Sarawakian’s rich cultures and customs, unique traditional rituals, dances, foods, and costumes are among the things that continue to intrigue and fascinate visitors and researchers from around the world. Their warm hospitality and simple ways of life are also some of the traits that many visitors find endearing.
I guess, the fascination for this exotic destination also stems from interesting stories about the headhunters of Borneo. Images from National Geographic or Discovery Channel showing small dark people with tattooed bodies donning fancy headdresses of exotic bird feathers must have also fuelled the curiosity of our foreign visitors.
If nature and multi-ethnic cultural experiences are your cup of tea, then Sarawak has plenty of them to fascinate you.
Our main destination this time was Batang Ai, to visit the Iban community at the Mengkak Longhouse located at the mouth of Sungai Engkari.
The Ibans form the largest percentage of Sarawak’s population. In days of yore, they were reputedly the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo. Ibans today are friendly and hospitable. They are renowned for their traditional weavings such as the Pua Kumbu, woodcarvings, beadworks and silver craftings.
Longhouses are built on stilts about a metre above the ground. As the name suggests, Borneo longhouses are long and narrow consisting of several rooms. Each family occupies a room. One longhouse typically accommodates between 20 and 50 families.
There’s a large communal living space, between the balcony and bedrooms, known as the ruai, running down one side, and separate living quarters for each family along the other side. The ruai is the place where the longhouse folks gather for an evening chat or carry out activities like making handicrafts and farming apparatus.
A TASTE OF IBAN HOSPITALITY AT THE MENGKAK LONGHOUSE
Upon reaching the longhouse, we spotted three sarong-clad Iban ladies doing their laundry and bathing in the lake, which is a normal routine for the longhouse folks.
Ah, I wished I could jump into the inviting cool lake to join them.
No, don’t get me wrong.
It was intensely hot that day and I was drenched in sweat, especially after travelling under the blazing sun for close to an hour. To reach the Mengkak Longhouse, we had to endure a 45-minute ride in a four-seater motorised longboat from the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort.
Still, I was extremely thankful that it didn’t rain as I wasn’t prepared for that, even though I have read stories of visitors getting caught in the rain during the boat journey. Although some guides provide ponchos, there’s no harm bringing one in case they don’t. Disposable ones would be just great. Cameras and mobile phones should be kept inside a waterproof bag.
Though the boat ride makes you two tones darker, the journey to the longhouse is definitely worthwhile. Travelling in the long wooden boat itself is both terrifying and exciting as the boat is so narrow that even the slightest movement would make it sway. We were like floating and gliding down the man-made Batang Ai Lake, with water just inches away.
It was awesome.
Upon entering the Mengkak Longhouse, we were surprised that the atmosphere inside was so much cooler compared to outside. It was probably due to the wooden floor boards, tree-bark wall and rattan mat ceiling that kept the heat out.
It was apparent that the longhouse folks were used to having tourists around judging from the many intricate handicrafts being offered on sale such as ornamental jewellery and wooden sculptures. It’s hard to resist getting one as souvenir. I had my heart set on the unique weaving but somehow managed to refrain myself from getting it knowing very well that nothing else would fit into my small suitcase anymore.
Our tour guide, Bob Zakaria, led us to the middle of the longhouse and signalled us to sit on the floor. Before we sat, we were introduced to the house chief, Burau Anak Buba, whose affectionate smile instantly made us feel welcome.
While the longhouse folks were preparing the welcome drink, which was the infamous tuak or rice wine, and changing into their traditional costumes to perform the traditional Iban dance, Bob explained more about the Iban’s customs and values. He taught us the right way to graciously refuse the offering of tuak as some of our Muslims friends were likely to do so. We were also informed that there were over 20 families living there.
When the tuak was finally served, I thought I would reject it too as I’m not much of a drinker. But after one sip, I did not just finish mine but also those who had rejected theirs. It was a bit sweet; like a fruity alcoholic drink. Apparently, the taste of the tuak is slightly different in every longhouse. Some, according to friends, have a very strong smell that is quite unbearable.
The traditional dance followed right after. During the final dance, visitors were invited to join in. It was then that we realised that steps that looked simple can turn out to be quite a struggle for some of us.
The real fun for the longhouse folks started after all the dances finished. It was time to distribute the goodies that we had brought for them. Visitors to the Mengkak Longhouse or any longhouse for that matter are encouraged to buy some tidbits and goodies for the folks. We bought the stuffs at Serian during our lunch stop. It’s a simple gesture that not only makes the longhouse folks happy with our visits but also help to stimulate the economy of the small town.
“Do not buy sweets,” Bob had reminded us earlier in Serian. “God knows how far the nearest dentist is, if there’s ever one nearby.” he explained.
Instead, we bought them biscuits and dry food, especially the individually-wrapped ones so they could be shared and distributed among the 20 families in the longhouse, as well as exercise books and stationery for the school-going children. These stuffs might be available just a stone’s throw away from our house but for the longhouse folks, it takes a few hours of travelling in order to get them.
While the gifts were being distributed, some ladies from our group had already slipped into the Iban traditional costumes, parading up and down the longhouse and snapping photos of one another in various poses. Others were busy purchasing the tuak to be brought back home for friends and relatives to try.
In a nutshell, everyone had an enjoyable time there. When the time came to say goodbye, some were reluctant to leave, and even suggested spending a night at the longhouse next time.
AN IBAN LUNCH
We had to leave as Bob had planned a traditional Iban lunch for us.
The problem is, it was not even cooked yet. And I was already starving.
Fortunately, our lunch venue was merely a 10-minute boat ride from the longhouse, at a place in Sungai Abok, known as Padang by the locals.
Upon reaching Padang, Bob and two other boatmen quickly unloaded the cooking utensils and food to the open-air ‘kitchen’ while we headed to a shed, and some to the toilet. The facilities were very basic and actually look rather dilapidated. Perhaps, it was to give visitors the back-to-nature feel. They were built specifically to offer lunch to tourists who visit the Iban longhouse.
After about 40 minutes, lunch was finally ready. Any longer, I would have passed out.
One by one the dishes were placed on a tall table in the shed. Bob surprised us with various traditional dishes.
It was truly a back to nature type of lunch as there were no plates nor forks and spoons. Instead we were given big, broad leaves which according to Bob, can only be found in Borneo.
The simple dishes cooked with simple ingredients surprisingly had rich flavour. The manok pansoh (chicken in bamboo) was quite tasty. And so was the grilled tilapia that went well with the bamboo rice. Menu of the day also included grilled eggplant and pumpkin. Then again, I believed they scored a few more points due to our hunger.
The simple lunch was completed with some sweet Sarikei pineapples as dessert.
Although I have been told that multi-tasking is a norm for many tour guides in Sarawak, Bob really amazed me with his skills. Not only a good storyteller and guide, I must say he also makes a decent chef.
When we were at the Mengkak Iban longhouse, Bob asked some of the members of the media whether their readers would enjoy this kind of experience. I guessed what he wanted to say was that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
I totally agree.
But if you think you are game for it, you should go with an open mind and a sense of adventure to fully enjoy the experience.
Quoting famous American author, James A. Michener: "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. You are like a pebble thrown into water; you become wet on the surface, but you are never a part of the water."
Further information, please contact:
TOURISM MALAYSIA SARAWAK
Parcel 297-2-1, Level 2, Riverbank Suites,
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman,
93100 Kuching, Sarawak.
Tel: (6) 082 – 246 575 / 246 775
Fax: (6) 082 – 246 442
SARAWAK TOURISM BOARD
6th & 7th Floor, Yayasan Sarawak Building,
Jalan Masjid, 93400 Kuching, Sarawak.
Tel: (6) 082 – 423 600
Fax: (6) 082 – 416 700