Sarawak: Jungle Fever

1 Mar 2006 by intern11
Hospitality is second nature to the tribal folk of Sarawak, says Laura Lee, who enjoys visiting the villages of the rainforest and drinking rice wine till the wee hours When Sarawak’s deputy chief minister suddenly invites you for an overnight stay in his family’s longhouse, how can you refuse? As a frequent guest of the Sarawak Tourism Board over the years, I have had the unique opportunity to experience, albeit for a few hours, tribal life as it is lived in the culturally rich East Malaysia. Having great interest in Sarawk’s ethnic groups, these trips have always been eye openers. Along the way, I have slept in an Iban longhouse, set deep in the interior of the Rejang River in Sibu and visited many similar communities such as those of the Bidayuh, Penan and the Melanau, encountering many instances of warmth and comrade ship. So you can imagine my delight when Sarawak’s second-in-command, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu, an Iban, issued an impromptu invitation for our group to stay at his Gensurai longhouse in Betong. His home, unlike the traditional ones we had inspected, boasted mod cons such as air conditioning! For the uninformed, a Malaysian longhouse is simply a village under one roof. The design, consisting usually of up to fifty family dwellings, attached to each other, probably evolved for defensive purposes. Following practical tradition, the deputy chief minister’s abode was located near a river where we were encouraged to bathe and “do our business”. Most of us, myself included, preferred to use the toilet facilities by the tanju (an open verandah). During the lively dinner, we were shown a pua kumbu or handwoven cloth with an ethnic motif, a valuable family heirloom. This treasure is used by the Ibans or Sea Dayaks in ritual ceremonies marking birth, marriage, funerals, healing sessions or a harvest. (editor's note: Sometimes, villagers, sorely pressed for funds, will try to sell antiquities to bemused visitors. It is up to the conscience of a tourist if they agree to take away part of the tribe’s heritage.) Hospitality is second nature to the people of the jungle. I recall vividly my first welcome at an Iban longhouse in the upper Rejang River. What a sight the folks made, lining up to garland us with beaded necklaces and serve tuak as we entered their premises. This native rice wine, made from fermented glutinous rice and yeast, can be lethal for unwary tourists. Largest of Sarawak’s indigenous tribes, the Ibans love to party. They kept us up until the wee hours, downing their brew and teaching us to perform the ngajat dance in the ruai (open area but still under the cover of the longhouse). Guests are given the use of one of the rooms in the longhouse. I picked up from the abundant supply of pillows and lay down on the bamboo floor of my assigned space. To get a feel of how many families occupy a particular longhouse, one just has to count the number of doors, each of which opens into a combined living room and bedroom area with the kitchen at the rear. Outside the ruai is the tanju, which is used as a drying area for cash crops like pepper. The Bidayuh tribe’s longhouse closely resembles the Ibans’,  except that they are built on mountain foothills, but still near to rivers and roads. Last year, I revisited the 200-metre long Annah Rais Bidayuh longhouse on a half-day tour, which whetted my determination to return for a longer immersion in order to get a deeper understanding of the people and explore unique attractions such as the hot springs. A Malaysia Airlines employee we met, whose husband is a native, informed us that he was organising a homestay programme. I would look into this, I promised myself. The Bidayuhs, also known as Land Dayaks, are second to the Ibans in number. A distinctive feature of their longhouse is the baruk or head house where the enemies’ skulls were kept. (Not to worry, the raiding expeditions have stopped for some years.) The baruk at the Annah Rais Bidayuh longhouse is a typical example, while the one at the award-winning Sarawak Cultural Village is distinguished by its octagonal shape and conical roof. There are several places for community interaction in a longhouse. Besides the ruai and the tanju, there is the bamboo walkway just like the one I saw at the Annah Rais Bidayuh, which seemed to be a favourite spot for the Bidayuh women to gather and weave their rattan basketware and mats. They appeared rather shy, and I did wonder what they thought of us city dwellers straining for a peek into their homes. Their menfolk were more forthcoming and our group managed to carry a conversation with them, munching on bananas they offered us to snack on. We learned that most of the people living in the longhouse were elderly as most of the younger folk had left to seek their fortunes in bigger towns and cities. Venturing further, we chanced upon this provision shop selling bottled drinks and knick-knacks and offering the unbelievable bargain of four cans of imported beer for RM10 (US$2.66)! A only souvenir shop in the vicinity carried a limited range of handicrafts such as hats and handbags made out of tree bark. It’s a pity no enterprising villager has yet harnessed local skills towards producing rattan and bamboo baskets and woven backpacks – used by the natives – for the tourist market. Our morning tour wound up with a lunch box repast, consisting of fried chicken, pastries and cakes supplied by a confectionary shop in Kuching, eaten under the shade outside the longhouse. I felt this to be quite a letdown as the purpose of visiting was to interact with the people, wasn’t it? Even a meal with them, no matter how simple, would have helped given us a shared sense of community with them. I must commend the Sarawak Tourism Board for organizing my trips to the Iban and Melanau longhouses in Rejang River and Mukah respectively. We were not only treated to cultural dances of these respective tribes but also feasted on their distinctive local fare. In the case of the Melanaus, it was sago biscuits, sago dessert and umai, a raw fish dish. We also visited a sago factory and saw how the sago palms are cultivated and processed into various food products. Unlike the other tribes, the Melanaus, which form 5.8% of Sarawak’s population, prefer sago to rice. To me, the longhouse visits are such an enriching experience of the cultural heritage of these tribes, which are very much a part of Malaysia.

Fact file

Local travel agents can arrange stays from a half day to two or three days. Prices vary depending on the duration and itinerary desired. The Sarawak Tourism Board is also willing to help. They can be reached by calling tel 60 82 423 600, emailing [email protected] or logging onto www.sarawaktourism.com. There is also Tourism Malaysia, which has overseas offices, email [email protected] or log onto www.tourismmalaysia.gov If pressed for time, the Sarawak Cultural Village in the foothills of Santubong provides a convenient one-stop visit. At this “living museum”, located 45km from the capital Kuching, you can view several types of longhouses, not only belonging to majority groups such as the Iban and Bidayuh but also the Orang Ulu and upriver tribes. The Penan longhouse is a must visit attraction and offers an attractive handicraft display with items for sale. The simple purchase of basket with ethnic designs or a bracelet goes a long way to providing a livlihood for this tribe. The Penans are excellent blowpipe craftsmen and give frequent demonstrations of hunting with this unusual implement. You can even have a go at it for a small fee. Admission fee: RM45 (US$12) for adults, RM22.50 (US$6) for children between six and 12 years of age. Opening hours: 0900 to 1645. Cultural shows take place from 1130 to 1215 and 1600 to 1645. For more details, tel 60 82 846 411, email [email protected] or log onto www.scv.com.my
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