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Mike Reed Provides An Introduction to Hanging Out Up The Ulu
I've written at length about some of my visits to the various communities to observe and take part in major rituals and festivals, but I know that we can't all turn up in the middle of a harvest festival or get a personal invitation to a feast for the ancestors, so I thought I'd better write a guide to visiting longhouses the easy way.
Now unless you have visited a longhouse, you really haven't seen Sarawak. It may sound cliched but this is one of the best experiences the state has to offer. There are over 4,500 longhouses in Sarawak - each an entire village under one roof - inhabited by members of more than 20 distinct ethnic groups. The best known, and the easiest to visit, are the longhouses of the Iban, although visitors may also visit Bidayuh longhouses near Kuching or the imposing longhouses of the various Orang Ulu tribes, deep in Sarawak's interior.
Modern longhouses are busy farming communities, and traditional clothes and ornaments are only worn for festive occasions, so if you want to be sure of seeing traditional costumes and rituals, come on an organised tour with cultural performances included, or visit during gawai dayak, the harvest festival, which takes place at the beginning of June each year.
Each of Sarawak's longhouse-dwelling communities has something different to offer. For most people, their first taste of longhouse life is an organised tour to one of the Iban longhouses on the Skrang, Lemanak, Batang Ai or Rejang river systems. These tours feature traditional Iban hospitality, plenty of home-brewed tuak (rice wine), and a cultural performance or two. Visitors will be invited to join in, but be warned the ngajat (warrior dance) is a lot harder than it looks.
The Iban are famous for their handicrafts, and you are bound to see weavers, woodcarvers and blowpipe makers at work. You can try your hand at blowpipe shooting, visit the rubber and pepper gardens, and go for a walk in the nearby forest, learning about the different plants and their many practical uses. Depending on the season, you may witness rice threshing and rice pounding, but whatever time of year you are sure to be shown the skulls hanging from the longhouse roof.
There is a wider choice of accommodation than you would expect. You can sleep in the longhouse - on the ruai or covered verandah, in a tour operator's guest house, or even in one of the new 'Longhouse Resorts' at Batang Ai, Bukit Saban (near Sri Aman) and Pelagus Rapids (near Kapit). Wherever you stay, the food is invariable great, whether it's prepared by your Iban hosts, your multi-talented tour guide or a 5-star hotel kitchen.
Not many people get the chance to visit Orang Ulu longhouses, as they are located deep in the interior, but the experience is well worth the journey. All of the Orang Ulu groups have strong traditions of hospitality, and guests will be invited to try some borak (Orang Ulu tuak) and join in with the singing and storytelling, accompanied by the melody of the sape, a mandolin-like instrument with a peculiarly Celtic sound. If you are particularly fortunate, you may be the subject of a praise song - an improvised ballad praising your character, attributes and achievements - sung by one of the aristocratic women in the longhouse.
There are not many Bidayuh longhouses within easy reach of Kuching - the ones at Kampung Anna Rais and Kampung Gayu are probably the best preserved examples - and Kuching tour operators arrange trips which usually take between half a day and a day. Most Bidayuh communities are quite modern in culture and outlook, due to their close proximity to Kuching, and some visitors feel that the experience is not 'exotic' enough to warrant the effort. However, during the gawai padi ritual, all the old beliefs and cultural practices make a startling reappearance. If you really want to find a very traditional Bidayuh longhouse, some specialist operators can organise visits to one of the remote longhouses along the Indonesian border, but be prepared for hard trekking and very basic accommodation and meals.
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