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Blackened human skulls, taboos, rat-eating plants and deadly darts await in the Borneo jungle...

Blackened human skulls severed by headhunters hang from Iban longhouse rafters.
Blackened human skulls severed by headhunters hang from Iban longhouse rafters.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Grisly grins greeted us from the severed human skulls. Bundled together, they hung from the rafters. We knew our Borneo hotel would be a former headhunter longhouse, but we didn't expect to see the purloined heads. Cobwebs spanned the lifeless eye sockets of the blackened skulls so we realised, with relief, that they weren't fresh.

"Honey, we're not in Toronto, anymore..."

There was no turning back from our Borneo adventure. We were in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the northwest coast of Borneo, the third largest island in the world.

The largest of the 13 states in Malaysia, with 124,000 square kilometres of land, and an 800-kilometre coastline, Sarawak faces the South China Sea. Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) borders it, in the south, while Brunei and the Malaysian state of Sabah flank Sarawak on the northeast.

Longboats with villagers and bags of peppercorns. Trees arch over longboat on Skrang River.
Longboats with villagers and bags of peppercorns (left).
Trees arch over longboat on Skrang River (right).
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Getting to the Sarawak longhouse took a full day. Our Borneo holiday began with a one-hour, 40-minute Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. From Kuching, a four-hour drive on the Trans-Borneo Highway brought us to the Skrang River, where we boarded longboats for a one-hour journey to the Borneo longhouse.

Reptile massacre

Our Borneo trip had its share of unexpected encounters, like the monitor lizard, slaughtered before our eyes, when we stopped in Serian to visit the local market. Even bystanders grimaced as the cleaver severed its neck, letting the blood drain into the street sewer.

Monitor lizard tied to pole next to basket of fish in Serian market
Monitor lizard tied to pole next to basket of fish in Serian market
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As the butcher tied the monitor lizard's sharp-clawed feet to a pole, for easy transport, he uttered something in Malay to our guide, Joseph Daniel, who translated: "Good meat. Tastes like chicken." We should've seen that one coming.

Joseph is Bidayuh, one of 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak. "We're also called Land Dayaks," he explained, "because years ago, the Ibans drove us inland. Ibans are the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, Malaysia, comprising 30 per cent of the population. They had the reputation of being the most fearsome head-hunters in Borneo. The Murat Longhouse, where we're staying, is Iban. I also grew up in a longhouse, and I speak Iban as well as Bidayuh."

According to Joseph Daniel, visitors traditionally bring gifts to the longhouse headman. The Serian market sold fresh fish, jungle greens and fruits, dried fish, plastic containers, straw hats and brooms. But what do you buy as a house gift for a headman?

Leach remedy

"Tuak," advised Joseph. "It's fermented rice wine." We also bought gifts for the children - candy and small toys. Joseph suggested cigarettes for the adults. We hesitated, considering the health hazards.

"Cigarettes are ideal for detaching leaches that cling to your skin," he said.

"Leaches?" We shuddered, recalling that our trip included a jungle walk. We bought a few packs.

Sarawak peppercorn vines climb poles on hillside next to house.
Sarawak peppercorn vines climb poles on hillside next to house.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Green peppercorns

Our 235-kilometre drive through Sarawak continued, past Iban padi (rice), pepper and cocoa plantations. We stopped at a pepper plantation, which resembled a vineyard, with vines growing up stakes. Sarawak is the fifth largest exporter of peppercorns in the world. "Green, red, white and black peppercorns all come from the same plant," explained the owner, who held out a grape-like cluster for us to examine.

"The peppercorns change from green to yellow then red. Dried green berries turn black. To make white peppercorns, we soak red berries in sacks in the Skrang River for two weeks. We then we wash away the red skins and dry the white peppercorns that remain."

Nearby, our boatman and motorised longboat awaited on the Skrang River. A refreshing breeze wafted over us as we skimmed the café au lait-coloured river under dense emerald foliage that arched over the water. Fishermen cast bamboo traps into the river, bare-breasted women washed clothing in the river and longboats transported dimpled sacks of peppercorns.

Long houses

Rounding a bend, we glimpsed a long, wooden building. "Iban longhouses are built on stilts to prevent animals from entering," explained Joseph.

Iban hunter carries blowpipe into Murat longhouse.
Iban hunter carries blowpipe into Murat longhouse.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Murat Longhouse has bilek or rooms for 25 families. Some communal longhouses are much larger, with up to 100 households under one roof. There are more than 4,000 Sarawak Malaysia longhouses, mostly along the Skrang, Lemanak, Batang Ai and Rejang Rivers. You'll find Bidayuh longhouses, like Kampung Gayu and Kampung Annah Rais, close to Kuching, and Orang Ulu longhouses in the interior regions of Sarawak."

"Although missionaries converted many Ibans to Christianity, some are still animists with superstitious beliefs," said Joseph. "If a certain bird sings in a specific location when you get off the boat, it's considered a bad omen, and you can't enter the longhouse. Likewise, if you see live branches tied to a longhouse, you can't enter, because someone is sick or has recently died."

Fortunately, no ritual prohibitions prevented our Iban longhouse visit. Children greeted us, as we climbed the notched log ladder at the entrance. Joseph introduced us to Tuai Rumah (headman) Bansing, who warmly welcomed us inside.

"How was your harvest?" we asked, with Joseph translating. Delighted that we knew the traditional Iban greeting, he smiled and responded that it was good. "Iban people believe that visitors bring good luck."

We removed our shoes to tour the premises. A ruai (covered verandah), with rows of support posts, extended the length of the house. Doors opened into family apartments. Magazine photos, government agricultural posters and deer antlers decorated the walls.

Family heirlooms

Longhouses are renowned for their hospitality, and Murat was no exception. One Iban family invited us into their home and proudly showed us their ceramic heirloom jars. Used for storing tuak, rice and other staples, they were obtained from trade, hundreds of years ago, and passed from one generation to the next.

A petite grandmother greeted us, gold teeth flashing as she spoke. "It's been too long since you've been here," she told Joseph.

The kitchen had both a propane stove and a wood-fuelled fireplace. Family members sat in a circle, on the floor, eating dinner from several small communal dishes. "Their main dish is barking deer," said Joseph. "It tastes like pork."

"While I cook dinner, you can visit the families," he added. "Just remember one more taboo: Don't photograph any babies under one month old, before they receive their names."

He taught us the Iban phrase: Tau aku ngambi gambar nuan? (May I take your photo?)

Tattooed Iban man sharpens bamboo darts.
Tattooed Iban man sharpens bamboo darts.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Poison arrows

In the waning light on the ruai, grandparents sat on woven mengkuang (pandanus or screw pine leaf) mats, playing with grandchildren and mending fish nets. Women and men wove baskets, by flickering candlelight. An old man, adorned with navy blue tattoos of birds and flowers, beat a small drum.

One man made darts for his blowpipe. After attaching a chunk of pith to one end of the shaft for stability, he notched the opposite pointed tip so it would break upon hitting its target, leaving the poison tip inside.

Older people spoke only Iban. The younger generation also spoke Malay and English, learned in boarding schools, which they attended on weekdays. We communicated surprisingly well with a combination of Malay, English and sign language.

Joseph called us to a delicious dinner of stir-fried chicken and vegetables, deep-fried fish, rice and steamed jungle fern, which reminded us of asparagus. We used the family's dishes and cutlery and, like them, sat on the floor to eat.

Story and photos continue in Part 2: Borneo Adventure and Cultural Experience


Tourism Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines

Sarawak Tourism Board

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Penang Hawker Stalls Offer Cheap and Delicious Food

Kuala Kangsar — Ubudiah Mosque and Sultan of Perak's Residence

Ipoh's Buddhist Cave Temples in Perak Malaysia