Tag Archives: sarawak

Oooooo-Ha’ing with the Iban

First of all, just know that despite the fact that when we look at the photos from this trip we are filled with a burning desire to know whether the glass Jenni is holding in each picture is carrying meningitis, we still consider this one of the absolute highlights of our entire trip.

The Iban are a Borneo tribe, a branch of the Dayak people. They are renowned for their headhunting practices and had a fearsome reputation in days past as a tribe successful in war and territorial expansion.

::Iban org chart::
::Iban org chart::

The Iban typically live in longhouses, which (not surprisingly) are long, rectangular buildings housing several families. They are somewhat akin to attached apartments, with separate rooms in the back fronted by a large common room spanning the length of the house, and a large verandah outside where residents dry crops and laundry. The indoor common area is typically used for welcoming guests and communal ceremonies. Of course historically they were quite rustic and many still are today, including the one we stayed at, though even this one had running water and toilets in an outhouse, and televisions in the rooms.

We were surprised to learn that for the most part this is not communal living.  Each family tends its own crops and eats its own harvest.  The original purpose of the longhouse was to provide safety in numbers.  Nowadays the allure of the city is too strong for many of the younger generation, and this legendary way of life may not be around so much longer.

To get to the longhouse, we took a longboat up the Lemanak River. These boats are narrow and quite long, like really long canoes. Luckily ours had a motor so the ride wasn’t too long, but our hosts still had to use a bamboo pole to punt the boat forward as we passed through shallow, rocky patches. Lady is jacked, my friends. These rides were surprisingly pleasant. The water is brownish and not terribly inviting, but the scenery is spectacular, the river flanked on either side by massive jungle trees and vines.

Once we arrived at the longhouse we took a quick tour of the property, visiting the house pigs and chickens (which we came to hate when the roosters crowed ALL. NIGHT. LONG.). The Iban grow dry rice (directly on the hillside, without terracing), pepper and a handful of other crops nearby, mostly for personal use, but they also sell their pepper once a month.

Alan joined the kids for a quick dip at bathtime. While they do have running water now, the laundry is washed, the people are bathed and the teeth are brushed in this murky river.

Once everyone was cleaned up, the real fun began. We joined Eric and Paul (our indescribably phenomenal guide and driver) and our hosts in the kitchen of one family’s living area while Eric and Paul finished cooking up our feast. And our boatman brought out the langkau at this point. Oh, the langkau. So much langkau. Langkau is a drink, which, per Wikipedia, “contains a higher alcohol content because it is actually made of tuak which has been distilled over fire to boil off the alcohol from the tuak, cooled down and collected into containers.” It’s hot as Hades in this little room to begin with, and with the oven going it got sweaty real fast. The men are hanging out shirtless, and the shotglass starts making its way around the room. The Iban believe in black magic and spirits, so they won’t drink something that you won’t drink yourself, and so when they drink the langkau, the person serving first pours himself a shot, lets out a hearty “oooooooh-ha!” cheers before taking it, then pours a shot (using the same glass) for his guest, and makes his way around the room offering everyone a round out of that same glass. (We checked with Eric afterwards and nobody at the longhouse has fallen ill, but doesn’t this just sound exactly like how your parents warned that you would get meningitis in college!?). Let’s just say the “ooooooh-ha’s” got progressively louder and louder as that shotglass made the rounds. We bought a bottle for the group (at the spectacular price of 6 MYR a bottle, how could you not? Perhaps that’s why we bought two over the course of the night). There was another couple staying at the longhouse and cooking in the next room with a different family, and we may or may not have gotten into an “ooooooh-ha” off. Iban drinking contests are the best drinking contests.

Our boatman, Bundong, the ripped 57 year old with ab ridges (what!? I don’t know many 20 year olds with abs like that!), was big on the langkau. Relentless with those shots. And his big grin is infectious as he pours himself a shot and says “I first.”

All that langkau had us working up an appetite, an appetite so great that Alan tried his first taste of chicken feet. We learned that the Iban look forward to these visits from tourists, despite that many of them cannot communicate with us verbally, because they get to hang out, drinking langkau and eating their favorite chicken feet soup. Eric and Paul are serious cooks, too. We thoroughly enjoyed the spread they prepared for us, and we were particularly blown away by the fried bitter gourd. I take back what I said in Penang, that shit is great.

Paul, our driver, was perhaps the most hilarious throughout the night. I don’t think he wore anything but a towel once we arrived at the longhouse (I don’t blame him, it’s insanely hot in there). The women wear sarongs.  They are Christian mixed with animist and not socially conservative in terms of dress, which Alan loved because he didn’t have to wear a shirt all night, either. When Paul brought out some bananas for dessert and offered them with a “ba-na-na-na” to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth, we all collapsed into laughter. Both Paul and Eric were so appreciative of us because it allowed them the opportunity to spend this time with the Iban, and we can totally understand why. Still, it was over the top when Paul sat there insisting that he is there to serve us and fanned us to offer some relief from the heat.

After dinner we all gathered in the common room to watch a few of our hosts perform their traditional dance. The rhythm of the beat was exotic and entertaining, and we adored watching the few guys and gals in costume move to the tunes.

Eric blew us away though, closing the performance with an impressive dance he crushed and then wowing us by lifting the mortar that weighs maybe 10 kilos with his teeth!!

We were invited to join for the dancing, and when you’ve had that much langkau it’s easy to get up there and take part, though we left the oral mortar lifting to the pro.

After the dance we gave our gifts to the chief. It’s customary and expected to bring small gifts for each of the 12 families as an offer of appreciation for their hospitality. We had picked up little boxes of tea and salt for each family at a shop on the way (not terribly exciting, but Eric advised that it’s something they would actually use. Still, had we come directly from the US it would have been nice to bring something more personal). They put the gifts in even piles on the floor and someone from each family gathers the loot. It reminded me of sorting the goodies and comparing your take to your brother’s after a night of trick-or-treating as a kid.

The drinking continued after the dancing, and well into the night. It was such a fun party, and we didn’t feel like outsiders at all. We were even brought in on the inside jokes, like their use of the word “nee-koh-dee,” which translates to “whatever,” and which everyone says with an almost Clueless tone to it and never fails to get people laughing. We became a little obsessed with the riddle games on Eric’s phone, and the guys even got massages from crazy Paul. Alan’s drunken munchies amused the crowd when he devoured half a loaf of cake late night. When it was finally time to hit the sack, Eric even tucked us in our mosquito nets ☺. We slept in the common room on mattresses they laid out. It was not the most restful night of sleep we’ve ever had, those roosters were like a caricature of farm life.

Eric and Paul made us another small feast for breakfast, which helped negate the effects of all that langkau 😉 . We tried our hand at the blowpipe after eating, and Jenni nailed a dead-center bullseye on her first try. Beginner’s luck for sure.

After a quick walk through the woods where we saw a rubber tree and some traditional animal traps, we hopped back on the longboat to go downriver for a picnic barbecue lunch on a rocky beach. Eric, Paul, Bundong and his wife cooked up yet another veritable feast for us. They cooked the chicken and a handful of other dishes wrapped in banana leafs and stuffed in bamboo shoots, which are then filled with some water and placed over the fire. Delicious. Bundong was back at it and the guys killed another bottle of langkau before continuing down and back to the van. Look at the joy on his face when he’s pouring those shots. Man loves his langkau.

Our time with the Iban was extraordinarily fun, an absolutely amazing experience that we will forever cherish.

On the drive up to the river, we had stopped in Serian, a crossroads and trading post where we checked out a native market with lots of fruits and vegetables, giant bins of catfish and other seafood, and some more exotic treats like soft shell turtle and even a huge python hacked into pieces and the lifeless body of another terrifying snake (we couldn’t snap photos of these as they’re illegal, but it didn’t stop the vendors from showing off their wares to us tourists). Alan was also tempted by the larger than life bacon slices on offer. While Eric was doing the shopping for our meals at the longhouse, we couldn’t help ourselves and had to sample some eats at the prepared food stations, the highlight by far being the “Mexican hats,” a superbly healthy mixture of deep-fried flour and brown sugar at the even sweeter price of three for one ringgit (about 30 cents US).

We also stopped along the road to see some even more impressive species of pitcher plants. Look at the size of those things! They are carnivorous plants with fascinating trapping mechanisms to catch their prey. We briefly explored Liew’s pepper farm and learned a bit about the pepper farming process, a common crop in Sarawak. On the drive back we also stopped to see some palm oil trees. Apparently these palm trees are farmed for their oil in these parts, and the plantations are known to attract king cobras who covet the rats eating the fallen fruits.

After our stay at the real longhouse, we drove a short way then took a boat to stay at a longhouse styled resort, the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort. The resort sits on the shore of a lake created when they dammed a river and flooded the area back in the 80’s.  The hotel has a nice lobby and grounds, which is great in the evening for sunset cocktails (and watching the fruit bats) and birds chirping in the morning.  The rooms could use a facelift, very 80’s/90’s jungle chic. And the longhouse design is neat and makes the buildings blend in nicely, but it also means your room is cut off from a view of the lake.  The staff were super friendly and the service was great, but we probably wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to stay here. That said, the pool area is pretty nice, and we enjoyed a swim as a relief from the pressing humidity and played a (pitiful) game of Scrabble poolside.  Still recovering from that langkau perhaps.

The resort also has a short jungle walk with a treetop canopy, which we explored with Eric. The tree-top walk is not ideal for those with a fear of heights, as it’s literally a series of ladders (narrow!) with two by fours laid atop it and a little bit of netting up the sides (wobbly! rickety!). Jenni was a real trooper to make it across, even Alan agreed it was a little scary :). Had I been able to look outwards, this is the view I would have seen:

On our ride back to Kuching we stopped for lunch at Ranchan, which is a small park with a swimming hole and waterfalls that kids would jump off up to maybe 30 feet. Lovely spot for a family Sunday, Borneo style.

Back in town we finally checked out the Sarawak Museum that had some good displays on fauna and native traditions and history, including some actual skulls from headhunting days and longhouse displays etc.

Practical Info

I believe that only Audley’s local agent sends guests to the particular longhouse we visited.  There are other day and overnight trips to longhouses, but we heartily recommend ours.  Especially if you can have the Eric and Paul team.

We offered our views on the Hilton above.  It was nearly empty as this was still the offseason.  There are lots of fruit bats and geckos around.  The lake is lovely but you cannot swim in it, I believe for safety concerns but it wasn’t clear whether this is due to a crocodile relative or risk of injuring yourself on the trees that were submerged when the dam was built.

You didn’t hear it from us, but you could buy beers for 5 MYR in advance vs. paying 20++ there.  That said, my Batang Ai Sunset cocktail was well worth the 24 MYR, as was my tilapia (many farms in the area) at dinner for 28 MYR.  Our room included breakfast, which entailed a ludicrous amount of food.  We got bread and pastries then cereal then pancakes then an omelet.  Plus coffee and fresh guava juice.

Back in Kuching, the Sarawak Museum is free and open every day but check the hours.

February 21-23, 2014 (Friday-Sunday)

Welcome to Borneo

The island of Borneo holds legendary status among travelers.  The name conjures images and thoughts of dense rainforest, mysterious cultures and exotic wildlife.  It is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea (Australia, being a continent, doesn’t count).  Roughly 70% of the island (mainly the southern portion) consists of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, with the remainder (mainly the northern portion) being the Malaysian states of Sarawak (in the west, where Kuching, our entry point, is located) and Sabah (in the east), plus the sovereignty of Brunei.

This is the first portion of our trip where we booked everything through a tour company (Audley).  Independent travel in Borneo seems quite doable, but we chose to spend less than two weeks on the island and felt it would be a smoother and more enjoyable destination if we had our plans laid out and the benefits of a private guide.

One of the biggest early surprises after doing research and arriving in Kuching is how developed the island is.  Kuching has a population of 650,000 and several buildings at least 15 stories tall.  For some reason, we kind of pictured Borneo as an undeveloped island with perhaps an airport or two and dirt roads and rivers.  I assume there are other landing strips for puddle jumpers, but Air Asia flies its Airbus A-320s to no fewer than eight different airports in Malaysian Borneo alone!

This city has a modern shopping mall with western chains and a Starbucks.  And a Maserati parked out front.  There is a large convention center outside town.  As if to confirm that we are not in the middle of nowhere, walking along the Kuching Waterfront we had our first chance encounter since California: we ran into Sheryl, my friend from Tufts.  Crazy small world.

For a city whose name literally translates to “cat” in the local language, you would think that it might appeal more to Jenni, but it somewhat underwhelmed. The cat thing is played up big time with cat statues all around the city (cheesy but cute) and souvenir and trinket shops selling I ❤ Kuching paraphernalia decorated with cats. There is clearly an effort underway to develop Kuching as a tourism hub for Borneo. It has the potential to become more Cancun than Cassis in class. Fingers crossed that this city can manage its growth well and preserve its character while adding facilities and benefitting locals.

Kuching is not a bad place at all.  It is pleasant enough and a fine place to spend a day or two to explore or while in transit.  The city is a bit weathered and our expectations were lofty. I think we envisioned a quaint, colonial-style riverfront village and that it is not. Perhaps though if we’d showed up here fresh from Los Angeles, and hadn’t just spent two and a half months gallivanting around other highlights of Asia we’d be more enticed by the Asian flair and the temples and all that. Are we becoming jaded!?

We definitely did enjoy the relief from Singapore prices and had a handful of tasty meals, including some fantastic laksa and teh tarik, a traditional spicy Malay noodle dish and tea drink, respectively. Walks along the Waterfront in the evenings were quite pleasant, with a handful of young musicians providing a soundtrack to the families and lovers walking about.  I really enjoyed my visit with Eric (while Jenni was sick) to the non-touristy Premier 101 Food Centre our last night in town. Tsingtao and chicken feet for the soul.

Our hotel was also a highlight, as it was the first place we stopped in Asia that had a bathtub. And not just any bathtub, a big lovely tub with a sliding door that opened to the balcony. Living large at The Ranee in Kuching.

Granted we are on a tropical island now, but it’s also the first place on our trip that we visited at the edge of its high season, and so we weren’t terribly surprised to experience our first rain on the trip since leaving the U.S.  But an impressive downpour and thunderstorm it was!  And very well-timed as it did not interfere with any of our scheduled activities.

There is much to see and do in Malaysian Borneo, and a comprehensive description is well beyond the scope of our blog.  But we will mention a couple places we skipped, in part because one area was a most difficult decision.  Some of the best places to see wildlife and I think the undisputed best places for tropical paradise islands in Borneo are in eastern Sabah.  This includes the Kinabatangan River and Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and world-famous SCUBA diving destinations like Sipadan and Mabul.  Unfortunately, there have been terrorist incidents on the offshore islands, with the most recent kidnap/murder occurring in November 2013.  The US State Department advises against travel to eastern Sabah.  We read the travel advice of the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, too.  Each is cautious on the coastal regions, though only the US recommends avoiding such a large geography.  Australia’s website warns: “There are recent indications that extremists may be in the advanced stages of planning to kidnap foreigners from locations in this vicinity.”

Most seasoned travelers will tell you that the US State Department is alarmist, and often we agree.  Every single person we asked (meaning Borneo residents and those in the travel industry operating on Borneo) said they would not worry about the travel warnings, or at least would only worry with respect to the offshore islands but not the slightly inland destinations of eastern Sabah.  People said they feel entirely safe there.  We take more comfort in such statements when the primary concern is petty or violent crime, as opposed to terrorism.  There is no right answer, but that is the decision we made.  Plus, we are hopeful that the risk will diminish over time (especially with the recent Philippines peace accord) and now we have a great reason to return.

Another top attraction we are skipping is the Gunung Mulu National Park.  This area in eastern Sarawak (close to Brunei) is famous for its karst formations and enormous caves, including the largest known natural chamber in the world.  We hope to return to visit this area, too.

Practical Info

Kuching is the largest city on the island of Borneo, with a population around 650,000.  It is the typical base for exploration of Sarawak.  It sits on the Sarawak River, a little south of the ocean.  Tourist activity seems concentrated on the Kuching Waterfront.  There is a lot of commercial activity on Jalan Padungan with food, hardware stores, bars, restaurants, etc.

There is a cluster of three banks with ATMs next to the Riverside Majestic hotel, across the street from a 24-hour McDonald’s.

We purchased a DiGi SIM card, and it was less smooth than in some other places.  Nobody could give us a clear answer on rates to call the US.  It seems to work fine.  We found lots of shops selling SIM cards on Jalan Padungan.  You can top up DiGi cards at 7-11, and you can also purchase U Mobile cards there.

Transportation: Kuching has an international airport about 15-20 minutes from downtown.  There is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean.  Air Asia flies here, and there are direct flights from several Asian cities.  Since we are using a tour company for Borneo, we did not arrange our own transport from/to the airport nor to Bako National Park, etc.  I would imagine it is not too difficult.  You can walk around most of the downtown area.

Accommodation: We stayed at The Ranee Boutique Suites located across from the Kuching Waterfront.  The room is large and well-decorated, with a sitting area and big, modern bath with separate tub.  The location is excellent.  The included breakfast leaves a bit to be desired.  There is a large Hilton and other high-rise hotels on the eastern end of the Waterfront.  I think you would want to stay around the Waterfront, but the central city area seems small enough that it probably doesn’t matter too much.

Food and Drink: Lunch at James Brooke Cafe on the Waterfront was great.  10 MYR for a large, delicious bowl of Sarawak Laksa.  We were a little disappointed by Top Spot food court, a collection of seafood and other stands atop a parking garage.  It is very popular with locals and tourists.  We ate at Ling Loong seafood, and my snapper was neither grilled nor filleted as requested and at 26 MYR the value is questionable.  Though in fairness I inquired at a food stall in town that seemed entirely local and was quoted a higher price per kilo.  We dined at The Junk, a supremely atmospheric restaurant with good food and mediocre service.  Pizza, risotto, a glass of house red and a pint of Guinness cost 113 MYR.  We had lunch at Little Lebanon by the Sarawak Tourism Complex, across from India Street.  The food was pretty good and they have hookahs, which they also call Hubbly-Bubbly.  There is another location on the Kuching Waterfront.

There are many vendors selling popcorn, chicken kebab, laksa and more along the Waterfront.  Waffle stands are all over and smell amazing. There are a couple popular stalls selling pork satay (0.60 MYR each, minimum five, limited hours) across from Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple (aka Shang Ti Temple) and next to Backpacker’s Stay.  We saw some Chinese noodle shops, dim sum spots and pork leg rice places on Jalan Padungan. Near India Street and the Electra House shopping center are food stalls with laksa, mee goreng, bao etc. for ~4 MYR per plate.

Premier 101 Food Centre is a mainly Hokkien hawker market located 10-15 minutes outside downtown.  There are hardly any other tourists, and perhaps 20-30 vendor stalls.  The spot at one end of the alley serves BBQ chicken feet (among other items) with a great, spicy dry rub (4 MYR).  I tried kolo mee (3 MYR) and kong pia (1 MYR each) and each was tasty.  Char siu bao (2 MYR) was also good.  The highlight was the apam balik, a very thin and crispy pancake that had ground peanuts and butter and was superb.

There are loaf-shaped cakes (Jenni deemed these “Tetris cakes”) sold around town, especially along Main Bazaar.  I hear Secret Recipe is the spot for cheesecake.

Zeus Sports Bar looks like a place you could catch EPL games.  21 Bistro had a more sophisticated menu.  Jambu and the Dyak are higher end restaurants that come recommended.

Activities: Walk along the Kuching Waterfront, which offers views across to the Astana palace (the official residence of the state Governor) and impressive State Assembly Building.  We did not visit any of the Chinese or Hindu temples and skipped a museum or two, but we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the very good Sarawak Museum.  It has informative displays on fauna, longhouses and headhunting (among more), and it is open every day with free admission.  Walk along India Street, Gambier Road and the Indian Mosque Lane that connects the two.  It didn’t seem like the India mosque was too exciting, but we weren’t dressed appropriately to enter so couldn’t tell for sure.  You can cross the river and we read there are some villages and an orchid garden.  There is a weekend market that I believe is now located outside the city.

Day trips are perhaps the premier activity of Kuching.  We visited Bako National Park, and it was awesome.  We stopped at the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary on our way to overnight at an Iban longhouse, but many visit the Sanctuary on a day trip that includes a nearer Iban longhouse.  You can also visit the Sarawak Cultural Village near Damai Beach.

February 18-21 + 23, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday + Sunday)