Southeast Asia’s Oldest Civilisation Site in Dire Need Of Funds

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SUNGAI PETANI – Almost nine months have passed since the site of the Sungai
Batu Archaeological Complex in Bujang Valley, near Merbok, here was declared as
home to the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, efforts to develop the site into a major tourist attraction
are moving at a sluggish pace.

The fact that the archaeological site had immense tourism potential was
apparent a decade ago after the relics of an ancient civilisation were unearthed
by experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Global Archaeological Research
Centre.

However, last year five world-renowned archaeologists who were experts in
the five main civilisations of the world – Mesopotamia, Indus, Mesoamerica,
Chinese and Greek-Roman – confirmed that the Bujang Valley site was over 2,000
years old, thus rendering it older than Angkor Wat in Siem Reap in Cambodia
which was built in the 12th century (900 years old) and Borobudur Temple in
Yogyakarta, Indonesia, built in the ninth century (1,200 years old).

Kedah Tourism, Religious Affairs and Heritage Committee chairman Datuk Mohd
Rawi Abdul Hamid admitted that the slow pace of activity at the archaeological
site did not quite match the excitement created by the discovery.

“Actually, if the ruins there were 100 years old, it wouldn’t have been
necessary for me to give any comments. Even if they were 500 years old, it can
be deemed ordinary.

“But here we are looking at something that’s extraordinary from all angles
because it represents (the oldest civilisation in) Southeast Asia,” he told
Bernama.

FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS

Mohd Rawi blamed financial constraints and inadequate funding from the
federal government for the slow pace of work at the archaeological site.

“The truth is, the state government doesn’t have the financial means to
undertake the development of the site, as well as realise its long-time aim of
building a museum at Sungai Batu,” he said.

He said the USM archaeological experts who were currently involved in
excavation work at the site received an annual grant of RM500,000 from the
federal government but the amount barely covered their needs.

Pointing out that the historical findings at Bujang Valley deserved more
serious consideration at the federal-level, Mohd Rawi said the Cabinet should,
in fact, discuss the possibility of turning the area into a popular tourist spot
like the Borobudur Temple.

He said more than boosting tourism revenue, the ancient ruins would help
enhance national identity and make Malaysians realise how great this country had
been in the ancient past.

“There has to be serious discussions on how these (archaeological) findings
can become the pride of the nation. At a time when the sense of identity among
the people is at a low ebb comes along this discovery which reflects the Malay
civilisation’s glorious past,” he said.

COMMITMENT NEEDED TO DEVELOP SUNGAI BATU

Since embarking on excavation work at the Sungai Batu site, the USM
archaeological team had made several imporant discoveries, like the remnants of
iron-smelting facilities, port jetties and administrative buildings.

Among the more crucial discoveries unearthed by the team were the ancient
brick monuments that featured a circular brick floor with a square brick
structure on top which the experts confirmed dated to 110 century AD or 1,900
years ago. The archaelogists had used the Optically Stimulated Luminescence
technique to determine the age of the structures, which had probably served as
religious relics.

Also found at the site were wrecks of ships that must have plied along an
ancient river that flowed through the Bujang Valley, which is also known as
Kedah Tua (Old Kedah), a few thousands years ago.

As far as USM Global Archaeological Research Centre director Prof Datuk
Mokhtar Saidin is concerned, all the stakeholders, particularly the federal and
state governments, should take the initiative to provide adequate funding to
enable the researchers to continue with their excavation works and tap its
tourism potential.

“We need their commitment to secure funding (for our efforts). We’ve to be
united and help each other,” he said, adding that a staggering RM30 million was
required just to recover a single shipwreck from the site.

ESTABLISH INDEPENDENT BODY TO MANAGE COMPLEX

Sungai Batu Civilisation Archaeo-Adventure Society chairman Mazlan Manan
opined that an independent body should be set up to manage the Sungai Batu
Archaeological Complex and oversee the development of the historical site for
commercial gain.

“What is needed is a huge capital outlay for the creative development of the
site; more importantly, the people concerned must also study how famous
archaeological sites like Angkor Wat are managed,” he said.

However, looking at the current state of the Sungai Batu complex, he could
not see how the state government would go about luring tourists as it lacked the
proper infrastructure and did not even have a gallery.

Kampung Bujang headman Zamri Jamaluddin said it was sad that many of the
kampung folk did not realise the value of the archaeological site and some of
them even used to rear ducks there.

Why, one of the villagers told this writer that “those people” there were
looking for “treasure”.

According to Zamri, the villagers did not have much exposure to historical
accounts of Kedah Tua and its civilisation and even if they did, the facts would
be too “heavy and scientific” for them to comprehend.

He also suggested that more explanations and illustrations be provided at
the Sungai Batu complex to enable visitors to have a better picture of how Kedah
Tua must have looked like.

“Currently, many of the visitors to the site find it hard to visualise Kedah
Tua, in fact they also don’t really understand what kind of relics have been
discovered there,” he added.

During a recent visit to the archaeological site, the writer noticed that
all the kiosks located at the carpark, including the ones selling tickets,
souvenirs and food, were closed. It is understood that the stalls only opened
for business during the two-day Kedah Tua Festival in May last year and have not
been operating since then.

TOURIST ATTRACTION

Sungai Petani Municipal Council spokesman Mohd Amin Ali said although the
archaeological site seemed bereft of visitors, USM records indicated that a
total of 66,829 people had visited it throughout 2016.

Asked why the ticket counter and the other kiosks there remained shuttered,
he said the state authorities had several issues to iron out with the National
Heritage Department prior to reopening them.

A former field assistant and tourist guide, who only wanted to be identified
as Zai, felt that certain parties were “in a tearing hurry” to turn the
archaeological complex into a tourist attraction.

This was despite the fact that it had yet to fulfil the 5A criteria to be
deemed a crowd puller, namely Attraction, Accessibility, Accommodation,
Activities and Amenities.

“They don’t want to do their homework first and have discussions with the
people who have expertise in tourism matters. We’re not just tourist guides but
also local tourism ambassadors and we have learnt a lot from the tourists who
have come here to explore.

“Even the local people here still don’t know what Sungai Batu is all about
but they can’t be blamed as they have little exposure to the historical value of
this site. From what I’ve seen, not much of an effort is being made to educate
the kampung people on the history (of Sungai Batu),” said Zai.

Disputing the visitor numbers to the complex presented by the local council,
he said while schools organised tours to the site regularly, most other visitors
would not return for another visit due to the lack of information, booths
displaying exhibits and facilities like clean toilets.
— BERNAMA