Visitors flying in from Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore are treated to a spellbinding view of muddy rivers snaking their way through the jungle beneath lush peaks. It not only just about sums up Borneo, but also sets the tone for what the southwest of Sarawak has in store. The area is home to several of Sarawak’s national parks, notably Bako, with its proboscis monkeys and excellent trekking. It’s also a good place to get a grounding in Borneo’s tribal cultures, which you can do at the museums in the likeable state capital Kuching. Among other top draws are the orang-utans of the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and the Sarawak Cultural Village, a brilliant collection of tribal houses near the beaches of Damai. To see proper longhouses, though, head east to the edges of Batang Ai National Park, home to many Iban communities.
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KUCHING is the perfect gateway to Sarawak – and not just because it’s the state’s oldest, largest city. This is simply one of Malaysia’s most charming and laidback cities, revelling in a picturesque setting on the Sarawak River, with Mount Santubong looming on the western horizon. Despite central high-rises, much of the recent development has been confined to the bland but burgeoning suburbs, and the historical core remains appealingly sleepy and human in scale, its colonial architecture redolent of a bygone era. Kuching’s blend of contradictions – of commerce alongside a sedate pace of life, of fashionable cafés rubbing shoulders with old-fangled kedai kopis – makes it an appealing place to chill out for several days while exploring such museums as the Sarawak Museum, showcasing the state’s ethnological heritage, and making excursions out to the numerous national parks and other sights in the vicinity.
Most of Kuching lies on the south bank of the river, its core an easily walkable warren of crowded lanes. The area sandwiched between Jalan Courthouse to the west, Jalan Wayang to the east and Reservoir Park to the south, usually referred to as old Kuching, includes several colonial churches and administrative buildings. Chinatown occupies the same general area, incorporating what were once the main shopping streets of Main Bazaar, facing the river, and Carpenter Street, and Chinese businesses and restaurants also dominate Jalan Padungan to the east. The traditional Malay district is dominated by the domes of the Masjid Negeri, with several Malay kampungs north of the river too. The Chinese and Malays together make up nearly two-thirds of Kuching’s population of just over 600,000, though there are also substantial communities of Bidayuh and Iban.
When James Brooke came up the river in 1841, he arrived at a village known as Sarawak, on a small stream called Sungai Mata Kuching (“Cat’s Eye”), adjoining the main river; he probably shortened the stream’s name, which came to refer to the fast-expanding settlement. However, a much-repeated tale has it that the first rajah pointed to the village and asked its name. The locals, thinking Brooke was pointing to a cat, replied – reasonably enough – “kucing” (“cat”). Either way, only in 1872 did Charles Brooke officially change the settlement’s name from Sarawak to Kuching.
Until the 1920s, the capital was largely confined to the south bank of the Sarawak River, stretching only from the Chinese heartland around Jalan Temple east of today’s centre, to the Malay kampung around the mosque to the west. On the north bank, activity revolved around the fort and a few dozen houses reserved for British officials. It was the prewar rubber boom that financed the town’s expansion, with tree-lined Jalan Padungan, running east from Chinatown, becoming one of its smartest streets. During World War II Kuching escaped relatively lightly, since Japanese bombing raids largely focused on destroying the oil wells in northern Sarawak.
In recent decades the city has sprawled south, but perhaps the most significant transformation in the centre has been the closure of port facilities and warehouses as new shipping terminals and industrial estates have been created downriver, to the northeast. Robbed of waterborne traffic, downtown’s riverside was reinvented in the 1990s with partial success as a leafy, pedestrianized recreation area, its quaint panoramas spoiled only by the bizarre oversized hulk of the State Assembly building, completed in 2009 on the north bank.
- Around Kuching
Batang Ai and the Iban longhouses
Batang Ai and the Iban longhouses
The Iban longhouses of the Ai headwaters, both 150km due east of Kuching beyond the lake of the Batang Ai hydroelectric dam, and also to the north along the Lemanak river system, are the best excuse for anyone travelling between western and central Sarawak not to catch the fast Kuching–Sibu ferry. Despite being on the tourist trail, the longhouses continue to offer a glimpse of a semi-traditional lifestyle in a remote corner of the state, much of which is protected as a national park and wildlife sanctuary.
Batang Ai dam and lake
Around three and a half hours’ drive from Kuching, a couple of kilometres beyond the village of Jelukong, a signed 38km turning branches southeast off the main trunk road, passing a few modernish longhouses en route to the small border town of Lubok Antu. Some 12km short of that, another small road branches east towards the Batang Ai dam, a necessary though impressive way station en route to the upper Ai. Built in the 1980s as Sarawak’s first hydroelectric venture, the Ai dam created a lake covering 90 square kilometres. Though now dwarfed in scale, generating capacity and controversy by the much-delayed Bakun dam, it’s an impressive sight and the road up gives good views of the narrow valley downriver that must have made the site seem ideal to the dam’s planners. No parts of the dam are open to tourists, though, and once you get there you’ll head to one of the jetties to continue east by boat to an Ai longhouse or the Hilton Batang Ai.
The Ai river system
An hour east from the dam, longhouse-bound boats leave the lake and head up the Ai. As is clear from the tall trees that come right to the water’s edge, the initial stretch is still a drowned portion of the river. Further up you’ll observe a transition to the true riverbanks, the vegetation more open and compact. Also visible sporadically to either side are the odd school and clinic in simple metal-roofed timber buildings, and areas of hillslope cleared for traditional rice cultivation. The Iban leave paddies to the jungle once the soil is exhausted and move on to clear new areas. As the river narrows, you also begin to see the occasional longhouse lurking in the vegetation. Among those that take tourists are Nanga Delok (also called Rumah Ipang, on the Delok, a tributary of the Ai) and the more distant Nanga Sumpa (the Sumpa being a tributary of the Delok). Wherever you stay, will offer opportunities for additional longboat trips to areas where you can make short treks or local beauty spots such as waterfalls.
Easily the most numerous of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, the Iban make up nearly thirty percent of the state’s population. Their language is from the same family as Malay, and any Malay speakers will notice considerable overlap in vocabulary as well as predictable changes in word endings – datang (come) and makan (eat) in Malay, for example, become datai and makai in Iban.
Origins and conflicts
Having outgrown their original home in the Kapuas river basin of west Kalimantan, the Iban migrated to the Lupar River in southwest Sarawak in the sixteenth century, and came into conflict with the Melanau and Malays. With the Brunei sultanate at its height, the Malays pushed the Iban back inland up rivers such as the Rejang, into interior areas dominated by the Kayan. Great battles were waged between the two groups; one source recorded seeing “a mass of boats drifting along the stream, [the combatants] spearing and stabbing each other; decapitated trunks and heads without bodies, scattered about in ghastly profusion”. Although such inter-ethnic conflict stopped as migration itself slowed, the Iban were still taking heads as recently as the 1960s during the Konfrontasi, when the Indonesian army came up against Iban who had thrown their lot in with Malaysia.
The Iban figure prominently in the minds of visitors, thanks to their traditional communal dwelling, the longhouse. Each has its own tuai (headman), who leads more by consensus than by barking orders. For details see longhouse architecture,.
Traditionally, young men left the longhouse to go on bejalai, the act of joining a warring party – essentially a rite of passage for a youth to establish his independence and social position before marriage. Nowadays, to the extent that bejalai has meaning, it may translate into going to university or earning a good wage on offshore oil rigs or in a hotel or factory in Singapore.
Further complicating the bejalai tradition, of course, is that women are now much more socially mobile, and can pursue education and their own careers. Traditionally, however, women had distinct duties. They never went hunting, but were great weavers; indeed, an Iban woman’s weaving prowess used to determine her status in the community. The women are most renowned for their pua kumbu (blanket or coverlet) work, a cloth of intricate design and colour. The pua kumbu once played an integral part in Iban rituals, hung up prominently during harvest festivals and weddings, or used to cover structures containing charms and offerings to the gods.
Development and urbanization
More than half of Sarawak’s Iban have moved permanently to the cities and towns in the west of the state, or may spend the working week there and weekends back in their longhouse. Most rural Iban no longer live purely off the land but also undertake seasonal work in the rubber and oil industries. By no small irony, logging – the business that most devastated their traditional lands – also long supplied plentiful and lucrative work; these days oil-palm cultivation and production provide more employment.
Longhouses can be thought of as indoor villages, housing entire communities under one roof. Although several indigenous peoples build dwellings that are sometimes called longhouses, the definitive article is the Iban longhouse. This has a long veranda or tanju at the front where rice, rubber and other produce can be laid out to dry; it’s accessed by steps or sometimes a log into which notches are cut. Behind the front wall, running the entire length of the building, a corridor or ruai serves as a sort of main street where the community can socialize. Multiple doors (pintu) open on to the ruai, behind which lie each family’s quarters (bilik); locals describe a longhouse not in terms of its length or the number of inhabitants, but by how many bilik or pintu it has. Above the living quarters, a loft space (sadau) is used for storage.
Traditionally longhouses were built of hardwood timber and bamboo, perhaps with ironwood shingles on the roof. Even though recent longhouses may feature plenty of unsightly concrete, they still retain their characteristic ruai inside, and most continue to be sited close to rivers or streams, where people enjoy bathing even when piped water supplies exist.
For the Iban, tattooing is not just a form of ornamentation, but also an indication of personal wealth and other achievements. Many designs are used, from a simple circular outline for the shoulder, chest or outer side of the wrists, to more elaborate motifs (highly stylized dogs, scorpions or crabs) for the inner and outer thigh. The two most important places for tattoos are the hand and the throat. The tattooing process starts with a carved design on a block of wood that’s smeared with ink and pressed to the skin; the resulting outline is then punctured with needles dipped in dark ink, made from sugar-cane juice, water and soot. For the actual tattooing a hammer-like instrument with two or three needles protruding from its head is used. These are dipped in ink and the hammer is then placed against the skin and tapped repeatedly with a wooden block.
Kuching has become a magnet for people wanting to have a Bornean tattoo, and guesthouses may be able to introduce you to practitioners. The leading light of the scene, however, is the Iban artist and musician Ernesto Kalum, whose studio, Borneo Headhunter, is upstairs at 47 Jalan Wayang (wborneoheadhunter.com). He offers traditional motifs done either the traditional way or by machine (as in any Western tattoo parlour), and can also do modern designs (always by machine). Prices depend on size and complexity.