Longhouse on the Prairie – Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Longhouse on the Prairie

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Big daddy orangutan
Big daddy orangutan
One of the main tourist draws in Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo are the visits to the Iban tribal longhouses. These amazing structures house little villages of upwards of 100 people. When one wants to do a longhouse visit, they need to be invited by a tribe member. This normally requires going to a small, upriver village and either booking a package through a tour agent or, if you have the time and want to go hardcore, you can just hang out in one of the village markets or cafes, hoping to make the acquaintance of a longhouse resident who is feeling like a little company. There are also spruced up longhouse resorts, which are little more than spiritless motels in a longhouse configuration. The Hilton has even gotten in on the longhouse game, having built the swankiest longhouse resort on Borneo at a location that is only accessible by riverboat.

In my case, I had struck longhouse gold. Bidas, the owner of the Borneo B & B, had been long-time friends with Stewart, an Iban local who had been laid off from his work building roads. Bidas invited Stewart to take hostel guests out on local tours, including a trip out to his family’s two longhouses, about five hours drive northeast of Kuching. The Stewart Longhouse Package included visits to the nearby Fairy Cave, Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the Cat Museum (I skipped this), Jong’s Crocodile Farm, in addition to two nights in genuine Iban longhouses with Stewart’s family. The whole package was 350RM (US$92), much less than booking with the tourism office and infinitely more authentic than being paraded out to a fabricated and watered down longhouse experience with a group of 50 other westerners.

Due to a poorly timed big night of drinking, I had not gotten to bed until 6:00 a.m. Seemingly two seconds later the alarm went off at 8:00 a.m. I was still very drunk, which, as some of you similarly dough-headed people know, makes getting out of bed virtually painless. Fortunately I had done my packing the night before, so all I had to do was pull on a shirt and I was ready to go. Stewart and a German couple that were also on the tour were already in the van. I gulped down some coffee and we were off. Seeing that I was in an undisguised, pitiable state, Stewart stopped for breakfast at his favorite laksa place. It was spicy enough to melt a bar of gold, but I was too far gone for it to save me. Instead I loaded up on coffee and we headed for the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

We arrived in time for the morning feeding. The orangutans basically have free reign of the Centre grounds, so you have to keep an eye out for them as you move along the paths, because they are still wild enough to have an appreciation for their personal space. Especially when they have a baby with them. One of the keepers led us a short distance into the jungle before he spotted a mom and baby about 30 feet up a coconut tree. He lured them down with bananas and eggs while making sure that everyone was well out of the discomfort zone. It took a lot of coaxing, but mom eventually came down with her baby clinging to her chest, collected a few eggs, put them in her mouth for safe keeping and then headed off down the path.

From there we turned around and a huge daddy orangutan was looming 10 feet directly above us in another tree. He was a monster. His torso was bigger than a full grown man, but his stunted legs made him about four and half feet tall. The keeper frantically waved us all clear then set out some food. The daddy took his time ambling down the tree and casually inspected the food and finally collected it all before following the mom down the path. The daddy carried himself with all the nonchalant confidence of a guy who knew that if anything that got in his way he could peal the limbs off of it, like a banana.

After that excitement, we got back into the car for the hours long drive to Jong’s Crocodile Farm. This place was better than any zoo I have ever seen. First, with a few exceptions, the animal habitats were huge, all natural and seemed very well kept. Although the main attraction here is the crocs, there are also a host of other jungle creatures; various monkeys, cats, honey bears, birds and lesser reptiles. We had to race to catch the croc feeding as soon as we arrived. There was one gigantic pen that must have held upwards of 50 crocs and they were all fed at once. Handlers flung giant slabs of meat into the fray and the crocs thrashed around to get their share. This was arresting in and of itself, but then the handlers inched some dangling pieces of meat out over the pen on clothesline pulleys. In order to get at this food, the crocs had to push up into a tripod stance, using their hind legs and tails, reaching roughly six or seven feet in the air to snatch the meat off the lines. I had no idea crocs could perform this physical feat, and these things were so huge that it was more than a little frightening to see it happen.

Once the meat was gone and the crocs dispersed, we ventured through the rest of the park, admiring the other animals. There was one monkey who liked to reach his arm out of his cage and hold hands with people. We all took turns doing this until he got bored and retreated to absentmindedly pick at his anus. Seeing this, I also retreated to vigorously wash my hands.

On the way out, we ran across a photo display of croc-related disasters. One showed a croc with his mouth clamped on the bloody arm of a handler who had fallen into the pen. Another showed a croc that had been killed by a village after it had eaten a little girl. The photo montage showed the girl’s father cutting open the croc’s carcass to remove the pieces of his daughter. Yeah, it was gruesome.

By the time we got back into the van I was really suffering. I had long since sobered up and while my hangover wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected, the minor discomfort compounded with the sorry amount of sleep I’d had the previous night was making me quietly wish that we were going to the Hilton longhouse instead Stewart’s family’s presumably uncomfortable longhouse deep in the inhospitable jungle. It was another two hour drive before we stopped for a late lunch. I had desperately tried to sleep, but the state of the Sarawak roads prevented this. It was like riding a roller coaster. Constant hills, dips, sharp turns and a steady series of pot holes and road dimples. Road work crews were scattered every few kilometers, usually with all but one, temporary gravel lane blocked off, so the going was very slow at times. We finally pulled into Stewart’s Mom’s longhouse at 5:00 p.m. Stewart explained that we were going to be staying at this longhouse the following night, but for now we were only picking up his mom and heading for their old longhouse, where they still keep a dwelling. Unlike in the western world, longhouse dwellings are not sold or transferred like a house when people move. Even if they sit empty, the dwellings stay in the family forever.

The outside of the longhouse was a bit of a surprise. From the pictures I had seen on the Internet, I had expected it to be all wood, with a thatched roof, up on nine foot stilts, accessible only by a rickety rope and wood plank bridge, like from “Temple of Doom.” But it was a just a really long, haphazardly constructed jumble, made from available materials, like mis-matched walls seemingly pulled off other houses, with a tin corrugated roof. It was on stilts, but only about three feet off the ground. The front porch was up a short step ladder that only had thin, single, precarious looking sticks as steps with a thinner stick handrail. I was sure this thing couldn’t hold the weight of a full-grown man, but Stewart climbed up with no problem. I out-weighed Stewart by at least 20 pounds, so I tentatively made my way up, skipping a couple stick-steps that weren’t much thicker than my thumb. The exterior porch was laid out with thin planks of wood, with huge gaps between them, large enough for a modest ring of keys to fall through.

The interior porch was where my fading expectations were rescued. It was exactly like in the pictures. It was made of unfinished hardwood, stretching uninterrupted for the entire length of the longhouse. This particular longhouse had 22 dwellings, about the length of a city block. People were out on the porch in front of their dwellings for the entire length of the longhouse, sitting and talking with neighbors, sleeping, weaving baskets and/or sewing. It was mostly women and kids. While Stewart collected his mom, one of the neighbors got up and approached us. She was a tiny woman, if I had to guess roughly 112 years old and naked from the waist up. I recalled from my visit to the Sarawak Museum that most of the women in the old pictures were shirtless, but those pictures looked to be between 50 and 100 years old, meaning this chick was probably the last bastion of the bare breasted fashion trend. All the other women were fully clothed in full-body sarongs, with some of the younger girls even in regular t-shirts with bras to boot. The topless granny wanted very much to talk with the German couple and myself, but the language barrier was hopeless. After a few moments, she seemed to suddenly realize that she had her wrinkled boobs out and pulled up and tied her sarong around her chest. Stewart emerged from his mom’s place at this point and kindly led us away from the babbling granny.

We were taken on a brief tour of Stewart’s mom’s dwelling. Once out of the of the communal porch, the dwellings are very much like a normal house, but it’s all wide-open space with very tall ceilings. The house was divided into a living area, a middle storage/work area and a back kitchen/eating area. There was also a loft above the living area where we would sleep during our stay. Out back there was a porch where they had both western and crouch toilets, plus a shower closet and steps leading down to the chicken coups and pigpens. This longhouse had electricity, running water and, disappointingly, a satellite dish and computer. It was sparingly furnished and the interior wood floors had been covered by adhesive, paper-thin linoleum.

We took off heading for the “old longhouse.” Stewart explained that the longhouse was over 80 years old and that until a road had been constructed a few years earlier, the only way to reach it was on foot, via a two hour trek on a thin jungle path. With my deteriorating mental and physical state, I never would have made it. We eventually pulled up to a much more run down longhouse. This one was also seemingly built in staggered, uneven sections, though Stewart’s mom insisted that it had been built all at once. The exterior was partly built in brick, but mostly it was hardwood. Once again, the roof was corrugated tin. While there was forced running water from a nearby mountain, there was no electricity. It was going on 6:00 p.m. when we pulled up, so the inside was very dim. The Germans and I wandered around as Stewart and his mom got the kitchen going for dinner. The layout of this dwelling was reversed. The “front” had the toilet and shower stall, inside the door was the gigantic kitchen/eating/communal area, the next room was equally giant, serving as storage and sleeping quarters and finally the communal “porch” which led to the chicken coups and pigpens.

Several neighbors and distant relatives appeared out of nowhere and alternated between helping Stewart and standing around shyly staring at us. We sat out on the communal porch for a while, taking pictures and playing with a couple of the kids. They went bananas over my digital camera. I took their picture and then showed them the picture on the little display screen which was a source of constant delight for the rest of our stay. Every time I got out my camera the kids jumped in front of whatever I was trying to shoot, so they could see their pictures again. The German woman broke out some candy she brought along for gifts and this distracted the kids long enough for me to take long exposure shots of the porch, with fading natural light. This longhouse had 36 dwellings, with over 100 residents, but you wouldn’t know it walking down the porch. Absolutely no noise was being emitted from any of the dwellings, but Stewart assured us that there were dozens of people hiding behind those doors. Since there was no electricity, there was no light either. It was very deceptive. Just as I was starting to think that Stewart was putting us on, a door opened right next to me. A young woman in a sarong took a half step out, saw me, then backed up and closed the door again.

When it became too dark to see clearly Stewart and one of his cousins fired up a gas generator and florescent lights were turned out. While there was a portable gas stove, Stewart did half of the cooking on a stone slab with a wood fire. He stuffed a bunch of chicken and green, leafy vegetables into thick bamboo shoots and laid these over the fire. Then he prepared some fried chicken, rice and heated up some of the wild boar that his cousins had bagged the previous day.

Croc doing tripod stand
Croc doing tripod stand
After our feast we settled down on the social mat to sit and be stared at by friends and relatives. After some time, one of Stewart’s cousins suggested that we go hunting. It was 9:00 p.m. and pitch black. The German’s looked uncertain and I flat out refused. I was cross-eyed tired and ready for bed. Plus, I only had my sandals, no proper shoes, and no pants to protect me from being nicked by the less friendly shrubs. The Germans were eventually persuaded to go. They suited up, smeared on bug repellant and headed out with three guys from the tribe, none of whom spoke English, armed only with an ancient shotgun and a couple weak flashlights. It was promised they would only be out for about 15 minutes.

Two hours later they returned exhausted, shell-shocked, sweaty, filthy, and wet from a few unannounced river crossings. They looked like they had just run through a car wash that was using mud and sticks instead of soap and brushes. The girl had been bitten by what she claimed was the world’s biggest ant. Nevertheless, it had been a successful outing. The tribesmen had bagged four prey using only four shots. Three “mouse deer” (like a regular deer but only about a foot tall) and some kind of long-tailed, black jungle cat. To hear the Germans tell it, the guys were running full speed, up and down hills and through streams in the jungle, following their hunting dogs. At intervals, the guy with the shotgun would suddenly pause and scan the air with some kind of invisible radar, then disappear into the bushes. A few seconds later there would be a shot and he’d re-emerge with a dead animal. I had gone to sleep as soon as the hunting party had set out, but Stewart roused me to see the kill. The guys immediately stoked the fire on the cooking stone and cooked the beasts. Two for eating immediately and two for taking back to Kuching. I watched this for a few moments half-asleep before heading back to my wafer-thin mat.

The post-hunt festivities raged on and kept me awake until about 1:00 a.m. Then the roosters started going at it at about 5:00 a.m. So other then the fleeting sleep I got during the hunt, I had managed to hoard only four more hours of sleep that night, bringing the total to six hours in two nights. I was not feeling very spry at breakfast.

In full daylight, I went around taking numerous pictures of the long house and some of the obliging residents. I was also escorted to the spot where the blackened skulls were hung in the communal porch. I had passed right under the skulls two times the night before while I was exploring before dinner, but failed to notice them in the dim light. In their heyday, the Iban were alleged to be the most formidable of Borneo’s headhunters. Stewart’s mom claims that the Iban were actually very peaceful, but they were forced to take on a more fierce attitude as various invaders encroached on their territory. According to some quick online research the heads of their slain enemies were reportedly hung in the longhouse at the conclusion of a massive festival called Gawai Kenyalang (“Hornbill Festival”). They believed that the heads contained magical powers that would “bring strength, virtue and prosperity to the longhouse.” I was assured that this particular set of skulls was well over 100 years old and that there hadn’t been any reason to relieve anyone of their craniums in the interim.

Taking pictures outside the house was a bit of a letdown. While the Iban keep the interiors of their longhouses relatively spotless, they are not so concerned about the state of the surrounding area. Indeed, they seem to regard the jungle as one big garbage dump, starting as soon as you exit the porch. From the rickety back platform, down past the chicken coups and out into the tangle of greenery, there was trash randomly strewn everywhere. Cans, plastic bottles and even small engine parts. The kids are programmed with this attitude early. When the kids went to work on the candy the Germans gave them, they dropped the wrappers where they stood without a care in the world.

While the longhouses themselves are surprisingly well kept considering they are smack in the middle of the jungle, I should address the general hygienic state that, if you’re anything like me, will challenge your capacity to live in denial. As a recovering germophobe, it was nearly enough to spark a relapse. The food preparation, the roaming cats and dogs, the toilet facilities (although soap is available if you look hard enough, it is mainly regarded as an unnecessary extravagance) and the kids dropping trou and pissing whenever and wherever the urge hit them, playfully running their hands through the stream, pushed my mind-over-matter abilities to the limit – as well as setting my resolve to avoid any and all physical contact with the children.

Stewart took us around and explained how the tribesmen earn their modest living. Considering that they can obtain virtually everything they need from the surrounding jungle, their need for cash is nearly nonexistent, but with civilization slowly encroaching on their lives, a little spending money doesn’t hurt. The residents in the old long house maintained bountiful white pepper gardens that produce a dozen or so 20 kilo sacks of pepper each season. There was an unusually large stockpile of pepper during our visit. Stewart explained that pepper prices had dropped over the previous two seasons, so the tribe was hoarding their stash until prices rose again. Additionally, the tribe milked hundreds of rubber trees in the area. A single tree doesn’t produce a heck of a lot of material, so the process of slashing, setting up drip collectors and then going around every few days to gather the material seemed tedious, but there was no denying the result. The little dabs of collected material is heated using acid and rolled into long, finger-thick sheets, which fetch a fair price. Finally, while there wasn’t evidence that this was happening at the old longhouse, rice making is also a moderate money earner for the Iban.

After some breakfast and the appropriate amount of sitting around and socializing on the communal porch, while sipping the juice out of freshly picked coconuts, it was suggested that we do some river fishing. I was very excited for this as I had been examining the tribe’s homemade slingshot spear guns the previous evening and I was keen to gun me down some fish. Several of the tribe accompanied us, as well as about four dogs. A few men fished with nets and one guy used the spear gun in concert with a waterproof flashlight (the water was pretty soupy) and a snorkeling mask. I was not offered the spear gun, probably for my own safety, and I was not interested in snorkeling in the muddy river anyway. For some reason I had imagined that I would simply stand safely on shore and pick off fish at my leisure, but alas the fish had long since caught on to this tactic and now prudently hid under greenery and in underwater caves, which consequently required fully river immersion for the gun-toting hunter. We followed the tribesmen down the river as they netted and bagged little, sardine-sized fish. The spear guy wasn’t having a good day. Eventually he managed to land something that looked like a catfish, which he cleared out by sticking the fish’s head in his mouth and sucking. Blech!

After we had cleaned up from fishing we jumped back into Stewart’s van and headed to the newer longhouse. Once again we went about exploring and greeting the longhouse residents out on the porch, with an encore appearance by Granny Gone Wild, before Stewart’s uncle, Kenny, came up and offered to take us into town in his car for drinks. We were all at various points of physical exhaustion and car loathing, but Kenny was persistent. It was clear that he was exceedingly proud of owning a car and wanted to show it off. Finally we agreed. First we stopped to get drinks at a local store and then he paraded us into the main square for even more drinks at a food center. I got the feeling Kenny was showing us off to the townies. He sat between us, smoking, drinking beer, talking loudly and looking quite pleased with himself. He was a very friendly guy though, so it was hard to fault him.

Communal porch
Communal porch
We got back to Stewart’s mom’s, via an enthusiastic tour of Kenny’s dwelling where he made us promise to come back some day and stay with him, just in time to clean up for Stewart’s chicken curry. The food was excellent and we passed the rest of the evening sitting on the mat, talking and watching satellite TV. I zipped the channel to CNN just in time to see a report saying that my man Hunter S. Thompson had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I was crushed. Hunter, specifically his brilliant “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (the ultimate travel writing), was the reason that I started writing back in college. He was nuts, did too many drugs and had a dangerous love for guns and explosives, so I guess something like this was inevitable, but I was still shocked and disappointed. Rumor had it that his health had been failing and perhaps he wanted to go out, literally, with a bang rather than linger in a slow, painful, sedentary decline. From what I knew of Hunter, this seemed probable. Still, I think that Hunter would have approved of me learning of his passing while sitting on the floor of an Iban longhouse, drinking with the tribe (never mind the satellite TV in the background). I couldn’t mourn for too long because Kenny, now very, very drunk, was grabbing my arm. He was resolute that the Germans and I learn the entirety of the Iban language that evening or die trying. I bowed out from the lessons early, still half brain-dead from my sleep shortcomings.

Like clockwork, the roosters went nuts for no reason at 5:00 a.m. and I was reluctantly up by 7:00. Stewart had gotten loaded with Kenny. Being deeply hungover, he asked if I might like to drive the first leg. Malaysia is a left hand driving country, like the U.K. Though I was marginally well-rested for the first time in days, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task of re-learning to drive a stick-shift with everything reversed – I was briefly in command of a British Landrover for six weeks while traveling Morocco in 1993 – and this would be my first experience driving on the left side of the road. After two coffees, I decided that I was ready for the challenge.

With the U.K. car configuration, not only is the stick shift on the left side, enough of a mind-f*ck for one morning on it’s own, but the turn signal and windshield wiper controls are reversed as well. To add to the fun, the pedals, which are mercifully configured the same as the rest of the world, were smaller than usual and very, very close together. Now I happen to have surprisingly small feet for my size (which, ladies, is a feature that should not be read into or assumptions drawn from in regards to other physical attributes), but I was having a hard time hitting the gas square-on. More importantly, getting my foot on the brake without fat-footing the gas at the same time was an ordeal. Additionally, aside from the minor driving that I did at home three months earlier and a half day scooter rental in Greece a month before that, I had not been in command of any kind of motor vehicle for over a year. Long story short, my passengers were tense. Even hungover and semi-conscious, Stewart looked regretful as we pulled out onto the road and I immediately drifted to the right hand side.

After a few adjustments, I was fine and drove trouble-free for nearly two hours, when we took a meal break. I immediately handed the keys to Stewart, so as to save him the embarrassment of having to ask for them back and he guided us safely back to Kuching where I indulged in a much needed shower and a couple welcome back rice wines.

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