Malaysian Borneo

longhouse borneo

One of many children walk outside the longhouse

The first part of my journey took me through Peninsular Malaysia. Now I was flying to Eastern Malaysia (sometimes called Malaysian Borneo), to the city of Kuching in the state of Sarawak. Eastern Malaysia borders Brunei to the north and Indonesia to the south and it’s very possible to combine a Malaysian trip with days in these countries.

I spent my first night in Kuching at the Mederka Palace Hotel, which is billed as a five-star but on an international level it’s a four-star at best. A selling point is the hotel’s central location within walking distance of Chinatown and the waterfront. It’s a perfectly adequate hotel that personifies the adage, “It is what it is.”

The next morning my guide, Arlene Sera Arthur William, and I set off on the three-hour drive from Kuching to the Iban longhouse we would be visiting. Arlene actually grew up in a longhouse, although her family moved into Kuching when she was four years old. She told me about a traditional massage oil her grandmother makes, one that I’m not particularly anxious to try. It’s made from the fat of the monitor lizard, with ginger and onion added. The mix is then double-cooked until it’s rendered down into a massage oil. Arlene is a freelance guide with four years experience; she can be reached at [email protected].

longhouse dance

A female dances in the longhouse

Visitors can approach the Iban longhouse in one of two ways. You can take a one-hour longboat ride or drive to the longhouse directly over a gravel road. If possible, arrange for a longboat ride. In my case the longboat never showed up, so the only alternative was to drive to the longhouse.

There’s some basic etiquette to follow when visiting a longhouse. You always bring a gift– this doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it does have to correspond to the number of doors in a longhouse. I was visiting a 24-door longhouse containing 24 families, so I brought 24 packets of cookies and coffee to be distributed among them. These are presented to the chief after they’ve performed their dances. If you’re traveling on your own without a guide, you’ll find general stores along the road where you can buy 24-packet bundles of gifts.

You also take your shoes off when entering a longhouse, and you always shake hands with your right hand. When they offer you a glass of tea or tuak (homemade rice wine) don’t reject it, although you don’t have to necessarily drink all of it. Always ask permission before you take someone’s picture. No one denied my request. One of the first things you’ll notice is the great number of young children darting about. Most of them enjoyed having their picture taken, and liked it when I showed them their image on the digital screen.

longhouse dance

A male dances in the longhouse

Longhouse traditional architecture consists of wooden dwellings on stilts– the entire population lives under one roof, although each family has its own private room connected to the communal chamber. When I first arrived, there was a sharp smell in the air. At first I attributed it to the numerous dogs roaming the interior of the longhouse. Later I learned it was the smell of raw rubber, which the Iban gather and then press into mats roughly the size of a welcome mat. The smell takes getting used to, but once you know the source it’s not so off-putting.

A grisly piece of evidence of the past proclivities for head hunting is the group of human skulls dangling from the eaves of the longhouse. They are reticent about revealing who the skulls belong to, being reluctant to reopen old feuds, although one person later told me that the skulls are those of vanquished Japanese soldiers from World War II.

The Iban use poison darts in their blowguns and have a system for determining the darts lethality: One dip in the poison for birds and small animals, three dips for wild pigs, and seven dips of the dart in the poison for human beings.

borneo blowgun

Mark Rogers tries out the blowgun

During your visit you’ll sit on the floor and share some food and then they’ll perform a warrior dance that is surprisingly graceful rather than martial. The women then perform their own version of the warrior dance. You’ll be invited to dance with them and you’ll enjoy yourself more if you join in with a rice wine toast and a turn on the dance floor.

At some point the Iban will spread their crafts and souvenirs on mats on the floor; some items are well-made, such as the handcrafted reed baskets, which are attractive and a good buy.

According to my guide, Arlene, a longhouse overnight stay costs approximately $100 per person. This includes breakfast and dinner, a cultural show, traditional games, a blowgun and cockfight demonstration (non-lethal– the birds aren’t harmed) and a morning nature walk.

Visiting the Orangutans
A visit to view orangutans is another must-see when visiting Sarawak and the Kuching area. The Semenggoh Nature Reserve is home to 23 rescued and semi-wild orangutans, the original Wild Man of Borneo. Borneo headhunters didn’t limit their trophies to human heads– in the past they also collected the heads of orangutans. Today the nature reserve is an important part of the effort to make sure the species survives.


An orangutan swings through the reserve

The reserve is about a 30-minute drive from Kuching. Like any viewing of semi-wild creatures, it’s not always possible to guarantee an orangutan sighting; although, during my visit, I saw nine of the colony, including the leader, a huge orangutan named Ritchie, and a mother with her four-day old baby.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. There are no barriers between you and the orangutans, so keep a distance of 16 feet. Also, keep your flash on your camera turned off– the orangutans are conditioned to think of a camera flash as the flash of gunfire. They give the impression of being unexcitable creatures, but I was surprised to learn that an orangutan has the strength of nine men, so you’ll probably come out on the losing end if you make a mistake in judgment.

There are two scheduled feeding times: 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The reserve is open seven days a week and the cost is approximately $1 for adults and 50 cents per child.

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