Semban: The Village Above The Clouds

This year, I decided to take a break from my yearly Mount Kinabalu climb, after already successfully achieving the feat 10 times (see ‘A Decade of Mount Kinabalu’) so I was already expecting my December holidays to be a month of complete rest and relaxation.  Little did I know that in the end, I would end up going for a last-minute hike deep into the jungles of Sarawak to a remote village called Semban.

The region of Bengoh (where the controversial Bengoh Reservoir Dam is built) was probably hit by a meteor long before, causing the crater that holds all the eco-system within the crater.  Kampung Semban (‘Semban Village’ in Malay) is located in the region of Bengoh, smack in the middle of this crater at an elevation of around 400 meters above sea level.  All the villages including Kampung Semban have actually been relocated (more like evicted really) to their respective new settlement area, but a few of the villagers still return to their village to tend to their crops.

Map shows where Semban is located in relation to Kuching, just shy of another two days hike down south is the Kalimantan border.

We started our journey from Kuching at 6.30 am and made a breakfast stop at Padawan (some know as 10th Mile), a small town with plenty of tuck shops, butcher shops and plenty of coffee shops.  We ended up in a coffee shop called ‘Jin Jin’.

01_Semban_Kolomee_Padawan 02_Semban_Padawan_Cat
Picture (left): Red Sauce Kolomee at 10th Mile Bazaar (Padawan).  Picture (right): Sleepy sweety cat still sleeping even with the bursting activity going on around her.

It was a morning filled with morning mist which blanketed most of the rolling hills and valleys.

After our much needed stop to attend to our stomachs, we finally continued on our journey which brought us deeper into the interiors.  By 9 am, we reached the infamous Bengoh Dam.  This was my first time seeing a dam with my own eyes.  Such a huge man-made structure smack in the middle of nowhere, the modern mechanics of mankind looks like a marvel to behold.

The Bengoh Dam has already been completed, only awaiting the deforestation process to be completed before filling up the reservoir.
Nana stands by the edge of the starting point to peer at the misty forest which we will be marching into.
Along the sides of the power station, I saw plenty of custom made baskets that are used by the villagers to transport their produce.
This big blue door built by the edge of the hill gives me a very eerie feel of the place.

This is where the actual trail starts.  The trail was easy enough, what one would expect going through a jungle… some parts covered with trees which provides natural shelter from the sun yet some parts totally exposed to the shrieking sun and pouring rain… some with overgrown lalang (Malay word for very long weedy grass) that cuts like a knife making superficial scars on your skin.  It is better to go in with long sleeves and long trousers to protect yourself not only against sunburn, but also from the ‘blades’ of these lalang.

The trail starts fairly easy with wide path along the edge of the hills.
As we proceeded further into trail, some path are quite overgrown with lalang (Malay for weed) and can grow till heights higher than the average human.
Where the slopes are too steep, steps carved out of wooden trunks are placed to assist in the trail, however these wooden steps can be quite dangerous when wet and moist.
Along the trail, we met a few villagers who goes back to their old abandoned village to harvest their crops, we met a very friendly Bidayuh lady who has her two loyal companions with her, Digi and Blackie.  When asked if she had another dog named Celcom, she answered “Sudah Mati” (‘already dead’).  Until now, I am still not sure whether or not she was joking.
Sights like these are frequent, with wood placed on the trail which makes it easier to avoid stepping and sinking your shoe into a mud patch.
Some upper body strength is required to navigate the wooden steps in sections that are moist and covered with algae.

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A few mushrooms and flowers that caught my eyes along the trail.

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Interesting looking milipede, spider, fly and worms along the way.

Be ready to step into streams of water (sometimes a whole river) which is abundant throughout the whole trail.

As we progressed further into the trail, one thing seems obvious… the constant sounds of chainsaws and modern steel dinosaurs in the distance followed by the echoing cries of the fallen trees.  There were a few spots on the trail that we passed that were so bare that one could easily collapse from heat stroke!

The constant sounds of chainsaws and modern steel dinosaurs in the distance followed by the echoing cries of the fallen trees

One of the unique attractions on the trail would be the river crossings on bridges architected by the villagers out of bamboos!  Sticks and sticks of bamboo held together by little pieces of bamboo shaped into nails that creaks and sways each step of the way!  (One of these bamboo bridge actually gave way and collapsed behind my friend’s weight and thus the rest of us who have not crossed had to do an actual river crossing… in the river!  It’s okay… we get more value added excitement and adrenalin to our adventure HAH).

A dramatic shot of the bamboo bridge against the lust green forest.
The bamboo bridge is an architectural wonder; simple yet solid (provided the bamboo itself is not rotten)
The ‘windows’ on the bridge gives a stunning view to whoever crosses it.
I just had to get this shot in; to show how literally it is  ‘walking on the edge of danger’.

It was only when we reached the now abandoned (and destroyed) Kampung Bojong that my heart totally sank seeing all the destruction.  All the plants and trees surrounding the village has already been chopped down and left there to wither (Perhaps to be collected for wood at a later time?).  Most of the wooden houses are already near collapse, some even seemed to have been burned down.  Litters of plastic products and human waste are still left behind, probably the source of the army of vicious and blood-thirsty mosquitoes that were constantly attacking us like there’s no tomorrow.

I can imagine the glory days of Bojong village, when the trees were still alive and the villagers going about with their everyday life.
Now all that’s left is an abandoned area with dead trees with no soul.
Most of the abandoned houses has already been sealed shut.
Litters of plastic products and human waste are still left behind, probably the source of the army of vicious and blood-thirsty mosquitoes that were constantly attacking us like there’s no tomorrow.

With that being said, the beauty of the whole area was simply indescribable.  This is not my first jungle hike and I have to admit that I have never before seen nature beauty such as this.  Miles and miles of river with white rapids, and as we went further up-river, uncountable numbers of multi-tier waterfalls that looks more and more inviting as we went further in.  At one point, the waterfall was as high as 3 or 4 storey, the wind force generated from the crash of the water was so powerful and intense one that we could not even hear each other talk!

This is the waterfall located right next to Bojong village, still flowing with life; a stark contrast to the fate that has befell the now abandoned village.
Looks like a potential for very exciting white water rapids here!
Even small streams like these can make for a pretty dramatic provided all of nature’s element plays its part.

After 5 hours of muddy paths, steep ascents, climbing over fallen tree trunks and crossing rivers, we finally reached our picnic spot.  It was the Pain Waterfall (pronounced ‘pine’ since it is a Malay word).  Like the other majestic waterfalls that we encountered, Pain Waterfall was also a multi-tier waterfall (I did not bother to count how many levels it had as it seems unending) but the best spot for a picnic would be the top tier where the currents were less strong and the crash of the waterfall did not break our bones.

Like I mentioned before at the beginning of this post, stepping into water for a river crossing in also a normal thing on this trail.
After all the hard work, we finally arrived at our picnic spot, the Pain Waterfall (pronounced ‘Pine’ since it is a Malay word).
The best spot for a picnic would be the top tier of the waterfall where the currents are less strong with a calm section of pool for dipping in.
Did I mention that all my shots were done without a tripod as well as without a ND filter?  I had the most unfortunate luck of not being able to get my hands on any ND filter before my hike, therefore I just had to make do with whatever I can.  Purposely waited until clouds covered most parts of the waterfall and shot at smallest aperture (F22) with a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second WITHOUT a tripod!
A somewhat panoramic shot of Pain Waterfall.  I could not get the whole waterfall into the panorama because it was a really wide area, not to mention the different levels of the waterfall.
The top 3 tier of Pain Waterfall.
If you notice carefully, in the middle of the picture, dressed in blue, is our Nana having a dip in the pool.
Pain Waterfall is a among one of the many majestic multi-tier waterfall dotted along the trail to Semban village.

43_Semban_Pain_Waterfall 44_Semban_Pain_Waterfall
Ivy and Nana having a good time in the pool

Even butterflies love being at Pain waterfall.  There were countless number of butterflies flying around us, many resting on our clothes and bags.
A butterfly with expensive taste; this butterfly chooses a North Face backpack to rest on.
Common little yellow butterflies all attracted to the Jess’ yellow stocking.
Butterflies here are so untouched that they are not even afraid of humans.  While Ivy was trying to get a shot of a butterfly on her clothes, another butterfly decides to rest on her hand.

From the waterfall, it was another 2 hours hike with a lot of ascends and small river crossing.  At this point in time, it started raining and we proceeded slowly but surely on with the trail.  Before long, I noticed that we were passing some pineapple plants, too many to be a rogue growth, therefore I knew that we were already nearing the village.   Sure enough, rows and rows of wooden abandoned huts welcomed us with its eerie silence and the chilling rain of the evening.  Even with the cold sight, it was a relieve to many of us as we knew shelter and shower was just a few more steps away.

Sagen, the homestay owner took the liberty of welcoming each one of us with a fresh already-opened ready-to-drink coconut.  While some was in the shower, others took to washing their shoes or drying their clothes, and for others whose stomachs were already singing, smelling the delicious aroma coming from Sagen’s kitchen.

The welcome drink: Coconut water, natural source of electrolytes, natures 100Plus.
The King of fruits (and the main reason for some hikers who frequent this route): The Durian.
While some was in the shower, others took to washing their shoes or drying their clothes, and for others whose stomachs were already singing, smelling the delicious aroma coming from Sagen’s kitchen.
These interesting looking seeds littered Sagen’s house compound.  It’s hard enough to cause pain if thrown at someone!  Seed war anyone?
The aftermaths of the lalang.  ADVISORY: If you prefer not to have cuts like these, please dress in long trousers and long sleeve shirt.

The homestay which is actually Sagen’s own house, is totally made out of wood, just like every other houses in the kampung.  There is no electricity but Sagen has a generator set that he turns on when night falls.  Water supply is abundant as small little aqueduct like setup made out from bamboo shoots split into half to channel the water from the water source from the top of the hill.  Celcom seems to be the only provider with mobile coverage throughout the whole trail.  The coverage along the trail is quite bad, there are only a few spots (more like closer to none).

Aqueduct made out of bamboo splitted into half to channel water from water source atop the hill.

For dinner, we had very interesting local dishes.  Two of them were durian-based dishes.  Needless to say, the dinner was more than enough to feed 10 hungry stomachs two times over!  We all went to bed fairly early with sore feet but satisfied stomachs.

Plenty of food for everyone two times over!

52_Semban_Dinner 53_Semban_Dinner
Sagen prepared us dishes cooked totally from natural ingredients found around the village.  Shown in the picture are two different dishes cooked with young durian.

The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  True?
Caption this.

I automatically woke up at around 4 am and found myself not able to sleep.  Since it was raining previously, I made the decision to get up to see if I could catch any sight of stars.  It was a decision that I am glad I made.  It was definitely rewarding!

Although it was not the most optimal time for a night sky shot of the stars, I had no other choice.  The night before it was raining and I had to take this chance.  Definitely did not regret trying, even if it’s not a perfect night sky shot.
Another night sky shot from a different section of the village.
I spent at least an hour outside in the darkness, alone and cold.  Before I knew it, dawn was starting to creep into my shots.  This was my last shot of the night before the sky was overcome with clouds and light of dawn.

The rest got up at 5 am the next morning to hike to the top of the hill to pay homage to the rising of our sun.  The climb up was fairly easy with gradual incline all the way to the top.  The sides of the hill was planted with rows and rows of pepper trees.

Fresh pepper for the picking

We reached the peak just as the sun was rising from the horizon, still hiding behind the clouds.  The view was simply breathtaking!  The peak from where we stood appears to be one of the tallest peak around the crater rim.  I estimate that we were around 800 meters above sea level judging from the air and the temperature of the surrounding.

59_Semban_Peak_Group_Before_Coffee 60_Semban_Peak_Group_After_Coffee
Picture (left): Before coffee.  Picture (right): After coffee.

A panorama shot of John against the breathtaking view of the whole Bengoh valley blanketed with clouds with the sun rising in the horizon.
The legendary Puteri Semban decides to graces us with her appearance.
Weena shows us her beautiful custom-painted hiking stick with gecko motifs.
In her moment of happiness, seeing the sun rising and bringing life to all who witness its glory, Nana feels the need to jump out to shine her joy to all.

From here, we witnessed firsthand the real testament to the line, “The village above the clouds”: in the distance, Semban village lies seated on a hilly slope overlooking all the milky white clouds that fills the crater.  As the sun’s rays starts to penetrate the clouds shining its life-giving beam unto the earth below, Sagen took out his flask and began offering us hot coffee.  Every sip was heavenly as we witnessed God’s marvelous creation.  We must have spent at least a whole hour on the peak, and when Sagen signaled the time to head back down, my heart was extremely reluctant to leave the place.  I took one long last look at God’s painting for me that morning, took one long last breath and said my goodbyes to it.

One last look at God’s beautiful painting.

When we got back to the house, breakfast in the form of Fried Rice with fresh anchovies was awaiting us.  The weather was fine that morning so we had our breakfast out on the ‘ruai’ (Malay for balcony).  The friendly and lovable cat decided to accompany us for breakfast, not to mention the few chickens that were chirping away nearby.

Some of us started to sit out on the ruai and just chill.  On the right is Sagen’s smokehouse.
Weena is hungry enough from the mountain air that she could eat a whole pot of fried rice…
… and even have space in her stomach for bananas after.
Meanwhile, the friendly kampung cat falls asleep from Gillian’s tender touch.
While we fill our stomachs with breakfast, Sagen sits nearby us in case we have any questions for him.  Sagen is extremely knowledgeable having served for the army for many years and being on assignment in the deep forest all the time.

After breakfast, Sagen brought us to see the Tapang tree (scientific name ‘Koompassia excelsa’), one of the tallest growing tree species in the tropical rainforest that usually towers above the canopy and has huge roots that grows on the surface to support its weight.  The Tapang tree always attracts giant honey bees who makes their huge honey hives hanging on the branches.  The villagers with the skills capable to climb the tree would harvest the honey which generates more value than the tree itself for its timber.

The picture shows Ivy against the gigantic Tapang tree that towers the forest canopy.

Along the whole trail to the Tapang tree, Sagen stopped to pick petai which has dropped to the forest floor, indicating the petai is ripe and suitable to be used for culinary use.

Sagen grabbed a leaf which he then folded into a basket to hold the petai which he has collected.
Riped petai that has dropped to the floor, ready for the picking.

Sagen also stopped at the ‘Peace’ tree which the villagers planted many years ago as an offering to the spirits to signal a truce between the spirits of the jungle that they will stop all their head-hunting activities.  This peace tree is actually a Jelutong tree, chosen for its latex which is white in colour to represent the end of blood spilled from from head-hunting days.  Sagen also mentioned that the Jelutong wood is a soft wood very suitable to be used to make souvenirs as it is easily carved into shape.

Sagen shows us the Peace Tree, a symbolic tree that marks the end of the headhunting era.

After the ‘stroll in the park’ we assembled back at Sagen’s house to another… breakfast?  This time it is smoked mee with freshly grinded pepper.  Another tasty combination that wowed us to finish every single strain of mee!  Sagen then made each one of us smoke the hookah which is a traditional smoking apparatus which uses a water filtration system much like the ‘shisha’.

Inside Sagen’s smokehouse.  We had smoked mee for breakfast.  Ingenious.
The mee that morning tastes extremely nice with the fresh pepper picked from the hill top earlier on.
Sagen showing us how to smoke the hookah, a traditional smoking apparatus which uses a water filtration system much like the ‘shisha’.
Filling in the guest book before we leave.  I had a look at all the other comments from other visitors, and they were all positive feedbacks.  Keep up the good job Sagen!
The three ‘adventurers’ with the biggest and intimidating backpack compared to ours.
One last picture of Sagen and me before I leave.

We took one last group picture in the clearing outside which had a good panoramic view of the village with most of its houses hidden among the trees.  As my group posed and made their silly faces and antics for the camera, I couldn’t help but notice the now abandoned village, quiet and still… then I imagined what used to be a bursting and thriving community of loving Bidayuhs and behind it lies the hilly slopes that we climbed this morning and where we witnessed firsthand why this is without any doubt …. The Village Above The Clouds.

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We didn’t need any ‘weed’ to get high like we are in the picture.  Everyone was happy from the crazy experience and friendship that we share throughout the journey.
One last goodbye, as I witness firsthand to this village… Semban, the village above the clouds.

6 thoughts on “Semban: The Village Above The Clouds

  1. Thanks for sharing these beautifully captured scenes and experiences. What an interesting tour to this village above the clouds…I enjoyed every bit of it!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I was most fortunate to be able to visit this place before they flood the dam. It really is a beautiful place, only only the nature, even the people and their everyday lives there.

  2. Hi Cyril, do you know if the hike is still accessible? I would really love to hike and check out this kampung when I visit home (Kuching).

    1. Hi Kelvin, Semban’s old Village is still there, it is not part of the area that was flooded. However, the route that we used and that I documented is not there anymore. To get to Semban now requires the use of a boat, which can be arrange. If you need further info on how to arrange this, please contact me in FB under Cyril Steward Teo.

  3. Hai!
    I am from unimas and i planning on going KG SEMBAN tomorrow. May i get the local contact no? I need to arrange the place for staying.

    Hope u rply asap. Thank u so much.

    U can contact me thru :
    Fb : aliff zainuddin
    Twitter :@aliptomen
    Whtsapp/call: 011-27790690

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