Travel Features > Festival

Gawai Antu
A Beginners Guide To Taking Part

1. Finding Your Gawai Antu

Gawai Antu is not as infrequent as it might seem. Although any particular longhouse only holds a Gawai Antu once in a generation at best, (once a century is more likely) there are a lot of longhouses around. In a good year, there should be about a dozen Gawai Antu taking place, mostly in the Sri Aman Division.

Gawai Antu is normally held in November or December, so unless you have good contacts in Sarawak, make sure you're in the state around that time. You'll need plenty of time to ask around; Kuching or Miri are the best places to start, as there are a lot of Iban people who work in these cities. Chatting to people in pubs, coffee shops and karaoke bars should pay dividends. Tour operators may have some information, but can only arrange an invitation if one of their staff is taking part.

Once you've discovered your Gawai Antu, don't even think of going without an invitation. These are not hard to come by however; anyone who expresses a sincere interest is bound to be asked along.

2. Getting There

If you are not travelling with the people who invited you (quite likely, as they may go up a few days earlier to help with the arrangements), there are a number of possibilities. Usually you will need to take an express bus to Sri Aman, Saratok or Sarikei (full details in the local papers or the Official Kuching Guide, available from the Visitor Information Centre in Kuching), followed by a local bus to your destination. There may also be a short longboat ride or even a few miles walk in the more remote areas. A self-drive car is also a good option, especially if the longhouse is not far from a main road. Gawai Antu is sometimes held further afield, in areas like Mukah, Bintulu, Miri (for the Baram River) or even Limbang. MAS has domestic flights from Kuching to all of these areas, and Miri and Bintulu are accessible by express bus).

Whatever you do, don't go directly to the longhouse holding the Gawai Antu (unless you have been invited by one of the residents, in which case you will be expected to help out with the preparations). Get to the longhouse of the person who invited you the evening before the Gawai Antu, as it is a very formal occasion and you will be expected to arrive in procession with the other people from the invited longhouse.

Balang & Mum dressed to kill.
©1997 Mike Reed

3. What to Wear

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.

4. Expenses

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.

5. Do's and Don'ts

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.

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