Report from Tomorrow - Vol 41

1USD = S$1.71 (S$1 = 0.58USD)
S1.00 = 2.13RM (Ringett)
1USD = 3.87RM (Ringett)


In early February this year, Mary, Terry and Mary's brother, Steve, spent a delightful five days in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Borneo - hot steamy jungle, wild animals, blowguns, headhunters, poisonous snakes, the hornbill (bird), pitcher plants that eat (dissolve) small animals and insects, land of exotic flowers! All true and yet my imagination made it more exotic than it ever could be.

The reality of Sarawak was very appealing to me. We actually only saw a very small portion of this huge land, but what we saw somehow resonated with us. As usual we focused on learning about the people and their culture - and this is an particularly rich land in this regard.

This massive island of Borneo hosts two states of Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah), as well as the tiny oil rich kingdom of Brunei and, of course a portion of the enormous country of Indonesia.


Sarawak is ethnically a very rich land, comprised of over twenty major native groups - compared to peninsular Malaysia which has only Malays, Chinese and Indians. Our time here was spent only in the Kuching area where the dominant tribes are the Iban (sea dayaks (DIE-yacks)) and badayuh (land dayaks (ba-DIE-yous)). In the long ago past, the Iban occasionally took their longboats and warred on other tribes, taking a few heads which was a part of the point of the exercise.

Sarawak has a fascinating history as it was the private fiefdom of the "White Rajahs" - three generations of a British family named Brooke. The family started in Kuching and expanded its domain over most of modern day Sarawak. The last Rajah was pretty much a wimp and when the Japanese invaded, he split and eventually gave Sarawak to the Brits. Eventually they become independent and joined the confederation of Malaysia.

As a Malaysian state, Sarawak is very autonomous. It makes a large effort to involve its ethnic groups providing services like schools and medical facilities for the remote tribes - certainly far better than we did/do in the US. Sarawak is also not a Muslim state being only 30% Muslim (40% Christian, 30% other) which gives it a different feel from elsewhere in Malaysia.

Kuching has great museums where we heard a few stories to pass on. The ceremony for an Iban boy to become a man is pretty unique. The father has his son stand in the river for hours, lowering his body temperature. He's then given some wine and the father pierces his penis near the scrotum with a piece of bamboo (forming a T). The theory is this is good for sex as it mimics the penis of the powerful rhino.

The ceremony is encouraged by the Iban women. Once completed you may tattoo a fish hook on your leg. If you have a fish hook tattoo, it is very likely your proposal of marriage will be accepted. If not, the father might require a great deal of you and the woman still might refuse you.

Taking a head was a way to get your opponents good soul (as opposed to his evil spirit), so heads were only taken in war from your greatest enemies. Who'd want a head taken in ambush? We were assured this has not been practiced for several generations now and even then heads were actually very rarely taken (perhaps one a year for a longhouse, if that often). (Recent events south of Kuching in Indonesia seem to suggest a "set back" in this regard.)

Outside the main museum is a totem like pole which was actually the grave of royalty of some tribe. Their tradition was that when someone of the royal family died, the person was buried in a tree... along with some company. They hollowed out part of a large tree and carved it as you've seen with other totem poles. When a royal death occurs, the body is pushed down into the hole in the pole. They would select three others and tie them to the pole. Not wanting to be cruel by killing these three, they let them starve to death and the three bodies were added to the grave inside the pole. Well now, that's a little different!

The traditional house of most all Sarawakian tribes was the longhouse - a long wooden structure built on stilts. The longest recorded was over a kilometer long, but most are 100-200m and hold 200 people or so. The houses are built with different combinations of materials and in different styles, depending on the tribe. Access to the house is always via a single log with steps cut in it. There is no railing and hence is very easy to defend. One particular tribe did not have weapons, so their longhouses were built on poles 50 feet high. If they were attacked they simply poured hot water on their attackers.


Borneo Adventures was the first to try bring "eco-tourism" to Sarawak. They have some sort of exclusive deal with the Iban in the area and we were impressed with their attitude. Their goal is clearly to disrupt the Iban as little as possible.

They focus on being good to the Iban. The gifts we brought were for the kids - not alcohol or cigarettes for the adults. They encourage the Iban to send their children to school with scholarships and now the Sumpah have two in college. They pay the Iban for our visits and hire the boatmen and woman to assist. The head man assigns work to families of all three longhouses so the income is distributed fairly.

Our guide described an occasion where Borneo provided a trip into Kuching for some of the Iban. It was a curious mixture of civilization meeting the native. You had to watch the Iban all the time as they didn't know how to cross the streets, use toilettes etc.

I suppose this could have all been all hype, but it seemed real. One of the boatmen simply tossed a plastic bag into the river and our guide fetched it and said something to him (I hope it was a lesson in ecology and not something like, "not in front of the tourists!" :-)

Still, we liked this eco-tourism. It seemed sensitive to the Iban, but tried to meet our wants. The Iban we visited have about three visits/month of small groups like us.

Next issue we'll describe our time with the Iban.