The island of Borneo is made up of three different countries, Indonesia, Brunei, and Eastern Malaysia. It’s the third largest island in the world and home to thick jungle forests, tribal community groups, and some of the rarest plant and animal species in the world.
Many people often overlook Eastern Malaysia, instead focusing on the peninsular side of the country where skyscrapers, modern transportation and density reign supreme. But a trip over to Borneo will give you a different perspective of the country, one that is a little more rugged, chalk-full of nature and adventure, and steeped in rich cultural history.
Eastern Malaysia is split between two states, Sabah in the north and Sarawak in the south, and is the same size as Peninsular Malaysia. Locals joke that there are 4 seasons here; wet, very wet, hot, and very hot. After my recent trip to Kuching in Sarawak, I’d have to agree.
The longhouse is one of the oldest architectural forms in Sarawak and is the embodiment of communal living. Various forms of longhouses can be found all over Borneo but generally they all follow a basic design; a series of interconnecting apartments arranged in a linear manner, giving them their distinctive rectangular shape.
Longhouse communities in Sarawak can be divided into four main ethnic groups: Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, and Orang Ulu. And each ethnic group can have dozens of subgroups. The Bidayuh make up about 8% of the population in Sarawak and in recent years have undergone a partial abandonment of longhouses in favour of single-family dwellings. The Iban make up the largest population in Sarawak at 29% followed by the Melanau and Orang Ulu at 6% and 5% respectively.
Many of factors are taken into consideration when choosing a site to build a longhouse; access to water, farmland, transportation and jungle resources. Almost more importantly, spiritual matters are also taken into consideration. Before construction, communities keep a close eye out for signs of bad omens, mainly in the form of birds. Sometimes rituals are performed to scare off the bad omens, but if a bad incident follows a bad omen (death, attack by enemies, etc), it will often result in the abandonment of the partially constructed longhouse in search for a new site.
Annah Rais Longhouse Village
I was most looking forward to visiting a longhouse during my trip to Malaysia. I had never been in one before and I wanted the opportunity to learn about the people who live in them and their way of life.
Just a little over an hour’s drive inland from Kuching, we arrived at the Annah Rais Longhouse Village, one of the major remaining Bidayuh longhouses where visitors can tour the village and even participate in homestays. We were greeted with a traditional welcoming drink called tuak, a type of alcohol distilled from rice. Then, we were invited to explore the village on our own or with our guide. I opted to come and go with the group, exploring more of the grounds on my own.
I was expecting to see one long main building but instead I was met with a collage of small, detached dwellings built around a large main structure (the longhouse) in a hodge-podge kind of way. This was the partial abandonment of longhouses in favour of single-family homes we had been told about. All the buildings were interconnected with bamboo walkways allowing for easy navigation. Longhouses were traditionally built with bamboo flooring so your enemy couldn’t sneak up on you in the night.
There are three longhouse structures at Annah Rais, though the original longhouse dates back over a century. We didn’t get a chance to enter any of the longhouses mainly because they are divided into various small apartments as opposed to one main communal living area. Every door along the longhouse represents one family’s private apartment, though they technically all share the same roof.
Just past the main longhouse, we arrived at the head house. And it’s exactly what you think it contains, human skulls. Though it has long been banned in Sarawak, headhunting was a major part of the longhouse community culture. There are two main reasons why headhunting was practiced. Firstly, it was related to traditional ceremonial funeral rites. In the Iban and Orang Ulu groups, during the mourning period, restrictions were placed on the community’s day to day life until the head was collected from the deceased. Once the head was obtained and ceremonial rituals were done, the mourning period would end and the community could go back to daily life.
Another reason for headhunting had to do with the prestige that came with it and a way to impress the family of a potential bride. The heads were believed to bring fertility in the way of good harvests and many children.
Except for a few four-legged pets wandering around and a handful of individuals here and there, the place was virtually empty. Since we arrived during the day, everyone was out working in the fields and farming. In a way I was rather relieved, fearing the possibility of a ‘human zoo’ element to our visit. But I mostly felt that a piece of the experience was missing – the ability to interact with those who call Annah Rais home.
Originally our group was scheduled to do a homestay at the longhouse but plans fell through on our arrival to Malaysia. I think it would have been an incredible opportunity and a unique experience at the longhouse, one where we could have been participants instead of just observers.
If your time in Sarawak is short, I still highly recommend a visit to Annah Rais Longhouse Village. It’s been very well preserved and the community really is gracious by allowing us to freely explore their village. Go with a knowledgeable guide so you can learn the history of longhouses and the ethnic groups that still use them to this day. Without a guide, I don’t think the visit would have been so interesting.
My trip to Malaysia was sponsored by the Malaysia Tourism Board, but all views and opinions remain my own.