Most Malaysians would have heard of Lembah Bujang and its Hindu-Buddhist settlement that goes back to possibly as early as the year 110, but what about its lesser-known and much older historical counterpart, Lenggong Valley? While it is impossible to value one site over the other (they are both anthropologically and culturally important) one has to ask, “Why has the Lenggong Valley remained in obscurity for so long?”
We speak to Assoc Prof Dr Mastura Jaafar, leader of the Heritage and Interpretation Team from USM’s Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster (STRC) about the Lenggong dilemma and the efforts being done to promote the place not only for the betterment of the people living there, but also for the monumental purpose of raising the economy of the entire northern region.
Can you tell us something about the work you do?
Dr Mastura: We work closely with USM’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research, which is under Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Mokhtar bin Saidin. We support him in promoting the two archaeological sites – Lembah Bujang in Kedah and Lenggong Valley in Perak – by coming up with a product and a brand, and designing a destination package. For example, when tourists go to Lenggong, we can link them up to home stays, ecotourism activities and other attractions.
Trade activities in Lenggong Valley town.
Home stay at Beng Village. In Lenggong, there are many assets to be promoted. Kampung home stay programmes are one of them.
What were the difficulties faced when promoting Lenggong as a tourism destination?
We started our work in Lenggong in 2011, before the site was acknowledged by Unesco as a World Heritage Site (in June 2012). But after three years, there has been very minimal initiative from the state government and the Department of National Heritage to promote Lenggong as a tourism destination. Lenggong is still the same Lenggong as before the Unesco acknowledgement. There have been little improvements in terms of the mindset of the people or of tourism development. There are no tourism products that we can promote, such as crafts, food and home stays. In terms of businesses there, development has been slow.
Pekasam, a product native to Lenggong Valley.
Besides the lack of initiative, what other factors contribute to this stalemate?
It could have been a flaw in the Department of National Heritage’s strategy. For example, the cave (where the 11,000-year-old remains of Perak Man were found) has been closed to the public because authorities want to preserve the conditions of the site, but of course tourists want to see the cave for themselves. Now, people can only go to Galeri Arkeologi Lembah Lenggong, and that is not enough to attract tourists.
The biggest problem is the lack of branding of the place. People travelling from the north to KL, and from KL to Grik, always merely bypass Perak – they don’t really stop there – and if we do not properly brand Lenggong Valley, then we do not give much extra reason for people to visit. We need to get the local community involved first and develop the place before we can generate interest. It’s a very rural area, and if there’s nothing exciting, who wants to go there?
What are your strategies to promote tourism in Lenggong Valley?
We propose to create awareness in the local community – our intention is to develop that first. Once the local community is aware of the importance of the archaeological acknowledgement – in the sense that it can draw people into Lenggong – they may take the opportunity to get involved in doing business. This also needs support from the state government because we need to have a proper location where they can do business.
We are going to present our development proposal for the local community to the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA). We are focusing on boosting the economy for the northern region, so if we have strategic plans for these two sites, we can help rural communities in the area increase their incomes and living standards.
On top of that, as researchers, we need to come up with output to reflect our roles, so now we are working closely with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) to launch two books on Lenggong Valley sometime in January. DBP has already confirmed that they want us to do the launching along with Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri bin Tan Sri Abdul Aziz and the state government. So far, there is still no proper literature on Lenggong Valley, but we hope that will change after the launch.
Excavation site near Ngaum Cave.
What has the public reception been like at these two sites? Is there a good flow of locals to visit?
According to the museum at Lenggong Valley, there are increasing numbers of visitors; the same goes for Lembah Bujang. But the latter is different because many NGOs there are trying to promote the site to secondary school students. It’s different in Lenggong Valley. There are no NGOs working there to promote it. So Lenggong Valley is very quiet compared to Lembah Bujang (laughs).
Is Lenggong Valley more significant compared to Lembah Bujang since it is much older?
These two sites have their own significance – yes, at Lenggong Valley you’ve got Perak Man, while Lembah Bujang is known as a pre-civilisation heritage site (Taman Warisan Tamadun Lembah Bujang).
Replica of the Perak Man found in Lenggong Museum.
How do you go about identifying elements that can be promoted as tourist attractions?
In Lenggong, there are many potential assets to be promoted, for example kampung home stay programmes, the scenic Raban Lake, traditional foods such as ikan pekasam, deer farms and handicraft. There is a lot of flora that folk there use to make traditional handicraft.
But in the meanwhile, we are unable to push any development to Lenggong, and this is frustrating. That’s why Prof Mokhtar invited us to go to Lembah Bujang. Now, we are exploring each kampung in Lembah Bujang and we’re trying to detect individual strengths that we can promote, such as home stays and floating chalets.
I do not know how long it will take for actual development to take place in Lenggong. We need to study the strengths and weaknesses there, the opportunities in the place and also the local community in terms of existing businesses and the people’s mindset. We need to approach them on how they are to get involved in business. Besides that, cooperation from the local authority is very much needed.
People in rural communities are not business-minded. They are more involved in the agricultural sector and conduct very small-scale businesses only to support their daily lives. There’s no survivability in their businesses. They depend on resources from the government such as the Tekun Nasional loan facility for their capital.
Once tourism for these two sites picks up, what will the negative side effects be?
The responsible authorities need to properly plan because we do not want a huge influx of tourists either. We need to conserve these two sites. The Department of National Heritage does not want people destroying the place.
Where do you see Lenggong Valley and Lembah Bujang in the future?
Hopefully, the state governments will focus on strategic planning and implementation. Then we will see something of significant value to the community and to the economy of the northern region.