Sungai Lembing, once the El Dorado of the East

By Aznan Mat Piah

I have never been to Sungai Lembing before this despite the fact that I used to pass through the road towards Sungai Lembing each time I drove from Kuantan to the highway on the way out to Kuala Lumpur, after normally spending my vacation days in the east coast states.

Not until I met some one from Johor while on a holiday trip in Perlis in August that had impressed upon me to make a visit to the place.

So, on my way back to Kuala Lumpur from Kuantan recently my wife and I decided to visit Sungai Lembing. It was a short but a worthwhile trip, which I never regret to discover for myself what’s in store in this historic town.

The name of the place is said to have derived from the word lembing which means spear, a weapon used in hunting. The story goes that a group of hunters are said to have hurled a spear towards a deer and that the deer had jumped into the river with a spear stuck in its body.

After a long time, a group of miners had arrived in this area. While panning for minerals in the river, they found the spear, believed to be owned by the precious hunters. Since then, the area has been known as Sungai Lembing. So the legend was told, even though there was no evidence to support the myth.

Entering the place for the first time, I discovered that it is a small serene town, located far into the forest with traces of old buildings with a combined Malay and Chinese houses still found around the town centre.  There is also an old mosque in the town.

Sungai Lembing is situated about 40 km from Kuantan. History tells us that this is where a hive of activities and business of every kind mushroomed and prospered. The main activity there at one time was of course tin mining. Sungai Lembing was said to be the richest town in Pahang, and for that it was known as the El Dorado of the East.

It was in Sungai Lembing that the world’s largest underground tin mine was once located. The tin mine was run by the Pahang Consolidated Company Limited (PCCL) from 1906 until 1986. It had its history way back to 1888 which started with Pahang Corporation Limited.

Sungai Lembing was said to have the second richest tin deposit in the world. Most of the mineworkers were the Chinese brought by the British from southern China. The mine, however, was closed down in 1986 following the slowdown of world demand for tin and high operational cost.

I learned about Sungai Lembing after visiting the Sungai Lembing museum, our immediate stop upon reaching the town. This is where I had educated myself most about the history of the place and the sciences of the mine. Indeed, the museum told us most of the stories we were keen to know about the place.

Almost everything related to the mining activities can be found in the museum: from clothes and shoes that the miners normally wore, the model of the mining tunnel, the production and overall process of tin mining, the end products before they were shipped out, to the equipment used for mining during the era and model of PCCL staff quarters.

We could also learn a lot about the tin mine from the video screening that continuously explained about the operation of the underground mining activities and the safety procedures that workers had to go through when moving from one level to the other level (there were five levels) of the mines located underground. The video featured an interview with a former shaft operator who had worked at the mine before and his experiences were vividly told in the video.

In fact, the museum was like a time tunnel that brought us back to the old days of glory.

The museum building was the former residence of the PCCL mine manager before it was converted into Sungai Lembing museum. Managed by the federal authorities, the museum is intended to bring back the history of mining in Malaysia and to attract visitors and tourists to the place. The entrance fee to the museum is RM2.00, but for a senior citizen like me the charge is only RM1.00. But if you want to experience the real feeling of the old mining tunnel, you need to pay RM25.00 (inclusive of insurance) extra.

There are other interesting places that we did not have a chance to see and experience within such a short visit; for example, to watch sunrise at the Panaroma Hill, a visit to rainbow waterfall, a trip into the mine tunnels, and a walk over the suspension bridge.

To discover more about this place and to enjoy the activities around would require us to spend overnight in the town, which we hope to do it in the near future.

We left Sungai Lembing after visiting the location of mining tunnel and taking photographs of the old buildings and the houses within the settlement as we passed the town on our way out to Kuala Lumpur.

From the visit to the museum and our conversations with the local people there we are somewhat convinced that Sungai Lembing was once the richest town in Pahang. No wonder it was known at that time as the El Dorado of the East.

Photo taken from Garden of Eden

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