Iban Longhouse

Kuching Travel Blog

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Fresh food market in Serian, en route to longhouse.

Headed off for a very interesting couple of days, today.  We booked a longhouse trip with our hotel before we left Australia, and once we arrived realised that we seemed to be paying a bit more than most other trips.  However, once we got going, we agreed that it was worth it - we had a much more personal tour and learnt and saw things the other big groups didn't.  As it turned out, we were the only two on our tour, so got a very personal trip.  We left Kuching at 9am and first stop was Serian for a brief stop at the fresh food market - our guide bought some supplies there for our meals and also pointed out many of the more unusual things on offer.

Pepper farm near Lachau, en route to longhouse.
  We drove on through the hills to Lachau Reststop where we had lunch at a local cafe - quite simple food but very nice.  It was here that we bought our gifts for the longhouse headman, the tradition is to give them something for welcoming you to their homes - we bought books and pencils for the village children, rather than encourage obesity with the other suggested items of snacks and biscuits!!  Just before arriving at the lunch stop we had a quick look at a pepper farm - the pepper grows up tall posts in the ground, and if you bite into one of the little pods you get a very strong taste of pepper.  They explained to us about the processing and let us have a bit of a wander around, which was good for stretching the legs after being in the bus for a while.
The usual mode of transport along the Lemanek River.
  The trip upriver to the longhouse took a good half an hour and was stunning - very peaceful, with huge trees growing over the river and cool water splashing you as you scooted along.  The water was quite shallow in spots, with plenty of hazards, so the pilot certainly had to know his stuff.  However, the water can get quite violent when there is big rain - apparently two foreign tourists died a couple of years ago when their boat overturned in the river rapids after rains.  You do get supplied with lifejackets, though, so you can feel a bit more confident!  Upon arrival we were given a nice cup of tea and then had a bit of a tour from the guide.  We stayed in the "guest" longhouse - each couple or person has a separate little compartment within the longhouse with quite a comfortable mattress, pillows and a mosquito net.
Lemanek River en route to longhouse.
  The village is very simple, but quite comfortable for one night - the cold shower was great after a hot and sweaty day, but we also took a swim in the river with the locals, which was really refreshing.  We had a look at the new longhouse first - this is more substantial with concrete construction, but still on the principle of a row of adjoining rooms withe a long and wide communal verandah running along the front where people snooze, socialise and otherwise pass the day.  The old longhouse is exactly the same, but made of wood and bamboo.  It also features the human skulls hanging from a central beam, as the Iban were headhunters.  The skulls are real, but headhunting is now illegal, so they're quite old (allegedly!).  Our guide suggested that they were probably 60 year old Japanese skulls from World War II and also some 50 year old Communist skulls from the Confrontation years just after WWII.
Our beautiful swimming spot at the longhouse.
  We were given a welcoming ceremony (during which copious amounts of the local rice wine are imbibed) and shown some local dances, and then the villagers put on a market to sell their wares.  We bought a rattan weaving and a cloth woven rug which was made by the head man's wife (we think) - she is considered to have special dream powers and during the headhunting times would have made the blankets for bringing home the skulls, the patterns derived from what she would have dreamt.  The blankets are still made, we bought a smaller version she made, but obviously now they are more for decoration.  Prices were much cheaper than in the tourist shops in town and we didn't really have the heart to bargain, which the guide told us we should do.
Skulls hanging from the main longhouse roof.
  Our guide arranged for us to spend some time with two of the old villagers after the other group had left (he bribed them with some rice wine) and they told us stories of their youth and so on, which was quite interesting.  They were in their 80's and one had been a Sarawak Ranger, so had some fascinating tales of the war years and afterwards during the communist times.  He had a small tattoo on his finger indicating that he had taken heads, and he said that they were Japanese and Communist soldiers, so really in the course of his "job" as a Ranger rather than through tradition, as such.  Just as we were about to go back to the guest longhouse the rain came down, and continued all night, so the river was flowing pretty quickly the next morning.
Carved idols at the entrance to the longhouse - welcome visitors and ward off evil spirits.

We slept quite well overnight, and had a nice cold shower to freshen up in the morning - mind you, it did get a bit cooler overnight, we even had to pull a sheet on during the night, which was a nice sensation (because no aircon or hot water at the village).  Today ended up being much easier, really.  We took a short boat trip across the river and after a five minute walk found the traditional burial spot for the village.  Our guide explained about the graves, some of which were over 100 years old.  The warriors' graves were higher up the hill and had fairly ornate carving (although fairly eroded now), but there were also new graves there.  The relatives build a small covering over the grave and then leave the deceased's favourite items there, such as fishing rods, tools and personal items.

Our salubrious guest quarters at the longhouse.
  Some of the older graves also had the large ceramic urns and we were told that most people break them in some way for the burial, because otherwise they are stolen and then sold in shops and markets in the towns - we have seen these already on our trips and thought they were beautiful, we will NOT - however - be buying any now that we know where they've come from.  We then went a little further down the river by boat before getting back in our mini-bus and returning to Kuching, after a quick lunch stop of Malay food at Serian.

All in all a great two days, and certainly worth doing if you have the time and opportunity.  The facilities are pretty basic, but it's not too difficult for such a short time and fascinating to see how local people are living even today.

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Fresh food market in Serian, en ro…
Fresh food market in Serian, en r…
Pepper farm near Lachau, en route …
Pepper farm near Lachau, en route…
The usual mode of transport along …
The usual mode of transport along…
Lemanek River en route to longhous…
Lemanek River en route to longhou…
Our beautiful swimming spot at the…
Our beautiful swimming spot at th…
Skulls hanging from the main longh…
Skulls hanging from the main long…
Carved idols at the entrance to th…
Carved idols at the entrance to t…
Our salubrious guest quarters at t…
Our salubrious guest quarters at …
Part of welcome performance at the…
Part of welcome performance at th…
Cock-fighting demonstration at the…
Cock-fighting demonstration at th…
Kuching
photo by: aotw