In a small wooden hut nestled among the foothills of a forest in Perak, a group of boys build a wood fire on the hard earthen ground.
Above the flames, they arrange hollow green bamboo tubes filled with glutinous rice or lemang which they place on a makeshift rack to cook. As they work, the smoke from the fire weaves its way out of the hut and the heat sends beads of sweat running down their faces.
Still, they wait, keeping a careful watch over the lemang to make sure that it is well cooked.
The traditional dish is often associated in the country with the Muslim celebration of Hari Raya. But in this small village in Perak, it is the centrepiece of a feast cooked for families returning home for Christmas.
In a small house across the way, the village women are busy preparing the rest of the festive meal. The clang of pots and pans fills the air as chicken and pork are cooked in turn.
The road leading to Kampung Pos Slim is narrow and winding, leading through a zigzag course on the way up to Cameron Highlands.
The village itself is located beside a river, over which a wooden bridge stretches, connecting the main road to the settlement.
Here, about 500 Semai Orang Asli live in wooden houses scattered throughout the area. Several families are Muslim but the majority are Christians.
Bah Alang Sekena, the village chief or tok batin, said the Orang Asli in Kampung Pos Slim have been Christians for a long time, since at least his parents’ generation.
“Like other Christians, we celebrate Christmas,” he told MalaysiaNow. “But we celebrate it according to our own culture.”
As members of the Semai diaspora who live and work elsewhere make their way back to the village for Christmas, the communal cooking picks up pace, reaching a crescendo at about noon.
Food is prepared and cooked out in the open, where family after family comes to collect their portion.
The Christmas party, as Bah Alang calls it, is held a few days before Christmas Day itself.
“We want to honour God and to respect him, just like a child respects his father,” he said.
While Christmas celebrations are proceeding in the village, they are less lively than they were before Covid-19 hit.
There is no Christmas carolling or house-to-house singing this year. Small gatherings are held but most families are celebrating the season in their own homes.
There are also no visits back and forth with the other villages in the area.
“We can’t visit other villages like we did before,” Bah Alang said.
As the sun goes down, the village children perform a dance while the elders enjoy the Christmas music playing through a set of speakers.
Despite the Covid restrictions and the smaller numbers allowed in one place, the mood is lively and cheerful.
Bah Alang said most of the Orang Asli had avoided contact with outsiders throughout the pandemic. They are also always on the lookout for the authorities.
The villagers’ main concern is the fines of up to RM1,000 issued to those who breach Covid SOPs. Bah Alang said many of those who were issued compounds could not read or write and had been fined for failing to register themselves before entering shops and other public venues.
This Christmas, the village pastor is not around but his assistant Henry Asmadi has been left in charge of the festivities.
The village is for the most part devoid of the trapping associated with Christmas but a spirit of joy is evident among the settlers.
Far from the bustle of cities and the neon lights of malls, with no Christmas tree in sight, the Orang Asli prepare to mark the season, with joy and with rest.
“Many of us work at the quarries nearby,” Henry, 18, told MalaysiaNow. “On Christmas Day itself, we rest.”