Batang Ai National Park ~ Sarawak

Trip Upriver

We wasted no time in making arrangement with travel agent for a short adventure of our own. Since it was just us girls, we teamed up with an English couple for a trip upriver. The guide, Bayang his name, made all the arrangements for us. All we brought along on our trip was some goodies for the people we were going to visit (snacks for the children and some tobacco for the penghulu or tuah which means the headsman), a hat, some sun block and our ponchos in case it rained.

The rest was left in good hands. Both Bayang and boatmen were from the Lubok Antu area and were very familiar with the Batang Ai. They were born in this territory and we were going to visit their kinsmen of whom they were to introduce us to. The Ibans or Sea Dayaks.

The Ibans

The Ibans were long ago feared for their headhunting activities. As of their ancestors, the Ibans still live in longhouses.some rebuilt by the government and others passed down over generation from the Tuah to his son or next of kin. The longhouse is like a row of link houses sitting on stilts sometimes 8 to 10 feet high. As described by Alfred Russel Wallace,'The house is divided longitudinally in the middle by a partition, on one side of which is a series of rooms, and on the other a kind of gallery or hall upon which the rooms open. In these rooms, each of which is inhabited by a distinct family, the married couples and children sleep; the young unmarried women sleep in an apartment over the room of their parents, and the young men in the gallery outside. In this gallery likewise, which serves as a common hall, their principal occupations are carried on; and here the planks of their war-boats, their large mats, and all their more bulky articles, are kept; and the grim trophies of their wars, the scorched and blackened heads of their enemies, are suspended in bundles. The floor is a kind of spar-work, composed of split palm-trunks, and raised ten or twelve feet from the ground, access being given to it by a ladder, or more frequently by a log of wood cut into the form of steps. Connected with the gallery, and running along the whole length of the house, there is a broad platform on the level of the floor, upon which the Dyaks spread out their rice after harvest, and other articles they wish to be dried in the sun.' The Malay Archipelago, Volume 1.

prized fighting cockerals gets to sleep in the longhouse

The architecture of these longhouses haven't changed as when first visited by Wallace in 1850's. Each family lived in a room with its main door or 'pintu' facing the 'ruai' or the common hall. Although many of the Iban folk are now Christians, they still do believe in their pagan rituals. If you scrutinise the area, you can find little talisman hanging from beams for precautionary purposes. James Brooke eradicated headhunting in the 1800's as soon as he took on the task of managing Sarawak and the title "Rajah of Sarawak". But reports of short concessions were given during emergency periods ie during the Chinese Rebellion in 1857 and also more recently during the Japanese Invasion of WW2. Since headhunting is no longer acceptable as a sport, the Ibans have diverted their sporting interest to cockerel fights. The prized cockerels are kept in the longhouse, as are their scrawny dogs. In most longhouses, visitors will find a pack of skinny, underfed dogs lying about. This is all fine, as ibans have had dogs as their hunting companions ever since dog and man have found friendship in each other. Living on scraps is how they have endured all their lives so it's not really a cruel situation.

Bayang our guide had mentioned that certain longhouses in the area are open to visitors and certain shun away from the publicity. We were taken to a longhouse about 1 hour by boat from the resort. As we entered the longhouse, we were advised to leave our shoes at the door. Visitors are welcomed by the headsman and the guide would normally introduce us to the rest of the village. At times, especially during the planting and harvesting season, most men and women would be out in the fields leaving the old and the very young behind. Since it was a weekday when we arrived, there were only babies and toddlers at the longhouse. We were told that the older children had been sent off to a boarding school at Lubok Antu in the weekday and are sent back to their homes only in the weekends. The older children are sent to Kuching for their higher education and only return to their homes during term breaks. The Iban community is now facing a dilemma - to send their children off to a better life through education or to retain them in the village so that their culture and way of life doesn't die with the old and sick. During Rajah Brooke's reign, Iban children were not encouraged to attend school. Rajah Brooke wanted as little intervention in the Iban peoples lives as possible in order to keep their culture intact. Unlike Emperor Shi Huang Ti's intention to persecute every scholar and educator in China for fear of a retaliation, James Brooke preferred it the way it was for he did not want to taint the Ibans lifestyle with teachings of the western world. Today, more and more young people settle down in cities and towns; leaving their birthrights to the jungle.

lunch by stream

Ibans practice shifting cultivation and this can be seen all along the riverbanks. A piece of land is cleared for cultivation, and crops like hill paddy and pepper are planted. When the land has been tilled too many times and the soil has become poor, the farmers will move on to clear another plot of land. In the old days, the lifespan of a longhouse was about 15 - 20 years. By then repairs had to be made to the structure. Ibans of the old, preferred to move and reconstruct a new longhouse elsewhere rather than rebuild. Shift cultivation also was a motivating factor. Now, with fertlisers and pesticides easily available, land is reused for a longer period.

The government also has a hand in helping the Iban community progress. They set up cooperatives for the community and help them develop it along the way until the villagers are able to sustain the projects. A few such projects such as Tilapia breeding is ongoing at the Batang Ai. Bayang stopped by at the kelong or the tilapia farm to pick up a few choice fishes for our lunch.

fresh barbequed tilapia right out of the river

After our visit to the Iban Longhouse where we were treated to a few glasses of Tuak ( home made alcohol) and a show and dance by a couple of young Ibans, we were shown some homemade handicraft that the iban women tried to persuade us to buy. The bracelets were normally made from jungle seeds and the mats were from palm leaves collected from their surroundings or made from rattan. After a stroll around, we took leave. Bayang bundled us back on the longboat and we headed upriver to a beautiful, quiet spot by the river. We stopped here for our lunch. The boatman, brought out the cushions for us to lounge about while he and Bayang set off to prepare our lunch. Bayang brought us a makeshift table.which was really driftwood. The boatman chopped a few bamboos which were about 4 - 5 inches in diameter. Bayang cut bamboo down to about 2ft each and started filling a few with rice and water. The other remaining bamboo 'containers' were filled with pieces of chicken and water. The boatman gathered some dried twigs to start a fire and Bayang cleaned the rice cooked in bamboo on an open fire. perfect lunch!

Tilapia, ready to be grilled over the fire. All the preparation and cooking took them a mere 45minutes in the open fire. We had a delicious spread of food. Lemang ( the glutinous rice cooked in bamboo) ; scrumptious, juicy chicken cooked in its flavourful juices, the freshly grilled tilapia, vegetables which Bayang had picked from the gardens at the Longhouse and fried in a tiny wok he had brought along; and a plate of watermelon and bananas. What a treat! The table were lined with leaves cut from a tree nearby. It was simply, a perfect day. Dining out in the open, to the sounds of chirping birds and gushing waters.

After a short rest, it was time to return to the resort. this was certainly a nice end to a fleeting trip. Only 10 days in Sarawak is just not enough. There's so much to see and so much to experience. Life in Sarawak is an adventure. Those wanting to visit Sarawak must be able to enjoy the outdoors, to be open to new and unfamiliar experiences and most of all, learn to appreciate that Sarawak is not a place for the people, it is of the people. And the respect for their land is the beginning of a long trip to recovery.

Best Time To Go

Raining season is from end October till early March. June - August are busy months at the resort, coinciding with the summer holidays in Europe

Getting There

Van Transfer Schedule:

Van transfer from Kuching Hilton will take about 5 hours per way and limited between 8.00am - 5.00pm according to ferry schedules. Rates are included in the Batang Ai Hilton package stay. Please register at the reception for your transfer to Aiman Batang Ai at least 1 day before departure

Ferry Transfer Schedule:

Jetty - Batang Ai Resort ~ 9.30am 12.45pm 2.30pm 4.15pm 5.30pm

Batang Ai Resort - Jetty ~ 8.30am 10.00am 12.15pm 1.30pm 4.45pm