By KIRSTEN CUNNINGHAM
The hospitality of longhouse people cannot be surpassed. Travellers come from around the world to experience a unique stay in one of Sarawak’s many tribal longhouses, and more and more Malaysians are doing the same.
However, the popularity of the longhouse visits has turned a once unique experience into a highly profitable commercial enterprise, and many longhouse tribes feel forced to ‘perform’. Many travellers also feel the tours are too fabricated and would prefer a more ‘authentic’ experience.
Getting off the beaten track to stay at a less touristy longhouse, as we discovered, has its risks. You are literally at the mercy of your guides, and should they turn out to be like Captain Undies, you are going to be stressed out, not relaxed.
The incompetence of Captain Undies could have had more serious repercussions than leeches and wet passports.
The attitudes of the guides in the Belaga area towards women make it unsafe to travel without a male, and the amount of alcohol consumed can also make you feel very unsafe.
Yet problems with alcohol and attitudes on guided longhouse tours towards women seem to be a problem in the Belaga area only.
The other popular area for longhouse visits is the Kelabit Highlands, where the guides are highly knowledgeable about local flora and fauna.
After Belaga we travelled to Bario and did a combination of jungle trekking, longhouse stays and river safaris in the Kelabit Highlands. The gentle and welcoming nature of the Kelabit people make it much safer for women travellers, and many solo females travel alone with a guide. Alcohol abuse is frowned upon because of religious reasons making a trekking and longhouse tour around Bario a much safer and stress- free option.
TIPS FOR TREKS AND LONGHOUSE VISITS
-You must be invited to a longhouse. Guided tours are the easiest way to do this although you may be lucky enough to meet someone who invites you to stay.
-Guided tour prices are negotiable. So bargain!
-Guides are plentiful in both Belaga and Bario. If you are uncomfortable with one guide then choose, or ask for another.
-Make sure it is absolutely clear what is included in the tour as some of the operators can be deceptive and you may find yourself having to pay for food and lodging at the longhouse when you thought it was included.
-Also make sure you are clear on your itinerary, what are you supposed to be doing and when.
-Alcoholism can be a huge problem with the guides in the Belaga area. If you are uncomfortable with this then refuse to go unless your operator can promise the guides will be sober during the day.
-Women should not travel alone or without a male companion around Belaga, however many women have done so safely in Bario.
- Gifts for the longhouses may not be appropriate. Always check with your guide what you should and shouldn’t bring. As a general rule, biscuits that can be shared with adults and school supplies for children are preferable to candy and cigarettes.
Source: The Star