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  • Writer's pictureAmmar, R. & Izzaty, N.

Malaysian Ghost Towns Series - The Lost Mines of Bukit Besi

Accompanying music: Shine On You Crazy Diamond ~ Pink Floyd

When speaking of Terengganu's natural resources, the images that come to mind would usually be fire-breathing spires, huge petroleum plants, and faraway oil rigs. Nearly a hundred years ago, however, this coastal state was famous across the continent for a completely different resource - iron ore. By traveling over an hour from the state's capital, one can still find gigantic remnants of this industry in the small town of Bukit Besi, now mostly stripped to its concrete bones and surrounded by thick rainforest.

Mining tombs of Bukit Besi.

Our trip was made back in early 2020, way before the national lockdowns and MCOs, and also prior to the completion of the Bukit Besi Museum and its tourist facilities. Located around 90 kilometers from Kuala Terengganu, it took over one hour to reach the town from Kuala Terengganu through the East Coast Expressway (LPT), a route that had jungles on the West side stretching continuously towards Hulu Terengganu and the famous Kenyir lake. Though quite far inland, reaching the town was surprisingly straightforward.

Bukit Besi from Kuala Terengganu.

Jalan Kuala Berang, road towards Bukit Besi.

After some time exiting the highway and going through Jalan Kuala Berang, we reached a junction featuring a large sign spelling out "Bandar Bersejarah Bukit Besi" in bright red letters. Here, we were greeted by two old chimneys; one sitting on top of a hill, naturally decorated by a crown of trees, and on another side- a second chimney, taller and more narrow, surrounded by ruins. Strikingly unique, the entrance foreshadowed the many historical structures that lie further ahead.

View from above the hill at the town's main entrance.

Chimney No.1, overlooking the town below. The foreground shows a small shaft that leads directly to its base.

Not much resembling a town, Bukit Besi appeared to be mostly occupied by residential dwellings of a typical Malay village. However, mixed between these houses and quiet roads were clear remains of an industrious past; numerous chimneys and furnaces of various sizes, dilapidated concrete columns and beams, broken pieces of foundation, and chunks of mining artefacts.

Chimney No. 2 and surrounding ruins, parts of an old Japanese smelting plant.

Smaller chimneys nearby, possibly furnaces.

A disintegrated village house in the middle of the old plant site.

As we went further ahead, we drove past a museum under construction, which turned out later to be focused on these mines. Guided by vague visuals on Google Map, we followed a dusty concrete road deeper ahead, leaving the residential part of the town behind us. Finally, the end of the street was marked by a metal gate, beyond which seemed to be a huge mining field, still active with trucks and excavators.

Road leading to mining area.

Large active open cast mine beyond the gate.

To our delight, the gate was not the end of our detour, as the surrounding area was exactly what we were looking for - the old site of the Bukit Besi mines. Around the area were two decommissioned processing facilities; the Opal and Washing Plant stations. Standing as high as the treelines, these strange concrete giants were once an integral part of a huge operation, supplying natural resources to the far ends of the continent.

The largest building in Opal station; Stockpile Building No.1.

The building was believed to be a temporary storage area to dry collected ore. Curiously, "Opal" was said to be a corruption of the term "O-File".

According to some, the name Bukit Besi (literal English trans; Iron Hill) originated from a tale of villagers who were looking for rattan. While resting and preparing for a meal, one of them tried to move a nearby rock to be used as a place to sit, but he soon found that the rock was extraordinarily heavy for its size. After this incident, more villagers started collecting these heavy rocks, some even bringing them back to their homes in Dungun. After a while, the area was simply called "bukit besi" and the name stuck ever since.

Space underneath Stockpile Building No.1, possibly used as part of ore-drying process.

Close-up view of the ceiling. This feature is believed to regulate temperature for drying ore.

While the story remains a legend, Bukit Besi's potential as a serious source of iron ore stood out when a Japanese geologist visited the site as part of a mineral prospecting expedition to nearby Cemuak, Ulu Dungun in 1916. Before the iron mining period, Terengganu was known as a producer of tin, wolfram (tungsten), and gold, mainly on the wide swath of lands within the Eastern Tin and Gold Belts. Exploration and opening of mines were further encouraged by Terengganu Ruler Sultan Zainal Abidin III, who welcomed those interested in such endeavors after coming to power in 1881.

Stockpile Building No.2. Ore was transferred from the first building into these silos to be loaded onto wagons.

The state's production of tin even came close to Perak during the 1920s, a testament to the mining activities conducted here (despite not using advanced machinery such as dredges in the Federated Malay States). On the other hand, the existence of iron ore deposits within the deeper parts of the state was well-known by the late 1800s, but the capital and expertise needed to open up a lombong so far from the ports were not readily available.

Openings under the cylindrical structures, where ore is poured onto waiting wagons.

The 1916 geological survey by the Japanese marked the change. Cemuak (or Chemuah) was a concession originally awarded by the Sultan to his relative, Tengku Abu Bakar for mining tin. This venture proved unprofitable due to the lack of tin-bearing soil and difficulties in working in such an isolated area. Finding large amounts of iron deposits instead, the Japanese were determined to invest in the expensive infrastructure and transportation required. In 1927, Kuhara Mining Co. started mining operations 'unofficially' after buying the rights from Wong Sin, Tengku Abu Bakar's appointed mining operator.

A wall feature on Stockpile Building No.1.

While the British and other Western companies were busy exploiting the tin resources on the Malayan West Coast, Japanese companies focused nearly exclusively on rubber estates and ore mines, many of which were located in Johor, Terengganu, and Kelantan. Scrambling to source new supplies of raw materials, Japan was under the pressure of rapid industrialization, which was further sped up by widescale militarization during World War I. After the collapse of China's economy in the early 1900s, the "big three" of Japanese steel manufacturers; Nippon Kokan Co., Yawata Steel Co., and Fuji Steel Co., turned their attention to other countries, including Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia for alternative suppliers.

Map of old buildings in Bukit Besi.

The spread of Japanese capital and companies in Malaya was gradual. Some theorized that the locals were more accepting of the Japanese, as they were (at the time) perceived to be less of a colonial force in comparison to the British. The sentiment was particularly strong after the unpopular inclusion of Terengganu into the Unfederated Malay States by the British in 1919. Adding to this, Japan was still allied with the British Empire, thus many of its entrepreneurs were able to conduct businesses in Colonial Malaya with relative ease.

Tree roots around the silo base.

Kuhara Fusanosuke, president of the Kuhara Mining Co., was one such entrepreneur. By forming strong relationships with both the local rulers and members of the Japanese cabinet, the mining tycoon expanded his interests across numerous industries in Malaya and Borneo, such as the mines of Bukit Besi and rubber estates in Tawau. Kuhara was already an influential figure in Japan, involving in politics and becoming a full cabinet minister later on. It's worth noting that Kuhara's impressive acumen in business led to the establishment of Hitachi Seisakusho, or its modern name - Hitachi Ltd. He was also instrumental in initiating the creation of Nihon Sangyo - known today as Nissan, which originally functioned as a holding company for Kuhara Mining Co.

An opening on the side of Stockpile Building No.1.

Following the forming of Nihon Sangyo, the mining and refinery division of Kuhara Mining Co. was separated in 1929 as a different entity - Nippon Mining Company (NMC). A year later, the Terengganu government officially awarded the mining lease to NMC to continue work in the Bukit Besi concession. By the 1930s, NMC was one of the four Japanese companies operating major iron mines in Malaya and supplying exclusively to the "big three" steel suppliers. The other companies were; Southern Mining Company in Kelantan, Iizuka Mining Company in Johor, and Ishihara Sanyo Koshi in Batu Pahat.

Wall art on one of the basement walls underneath the silo.

Japanese mining methods in the early stages were simple and labor-intensive. Here, iron ores (mainly in the form of magnetite, haematite, pyrrhotite, and pyrite) were extracted through open-cut mines similar to the tin mines in Perak and many others on the West Coast. However, unlike tin extraction, retrieving iron require the use of explosives and working on benches/berms created on site. This was done to separate the iron from the surrounding rocks. Once blasted, these pieces of rocks were then manually excavated by changkol, further broken into smaller pieces by hand tools, and transported to a washing plant. The ores were then washed, graded, and brought to the nearby Kampung Dendang by carts. From there, the load was transported by river to the port in Dungun. Owing to this boom of activity, the small fishing village of Kuala Dungun eventually developed into a busy town, as workers and businessmen from all over the peninsular began to flock here to participate in the development of the mining industry.

Both iron and tin ores passed through these buildings at different points in history.

This manual method of transportation proved tedious and sometimes very dangerous due to rising river levels during the monsoon seasons. NMC's construction of a single-track railway in 1929 significantly reduced such difficulties, linking numerous stations all the way from Bukit Besi to Sungai Dungun's estuary. The first of its kind in Terengganu, the light trains were also used by civilians and workers to move back and forth from the mines inland.

Old train stations between Bukit Besi and Kuala Dungun, now dismantled.

(Map shows stations after Bukit Tebuk Tunnel was completed and Sura Jetty constructed)

The ease of moving the bulk material was further increased in 1936 when the Bukit Tebuk tunnel was completed in Kampung Che Lijah. This allowed the loading point to be pushed forward towards Nibong - a deeper section of Kuala Dungun's river estuary. The final jetty station was extended later until reaching the beach in Sura.

Bukit Tebuk tunnel in Kampung Che Lijah. The tunnel contains two hollow sections for pedestrians when waiting for trains to pass through.

Sura Jetty's 'opal piers' foundation in Kuala Dungun. Aside from some concrete parts, the rest of the jetty is now gone due to erosion.

In the same year, NMC saw annual production growing from around 690,000 tonnes to more than 900,000 tonnes. By then, the population in Bukit Besi had swelled to around 6,000 people, particularly due to the labor-intensive nature of the mining process there. The workers were mainly made up of Indians, Malays, and Chinese (many brought over from Mainland China through Singapore). This racial makeup of labor would dramatically change in the coming years towards World War II.

Massive remains of the Washing Plant, about 150 meters away from Opal Station.

Size comparison, for scale.

In 1938, a crisis struck NMC when droves of Chinese workers quit en masse. This was a result of rumors that the Empire of Japan was utilizing Bukit Besi resources for their army in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was raging on in Mainland China. The war continued well beyond China and morphed into a full-scale invasion of Southeast Asia, starting with the shores of British Malaya in 1941. With the unfolding of the Pacific theatre of World War II, trade restrictions and extreme shipping challenges caused production to plummet. Ore extraction eventually stopped in 1943, leaving only smelting works to continue in Bukit Besi. This new operation proved unsustainable, and the Japanese mines were closed down in 1945.

A huge tree making the building its home.

Tall steps leading up.

Once the British regained control of Malaya, Japanese assets were confiscated and the pre-war business owners were banned from continuing their operations here. The Bukit Besi mines and over 450,000 tonnes of stockpile remains were put on sale under the Custodian of Enemy Property, then bought at a 'basement price' by Eastern Mining & Metals Company Ltd (EMMCO) in 1948. The company was founded by Swiss arms dealer Emil Ott, who was later joined by Australian traders Stanley Smith and John Galvin. Leveraged by funds from HSBC Bank, the company finished selling off the Japanese stockpile by the end of the year and immediately began operation in 1949.

Ores were washed, separated from rocks and silt, screened and graded based on size.

Although left to the elements for three years, most of the Japanese assets were found to be still in good shape, albeit a bit worn-down and overgrown by jungle. The equipment was simply serviced and overhauled, including some 50 steam and diesel locomotives and around 3,000 railway wagons. With the reinstatement of the generators, railway track, workshops, and engineering facilities, the Bukit Besi mines were brought back to life within just a few months. A year later, EMMCO was already producing 600,000 tonnes of ore for the market.

A staircase (left) goes directly to the very top of the structure.

Ironically, EMMCO's biggest client was still Japan. Taking advantage of the country's renewed hunger for its post-war recovery, Bukit Besi maintained the demand that the mines had for raw iron ore. By establishing another company; Hong Kong & Eastern Shipping Company (HESCO), Stanley and Galvin were able to export EMMCO's ores to the coasts of Japan without depending on any external agents. As the country was practically isolated and stripped of its previous shipping networks, EMMCO was free to sell the badly-needed raw materials with hardly any competitors.

Closer view of the staircase. The path is dangerous - the steps narrow and slippery, no handrails were attached on the right side to guard against any fall.

On top of these advantages, new rich iron deposits were additionally discovered in 1952 and 1959 (including one under the railway tracks), sustaining the "Iron Mountain" operations for many more extremely-profitable years. EMMCO's Bukit Besi production even reached above 2.9 million tonnes in some years, and never dipped its annual production below 1 million tonnes. Fortune struck again some time in the early 1960s, when a tin deposit was also found in the same concession. In response, the company Terengganu Mineral Ltd was established in 1965 under EMMCO specifically to extract this ore, repurposing some of the large plants in Bukit Besi for tin processing, washing, and stockpiling.

Concrete slabs carpeted by grass and moss.

Under EMMCO, Bukit Besi was said to have grown to become the largest iron mine in all of Southeast Asia, and among the biggest in Asia. Besides the fortune of having rich deposits in its concessions, EMMCO introduced modern processes that optimized its mines. Ore was handled under fully mechanized means from the moment of extraction until reaching the dry bulk carriers queuing on the shorelines. The minerals were worked by diamond-tipped drills and tracked excavators, moved via diesel-powered bulldozers and trucks, then processed in electric-powered crushing and washing plants. Conveyor belts form continuous chains of moving ore, dumping the bulk into waiting wagons, which were then transported seaward by railway.

View from the top of the plant. The new mine can be clearly seen in the background.

Aided by modern automated systems and highly optimized schedules, the mines operated 24 hours a day, six days a week. Dynamite blasts were increased to three times a day instead of twice. Trains hauled cargo seaward every 20 minutes, pausing for only 4 hours after midnight. Production increased multiple folds compared to the previous operation under NMC, while keeping labor and management nearly half in size.

Storage building for explosives.

From such a profitable operation, Bukit Besi grew in its commercial and social facilities. Under EMMCO, the town had a fully-equipped hospital, police station, school, football field, cinema, social clubs, and even a swimming pool (said to be among the first in Malaya). The town also saw a 'cosmopolitan' makeup of citizens, which included expatriates from Canada, South Africa, Australia, Britain, and the United States, to name a few.

Belting Tunnel, believed to have connected the Washing Plant to the Opal Station.

After two decades of operation, the world had changed and moved beyond post-war conditions. EMMCO's monopolistic leverage on Japan was significantly reduced due to the country's rising economic and political influence, making it difficult for the company to continue raw material supply contracts without heavy conditions. At the same time, a global steel crisis was looming on the horizon, pushed by overproduction and supply, leading to the end of the post-war demand for iron ore. Adding to this mix of issues, the company was also facing challenges on the local Terengganu front, its current ore deposits running out, and difficulties in acquiring new concessions. As ore prices continued to fall, profits did too. Not willing to incur greater losses, EMMCO finally announced the closure of their Bukit Besi iron mines in 1971, while the tin mine was said to have been sold off to another company, which continued operations until 1977. From inception until closure, EMMCO produced a total of 36.6 million tonnes of ore from Bukit Besi alone.

Old stairs around the nearby hills.

Naturally, the first two places affected were the surrounding areas of Bukit Besi and Dungun. As jobs were lost, workers and businesses migrated out to pursue greener pastures elsewhere. On a larger scale, Terengganu was massively impacted by the abrupt loss of tax income from the iron ore industry, losing funds that the government heavily depended on since the 1930s. The state administration was in a state of shock for a number of years while struggling to manage the droves of labor that suddenly lost employment.

Remains of a Crushing Plant.

Good news arrived in the late 1970s with the discovery of petroleum and gas in the Malay Basin deepwater region, just across Terengganu's shores. Practically saving the state from a prolonged economic downturn, this newly discovered 'black gold' was soon to be the biggest source of income for the state in many more decades to come. Through lessons taught by the tin and iron mining era of Malaya, the 1974 Petroleum Development Act was enacted to safeguard national interests. The same year, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas) was established as the sole controller for all hydrocarbon resources in Malaysia.

A large loading chute.

While the coastal towns of Kerteh, Paka, and Kemaman benefitted from the petrochemical industry, Bukit Besi lagged behind, rapidly losing its economic relevance. Even with some 50 million tonnes of ore estimated to be available within its deposits, plans to revive the mines in the 2010s to supply ores to Perwaja Steel's mega factory in Kemaman did not bear much fruit. In time, the town shrank to a sleepy residential area, a far cry from its prior glory. For many years, visitors to the town mainly comprised of students and staff of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Bukit Besi Campus.

One of the many ground-level chutes that channeled ore directly onto wagons underground.

Flooded tunnel directly below the ground-level chutes, once used as a waiting space for wagons attached to a locomotive.