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How Betong town in Sarawak got its name

If you look up ‘Betong’ on Google, more often than not you will probably end up with Betong, Thailand.

The Thai town of Betong is located in southern Thailand, near the Malaysian border. It is the capital of Betong District, the southernmost district of Yala province.

Meanwhile, there is another town named Betong in Sarawak, Malaysia which falls under the Betong Division.

Both these two Betong towns not only share the same names but the origins of its name…and it all comes from a plant.

One of the monuments in Sarawak’s Betong town.
The origins of the name of Betong

Just like the town in Thailand, Betong derives its name from a type of bamboo called ‘buluh Betong’ in Malay.

It is also known as giant bamboo and it is a type of species native to Southeast Asia.

According to Legends and History of Sarawak by Chang Pat Foh, the scientific name of the bamboo is Dendrocalamus asper. He wrote, “In the olden days, there were plenty of buluh Betong widely grown in the vicinity of Betong area.”

In those days the area was mostly known as Saribas after the river that flows through the area.

There was no mention of ‘Betong’ in some of the books written about Brooke’s administration in Sarawak such as The White Rajahs of Sarawak by Robert Payne, Twenty Years in Sarawak by Max Saint and My Life in Sarawak by Margaret Brooke.

Due to its colourful history of anti-Brooke movement in the 19th century, there are plenty of references to Saribas.

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According to Betong District Council’s website, the name ‘Betong’ was chosen collectively by both the Iban and Malay communities in the area after the abundance of bamboos there.

St. Augustine Church, Betong.

The history of the bazaar can be traced back to the 1890s. Back then there were only 16 attap shophouses.

A huge fire broke out in 1915, razing the bazaar to the ground. Then, the town was rebuilt but was destroyed another fire in 1925.

Betong town and anti-Brooke movement

In 1855, a fort was built by the Brooke government in Betong. It was named Fort Lily, after Charles Brooke’s wife – Margaret Alice Lili de Windt.

The purpose of the fort was to keep the alleged Iban rebels in check.

At that time, there was an Iban leader from Padeh river called Aji. Son to Orang Kaya Pemanca Dana Bayang who led the Saribas Ibans, Aji and his followers challenged Brooke’s authority in the area, refusing to have a foreign power ruling over the Ibans.

The Brookes sent out an expedition in April 1858 to pacify the rebellion.

Fortunately, Aji survived the attack. Unwilling to give up, the Brookes ordered another attack against Aji. This time they were successful, and he was killed near Kuala Langit by Brooke’s forces.

Later, Fort Lily became the fortress from which they defended themselves against another famous Iban warrior named Rentap.

The locked gate to Fort Lily.
Betong town and its agricultural history

Although the town was named after a bamboo, the symbol of Betong is a rubber tree. This is because the area was among the first in Sarawak to plant the lucrative rubber trees in the early 20th century.

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As such, a monument of a rubber tree was built in 1996 and is located right in the middle of Betong town.

Besides rubber, other major crops planted here in Betong division are pepper, paddy, coconuts and oil palm.

While bamboo is not widely grown as it used to be, the agriculture industry still remains a significant economic sector for Betong to this day. Together with Sarikei, Betong division aims to be Sarawak’s food basket by 2030.

The monument of a rubber tree in the town square.

Read about how other towns in Sarawak got their names:

Marudi, when it was called Claudetown

How Lubok Antu got its name

How Limbang, Sarawak town of buffaloes got its name

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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