Thursday, August 6

Communal meals and river picnics in a highland village


An overview of Pa Mada.

A UNIQUE feature of Pa Mada in the Kelabit Highlands must be the communal meals.

The village with about 20 families celebrates festivals and important occasions by feasting together usually for a social and/or ceremonial purpose.

According to Gugkang Raja, a retired English teacher and education officer from the village, the new generation continues to get together whenever they can, taking the Twin Otter from Miri to join some of the Pa Mada elders and leaders to share food and conversation.

During a communal meal, with everyone contributing, so much food is served that there is hardly any room left on the table for more dishes.

Pigs are slaughtered, fish caught in the river, and vegetables foraged from the jungle a day before the shared meal. Everyone chips in to produce a menu worthy of a 5-star rating.

Besides the feasting, the river picnic is another group activity visitors must experience.

Gugkang told thesundaypost, “We have been holding this picnic since I was a boy. Today, my children come back to Pa Mada and we celebrate our family events by holding a river picnic.

Sarawak chestnuts are plentiful in Pa Mada.

“The Mada River is next to our village and it has been sustaining our livelihood and traditional way of life. The river picnic is more than just a picnic. We usually go fishing as a team during such a communal hangout.

“Moreover, as we grow older, we experience more things and learn more skills and we can use our knowledge to teach the younger ones about the ways of the jungle.

“Sometimes, after a hard day on the farm — which is seasonal — a cool dip in the river is a welcome relief. The clear pools at the deeper end of the river are also safe for our children to learn swimming, enjoy a splash on hot days or have fun frolicking in.”

As for washing their clothes, Gugkang’s family and the villagers love the idea of beating the attire on the river boulders. It’s their traditional way of doing the laundry.

And today, when urban relatives drive up from Miri – usually taking between 12 to 15 hours — it’s quite common to see them giving their cars a good wash in the river.


Importance of the river

Gan Teck Hock

According to Gan Teck Hock, a friend of the Raja family, the Mada river will continue to
be an important lifeline for the village.

Pa Mada children will learn about nature and appreciate the importance of the river while the villagers can get their protein from the river fish and enjoy the natural beauty and tranquillity of the surroundings.

Visitors change a punctured tyre during an off-road adventure in Pa Mada.

Gan first visited Pa Mada 25 years ago, describing it as a “great eye-opening experience”.

He still remembers walking from Bario airport to the village with Marcus Raja, Gugkang’s older brother and a lecturer at the then Sarawak Teachers’ College.

“Even though it was long ago, I can still remember the over eight hours walk. We suddenly came to a clearing with this fantastic field — so wide, so green and so clean in front of us. It was so remarkable that till this day, I still can’t forget that special moment when the sun shone down resplendently on the clearing.”

Gan said he enjoyed swimming and fishing in the river, adding, “It was like paradise.”

Now retired and living in Melaka, he has spent some 20 years serving in Sarawak, first as a teacher in Julau, then as a teacher-trainer in Miri.

He would like to visit Pa Mada again.

Travellers have their cars washed in a shallow river.


Farming in Pa Mada

Pa Mada started as a small farm, owned by Gugkang’s father, a trekker, who initiated planting rice and fruit trees in the village.

As a young boy, Gugkang knew his parents would invite their relatives over from Bario Asal to collect as many fruits as they could from their farm. Even his friends still remember the bountiful harvests and going home to Bario Asal with huge baskets full of fruits.

Today, farming is still very important in Pa Mada.

Families grow rice and fruit trees which are harvested each season. People are still welcome to bring home basketful of fruits.

Gugkang also shared his anguish over troops of monkeys coming out of the jungle to destroy crops.

“They pull up every tapioca stalk. What they don’t or cannot eat, they trample on and make a mess of the whole planting area. This is their character.”

Over the year, the farmers have had to put up with this dreaded monkey business and as Gugkang noted, the numbers of the simian culprits seem to be increasing.

It’s not unusual for a farmer to trap more than 30 monkeys a year. Indeed, the villagers have to be very vigilant to protect their crops from the destructive anthropoids.

Some of the best fruits from the Bario Highlands — passion fruits, custard apples, pineapples, and rambutans — are found in Pa Mada.

Apart from planting rice and fruits, the farmers also keep buffaloes and sheep, which roam the scenic hills freely.


Communal spirit

Pa Mada has a very strong community spirit. During a festival, everyone contributes food, cash, and labour. It may be Christmas, a naming ceremony or even a birthday.

Recently, the villagers started a few projects to further consolidate their community, including communal gardening and improving their church.

A communal feast in Pa Mada.

In the old days, Pa Mada was located in a different area. When the Indonesians attacked the village during the Confrontation, the occupants fled to Gugkang’s father’s farm. He allowed them to build their homes on his land.

Gugkang was at that time only a little boy of about six but, even then, he realised lives could be in great danger, and guns and bullets would not bring peace. And it was due to such awareness that the villagers nurtured and developed their sense of belonging and togetherness.

All the children grew to appreciate kinship and fellowship, ready to help out what called on to do so.



Gugkang’s father believed in raising his children well, sending them to school, and making sure they stayed in school.

During the holidays, he saw to it that they performed all the family duties for bonding and preserving their cultural values. Today, his children and grandchildren are all doing well in various professional fields.

Marcus was one of the early Kelabits to graduate from the University of Malaya. The other siblings — Joseph and Gwendoline — have also done well.

The eldest sister in the family went to Bible School in Lawas and has been serving the church.

Bilcher Bala, Gugkang’s nephew and son of his eldest brother, is now an associate professor with Universiti Malaysia Sabah. He did a stint at York University in the UK and lectured at UKM from 1998 to 2000.

He has been with Universiti Malaysia Sabah since 2000 and received his PhD from the University of Malaya in 2010.

Alesia graduated with a PhD from Lancaster University, UK.

The newest PhD of the family is Dr Alesia Gugkang, now teaching in Labuan. She went to the same university — Lancaster — as her father, who was awarded a scholarship to study there after 17 years teaching in Sarawak and he graduated in 1996.

Alesia, who attended her father’s graduation, never imagined that in 2015, she would enrol in his alma mater as a graduate student and obtain her PhD there in 2019.


Communication problems

An off-road driver, who declined to be named, told thesundaypost the jungle roads were quite treacherous as they lacked maintenance, saying the roads could collapse and prevent essential goods reaching Bario and the surrounding villages.

“After having many such experiences, I’m grateful all the drivers, continuing to use these roads, are always ready to help out.

“You know, essentials like cooking gas tanks, sugar, cooking oil, and even chairs and tables used to be flown into Bario.

“One can imagine how difficult it is to get cement for building houses and roads in Bario and the surrounding villages, including Pa Mada. But surprisingly, some of the most beautiful bungalows and cottages in Sarawak are found here.”

There are daily flights to Bario. The Borneo Evangelical Mission built many landing strips for the Kelabit Highland villages, including Pa Mada, from 1948 to 1976.

The others are at  Long Seridan (1962), Long Lellang (1963), Long Banga (1963), Pa Tik (1963, Ramudu (1970), Long Lamai, Penan settlement (1972), Pa Umor (1973), Long Peluan (1974), Pa Dalih (1975), Long Dano (1976), and Pa Lungan (1976).

Many of them have been closed except for those at Long Seridan, Long Lellang, and Long Banga.

Recalled Gugkang, “In 1986, I was lucky to have been able to take my son home to Pa Mada just in time for his naming ceremony.

“We landed on a grass airstrip built by the SIB church. At that time, our village was a day’s walk from Bario which had the other airport. Had we landed in Bario, we would have to walk eight hours or more to the village and missed the naming ceremony.

“Now as I look around me, so much has changed in Bario and Pa Mada. My son is all grown up and has graduated as a lawyer. Besides, I have retired from teaching. Our village of Pa Mada has so many stories to share.”

There is still no internet connection in many parts of the Kelabit Highlands but with the availability of good four-wheel drive vehicles now, many of the Pa Mada villagers can drive to Bario for a day trip and from there communicate with the outside world.

If you need a retreat by a shallow river or meet hospitable people, enjoy fresh air and serenity,  you can still find a slice of paradise at Pa Mada where communal meals and other wholesome social values are very much alive.