Borneo: At home with the headhunters

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Sean Silbert ventures deep into Borneo’s jungle lands to experience life with a notoriously warlike traditional tribe and comes out a little worse for wear

I’ve lost track of time. My boat has been floating downriver 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 somewhat 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 steep riverbank. Suddenly, my guide leans over to me and, with a big grin on his face, says, “Now we’re on our land, we drink.” He pulls out his tipple of choice, some Tiger beer cans he snuck in his bag, and cracks them open.

This is the reality of modern Iban life: 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 English teacher of Malaysian descent, Sam, who promised me room and board in the tribal village where he taught, so long as I practised English with his Iban students.

Still, while visitors are no longer at risk of a poisoned dart to the neck, there is one warning everyone should heed: do not try to out-drink an Iban. They start boozing early, and when hosting guests, they will pour a distressingly powerful rice wine called tuak, which they homebrew in ceramic jars. 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. Longhouses can be huge, and each one has its own tuak. It’s considered a compliment to tell the inhabitants that their brew is particularly strong. 

I taste tuak for the first time later that night. They have a good quantity on hand in preparation for the upcoming harvest festival, where 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, which seem lifted straight out of the pages 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 driven to confrontation, 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, we visit 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 whispers 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 them in front of me. 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 manage to gnaw on the tough flesh and rip it apart with my hands. Somehow this lunch turns into a drinking session. Keeping up with the tribesmen, I down three glasses as we make our way through the pile of reptilian bones. Poor decision. The next thing I know, I’m on a mattress in the hall, watching the next day break. Sam sits next to me, giggling. “The tuak got you, huh?” It appears I did lose my head after all.

Where to stay

Iban longhouses can be found throughout many parts of Sarawak. Many longhouses have adapted to modern times, with TVs and air conditioning, and some even have internet access. For help booking a tour, contact the Sarawak Tourism Board (sarawaktourism.com).

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) flies direct from Hong Kong to Kuching from $3,950 (including taxes). A 45-minute flight with Malaysian Airlines from Kuching to Sibu costs from $350 return (including taxes). From Sibu, you can take the express boat to Song, which takes two hours and costs $25 (regular) or $35 (first-class).

And while you’re in Borneo, don’t miss…

Kuching 
As the largest city in Borneo, Kuching has an irresistible,
laid-back atmosphere. Also, be sure to visit Kuching’s Chinatown: the pastel, century-old buildings built by Chinese merchants have taken on new life as bars and restaurants. The city centre also has plenty of interesting sights, such as the colossal cat statues. 

Bako National Park 
Bako is the oldest national park in Sarawak, as well as one of the best places in the area to see proboscis monkeys (and their obscenely long noses). 

Gunung Mulu National Park 
Gunung Mulu is often referred to as Sarawak’s natural tourist attraction, boasting the Sarawak Chamber and Deer Cave, two of the world’s largest and longest caves. You can also climb the Pinnacles, a two-day hike up the mountains, for some astonishing views. Fly direct from Kuching with MASwings (maswings.com.my; $875 return inc taxes).

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