Headhunters and Longhouses

Trip Start Sep 19, 2012
Trip End Jul 22, 2014

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Friday, May 17, 2013

Headhunting was a serious business here until not so long ago. There were two types of expeditions. One was when a group of warriors went in search of their enemies and the second and more important was when a single warrior from the Batang Rejang area was looking for a wife. After a successful hunt the warrior would wander through the jungle fighting with the spirit of the recently headless one.. When he returned to the Longhouse the head was smoked and hung up for all to admire and he had proven himself worthy of taking a bride. Woman's and children heads were more 'valuable' as  they were more difficult to find as they were usually hidden away from the marauding warriors. Headhunting went into decline in the 1840's but saw a brief revival when British troops encouraged locals during the Japanese invasion in WW2. So a great part of the local tradition is no longer practiced.

The second part of their history that is dying is the traditional Longhouse. The two main tribes of Borneo, the Iban and the Kayan lived in long wooden houses built on raised wooden poles. As many as 30 families lived together, each with their own room and kitchen but shared the covered veranda or 'Ruai'. This is where everyone met to eat and socialise. Everyone helped each other whether it was farming, hunting or fishing and general day to day life. They lived as a family community. Sadly the young people have all moved to the towns and cities and most of the wooden longhouses have fallen into disrepair and/or been replaced with government funded concrete houses..The few remaining wooden Longhouses are set up as tacky tourist ventures where one can spend a night or two getting drunk on local rice wine and meeting the 'chief' dressed in his traditional gear and he might teach you how to use a blowpipe. These are not cheap to stay in yet tourist love 'experiencing the traditional way of life'. I think its bullshit.

Despite all of this I am heading up river to have my own jungle experience.

My journey starts with the high speed ferry from Kuching to Sibu. This is a large covered speed boat that seats about 80 people downstairs and as many as possible on the upper deck. The boat leaves Kuching and heads out to the South China Sea for about 200 km before heading up the Batang Rejang, which is Malaysia's longest river, until we arrive at Sibu about 25 km from the mouth of the river. This is the starting point for most trips up river. This boat is about 60 meters long but flies across the water. It is quite an exhilarating trip especially sitting on the upper deck. Once we enter the river we pass through small settlements on each bank. The river is wide and milky coffee colour. The colour is due to all the sediment in the water that is caused by the amount of logging that is being done all the way up the river. It takes about 5 hours to reach Sibu. 

After spending the night in Sibu which is not the most exciting of cities I arrange a trip to Kapit (140 km upriver) on one of the Flying Coffins. These are narrow speed boats that travel at about 80 km per hour which is relatively quick for a boat that seats about 100 people in a long narrow compartment of about 55 meters. It is also good fun to sit on the roof as these boats race up the river with the jungle flashing by on both banks. Lots of houses and settlements along the way but mostly other boats piled high with tree logs coming from up river. Every now and then you pass large tracts of land that have been completely cleared of all trees. The are few wooden houses but more and more concrete structures. But it is still a great trip and I love being on boats. The next port of call is Kapit  which has a population of about 20000 and is the main trading centre for all the people living along the river. What used to be a market town is now being turned into a modern ugly concrete centre. Despite this I like Kapit. It has a good feeling and everyone is friendly and chats to me as I wander around. There isn't much to do except to hang around the jetties and watch daily life going on. Large cargo boats piled high with logs, small fishing boats going up and down and offloading their catches on the jetty. There are even floating supermarkets that arrive and supply both the locals and the shops with their requirements. Everything happens on the river front. I like Kapit so much I decided to spend another night despite the fact that my hotel reeks of cat piss. Maybe I just enjoy all the good food stalls in town and the happy people. I have had to apply for a permit to travel up the river. The permit states that I can not remove any historical items, plants or animals. I must also be appropriately dressed. Not sure what this means.

I have been told that there is only one boat that leaves at 8 am to Belaga, which is my next destination about 165 km up river. When I arrive at the jetty at 7.30 am there are two surly unhelpful guys selling tickets and they inform me that the boat leaves at 9 am and also one at 11 am and no they can't sell me a ticket. They then choose to ignore any further questions. After a cup of coffee I return to the jetty and find out from a local that the boat should arrive soon and I can get a ticket on board. The rude ticket sellers just glare at me. When the boat does arrive the ticket seller beams and smiles and is happy to tell me that this is my boat. It's another high speed trip up the fast flowing river especially as we pass the Pelargus rapids. Apparently these can only be crossed when the river is full. More logging. More concrete Longhouses. But its a great journey to Belaga which is small settlement of about 2500 people.

After dropping my gear at the Hostel I take a walk down to the jetty where I meet Kim from the USA. She has booked a tour to a longhouse and wants to know if I want to join her. I meet her guide, Danial, who seems interesting so decide to join them. Visiting a Longhouse has not been high on my list of things to do as I believe them to be a bit of a tourist attraction and I also feel uncomfortable wandering through peoples homes. Despite this we head off up river in a wooden narrow boat with our guide and his dog. Kim has much the same views as me about the longhouses so we  will see what it is all about.

We stop at settlement with a few scattered buildings, a recently tarred road, a volley ball court and a long concrete structure where the locals stay. As tradition dictates we are supposed to ask the Headman's permission to enter and also bring some small bags of flour and sugar as gifts. The Headman is not in residence so we wander down a long concrete veranda where we meet a group of woman sitting around having a chat and eating fruit. They give us weak smiles and we sit down and they share some Pomelo (similar to a sweet grapefruit). The one lady then shows us through her house. We give her a bag of sugar.  It consists of a large living room with ceramic tiles and all the modern style furniture.is pushed against the walls. There is a large flat screen TV and a Karaoke machine with huge speakers. Up stairs is a large area that his been split in to 3 rooms but by the amount of dust and cobwebs these rooms have not been used for years.The family sleep in the main room downstairs on mats.

From the large living room a door leads of to a wooden extension which looks like the family area. There are some basic chairs and tables and washing hanging all around. A small dingy room houses a shower and squat toilet. Another door leads back to the kitchen which has a 2 burner gas stove and a hearth with a cooking fire. There is also a Stainless steel sink and a wire fronted larder stacked with packets of 'Maggi Noodles', and some other basic supplies. The men of the settlement that haven't gone to the cities still supply fish and the occasional wild boar if they have been lucky. In the old days everyone shared with each other. Now a days its each family for themselves and if you have excess you sell it to your neighbours. Besides the 5 woman and 2 children we do not see anybody else around.

Back on the boat we drift in the current and stop at another settlement. A flight of metal stairs lead up the bank and there are a few wooden houses on stilts. They look in a poor condition. An old man hangs out the window and our guide tells us as he and his wife have no children they live separately from the longhouse. We pass this house and enter a concrete courtyard with two long double story buildings on each side. It is dirty, empty and reminds me of a school building. There are two old ladies having a chat and they hardly take any notice of us. We follow our guide through the courtyard that leads to another double story wooden structure. The windows are broken, the wood is rotting and our guide informs us that all the families have moved away but do come home for Christmas. At the end of this building is another wooden house where an old lady lives alone with her cat. She is quite chatty and through the interpretations of our guide she explains that its very quiet living here and she only has one neighbour who comes across and they share meals. We leave them some sugar and flour. The whole trip has been very surreal and also a little depressing. It is sad that the modern world is killing this traditional way of life and these Longhouses are just like old age homes without any carers. Back in Belaga its a somber dinner and and an early night as Kim and I are sharing a 4x4 through the jungle and back to the coast.

We are picked up at 7.30 in the morning and it's a bone jarring, teeth rattling trip on a concrete logging road through the jungle. It's a lot of fun as we climb and twist through the jungle. In most places the jungle is dense and green. However the further we go there are signs of more logging and deforestation and then this eventually leads into huge plantations of Palm Oil Trees. This is one of Malaysia's biggest exports. There are thousands and thousands of trees all in straight rows for as far as you can see.

After about 4 hours we arrive at a crossroad and our driver informs us this is as far as he goes and we should wait here as a bus should come along within an hour. After about 10 minutes a bus arrives and as we board I am impressed by the luxury of this bus. Leather reclining seats, refreshing air con and individual TVs with 30 channels to watch. About 3 hours later I arrive in Miri. Not much to do here but I have a few days to relax before I head back into the jungle and off to see Caves at Mulu National park of hours

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