regular basis to make check-ups and no longer Asli people are giving birth to children in the villages – they always go to the hospital in Gerik.
We were very surprised to see a huge contrast – aborigines are poor people, they catch fish, collect plants, have garden to feed themselves meanwhile some of them have smartphones despite there is almost no electricity and no GSM signal of the local network in their villages. Mobile data are either not available at all or very unstable and only GPRS so the speed is extremely slow. Nevertheless, the times when Asli wore just small piece of fabric to cover intimate parts are gone and you can see them wearing modern city clothes.
But the traditional way of hunting still persist. They use long bamboo tube in which they insert dart with poison made out of wild plants. Once they blow the dart can fly up to 50 meters. It is really amazing. The tube is around 1.5 meters long and you don’t have to blow with much pressure. The result is really impressive, we tried on our own and were very surprised how easy it was and how far the dart flies.

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Surprisingly precise blowgun

The percentage of literacy is low amongst Orang Asli. Most of kids now have around 6 classes of the school. They are usually not interested in education and for parents it is not a big deal as the chances that the education will bring them use is almost zero. The government provides the school boat that takes kids to the school otherwise the parents wouldn’t even bother to bring kids there. Education is boring for most of them but the kids are definitely enjoying colourful books that visitors of their villages bring them. Everything they learn is by doing – fishing, doing cropping, hunting etc. It is very sad to see the lack of education there as kids start to smoke from early ages. Surrounding forest is used as trash bin and they don’t worry at all if some of the petrol or other substances, which modern life brings them, leaks into the lakes.

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Asli kids in their natural environment

In the villages there are usually generators donated by government which work couple of hours per days, in some villages the government set up solar panels, but usually dieselagregators are most used. Diesel and petrol in Malaysia is surprisingly cheap 1.6 RM (0.36 euro) 1.75 RM (0.4 euro ) accordingly. Of course for petrol, cigarettes and smartphones they need money. Their income comes from selling of the honey, which they collect from the very high Tualan trees, they also grow kauchuk. But the ways how to earn a money are very limited, so despite the modern life is slowly getting into their lives nature is still the most important for their survival.
Because of logging industry the situation changed drastically over last 10 years. The numbers of animals are reduced for more than half in many cases because their natural habitat is destroyed. It used to be normal to see huge flocks of hornbills flying over the morning sky, now its difficult to spot any. Some of the animals like Sumatra rhino hasn’t been seen there for long time and is believed to be extinct. This is tragedy and not only for Orang Asli, who find it much more difficult to hunt, but there are big money in logging industry and that can still close lot of eyes in Malaysia.
Orang Asli are facing difficult times as all aborigine people around the world and its just the matter of time how long they can keep their tradition way of lifestyle and culture.

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Asli village from the eye of our drone