By the River Gombak

Walk along the banks of the Gombak River, and the ancient body of water narrates it story through the many sights, sounds, and personal encounters, just like the many chapters in a novel.

A man casting his fishing net in the shallower part of the river, against a backdrop of the city skyline.
Credit: Mahen Bala

Walking along the Gombak River is a journey in the conventional sense: one through time and space—and at the same time, not.

It might sound like an alien idea, considering how Kuala Lumpur’s rivers are often overlooked in favour of its towering skyline. But that’s exactly what the River of Life project, kick-started in 2011, is hoping to change. Overseen by Pemandu Associates the River of Life project is an ongoing cooperation between federal and state ministries and agencies, armed with a mission to clean up the city’s rivers and to beautify their banks, in hopes that the rejuvenated waterways will attract the development of public, commercial and residential spaces, sparking the beginning of a long-lasting revival.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, our eponymous protagonist, having acquired a little wisdom on his spiritual journey, asks his friend Vasudeva, “Did you too learn that secret from the river: that there is no time?”

And Vasudeva, a ferryman, says yes, “that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once”.

Thinking of the river this way, it’s more interesting to think of the journey along its gentle curves as a journey of perspective. And this perspective shifts, narrows, widens, looms, and even disappears, depending on where you are standing.

Origins

Gombak River near the Supreme Court looking towards the back of the Selangor State Secretariat Building and Market Square in KL, 1920’s.
Photograph courtesy of the National Archives.

Mountains create rivers, and the main source of the Gombak River is Gunung Bunga Buah, apparently named for the flowers and fruits that populate the forest. Standing to a height of 1,430 metres, it is the tallest mountain in the state of Selangor and forms part of the Ulu Gombak Forest Reserve. From the town of Gohtong Jaya near Genting Highlands, you can hike along the Old Genting Road through to the mountain’s summit.

The Gombak River has seen tin mines, rubber plantations and rice fields throughout its history since the late 19th century, before being cleared for development. Today, at its upper reaches, the Gombak River wends its way through swathes of verdant forests, interspersed by clusters of homes and small businesses in the Gombak district, before giving way to more concentrated urbanisation. Still, around the upper middle section of the river, you’ll find yourself strolling through idyllic Malay kampungs like Kampung Sungai Chinchin, Kampung Bandar Dalam and Kampung Puah once you turn off the Jalan Gombak trunk road.

Further southwards, as the river flows below the Duta Highway in Sentul, however, you'll find more densely populated residential, commercial and industrial districts. Concrete takes over and high-rises become a common sight. Even the banks of the river turn from green to pale grey on its way to meet Batu River at the triangle of land occupied by the Putra World Trade Centre Second Exhibition Hall.

The Gombak River ends at the meeting point with the Klang River at the steps of Masjid Jamek in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, right where the city was born. For this reason, the Gombak River is arguably the most important tributary of the Klang River, at 27 kilometres long and drains an area of about 122 square kilometres, running through two municipal areas: the Selayang Municipal Council and Kuala Lumpur City Hall.

It’s not clear what “Gombak” means, but S. Durai Raja Singam, in his book Malayan Place Names, wrote that " ‘Gombak’ means a tuft of reedy grass, and very probably the name itself implies that the river was grassy and marshy many years ago in contrast to the Batu River which has stones in it.” According to Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim, however, Gombak River wasn’t always Gombak River—until 1876, it was named Sungai Lumpur (or “Sungei Lumpoor”). The reasons for the name change isn’t clear, he says, but it coincided roughly with the time when Selangor came under British administration. However, another source from 1818 suggests that Sungai Lumpur was a tin-mining settlement further up the Klang River, though no references to Sungai Lumpur could be found in later decades.

A bridge over Gombak River, 1889.
Photography courtesy of the National Archives.

The professor is more convinced, however, by the first explanation. He claims to be in possession of a map drawn by a C.J. Irving, dated 1872, that marks out Sungai Gombak as Sungai Lumpur. Moreover, the “kuala” in Kuala Lumpur means estuary in Malay, which would, he argued, support this explanation. “When you have a kuala, there must be a sungai. Kuala Linggi, Sungai Linggi. Kuala Selangor, Sungai Selangor. So Kuala Lumpur? Sungai Lumpur.”

“If the original name of the river were Sungai Gombak, today Kuala Lumpur would be Kuala Gombak,” he said, chuckling. If this is true, we may have to reassess our long-held belief that our city was named simply for the geographical fact of it being a “muddy confluence”.

Ulu Gombak

At the foothills of the Titiwangsa Mountain Range, Gombak River meanders roughly between the lines of the KL-Karak Highway and Jalan Gombak, in an area populated by orang asli kampungs, the Orang Asli Museum, jungle retreat lodges, homes and small businesses.

One morning, I’m sitting in a Malay cafe across the street from the Hospital Orang Asli Gombak, having a glass of teh limau panas. The hospital was originally founded by the government in 1957 as part of an effort to win over the orang asli during the Emergency to prevent them from throwing their support to the communists.

Later, I meet Faridah, the friendly proprietor of a sundry shop near the SKEM Driving Academy. Faridah herself is mixed Jakun and Chinese, and practices Christianity while her father’s side of the family is Buddhist. Originally from Pahang, she moved to Gombak when she married.

“Most of the orang asli here are Temiar, and come from Gua Musang. Many of the hospital’s patients were accompanied by their families, and they often ended up staying. They had to be flown over thick forests by helicopter.”

I ask if she goes down to the river much. “No, but the children still go and mandi,” she says. “But they will go further upstream where the Alang Sedayu retreat lodges are, past the hospital. You don’t know what the hospital disposes into the water.”

Kampung Sungai Chinchin

A typical scene of kampung houses and quiet roads in Kampung Sungai Chinchin.
Credit: Emily Ding

From the name, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Kampung Sungai Chinchin is a Chinese village. In fact, it’s a Malay traditional village. There are several such kampungs along the river’s mid-section, but Kampung Sungai Chinchin, located around the area where Jalan Gombak turns off into Jalan Sungai Pusu, is the most famous. This is what Pak Mohsin tells me. He was born here and has lived here for all of his 59 years.

Kampung Sungai Chinchin was founded in 1894 by a religious scholar, Tuan Sheikh Muhammad Noor, who has a street in the kampung named after him for posterity. He was himself a Mandailing from Sumatra, and this land was believed to be gifted to him by the Sultan of Selangor at the time. Chinchin refers to “cincin”—ring. The story goes that a bride dropped her ring in the river one day, and would have lost it forever had it not been for Tuan Sheikh, who fished it out with his tongkat.

Pak Mohsin and his gang of geese at Kampung Chinchin.
Credit: Emily Ding.

“When he first arrived he set up a sekolah pondok to share the teachings of Islam. People from far away—Indonesia, Thailand—still make the pilgrimage here to visit his grave. Actually, a lot of Indonesians live here too, both old-timers and newcomers,” Pak Mohsin says. Tuan Sheikh died in 1932 and is buried with his children in his own enclosed tomb, separate from the old Muslim cemetery.

“Tuan Sheikh was a special person. How can I explain it to you?” Pak Mohsin says. “For example, now we use handphones to talk to each other, right? But he doesn’t need a handphone, and he can talk to a friend at Mecca. That’s what I mean by special. There’s no logic. It’s like magic, but it’s not.”

And of course, we talk about the river, though everyone I’ve met about Pak Mohsin’s age—59 years old—has always told me the same thing. “Back in the old days, we would swim in the river. It was deeper and I was smaller back then, and I could submerge my head. The water was clean, but now it’s polluted, though some kids still swim in it,” he says.

Still, I enjoy turning off the congested arteries into the idyllic kampungs along the river. Just walk a few metres away and you occupy a different world. Away from the noise of cars whizzing by, you can hear the sound of the water flowing, and feel the slightest movement of air around you.


Scenes along the river

View of the Gombak River near Kampung Sungai Mulia, Gombak.
Credit: Mahen Bala

Humans have always followed the river, and they still do, despite the difficulties in accessing it directly. Homes, businesses, schools, mosques and temples along the river tend to erect fences to separate their backyards from the edge of the riverbank, presumably for security reasons. The days when human civilizational structures were built to face the river are long gone.

Gombak River is today considered one of Kuala Lumpur’s most polluted rivers. But it wasn’t always this way.

Assorted rubbish, mainly from residential areas, left behind on the banks of the river.
Credit: Mahen Bala

Old timers recall that Gombak was visibly clean until the late 1970s when pockets of small factories and workshops sprouted, and the demise came around the 1980s when housing estates came up and people found it easier to dump garbage into the river than into communal garbage bins.

Improper handling of sewage and household refuse only compounds the problem of river pollution. Houses in old kampungs and squatters along the river are fitted with do-it-yourself piping system like the one shown here.
Credit: Mahen Bala

The Gombak River is one of Kuala Lumpur’s most polluted rivers, and the water quality ranges between Class III and Class V, which is not suitable for body contact and recreation. The River of Life Project aims to improve it to Class IIB, imagining what it might be like if people could swim and fish in the river as they did in the old days, perhaps even partake in water-sports like canoeing.

Still, I found men fishing, and children splashing in the river, though more often than not, you are unlikely to see anybody at all. The men fishing ranged from the young to the old, mostly Malay or Indonesian, construction workers on their days off. They look out for tengas fish upriver, and tilapia downriver. Two Malay pakciks who have lived along the river all their life said, “There used to be udang galah here but not anymore. You should be here at midnight. That’s when the big fish come out.”

"The big ones only come out at midnight. That's also when the serious anglers come out." explained one of the more casual anglers. Locals would usually spend a few hours in a day fishing, early in the morning and late in the evening.
Anglers keep their catch fresh in a net, and only bring it up when it's time to head home. The fish (usually tilapia) is given away to be fed to household pets.

You’ll also come across the remnants of old industries that made Malaysia rich. Lake Titiwangsa was originally a site of tin-mining activities during the British colonial period. There’s the blue-roofed Lian Hin Rubber Smokehouse and the Lee Rubber Warehouse in Setapak, which until the 1980s were the tallest buildings along Jalan Gombak.

As you inch closer to the city centre, you don’t find people in the rivers, but along the side. Young Malay boys sitting in cars parked along the bank, playing music and smoking. A lone office worker with his takeaway, sitting on the steps leading to the embankment. A cleaning lady tasked with sweeping the pavement squatting down for a rest. An Indian woman, clutching her handbag, staring out solemnly at the water in the glaring afternoon. The river is now out of reach.

Out of sight, or in this case touch, out of mind. With the city’s rivers embalmed in concrete, and its residents living in high-rises, the river becomes alien, distant.

Sentul

There may not be many physical reminders of it left today, but Sentul’s history is the history of the railways. Founded in the late 1800s when the first Malayan railway line opened between Taiping and Port Weld, most of Sentul’s early residents were Indian railway workers brought into the country by the British.

Sentul’s most famous institution was Sentul Works, sprawled over 13 acres of land. Established in 1905, it soon amassed a reputation as one of the region’s finest railway depots and workshops in the early 1900s, employing up to 2,500 people in its heyday.

Most of Sentul Works has now been demolished. One of the last remaining bastions is the western-most train shed, which is today part of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC). It was bombed around the end of World War Two but was rebuilt in the mid-1940s.

By the 1960s, Sentul had started declining, due to the increasing irrelevance of the railway to the economic and social lives of Malaysians. For a long time, Sentul suffered from an image problem: dilapidated buildings, squatters and crime.

Sentul today, however, is a different place. It has managed to shrug off its violent past, and the change is most visible when you look up at the skyline. Among the most eye-catching development projects in the neighbourhood are the sinuous yet sharp silhouettes of YTL’s freehold residential high-rises: The Fennel and The Capers.

Where concrete takes over

From the bridge on Lorong Setapak 3, Kampung Puah, you can see the Petronas Twin Towers glinting in the distance. But instead of the familiar skyline of the concrete jungle, you see the towers rising from where the river narrows to a point on the horizon, flanked by grassy green banks so dense they call to mind a Triassic-era jungle. Not far from here, one can see the ongoing construction of the DUKE 2 highway, overlooking the Gombak River diversion channel, which was built to mitigate recurring floods. Built in 2003 and measuring 3.5 kilometres long, 26 metres wide and roughly four metres deep, the channel diverts excess water from the river to the Batu Retention Pond.

Walking further downstream, these grassy banks transform into concrete banks—wide enough to fit a car—as you come closer to the point where Gombak River meets Batu River at the Putra World Trade Centre. The river embankments here are so deep that walking between them, feels like you’re walking in an echo tunnel. Before long, you’ll pass through the historic Chow Kit neighbourhood and finally, to Masjid Jamek, where Gombak River ends at the confluence with Klang River.

Control gate of the Puah Water Retention Pond. When the water level of the river rises to the point of flooding, the gates are opened to drain axcess water into a pond.
Credit: Mahen Bala

Old timers comparing the river of today to the river of old often lament the concretisation of the river in the city, calling it a large “monsoon drain”, stripped of its natural shape and form. At the same time, it’s not about pandering to nostalgia, but about moving forward. Rivers of other world cities—the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London—have successfully fused together the new and the old, and created a vibrant concrete waterfront that reflects modern living.

An artist impression of the transformed Masjid Jamek and its surrounding area, collectively referred to as Precint 7. The River Beautification phase of the River of Life project is currently ongoing, rejuvenating the look and function of the entire area

This is the River of Life’s vision too: that Kuala Lumpur’s rivers become an integral part of the city. River-cleaning projects are being carried out along a 110-kilometre stretch of the Klang River, covering the municipal districts of Selayang, Ampang Jaya and Kuala Lumpur. The aim is to rehabilitate the water to Class IIB by 2020, so as to be suitable for body contact and recreation. Building on that, structural beautification works are focused along 10.7 kilometres of the Klang River’s most visible stretch, which flows through the city centre just below the steps of Masjid Jamek. It’s a symbolic move, this spot being Kuala Lumpur’s birthplace and a well-known landmark.

Going back to the quote from Siddharta, the river is timeless—a place where past and present coexist. And in this way, the river is a connector, the binding thread through the many lifetimes of Kuala Lumpur.