The population of indigenous community in Malaysia is close to 14% of the nation’s 32 million people. They are called ‘Orang Asli’ which means ‘original people’ in Malay. Sadly, our history and geography textbooks do not go into details about them, as such, Malaysians do not know much about the cultures and ways of life of the indigenous people, including myself.
Majority of the indigenous community in the country originate from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. But there are smaller settlements in Peninsular Malaysia as well, for instance, the Temiar community are forest dwellers near Cameron Highlands whereas the Mah Meri community live closer to the coast.
I had the opportunity to visit the Mah Meri tribe in March when I joined a tour organised by LokaLocal to participate in the tribe’s celebration of Spirits’ Day.
*Also Read: What You Need to Know About Cameron Highlands
Mah Meri tribe
The Mah Meri tribe is a subgroup of the Senoi indigenous community. They live on Pulau Carey (Carey Island) situated along the coast of Selangor state, just an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur (KL).
Carey Island does not feel like an island as it is separated from mainland by the Langat River which is not very wide. The island was named after a British coffee and rubber planter called Valentine Carey who cleared much of the natural vegetation there for agricultural purposes in the early 1900s. Right now, the landscape of Carey Island is dominated by oil palm plantations.
Amidst the plantations are small villages inhabited by the Mah Meri tribe, traditionally known for their wood carvings, palm leaf origami and expressive masks.
Hari Moyang (Spirits’ Day)
There isn’t much of tourism-related activities on Carey Island but Malaysians sometimes drive to the island for scrumptious seafood.
It was only in recent years that the Mah Meri tribe invited outsiders to participate in their rituals and traditions, one of which is Hari Moyang (Spirits’ Day). Hari Moyang is typically celebrated within a month after the end of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the exact day is determined by visions received by the tribe in their dreams.
The Mah Meri tribe practices animism and believes that the door to the spiritual world opens on Hari Moyang when their ancestral spirits will return to the world and visit the living. On that day, reverence is paid to the spirits and the tribe seek for better fortunes, protection, forgiveness or special wishes from the spirits.
The celebration begins when the tribe gathers on the jetty nearby with one group goes on a short boat ride to the river mouth to pay respects to the spirits while another group stays behind to offer prayers at spirit houses located along the riverbank. The tribe invites tourists to join them in this ceremony but our tour itinerary by LokaLocal did not include this activity.
The tour proper commenced after the river rituals were finished. We joined the Mah Meri tribe and other groups of tourists at one of the village settlements for the celebration ceremony. The tribe was dressed in their traditional costumes of palm leaf grass skirts and tops made of tree bark. The expressive masks that I mentioned earlier were worn by a few villagers to represent the ancestral spirits, and those masks became quite a hit with the visitors – they looked cute! We were given a headband made of palm leaf and advised to wear it until the ceremony is over.
There was a short procession to the Rumah Moyang (House of Spirits) in which a table was placed inside as an altar. A shaman was seated on the altar alongside food, offerings, candles and incense. The tribe (and some tourists) go to the shaman for blessings from the ancestral spirits – he applied rice flour paste on their foreheads and hands. Traditional songs and dances were also performed around the Bunga Moyang, a symbolic Mah Meri cone made of palm leaves.
After the ceremony, tourists were given the opportunity to learn and make origami made of palm leaves. I wasn’t interested because I’m terrible at art but my friend, Hui Min, who is a writer and blogger at Project Prose, spent time learning from the tribe to make those origami leaves. We were served lunch at the village, after which we returned to KL in the afternoon.
Mah Meri Cultural Village
In addition to the Hari Moyang festivities, tourists are encouraged to spend some time at the Mah Meri Cultural Village. It’s recommended that tourists visit the museum first at the cultural village before participating in the rituals and ceremonies as the museum gives insights into the origins of the tribe, their culture and way of life. With that, visitors are then able to understand and appreciate Mah Meri rituals much better.
You can also purchase some of the local crafts such as handwoven baskets and purses and wood carvings.
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Tours at the Village
You can drive there on your own, key in ‘Mah Meri Cultural Village’ in your GPS and the village is approximately forty kilometres from KL city. However, you may find none of the Mah Meri people are at the cultural village, thus you have to call in advance to get information as to whether they have cultural activities available at that time.
Alternatively, you can book a tour directly with them or with LokaLocal who is their official tour partner.
You may think that these tours are “not genuine” …well, it’s a catch-22 situation. The way I look at this is by having tours, the Mah Meri gets the opportunity to keep their traditions and customs alive and outsiders like myself get to know about them. I have lived in KL for nineteen years and I never knew that the Mah Meri community live just an hour from KL! Shame on me for not knowing! ☹ However, if the community shuts out tourists, they would lose an alternative stream of income. It’s about striking a balance between conservation and progress, I guess.
If you are planning to travel to KL, try to allocate a day or two to visit places outside of KL – a trip to the Mah Meri tribe in Carey Island is one of the activities that you can plan.
*Also Read: Short Getaway Places Near Kuala Lumpur
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