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Charcoal factory Kuala Sepetang


The charcoal factory in Matang (Kuala Sepetang) is located right in the middle of a spectacular mangrove forest. Kuala Sepetang is located in north Malaysia, near the old town of Taiping. I pass the junction regularly but it took me a long time to visit the little town.

Mangrove forest is an important part of the ecosystems around the world and in Malaysia there is fortunately quite some left.

Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory, charcoal waiting to be processed
Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory, charcoal waiting to be processed

The mangrove forest around Kuala Sepetang is much bigger and some parts are now part of a nature reserve. It borders also the nearby Kuala Gula bird sanctuary, just north from Kuala Sepetang.

The mangrove forest is in many ways important. It protects the inlands from floods, creates an ecosystem unique in animals and plant life.

Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory from the riverside

It has also created employment for many people living here. All along the north west coastline you find fishing villages, but here it's different. The fishermen use the mangrove forest for fishing too as the habitat is a mix of fresh and salt water.

The fishermen, who catch fish at sea and breed fish in fish farms. Cockles are another way of income for the fishermen.

Mr. Chuah explains about the production of charcoal
Mr. Chuah explains about the production of charcoal

I was lucky to visit the charcoal factory of Mr. Chuah Chow Aun. He is the second generation in the family who own a charcoal factory since the 1930's. Mr. Chuah is a gifted story teller and it is hard not to listen to his passionate explanations of the charcoal production process.

It all start with harvesting the mangrove trees. The trees need a certain size which is reached after 30 years. When an area is harvested, new trees are planted and that area is not touched then for 30 years.

The trees are transported with the high tide into the factory. The trees can not be processed with the bark so workers have to clean the trees first. The trees are than transported to igloo which look like cones were the baking process starts.

The master building a new cone
The master building a new cone

These cones are all handmade without any architecture drawing design. The master building simply builds them still "out of memory and experience".

Cone is usually last for around 15 years. Once the cone is finished, the logs are brought inside and heated. The process is in fact very simple and complicated at the same time.

It's all about the right temperature, so the process have to be monitored 24 hours a day. Slight temperature drops or overheating with just a few degreed can waste all the logs in processing.

The logs are standing up inside the cone on stone. Then the cone is almost closed apart of a small hole where a fire is burning. This fire heats up the cone and water will start to vaporize from the logs. Inside the cone there is now a temperature of 220°C.

The first stage of this process takes around 8 to 10 days. The log condition inside the cone is determined by the feel of the smoke that comes out of the holes of the cone. Mr. Chuah and his workers have such an experience that they can tell on the feel of the vaporized water how the condition of the log is.

Mr. Chuah in front of one of the 100 cones in his charcoal factory
Mr. Chuah in front of one of the 100 cones in his charcoal factory, this cone is still in the first baking process, the hole is still half open and the fire is burning

After 10 days the cone is completely shut off. The baking process continues on a temperature of around 83°C. It takes another 12 to 14 days to complete. Then the cooling process starts, this takes another 8 days before the hole in the cone is opened.

All the water is now vaporized out of the wood and the charcoal should look shiny black. The workers now get the charcoal out of the still hot cone and it is sorted, put in bags or transported in a whole log. Most of the charcoal of Mr. Chuah's factory is exported to Japan. A minor part is used in Malaysia.

The production of charcoal is a very time consuming process. Almost all of the process is manually done. People in Kuala Sepetang, Matang and other small villages in the area have a living from the mangrove charcoal factory.

Kuala Sepetang, at the charcoal factory
I had to try myself

At the moment, Mr. Chuah told me, there are around 80 people working in his factory and he has around 100 cones in operation.

Some of those people pack the charcoal in packs of 5 kg. Every little piece is manually packed and then transported.

Charcoal cone

Everything is used

As in all production processes there are some waste products. In the case of charcoal there are some parts which for many different reasons can be not perfect. These parts are sold locally. In the past charcoal was used instead of toothpaste! And the charcoal moist is believed by locals to have healing properties. And don't forget that burning charcoal is an excellent way to keep the mosquitoes away!

I went twice to Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory. At first, when coming to his factory I wasn't so sure if this would be an interesting visit. The process of producing of charcoal turned out far more interesting then I expected, not in the last place of the excellent explanations of Mr. Chuah and his younger brother. Just before leaving, they gave us some sweet potatoes which were baked in the charcoal of his factory. I am not much of a potato eater (despite being a Dutchman), but these potatoes were excellent.

The charcoal factory is literally build in the middle of the mangrove forest
The charcoal factory is literally build in the middle of the mangrove forest

A visit to Taiping will not be complete with a visit to Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory. It's actually quite easy to find.

Getting there and away

Visiting the charcoal factory is a little tricky. There's no hotel in Kuala Sepetang. The nearest hotels you will find in Taiping, around 15 km east of Kuala Sepetang and Matang. Follow the directions to the motorway. After crossing the bridge, continue straight. You will cross the trunk road number 1and cycle another 11 km to the town.

Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory is located on the left side of the road just before the town center. It's a scenic road that leads through the mangrove forests of the area.

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