Sunday, September 18, 2011

A shot of wild Borneo

THE chief's wife has been expecting me. Shaking my hand, she gestures to a vacant spot on the straw mat. I take my seat opposite two village women and wait in awkward silence as shots are poured from a bottle of rice wine. All eyes are on me. Glancing at Nam, my guide, I raise my glass and down the fiery liquid. It tastes something like petrol. Trying not to cough, I thump my chest with a closed fist as the women start to laugh. I'm already feeling slightly drunk and it's only 10am.

The day had started benignly enough. Along with two local boatmen, Nam had picked me up from my base at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort on the shores of the Batang Ai Lake peninsula, about 275 kilometres east of Sarawak's capital, Kuching.

We cruised for several hours upriver into the jungle before arriving here at the remote Nanga Sumpa Longhouse on the Delok River. Home to about 120 Iban people- the largest of Sarawak's 22 indigenous tribes - the longhouse is accessible only with a guide and pre-arranged permission.

With funding from a Malaysian adventure company, the locals have built a series of huts to accommodate a limited number of visitors and, with a little forward planning, guests can now stay for a few nights.

My visit is to be more fleeting and after a few more shots I'm offered a tour. Staggering behind Nam, I explore the main corridor of the longhouse where many of the single men sleep at night.

Today, most residents are away working or at school and the atmosphere is sedate. A few young children run around outside and washing hangs out to dry. Inside there are textiles, wooden carvings, masks and wicker baskets hanging from the walls, most of them for sale.

While it might be different for larger groups, it's clear that today I will be spared any tourist fanfare. There will be no staged performances or tribal dancing, and for the most part it seems tourism here has been responsibly balanced, allowing life to continue pretty much as normal.

Back at the jetty the boatmen are waiting. The younger of the two, Sudi, is plastered from head to toe in tattoos typical of the Iban.

In days gone by, tattoos represented significant events, including the number of heads taken by a warrior. These days headhunting has been replaced by "berjelai" or journey, where young men leave the tribe to seek success in the modern world, often returning home with practical items such as generators or TV sets.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: A shot of wild Borneo

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