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Staying at a Longhouse in Borneo and living with the Iban people in Sarawak is an insight into remote tribal traditions that still exist on the island.
“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 when visiting a longhouse in Borneo, Malaysia. Via a translator, I was eager to know if such visits are a necessity since they come with promises of government support and regular income, or whether there was 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.”
- Where to Visit a Longhouse in Borneo
- Staying at an Iban Longhouse – How to Book
- The Long Journey Getting to a Longhouse
- Living at an Iban Longhouse – What is it like?
- Iban Longhouse Tradition and Tribal Legacy
- Thinking of Staying in a Longhouse in Borneo? Pin It!
Where to Visit a Longhouse in Borneo
Malaysia Borneo is split into the two states of Sarawak to the south and Sabah to the north, separated by Brunei. When it comes to things to do in Borneo, visiting a longhouse is normally up there on the list. Dig further, and you will hear about the Iban tribe, which is native to Sarawak, and more specifically about the region of Batang Ai.
Batang Ai and the Iban Tribe
Batang Ai is the area known as being of the oldest Iban settlements in Sarawak and Batang Ai National Park is part of the Sarawak region’s largest protected areas for tropical rainforest conservation.
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 longhouse is 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.
Living with the Iban community (pronounced ee-barn) has come to be one of my most treasured experiences of my time in Sarawak. While you can easily do a homestay in Kuching (the capital city of the Borneo state of Sarawak) and learn about Borneo culture, this short overnight trip was a glimpse at isolated life out in the jungle that allowed me a raw and honest insight into the tribal traditions that still exist on the island.
Staying at an Iban Longhouse – How to Book
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 or the luxury Hilton owned Batang Ai longhouse resort.
This is much like how the Southeast Asian homestay concept is evolving and that’s not how I wanted to see it.
I was lucky enough to visit an authentic and less frequented longhouse located within the jungle of Batang Ai with a private guide and a specific request to get out into a remote longhouse. It was a four-hour drive and a one-hour boat trip ride from Kuching. The long journey time adds to the off-beat jungle experience.
Kuching tourism thrives on the relationship and respectable visitor balance with the Iban in Sarawak. To find out availability, since visitor numbers are kept small, it is best to ask around at various tour operators in Kuching city and see what matches your interests and levels of comfort.
READ MORE: Visiting Kuching, Sarawak. The Start of the Borneo Adventure
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 Long Journey Getting to a Longhouse
The four-hour trip towards Batang Ai was a beautiful journey on the 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 and trees so tightly packed together you couldn’t see the soil below.
It was filled with 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 on the Lemanak River 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.
Living at an Iban Longhouse – What is it like?
Upon arrival at the longhouse, it looked just like any other hut-like structure you see often in Southeast Asia – the intricate assembly 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 why exactly it is given its longhouse name. Although a simple structure with gaps in the floorboards and walls, gathering dust and rotting in parts, it was a feat of rural architecture.
This particular Iban Longhouse was 500m long with 29 rooms – with one family living in each room.
Iban People and Culture
The Iban people are a remote community and if a member of the Iban tribe arrives, they are immediately taken in.
I instantly noticed that there were more women than men since the men mostly working in the nearby towns to support their family and community and that everyone likes to sit together huddled in small groups, suggesting the sense of close family and protection.
The Iban people 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 people of the Iban community, 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.
You’ll get to experience a form of welcome ceremony that introduces you to tribal traditions, songs and forms of dancing that are performed on special occasions. After, you will participate in an exchange with the Chief or Deputy Chief of the Longhouse – a form of gift-giving presentation and a way of visitors giving thanks for being allowed into the community for the short time.
How to Prepare for Your Stay
This is not a comfortable trip. Many people end up disliking their longhouse experience because they expected a certain degree of comfort and so I will put this simply. At a traditional longhouse, there is no degree of comfort. 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. All manner of bugs circle your head during the evening as you are entertained by your hosts, and roosters are your 4 am wake up call.
There is no sense of privacy. With the members of the house tasked to host you (a rotation in order to equally share the revenue these sporadic visits bring), they walk in your room whenever they please in order to start cooking or to gather for a loud discussion, which gets louder with the consumption of rice wine. It’s a fascinating experience of a tight community.
You will be living in the jungle. This means being at one with nature and the most simple of surroundings. If you can’t embrace it then you won’t appreciate the experience. I absolutely loved it and it is quite simply one of those once-in-a-lifetime special moments of cultural immersion. Although I admit it’s tiring and I couldn’t do it for days on end.
Iban Longhouse Tradition and Tribal Legacy
An experience like this, visiting at a Longhouse in Borneo, not only made me 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 these centuries-old, self-sufficient communities dependent on tourism.
This is Sarawak’s history surviving; Borneo’s legacy continuing. I hope such traditions never die out, since this experience is as much a lesson into indigenous life, as it is about those lessons we can learn first-hand from the Iban people and pass on.
Many thanks to the Sarawak Tourist Board for arranging my longhouse stay experience. All opinions, as always, are my own.
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