Tasik Penyilem or Penyilem Lake is a natural land-locked body of water upstream of the Batang Kemena in Bintulu.
It takes over two hours by boat to get there from the jetty at Kampung Pandan on the bank of Sungai Binyo in Sebauh District after bypassing SK Bukit Balai in the vicinity.
An expedition from Badan Warisan Sejarah Dan Kebudayaan Vaie Bintulu (Bawaris) or Bintulu Vaie Historical and Cultural Heritage Organisation recently explored the mysteries of the lake and its vast potential as one of the division’s eco-tourism products.
Generally, the word ‘silem’ means fishing in the language of the Vaie ethnic group (Melanau Bintulu/Vaie people) and the original name of Tasik Penyilem is likely related to the term, according to the expedition leader Kairulnieza Waynie.
He said based on tenganik or folklore, the Penyilem Lake area holds many mysteries with various accounts passed down from generation to generation.
“Bawaris likes to share such traditional narratives so that they will not be lost to the future generations,” he told thesundaypost.
During the expedition, the group ventured into the places they heard about only in stories told by the older generation.
Kairul said the stories had been documented from an interview with Temenggong Rosli Kamaruddin and his cousin Mahmod Sulaiman.
Tasik Penyilem stories
One of the stories tells of events that happened at a lake called Penyilem hundreds of years ago.
The lake with brackish water is located in the upper reaches of Sungai Binyo at Kampung Pandan upstream of Batang Kemena in Bintulu.
Sungai Penyilem is a small river with dark water flowing into Sungai Binyo, whose lubuk (deepest parts of the river) known as levaw tabhik are related to the Penyilem story.
There are several small streams collectively known as Sungai Benaong flowing into Tasik Penyilem from its source on the right upper ridges of Sungai Penyilem. It has a story of its own.
Sungai Penyilem has several lubuk as well and is very narrow at some parts, allowing only one boat to pass through at a time.
The middle of the river is where you can see the formation of a large lake area known in Pandan Village as ranaw (lake in Vaie language).
In the past, the Vaie Segan ethnic group was found in a settlement comprising three native villages — Kampung Julan, Kampung Surik, and Kampung Beluran.
According to folklore, the settlement was turned into a lake by bales (a curse). As the story goes, the affected villages were swallowed up by the earth following days of ravaging typhoons, and became a sea or rat in Vaie language.
Kairul learned from the old folks that relics such as stairs and house poles were still visible when the lake water receded during the dry season. Bizarre rock shapes such as the batew baqas (pig rock) could also be seen in the area.
Based on Pandan folklore, there are three haunted lubuk or levaw in the Sungai Penyilem area. The water in these deepest parts of the river is tea colour and home to a variety of fish.
The lubuk are said to be the submerged site of the Vaie community, which had been cursed.
Some young people in the nearby villages once went fishing in the third lubuk and managed to catch some fish.
While they were busy preparing their lines, the weather turned foul in the blink of an eye with lightning flashes and rumblings of thunder reverberating across the darkened sky. Then heavy rain and strong winds swept through the area like a cyclone.
Kairul said this strange incident became the talk of the town amidst a lot of misgivings. Later, fishing in the lubuk was taboo as it was considered a bad omen after what had happened.
Till today, the lubuk near the Tasik Penyilem area are still believed to be haunted and there are many stories of unusual sightings and encounters around them.
Apart from the lubuk, the tenagak, baqas, and qatu rock formations have their own history and other-worldly stories to tell as well.
According to Kairul, the Penyilem story had also been narrated by Tuai Rumah Berasap Yat Imang in the Bintulu Centenary (1861 to 1961) booklet under ‘The Saga of Penyilem’.
The story is quite similar to the Penyarai version — ‘A Tale of Penyarai’ — published in the Sarawak Gazette on Sept 30, 1961, based on a story by Tuai Rumah Diman from Tatau District where Penyarai is located.
Kairul said the Penyilem story is a folklore of the Vaie Segan ethnic group, adding that whether or not the incidents related are true depends on the beliefs of the readers.
However, he pointed out that the history of Tasik Penyilem is proof of the existence of the Vaie community in the area.
The Batang Uvong (totem pole) in Kampung Pandan, he noted, was historical evidence that past Vaie generations had settled in the village.
The expedition visited several locations mentioned in the story and Kairul observed that the names seen at these places could be found in topography maps at the Sarawak Land and Survey Department such as Bukit Guem in Kuala Sungai Binyo.
On the tourism potentials of Tasik Penyilem, he said the lake could be promoted as one of the must-go tourist destinations in Bintulu because of its captivating flora and fauna and interesting legends.
For those who like extreme sports and admire the beauty of nature, he suggested kayaking in Sungai Penyilem and a guided trek around the area.
Kairul admitted that, generally, it was a big task for Bawaris to promote Tasik Penyilem as a historical place of the Vaie community.
“Before anything can start moving, there’s a need to provide better infrastructure in this area, especially for researchers and tourists to learn more about its folklore and perhaps even unravel some of its mysteries.”
He said the history of the lake is closely linked to the existence of the Vaie community which is believed to have moved from Bukit Segaan in Belaga to Sungai Jelalong, Tubau, Lavang, Pendan, Sebauh, and up to Sungai Segan in Batang Kemena.