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The Iban longhouse experience

By Daryl Yep

Though both attractions carry the concept of an Iban longhouse, the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort and the Mengkak Longhouse located in Sarawak, Malaysia offer very different experiences.


Sarawakian's rich culture and customs, unique traditional rituals, dances, food, and costumes are among the things that continue to intrigue and fascinate visitors and researchers from around the world. Their warm hospitality and simple way of life are also some of the traits that many visitors find endearing.

I guess the fascination of this exotic destination also stems from interesting stories about the headhunters of Borneo. Images from National Geographic or Discovery Channel showing small dark people with tattooed bodies donning fancy headdresses of exotic bird feathers must have also fueled the curiosity of foreign visitors.

If nature and multi-ethnic cultural experiences are your cup of tea, then Sarawak will have plenty to fascinate you. For someone who at times finds nature overrated and is not particularly enthusiastic about ethnic cultures, I welcomed a trip to explore Sarawak with pleasure and excitement. Perhaps my elatedness was because of the chance I had to check out Hilton's only jungle property-- the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort.

Our main destination this time was Batang Ai, to visit the Iban community at the Mengkak Longhouse located at the mouth of Sungai Engkari. The Ibans form the largest percentage of Sarawak's population. In days of yore, they were reputedly the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo. Ibans today are friendly and hospitable. They are renowned for their traditional weavings such as the Pua Kumbu, woodcarvings, beadworks and silver craftings.

Longhouses are built on stilts about a meter above the ground. As the name suggests, Borneo longhouses are long and narrow consisting of several rooms. Each family occupies a room. One longhouse typically accommodates between 20 and 50 families. There's a large communal living space between the balcony and bedrooms, known as the ruai, running down one side, and separate living quarters for each family along the other side. The ruai is the place where the longhouse folks gather for an evening chat or carry out activities like making handicrafts and farming apparatus.

Upon reaching the longhouse, we spotted three sarong-clad Iban ladies doing their laundry and bathing in the lake, which is a normal routine for the longhouse folks. Ah, I wished I could jump into the inviting cool lake to join them. No, don't get me wrong.

It was intensely hot that day and I was drenched in sweat, especially after traveling under the blazing sun for close to an hour. To reach the Mengkak Longhouse, we had to endure a 45-minute ride in a four-seater motorized longboat from the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort. Still, I was extremely thankful that it didn't rain, as I wasn't prepared for that, even though I have read stories of visitors getting caught in the rain during the boat journey. Although some guides provide ponchos, there's no harm bringing one in case they don't. Disposable ones would be just great. Cameras and mobile phones should be kept inside a waterproof bag.

Though the boat ride makes you two shades darker, the journey to the longhouse is definitely worthwhile. Traveling in the long wooden boat itself is both terrifying and exciting as the boat is so narrow that even the slightest movement could make it sway. We were floating and gliding down the man-made Batang Ai Lake, with water just inches away. It was awesome.

Upon entering the Mengkak Longhouse, we were surprised that the atmosphere inside was so much cooler than outside. It was probably due to the wooden floor boards, tree-bark walls and rattan mat ceiling that kept the heat out. It was apparent that the longhouse folks were used to having tourists around judging from the many intricate handicrafts being offered for sale such as ornamental jewelry and wooden sculptures. It's hard to resist buying one as a souvenir. I had my heart set on the unique weaving but somehow managed to refrain myself from getting it, knowing very well that nothing else would fit into my small suitcase.

Our tour guide, Bob Zakaria, led us to the middle of the longhouse and signaled us to sit on the floor. Before we sat, we were introduced to the House Chief, Burau Anak Buba, whose affectionate smile instantly made us feel welcome. While the longhouse folks were preparing the welcome drink, which was the infamous tuak or rice wine, and changing into their traditional costumes to perform the traditional Iban dance, Bob explained more about the Iban's customs and values. He taught us the right way to graciously refuse the offering of tuak, as some of our Muslims friends were likely to do so. We were also informed that there were more than 20 families living there.

When the tuak was finally served, I thought I would reject it too as I'm not much of a drinker. But after just one sip, I didn't just finish it; I also helped myself to those who had rejected theirs! It was a bit sweet; like a fruity alcoholic drink. Apparently, the taste of tuak is slightly different in every longhouse. Some, according to friends, have a very strong smell that is quite unbearable.

The traditional dance followed right after. During the final dance, visitors were invited to join in. It was then that we realized the steps that looked simple could turn out to be quite a struggle for some of us. The real fun for the longhouse folks started after all the dances finished. It was time to distribute the goodies that we had brought for them. Visitors to the Mengkak Longhouse or any longhouse for that matter are encouraged to buy some tidbits and goodies for the folks. We purchased items at Serian during our lunch stop. It's a simple gesture that not only makes the longhouse folks happy, but also helps to stimulate the local economy.

"Do not buy sweets," Bob had reminded us earlier in Serian. "God knows how far the nearest dentist is; if there's even one nearby!" he explained. Instead, we bought them biscuits and dry food, especially the individually-wrapped ones so they could be shared and distributed amongst the 20 families in the longhouse, as well as exercise books and stationery for the school children. These items might be available just a stone's throw away from our house, but for the longhouse folks, it takes a few hours of traveling in order to get them.

While the gifts were being distributed, some ladies from our group had already slipped into the Iban traditional costumes, parading up and down the longhouse and snapping photos of one another in various poses. Others were busy purchasing the tuak to be brought back home for friends and relatives to try. In a nutshell, everyone had an enjoyable time there. When the time came to say goodbye, some were reluctant to leave, and even suggested spending a night at the longhouse next time.

We had to leave as Bob had planned a traditional Iban lunch for us. The problem was, it wasn't even cooked yet, and I was already starving. Fortunately, our lunch venue was merely a 10-minute boat ride from the longhouse, at a place in Sungai Abok, known as Padang by the locals. Upon reaching Padang, Bob and two other boatmen quickly unloaded the cooking utensils and food in the open-air "kitchen" while we headed to a shed, and some to the toilet. The facilities were very basic and actually looked rather dilapidated. Perhaps, it was to give visitors the back-to-nature feel. They were built specifically to offer lunch to tourists who visit the Iban longhouse. After about 40 minutes, lunch was finally ready. Any longer, and I would have passed out.

One by one the dishes were placed on a tall table in the shed. Bob surprised us with various traditional dishes. It was truly a back-to-nature type of lunch as there were no plates, or forks or spoons. Instead we were given big, broad leaves, which according to Bob, can only be found in Borneo. The simple dishes cooked with simple ingredients surprisingly had rich flavor. The manok pansoh (chicken in bamboo) was quite tasty. And so was the grilled tilapia, which went well with the bamboo rice. The menu of the day also included grilled eggplant and pumpkin. Then again, I believe they scored a few more points due to our hunger.

The simple lunch was complete with some sweet Sarikei pineapples as dessert. Although I have been told that multi-tasking is the norm for many tour guides in Sarawak, Bob really amazed me with his skills. Not only was he a good storyteller and guide, I must say he also makes a decent chef. After having a scrumptious meal, it was time to hit the road or 'lake' again, to return to the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort.

Once we got to the dock of the resort, I couldn't wait to explore this unique award-winning establishment. It's unlike any hotel that I, or anyone as a matter of fact, has probably ever experienced, as it is built in the style of a traditional Borneo longhouse amidst pristine rainforest.

Being soaked in sweat, I wanted to refresh first, though the journey to my room from the jetty seemed to take forever. Besides climbing about 170 steps to reach the reception hall, I had to pass by a few blocks of longhouses. After all, it isn't called a "longhouse" for nothing. With a total of 11 longhouse blocks, I was really glad that my room wasn't on the last block. I believe most people would want to have a room in the block nearest to the reception hall to avoid the long walk back to their room, particularly at night. Besides, it is very much like the heart of the resort where most facilities are located; the Nanga Mepi restaurant and Wong Irup bar/lounge, souvenir shop, karaoke room, as well as the swimming pool.

Nestled on a 20-hectare shore of Batang Ai Lake in the district of Lubok Antu, the three-star Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is 275km from Kuching city. It takes about three to four hours by car, passing through small towns like Serian and Lachau. The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is only accessible through the reservoir from a jetty built next to the Batang Ai Hydroelectric Dam. It's merely a 20-minute trip to reach the resort. Guests have a choice of staying in a native Borneo timber room or stepping up to a two-storey suite for more space and comfort.

The most popular activities are the visit to Iban longhouses and the excursion to the Batang Ai National Park, which is a two-hour boat ride away. Nature-loving Europeans are particularly fond of such excursions. The resort also offers a host of activities such as guided walks to enjoy the sunrise across the lake, traditional blow-pipe hunting demonstrations by local tribes and fishing excursions on the lake or up-river. The range of walking trails that surround the resort itself also offers a rainforest experience at your doorstep.

There's no doubt that residents in the surrounding area of the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort have greatly benefited from the economic spin-offs brought about by the hospitality industry. By bringing foreign tourists to the Iban longhouses and the Batang Ai National Park, the resort has also played a part in promoting culture, nature and adventure. Visitors to the resort normally purchase packaged tours, which includes accommodation, transfer and excursions.

Situated on the north-western coast of Borneo, Sarawak, also known as "land of the hornbills," shares its boundaries with Kalimantan on the South and Brunei and Sabah on the North. It is Malaysiaâ€TMs largest state, covering an area of 124,450 sq km. It is divided into 11 divisions with the city of Kuching as its capital.

Sarawak is best known for its natural and cultural wonders. The hornbill, a protected bird, is the state emblem. Two-thirds of Sarawak's land is rainforest and its population of about 1.8 million is made up of 27 ethnic groups, which include the Iban, Chinese, Malay, Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulu.

Kuching boasts many international-class hotels and resorts such as Hilton Kuching, Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites, Damai Puri Resort & Spa, Riverside Majestic Hotel and Borneo Highlands Resort.

For more information, see