Borneo Longhouse Stay
By Greg Rodgers
Visiting an Iban longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo, is an unforgettable experience, however, not all are created equal.
Use this guide to find the best experience for your effort and to not ruin a good thing for travelers who follow.
Is It Authentic?
That depends how much time and energy you are willing to put into your longhouse visit. Longhouses closer to Kuching are — more often than not — a serious letdown. Unsurprisingly, the families have mostly modernized and you’ll see satellite TV, cars, and mobile phones. The high volume of tourists creates an artificial experience where families do what it takes to keep tourists — and income – flowing.
The more authentic longhouses may still have generators for electricity, however, petrol is a luxury and they may opt for kerosene lighting instead. Real longhouses will be out of range for cell phones and even the government-supplied televisions can’t get a signal.
Are They Real Headhunters?
Books say that headhunting stopped in the region sometime around the 1920s, however, it actually started back up during World War II and continued into the 1950s. Heads were sometimes placed inside the center column of the longhouse so that the spirit would hold it up.
While a majority of the people you meet in longhouses are now mostly Christian with animist beliefs, they may have immediate family members who were true headhunters. You may even get lucky enough to spot an older man who has confirmed heads — only those who have taken heads can have a tattoo on the front of the throat.
How to Visit a Longhouse
Even if you make your own way there, turning up unannounced at a longhouse is a serious taboo. You’ll need to arrange your stay through a travel agency or allow the Sarawak Tourism Board to put you into contact with a registered guide. Choosing a reputable, sustainable company that treats the longhouse families well is extremely important!
Finding an Authentic Longhouse
For any hope of seeing the ‘real deal’, you are going to have to go as far from the city as possible, preferably to a longhouse only accessible by boat. This will have to be arranged via an established travel agency that has made contact with a longhouse willing to accept visitors.
Diethelm Travel has access to at least one remote longhouse that still offers a mostly genuine experience far removed from the city. You’ll need to travel around six hours by car, then an additional hour by small canoe up a remote river. Longhouse conditions and availability are always changing.
You need to make reservations at least two days in advance as getting word to the longhouse takes time; phones aren’t an option!
Get in touch with Diethelm Travel:
- email@example.com; +60 82 412778 or +60 82 420918
Alternatively, you can contact the Sarawak Tourism Board and express interest in visiting a remote longhouse. They can put you into contact with a certified guide and family willing to host your stay.
What to Expect in a Longhouse
A typical longhouse is comprised of three sections: a large communal area, an outdoor deck, and inner private rooms. The kitchen is located in the back of the longhouse and the toilets/shower are in a detached building outside. Thanks to funding, your longhouse may have a Western-style, sit-down toilet. You’ll be spending most of your time in the communal area or outside on the deck.
When ready to sleep, you’ll probably be given a mattress with mosquito net in the communal area.
Don’t expect an abundance of attention at first, people have work to do, but as evening comes and the drinks start flowing you’ll get plenty of chance for interaction. You may be offered tea or coffee when you first arrive. Sit, relax, and take in the ambiance.
After dinner you’ll be given a special performance with a few dancers in traditional garb and others playing Sarawak drums and gongs. You’ll probably be asked to join in for a dance so that everyone can have a laugh; refusing to do so is impolite.
Feel free to ask questions and learn as much as you can. Don’t be surprised when several bottles of tuak — the local rice whiskey — are produced and people drink late into the night. You’ll start early the next morning, head still spinning from the night before, with a hike. You’ll then have a look at their gardens, and get a chance to learn how to shoot the traditional blowpipe gun.
To Gift or Not to Gift?
Gifts aren’t necessarily required, but they do go a long way to boost your welcome at the longhouse. Take the advice of your guide; he probably knows the family and what they need or could use. Most longhouse families need consumables — not trinkets or sentimental items — that they can’t easily get from the city. Kerosene, salt, and sugar are always useful.
The most common way to bring a gift is to purchase a bottle of alcohol for the longhouse chief. Choose something other than tuak — the local rice whiskey and drink of choice at longhouses. Along with a bottle of spirits, you’ll want to pick up a bulk pack of candy or snacks for the children.
Remember, quantity is more important than quality when choosing a gift to take. Whatever you bring will have to be shared across many families.
You’ll present your gifts to the longhouse chief who may then distribute them among the families. Don’t give special items such as pens or candy to individual children — all must be equal and shared!
- First and foremost, the chief is the boss. He serves as judge, jury, and executioner, and if he has a bad feeling, he even has the power to send you packing back into the jungle without a place to stay. Show utmost respect in your dealings; always let the chief sit, eat, and drink first.
- Always leave your shoes outside on the deck before entering the longhouse communal area.
- Photography is permitted inside the longhouse, however, avoid pointing your camera at women in sarongs. Check the background of your subject; women may be openly breastfeeding and the older ones may be topless. Don’t photograph babies.
- Turning down offers for food and drinks can be misconstrued as rude. That being said, at some point, you won’t possibly be able to eat or drink any more as people will continuously try to make contact by offering you tuak or snacks.
- Longhouses can be sweltering! Male visitors can remove their T-shirts if other men have done so.
Longhouse families live in close contact with one another and share communal glasses and eating utensils. The last thing you want to do is bring a germ into a place without easy access to doctors. If you’ve got a case of the sniffles, give the longhouse a miss!
A few members of the longhouse may speak Bahasa Malay, however, most will speak their native dialects. You may encounter very little English.
For French and German Speakers
If you prefer a guide who speaks French, German, and English, get into contact with Mike Lim — a registered, freelance guide. Not only does he have plenty of longhouse experience, he knows how to cook to impress his guests!
- Mike Lim; firstname.lastname@example.org; +60 0168935982
I was provided with a free stay in an Iban Longhouse by the Sarawak Tourism Board. It was quite an experience and I’m happy for the opportunity to help others to get there and see it for themselves!