My Stay at an Iban Longhouse: Tribal Culture, Familiar Families and lots and lots of Langkau

"Oh f**k off!" Splash.


I have no choice but to submerge myself to escape these blood-thirsty flying demons.


Predictably the mosquitoes have taken a liking to my abundant and accessible capillaries, enticingly flush in the +30°C heat.


Despite the near industrial levels of langkau (rice based moonshine) flowing through them, they feast.


I'm fishing in the jungle of Borneo, already frustrated at my inability to properly throw a fishing net (a long held ambition of mine). However, it's here that I notice the beauty of the spot we're in.


This is far from deep jungle, we're just 5 minutes from the highway, however Sarawak in Borneo is the kind of place where human development exists at the behest of nature. If you abandoned a city here and it would likely revert to lush vegetation well within a decade.


The opaque water seems docile, quietly drifting down river, but conceals a powerful current. I immediately appreciate the anchor of knee deep mud.

Gone Fishing: little success, lush jungle and Tino's tattoos.

The jungle encroaches on the river, right down to water level, creating an amphitheatre for the incredibly poor standard of fishing that's playing out.


Apart from the splashes and laughs that our efforts produce, there is no sound but for the trickle of water and chirrup of insect life.


The road seems a long way away.


Tino, our host, spots the improbable shape of a hornbill gliding over the canopy. Improbable due the apparent unlikeliness that a bird of that anatomy could be airborne, as well as it's elusive nature (despite being the state bird).


For the umpteenth time in the last 2 days I'm grateful to be hosted by him and his wonderful family.


They are the Iban. The Headhunters of Borneo.

I've talked at length on this blog about how Malaysia is comprised of 3 different groups - the Malays, Chinese and Indians - well this is rubbish.


There is a 4th group, the Orang Asal, or Original People. These are the people that inhabited Malaysia, long before even the Malays rocked up 2000 years ago.


They make up about 11% of the population, with the vast majority concentrated in the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak.


In Sarawak the largest group, making up a 3rd of the total population, are the Iban.

Historically the Iban were a highly territorial people, frequently warring between themselves and with other tribes.


At the centre of their territories would be the longhouse.


Literally a long house, however far more squared off than I imagined. They are actually more like a row of houses connected by a shared room serving as a street-come-living-room.

It's not all about length: a modern longhouse from above.

Many of the older houses are elevated on sticks. Seeing these it's easy to imagine them as a fortress, allowing the whole tribe to consolidate and defend their position.


In times gone by they were notorious headhunters. That is the practice of taking their defeated enemy's head as a trophy.


Supposedly no wedding was complete without a groom presenting his bride with the top half of a decapitated rival tribesman.


Though consigned to history, the practice is still evident in the macabre baskets of skulls hanging from the rafters of many of the older longhouses.

Heads hunted: a macabre reminder of times past.

Another reminder of the tribal past is the fantastic tattoos that adorn many of the Iban men. Each ink representing either a significant object, animal or accomplishment.


When reaching adulthood a boy/man would get their first tattoo - a Bunga Terung or Aubergine Flower - representing their metaphorical blossoming. At it's centre two circling tadpoles to represent the circle of life.

Iban Tattoos: Notice the Bunga Terung on each shoulder (Photo Credit @ The Uncharted Backpacker)

Another common tattoo is a fish hook, which men get as a good luck charm for fishing and hunting. I was pretty close to getting one until I heard the other meaning which was to signify that a man had a chastity-protecting piercing. A Prince Albert... (the guys assure me this part of the ritual is no longer adhered to!)


Interestingly enough, tattoos are mainly seen either on very old or young guys.


This is because since the arrival of colonial powers there have been ever-eroding pressures on the local culture, first through Christian Missionary and then Islamic Government groups.


Deemed "uncivilised" many tribal practices were eliminated through barring their participants from government projects and jobs.


Though this push to "civilise" or "modernise" undoubtedly helped promote peace and stop the head-hunting practice, it was also an affront on what made the Iban, Iban.


It's only in relatively recent years that young Iban have made a concerted effort to revive and preserve the culture around tattoos, and blending it with their more modern culture.


On a night out in Sarawak's capital Kuching you will see loads of young Iban guys rocking Levi jackets and Converse, listening to indie rock or hip-hop, proudly wearing tribal haircuts and tattoos.


This is modern Iban culture and it's really bloody cool.

It's not too difficult to see how the Iban have managed to preserve their culture in such a hostile world.


I think a lot of this has to do with the strength of the Iban family unit, centred around the longhouse.


In many ways it's easy to see the longhouse as the physical embodiment of the importance of family.


Though often family members (or even whole families) will live in Kuching (or further afield) for work, they maintain a house in the longhouse if they ever want to see their family and for use during festivals.


The longhouse we stayed at was a modern on.


Despite a part of me being initially disappointed, yearning for the "traditional" experience" this was quickly forgotten when sleeping with an electric fan on that evening.


Besides, the longhouse isn't made wood and rattan (or bricks and mortar) but rather people that inhabit it! **frustratingly true cliche alert**

Serious work: family life in the longhouse.

Walking into the longhouse you notice women sitting around weaving, the men were talking and smoking (division of labour might still have a way to go) and slightly shy kids were playing a game I was destined never to get a grip of.

Less serious work: Iban children with large idiot.

We were made to feel immediately welcome, given a seat and allowed to casually sit-in on family life.


A significant part of Iban hospitality is alcohol. For the duration of my stay, between 10am and 1am, I was regularly topped up with generous shots of langkau (the aforementioned moonshine). I'd been warned not to try match anyone drink for drink but predictably ignored this warning. My assumption being my significant weight advantage would buffer any negative effective.


I was fine, however the hospitality was definitely felt.


As evening approach a fire was lit (both wooden and gas) and food for the whole family is prepared. I will do a separate post on the tribal food, however it was great to cook with Tino's aunts and great aunts. I was certainly not spared their input when my technique was seen to be lacking.


Naturally rice is present, as is grilled meat, stews cooked within bamboo (pansoh) and satisfying veg dishes from bamboo flowers, palm hearts and the ubiquitous jungle ferns (midin).


Eaten at the table with the whole family, there is more laughter, more paternal joshing and of course, more langkau and tuak (the non-distilled version).

Family time: food, drink, jokes and rants.

Coming from a large catholic family, I felt immediately at home.


As more langkau was drunk and discussion got louder and more dysfunctional (there was a long rant in Iban about having to provide toilet paper for the posh side of the family visiting the next week), my temporary assimilation into this fun, slightly mad and tipsy bunch made me feel positively homesick!


By the time it came to leave, my cooking had got some praise from aunty, my drinking from uncle, and the kids had lost all shyness and were playing a game that revolved around poking my belly.


In such a short time it had felt like home, and while sad to leave, it was great to see such a stable home for Iban culture to flourish.

Note: if you are travelling to Sarawak and would like to experience the Iban culture please get in touch and I'll do all I can to connect you with Tino for a tour.

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