Experiencing Indigenous Culture in Borneo

An Iban warrior practices with blowgun

Peter Guttman / Getty Images


I was greeted by a smiling man holding a detached head.

He lifted it by the ears so I could get a better look. The unlucky boar had been dispatched just before I arrived. Two tanned Iban men were butchering it on the riverbank in preparation for my stay in their longhouse. The welcome was gory but friendly as more people arrived to unload our narrow canoe. They were happy to see me.

The morning began with a six-hour drive from Kuching, followed by two hours of poling up a shallow river in an unstable canoe. Monkeys announced our invasion with screams from the canopy. We were loaded with cans of kerosene, a large fish, and some strange vegetables. All were purchased as gifts my guide and I hoped would please the longhouse chief. He would decide if I could stay or not. I pondered the dire possibility of getting sent back downriver in the dark. Should I have bought a second fish?

The Iban Longhouse

The longhouse was a complex of elevated terraces, animal pens, and outhouses. It stood tall and faced the riverbank. I had already visited model longhouses at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching, but now I found myself looking up at the real deal, deep in Borneo. The Sarawak Tourism Board graciously arranged my stay with a hard-to-reach longhouse that rarely opened to outside visitors. My hosts were Iban, one of many indigenous groups in Borneo, collectively referred to as the “Dayak” people. Some Iban live close to towns; meanwhile, others farm, fish, hunt, and scratch a living from the jungle.

Every now and then while traveling, you get to experience one of those wonderful moments that makes every infected insect bite and sleepless night worth the effort. There’s no reason to bother with a camera—you know the memory could never be captured properly.

My dinner was one of those moments. I was eating with the chief and a few of the longhouse elders. Four of us huddled on a square of dirty linoleum beneath a sooty kerosene lantern. Hardwood embers smoldered in the open fireplace. On the floor before us was a bony fish with teeth, a blackened pot of rice, and midin—a delicious jungle fern that remains crunchy after cooking. We ate communally, reaching and grabbing with dirty right hands. Ants had taken an interest in our fish bones, but no one cared. Spirits were high. As is a regular practice, the longhouse received a financial incentive from the tourism board for hosting me. A celebration was in order.

Addressing him with the honorific of Bapa (father), I always deferred to the chief while eating and speaking. All stood respectfully when he excused himself. Rail thin and barely five feet tall, the chief was easily the smallest of everyone in physical stature—but that didn’t matter. He was the boss, patriarch, and acting mayor of the longhouse. He complimented my choice of fish from the market but said, “next time, make it an empurau.” Everyone laughed. Native to Sarawak, empurau is prized as one of the rarest and most expensive edible fish in the world. A single prepared fish can fetch $500 or more.

When we finished eating, it was time to present the gifts. The longhouse did have electricity, but it was installed as an afterthought. Wires crisscrossed loosely, and the single fluorescent light looked out of place. I was told how carrying cans of fuel upriver for the thirsty generator is costly and impractical. As the sun faded, a woman lit hanging lanterns. Everyone was happy about the extra kerosene I brought along.

I gave the chief a bottle of brandy first, and then the children received a case of cheese puffs divided into individual servings. I had been coached on what gifts to bring, and as my guide predicted, these were well appreciated. The chief indicated I should distribute the treats. One by one, children came to accept with a shy "terima kasih" (thank you) then ran away in terror. The longhouse families don’t need keepsakes. Whatever you take for gifts should be consumable and easy to distribute evenly. Refrain from giving out pens, toys, or anything that could cause a dispute later.

Be ready after the gifts are exchanged; this is when you may wish to feign an injury or something.

I noticed some people had swapped their sarongs, swimshorts, and fanny packs for traditional garb. In modern times, Dayak people don’t exactly walk around in beads and feathered headdresses. The intricate, colorful designs are only worn for festivals such as Gawai Dayak, and in my case, to please visiting tourists. When they changed wardrobe, the atmosphere transformed.

I watched the men and women take turns demonstrating traditional dances while drums were beaten for cadence. The warriors’ dance with blade and shield was fierce and meant to evoke fear in tourists and enemies. The Iban are celebrated as fearless warriors who once had a penchant for preserving their enemies' heads. Even though they had only primitive armaments, the Iban were a nightmare for invading Japanese soldiers in the 1940s. I thought of this as the war shouts filled me with excitement, but then my mandatory fun moment arrived. I was feathered up and expected to dance, too. The women and children were thoroughly entertained, but I’m still talking to my therapist about it.

My guide disappeared to wherever he was sleeping, leaving me to navigate the rest of the night. When he left, I put away my camera. I didn’t want the families to feel like tourist attractions in their own homes. Everyone seemed to relax when the camera was gone. In exchange, traditional clothing was put away. I also relaxed.

Around 30 of us sat scattered around a patchwork of mats on the floor. The humidity was oppressive. Most men and many of the women were topless. People wanted to see my tattoos and proudly showed me theirs. Tattooing is important and symbolic for Iban men and women. A person’s skin tells stories of their exploits and life experience. The prominent bungai terung (eggplant flower) on each shoulder is given when a young man goes abroad in search of wealth and knowledge. Tattoos also offer protection. For instance, a tattoo of a fish protects the owner from drowning. I was told how a special pattern tattooed on the hands signified the owner had taken someone's head home.

I began paying attention to hands after that.

This longhouse community exclusively spoke the Iban language. I could communicate a little in Malay, our lingua franca, but only one young man spoke some of it. But no matter the geography, three things bridge all culture gaps on this planet: eating, drinking, and smoking. From Sumatra to Sweden, a local wants to share a glass, and therefore a bit of their culture, with you. Smiling and nodding may be the only forms of communication, but that doesn’t matter. Sharing food and bad habits transcends all else to build a sort of trust bond between humans. My hosts were exceptionally eager to bond.

I understood why. I represented a rare break from the weekly routine, and the playful Iban families were ready to enjoy. Unfortunately, the only ways we knew to interact turned out to be eating, drinking, and smoking—all three went well into the night. One by one, members crossed the cultural bridge to sit before me; all had good intentions and something for me to consume. All too frequently, they carried a plate containing cubes of pork fat and a glass. The squishy squares were eaten between glasses of tuak—a homemade spirit made by fermenting sticky rice. The queue to share a drink with me was dangerously long.

Even the longhouse grandmother came to sit cross-legged on the floor facing me, her eyes reduced to slits behind a beaming, toothless smile. She was precious but also the devil in disguise. She wanted not just one but two tall glasses of tuak with the Western visitor. She giggled and tugged my arm hair when I obliged. She was my undoing, but I didn’t dare let down an Iban grandmother.

When the party reached a crescendo, my friendly volunteer interpreter told me he wanted to “be my wife” in Malay then smiled sincerely while anticipating my response. I pondered this turn of events for the rest of the night. Had he just picked the wrong word isteri (wife) instead of kawan (friend) or abang (brother)? Our communication was messy at best. Then again, he put his arm around me at every opportunity. The next day, my guide roared with laughter when I told him about it. He said the married men retire to bed earlier, which is what I observed. However, the bachelors party late into the night—what my new friend had wanted to do with me.

At some obscene hour, I crawled away from the party to a mattress that had been covered with a mosquito net for me. The others moved to their rooms. I listened motionless in the dark as unidentified creatures of various sizes came over to check me out. When I flinched, they scurried away with tiny claws scratching frantically for traction.

A couple of hours later, roosters painfully announced my morning training was to begin.

Most men had already gone to tend the small peppercorn plantation. One remained behind and taught me how to handle a blowgun. Muscular, tattooed, and wearing only a sarong, he looked the part. He could also crowd darts into the bullseye with ease. The Iban hunt monkeys and wild boar for protein, but nowadays, a shotgun is used. The antique, break-action shotgun was important for feeding the longhouse. He proudly let me inspect the weapon, but shells are too rare to waste on practice. We moved on to blade handling instead. I don't think my teacher would need a shotgun to survive in the jungle.

I also checked his hands for tattoos.

Iban tribesmen in a longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo
Peter Solness / Getty Images

Finding a Longhouse Experience in Borneo

Although the Iban are kindly accommodating, turning up at a jungle longhouse unannounced is a bad idea for lots of reasons. Instead, get in touch with the Sarawak Tourism Board and ask them about arranging a real longhouse stay. For best results, drop by their office in person as soon as you arrive in Borneo. Many of the longhouses can’t be contacted by phone. Someone may have to go upriver to make arrangements for you—allow time.

Longhouse communities live in close contact, often far from medical help. Don’t go if you aren’t well. Even transmitting a case of the sniffles could be dangerous for the families.

Longhouse experiences are mixed. You can pretty well assume any longhouse stay offered by a tout or agent will be a canned experience—some are outright tourist traps with websites for booking stays. Your only hope for authenticity is to express your desires to the Sarawak Tourism Board. They have the connections necessary for reaching out to remote longhouses, the communities that would most appreciate the financial support.

Accessibility is the best indication of how much tourist traffic a longhouse receives—the farther from roads and towns, the greater the chance for a memorable experience. Take good gifts for the chief, check for hand tattoos, and be prepared for one colorful, eventful night!

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