Travel Weekly associate editor Grant Flowers recently traveled
to Batang Ai, an area in Borneo's interior. Here is his
BATANG AI, Malaysia -- Only when the water got really choppy did
I remember my mother's single piece of advice about my trip to
Southeast Asia: "Whatever you do, son, don't get in a boat."
I found this
extremely funny, though the downpour had reached a peak and the
pancho was barely keeping me dry. Even funnier was the thought that
the longboat pilot couldn't simultaneously bail water and steer,
but he sure was trying. Mom was happy to know that our longboat did
not sink on the way across the lake and I survived to tell her
about my trip to Batang Ai, an area in the Borneo interior, and my
stay at the Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, a Hilton property that is
unlike any hotel in the world.
Getting to the place is half the fun. Geography buffs know that
Malaysia is a divided country: Part of it lies on the Malay
Peninsula, near Thailand, and the other part lies on the northwest
shores of Borneo, across the South China Sea from peninsular
Malaysia. To get to the resort, the best starting point is Kuching
in Borneo, accessible by air from the mainland. From Kuching, it's
a four-hour ride into the hilly jungles of the Borneo interior.
Guests alight beside a lake formed by the Batang Ai dam, and one of
the hotel's boats -- very stable compared to a longboat -- takes
visitors across the water to the hotel.
The resort is based on the longhouse type of structure used by
the Iban, one of the many indigenous tribes of Borneo and the
largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The houses,
invariably on the banks of a river or lake, serve as the home for
entire villages and sometimes reach lengths of 200 yards.
The structure, which is built on stilts, is divided into two
sections along its length. The part the visitor sees first is the
ruai, a kind of enclosed front porch that faces the water.
The ruai acts as the common room for all of the house's residents:
This is where the Iban do their socializing and where unmarried men
sleep. It was also a lookout point in the days of headhunting: At
least one warrior would always be watching the river for enemies.
(Headhunting is one old tradition of Borneo that tourists won't
other part of the longhouse is a set of rooms stretched along the
back of the building with doors that open into the ruai. These are
the private quarters of families and also where the unmarried women
sleep. Happily, unmarried men don't have to sleep in the ruai at
Rooms are clean and comfortable and have more amenities than
guests would expect: radio and cable television, for example. The
rooms, although not luxurious, are in the three-star range. Guests,
however, don't come to Batang Ai looking for five stars. It's not
expensive, either: The rate for a standard double room is less than
$60 per night. The hotel also arranges meetings and incentive
groups, mainly for Europeans.
One of the highlights of our hotel stay was a jungle hike led by
Winston Marshall, the resort's resident naturalist. Just after
dawn, Winston led a group on an hourlong trip along a trail that he
blazed himself. Up close, the rain forest is stunning: The jungle
is thick, hot, damp and filled with all kinds of wildlife. The hike
included a stop at an Iban gravesite and a walk across a long cable
bridge, suspended high above the jungle floor, that an acrophobe
like me could almost love.
After the hike came our journey to an authentic Iban longhouse.
This is a service provided by the guides of Borneo Adventure, a
tour company that operates out of the hotel. We clambered into the
low, skinny longboats, best likened to a long, unsteady canoe with
a motor in the back, and took a wonderful and hair-raising ride up
a nearby river. I had read a bit about what I could expect to see
at the longhouse. My expectations therefore did not include
spear-wielding natives in tribal costume or, more innocently, a
quaint culture besieged by 20th century Earth. More accurately, the
Iban are adapting the 20th century to their culture. In fact, some
Iban villages have built modern longhouses -- with bricks and
windows -- along the Borneo highways.
When we got off the boat, a stereo was playing somewhere in the
longhouse. Inside, kids had tacked pictures of pop artists and
soccer stars on the walls, much as children anywhere in the world
would do. Most telling, though, were the airline tickets pinned
onto a family's door: Mexicana, Aero Caribbean and Malaysia
Airlines receipts, badges of experience much like the burgeoning
collection of stamps in my passport. But I doubted the tickets were
used by any of the villagers, and the image of the long line of
foreigners who visited the longhouse, myself included, was
bothersome. Yet, taking the thought further, it seemed the other
way around. The guests were the fish in an aquarium, as the visits
afforded the Iban the opportunity to see how the rest of the world
viewed their culture.
This is what the Iban saw: A few of us were there looking for
handicrafts, a few of us to take photographs, and I was drinking
tuak (rice wine) and trying to not fall through the floor to the
ground below. We sipped tuak and talked with the Iban chief with
the help of our guide. Later, I sat with a few children and tried
very hard to learn their names.
Then it was back down the river, and we swerved through the
green-covered hills as dark clouds loomed ahead. As we reached the
lake and headed for our bus on the far side, the skies opened, the
rain fell, and getting rained on was never so much fun.