“In time, will the rise in the number of tourists coming to visit here ruin your way of life? Do numbers need to be controlled?” I asked the Deputy Chief of the longhouse via a translator, always eager to know if such visits are a necessity, with promises of government support and regular income, or a genuine eagerness to share their traditions with the outside world.
“We want many, many tourists to come and see our way of life. We love having visitors who can share our home and learn about Iban culture. How we live will not ever change” he responded defiantly, beaming at the few Western faces in the room, proud to be hosting us and welcoming us into his community.
“And should you ever get lost in the jungle, this is now your family and we will always help you.”
Staying at a longhouse in Borneo and living with the Iban community (pronounced ee-barn) has come to be one of my most treasured experiences in Sarawak yet. A short glimpse at isolated life out in the jungle, my one night stay was a raw and honest insight into the tribal traditions that still exist on the island.
The Iban are one of many groups of indigenous people still living in Borneo and unlike the Penan tribe, who hunt and move around every few days, the Iban are ‘settlers’ who live in a communal longhouse – a wooden structure built on stilts, with one side sectioned off into a row of separate family rooms and the other used an open social area and meeting space. If another Iban native or family arrives to join the community then the house is simply elongated to accommodate them, hence its name.
How Can You Visit a Longhouse?
The longhouse has become a distinctive feature of tribal tradition; a simple, yet beautiful, way of life that remains strong in the face of modernisation. In light of this, it is inevitable that tourists are eager to get a glimpse of it, resulting in the rise of quick fix longhouse tours where it’s likely you will end up in a large group in a more commercialised longhouse, much like how the Southeast Asian homestays are evolving. That’s not how I wanted to see it.
With a private guide and a specific request to get out into a remote longhouse (long journey times do not bother me in the pursuit of a ‘real’ experience) I was luckily enough to visit an authentic and less frequented longhouse located within the jungle of Batang Ai – a four hour drive and one hour boat trip ride from the capital city of Kuching.
Many longhouses are based in and around this area including the Batang Skrang and Batang Lemanak regions. Alternatively you can head to Sibu (the next big city east of Kuching) and visit the nearby towns on the Batang Rejang river. Most longhouses are by invitation only and so for a truly ‘local’ experience it is said to try your luck and hope that a local invites you over when visiting their town.
The four hour trip towards Batang Ai was a beautiful journey on a main road flanked constantly on both sides by a dense mass of jungle; tall trees whose long trucks were like arms reaching up to touch the sun; trees so tightly packed together you couldn’t see the soil below; varying shades of infinite green – the grand jungles and rainforests of Sarawak, interspersed by small towns, such as Serian, and other local markets where the indigenous people have either integrated into the community or joined the throng of local traders to sell their homemade goods, before returning home.
The one hour boat journey served as a reminder of why so many come to value the beauty of this part of the world and call for it to be protected – the imposing jungle watching us as we leisurely traversed the calm waters, knowing we were not the only beings passing through its luscious landscape.
Upon arrival at the longhouse, it looked just like any other hut-like structure you see often in Southeast Asia – the intricate assemble of timber, thatch, bamboo and whatever other durable materials are readily available and cleverly converted.
It wasn’t until I stepped inside that I realised the enormity of it and how long the ‘long’ in longhouse is. Although a simple structure, with gaps in the floor boards and walls, gathering dust and rotting in parts, it was a feat of rural architecture.
This one was 500m long with 29 rooms – with one family living in each room. I instantly noticed that there are more women than men – the men mostly working in the nearby towns to support their family and community – and that everyone likes to sit together huddled in groups suggesting they are not at all bored of each other.
The Ibans will greet you with smiles and they love to shake hands – a custom they have come to know from the days of British rule and present day interaction with westerners. This became my only form of communication since only my guide spoke a little Iban. Some, still not used to outsiders, cower away in the shadows of the common room, taking time to get to know the alien in the low light before coming closer.
Embrace an Experience Outside Your Comfort Zone
Many people end up disliking their longhouse experience because they expected a certain degree of comfort and so I will put this simply – forget it. On a visit like this you sit on the floor to eat your meals (a simple mix of meat, fish, rice, noodles and vegetables), sleep on a small mattress with a mosquito net, use a toilet housed in a shanty wooden hut (built into the room) and shower with a hose.
There is no sense of privacy, with the members of the house tasked to host you (they take turns in order to equally share the revenue sporadic visits bring) walking in your room whenever they please, to start cooking or to gather for a loud discussion, which gets louder with the consumption of rice wine. All manner of bugs circle your head during the evening as you are entertained by your hosts and croosters are your 4am alarm clock.
You are living in the jungle, at one with nature and the most simple of surroundings, and if you can’t embrace it then you won’t appreciate the experience. I absolutely loved it, although I admit its tiring and I couldn’t do it for days on end.
An experience like this not only made you come to appreciate what I have but made me realise that the hard work behind survival in a remote place depends on trust and a strong sense of community, alongside hunter-gatherer skills which I have never had to learn or use. Which is why I asked the question about tourism, hoping that, in all our eagerness to see such a beautiful way of life, that we don’t over-run routine, infiltrate with too many western practices or make this centuries old, self-sufficient community dependent on tourism.
This is Sarawak’s history surviving; Borneo’s legacy being passed on. I hope such traditions never die out since it really was so humbling to witness and an experiece we can all learn from and pass on.
Many thanks to the Sarawak Tourist Board for arranging my longhouse stay experience. All opinions, as always, are my own.