Text and photographs: Law Siak Hong
It is impossible to forget that first time you set your eyes on the Kuala Sepetang charcoal kilns. They form a surreal dreamscape.
Ensconced in a voluminous shed that has been darkened by rising tree oil vapour and the smoke from wood fire, a row of smoking igloos appears to pulse relentlessly. The spectacle is entrancing. While a crisp, dry scent hangs in the open air, you inhale wisps of tart fumes of the oil expelled from the wood in the kilns. It’s atmospheric.
Raised on a base lined with firebricks, the hemispheroid bricks kilns are handmade by a travelling band of craftsmen-builders. Around the kilns, the ground is raw earth, trodden on by men and machines at work, yet powdery from the ash and bits of stray charcoal. In these fascinating kilns, bakau wood is slowly ‘cooked’ for up to 28 days to become charcoal, the best fuel for time-honoured slow cooking as well as frying in a hot wok.
The kilns have always been easily accessible from the main road into Kuala Sepetang. It may be mere coincidence, but until metal roofing began to replace the expansive attap roof twenty years ago, the place did not even figure on the tourist radar. Since then, plenty of visitors have come to see the enthralling charcoal kilns, as photographers, curiosity seekers and tourists throng the place.
Perhaps surprisingly, the kilns are a legacy of prewar Japanese who introduced the technology in 1930. They gave the industrious Chinese a challenge and a new livelihood. Today, workers in the charcoal industry comprise local Chinese and Malays, both men and women, while foreign workers make up the numbers required in this labour-intensive industry.
The Japanese have never really left. Today, they are the biggest buyers of the best charcoal produced here. Even the crumbs are not wasted; they are bagged and exported to Japan, and then moulded into briquettes for barbeques. A couple of decades ago, Japanese traders also began to tap the oil extract expelled from the wood. It’s a lucrative business, as barrels of the miracle liquid are refined to make medicines and cosmetics.
Stretching from Kuala Gula to Pantai Remis along Perak’s coastline, the 40,000-hectare Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is the largest mangrove tract in peninsular Malaysia. It’s been managed as a sustainable production forest since 1905 and is considered to be an exemplary sustainable mangrove estuary, renowned throughout the world. The management of the mangroves is based on silviculture – allowing for a balance between production and conservation.
Here, then, is the focal point of Perak’s charcoal industry. According to the Malaysian Timber Council, there were 348 kilns in operation in the area in 2009, but today the figure is closer to 400. There are identical kilns in Kampong Dew, Kuala Trong and Kampong Sungei Kerang. Each kiln has an economic lifespan of seven to ten years.
The preferred species for charcoal is bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata), which grows along the riverbanks and in more tide-submerged areas. Timber is harvested in a 30-year cycle, after which the trees are clearfelled. Then intensive planting is done two years after final felling. Yields are tightly regulated to ensure a constant supply of greenwood for the charcoal industry.
While charcoal is the primary timber product – in addition to fuel, it is further processed into items like soap, cigarette filters, shoe soles and water filters – mangrove trees also have other uses, providing timber for piling poles in housing and construction, fishing poles, pulp, tannin and firewood.
Matang possess an enchanting beauty and are a rich cornucopia of flora and fauna. Besides the productive timber forest, mangroves contribute substantially to commercial fisheries that operate all year round. They are also a breeding ground and habitat for wildlife such as monkeys, bats, otters, wild boars and snakes, and home to 156 species of birds.
The Matang mangroves are therefore a natural and important coastal ecology that should be better known and understood. Mangroves are tidal, so the sensitive plant, animal and fish communities are subject to fluctuating temperatures, salinity and moisture. Thus, only a few selective species make up the mangrove community. The mangroves are also important for water storage and trapping sediments and carbon, contributing to the control of the quality and quantity of water and particles discharged into the sea.
When Kuala Sepetang was known as Port Weld, it was linked to Taiping by a 13-kilometre railway, the very first in Malaya. It began service in 1885. Port Weld was the sea jetty for Taiping and the Larut district, and the link to Penang and other parts of the peninsula.
So, when you visit the kilns for some amazing photographs, take time to walk through the mangrove forests. They are an outdoor classroom for an education on the environment, ecology and a sustainable industry. You may not see many animals during the day but, with patience and in stillness, you begin to catch their movements in and out of the water. It can be humid with little air movement but you will learn a lot from the informative storyboards. But be forewarned: mosquitoes are endemic. For this reason, staying in the holiday chalets in the reserve is not recommended unless, of course, you want to experience the mangrove forests in discomfort.
You may opt for a boat ride out to the island of Kuala Sangga for a day trip or a homestay at one of the floating chalets. To see fireflies, you have to take the boat from Kampong Dew in the evening.
I won’t be forgiven if I leave out food. Apart from curry mee with generous helpings of seafood in the shops and in the market, there are halal mee udang stalls and some pork-free restaurants by the waterfront for excellent fresh seafood. I love a cold beer with an early meal overlooking the water and the mangrove forests at sunset. Sadly, you can’t help but notice the new, incongruous tall concrete building which is a hotel by the sea. Tell us what you think of it.