getting to know the headhunters of Borneo

With tremendous seafaring skills and an aggressive reputation, Borneo’s Iban people used to be known as Sea Dayaks during the colonial period. They were also known as something else – headhunters – slaughtering their enemies and then preserving their skulls to bring good fortune. The infamous tribe was believed to be the strongest and most fierce of the Dayak people expanding their tribe through warfare.

Today, though the headhunting days are long over, the Iban have still preserved many of their traditional rituals and beliefs while living in remote longhouses in Sarawak. Unique festivals, colourful dances and distinctive tattoos are still practised but now curious travellers have the opportunity to meet and stay with the Iban for a memorable experience and cultural exchange.


2-Day Lemanak Iban Longhouse Adventure

The Lemanak River in Sarawak, Malaysia is home to several traditional longhouses of the Iban tribe – the formidable former headhunters of Borneo. On an exclusive 2-day tour, guests can travel from Kuching to the more remote Lemanak stopping at exceptional points of interest along the way, such as a vibrant local market in the town of Serian and a pepper farm, before reaching the river.

Providing an extraordinary setting of drooping trees hanging over the water, the revered Lemanak River acts as the Iban’s highway as they navigate the waters using traditional longboats. Travellers board one of these boats and head upriver to arrive at a Ngemah Iban longhouse where they’ll meet members of the Iban tribe.

In the evening, guests learn more about the community’s culture and traditions as they sound their gongs and perform a traditional war dance in full ceremonial regalia. After relaxing and observing life in the longhouse (visitors are often invited to try their hand at using a blowpipe or take a short jungle stroll) a friendly meal is served and shared by all. Following this, rice wine flows and the remainder of the evening is spent surrounded by the chatter of friends and families before spending the night in the simple accommodation of the longhouse.

Awaking in the longhouse to the sounds of the jungle, travellers get to see the Iban people go about their daily tasks before heading down to the river and boarding a longtail boat with a guide and a couple of Iban tribesmen. A cruise downriver passes beautiful rainforest scenery and other longhouses before, weather permitting, the Iban cook a delicious meal in the comfort of a local farm hut steaming the traditional dishes within bamboo tubes on an open fire. After lunch, it’s time to return to reality and back to Kuching.


Do’s & Don’ts

  • Remove your shoes and leave them outside before entering the longhouse.
  • Feel free to take photos while inside the longhouse but do keep in mind that it’s always polite to ask permission first and respect the family’s privacy by avoiding snapping pictures of babies or women while in sarongs.
  • Get ready to accept offerings of food and drink.
  • Participate! Trying out the local dance moves, not to mention the rice wine, will add another layer of understanding to the exclusive experience.


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