Borneo – Part 2 Traditional Longhouse

Kuching means cat.  I started my Borneo travels in this mid-size city with a lovely riverside promenade (are promenades always by water?) and very friendly people. It has several interesting buildings from the 1870s when Charles Brooke was Rajah of Sawarak, including a castle, fort, courthouse, a jail and the Bishop’s house, all in the same black and white style. It also has interesting museums, one in particular tracing the history of the three distinct waves if Chinese immigrants, a growing cafe culture with speciality coffees and Kec Lapis – a delicious multi-layered cake with different fillings and the not-to-be-missed Laksa noodle soup; my lovely Chinese landlady made a superb one. It also has a large orchid garden, which quite by chance I went round with a Spanish horticulturalist who had worked at Kew Gardens and now lives in Australia.

Whilst I was there Sawarak was having its state elections. I have never seen so many posters and flags along every street, highway, shop front etc. It was easy to tell who had exercised their democratic right because their index finger was ink-stained and there were funny articles in the Borneo Post with suggestions as to how to remove the dye which can take up to 3 weeks if left to fade naturally – a look many young women donut much like. The ruling Barisan Nasional party was victorious, and whilst it was openly know that they used heavy stick and carrot tactics to ensure re-election, it was seemingly a popular result because they have promised to work with the parties promoting Sawarak’s independence from the rest of Malaysia.

A little way outside Kuching is Sawarak Cultural Village. Set around a lake are the traditional houses of Sawarak’s indigenous tribes. For example, the Penan who are semi-nomadic and still track animals using blow pipes, the Orang Ulu who receive substantial government grants to maintain their rural life – much to the envy of other tribes, the Pindaya who live in the north and the Iban who make up the largest percentage of indigenous people. Each house is distinctive but the one that I particularly liked was the Iban longhouse. Made entirely of wood, each village has a longhouse in which the whole community lives. This means the structure runs to several hundred metres with an external platform for the laundry, produce drying etc, an internal central corridor for communal living and doors all along the corridor behind which are the private rooms of each family, varying in size depending on the number of children. The size of Longhouse is described by the number of doors e.g. 30 doors, 50 doors.

I decided this was something I had to see and experience for myself but there are very few traditional wooden longhouses left as they are increasingly replaced by brick and concrete structures with proper drainage, electricity and satellite dishes However, I discovered that there was one longhouse accessible by two boat journeys, where the Iban community still lived traditional lifestyle. There was no way of knowing if I could stay because that was up to the village Chief, who I could only ask when I arrived, and that was assuming anyone knew him and could locate him. Lots of ‘ifs’

I know I’m adventurous by nature but I even impressed myself with this one. I took a noisy 5 hour boat ride in lashing rain across the South China Sea to a port called Sibu with no redeeming features. Having been kept awake all night by the nightclub next door I found an early morning boat to take me to my intended destination. Needless to say I was the only foreigner and I felt just a little nervous as our small boat wove its was up the Rejang river, negotiating rapids whilst dodging huge stray logs from upstream logging stations.

Arriving at Kapit jetty, with no clue where I was heading, I decided my best bet was to go into a cafe to ask how I should go about finding my intended longhouse chief. First up a drunkard assured me he could help me. Luckily I was rescued by two guys sitting next to me in the cafe. It turned out one was a village chief himself (in Kapit for the elections), though from a modernised longhouse. He offered to drive me to the village I sought. As it was only 15km away i thought it not too much out of his way, but because the road was tortuously twisty it took an hour. When I thanked him he said it was his duty to look after visitors and make sure they were safe.

We located the Chief on the building site for the new longhouse his community was building. After a conversation which I didn’t understand and a donation was agreed (I understood that bit), I got the thumbs up to stay. I was allocated a family and off I went to meet my hosts – a husband and wife and his elderly mother on a road which quite simply stopped by the longhouse and then there was forest!

Rumah Jandok Longhouse was extraordinary. It had 21 doors (i.e.21 families), so a comparatively small community. There were skulls hanging in the middle of the corridor, leftover from head-hunting days but also, whilst they are non-practising Christians most doors had a cross on them. A strange juxtaposition.

The timbers were rotting and the home I stayed in was extremely basic (outside loo and bucket to wash) but it has had electricity since 2014 and it was such a privilege to be welcomed there. Most of the men were heavily tattooed, the older women were bare breasted and the little ones (of which there were many) were largely naked. My hostess, Sawary was very sweet and we laughed as we communicated by drawing pictures because she could neither read nor write. I watched her mother weaving cloth for sarongs while Sawary and other young women weaved brightly coloured shopping baskets to sell in local markets. In the stifling heat and humidity everyone laughed and chatted as the children ran around – a typical communal scene . Sawary and I picked vegetables, which seem to grow in the wild by the roadside, and then I helped prepare a supper of chicken, whitebait and veggies.

At 5:30 several mums and me walked to the village school about 20 minutes away – I assumed to bring the children home. But no, it was to bring drinks and snacks and a change of clothes and to say goodnight. From 7-11 years old the children stay at school Monday to Friday, sleeping on mattresses in single sex dorms. I was told the girls need no supervision – not so the boys. What a surprise! 12-15 year olds go to school in Kapit. After 16 they go to Kuching or Miri.

I played the usual alphabet and counting games with some of the boys and gave my hist family’s two boys colouring books, crayons and stickers which I’d bought in advance. I had more in my bag which I intended to share out but it was clear Sawary wanted to keep them for her boys. I later discovered that families take it in turn to host visitors and get to keep the donation and any gifts. I guess that makes sense though I did feel what I’d brought was a bit much for one family.

Back at the longhouse we served dinner and were joined by neighbours who brought food to share. A pair of 13 year old twin girls showed me their English homework books. They seemed to be being taught well and enjoyed talking to me. They told me they got up at 5:30 every day to get to school by 7:30 not getting home until 7pm but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact they had it easy because before the road was constructed two years previously transport was by boat which meant a 4:30 start.

After dinner we shared family photos and watched the news then bedded down in a row on the floor under mosquito nets and I had the family cat as bedfellow. Thankfully nobody snored and I actually slept very well.

We were up at 6am for tea and biscuits then once all the men had gone off to work we rolled up the bedding and set off to work at the new longhouse. Most of the families are building their section of the longhouse and it was clear to see who was wealthier than who by the fixtures and fittings. Some had expensive tiled floors, western bathroom fittings and fitted kitchens whilst others had plane floors and modest bathrooms and free-standing kitchens. Bizarrely everyone seemed to love cornicing which they painted bright colours.

What was cool to see was that the women were equally involved, holding ladders, shifting rubble and, having learned some basic skill in Cambodia, I was able to join in cement mixing. Who would have thought!

I was curious as to how the men could afford to build their homes i.e. not be earning a wage. When the chief explained to me that he had negotiated with the local government to donate the concrete, roofing and windows and that there were subsidies/loans for the rest of the building materials repayable once the house was built and normal work resumed. A good way to ensure re-election me thinks.

The new longhouse was due to be finished by 1 June – just three weeks after my visit. The chief was expecting around 800 people to celebrate the opening including children who had moved away, dignitaries etc. I was honoured to be invited to join them but unfortunately makingbthe epic journey 3 weeks later wasn’t an option.

Whilst Sawary was helping her husband with some tricky window installation I popped back to the school, was given a tour by the head teacher and sat in on a class. Some of the children are very slow and find it difficult to learn and, with illiterate parents, they are not encouraged at home thus compounding the problem. That said, some I met were very bright and engaged and sang ‘rain, rain go away, come again another day’, complete with umbrella for me. So sweet.

Sawary and I went back home and joined two other women in one of the women’s large kitchen to prepare lunch. 6 different vegetables including bamboo, aubergine, a sort of wild spinach and dandelion, all of which I learnt how to prepare and cook; a huge hunk of meat which we boiled then roasted on a big open fire, and of course a gigantic pot of rice. Enter 8 bare-chested, sweaty, hungry men who wolfed down the food as we sat to one side watching them. Job done they belched and went off to have a smoke! We were then able to sit at the table and consume what was left before clearing it all up.

The Chief arrived later that afternoon and said that as he was heading into town later, he could give me a lift. I had planned to stay another night but he didn’t know if he would be available the following day and to be honest the basic facilities were challenging, so I took up the offer.

I loved meeting all the villagers and being part of the community, albeit for such a short time and I’m really pleased to have had such an authentic experience. By now the old longhouse will be standing empty. The plan is to smarten it up and re-open as a fee paying ‘attraction’ with a local to show people round. There are a good few modern longhouses offering an overnight but the experience simply isn’t the same.

I do wonder who will be living in these places in 50 years time. The communal way of life is enjoyed by old and young generations but most 18+ year olds move away to live and work in big cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, with their shopping malls, cinemas, cafes etc and where everyone doesn’t knows everyone else’s business. Parents don’t seem to mind being separated from their children at this relatively young age but if they don’t return to raise their own families how can the longhouse village survive.

imageThe boat back to Sibu was with the current so we raced along, shaving an hour off the hairy journey. I wasn’t relishing another night in Sibu but I enjoyed trying lots of different food in the night market; things like shredded beef inside a mini bun, fried giant banana, pork stuffed pau, peanut stuffed coconut jelly, warm soya milk and local chocolate cake, naughty but nice.

Next morning I took a bus to Miri in the north of Sawarak, an hour from the border with Brunei. I stayed in a nice hostel  and amazingly managed to get a pair of prescription glasses made up in 48 hours.  In the evening I went to the Jazz Festival. I had been invited by the festival director Chu Lin who I’d been e-introduced to by a mutual jazz musician friend she met when studying at the Royal College of Music. She now lives in Borneo with her charming husband and two grown up kids and organises music festivals including the world famous Rainforest Festival held in September.

There were lots of really good bands – from New York, Germany (playing Cuban music which sounds odd but they rocked), Singapore and local. I had a great time drinking, dancing and chatting to people dancing next to me, some of whom were expats working for oil and gas companies like Shell and Total in Brunei. I flopped into bed at 1:30 – the latest I’ve been out since I left home in January.



So that was it for me in the state of Sawarak. I left the next day with a bit of a sore head and aching legs but no regrets!

Next up I’ll be summarising my brilliant time in peninsular Malaysia.



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