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What It's Like to Stay in an Iban Longhouse on Borneo

April 30, 2014 at 2:07 PM | by | ()

Similar to the Native American reservations here in America, native tribes maintain ownership of certain plots of land on the island of Borneo. One such tribe, the Iban, inhabits the jungles outside of Kuching in Malaysia, and makes its home in community lodging facilities known as “longhouses.”

The name is a pretty accurate description of their appearance. Picture a long, rectangular "motel" with side-by-side rooms and a common-area patio that runs the entire length. This is essentially the setup for the longhouse, except the outside common area is enclosed, and beyond that is an outdoor patio. Each room houses a single family and consists of two rooms, the bedroom and the kitchen. The bedroom also doubles as a living room when the mattresses are removed from the floor and leaned against the wall.

Through Planet Borneo, you can visit and/or spend the night in a longhouse. This writer chose to do the latter, and it was an incredible experience to see the traditional and communal way in which the tribe lives. Entering the longhouse is like walking into your grandfather’s toolshed. Hand-made nets and machetes, woven palm baskets, and fermenting rice wine (tuak) are the finished products, but signs of craftsmanship and resourcefulness are around every corner and on every shelf.

As guests, we were invited to dinner in the chief’s room (each longhouse has one chief). After, we all gathered in the common room, drank rice wine and shared stories. Despite being on an organized tour, it was highly personal (I went only with my two friends, not a large group) and it was absolutely authentic, not something arranged for tourists. This was where the Iban actually lived, and that was more than evident. By partnering with Planet Borneo and allowing overnight guests, the longhouse is able to earn itself some income. The accommodations were very basic in the form of mattresses on the floor in the common area, which you can see leaning up against the wall in the photo above.

Ask questions, and you’ll learn the ins and outs of the culture, including the “midnight courtship,” where a male sneaks into a woman’s room and quietly wakes her up (without waking up her parents) for a bedside conversation. Be sure to take your shoes off and leave them outside, and always ask before taking photos, especially of people. Also, be prepared to get up early. When the sun rises, the roosters crow, the dogs bark, and the Ibans rise to begin the day. By 6 a.m., there was hammering, cooking, and, above all, laughter.

This particular longhouse was located about an hour’s boat ride from Batang Ai, which is a four-hour car ride from Kuching. If you want to learn more about how you can have a similar experience on your next visit to Southeast Asia’s largest island, visit Planet Borneo’s website.

[Photos: Will McGough]

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