In the past, mystical Borneo enticed adventurers who wrote the most wonderful tales of intrigue and discovery. The stories they wrote still continue to amaze a new audience of travellers who want to venture into the Sarawakian interior. The headhunters have long since gone but if the walls of the longhouses could talk, there would be an abundance of tales. It is true that real adventurers can head off on a jungle trek lasting several days from one longhouse to another in remotest Sarawak. However, many travellers appreciate their creature comforts while still participating in some soft adventure.Batang Ai in Sarawak is a constructed lake, and water now covers what was once virgin rainforest. The lake is the gateway to a rainforest and cultural adventure. This is the land of headhunters where Iban
warriors were once known for their courage and tribal customs.
Experienced travellers often lament that the journey is not as exciting as the destination. I must admit I was not looking forward to the four-hour mini bus ride from Kuching to Batang Ai. If buses are not your preferred mode of transportation make sure the bus you travel on is comfortable enough. The last few kilometres of the journey are spent on a boat crossing Batang Ai. It felt good to arrive, as the air was clean, the sky blue and the forest looked impressive as it rolled off into the distance.
There are several accommodation options here with most people choosing the Hilton Batang Ai property. More intrepid can stay in Iban longhouses which have been slightly modified to cater to the needs of international travellers. The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort on the foreshores of Batang Ai provides comfortable accommodation on the doorstep to some of the world’s oldest rainforests. Here attempts have been made to minimize its impact upon the environment while still providing facilities and services to satisfy the most demanding traveller. While the facilities at the resort are good considering its location, most visitors come to experience the great outdoors. Unlike many hotels, the resort openly encourages its guests to leave the place. To help you, they offer naturalist-guided walks starting at dawn, rainforest walks, cruises on the lake, trips to Iban longhouses, camping and fishing expeditions.
Visitors are fortunate in that the resort’s resident naturalist, Winston Marshall, knows most things there are to know about the lake and forest environment. He conducts easy short walks for the armchair travellers who visit the resort. To make the most of the day, a visit to a longhouse means an early morning start. This doesn’t present too many problems for most guests, as the nightlife at the resort is virtually non-existent. I woke to a chorus of birds greeting the new day and low-lying mist in the valleys. The view looked so peaceful and apart from the birds, the only noise was the occasional booming gibbon in the distance.
I selected a tour package offered by Asian Overland Services, the preferred operator at the resort. Their longboat arrived just after dawn for the journey across the lake to Stamang Longhouse. The narrow boat glided across the clear dam waters and soon we entered a
narrow stream for a trip up a small stream partially covered by overhanging emergent trees. Stamang, built high above the stream, is a community of 36 doors and over 200 people housed under rusty tin roof. The number of doors in Iban society equates to the number of
families in the community. There was no reception committee apart from a few kids playing in the stream with their pets. It wasn't until I climbed a long wooden post and entered the verandah of the longhouse to see a thriving community lining the dusky corridor.
In the heat of the day, all strenuous activities had ceased and everyone had taken shelter in the confines of the cooler interior. Later in the day, the villagers would return to tend their crops. The people on the verandah were mostly elderly. They were relaxing, weaving or repairing tools and agricultural equipment. The children had succumbed to the outside world and were content in watching a video generated by batteries. Along the verandah, several women were weaving the intricate local pua kumba cotton cloth that they also offer for sale. Others were making kandi baskets, tikai mats and other utilitarian items necessary for them to grow rice. The walls were lined with various instruments, baskets, mats and even the occasional blowpipe.
Iban hospitality is best experienced at mealtime when families gather in their individual areas next to the kitchen. Meals are eaten on a floor mat and included local dishes such as pansoh manok (bamboo chicken) and asi pansoh (rice in bamboo). Tea and tuak or rice wine accompanied the meal although I was a little cautious with the latter due to its powerful qualities. Asian Overland Services offers a selection of extended visits to Stamang Longhouse but sadly, my short day visit came to an end. The accommodation that was available looked comfortable and compatible with the lifestyle of the local people. Back at the Hilton Resort the longhouse accommodation never looked so enticing. It was comforting to cool off in the pool and catch up on world business on CNN before dinner. Batang AI in the remote interior of Sarawak offers an enjoyable escape into the lowland rainforests that once covered much of Malaysia. While the wildlife living here is a little camera shy, the scenery and cultural contact with the traditional Iban caretakers of the forest, makes up for this.
Contact: Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, c/o Hilton
Kuching. Ph: 082 248200, Fax 082 428984