Travels around Malaysia – Part 3: Batang Ai

Dancing with the Head Hunters

Chillies at Serian MarketThe 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 plantOur 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 butterflyWe 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.

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Steve Aldridge

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