In Malaysia, experiencing longhouse life in Sarawak

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There is a distinct rustling sound in the thick jungle canopy as we walk along the Smuggler's Trail in Malaysia's Sarawak rain forest, close to the border with Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. It is easy to imagine that one of the infamous Dyak headhunter tribesmen is lying in wait to ambush our group.

Fortunately, the days of the headhunters are long past, and today the narrow, muddy track is used to smuggle both people and contraband across the border between the two countries.

The jungle walk was one of the highlights of a visit to the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort located on the edge of Batang Ai Lake in the middle of Sarawak. The resort's 11 traditional timber longhouses comprise 100 individually air-conditioned guestrooms fully equipped with modern amenities. The longhouses are built in the traditional manner of the local Iban tribe, raised on stilts with covered verandas that run the length of each house.

The Nanga Mepi restaurant serves both Iban fare and Western cuisine, and the Wong Irup Bar is a great place to relax after a day's activities. Visitors should try the delicious, spicy Sarawak laksa, rice noodles in a rich sauce with shredded chicken and prawns.

If travelers want to do more than relax by the pool or have a leisurely game of tennis, the Hilton offers a range of diversions apart from the rather difficult Smuggler's Trail walk.

In the morning, guests can watch the sun rise and listen to the early morning chorus of birds at dawn, while in the late afternoon, a guided nature walk introduces the secrets of the jungle flora, pausing at the grave site of an Iban warrior and throwing in a couple of crossings on rope walkways suspended above the jungle canopy.

MALAY-duriansAfter dinner, guests can learn the art of using the blowpipes traditionally used by tribesmen for hunting.

The most popular excursion from Batang Ai is the visit to a traditional longhouse. I visited Delok longhouse, about an hour's ride by longboat from the resort, at the confluence of the Batang Ai and Delok rivers. It's a pleasant and relaxing ride offering views of the thick jungle, bird life and signs of human habitation. Local people fish and hunt, grow rice and pepper and tap the rubber trees.

The longhouse is perched high above the waterline and comprises a long passageway from which rooms lead off on one side, while the other side is an open bamboo-floored "deck." Members of the 14 families who live at the Delok longhouse greeted us with music, dancing and a choice of tea or a rather potent rice wine. Pigs rooted about in the ground below the longhouse. On the deck, numerous dogs and a few cats lazed in the sun while a couple of men were making rubber sheets in an old wringer.

On our return trip across the lake, our small flotilla of longboats was caught in a tropical downpour that was as exciting as it was brief. The trip was organized by local company Borneo Adventures, which runs a range of tours and excursions throughout Sarawak.

The resort is reached after a 170-mile road trip from Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak. Along the way the road, part of the Pan-Borneo Highway stretching from Kuching to Brunei, passes through thick jungle, numerous plantations of pepper trees that proliferate throughout Sarawak (the peppercorns make a great souvenir) and villages large and small.

Serian, about 40 miles from Kuching, is a bustling market town serving the surrounding area. Its market is a treasure trove of fresh produce. The fruit and vegetables, meat and fish are all laid out meticulously to best display their virtues. There were many varieties not usually seen, including yellow rambutans, some "jungle" varieties and the smelly but tasty durian, which happened to be in season at the time.

Kuching itself is picturesquely situated on both banks of the Sarawak River. For more than a century, starting in the 1840s, the region was ruled over by a family of so-called "white rajahs," a dynasty of Westerners founded by British adventurer James Brooke. Sarawak became part of newly independent Malaysia in 1963.

The beautifully landscaped esplanade along the southern bank of the Sarawak River is the center of life in Kuching. The area is dotted with colonial-era buildings (of particular note is the old Court House complex), temples, mosques, forts and hotels. The comfortable, friendly Hilton Kuching hotel is ideally placed, overlooking the river. It makes an excellent base from which to explore the city and the rest of Sarawak.

malay-catmuseumMain Bazaar, opposite the waterfront, is the oldest street in the city and is home to some superb examples of Chinese shop architecture. Kuching has a large concentration of antique and handicraft shops, and the bazaar is great for inexpensive shoes and clothing materials.

In the Malay language, "kuching" means cat, and a large monument of a group of cats can be found in the city center. More intriguing is the Cat Museum, devoted to all things feline.

Within a short drive of Kuching are two attractions not to be missed. The Sarawak Cultural Village contains replica buildings representing every major ethnic group in Sarawak. It is staffed by tribespeople dressed in traditional costume carrying out traditional activities, and visitors can watch an excellent multicultural dance performance in the theater.

At the Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, established more than 25 years ago, travelers can watch young, orphaned orangutans being trained to survive in the wild before they are released.

For more on Sarawak and Malaysia, visit www.tourism.gov.my.

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