A visit with the Iban in Borneo's interior

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Travel Weekly associate editor Grant Flowers recently traveled to Batang Ai, an area in Borneo's interior. Here is his report:

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."

An Iban longhouseI 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 regret missing.)

author with kiddiesThe 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 the Hilton.

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.

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