Following our cultural experience in KT, we hopped a plane for a quick overnight in Kuala Lumpur before catching a flight to Borneo the next morning. We stayed at a perfectly suited little guest house called Moon Eleven, about 1.5km from the LCCT (low-cost carrier terminal) bus stop / train station outside the KL airport. It was simple and basic—6 bunk beds per room, shared living room, shared toilet/shower, but clean and convenient, and the hostess/owner Jessi is incredibly kind and helpful. If you’re ever laying over through Kuala Lumpur and just need a clean and simple place to crash, Moon Eleven is it. Jessi will even grab you from the airport.
Sunday morning we were up and out to Kuching, in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, where we planned to join the Iban people for three days and two nights in the highlands near the border of Kalimantan (Indonesia), on the Batang Ai river / lake (hydro dammed). On either side of the visit, we’d also be spending some time exploring the city and area around Kuching, but that’s for another post.
The Iban are one of seven recognized ethnic groups living in Sarawak, now the most numerous of the five that are considered “jungle peoples.” They make up about 30% of the population in Sarawak, and are credited with being the instigators of the headhunting tradition in this part of the world. Traditionally residing in longhouses that house an entire village in one structure, the Iban population is increasingly urbanized, and traditional tattoo has largely gone by the wayside, but the language remains, and there are holdouts who still prefer to live in the jungles. With modern government-mandated education and children required to spend five days a week in boarding schools from the age of five, we have to wonder how much longer the traditional jungle longhouses will survive.
An intro to Iban longhouses
The longhouse we visited is called Menyang Tais, which we later found out loosely translates to “the leaky longhouse in Menyang.” It being the dry season, we didn’t have the opportunity to find out if the name holds true, but this longhouse (built in the 1980s) is the second to sit on this land, so the name could be a carryover from the original one, the remnants of which sat at the back of the property, since it’s bad luck to tear down your old house. Traditional Iban longhouses are built on ironwood stilts with ironwood supports, doorways and interior flooring, bark wall covering and woven ceilings made from white ginger. Nowadays the urban ones can go as far as being se on the ground made of concrete and stucco, wired for electricity, built with internal plumbing, satellites and all the mod cons.
Menyang Tais is somewhere in the middle, with a new tin roof, a mix of corrugated metal and wooden exterior, ironwood interior floors, some kind of plastic ceiling and wall panels (the sort you might see lining a shower stall at home), and an exterior verandah floored with saplings nailed across a base structure of other sturdy young trees that serve as beams.
Something all Iban longhouses have in common is that they’re fronted with external and interior verandahs along their length, met with a row of doors inside, one for each nuclear family living there. They can house anywhere from 12 to over 40 families, depending on the size of the village. Behind each door is a family room, also used for sleeping, followed by a store room and kitchen. Cooking is done in cast iron pots and bamboo over a fire. Rice is stored in precious ceramic jars traded with families by the Chinese in bygone days. These jars were a measure of wealth and a form of currency before the days of modern money. The toilets and showers were located in a separate building at our longhouse though we hear this varies, and the subject wasn’t really part of the equation in the old days. There is also an attic access from each family’s space, accessed using a log ladder, and used both as storage and sometimes for sleeping.
Surrounding Menyang Tais were T-shaped perches with woven leashes for fighting roosters (not used for gambling, but part of traditional festivals and entertainment), hen houses, a steel drum barbecue hut, store houses, raised pig pens, 20 or so dogs, cultivated fields of pineapple and tapioca, and rice paddies.
Settling into Iban culture
We accessed Menyang Tais by longboat, the Iban’s traditional form of transport, from across Batang Ai lake, which was once the Batang Ai river. We pulled up to the longhouse jetty and disembarked, then climbed a hill and walked a ways through the jungle, over streams and up another hill until we reached the peak, where the longhouse is located.
There are doors on either end of the longhouse, used by the men, and intended to be used in one direction only. One is an entrance, the other the exit. The front verandah also has ladders connecting it to the ground, and this is where we went in, ladder #6—the one belonging to the chief.
Shoes must be removed at the doorway from the exterior verandah to the interior verandah, where guests sit against the exterior wall for an audience with their host family and some tea. These days, chiefs can come by their position either by heredity or by vote, but traditionally the position is inherited.
After tea, we were left to settle in, and I wandered into the chief’s kitchen where his wife and several of the other ladies seemed to be prepping something to eat. I sat down on the floor with them, and while not one spoke a word of English, I managed to convince them to let me help them peel green baby bananas, sour oranges and pineapple while one woman ground red chilies with a mortar and pestle. The chilies were mixed with wild ginger, garlic, fresh lime juice from a tree outside, onion and soy sauce to make a stellar chili sauce, which we dipped the various fruits in as a snack. I don’t recommend eating green bananas—they are seriously chalky and get stuck in your mouth so you can’t swallow—but the sour oranges and pineapple were delicious.
After this snack, I was called back to the group to go for a walk and see the village’s fields. The traditional Iban are very cash-poor people, but they are rich in land and food, and this tribe in particular has taken a conservationist stance against the pressures from timber companies that have raped much of the surrounding jungle of its trees, and as a result, topsoil and ultimately its life-sustaining qualities.
Borneo is pretty much all red clay, so without the rainforest as cover, which enables the constant supply of bio-material to create the humus that converts to fertile topsoil, it reverts to dry, cracked, infertile wasteland. There were patches of this littered on our 4-hour journey from Kuching to Batang Ai, many times the result of chiefs having sold their land out to timber companies offering short-term wealth to the former inhabitants of the longhouse, as a response to longhouse inhabitants having moved to urban centers. Make no mistake, timber cultivation in this part of the world is ANYTHING but sustainable.
The chief at Menyang Tais, while facing a shrinking population in his longhouse, has held out against the timber companies, and has instead turned toward a tourism partnership with Borneo Adventures (the company that brought us there) to help secure the future security of his village.
The families practice subsistence agriculture that involves slash and burn, but only on a very limited selection of land adjacent to the longhouse, and it’s managed in a controlled way. The fields they use have been in use for decades, and they rotate them from year to year to maintain their productivity. Less than 1k from the longhouse is sturdy primary rainforest, and all around it is healthy secondary forest, full of birds and diverse plant life. They produce about 60-80 kilos of dry rice a year, plus pineapples, tapioca, and a smattering of other fruits and vegetables. What they don’t grow, they cultivate from the forest, including wild sago, wild boar, deer, ferns, guava, jackfruit and medicinal plants. We sampled the fruits and ferns several times on our visit, and I’m tempted to plant some edible ferns back in Florida once we’re home, because they are downright mouth watering.
After our short tour of the property, we returned for a delicious chicken barbecue where the chili sauce made another appearance, surrounded by the village’s hunting dogs, who were yapping and battling for whatever scraps they could root out on the ground. They’re responsible for feeding themselves (so they don’t get lazy), and it’s clear who the dominant hunters are. Some are more friendly than others, but our guide warned members of our group several times that these are hunting dogs, and were not to be regarded as pets—always be aware or their mood.
Dinners consisted of rice, stir fried ferns, Chinese vegetables, stewed curry chicken, ladyfinger eggplants, okra, steamed young loofah, hearts of palm collected from the forest, pineapples, and one night, the fabled hundred-year egg, brought by some members of the environmental health department who had come to stay a night and discuss some matters with the chief. These eggs are translucent and tea-colored brown with a solid mushy army-green yolk and taste like a very smoky, intense hard boiled egg. Jason thought it was wretched. I didn’t actually mind it too much.
After dinner, we sat in a circle with the chief and drank tuak, yeast-fermented Iban rice wine, and later moved onto Iban rice whisky, a much stronger distillation of the former. Each shot was accompanied 3x with the chant “niiiiiiiiiirup,” and we also offered gifts to the chief and his village, which he distributed evenly among the group. If there are four words that can characterize our experience in the longhouse, they would be, “makais” (eat), “terima kasih” (thanks), “sama sama” (same to you / you’re welcome), and “nirup” (cheers).
As part of the agreement they have with Borneo Adventures, the family doesn’t need to adhere to any prescribed activities when visitors are around, so if they are in the mood to have drinks, dance, etc, they can, and if not, then they don’t. It’s all part of creating a sustainable relationship where the villagers can go about their daily lives, and visitors get exposure to what it’s really like to be a member of a longhouse community.
We got lucky, and on our first night, one of the young boys and one of the elder women in the group donned their traditional costumes and some of the other ladies broke out the gongs to have a little dance. The male headdress is adorned with hornbill feathers, and both costumes use beading, woven fabric and coins to create an intricate and colorful effect. It’s something much more detailed and refined than I would initially expected to see in the jungle, but the Iban traded with the Chinese and British for centuries, so it’s not surprising once it’s in context.
One of of the days there, we did a 7-hour hike in the jungle looking for wild orangutans, and ate out at a jungle camp, where the same boy who danced made amazing sticky rice packed in bamboo, which was then cooked over the fire. He did the same with our vegetables, and we ate like royalty. We didn’t see any wild orangutans, but we did see fresh nests, heard their sounds and crashing in the trees, and smelled fresh urine, which is a key indicator that they’re nearby. We also swam in a mountain stream at the end of the day, which was a huge relief after 7 hours hiking in nearly 100% humidity.
Sleeping consisted of simple mattresses on woven mats covered by mosquito nets in the living room of one of the families. It was undeniably rustic but pretty comfortable.
Since then, we’ve visited the Sarawak Cultural Village outside Kuching, which helped us understand the differences between the Iban villages and those of the other major cultural groups, including the mountain Bidayuh, nomadic Penan, metalworking Orang Ulu, and skilled carver / sago-cultivating Melanau. While touristy, it’s a very educational experience and combines well to add some perspective to the experience in an authentic longhouse.