The twentieth-century spread of the timber, rubber and palm-oil industries through the interior had a huge impact upon the region’s Orang Asli, who were traditionally nomadic peoples living by hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. These days many have been forced to settle down, existing at the fringes of the cash economy (a transition steered in large part by the government’s Department of Orang Asli Affairs). The mountain-dwelling Temiar, for instance, trade in forest products such as herbal medicines and, increasingly, timber (though their logging activities are minimal compared with those of the State Forestry Department). Some Batek do still live fairly traditional lives at Taman Negara, where you might meet shy groups walking in single file along forest trails, or come across their temporary vine-and-forest-brush shelters in jungle clearings.

However, three-quarters of Orang Asli peoples (including many local Batek, Senoi and Semang) live below the poverty line, compared to less than a tenth of the population as a whole. That fact makes it all the harder for them to confront the many forces, from planning agencies to Christian and Muslim groups, who seek to influence their destiny. The issue of land rights is among their gravest problems, for while the country’s Aboriginal People’s Act has led to the creation of Orang Asli reserves, at the same time many Asli traditional areas have been gazetted as state land, rendering the inhabitants there, at best, tolerated guests of the government.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Malaysia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Malaysia

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Malaysia

Already gaped at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, lazed on a white beach in the Perhentians, met orangutans at Sepilok and filled a whole SD card with…

31 Aug 2017 • Marco Ferrarese insert_drive_file Article
9 tips for backpacking Malaysia

9 tips for backpacking Malaysia

Despite having turquoise-ringed tropical islands, misty rainforests, cosmopolitan and arty cities, colourful festivals and one of the world's most interesting e…

08 Jun 2017 • Marco Ferrarese insert_drive_file Article
26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook