Friday, March 6, 2015

Mangrove Forest And Charcoal Factory Of Kuala Sepetang

"A diamond is just a piece of charcoal 
that handled stress exceptionally well"

My partner-in-crime for the outing.

Port Weld. Heard of that name before?

Sounds like a familiar name that you had come across from your history textbook, isn't it? Kuala Sepetang, as it is known today, had the first railway line in the Peninsula Malaysia, linking it to Taiping. The railway line, which took a year to complete, was operating between 1885 and 1941 to transport tin from Taiping to Port Weld before they were shipped to Penang. But all that is left now is a plaque along the roadside where it was once a busy and important transit. A brief history of the railway line was inscribed on the plaque.

Already well known as the place to head to for a spot of fresh seafood, Kuala Sepetang has much more to offer visitors. Just only an hour's drive from Penang, it consists mainly of fishing villages and its economy is driven by related industries such as fish farms, shrimp breeding farms, boat building and also charcoal kilns.  Now, it is slowly becoming a popular eco-tourism spot for those keen on a walk through the Matang Mangrove Forest, some bird watching at the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary and naturally, a river cruise to visit some fish farms, catch a glimpse of the Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin and after sunset, be enthralled by the magical blinking lights of the fireflies.

This mangrove reserve contains rich and diverse wildlife that provide nature lovers to visit and explore its wetlands and resources.

Man-made wooden walkway that winds through across a small portion of the mangrove forest for visitors.

My friend paid a visit to my hometown recently and being born and breed in a big city, I brought him to experience stuff that he hardly get to see at his place. We started of by visiting the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve. Inside the forest, it is surprisingly cool despite the hot weather and if you walk slowly and watch closely, you may be able to find mud crabs, mud skippers and other wild life including migratory birds in the wetlands especially nearer to the river.

This place lets visitors to get a closer look at the mangrove trees in Matang, which is more than 100 years old and has the distinction of being internationally acknowledged as the oldest and best managed sustainable mangrove ecosystem in the world. Not bad for a small town like this, ain't it?

Wooden houses on stilts along the Reba River in the fishing village.

Posing at the boat jetty, with the mangrove forest and Sepetang River in the background.

Our next stop was the nearby fishing village at Kuala Sepetang. Today all the glory is left to the past, and it is just a small fishing village populated by Chinese shopkeepers and fishermen. However, this humble village is vetting more vibrant thanks to the growing interest in ecotourism industry which is quickly expending for the past 3 years.

Among the activities that visitors can look forward here is the river cruise that includes watching a sunset while cruising down the river, dolphin sighting, observing eagles and egrets that are plentiful along the river especially when the guide throws some chicken skin into the river for the eagles and finally, fireflies watching. Boat services are readily available and does not have to be pre-booked as there are a number of boat owners who will make such trips as long as there are interested customers.

Poser at one of the narrow streets in the fishing village.

And we selfied as well hahaha!

Our hungry stomach was screaming at us already by noon and we stopped by to have the famous prawn noodle, or Mee Udang Mak Jah in Kampung Menteri, Kuala Sepetang. This is one of the must-have food when you visit Kuala Sepetang and being a local, believe it or not I have never tried this place before. So, this is the perfect time to give it a try and see if it really lives up to its reputation. The popular Malay-style prawn noodles has many driving up to Kuala Sepetang just to savour its sweet-tasting broth, fresh firm prawns eaten with yellow noodles sprinkled with aromatic fried shallots and chopped fresh coriander. 
Started by Tijah Yusof or more fondly known as "Mak Jah" in 2009, this place uses only prawns fresh from the sea or udang laut, and not sourced from breeding farms or udang kolam. Even river caught prawns are deemed not worthy enough to be used for their sweet-tasting broth.  The family also believes the taste of udang laut from Kuala Sepetang is far supreme with a sweeter taste and none of the stinky smells, since the waters around the river mouth is muddy and not full of sand. This strict practice maintains the consistency of their prawn broth, which is cooked for few hours in a huge pot. Just before it's served to customers, the orange broth is heated up and the prawns are lightly cooked in the broth. The hot orange prawn broth is paired with blanched yellow mee, chopped coriander and fried shallots. 
This is a simple dish, uplifted by two elements namely the reddish sweet-tasting broth and the fresh, firm and sweet prawns.
 Mee sotong biasa. The only difference is the prawn is replaced with squids.
On the menu, you have their signature mee udang, in two sizes: biasa (normal) or special. For the normal version, you can expect about six to seven smaller-sized prawns, while the special version is a serving of five larger-sized prawns. Prices for the mee udang biasa start from RM9 onwards. The mee udang special and mee goreng udang special with the larger sized prawns is RM13 each. 
 After the satisfying meal, it was time to move to a place nearby to see something we rarely get to see - charcoal factory. I have been here many times previously but this place, which has started operation almost 80 years ago, will never fail to intrigue me to visit it time and time again. Charcoal is made from wood and here, in Matang, the charcoal is made from greenwood (kayu bakau minyak) that has been harvested from the mangrove forest reserve here. 
The factory does not look like a modern, high technology factory with assembly lines but instead, it has a row of charcoal kilns – beehive-shaped clay structures.  Each kiln serves as an oven to smoke the wood until all the moisture is drawn out before it turns into charcoal. One of these charcoal factories offers a tour of the factory coupled with explanations of how charcoal is made. We were there just for a quick look, but ended up spending more than an hour there. One of the workers enthusiastically explained us about the stories and processes of charcoal making.

Charcoal kilns at the charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang. Each of these are about thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. The amazing thing about these kilns are that they are built by hand by craftsman from China without any architecture drawing design. The master building simply builds them still "out of memory and experience". They are made from clay bricks with clay (not cement) mortar bonding them together. The reason is that clay cools down at a slower rate and thus maintain the heat of the kiln longer.

 This particular kiln has its front opening sealed off, there are logs inside in the process of turning into good quality charcoal.
The charcoal factories are build next to narrow man-made canals that link to the nearby rivers such as Sungai Sepetang, Sungai Kapal Changkol and Sungai Reba, which enables the mangroves logs to be brought into the factories by small boats. However, they can only be transported during high tide; hence this process can only be done twice a month. 
The logs are harvested from nearby mangrove swamps that are not part of the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve. There must be many of these swamps around as the mangrove trees takes about thirty years to grow to a suitable girth (8 to 9 inches in diameter) before they can be harvested. The mangrove that make the most suitable are those from the salt water swamps. For each tree that is cut down to be processed into charcoal, a young sapling is planted as replacement so there is no danger of depleting the mangrove forest entirely.  
The logs are then lined up outside each kiln ready for the next round of production. These logs are approximately five feet long and sorted out by their diameter. Those of suitable diameter for making charcoal are stripped of their thick bark; the narrower ones will be used as fuel to provide the heat to make the charcoal.
  The uncle who was there to explained to us step by step the process of charcoal making.

Happy boy standing at the entrance of the kiln.
The logs are lined inside the kiln, standing vertically on clay blocks. These clay blocks allow for a gap between the logs and the floor; the logs are also spaces such that there is an inch gap between them. These gaps allow heat to circulate evenly in between the logs. These stacking must be done skilfully lest the logs come tumbling down like a stack of dominoes.   
Once the kiln is full of logs (about 70 to 80 tons of logs), the previously man-height opening is partly sealed of with clay mortar made of laterite soil until only a smaller opening about 3-foot high is left. The smaller logs are now used as fire-wood and are burnt only at the entrance (probably extending up to four feet inside the kiln. Other than this opening, the kiln has only a few small piped openings at the top to vent out vapour/smoke. This minimise air (basically oxygen) from entering the inside. Without oxygen, the logs heats up without burning until they are super dry and turn to charcoal. The temperature inside the kiln can reach up to 220 degree Celsius.
  Jason tried to carry one of the logs, which weigh up to 50 kilograms.

However, the uncle showed us how professional does the trick with just 3 fingers. Yes, three fingers.

The secret equipment he uses, according to the uncle, is his magical mini skirt made of gunny sack.

And here you are, just three fingers to carry such a heavy log and he still have one hand holding a clay block which will be used to support the log inside the kiln.
The process is in fact very simple and complicated at the same time. It's all about the right temperature, so the process have to be monitored 24 hours a day. Slight temperature drops or overheating with just a few degrees can waste all the logs in processing. 
The first stage of this process takes around 8 to 10 days. The log condition inside the kiln is determined by the feel of the smoke that comes out of the holes of the kiln. The workers have such an experience that they can tell on the feel of the vaporized water how the condition of the log is by taking a whiff on the smoke. After 10 days the cone is completely sealed off with clay bricks and clay mortar. They clay used to construct the kiln allows it to cool down at a slower rate. The baking process continues on a temperature of around 83 degree Celsius. It takes another 12 to 14 days to complete.

 The finished charcoal is stacked at another area, ready to be packed and sold. Almost 70 percent of these are exported to Japan as local demand is not high. Charcoal made from wood other than sea mangrove are apparently not so dense and as such burn off faster.
Taking a selfie inside the factory before we left. 

Then the cooling process starts, this takes another 8 to 10 days for the kiln to cool down to room temperature before the hole is opened. In the meantime, the internal heat is in the final process of turning the logs into good quality charcoal that looks shiny black as all the water is now vaporised out of the wood. The original 70 to 80 tons of logs will produce 13 to 14 tons of charcoal. There are several such kilns in this factory; each at a different stage of charcoal production. 
As can be seen, the factory itself is built from mangrove wood. Nothing goes to waste, even that little vapour/smoke that is vented out is condensed into a balm. This balm is suitable for healing burns and lacerations. The firewood cinders are also collected and stored into drums. These will be sold off, where these cinders are recycled for use in slow burning fire. The ashes are also collected and sold; the purchasers wash, grind these down to powder to make carbon pills!   
 After a fun and interesting day, we decided to take a coffee break at Starbucks.

And somebody just won't get my name correctly.

Though I didn't manage to bring him to the legendary Taiping Lake Garden or the Taiping Zoo, Jason mentioned in his blog that it is his next favourite town in Malaysia after Kuching. Hope he had enjoyed his short time here!

Sending Jason off to KL.
Thank you for reading.

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