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Sarawak ~ Longhouse & Visits

• History & People • Kuching • Longhouse & Visits • Bintulu & Sibu • Sarawak National Parks • Miri • Mulu National Park •

• Longhouse Communal Living • The Longhouse • Longhouse Visits • Do and Don'ts •

Iban Boy entertaing the eldersLonghouse Communal Living
Imagine this - take every family in a village and lump them all under the same roof and while you are at it, eliminate the concept of individual possessions and divide the goods equally, down to the last cigarette. Finally, throw in the condition that, under that one long roof, each family must live, sleep, and eat together in a single room about the size of a mini-bus. This the is the concept of longhouse communal living - along the shores of the endless, snaking rivers that carve through the steamy rain forests of Borneo, tribal peoples have been living this way- by choice, for thousands of years.

Crime is practically unheard of in these communities, along with divorce, child-abuse, and most of the other social diseases the rest of the world resigns itself to every day. Cultural tradition holds that anyone who visits them is welcome to stay as long as they like. In an environment where respect for each other's space is essential to a healthy community, even the family dogs seem to honour each other's small territory. They doze immediately in front of each household, respecting their invisible barriers.
headhunting days - skulls
At night, just after supper, the main hall livens up. Families come out to socialize and guests gather in front of the chief's room. The chief's home is almost always in the dead centre of the building, and is often distinguished by a fetish of antique human skulls, a reminder of the days when the Iban and other tribes in Borneo practiced headhunting.

The Longhouse
Most longhouses are built on stilts, high on the riverbanks. With their commanding views of the river, an average longhouse has 20 – 25 doors (although they can be as many as 60). Each represents one family. The word long in a settlement name – as Long Liput or Long Terawan means ‘confluence’ and does not refer to the length of the longhouse. Behind each door is a bilik or room which includes the family living room and a loft, where paddy and tools are stored. The living rooms are simple attap roofed, bamboo floored. In modern longhouses which are designed on exactly the same principles - The living rooms are commonly furnished with sofas, lino floors, a television and an en suite bathroom.

At the back of the bilik is the dapur or kitchen, where the cooking takes place. All biliks face out unto the ruai (gallery), which is where visitors are usually entertained. The width of the wall which faces onto the ruai indicates the status of the family. Attached to the ruai is usually the tanju (open verandas), running the full length of the house – where rice and other agricultural products are dried. Lang ladders (notched hardwood trunks) – lead up to the tanju, there can get very slippery and do not always come with handrails.

Longhouse Visits
There are more than 1,500 longhouses in Sarawak and are usually situated along the big rivers and their tributaries. Notably the Skrang, the Rejang and the Baram.

Batang Ai LonghouseThe Iban who are characteristically extrovert and hospitable to visitors live on the lower reaches of the rivers. The Orang Ulu trbes – mainly Kayan and Kenyah, live further upriver and are generally less outgoing than the Iban. The Bidayuh are mainly around Bau and Serian, near Kuching. Their longhouses are usually more modern.

The most accessible longhouses belong to Sarawak's Iban tribe (also called the Sea Dyaks) and are situated off the Skrang, Lemanak, Batang Ai and Rejang River areas. Because of Borneo's impenetrable rain-forest, getting to them almost inevitably involves a river ride in a long, pencil-thin boat called a perahu, the workhorse of the Sarawakian waterways.

Longhouse RuaiThe mot important ground rule is not to visit a longhouse without an invitation. People who arrive unannounced may get an embarrassingly frosty reception. Tour companies offer the only exception to this rule, as most have tribal connections. The best time to visit the longhouse is during the Gawai harvest festival at the beginning of June, where communities throw an open house and everyone is invited to join in the festivities.

On arrival visitors should pay an immediate courtesy call on the headman (the tuai rumah in Iban Longhouse). It is normal to bring him gifts, those staying overnight should offer the headman between RM 10 – RM 20 per head. The money is kept in a central fund and saved for use by the whole community during festivals. Small gifts such as beer, coffee, biscuits, whisky, batik and food (especially rice and chicken) go down well. It is best to arrive at the longhouse late afternoon after people have returned from the fields. Visitors who have time to stay for the night generally have much more enjoyable experience than those who pay fleeting visits. They can share the evening meal and have time to talk and drink.

Do's and Don'ts
• On entering the longhouse – take off your shoes.
• Accept food and drink with both hands. If you do not want to eat or drink, the accepted custom is to touch the brim of the glass or the plate and then touch your lips as a symbolic gesture. Sit cross legged when sitting.
• When washing in the river, women should wear a sarong and men, shorts.
• Ask permission to take photographs. It is not unusual to be asked for a small fee
• Do not enter the longhouse during pantang (taboo) – a period of misfortune (normally following a death). There is normally a white (leaf) flag hanging near the longhouse to indicate this. During this period normally one week, there is no singing, dancing or music and no jewellery is worn.
• Bow your head when walking past people older than you



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