Longhouse At The Edge Of Labi: The Untold Story Of Teraja

Features 9 minutes, 16 seconds

BELAIT

Nestled at the very end of the asphalt of Jalan Labi lies a modest wooden longhouse dwarfed by a surrounding enclave of lush tropical forest.

Built on stilts reaching two metres tall, the longhouse appears sturdy but worn, with accents of mint green paint on its stair posts and handles that frame an exterior of yellow wooden panels and doors in blue.

Sitting with silent authority inside the ruai — a communal corridor that separates the longhouse entrance and its private living quarters — is Jamit Anak Lasah, the patriarch of the sole settlement in Teraja.

He is short, stocky and still has full head of silver hair. His skin, leathered by the sun, wears all of his 78 years, but his posture holds firm we sit cross legged on the linoleum floor for an interview. “Our people built this house with our bare hands,” says Jamit proudly as he taps the floor. “There were no others that helped us build it.”

Despite researchers being drawn to its biodiversity, and thousands of tourists arriving to trek its many waterfalls and hills, Teraja still evades mainstream consciousness. Aside from trekking guides, online searches yield little about its history.

This is the untold story of Teraja — recounted by the descendants of its original inhabitants.

From Marudi to Belait: In search of opportunity

Anecdotes of how Belait’s rural, innermost communities came to be are mostly tales of migration from modern day Sarawak. A riverine settlement, that later formed into a town, southwest of Brunei's border known as Marudi bears particular significance; the Iban residents of Teraja and Melilas claim their ancestors to have descended from there.

Jamit’s father Lasah first arrived in Belait's south in the 1920s, traversing by foot from Marudi across trails in dense tropical forest in search of economic opportunity. “Back then he didn’t even know he had crossed into Brunei,” says Jamit. “A man would search for employment or an area that he could settle into and farm.

“You didn’t need to present papers if you were looking to be hired. If you presented yourself as able bodied, ready and willing to work hard, the job would be yours.”

Arriving during the rubber boom, Lasah plied his trade with other Iban folk, tapping the wild Jelutong trees in Mendaram, Labi and Biadong, Sukang.

The latex yielded from Jelutong was however inferior to the imported rubber seeds planted commercially in Brunei-Muara and Temburong of the Heavea variety, commanding less than half its price.

A community thriving off the land: The birth of Teraja

It was only after the Japanese occupation, in 1948, that Lasah sought permanent settlement, bringing a 10-year-old Jamit from Marudi together with a group of close friends and family numbering less than 20.

“My dad had a dream of wanting to settle somewhere new. So together we built Teraja’s first longhouse by the river,” says Jamit. “It was a longhouse, but I remember, it had only two doors.”

They fished from the rivers and drank its water, collected fruit and hunted deer and wild boar from the surrounding forest. They used rattan instead of nails to secure the longhouse, propping up wood and thick dried leaves as their roof instead of zinc panels. They lived off the land — and began to develop it for agricultural use. While continuing to tap jelutong trees, they diversified into clearing areas of forest to plant padi and vegetables.

Rubber and produce not kept for consumption was either sent to Labi or Kuala Balai, a now deserted but then bustling trade post well known for producing sago. “With the money we earned, we bought only what we could not get ourselves,” said Jamit, listing salt, sugar, flour, cooking oil and kerosene as the goods they sought most.

From the 1950s to 70s, they moved twice, building a slightly bigger longhouse each time to cater to an expanding community, all within a radius of a few kilometres.

Jamit says that national developments during this period, including Brunei's constitution of 1959 and the 1962 rebellion, consolidated their desire to stay in Brunei.

“In the early years, and even during the uprising, we could have turned back and crossed into Sarawak,” said Jamit. “But we didn't want to. We loved our longhouse, and owe this country a great debt for allowing us to settle.”

The winds of change: modernisation and its consequences

Gaong, Jamit’s son were part of the first few generations to receive formal education at Rempayoh primary school in the 1980s. There's no denying his striking resemblance to his father, aside from his much taller stature. Of tenacious personality, he gets excited to return home every weekend, where he welcomes all with a contagious verve that has left a smile on many a tourist.

While unquestionably proud of his heritage, Gaong and his three brothers belong to a group of rural-born settlers in the 1970s and 1980s that performed well enough migrate to secondary schools in Brunei's coastal towns, where they would later find employment.

With the tapping of Jelutong no longer profitable, the lure of stable, well-paid professionals jobs promised by formal education proved even more attractive, ushering a gradual outflow of residents in the 80s and 90s.

But the community are quick to assert that the implications of modernity weren't all unwelcome — for they brought accessibility, improved health care and higher standards of living.

“Back in our early primary school days we had to stay in a makeshift farm house in Mendaram, which at the time was a two and half hour jungle trek from Teraja,” says Gaong, now 42 and works at Belait’s Youth and Sports Department. “From there, it would be another hours walk to Rempayoh school.”

In the late 1980s, forest was cleared for a proper access path, but barely anyone had a working car, and during periods of heavy downpour, the dirt road was too muddy and slippery to navigate. Once in secondary, students from rural Belait would be cooped up at the Perdana Wazir hostel in KB, and would only return for holidays at least two weeks long. “It really was that hard to arrange transport,” says Gaong. “When we grew up, even the sight of tire tracks, was a big deal to us.”

As years passed, Gaong and many others bought their first cars, but the condition of the road between Mendaram and Teraja had yet to significantly improve until His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam paid a visit in 2001.

“We had a long list of letters that went to all sorts of agencies but went unanswered,” says Gaong, in a tale etched into longhouse folklore. “But just a week or so after His Majesty visited construction began and within two years, we had an asphalt road and direct electricity.”

Waterfalls, tourism and community sustainability

It’s two weeks straight now that that one tour company, Sakam, has brought tourists to Teraja. It’s manager, destined to sign an agreement to formalise their promotion of Teaja, leads a convoy of visiting cars.

The group today are made up of teachers from Belait and Tutong, many decked out in jerseys, track pants and sport shoes, eager to make their first trek to Teraja's famed waterfalls.

“There are about 40 (waterfalls) in Teraja alone,” says Sakam manager Bohari Abdullah as he gestures to the towering forest behind the longhouse as the group warms up. He enlists four young males from the longhouse as guides, and we begin the trek.

The forest floor is a blanket of dead, damp leaves punctuated by the exposed surface roots of trees, with a dark green canopy insulating us from the morning heat. The surrounding vegetation is conceivably dense, and our line of sight limited to some 10 to 30 metres.

With arms in a controlled swing, Bohari strides through the winding, narrow trail with a deftness uncommon for a 56-year-old man. I ask him about his curious choice of footwear, a slip-on pair of rubber shoes, more suited for a leisurely stroll at an air-conditioned mall.

“I use a different shoe if we are going (serious) hiking,” he says with amused grin. “This trail is quite straightforward. These shoes are also easy to clean.”

It turns out that Bohari spent well over a decade in the military, where trekking routes less traversed are a staple of routine jungle training.

45 minutes later we are greeted by the stunning sight of Wasai Beluloh, a waterfall at least 200 feet tall. The pool forming at the bottom, on that Sunday, was too shallow for a swim. After snapping pictures we head back up, until we reach a white sign that writes in red: Wasai Teraja.

As the group is a little fatigued, it takes roughly the same time to reach the Teraja waterfall, estimated by Bohari to be a few hundred metres less than the 1.6 kilometres to Beluloh.

Wasai Teraja is everything you’d expect of a waterfall that’s safe to swim in, with its plunge pool a picturesque greenish blue that’s at least two metres deep. While the group enjoys a dip, Bohari takes me up a short but steep path that leads to a mini waterfall that’s lesser known.

“People are just starting to open their eyes to Brunei’s eco-tourism potential,” says the 56-year-old once we reach the top. “But we should have been doing this a long time ago.”

Back at the longhouse, we dine on traditional Iban cuisine in the ruai as Gaong tells visitors the history of Teraja. He always makes it a point to advise visitors to register with the longhouse or the nearby police post whenever visiting its hiking trail, after a local cartoonist allegedly went missing in the area two years ago but was never found. On the menu, Ayam pansuh is the stand out; carrying a light, fragrant taste that is a hallmark of the food cooked here.

The dish is made of chicken cuts, seasoned with salt, fragrant leaves and the stem of the umbut tuhau, funneled into a bamboo and heated over a fire.

As guests finish up their a lunch, 21-year-old Casstiena Gimang, who does accounting and administrative work for a private company in Kuala Belait, takes centre stage. She dons the full kumang dress, replete with bangles, dangling metal beads and an elaborate headdress that jingles as she begins the ngajat dance.

It's an all out effort by the longhouse residents to bring an authentic cultural experience — and its chefs, performers, orators and guides — all have roles to play.

It's drizzling as the visitors begin to leave, but the their chatter amongst themselves is discernibly upbeat. “Tourism, in some way, has kept the longhouse together,” says Gaong, as he reflect his community’s future on the veranda as rain trickles down the zinc roof. “There are just a handful of people here during the weekdays. But we all return each weekend; tourism keeps us busy with new tasks and duties. It makes us proud that outsiders take an interest to learn about our humble longhouse — and it our duty showcase it with pride.”

The Brunei Times