Travels around Malaysia – Part 3: Batang Ai

Dancing with the Head Hunters

Chillies at Serian Market The trip from Kuching to Batang Ai takes about 4 hours direct, but our excellent guide Tony broke this up nicely with stops along the way. We visited the town of Serian, famous for its durians, thought to be the best in Sarawak. Durians are regarded by many in southeast Asia as the king of fruits but have the reputation of being the taste of the gods but smelling like raw sewage. As a result of the smell they have been banned from many a hotel and public transport. The town has a bustling market, full of fruit, veg, fish etc. A place full of bright colours and a multitude of smells, the chilies were such a bright red they looked as hot as they no doubt tasted.

A pitcher plant Our next break was for lunch at Lee Chong Cafe. To be fair it didn’t look much but the Chinese meal we had there was very good. Further stops were at a pepper plantation to learn about the growing and preparing process, exchanging waves with the ladies picking rice and to understand the local plants. This included the carnivorous Pitcher plant (yes I know what it looks like) which attracts insects which slip into the liquid at the bottom of the cavity to be digested. The road trip was quite an education in itself. The journey was completed by a 20 minute boat trip across the reservoir that provides power for a large part of Sarawak. Of course out of the city in this part of the world, you need to get used to the squatting style toilets. More amusing for us were the signs in the rarer European style toilets, that advised people not to climb on the bowl rim and squat for risk of slipping and causing injury. Footprints on the seat weren’t uncommon.

Our stay here was at the Batang Ai longhouse run by Hilton. Built to resemble a traditional longhouse, it is a dark wood structure, very pleasing on the eye and with fabulous views across the reservoir. There’s plenty of wildlife to hand, fruit bats nest in the eaves, swallows use the front verandah posts as obstacles for an impressive Red Arrows like aerial display.  For a couple of pounds you can partake in a 1 hour guided nature walk. Guide Ramora is a descendant of local tribes and a virtual encyclopedia of plants & their uses. She could knock up a concoction of plants to cure most ills, but sadly my wrinkles were beyond her.

Traditional dance (organisation chart in background) The main focus of this trip was to visit a traditional longhouse, home to a local IBAN tribe. A 40min ride across the reservoir by longboat delivered us to the Mengkak longhouse. The IBANs were originally headhunters, thought of as fearsome warriors and eventually driven to stop the practice by the White Raja. We were in for a big surprise if they hadn’t. Fortunately bringing back a head, as the sign of being a warrior, and being rewarded with an excruciatingly painful throat tattoo done with bamboo needles, is a thing of the past. A longhouse is a long building on metre high stilts that houses all the family members of the tribe. There is a long vacant gallery called a Ruai that runs the length of the house and provides the communal and work area. Off the Ruai is a series of doors, one for each family, that leads to a bedroom/living room and then a kitchen. At night mattresses are laid on the floor and all family members sleep in the same room. After being shown around by our guide we were given a warm welcome by the tribe and our visit was toasted with some rice wine. 

We were entertained by the tribe’s traditional music and dance, after which we were invited to dance with them. The male part of the dance is supposed to imitate the movements of the Hornbill, sadly my rendition more resembled a lame sparrow. Even wearing the traditional peacock feather headdress, I don’t think I was wowing them with my dancing skills, amusing them more like. Afterwards we presented them with our gift, which was shared between the families in front of us by one of the wives. Our guide then went off to exercise his culinary skills and turn the supplies he had picked up in Serian Market, into our lunch (and very nice it was too). Raja Brooke butterfly We were free to wander around the rest of the village. The families at Mengkak lead a life that spans the centuries. Whilst they retain and observe many of the centuries old traditions, the communal living, the costumes and dance etc., they have many modern items, generators, freezers, etc.  One thing I didn’t expect to see was a printed and laminated organisational chart of the tribe hierarchy and roles. Whilst wandering about we also spotted red and blue dragonflies, brightly coloured butterflies and the most amazing Rajah Brooks butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana).

We just had time for a blowpipe demonstration before the longboat ride home. Sadly when we had our go Linda beat me and the guide in the target shoot. I’m never going to hear the last of that.

Next day it was back to Kuching via lunch at the beautiful Ranchan Serian waterfall.
Next stop Sepilok.

For holidays to Asia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia.

302 people found this helpful

Share Article:

Steve Aldridge

Award-winning travel writer

Leave a comment


Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest travel tips on top destinations.

Join the club

Become a member to receive exclusive benefits

Our community is the heart of Silver Travel Advisor, we love nothing more than sharing ideas, inspiration, hints and tips between us.

Most Recent Articles

Geoff Moore joined events across the island to celebrate Liberation Day, one of the most important dates in Guernsey’s calendar…
The Royal Shakespeare Company offers far more than just live theatre as Gillian Thornton found out on a visit to…

Come feel the love on a Princess cruise. You’ll enjoy the MedallionClass experience others simply can’t, and it’s exclusively for everyone. Visit incredible destinations and be involved in the best experiences around each one of them.

Experience more with Princess and connect effortlessly with the world around you, spend time away with loved ones, take a moment for yourself, and fall in love with your holiday of a lifetime, every time.

With over 20 years of experience, Wendy Wu Tours has mastered the art of creating exceptional, fully inclusive tours which showcase the very best of each destination.

Each tour is led by a world-class guide, who will highlight the very best of their homeland, and includes authentic cultural experiences so you are not just seeing the sights, but truly immersing yourself in local life.

Say hello to ease at sea. Ambassador’s purpose is simple: they want to inspire every guest to experience authentic cruising, effortlessly and sustainably. Passionate about protecting our oceans and destinations, their ships comply with the highest industry emission standards and there is no single-use plastic on board.

On your voyage, you will receive the warmest of welcomes from the Ambassador community as you sail upon the friendliest ships afloat.

This is a global co-operative co-owned by local partners using real local experts and guides, which supports local communities, environments and wildlife. It offers travellers quirky places to stay, activity holidays and learning experiences. Not In The Guidebooks gets travellers off the beaten track into local culture with day experiences and longer, immersive adventures.

From wild wellness breaks in Wales to painting in Portugal, sustainable adventures in Mauritius to food safaris in Brazil, this is immersive, exciting travel.

Seabourn’s five intimate ships carry guests to the heart of great cities, exclusive yacht harbours and secluded coves around the world, while two new purpose-built expedition ships will combine exhilarating adventures in remote destinations with the sophisticated amenities of the world’s finest resorts at sea.

From the luxury of all suite accommodations to complimentary fine wines and spirits, and a no tipping policy, Seabourn exemplifies the definition of travelling well.