Visiting an Iban longhouse is perhaps one of the most unique experiences on offer in Malaysian Borneo.
Although some are "packaged" experiences, spending a night in the jungle is an unforgettable adventure that provides a rare glimpse into the daily lives of Sarawak's indigenous people.
Getting to Borneo from Kuala Lumpur is quick and inexpensive. 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.
Sometimes getting to the longhouse, often by boat, is an adventure in itself. Once there, you'll enjoy a chance to interact with people who called the jungle home long before modernization.
What to Expect
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.
The longhouse chief will be compensated somehow for letting a traveler stay. Usually, the families will be happy to host you — both because you are a curiosity and also they receive a financial incentive.
After introductions and dinner on the ground, 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. Yes, you'll probably look ridiculous in your feathered headdress.
During your stay, you'll be shown around the longhouse and given short demonstrations of daily life. In the evening, a bottle of tuak — the local rice whiskey — usually appears and you'll be expected to drink alongside your hosts. The night ends with you on a mattress under a mosquito net, hopefully without an epic headache.
The next morning may include a short hike into the jungle, a tour of the gardens, and a chance to learn how to shoot a traditional 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. Some longhouses may sparingly use generators for electricity or just kerosene lamps for lighting.
Finding an Iban Longhouse
Even if you could manage to find one, turning up unannounced at an Iban longhouse is a really bad idea. Charging into someone's home without an invitation is rude, and you could be turned away or cause an incident.
To arrange a stay in an Iban longhouse, try contacting the Sarawak Tourism Board; they can help with making arrangements. Indicate your interest in seeing a remote longhouse rather than one close to the city where minibuses of tourists arrive each day. You can also get in touch with Diethelm Travel — they have exclusive access to a remote longhouse around six hours from Kuching.
Contact the agencies as far in advance as possible. If a longhouse doesn't have phone access — many don't — someone will need time to make the reservations in person!
Longhouse stays are a mixed bag. The farther you get from the city, the more traditional 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 traditional longhouses are inaccessible by road and require travel by small canoe upriver to reach.
Important: If you're sick, even with a minor case of the sniffles, don't go stay in an Iban longhouse where people live in close contact far from medical treatment.
The Longhouse Chief
Although it is now possible for the leader of a longhouse to be female, you'll more often encounter a man who has been elected as the chief elder. The chief is boss — he or she has the final say in all matters, including your stay. For obvious reasons, you don't want to get on the chief's bad side.
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 as his guest.
You can refer to the chief as simply "chief" or bapa (father) in Bahasa Malay to recognize his title.
Don't be nervous: the chief is usually a friendly guy. He's happy to host you and bring some much-needed income to his house. Don't feel conspicuous or as though you are intruding. The longhouse would not be open to foreign visitors if he did not want you there to share in the local culture!
Although not officially required, just as throughout the rest of the world, you can boost your welcome significantly by bringing some small gifts. Often a bottle of spirits for the adults and some candies for the children will suffice.
Forget trinkets or souvenirs; the longhouse families need practical items that can be shared and enjoyed by all. These families often live far from the convenience of a shop or supermarket, so they're happy to get consumable treats and practical items not easily obtained.
Your guide can best instruct you as to what to bring. You'll probably have an opportunity on the way to the longhouse to purchase gifts. Consider buying a large pack of individually wrapped candy or bagged snacks for children and a bottle of alcohol for the chief — choose something other than the tuak they make for themselves!
Tips for Visiting
- Mosquitoes are a real problem around the open-air longhouses. Use plenty of repellent and take measures to avoid them; dengue fever is a growing problem throughout Southeast Asia.
- Longhouse members live in close quarters, and their immune systems have adapted. You'll be sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils with many people. Hygiene isn't always easy. Avoid visiting an Iban longhouse if you are sick or could potentially introduce a germ that would spread through the families. Medical help may be far away.
- Only a few members of the longhouse may speak English. In remote longhouses, no one other than your guide may speak English or Bahasa Malay. For a few smiles, learn the basic greetings in Bahasa Malay just in case.
Dos and Don'ts
- 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. Before snapping, check the backdrop of your potential photos for nudity. Always ask permission first.
- Although everyone has a limit, you should accept good-natured offerings of food and drinks from as many people as possible to avoid causing potential offense. Be warned: people may want to get drunk with you.
- Men can remove their shirts while inside of the longhouse.
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, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.