Sean Silbert ventures into Borneo’s jungle to experience life with a notoriously warlike tribe.
I’ve lost track of time. My boat has been floating down river for what seems like half a day, deeper and deeper into the verdant, humming jungle. Soon we will enter the lands of the Iban, the original inhabitants of Borneo, whose past reputation for prowess in warfare, in particular for headhunting, makes me nervous.
The water level is low today, frequently splashing over the edge into our shallow longboat. Our only milestones are the Iban’s longhouses, towering above us on the riverbank.
No longer a violent people, the villagers are welcoming and gregarious, and homestays with them are easy to organise through the Sarawak Tourism Board. My own trip to meet them began in Song, a two-street town in the state of Sarawak, where I met a Malaysian English teacher, Sam, who promised me room and board in the tribal village where he taught, so long as I practised English with his Iban students.
Traditionally the Iban live in longhouses, with many rooms along a wide corridor. This serves as a central gathering area for the community, which comprises many families under one roof. They have a lot on hand to prepare for the upcoming harvest festival, when families reunite and perform traditional dances and games. But for now, the longhouse is half empty. Young people go to the cities to work, leaving only the very young and the very old. On my arrival, the old men who greet me are covered in black-ink geometric tattoos that seem lifted straight out of National Geographic.
Sam, giddy with enthusiasm, has them bring out the dusty instruments of tribal life: a blowpipe taller than a man, which a crouching elder brings to his lips to demonstrate, firing a dry run. And, of course, the ceremonial machete once used to hack off the heads of their enemies.
As we slurp down a dinner of frog soup, the trim moustachioed chief of the longhouse proudly recounts the history of his people: the Iban originally migrated from Kalimantan in Indonesia, and would kill their enemies with a brutality nearing genocide. Lands were overpopulated and young men, keen to prove their manhood, would often go on raiding parties.
But after missionaries arrived in the 20th century and globalisation made the world smaller, the Iban were persuaded to give up their warlike ways. Headhunting simply wasn’t compatible with modern life.
The next morning, our group goes to see other longhouses where the children’s parents live. We pass mothers weaving mats and stop at one of the houses to watch a man making a boat, carving out the inside and polishing it up so it’s ready to sell at the market. I sneak a few photos, then feel Sam’s hand grab me. ‘I have something to show you,’ he says excitedly.
Somehow, Sam has convinced a woman to bring out two human skulls. They’re not meant to be brought out until the festival, but she lets us see the head bones, and even handle them. They are much smaller than the skulls I’ve seen in horror movies, and dirtier, too.
But I only have a few minutes to ponder these. They are quickly put away, but not before a chicken is sacrificed. The spirits need blood.
I am soon led away to lunch, a lizard they shot yesterday. I gnaw on the tough flesh and rip it with my hands. It’s fair to say it’s unlike any other holiday I or you are ever likely to go on.
Need to know
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from Dhs2,751 return.
A 45-minute flight with Air Asia from Kuching to Sibu costs from Dhs186 return.
From Sibu, take the express boat to Song which takes two hours and costs Dhs11 (regular) or Dhs16 (first-class).