Visiting an Iban Longhouse

How to Stay in a Traditional Longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo

Newly built longhouse in Batu Bungan to resettle Iban nomadic tribespeople.
••• Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Perhaps one of the most unique experiences in Borneo, a visit to an Iban longhouse in Sarawak is an unforgettable adventure that provides a rare glimpse into the daily lives of indigenous people.

Once you've explored Kuching and some of Sarawak's great national parks, consider making arrangements to visit or stay in an Iban longhouse -- the farther from the city the better. Enjoy a chance to interact with a fading culture and people who once prided themselves for the number of human heads collected!

What to Expect in the Longhouse

Longhouses differ in size and are home to many families living together under one roof. Don't worry too much about an excessive amount of attention; the Iban people can be shy but offer a very warm welcome to outsiders.

After introductions and dinner, you'll be given a small performance of local dance and music -- expect an invitation to join in so that all can have a laugh. You'll be shown around the longhouse and given small demonstrations of daily life. The evening usually brings tuak -- the local rice whiskey -- and as much revelry as you can handle until finally sleeping on a provided mattress with mosquito net.

The next morning may include a short hike into the jungle, a tour of their garden, and a chance to learn how to shoot the blowpipe gun.

Even many remote longhouses are now equipped with Western-style toilets located outside rather than the typical squat toilet.

You'll have a chance to shower and clean up in the evening. Remote longhouses may sparingly use generator electricity or just kerosene lamps for lighting.

Finding an Iban Longhouse

Longhouse stays are a mixed bag. The farther you get from the city, the more authentic of an experience that you will enjoy.

If staying in a longhouse only an hour or two from Kuching, don't be surprised to see satellite television and a semi-modern lifestyle. If you have the time, put in the extra effort to visit a remote longhouse for the 'real deal' rather than a tourist-oriented experience. The more authentic longhouses are inaccessible by road and require travel by small canoe to reach.

Even if you could find one, turning up unexpected at an Iban longhouse is really bad form and you could be turned away. Try contacting the Sarawak Tourism Board to make arrangements; indicate your interest in seeing a remote longhouse rather than one close to the city. You can also get in touch with Diethelm Travel -- they have exclusive access to a remote longhouse around six hours from Kuching.

If you intend to go further afield, make your booking at least two days in advance so that the longhouse has time to receive word of your arrival -- they are typically out of range for phones.

The Longhouse Chief

While it is now possible for the leader of a longhouse to be a woman, you'll typically encounter a man who has been elected as the leader of the longhouse. The chief is boss and he or she has the final say in all matters, including your stay.

Always let the chief eat and drink first -- show utmost respect; avoid standing over him and don't refuse if he offers for you to sit, eat, or drink.

You can refer to the chief as simply 'chief' or bapa in Bahasa Malay to recognize his title. Don't be nervous: the chief is usually a friendly guy and the longhouse would not be open to visitors if he did not want you there to share in the local culture!

Bringing Gifts

While not officially required, just as throughout the rest of the world, you can boost your welcome by bringing a bottle of spirits or some small gifts. Forget trinkets or souvenirs; the longhouse families need practical items that can be shared and enjoyed by all.

Your guide can best instruct you as to what to bring and you'll have an opportunity on the way to the longhouse to purchase gifts.

Consider buying a large pack of candy or snacks for children and a bottle of alcohol for the chief.

Tips for Visiting an Iban Longhouse

  • Mosquitoes are a real problem outside of the longhouses, however, inexplicably you won't be bothered much by them inside. Regardless, use plenty of mosquito repellent as dengue fever is a growing problem throughout Southeast Asia. See some tips for avoiding mosquito bites.
  • Longhouse members share close contact and their immune systems have adapted. You'll be sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils with many people. Avoid visiting an Iban longhouse if you are sick or could potentially introduce a germ that would spread through the families.
  • Only a few members of the longhouse may speak English. Rely on your guide and you can learn a little Bahasa Malay for a few smiles before you go. See how to say hello in Malay.

Dos and Don'ts in an Iban Longhouse

  • Always remove your shoes before entering the common area of the longhouse; you can leave them outside on the deck.
  • Present your gifts to the chief and he will distribute them among the families staying there. Never give individual children items such as pens or candy that may cause a dispute later.
  • You can take pictures inside of the longhouse, however, avoid photographing babies or women in sarongs. Always ask permission first. See 10 tips for travel photography.
  • While everyone has their limits, you should accept good-natured offerings of food and drinks from as many people as possible to avoid causing potential offense.
  • Men can remove their shirts while inside of the longhouse.

Disclosure

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary longhouse stay for the purpose of reviewing those services. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see ourĀ Ethics Policy.