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.

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