Borneo Page 3                                
Previous Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Next Page>

July 7, 2006 – Iban Longhouse and School -- Batang Ai

At 6:15 Bill and I joined the sunrise walk from the main lodge. It was not much of a walk. A guide led the group up a hill in the rainforest overlooking the river. We sat on some old picnic tables for about 30 minutes in complete silence (deadly for Type-A American personalities) while the guide relaxed and smoked cigarettes. I was struck by his calm patience – our western sense of time had no relevance to him. The only action I saw was some leaves blowing in the wind and morning birdcalls. The sky was overcast so the sunrise was disappointing. Finally we returned to the hotel in time for our massive buffet breakfast – omelet, fruit, cereal, yogurt, rolls, coffee, and juice.

Sunrise on Lake Batang Ai
Bill listening to the birds

At 8:30 am, we boarded the longboats – 4 tourists to a boat sandwiched in between two boat people. The girls—Jamie and Marisa—were in our boat. The longboat felt very wobbly. The sides were only a few inches away from the water’s surface, but I had faith we wouldn’t capsize because the girls were once gymnasts and very coordinated.

Loading up the boats

Heading for the longhouse

View from the boat

View from the boat

After a 45-minute ride through peaceful, lush scenery, we arrived at the primary school that is home to over a hundred tribal kids from February to October (closed November to January for the rainy season). On weekends the parents pick the children up (by boat, of course – no roads or cars in these parts) and return them on Monday. Some kids live a 10-hour boat ride away.

School "buses"

School kids greeting the visitors




School kid

The school is a series of wooden buildings with simple drawings and sayings (mostly in English) painted on the outside. Most were quotes from old sayings we know – Ben Franklin stuff.

Schoolhouse wisdom

More wisdom

There were also quotes to give the teacher a vision of their role, such as:

  • What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.
  • The mediocre teacher tells.
  • The good teacher explains.
  • The superior teacher demonstrates.
  • The great teacher inspires.

Schoolhouse wisdom

I thought it was so wise to prominently display the schools’ goals and objectives for both teachers and students. (In my former corporate life, we spent days wordsmithing corporate goals and objectives and then promptly forgot them.)

We walked around the school grounds and saw the students with their beautiful smiling faces in blue and white uniforms. They practiced their English with us -- “Hi, what’s your name?” Lots of giggles.

Greeting the visitors

School kid

Cute faces

School kids

School kids


We signed in at the principle’s office and dropped off the dozens of pens we brought (a Costco purchase, of course).

I stopped by the dorms (boy and girl – nothing co-ed about this place) and saw the outhouses (no bathtubs or showers – guess that’s what the river is for).

Mural on Dormitory


Flip flops

View from the school

Beyond the dorms were more staff housing, a soccer field and some very nice homes for the teachers – all with a lovely view of the river. The trees and plants on the grounds were labeled. Rives showed me where they had just burned some secondary forest to prepare the land for rice – a big necessity way out in the jungle.

Thomas said that Borneo Adventures gives the school 10% of what they earn and sponsor some of the kids’ educations. They are very proud of their recent graduates.

Classes were suspended while we were there and everyone was having a grand ole time with the kids. Bev let them listen to her Ipod and then encouraged them to drum and dance and sing. It was a lovely experience.

Bev with school kids

School kids

We were sad to leave, but hey, a tour group has a schedule to keep – so we boarded the boats and headed to the longhouse for lunch. Good-bye kids – you cutie pies!

Next Stop – Iban Longhouse for Lunch

Longhouse Lore

To the Iban, the longhouse is not merely a home - it is a way of life. It is always built next to a river for transportation and a source of water. The size of a longhouse is calculated by the number of doors (pintu), which range from half a dozen to almost a hundred. (The average longhouse has about 20 plus doors). Each door is the entrance to an apartment (bilik) with a combined living room and bedroom, a kitchen at the rear and an attic, which is used to store rice. Opposite the apartment (bilik) is a covered veranda, (ruai), which is used for ritual, entertaining guests, relaxing with friends or working on group projects (i.e., making handicrafts). Outside the veranda, (ruai) is an open veranda, (tanju), which is used for hanging clothes and drying pepper and rubber.

A well-established, prosperous longhouse is made of ironwood and other high quality hardwoods while pioneer longhouses in new areas are often made of bamboo and tree bark. As the community becomes more established, the longhouse will gradually be improved and upgraded.

The Iban are a very democratic and egalitarian people. All adults have a full say in the way the community is run. The leader (or headman) is chosen by the residents for his leadership and understanding of customary law. There are very few law officers and courts in the remote Iban community. For this reason, the chief must mediate any issue that comes up between families or individuals in the tribe. The tribe wants no bad feelings between its members, so the mediation begins almost immediately after the incident occurs and continues until a resolution is reached. (For example, a person who accidentally damages a friend’s boat may have to pay the friend “a pig” in compensation.)

The Ibans think of the community first. For example, Thomas said, “If a man catches a lot of fish one day and does not share his bounty with the others, then the day he doesn’t catch a fish, the other members of the tribe won’t share their food with him.”

Because they live so close together and in such a tight-knit community, individuals must put “WE” before “ME”. Thomas said that this community philosophy is maintained on a national level by a government ensuring housing and health care for others. In their developing world they do not want to put aside their traditional community tribal ways and make the mistakes of individualistic industrial nations.

From the longhouse dock, we walked up the hill to the longhouse to the drumbeats of a darling young woman and a few curious kids who came to greet us.

Welcome to the longhouse


We removed our shoes to enter their home and then walked through their common area (a covered veranda) down a long corridor (about half the length of a football field) over rickety wooden floors. The joists in the ceiling were lashed together with rattan.

There was so much for the eye to observe in that common veranda—tired folks trying to catch a little breeze, playful cats, children, posters—including a poster of a sexy gal in leather on a motorcycle. Our group had great fun sitting around on the floor in the common area with kittens and kids and other members of the tribe.

Longhouse veranda

Longhouse veranda

Longhouse veranda

Longhouse veranda

I took a picture of an old guy with a tattoo on his throat (a sign that he had participated in headhunting – and obviously, won). The older men have spectacular tattoos all over their bodies and are pleased to pose for photographers.


Let sleeping dogs lie

Along one side of the covered veranda is a large open “deck” (tanju), which is used for hanging clothes, drying pepper and rubber. On that day I saw clothes hanging out to dry with a few lazy dogs and a couple of oinking pigs.

Wringer (or torture device?)

Hanging out to dry

The family quarters (or apartments) each have doors leading out onto the covered veranda (or common area). Each door to the family quarters was different – some square, some with arches, etc. Outside each door, there were goods displayed on shelves. These goods were for sale, goods like baskets, beaded necklaces, bracelets, darts, woodcarvings, etc.

Thomas introduced our main hosts – the headman and his wife. They served us tea and rice wine (called tuak) and then offered a toast to us by raising their glasses while they chanted their toast, “Ohhh-haaaa.”

Next came the entertainment – a series of solo dancers. Each dancer was given a shot of rice wine before their dance began. Even the headman’s wife, the old gal, took her shot like a champ. The musicians—all women—begin their drumming tones.

Stuff for sale


Each dancer, one by one, made their moves barefoot across the floor – hands swinging or moving like a bird, or swords and shields flying in the air. The male dancers let out periodic whoops and other funny noises. Each dancer displayed a similar hypnotic stare with their slow and graceful movements. I did notice how they twisted their feet over on the outer edges. I would surely twist an ankle doing that. The first dancer seemed gay. (He was my favorite, next to Thomas.) He wore a long piece of fabric wrapped around his lower body which hung like a tail. Next, the headman’s wife made her lovely moves.

Longhouse dancer

Headman's wife

Longhouse dancer

Longhouse dancer

A few other dancers followed and then came Thomas, our Thomas, who took a shot of rice wine and moved gracefully, being very careful not to step on us. To our surprise, shy quiet Rives was ready to go with his dance. Our crowd cheered wildly when the performance was over.

Thomas drinking rice wine before dance

Rives' version of traditional dance

The chief displayed two skulls passed down from his ancestor headhunters. The people were so friendly and made our stay so lovely.

Victims of the Iban headhunters

We were invited into the headman’s own personal apartment and there we saw it – a big flat-screen TV. There were lots of other dishes and nick-knacks on display in the headman’s quarters. (Rick bought an antique teapot for $12, similar to one we saw at the Sarawak museum).

What struck me about the headman’s living room was that all the photos on the wall were of his two daughters in their caps and gowns graduating from college. One daughter works for the government and other in private industry and live far from the longhouse. The headman’s lovely daughters were the first from the tribe to graduate from college. The parents are very proud and are now well taken care of.

The headman's flat screen TV

Longhouse kitchen

Thomas led us beyond the headman’s living room and into the smoky kitchen where our lunch was prepared. The skylight window in the high ceiling overhead wasn’t doing its job to keep the smoke down. Thomas showed us the pile of wood, the wood burning stove and the smoked meat in the upper rack. I noticed old rice wine jugs lined up with plastic bottles and huge woks. In the small storage room beyond the kitchen, I saw live chickens, a few kitties and fishing gear.

Longhouse kitchen

Resting after a hard day at the office

The place may not have gotten an “A” rating by restaurant health standards, but the lunch was excellent – okra, green beans, fried rice, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, BBQ chicken, pineapple, watermelon and a pork dish (that I didn’t try because I had bonded with the baby pigs outside). Everything tasted so fresh and healthy and seasoned perfectly. I couldn’t get enough okra.

Care for Some Green Beans?

After lunch, we were free to mill around. Jaime bought a mat and a bottle of rice wine ($5 ringgets - $1.50 US). I bought an ironwood carved Orangutan with a club attached. It's intended use is for trapping wild pigs. I’m going to use it to tenderize meat. For 30 ringgets (about $8), I now have a meat tenderizer like no one else and a photograph of the cool dude that carved my piece. (However, Bill was disappointed in my bargaining skills as he tried to coach me yet again.)


We returned to our air-conditional Hilton Longhouse on the longboats. I quickly showered and went for a little blowgun fun by the poolside. My first attempt completely missed the target. My second attempt was right in the center. No third attempt, I quit when I’m ahead!

Ready, aim, fire

Bull's eye

At 4:30 pm, we joined a big group for a jungle walk. The jungle was alive with sound and loaded with nature. We saw ironwood trees draped with rattan vines. (Rattan business is very big here.) Our knowledgeable and informative guide told us about:

  • The beetle head fern and how valuable it is in stopping bleeding
  • How to tie reeds to use them as Band-Aids
  • How a termite nest becomes home to many—termites dig a hole by the base of the tree and then proceed to eat and hollow out the tree. The hole attracts rats to find a protected place who in turn attract snakes hoping to eat a rat. The holes also attracts bees for a good place to make honey who attracts those mean old Sun Bears. Before long the place is just too crowded for the termites, so they move on and find another tree to build another nest that will eventually attract rats who will attract snakes ….

On top of a hill, our guide showed us a warrior’s grave. There was an old rice wine pot and rusted-out blade from his sword (spear?) laying on top of the grave. Iban come here once a year to have a picnic and honor their ancestors. (They bring extra food and drink to share with the dead.)

Jungle walk guide

Warrior's grave

The best part of the hike was walking on the suspended canopy bridge. When our group was crossing, a rude troop of aggressive Portuguese tourists tried to push by us – a very scary move. After awhile, everyone calmed down and peace returned to the rainforest.

The hike was beautiful and most dramatic – but not for acrophobics or the faint of heart. (Toby made the crossing with help from her cane and from Bill. Frieda turned back.)

Terry on the canopy walkway

Nancy, Terry and Bill on Jungle Trail

After the hike, Tiger beers and our new pals awaited us on the veranda.

Dinner next -- Bill and I ordered chicken. (Our systems needed a break from the mass quantities of buffet food.) It took forever to get served. We were tired and just wanted to get back to the room after a long, hot, exciting, wonderful day!


<Previous Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Next Page>


 visit © Bill and Nancy Interactive, 2005-08. All Rights Reserved