Terengganu’s floating works of art dying out

By Adnan Mohamad
KOTA BHARU:The vibrantly painted boats docked at the jetty at Kampung Pulau Gajah seem all set for participation in some sea carnival.

That, as a matter of fact, is far from the truth as those are the boats the local fishermen use daily when they head out to sea.

It is these visually striking fishing boats, locally known as ‘perahu kolek’, that make the village of Kampung Pulau Gajah at Pantai Sabak in Pengkalan Chepa, about 15 kilometres from here, rather unique.

It is the only fishing village in Kelantan, and probably among the few in the country, where the fishing community practice the tradition of painting their boats in bright shades of red, blue, yellow and green and decorating the bow with intricate, and equally colourful, carvings of figures such as the dragon, eagle or fish.

It is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation but, unfortunately, many of the Kampung Pulau Gajah fishermen are replacing their ‘perahu kolek’ with the more modern boats made out of fibreglass as they find the latter easier to handle.

These visually striking fishing boats, locally known as ‘perahu kolek’, are used by the fishermen of Kampung Pulau Gajah at Pantai Sabak (Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan). Photos: Bernama

Beautiful View

Kota Bharu Area Fishermen’s Association general manager Rosdi Md Ali said in the past there used to be more than 80 ‘perahu kolek’ in Kampung Pulau Gajah but now the number has dwindled to 40.

He recalled the time when dozens of traditional fishing boats would dock at the jetty there in the afternoon after the fishermen return from the sea with their catch.

“The view of the colourful boats was absolutely beautiful. Even the reflection of the boats on the surface of the water was stunning,” he told Bernama.

Rosdi hoped that the fishermen would continue to use the ‘perahu kolek’ as their fishing vessel as it was also a tourist attraction.

“It’s only here (in Kampung Pulau Gajah) that people get to feast their eyes on such a beautiful scene,” he said.

Pointing out why the local fishermen were opting for fibreglass boats; he said these vessels were easier to handle as they were smaller than the ‘perahu kolek’ which was 9.1 metres in length.

“The boatman must have the proper skills too to handle the ‘perahu kolek’,” he added.

No Local Expertise

Bernama spoke to some of the fishermen in Kampung Pulau Gajah and found that the ‘perahu kolek’ that belonged to them were specially ordered from the Narathiwat and Pattani regions in southern Thailand because, apparently, there is no craftsman in Kelantan with the skills to build the traditional fishing boat.

It is understood that the construction of a single ‘perahu kolek’ can take months to complete.

Also, even if there are locals who can paint the boats, the quality of their workmanship does not quite match that of the painters in the neighbouring country, with the painting mainly done by the Thai Malays. Their workmanship charges are lower too.

In the Pattani region, the ‘perahu kolek’ is known as ‘kolea’. The boat is made out of the hardy ‘cengal’ wood, which is known to be a high-quality hardwood that is resistant to temperature and weather changes.

Not surprisingly, the ‘perahu kolek’ can last for decades and some of the boats belonging to the fishermen in Kampung Pulau Gajah are more than 60 years old.

Mat Junuh, an artist from Pattani is commissioned by some of the villagers in Kampung Pulau Gajah to “touch-up” their boats.

Fifty-Year-Old Heritage

One of the fishermen there who owns a ‘perahu kolek’ Mohd Ridzwan Ramli, 38, said his boat was over 50 years old and that he inherited it from his late father who bought it from its original owner in Narathiwat.

“Even though it is old, the boat is still in good condition as it is made from cengal wood. It doesn’t require that much maintenance work.

“Once every two years, I will have its colours and patterns changed as I want my boat to look attractive when it glides through the water,” he said, adding that once someone had offered to buy his boat for RM30,000 but he turned it down as he regarded his ‘perahu kolek’ as a priceless treasure.

Meanwhile, Mat Junuh Sulaiman, 63, an artist from Pattani who was commissioned by some of the villagers in Kampung Pulau Gajah to “touch-up” their boats, said each ‘perahu kolek’ has its own artwork, with the colour scheme and designs usually chosen by the owner himself.

It usually costs between RM500 and RM1,500 to paint a 9.1-m long boat. For more elaborate designs, and bigger boats, the cost can go up to more than RM3,000.

Mat Junuh, who has been painting boats for the last 30 years, said it usually took him a week to paint and touch-up a boat.

“I don’t make any sketch prior to painting a boat. I would get artistic ideas spontaneously and I would paint accordingly. My paintings are never alike and this is why the local boat owners here like my work,” he added. – Bernama

Designs are inspirations of the artist who gets the feel of the boat he would be working on. No two designs are the same.