Ancient Durians in Uma Bawang


Some of the durian in Miri is sourced from Marudi, a small town in the interior of northern Sarawak on the Baram River. When I looked it up on wikipedia, (the most accurate source of information), it mentioned that Marudi is considered the heartland of the Orang Ulu, the people of the river. We had hopes of learning about native customs and traditions concerning durian, and wondered if Marudi might be a place we could meet someone knowledgeable about the old native ways of life.


 When we returned to the Mandi Guesthouse after our not-so-successful durian trek in Niah National Forest, I asked the manager about going to Marudi. It turned out that he was from Marudi, and was a member of the Terong tribe. His tribe has joined other river tribes in a fight against the government's planned construction of 13 hydro-electric mega dams, including one which would effect the Baram River. If the dam is constructed, it will flood an area half the size of Singapore, forcing almost 20,000 people to vacate their traditional lands.  We're Oregonians, and like most people from our state protecting the forest resonates with us. When he mentioned that the area has a lot of ancient durian trees planted by indigenous people long ago, he had us hooked.

Docks at Marudi
Before the airport was built in Mulu National Park, tourists had to spend the night in Marudi before taking a long boat down one of the tributaries of the Baram, an exciting adventure replete with rapids. Now almost nobody goes to Marudi, because there's still no government road connecting the town to Miri, although it is passable via logging roads. That was fine with us, as compared to bus travel on one-lane highways, taking a boat is quite the luxury.

We were the only foreigners on the express boat leaving Kuala Baram, the port located about 10 kilometers north of Miri. We caught the 3 PM boat, which was perfect because the sun was low enough that we could sit on the roof of the low, torpedo shaped boat without being fried to a crisp and enjoy the warm breeze, the passing palm oil plantations, and waving at people on gravel barges.

Enjoying the river
In Marudi, Rob called Juk Jao Evong, the contact given to me by the manager of the Mandi Guesthouse. Mr. Evong told us that the durian from his village is the best in Sarawak, with a different taste. "You are lucky," he said, "it's durian season now." He invited us to attend a political rally that night in support of the opposition parties. Many people from villages further up the river were making a special trip to attend. At that time, I didn't realize just how big an effort it was for some of those people to travel all the way to Marudi for this event. At the meeting, Mr. Evong introduced us to his nephew, Jok Eng Evong, who agreed to take us with him the next day to their family's longhouse, Uma Bawang, a river settlement of the Kayan people.

Uma Bawang made international news in the late 1980's when the villagers began blockading commercial logging roads in an attempt to halt the encroachment of logging companies on their tribal lands. At the time, tribal lands were not mapped and government policy considered any officially unclaimed lands or lands not clearly utilized as belonging to the state and free to lease out to private interests. Often, a logging company would show up on tribal lands and start felling trees, with lease in hand, before the tribes people even knew that the government didn't consider the land theirs. For a people that still depended on swidden farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild fruits and vegetables from the jungle, the effects of deforestation was catastrophic.

Jok Eng and his son, Thomas

The Uma Bawang Resident's Association (UBRA) was the brainchild of Jok Jao Evong, created in 1988 to defend the community from logging companies. UBRA has remained active ever since, encouraging other communities to form their own associations, map their lands, demonstrate ownership by putting up signs around boundaries and planting fruit trees, and replanting desolated areas with native tree species that can also be used for lumber. So far, the group has planted around 20,000 trees including 200 fruit trees per family.

From Marudi, we took another torpedo-style boat to Long Lama, about 3 hours upriver, and then transferred our belongings into Jok Eng's narrow longboat. I noticed that on this stretch of the river, we saw a lot more timber barges carrying their old-growth victims downriver. The little longboat darted this way and that against the current, dodging logs and bits of debris, making the boat lurch sickeningly with each turn. I kept having nightmares of my laptop, safely buried inside my backpack, sizzingly to its death inside the brown water and then being swallowed by a crocodile. It was dark when at last we arrived in Uma Bawang, soaked from a heavy rainstorm that forced Jok Eng to stop the boat and wait until he could see clearly enough to dodge the logs still plunging down river.


We stayed with his family in his longhouse, a series of one story apartments set in rows like townhouses connected by a wide porch. Jok Eng estimated that around 80 families live in Uma Bawang, which has no access roads and no motor vehicles, other than the long boats. Jok Eng told us that if the rained stopped, we could go into the jungle to wait for durians to drop. The rain didn't stop, and we all fell asleep.

In the morning, Jok Eng took us on a short walk behind the long house to look for durian with one auntie, an older woman who planned to camp out in the durian grove for the next few days to protect the fallen fruit from thieving tribes. Durian trees are considered private property, and each family knows exactly which durian trees belong to them. Many trees have been passed down through generations, and Jok Eng could point out trees planted by his mother, his father, his grandfather, and himself.

waiting for durians
The little old lady was so cute I took an embarrassing number of photos. I absolutely loved her hat, which turned out to be extremely practical when it started to rain again, acting like an umbrella and keeping her shoulders and back dry. While we waited out the storm in her little hut, erected just for the durian season, she disappeared into the foliage to hunt durians. The trees were immense, true jungle giants, and she looked like a tiny elf bobbing around in her hat. Rob and I stared up in awe, until the auntie shouted at us to come away before a durian fell on us.

Falling durians is a serious business. While we waited, four durians fell, pounding the earth like missiles and breaking branches above. People who camp in the orchards always erect small huts, like the one below, to protect themselves. The huts are dismantled at the end of the season. While we waited, we watched a man further down the path erect his own hut. In an hour, he had finished.

Ubong Jao Evong, 90 years old
 Later, Jok Eng took us to meet his other auntie, who had set up camp in a family durian grove across the river. At nearly 90 years old, Ubong Jao Evong is the oldest person in his family and one of the few who remembers the tribe's nomadic way of life. Her hands and feet were covered in black tattoos, made the traditional way with charcoal and a hammer and needle. We asked her if she knew of anyone who had been killed by a durian. She said no, but that she did know of someone who had been killed by a falling giant wild mango, called Mawang or Pangin.

She sent us away with two Mawangs the size of coconuts, and tummies full of one of the most amazing durian we've had on this trip. Durian in Uma Bawang is truly something special. It's all kampung durian, but most durians were impressively fleshy and made for thick, sticky mouthfuls of bitter cream. Jok Eng told us that Baram is known for having the best durians in the area, but he didn't know if it was because his ancestors had selected the best durians to plant, or because the trees were so ancient.


 Selling durian is one of the few ways the tribe has of making money. Jok Eng suggested we get really up early to keep a look out for durian buyers, who travel from vilage to village in long boats collecting the fruits to sell in Long Pasia, Marudi, or even Miri. On the morning we wished to leave, we dragged ourselves out of bed while it was still dark and sat at the dock, waiting. Around 6:30, a durian boat showed up. It turned out that the pilot, a man named Billie who lived in the next village upriver, would be driving the durians to Miri using one of the logging roads. We asked if we could get a ride, and he said sure!

We rode with the durians about one hour up the silent,  misty river. It was picturesque and a little eery, and we passed many many durian trees on both sides of the river. When Billie saw us pointing at the fruits dotting the skeletal branches, he told us that villagers downstream of the completed Bakun Dam had sent messages saying that since the water level had decreased, they were no longer able to use the river for transportation and their fruit trees had died. It was a sobering aspect of the morning.


To read more about the Sarawak mega-dams project, or to donate to the cause, visit the following websites:

5 comments:

  1. wow, this durian lover is homesick and durian-love-lorn.

    I'm back in Southeast Asia again in January. You reckon the Uma Bawang durian season runs through January?

    If not, where would you recommend to be the best place for a durian lover to visit in January?

    Love your site. When your book is published, I'll buy copies!

    jem

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  2. Huh? No pictures of the insides of the durian? Hmmm

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  3. Your experiences are sooo cultural and amazing! i am envious of all those experiences with durian in your mind...thats a lot of work to have them and a lot of pollution to breath to get to them....but its only one year, you'll be fine....lovin it...D

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  4. it sounds like most your borneo durians are hit or miss....amazing when you get the right ones.......maybe 20percent are super satisfying, like AngHair??

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    1. Hey DurianD! It really depends on where you are and how close to the trees you are. In Uma Bawang, the durians were fantastic and every single one of them was super sticky and tingly. But in other places, yes it's super hit or miss to the point I don't really want to buy durian...20% is about right. Unfortunately it's culturally okay in some regions to cut the durian early (I know, gasp!) so the durians taste a bit Thai. The non-zibethinus species are great though!

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