The real thing: an Iban longhouse at Batang Ai

While the Sarawak cultural village is exceptional, nothing beats the real thing. A few hours’ drive outside Kuching, one arrives at Batang Ai dam – the shores of which are home to a number of Iban people living in traditional longhouses, leading simple lives.

The biggest community – the Mengkak longhouse – has 38 families, totalling around 200 people. The community is around 45 minutes’ boat ride from the nearest resort or road. Visiting this place, one instantly understands that these people are, on the one hand, quite reserved, and on the other, are very hospitable. Their traditional rituals, dances, foods, and costumes continue to intrigue and fascinate visitors and researchers from around the world. The longhouse is made up of a large communal living space, called the ruai, anked on the outside by a terrace, and on the other by individual rooms – each housing a family. The ruai is the place where the longhouse folk gather for a chat or carry out their days’ activities. Here, one eats with the Iban, seated on the floor, savouring local fare, after tasting the home-made rice wine and (gulp) rice ‘whisky’.

These are the direct descendants of the Iban head-hunters, whose images from yesteryear fuelled the curiosity of so many in the past. Apart from the head-hunting, little else has changed. It is truly an immersive experience.

Photo: A traditional dance in the Mengkak longhouse