Living with the Iban: Borneo

My trip to Kuching began solely on a whim, to see how tribals in Asia’s equatorial region of Borneo live. It is an experience I will not forget: It was for the first time in my life, that I slept on the banks of a river in a longhouse, and woke up in the morning, to explore the surrounding forests. The swift flow of the river, and the chirping of the crickets were the only sounds I could hear.

Downtown Kuching, where I spent the night. Kuching is the capital city of Sarawak, and ranks high with tourists for its food centers.

Logistics: Planning the logistics of an overnight stay, with one of the few surviving tribes of South-East Asia is not easy. There are few websites that share relevant details. I did however find a local guide’s number on Tripadvisor. The guide’s name is James Chee – and he can be contacted at (+60 12 8860880, James is a reasonable tour operator, who charges ~350 SGD per person, for (i) a pickup and drop to a Kuching hotel, (ii) a driver/guide who can drive you for ~5/6 hours, to the boat deck, where the Ibans fetch you in longboats and (iii) meals, cab charges and night stay at the longhouse

Overall, I found it an easy 3 day trip. I took the plane from Singapore after work, reaching the hotel in Kuching around 9 pm in the night. On Day 1,  the cab driver picked me up from the hotel around 9:30 am for the trip to the longhouse. On Day 2, I was back in Kuching, after having spent a night with the Ibans. I spent Day 3, touring the city of Kuching. I was back to Singapore the next day. 

Local vegetable market in Serian. Serian serves as a good stopover en route to the longhouse. Serian is very famous for its Durians, that are considered best in Sarawak.

The Iban: The Ibans or Dayaks, are equatorial tribes of the Sarawak forests. In the past, they were warriors, famous for practicing head-hunting. Much has changed since then. They now live primarily on agriculture and eco-tourism.

Iban children performing a welcome dance for guests

So the Dayak are now in a state of transition. They are more integrated with the outside world. Their children attend schools. The younger Dayaks are fast moving to cities for work. The older generations also hope for them to find jobs in cities, so that they can eventually move in with them.

Iban women playing music when children perform the local dance

The longhouse too are in a state of transition. Modern amenities like TVs, refrigerators, can be found in the long houses. These amenities, more often than not, are funded via government grants

Wood masks made by Iban men

The Longhouses: So what are longhouses? These are wooden houses on the banks of a river. What’s interesting is that there are ~15-20 families staying under one roof. The men are hunters, though now mostly cultivating pepper/rubber. The women, take the traditional role of cooking/cleaning and carpet weaving.

Iban longhouse: Exterior view
Iban longhouse: Interior view

Where can one stay:  The longhouse I stayed was located near Sibu (the next big city, east of Kuching) near the Batang Rejang river. These make for more authentic experiences, compared to those near the Batang Skrang and Batang Lemanak regions.

My experience: The Dayaks are cheerful, welcoming people. Right from the time I entered the longhouse, the families made me feel comfortable by offering tea. This was followed by a tribal dance in the night. The children are the ones performing it.

When I met the Dayaks, they let my know that (i) the Skin colour of the Dayaks is similar to Indians, (ii) I look like a Dayak. Hilarious 🙂 They maintain a register of all tourists visiting them. From their records, it emerged that I was the first Indian to visit them!

Food wise, I tasted the rice wine made by Dayaks, called the Tuak. I didn’t find it particularly tasty – but certainly different.

Forests and cultivations adjacent to the Iban longhouses. These serve as the main source of revenue
Pepper cultivation
Rubber cultivation

Overall, the experience I had was a truly humbling experience. From the APAC headquarters of Google in Singapore, to a longhouse, based on the banks of a Sarawak river, with no internet/phone connectivity –  it was a journey that put the diversity of the human race in perspective for me.

View from the longboat: What the trip back looks like

While I loved sleeping at the banks of the river hearing its soothing sounds, a part of me was a bit uncomfortable when I had to use the makeshift washrooms. My discomfort was however nothing compared to the children of the Dayak household – who travel everyday for 45 minutes on boats to school, one -way.

Overall, I left with mixed sentiments. A stay in a long boat, is a far cry from the luxurious villas I have stayed in Bali or the fancy hotels of Singapore and Hong Kong. What the trip did however give me though – is something that none of the above gave me –  a perspective to life, and nature.

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