The Iban are a branch of the Dayak people of Borneo and the ones we met lived within the Batang Ai National Park in Sarawak. To get there we stayed in the Batang Ai longhouse hotel managed by the Hilton group (as part of a now defunct tour organised by Travel Sphere), which required a drive of several hours from Kuching, followed by a 45 minute boat journey… From the hotel it was another half an hour or so on an Iban long boat to get to the longhouse which these people call home.
Arrival at the Longhouse
When we first pulled up in the boat I was a little surprise to see the river outside their building absolutely littered with plastic, which I found quite sad. However just before we left this was explained to us, as we walked out and saw all the bottles had disappeared… They actually use them as fishing floats! Don’t come here with some image in your head of a primitive tribe… Sure they live in the jungle and are pretty remote, but many of the them (especially the younger generations) go to school and work in the cities or surrounding hotels, and the majority sit around using their phones just like the youth and young adults of western cultures.
Iban Traditions and Customs
It is nice to see that they do keep many of their customs, living largely off the land and preserving many of their traditional garments and dances (even if this is just for the benefit of tourists, it is a preservation of this culture nonetheless). The way they live is also very traditional with the entire group of several families living in one long building (much like a terrace in the UK) called a longhouse, with the rooms of the chief being right in the middle. Due to this kind of living much of what they do is very communal and you can see a true culture of friendship and harmony between them. The sense of community I feel is best described by a weekly ritual which this particular group have… They only have electricity for a few hours every evening and once a week the whole community piles in to the chiefs living room (the only room we were allowed to see other than the main communal corridor) to use his karaoke machine!
Tattoos – A Common Thread
As one of the most feared head hunting tribes of Borneo it is good to know that not all traditions are still upheld, and this practice has been illegal in Borneo for a long time now. However in many places the practice leaves its reminders, with some long houses still displaying skulls and many of the tribes elders still having traditional tattoos which have meanings connected to the practice. For example there is a hand tattoo called an Entegulun which a man can only get if he has cut off someone elses head, whilst the Ukir Rekong is a throat tattoo which is supposed to give strength to the skin of the throat making it impossible for an enemy to cut through.
When you come to one of these longhouses it is obvious that much of what they do is an act for the tourists but it is great to know that they are willing to do this, and embrace the income which such hospitality can bring them. You will be treated to traditional dances, drinks (tuak is an amazing rice based alcoholic beverage) and food.
Repay Their Iban Hospitality
We were told before coming that they do also always appreciate gifts, and before we left the whole community gathered in a circle with the chief in the middle ready to receive any gifts and give them out to the families equally. It was a really nice experience and they all seemed to really appreciate the items. We were advised that things like tooth paste, tooth brushes, pencils, chalk, sweets etc are always popular. For the kids we used bubble gum flavour toothpaste which they were all VERY impressed with… One of the most fun things though was that everything was put in a pile but we gave the chief our bits in a hessian “bag for life” from Tesco which we emptied, and gave to his wife who quickly hid it in her room. It really was very rewarding, especially seeing the kids faces – reminded me of Christmas with kids back home!
The Iban Are Hunters
I think that you cannot have a real trip to Borneo if you don’t visit a genuine longhouse – its humbling and great fun. The Iban are a very welcoming and absolutely lovely people… and if you like tattoos you’ll also get on just fine! Through our guide we had a few things to talk about and we were the only people whom the chief approached to speak to (about our tattoos). Don’t miss out on this opportunity if it ever arises… And most importantly if they have a blow pipe there which you can use don’t miss out on the opportunity to have a go – its surprisingly difficult, especially if you use a full size one!