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A Guide to Batek Camping

*A story written by Bryan Hatton, volunteer & teacher at Jungle School Merapoh*

The Batek are an Orang Asli group that the team here in Merapoh work with. We run a school for their kids, hire them as guides and rangers and on Fridays some of the Batek ladies take us camping. It’s one of the best bits of the volunteer’s week as sleeping out in the jungle is quite a thrill and you get to use a machete. Up until only a couple of decades ago the Batek lived entirely in the rainforest, so they are pretty savvy when it comes to jungle survival and it’s a real privilege to spend some time with them. After a few camping trips I’ve learnt a lot of exciting new bushcraft skills which I would like to share with you in my definitive guide to Batek Camping.

How to Build a Batek Lean-To Shelter

You will need:

  • Palm leaves, lots of them
  • Rattan
  • Trees
  • A machete
  • Several Batek ladies

The first step is to stand back and let the Batek choose the site. They’ll be looking for somewhere that has the right trees arranged the right way to make a frame and where there is nothing above, like a dead tree, that could potentially crush you in the night. There’s probably a bunch of other things to consider when choosing a site that neither I nor you know anything about, hence the standing back and letting them get on with it.

blog 2 image 1Stand back and watch the Batek build the frame. I think they bend two trees towards another two trees and tie them up with rattan. Rattan is a fibrous material extracted from vines and used a string.  The bent trees form the lean of the lean-to shelter.

Now you can get involved. You need to collect a particular type of large palm leaf. The rainforest here is full of different palm leaves, most of them are wrong for this and only one of them is right. I have no idea how to identify the right leaf. So, this is another thing you need the Batek for, but you can help them carry it back to camp. Once they’ve shown you which palm is right you might even get to harvest it with your machete. Hacking down three-metre-long palm leaves with a machete is more than slightly awesome especially if you pretend you’re Indiana Jones while doing it. These leaves will make the roof, but first we’ve got a lot of leaf folding to do.

Leaf folding is a part of this process that you can really get to master. Pick the leaf up horizontally like a guitar with the bottom part on your right and the inner part of the leaf facing away from you. Fold each of the little individual leaves coming up from the stem downwards, snapping them so they stay in place. After folding, four palm leaves will be bundled together and attached to the frame of the lean-to overlapping each other. Each bundle of four overlaps the others about 10cm and you’ve got a few metres to cover, so get folding again. So many leaves need to be folded that soon enough you will feel you’ve got your technique down pretty well with your hand gliding across the palm rapidly clicking the leaves into place, then a Batek lady will come along, pick up a leaf and while giving you a look of bemusement fold it in a fraction of the time it took you.

If this all sounds like too much hard work for you, you can just sit down and have a cup of tea (see below). The Batek ladies are perfectly happy to do all of the work, they do appreciate the help but mostly because they find it funny.

They will now fix all the folded leaves onto the leaning roof of the shelter, this is another opportunity for you to stand back and not get in the way.

Your Batek shelter is now finished, the Batek ladies sorted out the floor at some point when you weren’t looking. The first night I slept in one of these shelters was just after the end of the monsoon season and we were hit with a full on thunderstorm. The thunder and the noise of the rain hitting the leaves of the shelter kept me awake most of the night but I remained completely dry.


How To Make Cup of Tea

You will need:

  • Bamboo
  • A machete
  • A fire
  • A kettle
  • Tea bags
  • As much sugar as you can carry
  • A river
  • Several Batek Ladies

At some point the Batek ladies will light a fire, and there’s no rubbing two sticks together or flint and tinder style bushcraft to learn here, they just bring a lighter. The fire is useful for keeping away dangerous animals while you sleep in an open lean-to shelter, and for cooking dinner, but will mostly be used for making tea. Being a British person in such an alien environment there’s something very comforting about being around a bunch of little old ladies who constantly drink tea.

The tea making is fairly simple and similar to at home, fill a kettle from the river, stick in a few tea bags and hook it over a fire to boil it up. The fun bush-crafty part comes from the fact that we don’t bring any cups.

blog 2 image 2Bamboo is a type of grass. It is also, with the help of some skilled machete work, a type of cup. It grows as long tubes that are neatly divided into sections, each of which has a kind of floor/bottom to them. Go cut yourself a long tube of bamboo with your machete, pretending to be Indiana Jones, and bring it back to the camp. Cut each section off about a couple of centimetres below the line. Firly gentle strokes with the machete, while turning the bamboo around, seems to work best. It’s OK if it’s fairly rough at the bottom of the cup but for the drinking end you’ll want to tidy it up a bit, as bamboo can be quite fibrous so a good hard whack with the machete at an angle will give you a nice smooth edge to drink from. I was very proud to see a Batek lady drinking from a cup I had made, usually if I do a job for them they laugh at me, throw away my attempt and do it again themselves. But I seem to have gotten pretty good at bamboo cup making. I’m thinking of starting a business, a hand-made, organic, authentic Batek, jungle bamboo cup would sell for a fortune in some hipster market in the UK.

If you’re pouring a cup of tea for the Batek bear in mind that they like to have it with one sugar. By that I mean enough sugar to give one person type II diabetes. Just keep pouring the sugar in until no more will dissolve then keep pouring, they like it to have a bit of crunch. Even if you read this before coming you will still be shocked by how much sugar they use. If they ask if you want sugar, just say no.

I’m more of a coffee drinker anyway and have bought my own kettle so I can make coffee without interfering with the perpetual tea production. I’m donating this to Ecoteer when I leave so future coffee drinking volunteers can get their fix in the mornings.


How to Cook Dinner

You will need:

  • Bamboo
  • A fire
  • A river
  • Onions
  • Cabbage
  • A chicken
  • Rice
  • Chillies
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Some kind of leaves, the Batek know which
  • Several Batek ladies

In the traditional Batek way of life they dig for tubers, fish, and hunt small animals: anything up to the size of a gibbon. Thankfully when we go camping with them we bring groceries, eating gibbons would be like eating family for me.

Use a leaf as a chopping board and finely chop up all the vegetables and spices. Put the vegetables in a plastic shopping bag and mix with half the spices.

Attack the chicken with your machete as if it’s something you hate. When I was first asked to chop the chicken I tried to neatly remove all the meat from the bones and dice it finely, the Batek gave me a sweet pitying look giggled and took it from me. The whole thing is going in, skin, bone, feet and all it just needs to be roughly hacked into small pieces. Mix the chicken with the rest of the spices in the traditional plastic shopping bag.

Get some bamboo tubes and cut them as for the tea cups but about two foot long. Stuff the chicken and vegetables into the bamboo using a stick to ram it down good and tight and add a little water.

blog 2 image 3Wash the rice in the river using a plastic bag as a colander. Then the Batek will somehow wrap the rice in some kind of leaf and somehow stuff that in to a bamboo tube as well (I’ve always been on chicken and vegetables duty so don’t really know how that part’s done).

Then hand over all the tubes to the Batek who will place them on the fire. After about two hours the Batek ladies will somehow know that the food is done. Time for more machete fun, hit the top of each bamboo tube with your machete pretty hard so it goes pretty deep in to it, force it down further then twist it so the tube splits open taking care not to spill the food or the boiling hot water on to your feet.

Sit down, using another kind of leaf as a plate and your hands as a knife and fork, and enjoy a fantastic meal. Throw away your slow cooker, bamboo cooking is the future! Sealing it up tightly in a tube and cooking it slowly produces some of the tastiest, tenderest, moistest chicken I’ve ever had. I’m expecting to see the words “bamboo cooked” on menus within weeks.


Enjoy your stay.