Meeting the traditional and modern iban of Sarawak

Christian Schmidt, a former Diethelm Travel Malaysia’s Product Manager, had a wild experience visiting the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Borneo – a popular destination with adventure seekers – and lived to tell the tale…


Sarawak is famous for several things – pepper, sago worms, orangutans and, of course, the renowned head hunters of old.


Travelling to this destination, a good number of ideas for souvenirs encroach the mind before having ever even set foot in the country, skulls being one of the more eerie ones. It is lucky that times have progressed in the aspects of head hunting, and most skulls are now readily available for hunting via window shopping with the added benefit of knowing that they will not be accompanied by any spirits.


This does not mean that culture and tradition has been lost in Sarawak, but rather that they are a growing community that has learned to live in peace and harmony whilst enjoying the fruits of development and international connectivity.


The largest tribe of Sarawak is the Iban population, a war-like and skull collecting people in the past, they are learned and skilled in many aspects as my visit and encounters with them were sure to prove. The first official meeting with the traditional Iban was at the amazing and breath taking destination of Batang Ai.


This is a large lake which was formed by the building of a dam for the purpose of generating electricity and which is a considerable driving distance from Kuching. Along the route, we were well prepared to catch some shut-eye though we quickly realised that this would not occur – our guide brought forth many interesting stories and we ended up bombarding her with questions of our own. Learning a lot about Sarawak and the different tribes, we soon found ourselves at the town of Serian where we had a look at the local market.


Here one could find just about anything – from fresh vegetables to local deep-fried delicacies and snacks, to live Sago Worms and fresh seafood. Although we already familiar with Malaysia, living and working in the country, there were many varieties of goods that we did not find recognisable from our own visits to the markets of Peninsula Malaysia. A further en-route stop saw us enjoying some of these local delicacies for lunch, though luckily for me, the Sago Worms were left off the menu.


It wasn’t long from here that we soon came closer to the Batang Ai Lake. We had made it in good time for the boat transfer and enjoyed the leisurely ride to the longhouse-inspired Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat. Inspired by the traditional longhouses of the Iban, its 100 rooms spread from one side to the other fitting perfectly between the trees.


After a rest and rainstorm during the night, we were greeted in the morning with crystal clear skies setting the waters of the lake into dancing sparkles. Keeping in line with a healthy diet, we had a “small” breakfast consistent of pancakes, waffles, fruits, meat cuts, beans, omelettes and much more in order to stock up some energy for the day ahead. Barely being able to finish our meal, it was then time to proceed via a traditional longboat to an original longhouse that was still in use by the Iban; the Mengkak Longhouse.





Visiting a Traditional Iban Longhouse



To our surprise the longboat was extremely comfortable with seats made of modified plastic chairs. The stunning views of the lake kept us very busy as we took many pictures and watched as two hornbills flew high above.


As we neared the longhouse area, we could also see some farmlands along one side of the lake where the locals grew their crops; mainly consisting of hill paddy (rice) and pepper. The bright green of the paddy fields never ceases to amaze. Soon we approached the longhouse and were warmly welcomed.


Free to roam and explore along the common area, it is a practice of common courtesy to walk till the end of a longhouse before settling down. It was interesting to learn that the longhouse was set up as a little independent community of its own with several members holding various positions of responsibility, ensuring that all ran smoothly amongst the inhabitants.


It was a very well kept ´home´ and the people being of a very relaxed and friendly nature. Of course many were out taking care of their daily work and needs whilst some others were kindly looking into the preparation of our lunch – with our excellent driver being the head chef!


Soon we were introduced to the unique and extremely satisfying welcome drink named tuak, an alcoholic rice wine, that’s sweet and deliciously rich. Not wanting to exceed our morning drinking limits, we happily enjoyed a few sips whilst the instruments and dancers were being readied for our welcome dance. Soon the native music started with beautiful gongs ringing through the corridor and mesmerising us with slow but impressive movements inspired by various birds from the region.


It wasn’t long until we ourselves found the way to the dance floor, being invited by the dancers to join in…though we were much less blessed with grace in movement. It was an excellent experience and shortly after, the late chieftain’s wife took upon herself the responsibility of sharing out the snacks that we had brought along for the longhouse. Each got their share and pretty soon we also got our share of lunch complete with beef, various chicken dishes (including the local traditional chicken cooked in bamboo) and several types of veggies.


After lunch, time had already passed rather quickly and we got ready to depart from our kind hosts. Before leaving though we had to try our skills at the blowpipe – it was immediately clear that without a lot of practice, we would most likely go hungry within the jungles!


With this our visit to a traditional longhouse was complete but we were still mulling over what we had just experienced. What proved to be of great interest and curiosity during this visit was the way in which the traditional longhouse is being influenced by the modern world. Though the structure and much of the lifestyle of the inhabitants remained traditional, they were very fond of modern entertainment and we were astounded at their interest in karaoke – a modern symbol of power and hierarchy was the size and number of speakers that one could afford.


Next we were back on our way towards Kuching with a short en-route stop at a pepper farm. Upon reaching Kuching in the evening, we went to our separate hotels as the night soon took completely different paths for each of us. My personal appointment saw me meeting with the modern Iban, but for a very traditional reason: an original and hand made ‘souvenir’.


And so it came to pass that after a couple of hours of discussions and decision making, we finally began with the artwork being transferred unto its canvas – ME.





Getting a Traditional Iban Tattoo


The Iban, apart from their renowned reputation as headhunters, are also famous for their tattoos – an age-old tradition completed using a tapping method that is thought to be the oldest to exist.


The intricate art form requires two people to work in harmony, one holding and stretching the skin whilst the other handles the “brushes”. These consist of one heavier stick made of hardwood and used to tap the brush – a second stick of approximately the same length as the first, but fitted with needles at one end.


Knowing what I was getting into, I was well prepared to face the start, but as it later proved, I was barely set for the end! Starting at the lowest point, the tapping began, tiny dots so close together that they formed solid lines and fillings – the pain felt literally as one would imagine, being stuck by needles.


Yet the pain was completely bearable in comparison to what was to come. After almost two hours of work, we took a break with some much-needed refreshments to replenish the lost energy exerted whilst attempting to cope with the pain.


After what seemed like an eternity, it was over! Though watching throughout the progress and amazing handiwork that was being completed, I was astounded at the finished art piece. The quality, the perfect lines and fills, with no mistake and not a single dot out of place – an immense effort and skill of the two cooperating artists.


Finally, sinking into bed with not too much time left before the rising of the sun, my day with the Iban was over and my thoughts reflected on the various and curious aspects that I had experienced whilst meeting the traditional Iban in their longhouse with their modern entertainment touches and the modern Iban that are still dedicated to keeping the tribe’s art and heritage alive in the form of hand-tapped tattoos.


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