Travel Features > Festival
Balang & Mum dressed to kill.
©1997 Mike Reed
For the welcoming ceremony, smart dress is essential. Slacks and
a long-sleeved shirt with tie or a long-sleeved batik shirt are
de rigeur for men. Ladies should wear local formal dress (baju kebaya or baju kurong), a smart summer dress or a suit (with skirt or pants). However,
if you have a traditional costume from your home country, wear
it. I was at a Gawai Antu with two traditionally clad Maoris, who caused a sensation and
were invited to participate in some very important parts of the
ritual. A Scotsman wearing a kilt or a Texan in Stetson and bootlace
tie would be equally appreciated. For the evening, smart and comfortable
casual wear is fine, but no shorts please. You can forget about
shoes, as you won't be needing them for a day or two.
No payment is expected, offered or accepted for accommodation or food and drink. However, visiting longhouses are expected to pass the hat round and contribute a little to the enormous cost of the event. A donation of RM 20 per person is fine, but more generous contributions will be much appreciated as large totals give the visiting longhouse considerable prestige.
Do remove your shoes as soon as you join the procession to enter the longhouse. Somebody will have arranged a safe place of storage for them. If you need to leave the longhouse briefly for any reason, just borrow one of the hundreds of pairs of plastic sandals lying around.
Don't refuse any drinks offered to you. It is fine to take a very small sip, or ask for something non-alcoholic instead, but acceptance is symbolically important. If you cannot drink alcohol for personal, medical or religious reasons, please say so, then no offence will be given. The same applies to food; if you are forbidden to eat pork or are vegetarian, please say so. "I cannot" is much more polite than "I don't want."
Do pace yourself. It will be very hot inside the longhouse at first, and you will be offered all manner of potent brews. People will understand if you get tipsy or even pass out, but you will miss a lot of the fun. Anybody who thinks they can out-drink (or even keep up with) Ibans during a Gawai Antu is fooling themselves.
Don't enter a bilek (apartment) or sit down at another ruai (verandah) unless somebody invites you; these are private family spaces. This is very important during the welcoming ceremony, but as the day progresses everybody will invite you into their homes.
Do keep your eyes and ears open and your camera handy (but do ask first if you want to take close-ups and portraits). You are going to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you don't want to miss out on any of it.
Do ask questions. The Iban are generally very knowledgeable about their own culture and very good at interpreting it for visitors. English is usually widely spoken and you shouldn't have any communication problems.