Meeting the locals in Sarawak, Borneo

Their headhunting days may be over, but a stay with Borneo's tribal peoples reveals they're hanging on to tradition in remarkable ways

Dan Linstead | Issue 94 | March 2008

What, I wondered, would a passing anthropologist make of the Poco Poco dance?

Around me stood a dozen women of the Kelabit tribe, weather-beaten grins beneath red woolly hats, arrayed in three vague ranks like a lost platoon from the Salvation Army. Chairs had been pushed back against the walls, a bare lightbulb hung overhead and, from an exhausted-looking CD player in the corner of the room, a nagging electronic wheedle, the Poco Poco itself, was rising once more.

“And again!” yelled Supang, the lodge’s matriarch, eyeing me with a glint that brooked no argument. To the disco beat – this year’s club hit from Jakarta or Brunei – the Kelabit ladies took two steps forward, two steps back, executed a perfectly synchronised half-turn that left me floundering (Supang shot me daggers) and began the rigmarole all over again. I had taken four flights and then hiked for hours to reach one of Borneo’s most remote villages – and now I had been press-ganged into doing the hokey-cokey.

I’d come to Sarawak with a mix of hope and trepidation. Hope that, somehow, this vast northern scoop of Borneo could live up to its absurdly romantic image: a Boy’s Own compendium of tattooed headhunters, White Rajahs, insect-devouring plants and a jagged-peaked rainforest littered with the malarial corpses of defeated explorers. And trepidation that logging, oil, tourism and the modernising thrust of Malaysia’s tiger economy would have reduced this fantasy to just that: a tall tale in a history book.

Above all, I wanted to know what was happening to Sarawak’s Dayak communities, those fearsome tribes that were once the stuff of children’s nightmares (the last recorded instance of headhunting in Borneo was as recent as the 1960s). What future could there be for the longhouse-dwelling Iban, the nomadic Penan, the hoop-eared Kelabits – hunter-gatherers who found themselves living in a micro-processor economy?

For a while, my trepidation held sway. Last year Malaysia celebrated 50 years of merdeka – independence from British rule – and progress has been meteoric. Flying in via Kuala Lumpur, with its scrum of newly built skyscrapers and business-school ambition, it’s hard to believe the hyper-modern capital was just a swamp just a century ago. Even in the decade since I’d last visited, the skyline has been punctured again and again. Today the Petronas Towers lord it over a steel-and-glass jungle of shopping malls and skytrains. KL hasn’t just caught up, you feel – it’s flown past.

The urban melting pot

I flew on too, away from Peninsular Malaysia and across the South China Sea to Kuching, Sarawak’s riverside capital. This was where the 19th-century ‘White Rajahs’ – James Brooke and his scions – launched their headhunter-quashing forays into the interior, finally bringing a modicum of calm to tribes who had been gleefully scalping each other for centuries.

These days, Kuching is KL’s country cousin: laid-back, welcoming, but fundamentally sharing the same get-ahead DNA. As we drove in from the brand new airport (the builders had finished six months early), the giant face of David Beckham stared down at me through the fronds of umbrella trees. “Life never stops in Celnet 3G territory!” the billboard exulted. Subaru dealerships gave way to KFCs and Guinness signs. “In the 60s, anything more than three miles out was considered jungle,” said Edward, my guide, gesturing to the now-sprawling suburbs. My Boy’s Own fantasy was looking pretty desperate.

As we nudged into town through the warm rain, Kuching’s true colours began to reveal themselves. We passed a mosque, then a Taoist temple, then an Anglican cathedral, then the Chinese market. A Sikh temple faced the headquarters of the Indian Muslim League. Rickety wooden Malay houses stood alongside rajah-era mansions. Contrast was everywhere. I asked Edward – who resembled an oriental Alan Whicker – about his own background. “Oh, I’ve got history,” he smiled. “My father was English; my mother was half-Japanese, half Bidayuh.”

It was a story I would come across again and again as I explored Sarawak. In a state harbouring 37 different minorities, all tumbled together through a century of wars and migration, the producers of Who Do You Think You Are? would have a field day. Here, genealogy feels less like a hobby and more like an urgent requirement. I knew, for example, that half of the population was from indigenous communities – but where were they?

In vain I scoured Kuching’s streets for telltale tattoos or extravagant hairstyles. Even Edward admitted that, on looks alone, he often couldn’t distinguish an Iban (the descendants of Sarawak’s most blood-curdling warriors) from a Malay (descendants of easy-going fishermen). So what hope did I have?

I needed to get beneath the surface.

The Iban – Sarawak’s largest ethnic group – are scattered all over the southern half of the state, and their longhouses decorate its rivers and tributaries. Everyone was at pains to tell me how friendly the Iban were these days. Any skulls would be purely decorative. They’d be delighted to meet me, really. So after a couple of days in Kuching, I drove east on the long, empty, perfectly maintained highway towards the Lemanak River.

Rivers as roads

The road snaked through unbroken dipterocarp forest, cliffs of foliage rising either side of us and offering the occasional glimpse of craggy escarpment beyond – the border with Indonesia. Pitcher plants grew in the verges, as common as thistles, silently digesting their insect prey. The air-con fought a losing battle with the soaring humidity. I chatted to Selvam, a burly, tattooed Tamil guide who had spent 20 years working and living in the jungle. He told me it was his ambition to be dropped by helicopter in the middle of Borneo, without equipment – and then walk out. He looked like he’d make it. Bear Grylls, eat your heart out.

Finally we turned off the road, down a rutted track, and pulled up at the river. A longboat nestled at the edge. A kid in a dirty baseball cap and a girl in flip-flops grinned shyly at me. Here were the dreaded Iban.

Heading upriver, our greatest danger was running aground. The Lemanak was running fast and low, and our husband-and-wife crew (for so they turned out to be) were forced to alternate bursts of outboard engine with frantic polings to get us through the shallows.

From either riverbank, gnarled trunks vaulted improbably into the air, touching fingers in gymnastic glee high overhead. The canopy swayed and sparkled. Sat in the middle of the boat, near neither engine nor pole, I could only lean back and soak up the never-failing WOW of the rainforest, as our hosts valiantly spurted and heaved us forwards.

My guilty reverie came to end as we rounded a bend and there, a few yards back from a pebble beach, was the Ngeimah longhouse. With its rough, wonky boards and corrugated roof, it looked like an end-of-the-garden children’s den that had spiralled out of control. Two roughly carved figures – one male, one female – stood guard over the entrance, and behind them a ramshackle spirit house held the rotting giblets of a sacrificed chicken. Around me, women were laying out rubber to dry or weaving rattan mats; men were sharpening parangs (large knives) and tinkering with a chainsaw. Chickens squawked and pigs oinked. This was home for 14 families.

Jungle rhythms

Over the next couple of days, with Selvam translating, I learned their rhythms. I watched as the men used that chainsaw to bring down a mighty tree on the opposite bank, and start hollowing it out to make a boat. I saw the hunters leave in the morning, armed with rifles, in search of wild boar or mouse deer. I hiked into the jungle and saw them hack the succulent hearts from palm trees and extract fat, wriggling sago worms from their rotting trunks. I saw the claw marks of honey bears, and the giant ants whose locked jaws the Iban use to stitch wounds. I saw where they tapped the latex from rubber trees and how they set traps for turtles on the riverbank. I goggled at their ingenuity.

Each night I was invited through one of the longhouse doors into a family’s private room to eat. By candlelight we sat on the floor, eating rice and jungle ferns, and sharing a bottle of tuak – rice wine – a ritual unchanged for generations. On my last night, though, over in the corner of the room, draped beneath a red towel, I noticed a huge TV set, the screen grey and dusty.

"But there’s no electricity here, surely?" I asked Selvam. He laughed.

“A lot of what they have is just for show. It’s for prestige, like in the headhunting days. The Iban may have adapted but they hold true to their spirit beliefs and customs.” Suddenly the blank TV set looked less like a depressing sign of the times, and more like a triumph.

When it was time to leave I felt none of the sadness that tribal encounters often bring – that sense that a way of life is vanishing day by day, that it will be gone before you return. At Ngeimah at least, the Iban had found a working compromise. The longhouse was bustling. The residents were taking what they needed from the outside world – power tools, medicine and the odd visitor like me – but sticking to their roots. “They all want to come back to the longhouse,” Selvam told me. “They like the community.”

But if the Iban are thriving in the lowland jungle around Kuching, in the wilds of northern Sarawak a different tale is playing out. The Orang Ulu, or upriver tribes, make up a mere 5% of the population – and they face an uncertain future. One reason is their remoteness. With no roads beyond that single, coast-hugging highway, the only way into these regions is by boat or by air. I was opting for the latter, flying north first to Miri, then into the interior aboard a 20-seater Twin Otter.

Highland fling

My destination was Bario, the only town in the Kelabit Highlands, a region on the densely forested northern spine of Sarawak that was virtually unknown until 1945, when British troops parachuted in. Even today, few travellers make it this far. We’d made an odd group in Miri’s departure lounge: a few grizzled trekkers and an elderly Kelabit couple with hooped ears and tattooed throats. The little plane wobbled into the air, and for an hour we buzzed over a green-grey carpet lacerated by the red claw-marks of logging roads. I’d expected them – but not so many, and so deep. The scars finally petered out as we rose over a sharp ridge, and an Elysian field of rice paddies and scattered buildings opened up beneath us. A minute later we were idling on Bario’s tiny runway.

Before the British dropped in, the Kelabit worshipped the spirits of the forest, lived in longhouses and practised headhunting – much like the Iban. But, unlike the Iban, they were a small group, isolated for far longer from outside influences – and as such they’ve attracted huge interest from anthropologists. In the window of Bario’s newly installed, satellite-linked internet café I found a poster for an upcoming academic conference on Kelabit culture. It was a telling image: in two generations, the Kelabit have risen from the Stone Age to the computer age.

That headlong shift has had obvious consequences for longhouse life. With Billy, I visited the Bario Asal (or ‘old Bario’) longhouse. It was huge. Home, in theory, to 23 Kelabit families, its long, dark corridor of living space stretched away to distant daylight like a tube tunnel – but it was virtually empty. A few elderly residents shuffled around blackened cooking pots, their lined faces illuminated by firelight.

A smell of ashes lingered. It was very quiet. “Only the grandparents live here now,” said Billy. “Nowadays people here don’t love longhouses. If there’s a fire, everything burn, la? People want to build their own homes instead.”

Today, only about a thousand Kelabit remain in the highlands, many of them elderly like the residents of Bario Asal. Meanwhile, their sons and daughters are hard at work in the mainstream of Malaysian society (the current MD of Malaysia Airlines is Kelabit), earning money to build their holiday homes back in Bario.

And you can see why. The highlands remain an eerily beautiful (and wonderfully cool) region of mixed rainforest and rolling hills, where hornbills – one of the most threatened icons of Borneo wildlife – can still be found. There are no roads, and the rivers aren’t navigable. To get anywhere, you walk along jungle trails, carrying your kit and sleeping in homes or basic jungle shelters.

Billy and I set off for Pa Lungan, a half-day hike from Bario. The dirt track led us past missionary churches – the battle for animist souls began post-War – and through a field of waist-high ferns that was once a British airstrip. From time to time the jungle closed in; we passed stands of rattan and hardwood, and the occasional ancient giant supported on buttressed roots, its trunk enveloped in strangler figs and epiphyte orchids. A late afternoon downpour made the undulating track treacherous, and rain pooled in the hoof marks and sledge-ruts left by straining water buffalo. We slip-slid through the mud, me in my hiking boots, Billy in his plastic sandals – or “Bario Reeboks”, as he dubbed them.

“When the wind’s right you can hear the loggers’ bulldozers from here,” Billy told me as we squelched on. “We try to stop it, but we can’t.” It was a gloomy thought – for in every other way the highlands felt utterly secluded from the modern world.

Longhouse Rock

At dusk we arrived at Pa Lungan, a football-pitch-sized cluster of clapboard houses overlooked by glowering hills. At Batu Ritung Lodge, Supang hadn’t been expecting us – with no phone, news travels at the speed of foot – but within minutes she had conjured up a feast of wild boar in honey, river fish, papaya and rice. Billy and I were the only guests.

“We are always prepared,” Supang told me with a huge smile, explaining how she had returned to the highlands to open the lodge after living in Kuching for 30 years. We ate to the accompaniment of Elvis and Johnny Cash on the CD player.

After supper, Supang led me into a side room to show me the family heirlooms. There were necklaces of stone beads, an ancient ceremonial urn and four great bronze gongs hanging from the ceiling rafters like an ogre’s earrings. On the wall was a faded photograph of her father, taken in the 1940s, smiling at the camera through gold-capped teeth, his stretched earlobes looped back over his ears. “He was the headman,” she told me. “After the war he was the first Kelabit to visit Kuching.” Another photo, taken much later, showed him wearing a suit – and with unadorned ears. “He had them cut when he was working in Singapore. He got fed up with the attention.”

I was still pondering this when the room resounded to an almighty chime. “The village telephone,” Supang smiled, replacing the gong beater on its hook. “I’ve invited a few friends around to show you our Kelabit customs.”

And that was how I became acquainted with the Poco Poco – a daft piece of choreographed pop that Supang had brought back from the big city and introduced to the ladies of Pa Lungan. It was a hilarious evening, involving some truly appalling dancing on my part as I was cajoled through the steps by the giggling villagers.

When I was eventually permitted to rest my two left feet, I watched two of them perform a traditional hornbill dance – a slow, twirling movement of dignified grace – to the lute-like sound of the sape. I knew they only did this for visitors; that the hornbill-feather fans spent most of their life in mothballs; that Supang actually preferred 50s rock to sape music. But it didn’t matter. My Boy’s Own fantasy was long gone, for sure, but what I had found instead was something infinitely more interesting.

The Poco Poco might not be the kind of culture I – or those anthropologists converging on Bario – had come looking for, but like that useless Iban television, it seemed a hopeful sign. Despite the depopulation and deforestation, the last of the true highland Kelabit are still doing things on their own terms. Towards midnight they drifted back to their homes, laughter mingling with the chirrup of cicadas and the soft whoop of birdcall in the jungle dark beyond.

The author travelled with Audley Travel

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