I have heard quite a lot about them over the past year. I’ve heard they are really nice, I’ve heard they are quite high up and a challenge for people with a fear of heights, I’ve heard they are unique but most importantly I heard that I should go and see them before the Bengoh valley is flooded by a dam being constructed there.
I have therefore been looking forward to seeing them and quite keen on going, but alas I knew no one who knew exactly how to get there and past the dam construction and had the time to go there as well. Finally after over a year of planning to go two weeks ago I was able to go there with (of all people) my old land lord who is retired in Kuching and sometimes takes trips to different interesting places around Kuching.
The drive over from Kuching was so simple it made me feel quite silly to have been putting it off for so long. It takes about an hour from Kuching and follows some of the main roads so it’s difficult to miss, only the last couple kilometers were unknown to me. Well we live and learn 😉
The security guard at the gate to the dam construction was looking for something under the table in his hut so we never got to find out how difficult it is to talk your way in since we never stopped and simply drove past. Since the road leads to 4 Bidayuh villages the guard can not actually stop you from going in…but he can stop you from taking your car in which means a 3 kilometer walk in the sun on a dry dusty gravel road. Not to mention the heavy haze which on the day made the sky gray and dull, it did clear a bit later. Luckily we got past with no problem so we drove right past the dam construction site (and at times through the site) to a parking area from which the paths to the Bidayuh villages start.
There is no road of any kind to these villages, the only way to get to them is to walk. The path follows the bottom of the Bengoh valley and crosses the river and some of it’s tributaries at several spots, hence the bamboo bridges. Now, the unusual thing about these bridges is that they are built and maintained much in the way they would have been 50, 100 or 500 years ago.
Granted two thick steel cables are used to carry the weight of the bamboo, but they are merely replacement for less reliable and durable natural rope and do not affect the look of the bridge much.
The construction looks fairly simple but is strong and full of interesting and ingenious ways of connecting the large local bamboo stalks.
The uniqueness of the bridge also comes from the fact that this is the last spot in this part of Sarawak (perhaps all Sarawak) where a similar construction still stands and is continually rebuilt and maintained by the local people. All other examples of this traditional technology have now been replaced with much more modern cable and concrete bridges.
It doesn’t take long to get to the first bridge, only 10 minutes down the path we see it coming into view around a corner. It looks, hmm, fragile is the word that describes it best I think. I was very glad that I packed lightly and coincidentally lost 5 kilograms the previous week.
(For all those trying to loose weight out there: food poisoning is the best possible, if painful and inconvenient, way to loose weight. If you combine it with a newborn son at home keeping you awake most nights this dietary plan works miracles.)
We decided to cross the bridge one person at a time, partly because it made the same impression of flimsiness on all of us and partly because as you cross it, it swings quite a lot and the footing is slippery and narrow.
With the exemption of Jay (my former landlord who has already been here) the rest of us were quite slow and careful crossing the bridge. The first thing you notice when you get onto the bridge is that it is built for people smaller than you, you can tell this by the handrails which at some points are not much higher than your knees. All bridges have a plank consisting of two bamboo stalks underfoot and one or two levels of handrails on both sides. As I was slowly and carefully crossing the shaking and creaking bridge three two thought were forming in my mind: the first was that the UK health and safety officers I have had to deal with in the past would not even inspect this bridge much less write a report about it’s safety and the second was that it is going to be a bitch to take any decent photographs from the middle of the bridge.
Observing me and the other that crossed before me was one of the locals, a young man with some packs he was probably taking to town. He waited patiently at the end of the bridge until we all crossed than practically jogged across the bridge with no concern for the shaking and not really bothering to use the handrails much. I was thinking that it was polite of him to wait for all of us to cross and still smile and say hello, but if we met a larger group the crossing one by one could take a while.
Anyway, as we continued on down the track, we bumped into a few groups of the local villagers. Seeing gas canisters, and very large bags on their backs, it started to dawn on us that the bridges weren’t as fragile as they looked. Soon the track changed, up to here was a steep and uncomfortable for walking (up or down) stretch constructed by the dam construction workers to replace the old path the construction destroyed. Bun now we got onto a smoother and more gradual path made and maintained by the village over the past years, many years as some parts of it demonstrate. Here too we came across some interesting sights. Freshly burned and planted fields, some moon like landscapes where the plants were burned but nothing was as yet planted to replace them and parts of the forest which looked like it was autumn (as long as you didn’t factor in the fact that there is no autumn in the tropics).
Within 25 minutes we got to the second bridge, it was bigger and newer looking, that is to say the bamboo was fresher with fewer lichens, vines etc attached to it and looked to be in generally better shape. We crossed over it still one by one but with a bit more speed and confidence this time. On the opposite side a bunch of the local youngsters (probably school kids) were waiting for us to cross. As soon as the last person from our group stepped off the bridge the kids waved, said bye and stepped onto the bridge, ALL of them crossed it at the same time keeping a good pace while on the creaking and swinging bridge, they only stopped for a second to pose for a photo for us, this is good cause now we have proof of how strong the bridge actually is.
The path now winds along the river through the forest, most of it still quite undisturbed although some smaller sections were cleared here and there for rice or other crops.
After a while more we passed through the first Bidayuh kampong, all the villages are fairly small compared to some of the other Bidayuh ones closer to main roads. Here perhaps only 40 houses were in the village.
Still the surroundings were very green and it makes for a nice place to live, even if fairly remote.
Here in the village we also passed a couple of bamboo bridges which we did not have to cross, as they led to more fields on the other side of the river, away from the main path.
Still here is a video made by a friend of mine as he wanted to cross the bridge anyway, it is only a photographic camera hence the quality gets a bit fuzzy when the camera moves.
From the second bridge we headed off towards a local school which is placed on the main path right in the center of the area, meaning it is close to no village but not very far from any of them either. Well when I say that, some kids do walk about 2 hours to school in the morning and 2 hours back so it’s not exactly next door.
On the way to the second village we noticed every now and then there is a bamboo bench with a back rest formed in such a way that you do not have to take your backpack off to sit. These are meant as rest stops for people with heavier loads who walk this path. In the past they used to include smoking pipes as well, but a government study showed that in areas where the villagers built these rest stops and had pipes tuberculosis was unusually high. Now the rest stops no longer include pipes for smoking however if you ask people in the area how far something is they still sometimes reply: “it’s about two smokes from here”. I apologize here, I appreciated the resting spots very much on the walk but I forgot to take any pictures of them, will fix this next time I go to the area.
About three hours after we started the trip we got to Kampong Said, which is the second of the villages. It is similar in size to the first village we passed and also located close to the river bank.
Here a more modern plank bridge was built across the river where the other villages on the trail are located. However on the day we did not want to go to the last one as we did not have enough time to get there and come back. Instead we stopped by a waterfall to have a swim and eat something before going back. If you sit still in the water for a few second small fish start to nibble on your skin.
Apparently there are new special spas in KL, Singapore and other places offering this “fish treatment”. Personally I found it a bit disturbing and certainly wouldn’t pay for it, but different people different tastes.
After spending an hour at the waterfall we got back on the path to walk back. Interestingly on the way back none of the bridges, including the first flimsy one, seemed flimsy anymore. After seeing a load of about 400 kilograms of bouncing kids cross a bridge safely with no problems the bamboo somehow seems a lot sturdier 😉 The most difficult part of the walk comes as you are close to the end of the trail, after crossing the first (or last depending on your direction) bridge you are again back on the road built by the dam workers. On the way to the bridges it descends quite steeply, now is the time when you have to make up for it and walk steeply uphill for about half an hour. Remember you do this after about 6 hours of walking in the tropical heat with a heavy backpack.
Now a word about the dam. The dam is the newest government project, it will create a large water body meant as a drinking water reservoir for Kuching. There has been a fair amount of controversy about this. The government claims the villagers are all in agreement and relish the chance to move out of the valley to more civilized areas. The villagers on the other hand say that perhaps they will be lucky and the due to the limestone structure of the surrounding area the water will leak out and thy will not have to leave.
Personally I have nothing against the project itself, Kuching is growing quickly and safe water has to be secured somewhere. The valley is close and well shaped for building a dam. I do wish however the government would take the needs of the villagers into account more when planning these projects. The relatively small group, of about 3000 villagers is due to be settled outside of the valley and given a small land allowance per family. The problem is the land allowance is too small for the usual cultivation practice of the Bidayuh tribe and the people have no experience with intensive agriculture.
The cash compensation previously given to other villagers in the situation before has invariably ended up being spent on cars and other luxury goods instead of being invested in future means of support. A much better alternative would be to allow the people to move higher up the sides of the valley on the banks of the lake. They could continue farming as they have done for generations but with the added benefits of more tourism movement, as well as new transport and economic possibilities created by the lake.
Still the dam is going ahead an in 3-4 years the valley will be flooded so if you are in Kuching try to get to the bridges to see the unique constructions and the people who build and maintain them before they are gone.