THERE is an air of festivity in the new village’s little commercial square.
The HillVille Inn restaurant in Kampung Baru Sungai Lembing in Pahang is packed with diners.
It is just like any Saturday when tourists throng Sungai Lembing, a former tin mining town.
In fact, locals estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 tourists visit the place over weekends.
The number peaks during school holidays both in Malaysia and Singapore, as Sungai Lembing is very popular among Singaporeans.
Alan Cheong, who is having dinner at the restaurant, is visibly happy to be here. But the crowd brings back memories for the 53-year-old senior tour guide.
He told StarMetro that Sungai Lembing used to be a hive of activity in the old days.
It turned into a ghost town when the tin mining industry there came to an abrupt end in the 1980s, and many villagers lost their jobs.
According to Cheong, about 2,000 villagers went to “jump from the plane”, a term coined then to describe those working illegally overseas.
“This place resembled a war zone overnight, with the elderly and small children left behind,” he recalled.
The entire village was enveloped in uncertainty and life was a struggle for the villagers.
Cheong is proud to note that it was their resilience that helped them to start all over again – slowly, painfully but surely.
The rising interest in ecotourism and cultural tourism in recent years, he added, had given them a new lease of life.
Cheong, who is Sungai Lembing Rainbow Waterfall Tourism Association chairman, said there were about 100 tour guides with 60 vehicles for the waterfall tours alone.
Rainbow Waterfall is touted to be the most popular tourist spot in Sungai Lembing.
The five-hour tour that starts at 5.30am comprises jungle trekking and rock climbing to a very scenic waterfall, about 12km from the village.
Cheong is grateful to tourists who post their holiday photos on Facebook, as this helps promote the waterfall to the world.
Over at the Sungai Lembing Hillview Cottage, its 54-year-old owner, Leong Yuen Kong, is seen busy chatting and tending to the needs of his guests at the huge front porch of the guesthouse.
While many high-end hotels in cities only serve their guests a welcome drink free of charge, Leong’s guests get a free “hop and ride” around Sungai Lembing.
He sees this as a great start to a pleasant stay and a way to introduce guests to the tourist spots.
The attractions include a museum, former mining tunnel, Panorama Hill and authentic Hakka and Hainan food restaurants.
Leong said three-day-two-night tours were popular for tourists to see the place at a relaxed pace.
Tourism certainly can do more than just revive the economy of a place.
The story of Sungai Lembing Hainan Association is a good example.
The association now enjoys rental income after it leased its building to the Pu brothers – Siang Chan and Siang Yen, who turned it into a guesthouse and restaurant called HillVille Inn.
“With the monthly rental, the association can continue to do charity such as granting scholarships to children from the village,” said Siang Yen, 35.
According to him, the association had financial constraints prior to this because of its ageing and dwindling membership.
As for his family, Siang Yen said the guesthouse and restaurant provided employment for his extended family members who were also happy to keep each other company.
“My mother, in particular, is very happy when our guests like her jia xiang cai (authentic homecooking),” he said of his mother, Soon Ah Buoi.
Siang Yen said his mother, in her 50s, was widowed when he was a child.
He now runs the guesthouse with his 38-year-old brother, Siang Chan.
But this is just the beginning for the little village that managed to fight the odds and make a comeback.
Kampung Baru Sungai Lembing chief Mac Tang Siew Fong pointed out the need to bring in more tourists, especially during weekdays.
For a start, he proposes a collaboration among new villages in the country to promote each other’s tourism attractions.
Well, a good start is half the battle won and Kampung Baru Sungai Lembing is certainly on the right track.