the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak.
Tribal people live in longhouses. There
are the Iban (Sea Dayak), and the Bidayuh
(Land Dayak). All of Malaysia’s tribal
people feel a strong spiritual connection to
the rainforest. The Iban grow rice and
fruit, and hunt and fish.
The longhouse is the very centre of communal
life in Sarawak. There are over 4,500
longhouses in Sarawak. These communal
houses, built on stilts, may contain up to
100 individual families in separate
'apartments' built under one long roof.
The rainforest is home to 27 ethnic
groups each with own distinct
language and culture.
real longhouse experience begins
with the journey upriver. River
travel in a perahu - a shallow
draught canoe - affords you the
pleasure of seeing Sarawak at its
Longhouses differ slightly from
tribe to tribe but share the same
The Iban are the largest tribe in
Sarawak and one of three native
peoples whose past includes the
practice of headhunting.
upstream, your boatman will take you along
idyllic waterways with white pebble beaches,
under the over-arching branches of tropical
hardwoods, whose dense emerald foliage
allows through only a dappling of sunlight.
As you meander upstream, and your boatman
punts through the river's shallows,
kingfishers glide past, hornbills fly
overhead, and local children dive from the
riverbank into the cooling waters.
Longhouse inhabitants are very well known
for their hospitality. It is normal for
people to just turn up and expect to be
invited in by the headman (gifts are
expected in return). As you arrive at the
longhouse, it is customary to be greeted by
the longhouse maidens and young men
performing traditional dances and playing
At the entrance to the longhouse there is a
wooden arch with small baskets made of palm
leaves hanging from the top. Offerings such
as a few coins or a cigarette are
occasionally put into the baskets and help
keep evil spirits out of the longhouse. From
the moment you step inside the longhouse you
will be treated as an honoured guest.
Visitors will be offered a glass of tuak -
the very palatable local rice wine. Or more
often than not, several glasses of tuak will
be offered to wash down a banquet of local
delicacies. Then your hosts will start
beating the gongs. This is the cue for the
traditional dance, usually the Ngajat. The
inspiration for the graceful movements of
the dancers comes from the effortless flight
of the hornbill, Sarawak's emblem. Then your
newfound friends will enthral you with
stories of Sarawak's legendary past. Usually
a longhouse party lasts all night. As the
sun is eclipsed by the moon, weary from your
day's travel, and a night of dancing and
feasting, retire to the ruai- a covered
verandah - for a good night's sleep.
many Iban longhouses you find only
old people and young children.
I got the feeling that the whole
community is reduced to an exhausted
past, and an uncertain future.
Naturally, without the younger
generations to inherit their rich
cultural legacies, but traditions
are dying. The ancient crafts of
making boats, building
longhouses, weaving, dancing,
tattooing, and native art are now
dying fast. Even the whole oral
tradition of telling tales and myths
A Melanau native
Ben van Wijnen