FRANCES WILKS EXPLORES THE REMNANTS OF POSSIBLY THE OLDEST CIVILISATION IN SOUTHEAST ASIA. NESTLED IN THE BUJANG VALLEY UNDER THE GREAT LANDMARK OF KEDAH PEAK, A MERE 1.5.HOUR DRIVE FROM PENANG, IT’S ONE OF THE GREAT SECRETS OF THE AREA, RICH IN ARCHAEOLOGICAL REMAINS AND NATURAL BEAUTY.
Mountains attract. You can nearly always see Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) from Penang, sometimes clear and blue, sometimes grey and misty, but always present, rising majestically across the waters of the Straits of Malacca. The mountain’s very visibility is one of the reasons for the civilisation which flourished beneath it for perhaps the better part of a thousand years. Its distinct shape, rising like multiple knuckles on a gigantic hand, made an excellent landmark for sailors in the days before there were maps or navigation systems. It could be seen from many miles across the ocean and so the mariners of those days could steer straight for the peak, confident of finding the welcoming mouth of the Merbok River just underneath it.
Sailing up the Merbok, these early sailors found the safe harbour, paddy fields, fresh water, and temples of the Bujang Valley. In this stunning 3D model in the Bujang Museum, Kedah Peak towers to the left while the Merbok with its estuary and many tributaries can be seen on the right.
CROSSROADS OF THE TRADE WINDS
Strategically situated on the crossroads of several ancient trade routes, the area was visited by Indian, Arab, and Chinese travellers, all who have left their mark on the landscape in the form of buildings, pottery, metalwork, and other artifacts. By the seventh century, Bujang had become a trading port of significance.
Part of the success of Bujang must have lain in its strategic position linking East and West Asia. It offered an alternative link to the sometimes dangerous, and always arduous, overland silk route from China. The changing breezes of the monsoon – from Northeast to Southwest – meant that Kedah was the perfect place to shelter when the trade winds were not favorable to the direction of travel. From June to August the southwest winds would bear sailing ships from the west (India, Arabia, and later Europe) to Kedah. From November to February the northeast winds would bear them back again, and bear sailing ships from Indo-China and beyond into the Straits from the East. In other months the winds move in a clockwise direction, enabling traders from various parts of Southeast Asia to make landfall in the straits, which were sheltered from the full force of the winds because of the parallel mountain ranges on either side.
MUSING IN A MUSEUM
The modern day traveller can recapture something of the lost world of the Bujang Valley by visiting the Archaeological Museum. Although the first diggings in the area were in 1936, the museum itself wasn’t established until 1980. It’s small, with an old-fashioned layout but, like archaeology itself, by working down through its numerous layers, one can uncover many marvels. In its serene gardens by the side of a waterfall, some of the Buddhist/Hindi temples, or candi (pronounced “chandi”) unearthed in the Valley, have been reconstructed. Only the foundations, made of stone and brick, remain. The structure, almost certainly constructed from wood, has perished in the humid tropical climate. One can catch a glimpse of what the buildings might have been like from the holes for the pillars which can still been seen, despite the intervening centuries.
Over fifty candi have been found and many have been left in situ, so the adventurous traveller could climb Kedah Peak from the Archaeological Museum and pass many of them in their original settings. The climb takes a good five hours until the last candi (on the very peak itself and the first to be discovered) is reached. Such an expedition would be best undertaken in the company of a naturalist as many interesting examples of plant life, including rare orchids and medicinal plants, may be seen in the jungles on and also surrounding Kedah Peak.
Inside the museum, the artifacts are laid out simply. They don’t really tell a story, nor are the findings interpreted in any coherent way. This is perhaps because Bujang is a mystery to archaeologists and the subject of much historical debate. The civilisation seen here certainly pre-dates the great early monuments of Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudor in Indonesia, but is outranked by them in terms of scale and artistic expression. Like Bujang, they have both Hindu and Buddhist elements and all three pre-date the arrival of Islam, which in fact didn’t come to the region until the fifteenth century. But was Bujang a local settlement which welcomed traders from other nations, allowing them to build temples, or was it colonised by them? It isn’t clear, but the fragments of a lost culture which are on display speak of a grander past.
One of the most haunting is these is the stone head of a column, which was almost certainly part of a long frieze perhaps encircling the whole of the upper storey of a candi. The symbolism is Buddhist. The lotus flowers, shown both in side view and looking down on them, represent of the beauty that arises through water from the common mud. Beneath the flowers, frozen in stone, is a representation, perhaps, of some wonderful curtain or screen, hanging from a rail. Below this are some boat like structures. Are they the boats in which the creators of this sculpture travelled across the Andaman Sea?
But perhaps the piece which spoke most potently was this little sculpture of four figures. It’s obviously a part of a larger work, and we can only see the heads and the upper bodies. But their expressions seem to be smiling and perhaps laughing, giving the impression that these people were having fun. Who were they and what were they doing? We may never know but if you like to ponder these sorts of questions, while looking at some stunningly beautiful artefacts in an exquisite natural setting, then a visit to the mysterious world of Bujang Valley is a must on any travel itinerary. We ourselves left the Valley with a feeling that there was much more to experience than a single day allowed and plan to return to explore the Merbok River by boat and climb Kedah Peak on foot.
GETTING THERE FROM PENANG BY CAR
Take the bridge or ferry to the mainland and get on the North-South Expressway, going north in the direction of Alor Star. Leave the Expressway at junction 170 (Sungai Patani north) and take signs to Bujang Valley Archaeological Musuem (well posted) and Merbok. The museum is located on steeply rising ground of the lower slopes of Kedah Peak itself, adjacent to a waterfall and is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm except during Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Haji. Entrance is free.
This article was written by Frances Wilks for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia July-Augt 2012
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