Friday, September 30, 2005

SARAWAK, Malaysian Borneo — The old man sat onthe bamboo floor of the longhouse just inches from my face. He slammed down his drink, struggled to stay up straight and looked at me as a loud humming noise started to emerge from his lungs. The chanting, which was even undecipherable to his fellow Iban tribesmen, was loud, uncontrollable and the perfect soundtrack for what was turning out to be a night of tribal lunacy in the wilds of Borneo.

“Eeeebaaan song,” he shouted. He filled his cup with tuak, guzzled the jungle liquor, continued his ranting, then stuck out his cup for some more. He was like a machine — every time it stopped running, we simply filled it with more fuel.

My new friend had a hard-to-pronounce name, but everyone in the longhouse simply referred to him as “Hello-man.” These were the only two English words he knew and he used them, especially with me, with alarming frequency. “Hello man” implied “good morning,” “goodbye” and everything in between.

The old tattooed man was just one of a cast of Iban characters that roamed about the Jambang Nangakesit longhouse. They ranged from the dreadfully serious to the painfully hysterical, all who had gathered around to welcome my tall, fat, hairy white self into their home just for the sheer comedy of it all.

Since I arrived, I was the brunt of friendly jokes, but I was relieved that they were laughing. The half-dozen human skulls hanging from the ceiling of the longhouse were stark reminders that I was among some of Borneo’s notorious “former” headhunters.

We were somewhere off the Lemanak River, deep in the heart of Sarawak and not far from the Indonesian border. Heads could roll here and no one would know.

Akigetak, which roughly translates to “Mr. Shaky” in Iban, had taken many heads himself back in the days of World War II when the Japanese came to the island. At 85, he was the oldest in the longhouse and the first to welcome me with his solemn stare and an endless blue streak of tattoos chronicling his life.

Every few minutes, he reached down and fidgeted with his modern nylon waist pouch. Inside the pouch was a stash of Indonesian rolling tobacco and a bag of dried minnows, both of which were immediately offered to me in a welcoming gesture.

Sarawak is home to more than 27 distinct indigenous groups that speak over 45 languages and dialects. As its largest tribe, Iban can be found all over the map in the Malaysian state, from the outskirts of Kuching to the impenetrable jungles near the border of Brunei. At 600,000 strong, they make up about 30 percent of Sarawak’s population.

Early Iban settlers emigrated from Kalimantan, Indonesia, and set up longhouses in the river valleys. While the majority of Iban practice Christianity, they still retain many traditional animist rituals and beliefs, a few of which involve human skulls.

Headhunting, while now banned and not officially practiced by the Iban, still remains an important part of their heritage, so much so that skulls remain in the longhouses and headhunting dances are still performed. Before the 1830s, when British adventurer James Brooke, who, as one of the White Rajas, took control of parts of Sarawak and banned the practice, headhunting was to the Iban as baseball is to Americans.

There were many reasons for taking heads — it was a right of passage into manhood, a great way to impress a potential bride’s father and, of course, the optimal thing to do in battle. Taking a head was also a great way to end the mourning of a loved one, and there always needed to be a fresh supply of skulls for the longhouse.


But is headhunting really a thing of the past? As recently as 1999 and 2001, Dayak and Malay warriors, some wearing shirts stained with victims blood, rioted against immigrant Madurese men in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, which borders Sarawak.

While the ethnic clashes have yet to spill across the Malaysian border, Borneo is a vast wilderness, some parts so wild and untrampled that one could imply that the only headhunting we know of is only the headhunting we hear about.

In times of conflict, old traditions can quickly be revived. Akigetak talked about headhunting with a hint of sorrow in his voice, sorrow that the good old days are gone. A new modern longhouse had been recently built to house the growing tribe, and I noticed there wasn’t a single skull in the house.

Were they in need of one?

Despite some of my misguided worries, it didn’t take long for my head to feel at ease in the presence of the Iban. They were warm, hospitable, natural-born comedians, and I had a hard time picturing them as bloodthirsty headhunters.

As the blazing sun gave way to the chirps and howls of the jungle, we continued our drunken mumbling in the longhouse. When a few drums were produced, two young women in traditional dress grabbed me by the hands and led me to the center of the longhouse.

The dancing began and I was expected to make them laugh so I caught the beat and did a slow motion, robot-style Watusi. Every now and then, I’d throw in a little bit of the mashed potato. It seemed to be working.

The tuak, a jungle liquor made from the sap of palm and coconut trees, was taking its toll on my head, and the antics were causing me to erupt into uncontrollable fits of laughter, so forceful that they were downright painful. Tears were pouring down my face, I was gasping for air, and my stomach was as hard as a rock.

Laughter had never been so painful. My guide, an urban, tattooed Iban in his early 30s, lay crouched over on the floor, jerking around in a fit of joyous rage. I was certainly losing my head, only in another sense of the matter.

The Iban are notorious drinkers, not drunks who roam around in stupors during the daylight hours, but those who socially drink late into the night as a cure to backwoods boredom.

They work hard all day, party hard all night and often turn their quiet, humble longhouses into raging party shacks that rivaled the intensity of a Bourbon Street nightclub in New Orleans. Visitors who decide to shack up with the Iban for the night are sometimes expected to drink heavily, stopping just before comatose. Just when I thought my head was going to explode, the bottle was passed to me again.

“Leetul beet,” they would say, motioning for me to drink just a little bit more. It was a ritual that would continue throughout the night. Throughout the evening and into the night, we drank, laughed, poked fun and dined on the boiled meat of a freshly killed deer.

The party had moved from the center of the longhouse into someone’s home, where we sat on the floor around an oil-burning candle.

A bag of dried minnows was passed around the circle. They were edible and had a salty taste, but I found the heads a little too crunchy and tangy.

So I bit the bodies then covertly flicked the heads off in the darkness when no one was looking. I, too, had become a headhunter, taking about 30 or so minnow heads during the course of the night.

I washed the bitter taste down with shots of tuak, puffs of Indonesian tobacco and the tears that were rolling down my cheeks from my uncontrollable fits of laughter. Even after I crashed in my bed, I still heard the Iban slamming down tuak and laughing into the wee hours of the morning.

In between their laughing voices, a bird, somewhere in the jungle, was singing the first seven notes of the chorus of “La Bamba.” Pigs squealed, insects chirped, chickens pecked beneath the floor, Iban laughed and somewhere in this commotion were sounds that were completely undecipherable.

I went to sleep with the spins and struggled to hold down my dinner. Try as hard as one might, no visitor can escape the bite of the tuak when in the presence of Iban.


I awoke with a dry throat and spinning head to the commotion of fighting cocks battling outside my room. The birds flapped around, thrashed at one another and let out terrifying shrieks.

The men tore them apart just before any damage could be done. While it may be illegal and seen as barbaric in much of the world, cockfighting is a popular sport in Iban culture and a way to socialize and compete with other longhouses. It’s also a great way to get weary guests out of bed.

After a breakfast of fresh fruits and Indonesian tobacco, I was invited into the chief’s residence. Perched in the middle of the traditional longhouse, it had a surprising array of amenities, including a television, radio and raggedy, but contemporary, furniture.

Scattered all about the house was a massive collection of stuffed animals. There were perhaps a couple hundred or more, ranging from tiny pink elephants to big brown teddy bears and even a dozen or so knockoff Barbie dolls. It wasn’t quite what I expected to find in the house of a fierce warrior.

Having once fallen through the floor in an indigenous house in the Amazon, I treaded lightly through the chief’s residence by picking my knees up high and moving about slowly.

I must have looked like a rooster but floors made for people who weigh little more than 100 pounds can often buckle under the weight of an American adult.

Before I left for the long boat ride back to the modern world, one of the elder men suggested that the United States hire Iban to fight the war in Iraq. I looked at my guide, who had been translating between us, and asked why.

“Because they believe that their magic will make them invisible. They won’t suffer any casualties,” he said.

Regardless of whether or not that was possible, the drumming, chanting, dancing and excessive consumption of tuak made us all feel invincible the night before.

The Iban had every chance to take my head — the only thing they took was my heart.

Hilton or Iban longhouses are available

Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is about a 22-hour flight from New York. Malaysia Airlines (800/552-9264, has weekly flights from Newark and Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur with connections to Kuching and Miri in Sarawak.

Ground transportation is good in Borneo but can be time-consuming because of long distances.

On the outskirts of the Gunung Mulu National Park, the Royal Mulu Resort ( blends in with its natural surroundings, elevated above the jungle floor with a series of plank walks connecting rooms.

North of Kuching on the coast of the South China Sea, Holiday Inn Damai Beach Resort (Damai Beach, Sarawak; phone 60-82-846999, offers a great rural retreat, has plenty of tours and activities and is in within easy walking distance of the Sarawak Cultural Village.

For those who want a longhouse experience with luxury, book a room at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse ( which has 100 rooms in 11 timber longhouses with full amenities and is tucked away in the jungle.

Visiting an Iban longhouse is not as difficult as it might seem. A number of tour operators in Kuching will take visitors on day trips as well as extended overnight or multi-day trips.

Borneo Adventure (phone 60-82-245175; offers everything from standard day trips to a longhouse to full-fledged custom expeditions deep into the heart of Borneo. Visitors are usually expected to bring small gifts as well.

For tours in eastern Sarawak and Mulu National Park, contact Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel (673-2-441791;

For those with little time or little sense of adventure, the Sarawak Cultural Village has exhibits and village recreations that attempt to sum up Sarawak’s indigenous populations in a couple hours.

No visit to Borneo would be complete without going to see wild or semi-wild orangutans. Almost all tour operators in Kuching can take visitors to see orangutans at a number of sanctuaries including Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary.

For more information, contact the Sarawak Tourism Board (

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