Frankly, I've always shunned longhouse experiences touted by tourist brochures in Sarawak. Maybe it's because the idea of showing up at someone's house, intruding on the family's space and expecting them to put on a 'dance' for you in the name of cultural enrichment, just doesn't seem right.
Then I read about an Iban longhouse visit to Nanga Sumpa in the remote area of Ulu Batang Ai in Lonely Planet's Code Green, a book that highlights responsible travel destinations around the globe. Lonely Planet dubbed Nanga Sumpa "one of the best examples of village-based tourism in South-East Asia."
Basically, this project embodies the principles of responsible tourism - empower the local community, preserve the local ethos and protect the natural areas.
So in September, I showed up at Nanga Sumpa with Wild Asia's Dr Reza Azmi, a responsible tourism (RT) 'evangelist' and photographer Rapaee Kawi to check out the longhouse.
Guests and locals travel in 'longtail' boats
A Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group, Wild Asia has been pushing RT initiatives since 2003. Nanga Sumpa was the winner of Wild Asia's Responsible Tourism Awards in 2006 under the Eco-ventures, Lodges and Homestays category (www.wildasia.net).
In 1987, Kuching-based travel adventure company, Borneo Adventure (BA) scouted Sarawak for an 'alternative' tourism product. They found an Iban community living near a pristine area, a two-hour boat ride from the Batang Ai jetty.
Led by their late headman Tuai Rumah Along, the community welcomed BA. The villagers farm rice and cash crops like pepper for income, supplementing this with fishing, hunting and jungle produce.
BA came up with the concept of visitors arriving as 'guests' of the longhouse people. The highlights include the upriver travel on handcrafted longboats, hiking and experiencing the day-to-day life here. Through their stay, visitors would hopefully gain an insight into a rural Iban lifestyle in Sarawak today.
Our little entourage included BA's operations manager Emong Tinsang and the company's intern from Denmark, Marie Iversen. After a five-hour trundle from Kuching, we arrived at Batang Ai jetty and were whisked off in two longtail boats steered by Nanga Sumpa villagers. The villagers own the boats and make extra income from ferrying people along the river.
"Initially, we gave out interest-free loans to individual families to buy the outboard engines. It's a way for them to retain ownership and take full responsibility of the boats," explained Tinsang, 42.
After crossing the massive Batang Ai Dam, we entered a small river tributary flanked by lush, verdant forest. The engine's soft drone and the swishing water made for a tranquil ride. Surprisingly, the Sumpa River is pristine and crystal-clear, unlike the typical teh tarik hue of Malaysian rivers.
Thankfully, there were no girls decked in traditional costumes to greet us when we arrived. The villagers were milling about doing their chores, and the youths were lounging around, strumming their guitar and smiling at us.
To minimise visitor impact, BA built a wooden lodge away from the longhouse, using over 90% material and labour from the community. (It's good to know we won't intrude on the villagers.) Spacious and airy with a river view, the lodge's twin-sharing rooms are simple but comfy with mattresses on wooden platforms, shielded by mosquito nets. In the evenings, kerosene pressure lamps lit the dining area while generator-powered bulbs lit the communal bathrooms and bedrooms.
Six groups of local women took turns to whip up delicious meals for guests. After a scrumptious dinner of stir-fried forest ferns and bamboo shoots, curry chicken and fried fish, Tinsang suggested we visit the longhouse.
Keeping traditions alive
The Ibans have a word called berandau, meaning to 'sit around and chitchat', Tinsang explained. So when you enter the longhouse ruai (common veranda), you don't walk directly from one end to the other. The longhouse folks will invite you to sit and have a cuppa.
"Ibans believe it's taboo to walk directly across the longhouse, as bad spirits will drain the wealth from the longhouse. But we don't tell the longhouse people that they have to welcome the guests. We tell them 'If you're tired, just rest'."
And, don't expect to see a 'staged' cultural performance.
"We try to avoid the 'hospitality fatigue' syndrome," said BA's managing director Philip Yong in Kuching after the trip. "If they have to perform each time they have visitors, they'll find it tiresome and eventually may resent the visitors."
But on some occasions, the longhouse folks would spontaneously hold a welcoming dance for the guests. And they encourage their pre-school kids to perform ngajat (an Iban dance) to help them overcome their shyness and encourage them to take pride in their heritage, Yong adds.
There were 30 families and about 290 residents in the longhouse. During our visit, the longhouse was due for renovation, so it was half its original size. Still, the roomy ruai carpeted with weaved pandanus mats looked cosy as the people chilled out after dinner. Lining the walls were a variety of crafts, from pua kumbu (an Iban blanket), to colourful bead necklaces to fancy weaved baskets. Since tourism came, the womenfolk have revived traditional crafts to earn extra income.
"The longhouse makes about RM3,000 to RM4,000 (a 2003 figure) per month from sales of handicrafts," said Tinsang. Following a brief introduction, the homemade tuak (rice wine) was promptly brought out. After knocking back a couple glasses, everyone warmed up and the banter flowed.
Our short trek to the waterfall next day was shelved because it rained, so we dropped in at the longhouse again. To our surprise, one of the longhouse tourism committee members, Andah Anak Lembang, turned out to be a skilled potter.
Andah is one of the three remaining traditional pottery artisans still alive in Sarawak. Kraftangan Malaysia invites him to overseas expos and gives him a monthly stipend to keep the tradition alive. Andah also does maintenance work at the lodge.
Traditional potter Andah Lembang describing his craft to some visitors.
"Unfortunately, none of the younger generation are interested in learning the craft," said Andah, 59, showing us how he moulds the clay pot.
The whole process, from sieving white clay from the river, to drying, shaping and firing, takes about three weeks for a decent-sized pot. When he finds the time, he makes miniature pots (RM25 each) for tourists to take home as a souvenir.
The other couple staying in the lodge, Connie Raaÿmakers of Holland and her husband, managed to do the trek a day earlier.
"There's so much too see, not necessarily moving wildlife, but a large variety of different plants, and we learnt about its practical uses from our guide, James," said Raaÿmakers.
On the trek, they gathered wild ferns and vegetables. James whipped up a quick lunch with rice steamed in bamboo and stir-fried vegetables.
Protecting the Orang Utans
In the vicinity of Nanga Sumpa is one of the last natural habitats of the orang utan. At first, the longhouse folks saw the primates as pests that destroy fruits trees and crops. But over time, they realised that the primate is a tourist attraction.
Local guides are tipped lucratively each time there's an orang utan sighting, so now they are keen to protect the orang utan and keep the forest intact. Funds from the Nanga Sumpa project also goes to the Wildlife Conservation Society for orang utan protection.
When the rain finally stopped, we set out on a fishing trip with the locals. Our longboats glided across the river framed by a 'tunnel' of leaning trees, tall ferns and gigantic bamboo. We watched how they cast the nets. Some of the gung ho locals, including Andah, armed with spears and goggles, dived into the river.
We made a pit stop at Wong Enseluai (wong is Iban for waterfall). The locals skinned the fish, wrapped them in fragrant bungkang leaves, stuffed the fish into bamboo and grilled them on a makeshift BBQ pit. We sank our teeth into the sweet, tender fish (but with annoying tiny bones) as pretty butterflies fluttered around
Ah, the simple pleasures of life . . .
Photos: Rapaee Kawi
For more information on Nanga Sumpa, call Borneo Adventure at Tel: (082) 245 175, e-mail: email@example.com or visit www.borneoadventure.com.
A 3-day/2-night package to Nanga Sumpa costs RM1,400 (S$609) per person (minimum of 2 pax) or it could be less with more guests. A minimum of one week advance booking is required.