Malaysia – Been There

The natural people of Malaysia

Orang Asli village in the Taman Negara National Park. There are 18 tribes, falling into three main family groups and they make up only 0.5 per cent of Malaysia’s population, with 35 per cent officially classified as hardcore poor.

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Malaysia – Been There

The natural people of Malaysia

The population of Malaysia today is close to 30 million, but of this number only 150,000 can claim to represent its indigenous population. Meet the Orang Asli, or 'natural people', of Malaysia.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

Standing out with their dark skin and frizzy hair, some Orang Asli work in the mainstream economy but most others still live far from civilization in simple settlements, where logging and the advance of civilization threatens their original hunting and gathering grounds. The Orang Asli are being catapulted from a near-prehistoric way of life into the 21st century.

In the Taman Negara National Park, the oldest rainforest in the world, the Orang Asli are more or less left alone. An old man we call Michael takes me to see his family. He only speaks his own language and three English words, but his communication skills are impressive. With a real gift for mimicry, he points out the life of the forest and even has us laughing with him.

Not so the babies and toddlers, who scream in terror when I arrive at the simple settlement of reeds and bamboo. They are only silent again when they all have a balloon in their hands. A grandmother smiles with her last two teeth: she is 69. She gets two balloons. Here, I become the object of curiosity. I am stared at, petted, ridiculed, questioned and have my toes bitten by a Winnie the Pooh Jr., a pet bear that is used to find honey.

Two boys show me how they shoot their blowpipe. They are not bamboo, like the beautiful ones you might find in an antique shop, but cheap plastic piping. They ask if I have a DVD player and have seen the latest Kung Fu Panda movie, surprising questions in a village with no electricity. The boys explain that they are here because of the school break; normally they attend a boarding school outside the forest. Their ambition is to work with computers. From blowpipes to internet: Malaysia prepares for its glorious future.