Long Houses, Tribal Dancing and Head Hunters

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

There are two states in Malaysian Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah. Sabah is said to be the place to see Borneo's nature whilst Sarawak has more of the cultural heritage (although it has a lot of nature as well). We spent ages to-ing and fro-ing over which place to go but in the end costs led us to Sarawak, especially as we weren't planning on diving in Sabah or climbing Mt Kinabalu... and what a great decision that has been because Sarawak definitely has both nature and culture!!!

 Our flight was from KL to the capital city of Sarawak, Kuching (which means cat and there are bloody cat statues everywhere). It was a quick and easy flight and Air Asia is so good for what you pay.... Ryan Air should pay attention, you can give good service whilst keeping costs down! We spoke to some American girls at the airport who said they had stayed at a guesthouse called "lodge 121" so we headed straight there hoping they would have a room. I was a bit concerned because the girl who told me about it seemed to be wearing pajamas in the middle of the day (is she a bit mental?)... but it's the nicest guest house we've been to, plus the rate includes breakfast, unlimited tea and coffee and free WIFI which actually saves you quite a bit of money overall. The only problem was that the breakfast consists of toast and they only provide a green spread called Nonya Kaya, I still don't know what it is but it's the same thing as we had in the hill-tribe village in Chiang Mai.... I don't know, I just can't trust a sweet green spread so we have bought a small tub of Peanut butter... very traditional, very Malaysian! ;-)

Now, when I pictured Borneo I imagined thick jungle with monkeys everywhere and people living in bamboo huts hunting with spears. So when we got into a taxi and drove a city with a few quite tall buildings and a McDonald's sign shining down the road, it didn't quite match my ideas of Borneo. Kuching is a small city which tries to be a big city but you quickly see that it's very basic and generally quite quiet. We went on a river cruise in the city, and whilst the centre has enormous hotels and some shopping centres, just across the river there are simple shacks on stilts which ordinary people are living in and probably have been living there for years and years. During the week Kuching was pretty quiet but at the weekend it comes alive. There is live local music and dancing along the waterfront, buskers playing traditional instruments such as the Sape and we even saw a Chinese dragon parade making it's way through the city. Plus there is the Sunday market which needs a bit of explanation....

Its not surprising to hear that every city/town/village we've been to has a market at the weekend, but the weekend market in Kuching was on a different level to the other ones we've been to. For one it's by far the biggest, but more than that it is not setup at all for tourists, it's just the main way local people do their shopping. The Kuching Sunday market is a proper traditional market where you can buy just about anything from live animals, any type of fish, every fruit and vegetable, sharks, clothes, pieces of rubber, Valium .... anything! We really enjoyed strolling around the market and found it really interesting but not half as interesting as the local people seemed to find us. We were properly foreigners here with people turning to look at us and children grabbing their parents to point at us. I guess I don't really think about it too much but from what one of the tour guides told me, a lot of the people at the market will come from all the remote villages around Kuching and they will very seldom see a white or foreign face so we were quite a novelty. In particular Katy with all of her plasters covering her many many mosquito bites (she's now up to 53 bites). Initially I thought Katy was being paranoid about people looking at her bites... "Everyone is staring at me, they're turning round and pointing at my legs!" But to be fair I then looked out for it and quite clearly saw people literally staring at her legs, then turning round to tell whoever was near to them so that they could also stare. 

 At first we thought perhaps we would leave the market with some goods, maybe some fruit or something but the more of the market we saw, the less we wanted to buy anything. There was a lot of food lying on the floor covered in fly's and the fish section was horrible with fish guts and heads flying all over the place. The floor had a thin layer of fishy water which splashed up your legs and stunk! Still, it was a really interesting market and good to give some entertainment back to the locals.

The cool thing about Sarawak is that the culture of Borneo is never far away and actually a lot of people still live in tribes in the jungle in longhouses. On our second day we visited the Sarawak cultural village which explains the different tribes that have existed in Sarawak, how they live and with life-size examples of their longhouses which you can walk around in. It was a great introduction to the different tribes and traditions and was the first time we heard a bit more about the Headhunters of Borneo!!! It says in the Lonely Planet that the Borneo tourist board once tried the slogan "Land of the headhunters" but quickly changed it when they found out loads of foreign businesses and tourists didn't like the idea of visiting a country where you may lose your head so they quickly changed it back. Headhunting was really common with the jungle tribes, and warriors would always take home the heads of their victims which would be hung outside the longhouse, it was bad luck not to keep the heads. Plus, having lots of heads hanging outside your longhouse was a sign of strength and would make other tribes fear you.... we actually visited a living longhouse of the Biduyah Tribe and saw and held the skulls for ourselves. One of them was a lot heavier and bigger than the others, our guide said it was the skull of the General... their most prized skull! The tribes are now Christians so are no longer involved in head-hunting, the christian missionaries came into Borneo and converted most of the tribes but they still keep the skulls because despite their new Christian faith they can't shake that it would be bad luck to get rid of them. 

The longhouse we visited wasn't quite what we had expected and the people just live there as usual despite having the occasional tourists coming to look around. It was an enormous village, all of the houses are on stilts near the river and are made and maintained by the tribe using materials they could access from the jungle, mainly bamboo. The village is nearly entirely self-sufficient, they do get some things like sugar rather than producing it like they used to but they produce their own rice, they make rubber and sell it on, produce pepper, rice wine, grow their own fruit and vegetables, keep their own animals, and the one we visited now also makes handicrafts and souvenirs for the tourists who visit. It was really interesting to see how they are still clinging to this way of life. That said, there is some modernisation as they try to catch up with modern society e.g. a massive satellite dish outside. They also aren't forced to stay in the longhouse like they would have in the past, a lot of the younger generation will go to boarding school and then work in the city.

 When we visited the longhouse all of the people there were wearing normal clothes, jeans and a t-shirt or a long dress for women, so it was good to see the traditional clothes when we were at the cultural village. The highlight was a performance showing a variety of different tribal dances, clothing and ceremonies. Obviously we were most interested in seeing the older tribes with head-hunting etc but it was also interesting to see a traditional Malay house and how the early Chinese settlers lived and worked/used the land. Again, the theme was on how great it is that Malaysia has all these different cultures, painting a picture of harmony amongst them but it's interesting when you speak to actual locals as they have a slightly different view on things. Perhaps it depends on who you speak to but a few people have mentioned certain laws which seem to discriminate against the Malaysian Chinese and of red tape which makes it difficult for them to get to the top of the ladder. Several times we've had people say "Malaysia is on the verge of change", or words to that extent so watch this space.

The food in Borneo has been so good and quite different to what we've had before and fortunately we haven't been forced to eat birds nest soup or shark fin soup, although some of the shops here are full of both! When we visited the caves some of the birds nests had been stolen to be sold for birds nest soup much to the disgust of our guide as it makes life far more difficult for the birds. Birds nest soup sounds disgusting to me, they look for birds nests which have as much bird spit as possible and boil it up... supposedly delicious. Katy asked our guide if he ate birds nest soup and his response was brilliant....

 "Do I eat birds nest soup? No way, I don't want to eat Bird Spit!....That's disgusting"

So other than these delightful delicacies we have tried to eat as much Malaysian food as we can and have tried quite a few different things, especially as the local food is much cheaper. We were taken to a small Chinese cafe outside of town for lunch and had amazing noodles and a drink for 4 Ringgit each so our whole meal was less than 2!  Sarawak is known for it's Laksa and Mee (noodles) so we tried several of these dishes which are mostly delicious although occasionally burn off all your taste buds. We also went to a BBQ Steamboat restaurant which I hadn't heard of before coming to Malaysia. Basically you have a stove on your table with a bowl in the middle containing a plain broth which you can add what you want to, and barbecue plates around the side. You can then choose whatever ingredients you like and cook them at your table. It was a really fun dinner although so confusing because nothing has any labels so you have no idea what meat you're choosing, which in Asia is always a bit of a worry. Best not to think about it I found... the phrase "Tastes like chicken" springs to mind. 

We chose some ice-cream for dessert and one of them was yellow. I assumed it was vanilla but when eating it found that it was actually Sweetcorn ice cream and had pieces of sweetcorn in it.... surprisingly nice.We have found Alcohol to be quite expensive in Malaysia (certainly compared to Thailand) so have been having Rice Wine which we bought from the tribe at the longhouse. It's quite sweet and really nice..... doesn't taste at all of rice which is good! And best of all, Milo is massive here and everyone drinks it. I used to have Milo all the time in South Africa so have been enjoying a Milo shake every other day.

So.... Borneo's culture can be ticked off the list... now for some nature. Where are those Orangutans?!?
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