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Canoeing through the jungles of Borneo.
Canoeing through the jungles of Borneo.
Inside the chief's longhouse.
The headhunters of Borneo.

Iban Longhouse

Thursday, July 12, 2001
Meet the headhunters of Borneo — the land of the hornbills, endless rivers and steamy rainforests.

Sarawak, on the north-western edge of Borneo, is naturally beautiful and exotic. Thirty ethnic groups live there and, mixed with its natural attractions and rich history reaching back 40,000 years, it is one of Malaysia's most popular destinations. The Sarawak Cultural Village has replicas of homes of the major ethnic groups — Iban, Chinese, Malay, Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulus.

Sarawak is known as "The Land of the Hornbills", named after a majestic bird believed by the Iban people to be a messenger from the spirit world. The birds are most evident in ceremonies, beliefs and dances.

Sarawak is a land of endless rivers making their way through dense, steamy rainforests. Its natural wonders include the carnivorous pitcher plant, sundew, wild orchid and rafflesia, the world's largest flower. It is also home to a wonderful array of animals — bearded pigs, silver leaf and proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques.

It offers wonderful opportunities for adventurous travellers — jungle trekking, mountain climbing, caving, mountain-biking and river safaris.

The Iban people were notorious headhunters as recently as 50 years ago, but now they enjoy colourful festivals and dances telling of heroism and spiritualism. They are mobile people who exist by fishing, hunting and growing rice in the jungle.

For centuries, they have lived in communities known as longhouses and love to have visitors —it shows they are wanted. Few visitors leave a longhouse without being impressed by the harmony and generosity of the residents, and how well-behaved their children are. Crime, divorce, child-abuse and social disease are practically unheard of.

The most accessible longhouses are situated off the Skrang, Lemanak, Batang Ai and Rejang River areas, but getting to them involves a boat ride through almost impenetrable rainforest in a long, thin boat called a perahu. These are the workhorses of the waterways and they whiz along the rivers, passing under huge, prehistoric-looking elipinat trees clinging to the riverbank with giant roots.

All of a sudden, as if by magic, a longhouse appears. They are one-storey dwellings with a roof of woven sago palm fronds. Some accommodate 500 people, while other communities are as small as a few dozen. They are measured by doors — one door for each family. A main hall, which is a social centre, stretches the length of the building and families live in large rooms off to each side. There is great respect for each other's space and invisible barriers are observed — even the family dog dozes only outside his owners' room.

During the day, when most people are working in the fields, the longhouses have a serenity about them, with children playing quietly on woven mats and being watched over by a community elder.

After the evening meal, things liven up. Families socialise and gather in front of the chief's room, which is invariably right in the centre of the building and decorated with antique human skulls.

Visitors are treated to a performance of traditional dancing and music and a rather potent spicy rice wine. They sell crafts, which tend to be better and cheaper than similar items for sale in the cities.


Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo.


World Expeditions have a 20-day trip, which includes return economy airfares with Malaysia Airlines, accommodation and one night at an Iban Longhouse, transfers and most meals. Prices start at $5155 from Sydney and Melbourne, $5130 from Brisbane, $5150 from Adelaide and $5120 from Perth. Prices are per person, twin share.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

World Expeditions
Ph: 1300 720 000 or (02) 9264 3366
For a safe and healthy journey, talk to the travel doctor: 1300 658 844 or visit
Vaccinations: Tetanus/Diphtheria and Measles if under 30 years, Hepatitis A and in some areas Typhoid may be advised. Long stay: Hepatitis B/Rabies/JE/TB. Malaria can be a risk depending on destination. Anti-malarial tablets may be recommended. Take plenty of sunscreen and an insect repellent containing DEET. Both are almost impossible to find. Gut problems are common and it is good to be prepared with a Travel Kit for quick and effective treatment.

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