Traveling is a strange thing; you end up in odd, unusual places and wonder how the hell your life led you to this point. In this case we found ourselves drinking Tang with an Iban chief in a 100 year old longhouse.
Tea time wasn’t our main goal in Borneo but as with all good adventures, things only get better as you improvise.
Upon arriving in Kapit we were accosted by a local crazy man who insisted that he was “in the book” and that we would need his help getting around. Why? Because in addition to being terribly polluted with excess logs, the Batang Rejang is also dammed. Change of plans. We couldn’t go any further upriver and weren’t going to make it to the heart of Boreno by boat.
But the local crazyman didn’t know who he was dealing with; we may be white but we’re not stupid and we’ve burned our copy of Lonely Planet.
So instead of taking a longboat upriver, we found ourselves talking with any local that we could flag down. And that’s a surprising number of locals for a small river town, boats arrived all day and the place was packed! We were told to head to the wet market, where we could hail a cab to a local Iban longhouse.
Many Bornean longhouse communities have opened their doors to tourists (and tourist dollars). Traditionally you must be invited to visit a longhouse, and you should bring gifts and enjoy drinks with the chief. I was pretty sure we were breaking some unknown etiquette by hailing down a taxi and simply showing up. I also figured that since this longhouse community was ‘so close’ to ‘town’ that we were in for the disneyland version of Iban warrior history.
I shouldn’t have worried.
We set off in a 4-wheel drive taxi van, driving over a rough dirt trial filled with rocks and sleeping dogs. It was suddenly clear why people commute via boat – there are almost no roads in inner Borneo. We bounced along for a half a hour before arriving at Rh. Bundong where our cab driver pulled over and took our photo.
And then the longhouse came into view. We stared.
This was the real deal.
The longhouse looked like a huge wooden motel set on narrow stilts and it was huge – home to more than 500 people. I was pretty sure the additional weight of Vinnie, me and the cab driver was going to send this structure to the ground. We walked over the wire extension bridge to reach the main community house and were immediately steered to Chief Bundong’s apartment in the middle of the longhouse.
What are you supposed to do when you enter a Chief’s dwelling? I had no idea. We sat down cross legged in a circle and the chief’s wife poured orange Tang. I discretely looked for shrunken heads. Our cab driver began to chat in a language that we didn’t understand and the whole room was immediately involved in a discussion about the local hospital. We continued to sit there. Some form of Malaysian Idol was blaring from the TV. There were no shrunken heads.
Luckily we brought cake. Upon presenting the cake to the chief’s wife, she immediately cut it and fed it to us. We continued to sit on the floor in a circle with the conversation whirrling around us. We drank more Tang. We ate more cake. A half an hour later chief Bundong walked in, a sinewy man with tattoos, and greets Vinnie by putting his hand to his heart and offering his hand. And we were told to enjoy our time at the longhouse.
We wandered through the common room that connected all the apartments on our side of the longhouse. Children peaked through the doors and ran after us to the water, showing off for the visitors. Chickens pecked at the jungle underneath the slatted floorboards and the sleeping dogs didn’t move at all.
Other than the fact that we were at a longhouse in the middle of the Jungle, it felt like a pretty ordinary Sunday.