IT WAS so good – a half-day to enjoy the warm sun, pleasant sea breeze, cool shady coastline trees, and great smiles of the residents – the Kedayans.
Bungai Beach is a lovely curved beach stretching more than two miles long. In the past, many students, led by their teachers, had walked along the beach from Miri to Sibuti, taking one whole day or even two, depending on the tides.
Nicholas Juna was having a fun day out with his grandchildren at Bungai Beach.
Gesticulating with his hands to point southwards from the beach, he said, “When I was a Form 4 student, our teachers challenged us to do a long hike which took about three days. We walked from Miri to Bungai and finally Kuala Sibuti. Not all of us were scouts but our teachers taught us to cook on the beach. We even fished and caught prawns and crabs. It was more than what the Nat Geo people do with all their new equipment and safety measures.
“In those days, it was a great challenge and we only had our parang, and maybe a small first aid kit. We were lucky because we could stay one night with the fishermen on the beach and then another night near Kuala Sibuti with some friendly Ibans in their longhouse.
“So thinking back, it was really great. There were only eight of us, including two teachers. I don’t think any student or teacher would do that anymore. My seniors were trying to get their Scout badges, and we just followed for company.
“I’m grateful to the teachers for taking me. I remember the most beautiful part of our journey was the Bungai Beach. Now, whenever I have a chance, I will bring my family there.”
Bekenu Bazaar, often called Sibuti by the Chinese, was started by some Chao Ann (Chawan) people from Fujian as early as 1896. They put up a few attap houses and started trading with the local Ibans and Kedayans.
These early settlers were interested in birds’ nests and jungle produce. They also planted rice – hence the rice mill across the river from the bazaar – and set up a Chung Hua Primary school.
The Brooke and the colonial administrations paid special attention to this bazaar, most probably due to its accessibility to the sea and the resources of the Sibuti River.
The Kedayans spread out from this area to the surrounding territories and have kinship claims with those of the same ethnicity in Brunei and Sabah. When the Brunei Rebellion broke out in Dec 1962, many Kedayan youths went missing. A few have never been traced.
The Kedayans are still very protective of their heritage and legacies, holding fast to their land and livelihood as farmers and fisher people.
Their fishing boats continue to dot the South China Sea and rest on the beaches of Bungai, Peliau, and beyond.
Bekenu is now a thriving plantation town with many four-wheel drive vehicles and lorries on the road every day. People from all walks of life arrive in the morning to make land and business deals, while homestay operators do brisk business.
The new tamu of Bungai Beach is adjacent to a lovely public playground, designed by the local council with good facilities such as bathing and toilet cubicles and campsite tables and benches with barbecue pits.
The concrete paths are well constructed for holidaymakers to walk on – and are wheelchair-user-friendly too.
Swings and playground amenities draw a lot of visitors. The dining facilities, all alfresco, under the casuarinas and sea lettuce trees, make even a hot morning pleasant. While children play on the grounds, parents can sit down for some nasi lemak and cendol, or tuck into food they packed for the picnic.
The trees, some planted by the government among the native coastal vegetation, enhance the allure of the place. The white sandy beach is lapped by gentle waves and dotted with fishing boats. The sea is blue and the sky can be cloudless.
Here, black rocks jutting out of the sea at low tide create a mystical ambience. Legend has it that the rocks used to serve as a bridge from the gods as a blessing for a good princess. The deities built a black rock bridge for her to visit her parents on the mainland (most probably the Malay peninsula) after she married a prince of Borneo.
The Kedayans are famous for their basketry skills. The large backpack, made of soft material such as spliced bamboo, rattan (now hard to come by) or packing strips is called terkiding.
The small carrier bag is called babai and the all-purpose basket is called peyutang, which can be used when catching fish or crabs.
The Kedayans have an interesting way to catch prawns with only palm-leaf stalks.
A Kedayan woman can spend considerable time looking for prawns in the clear water, and after spotting the crustaceans, she will push the palm leaf stalk into the water. When the prawns bite, she will immediately pull up the stalk, detach the prawns and put them in the peyutang. The women can stay knee-deep in the water at Bungai beach the whole morning and return with their catch for lunch.
The women hawkers make baskets at their stalls and sell them to waiting customers. The Kedayans have traditionally woven baskets from whatever natural materials they can find in the coastal and deep forests. Nipah palms and pandanus are for making everyday carrier bags, while rattan is for making hardier and long-lasting bags and even containers with covers.
It was once suggested Miri should have a crafts gallery to display traditional crafts made of jungle materials. Many thought it would serve as a tourist attraction to complement Miri’s status as a Resort City. Indeed, a lot of history and geography can be learnt from the exhibits.
The only male hawker here sells seashells, some of which are fairly big, for less than RM25 each. He is conversational and friendly.
He shared with the people crowding around him the intricacies of his shells and the goodness of some of his products such as special herbal plants and saplings.
The stall owners are really friendly and humorous.
During our visit, a woman hawker nudged my friend while pointing to the male hawker, “He’s single. His wife died not long ago. He is still healthy and people can start matchmaking him with ladies who come here.”
Two women hawkers standing next to each other giggled. Maybe there was romance in the air.
In a way, the tamu is like a family affair. Every operator seems secure, knowing they are looking out for each other.
I paid for two bundles of fresh bamboo shoots, promising to collect from the seller after a walkabout around the tamu. After about two hours, I returned to find the seller gone!
I found the hawker concerned after asking around about the missing bamboo shoots. She smiled.
No, she did not disappear. Being a responsible seller, she wrapped up the products in a blue plastic bag, placed it near the pathway and waited for me to collect.
Indeed, there is a lot of honesty and sincerity at this place. What a heart-warming experience.
One young Kedayan woman sells refreshing cendol. It was nice sitting on a deck under the casuarina trees, enjoying her fragrant pandan iced sweet dessert. Other stalls offer a variety of products such as rojak sauce, fresh coconuts, nasi lemak, and Kedayan biscuits.
Seasonal fruits are always available at the tamu – sukun, cempedak, and jackfruit, to mention just three.
Those interested in ubat or medicinal plants can also buy some here. For instance, the Beijing plant is sold at RM10 each. It is said to have curative properties. The Kedayans are well known for their traditional medicine. And they attract many visitors from as far away as Brunei.
A coconut drink seller was waiting for two young men from Miri.
She told thesundaypost, “I’ve sold out my fresh coconuts today but two guys from Miri promised to come this morning to help me pluck more fruits.”
And sure enough, two personable young men, known as Kelvin and Lee, showed up and drove to her coconut garden.
Kelvin skilfully made four cuts on each coconut to help the stall owner out. Several people dropped by to buy and enjoy the freshly cut fruits. We too received a free coconut drink each.
We left Bungai Tamu with a big smile on our face but an almost empty purse.