My first visit to Kampung Buayan was three years ago. Then, the only access was a jungle footpath that took us around four hours over hillsand across rivers.
That was us, city slickers. Those from the village can do the same walk in half the time and with double the load.My next visit was also via the jungle path. But on this visit, which was my third, the road had reached the village. It was an earth road, oftenbecoming slippery mud in the rain and not entirely safe as it skirts a ravine all the way.Even the most experienced off-road drivers turn green when they approach the most slippery stretches.Cars have slipped into the ravine, or been washed away in the river crossings after heavy rains.The road was built by the Sabah state government to connect the villages along the Salt Trail, the touristy name for the jungle footpath. About half the villages are now connected.The road has been an undeniable boon. Not having to walk hours with heavy loads like gas cylinders is undoubtedly a benefit.
People can get their produce to town for sale instead of floating the rubber sheets on dangerous rafts down the river, or carrying them on theirbacks. It became easier to earn much-needed cash.Medical emergencies became less dire when previously in the past, they relied on the government’s flying doctor service.I asked the villagers how they felt. The road was so new that many didn’t have an opinion yet. Some said they rarely use a vehiclebecause they either don’t own one or it’s too expensive to pay for a ride.But as I asked further, they did notice small ways in which life has changed. Money has become more important as people want to go to townmore often now that it’s easier to do so.The greater importance of cash in their lives has begun to dim the importance of communal ties. Instead of giving food to each other asthey once did, money often exchanges hands when food does. Alcohol also becomes much more accessible.
And even the people have started to change. One of the villagers said he rarely now uses the jungle foot path as he banks on luck to hitch aride by walking on the earth road for vehicle. He prefers to brave the sticky mud and blazing sun without shelter.He joked that the people have suddenly found it tiring to walk long distances when they used to do so easily ever since vehicles had begunto ply the road.At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any possible downside to providing better and easier access to the outside world.
But like most well-intentioned measures, the downside is only noticeable until it arrives. It’s a matter of weighing up the good versus the less-good.For now, most villagers still walk from village to village – it’s around an hour’s walk between each settlement.
Perhaps by the time I return for my fourth visit, many more will own cars and motorcycles, and the jungle path may be no more.