For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Iban encounters in Sarawak

After revelling in the sights of eye-catching Kuching, trekking in Bako National Park and marvelling over the orangutans, my trip to Sarawak culminated with a hefty dollop of indigenous culture, complete with a visit to a traditional Iban longhouse. Located in the Batang Ai area, it’s a four road trip, on bumpy roads, from Kuching. My driver/guide Tony, warned me about the rough roads, although it’s well worth the trip, despite feeling routinely jolted by the pot-holed highway.

The Pan-Borneo Highway, connecting Sarawak with Sabah is currently being rebuilt into a four-lane highway, spanning over 1200km. (Just imagine if we could do the same on the 1200km route between Auckland Christchurch!) Scheduled to open in 18 months, it will revolutionise the journey to Batang Ai. Seeing this mass-reconstruction of a highway in the flesh was also a stark reminder how slow, small-scale and incremental our approach to highway building is, back home.

En-route, we called into Serian, where Tony led me through the buzzing local market which proved to be the full sensory assault. Vast mounds of snails, chicken feet and live cat-fish were being touted for sale, alongside heaving tables of baked goods, local confectionaries and fresh fruit and vegetables. The local traders were bemused to see me perusing their stalls, goggle-eyed. Clearly this market stop isn’t on the well-trodden tourist trail, despite it giving you an unvarnished and unmistakeably pungent flavour of local market life. I passed on the chicken legs.

Sure enough, four hours after departing Kuching, we arrived at Batang Ai, the site of the oldest Iban settlements in Sarawak, who arrived here from Kalimantan in the 15th century. In days of yore, the Iban, also known as the “Sea-Dayaks”, were reputedly the most formidable headhunters on Borneo. Renowned for their farming prowess and foraging in the forest, I admired their pepper plantations bursting forth from the fertile ground on the banks of Batang Ai Lake. Piper nigrum, the botanic name of Sarawak pepper, actually originates from southwest India, powering the lucrative industry which makes Malaysia one the world’s top pepper-producing nations.

The man-made lake was created 40 years ago as part of Sarawak’s major hydro-electric scheme, which damned the Batang Ai river. Four crystal clear tributaries feed the lake, which remains populated by various Iban communities, living in their legendary longhouses. Batang Ai’s original inhabitants did not however live in longhouses; they were (and still are) orangutan. The high conservation value has been safeguarded with the establishment the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and the Batang Ai National Park. 95% of Sarawak’s orangutan population live in these protected areas.

Boarding a ferry at the jetty adjacent to the dam wall of the hydro station, I was whisked across the millpond waters on a 20-minute ride to my lodging for the night, the spectacular Aiman Batang Ai Resort. Nestled on the edge of the world’s most ancient rainforest, with sprawling vistas perched above Batang Ai Lake, it’s a one-of-a-kind escapade that melds the exotic and adventurous with serene and pampered relaxation.

Housing 100 fully furnished accommodations, inspired by Sarawak’s traditional Iban longhouse design, the pristine forest and watery surroundings combine to create a blissfully escapist bolt-hole of elemental solitude.
My beautiful wood-panelled guestroom was like an ode to traditional timber furnishing, with large windows overlooking the resort’s surroundings. But the ‘tanju’ (veranda) is where I was constantly drawn to, drinking in the glories of the natural panorama of lake and rainforest, as tropical birds serenaded the setting sun.

After a restorative soak in the dreamy swimming pool and a quick forest walk led by an informative Iban guide, dinner was calling. (Don’t miss the rainforest canopy layer, where you can walk among the treetops on a 130-metre long walkway, suspended 50-metre above the ground.)

Named after one of the nearby longhouses, the Nanga Mepi Restaurant showcases a sublime array of dishes, but it was local flavours I was eager to try. I particularly enjoyed ‘paku’ (jungle fern), ‘terung dayak’ (local eggplant), ‘Manuk Pansuh’ (chicken cooked in bamboo) and ‘lulun’ (traditional style BBQ fish.)

After a contented night’s sleep, I was up early to watch an ethereal dawn break across the placid waters, fuelling up on breakfast, before taking a journey to a traditional Iban village. Our mode of transport was a traditional long boat (what else?), slicing through the mirror-smooth waters upstream to Mengkak Longhouse. Travelling in the long wooden boat itself is enthralling, if not a little unnerving. The boat is so narrow that even the slightest movement would make it sway – and you’re just inches away from the water.

The Iban are heavily involved in pepper farming and as we approached Mengkak Longhouse at the mouth of Sungai Engkari, vast plantations tumbled down the hillsides to the water’s edge. Warmly greeted on the jetty by some of the residents, we were ushered into their rustic longhouse, which was abuzz with residents and fellow visitors. Home to a variety of families, 135 residents call this longhouse home.

The longhouse is built on stilts about a metre above the ground, long and narrow, with various family rooms jutting off the large communal living space, which is called a ruai. Livestock are usually kept underneath. Some longhouses have mod-cons like electricity and cellphones, but it’s largely a back to basics lifestyle. Families sleep alongside each other in their respective rooms, prompting Tony to remark to me that when husband and wife require some “private time”, there’s a dedicated room for such activity.

Feted for their traditional weavings, intricate woodcarvings, beadworks and silver craftwork, the walls of the ruai were brimming with art and craft for sale. If you are looking for a keepsake to take home with you, buy a pua kumbi. This colourful cloth, woven with intricate combinations of various designs and colours, has been an integral part of the day-to-day affairs and special rituals of the Iban society. When head-hunting was still a much-valued tradition of the Ibans, the pua kumbu was used to receive the “prize” brought home by their warriors. Cushion covers, handbags and wall hangings are some of the practical uses of this fabulous craft.

The atmosphere inside the longhouse was so much cooler than the sultry heat outside, largely due to the wooden floor boards, tree-bark wall and rattan mat ceiling that keep the heat out. The longhouse folks implored us to try their welcome drink, the infamous tuak or rice wine, which is an acquired taste to say the least! Brewed from glutinous rice and yeast (ragi). First, the yeast is dried, while the glutinous rice is soaked for up to ten hours. Changing into their traditional costumes to perform traditional Iban dances (ngakat), complete with feathered headgear, the male and female performances were powerful, soulful and engrossing. The music was quite hypnotic.

The best fun was when it was time to distribute the goodies that we had brought for them. Visitors to any longhouse are encouraged to buy some residents, typically bags of crackers or crisps, which I duly did. Some had brought exercise books and stationery for the home-schooled children and kids who attend boarding school. Each longhouse is led by a Tuai Rumah, a house chief, usually appointed by his own group of people for his leadership qualities and success in life. Back in the day, he needed to present proof of his bravery – a human skull or two would suffice as credentials. This was when head-hunting was rife.

Succession is fairly straight-forward. Usually the eldest son takes on the mantle of headman if he possesses the same leadership qualities and has the trust of his community. Otherwise the post goes to a younger sibling, or next-of-kin.
The Iban normally have their meals in the main room (ruai); seated in a circle. Rice and accompanying dishes are served on plates or bowls. It’s self-service – pile on whatever you want onto your plate. After watching the villagers preparing the dishes, we joined them for a typical longhouse lunch, simple dishes cooked with simple ingredients, surprisingly rich in flavour.

The manok pansoh (chicken in bamboo) was quite tasty, as was the grilled tilapia that went well with the bamboo rice, grilled eggplant and pumpkin.
Departing Mengkak Longhouse for the 45 minute longboat ride back to the jetty at Batang Ai, I felt like I had been virtually transported to another world, far removed from the daily grind of contemporary urban life. What a privilege, what a pleasure to savour a snatch of their isolated but undiminished lifestyle, straddling and threading the ancient and modern worlds.

Fly Business Class with Malaysia Airlines and revel in their famous “satay trolley”, wheeled out to mouth-drooling guests after being faithfully prepared over a real charcoal grill. Fly to Sarawak with Malaysia Airlines, who offer multi-day services between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching, for the 90 minute flight. Malaysia Airlines flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from Auckland with convenient overnight flights.

Make plans for your own eye-opening Sarawak adventure with the proven, trusted experts at Wendy Wu Tours. Their five night private tour, with local English-speaking guides, includes the cosmopolitan delights of Kuching, traditional cultural experiences and pinch-yourself encounters with Borneo’s revered orangutans.