Iban Longhouse visit
28.01.2007 30 °C
Sarawak's cultural diversity is a heritage of it's 27 ethnic groups of people. The largest group is the Iban community which contribes 30% of the total population of the state. The Iban was reputed to be the most feared of Borneo's headhunters, it was believed that the magical powers of the heads would bring strength, virtue and prosperity to the Longhouse.
Traditionally the Iban live in Longhouses - long wooden structures built on stilts where up to 25 individual families all live under one roof, each family has their own room which all lead onto one communal veranda. Tourist day visits to the Iban Longhouses are popular but I got chatting to the guy who ran the hostel I was staying at in Kuching who was able to arrange a 3 day homestay for me with a host family at the Lalang Longhouse on the Skrang River 230 kms outside Kuching. This promised to be a much less touristy experience and a real opportunity to gain an insight into Iban way of life.
Early pick-up from hostel by Abba who will drive us as far as the Skrang river. There are five of us in total making the trip so I meet Des & Sue a lovely couple in their 60's from Northern Ireland and Sarah & Rachel two fellow backpackers from Wimbledon. The drive takes 4 hours but we stop off at the market en route to buy supplies and gifts for our host and the Longhouse Chief.
We meet Entili our host and guide for the next three days and all climb aboard his longboat. We are asked to take off our shoes and trousers and to put on lifejackets. As it is Borneo's rainy season the river is very high and we are told we can expect rapids along the way - exciting. Entili negotiates the rapids like a pro and we all arrive at the Longhouse safely. We later learn that a fortnight earlier another couple are not so lucky on a visit to another Longhouse along the Skrang, the boat gets over-turned and they drown.
I had seen pictures of other Longhouses but when we arrive at Lalang I am surprised at how make shift it is (can't think of a better way to describe it). It's made predominantly out of wood with a corrugated iron roof. We sit down with Entili and his wife to have tea and a chat about the next few days. Afterwards we are introduced to some of the other residents many of whom speak very little if any English but they are all very welcoming.
In the evening we have a welcome dinner with Entili and his wife in their room which is absolutely delicious, then Entili cracks open the Tuak (rice wine) this is drunk with all us sat in a circle. Entili hosts so he drinks first and then refills the glass and passes to the next person on the left, then he refills and the next person drinks. Each family produces their own rice wine but Entili has nailed it, compared to some other rice wines I have tasted in SE Asia it is very agreeable.
We are invited as guests of honour to meet the Chief of the Longhouse and give him his gifts. Then we are treated to a welcome dance by the Chief and other members of the house. I am the first to be invited up to dance with them and I don't know if it the rice wine but I am convinced I can dance like a warrior, it seems to go down well as other members of the house start clapping & cheering. After the dancing we spend the evening chatting to other members of the house. Just before bed they bring out big pots of Hot Chocolate and everyone (almost 100 people) all have a mug before we all retire - it was Hellacool!
Yer Man - The Longhouse Chief
Everybody gets involved in the celebrations
Group photo with the welcoming committee
We are sleeping under mozzie nets on the veranda and are up by 6am when other members of the house go out to hunt, fish and collect fruits. After breakfast we head off on a jungle trek with Entili it's a lovely day and Entili is constantly pointing out wildlife. We finish the trek at a clearing after wading through a waist high stream for about an hour. Entili and two other guys from the Longhouse build a BBQ and cook steamed rice, chicken, fish and jungle ferns all wrapped in Banana leaves it's seriously tasty food. We spend the afternoon back at the Longhouse and I help some of the guys lay some decking.
Entili manning the BBQ
After another dinner with Entili and his wife I am asked to play host for the Tuak drinking - the evening is spent chatting to the people of the Longhouse. It's really interesting to hear all about the history and observe their way of life, they are also equally as interested in us although our lifestyles couldn't be more different.
After breakfast Entili suggests another trek, the others are too tired so it's just the two of us. He takes me up into the valley for some awesome views of the rice fields - annoyingly my camera battery dies. He tells he all about his two sons who are both studying in Sarawak but miss the Longhouse desperately I can appreciate why it is such a unique way of life but he also wants them to get a good education and learn English so they can have a life outside of the Longhouse if they wish. On our way back we collect fruits and nuts for Lunch.
We then take the boat back to meet Abba for the drive back to normality. The visit was such a worthwhile experience and I am chuffed to have had the opportunity to have spent some proper time with the Iban people and to have learnt about their heritage and lifestyle.