It’s possible to visit Penan settlements near Lio Matoh (see map), such as Long Kerong close to the Selungo River, and Long Lamai on the Balong, as part of a scheme calling itself Picnic with the Penan (picnicwiththepenan.org). The experience is similar to visiting tiny villages in the Kelabit Highlands, but much more cut off from the wider world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come cheap. As this area has, to an extent, resisted the blandishments of the logging industry, logging roads and bridges are fewer and further between, and expensive boat charter is required to reach the villages. Furthermore, while MASwings flies to Long Banga near Lio Matoh, until (and if) the logging roads there are repaired, you will have to fly into Long Akah or Long Lellang, 50km away, and then head in by 4WD – another major expense. For more information on flights, see Arrival By plane. For these reasons a group of three is ideal, the most the longboats can carry with luggage.
When you finally arrive, however, the rewards can be considerable. There are ample chances to trek through dense, unspoiled jungle, using “trails” hacked out by your guide with a machete, spending the night perhaps in a simple hut of the type the Penan erect near their fields, or in a makeshift shelter that your guide might build using branches and leaves. From the Selungo River it’s also possible to climb Gunung Murud Kecil (“Little Murud”; 2112m), at the opposite end of the Tama Abu Range from its larger and more famous sibling. Bring similar gear to what you’d need in the Kelabit Highlands.
Village life can itself be a highlight. Local people can teach crafts such as basket-making, and then there’s the simple pleasure of bathing in the river with the villagers, or the spectacle of being at the simple village church on Sunday (many Penan belong to the evangelical Sidang Injil Borneo or SIB movement, which has churches throughout Sarawak); it’s great to witness hymns sung in Penan with the village youths showing off their self-taught skills on guitar, keyboards and drums. After the rice is planted (June) or harvested (February), you can even accompany the men as they hunt wild pig, aided by dogs, blowpipes and the odd antique rifle.
On the downside, the usual caveats about Malaysia homestays are especially valid here. One key point is that villagers take turns to put up guests, so quite how adept your hosts will be is a matter of luck. You may have your own room or space, or sleep alongside everyone and their screaming babies; meals can be meagre and there may be little to drink other than tepid, weak and sickly sweet coffee. Communication is another problem as few villagers speak good English.