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Sunrise over Kuala Sepetang, Malaysia. A former centre of tin mining in a mangrove reserve, its tourist attractions include dancing fireflies at night and traditional charcoal factories. Photo: Philippe Durant

In a mangrove in Malaysia where fireflies dance is a scene as if from a Charles Dickens novel – charcoal factories. The tourist potential is huge, a hotelier says

  • Kuala Sepetang may appear bucolic but it was once a centre of tin mining. Pass the fishermen’s homes and there is another industry – charcoal making
  • Visitors are welcome to see the Dickensian conditions in the charcoal factories – and the fireflies dancing above the swamp. Is a tourism boom in the offing?
Asia travel

Sea eagles wheel overhead, ever ready to dive for fish. Boats return with tonnes of shrimp and prawns to the docks at the rear of fishermen’s homes, where the catches are hand-sorted by species and size. In front yards, anchovies and squid are hung up to dry in the sun.

Along the village’s seawater canals, boat builders produce vessels for the fishermen.

Kuala Sepetang, in Malaysia, appears a rural idyll, but it has an industrial past – it was once a centre of tin mining – and an industrial present: to take a look inside one of its small charcoal factories – dusty, dirty and extremely hot, but also extraordinary – is to step back in time and into the pages of an Émile Zola or Charles Dickens novel.

Since 1940, the charcoal production process has remained in the careful hands of a few families, who use traditional methods. Each owner has between two and 15 kilns, which are used in rotation so that production remains continuous.

Charcoal is made the traditional way in Kuala Sepetang, using wood from the surrounding mangrove. Photo: Philippe Durant

Fifty tonnes of wood go into a single kiln, the wood delivered on boats built by the same men who make the fishing vessels. The kilns are kept at a constant heat for 14 days, after which 10 tonnes of premium charcoal will be extracted from each.

It is a time-consuming, skilled and exhausting operation, manned by Malay families and Pakistani immigrants, some of whom have been working here for decades.

Each charcoal-making factory has from two to 15 kilns. Photo: Philippe Durant

For Puan Zaniah, 62, the dust, the dirt, the heavy wheelbarrows, the extreme heat, and the 4am starts have been part of her daily routine for more than 30 years. This is the life she chose, she says.

Like the owners, many workers followed their parents’ footsteps into the charcoal factories.

Puan’s boss, Patrick Choo Kheng Sheng, whose factory has been in his family since 1950, says 70 per cent of what is produced in Kuala Sepetang is exported to Japan, where the charcoal is used to to smoke fish and meat, in cosmetics and by the medical profession. His own factory, though, supplies the domestic market.

A worker collects charcoal after three weeks inside the kilns at a factory in Kuala Sepetang. Photo: Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images

Visitors are welcome to look inside the factories, as they are to watch the boat builders at work.

On the same waterways used to transport trunks, tourist boats offer “cruises” at weekends and on public holidays. Along the way, visitors – almost all of whom are domestic for the time being – may see a demonstration of sea-eagle feeding or observe the millions of fireflies that light up the surrounding Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve.

These mangrove trees are the raw material for the top-quality charcoal Kuala Sepetang produces.

A boat waits for high tide in a mangrove at Kuala Sepetang, when it will move tree trunks to a charcoal factory. Photo: Philippe Durant
The modern history of the area, 12km from Taiping, in Perak state, began in 1848, when headman and administrator Long Jaafar discovered tin.

As the story told at the local Matang Museum goes, Long Jaafar had an elephant named Larut (later the name of the district that surrounds Kuala Sepetang) that he took with him when journeying around the region.

One day, Larut went missing and when the elephant was found, three days later, Long Jaafar noticed tin ore embedded in the mud on its legs.

Soon afterwards, Chinese labourers began arriving in Kuala Sepetang – or Port Weld, as it was then known – in search of tin-mining opportunities. The first migrants settled in Kuala Sanggat, an island in the Sangga Besar river estuary.

Mangrove forest near Kuala Sepetang. Photo: Philippe Durant

Fewer than 50 people now live in Sanggat, without electricity or running water. Just two children attend the small local school.

By contrast, Kuala Sepetang, about 5km upriver, is booming. It offers a picturesque example of a preserved culture and way of life and, before the coronavirus pandemic, had begun attracting overseas tourists. Tan Kai Leck would like to see them return.

When the village began to be promoted as a tourist destination a decade or so ago, Tan, who ran hotels in Ipoh, 75km away, opened Happy 8 on the riverside. He believes the village is going to become a must-visit for international tourists when borders reopen, not least because of its well-regarded seafood restaurants.
Kuala Sanggat School, Kuala Sepetang, on the first island settled by tin miners in the mid-19th century but now with a population of less than 50, of whom only two attend the school. Photo: Philippe Durant

He also hopes to win Unesco Heritage Site recognition for Kuala Sepetang.

According to Tan, the area meets all the criteria – vestiges of the past, unique traditions, an exceptional and diverse environment, and sustainability, given that the 40,000-hectare Matang reserve has been recognised as one of the most well managed mangrove forests in the world.

However, the Unesco process is time-consuming and tedious, and so far he has found scant support for it from local residents.