A Socially Awkward Guide To Visiting Longhouses

Over breakfast we attempted to gather our lady balls. Fucking hell, mate, this ticked all of my anxiety boxes. Walking into a village and descending on a longhouse unannounced with no one who speaks the local language? Potentially being confronted by several strangers who may or may not want us there regardless of the tooth rotting gifts we’d brought them? I mean, who the fuck do we think we are, casually strolling into their space and demanding to be shown around? We finished our coffee, wanting to just get there and get it over with, when a bloke came up to me, thrust his phone in front of me and asked, “Who is Tarrant?” I looked at his screen, it was the message Tarrant had sent the previous day.

Red tobacco. Yeah, I’m not putting it in my mouth.

He introduced himself as Hamdani and apologised for not getting back to us but there was a problem with the network and he couldn’t reply. He’s a lovely bloke. It turns out he doesn’t do longhouse trips anymore because he says “around here it’s no good anymore” and told us the traditional longhouses had all been replaced with concrete. We actually already knew this and it didn’t bother us. Regardless of how old the longhouse is or what it’s made out of it’s still a different way of living that we wanted to see.

River cruising.

These days Hamdani drives a van for a living and takes large groups only into the jungle for camping, fishing and trekking but he knows a lot of people and can easily hook you up with a local. He introduced us to Lutep, a fellow who lived in a longhouse up the Rejang River and spoke good English. Instantly the anxiety knot in my chest lifted. We wouldn’t have to go in alone, we’d have someone to take us so we didn’t have to stand in front of a bunch of strangers waving candy at them and not really knowing what to say, someone who spoke the language, someone who could get us a boat so we didn’t have to walk in the blistering, face melting heat. Lutep could also take us jungle trekking but we’d seen plenty of jungle already and had more lined up, just take us to a longhouse please, kind sir.

How am I meant to get into that thing without tipping us all into the bloody river?

We asked him how much he charged and he said, “How much do you think?” Oh god oh god oh god, I hate that question, my knee jerk response is to hand over my card and PIN and invite them to help themselves. We just kind of shrugged and told him we had no idea. He smiled and said, “Okay, one hundred ringgit and I buy my own fuel.” Here’s where we were meant to haggle, we definitely could have and probably should have but to be honest RM100 is about £18, between two people that was fine for us. I’m sure we could have gotten it down to much less but I hate haggling so so much, I feel like I’m offending people, telling them their time isn’t worth that much. If it was much more then perhaps I’d have employed my walk-away technique in the hope he’d call us back with a lower number, but in all honesty we were happy with that.

This lady was chopping betel nuts ready for chewing, with or without the red tobacco that’s ubiquitous around here.

We could have seen two or three longhouses for that price, we opted for two, any more and I’d probably have had a nervous breakdown. Meeting local people is one of the best aspects of travelling but when you have social anxiety this generally translates to sitting there with a fixed grin and sweating a lot whilst not really knowing what’s going on. It’s hard on your poor heart. We gingerly eased ourselves into the long, narrow boat, trying not to rock it too much. I’m not a fan of boats and this one felt about as stable as me on my second bottle of wine. He asked is if we could swim and we assured him we could and he replied, “Good, because we have no safety. No life jackets.” Well I can see that, mate, but I do wish you hadn’t told us this about ten minutes after telling us there were crocodiles in the river. Not that anyone saw them, he said the old people tell them stories. But it’s not the croc you can see that you need to worry about.

Rumah Aging

The first place he took us to was a bit of a ghost town called Rumah Aging. There’s no road on this side of the river and a lot of people we’re moving over to the other side to be closer to the road which is fair enough, given the option of driving or taking a boat I know I’d opt for the former. Lots of people were at work, many had left the area and only came back at Christmas, the only person we saw here was a woman who was chopping up betel nuts. We gave her a bag of candy for the kids and a packet of red tobacco for her. Turns out you chew that red shit, you can put it in a betel leaf with some ground snail shells. It’s interesting how different people in different places chew betel nut; we met a bloke in the Philippines who broke the nut in half and put the whole half, husk and all, into the leaf. This woman was removing the husk and chopping the nut into smaller portions. Our boatman just used the red tobacco with the snail shell and the leaf, no nut.

We walked around for a while and peered through the window of the church, most people are Protestant these days, only the very old people still believe in the old gods. The longhouses, of which there are more than one, are concrete at the bottom and wooden at the top. Lutep says the concrete keeps it cool in the day but it’s hot at night which makes sense, concrete stores heat. It’s quite a big place but you can see signs of where people are moving. Someone had taken all the wooden boards from one dwelling leaving a bit of a gap in the longhouse. Apparently they’re relocating to over the road but no way are they leaving the perfectly good materials their house is made of. They simply dismantled it. Fair fucking play.

Rumah Kahei

After a while we got back on the little long boat and headed to Rumah Kahei, a Kayan longhouse, which is where Lutep and his friend the boatman are from. It looks a lot richer than Rumah Aging, you can tell straight away that there’s a bit more money here. The first longhouse we came too wasn’t just concrete, it was so neat and fresh compared to the ramshackle Rumah Aging with lovely tiles and beautiful decorations. Back in the days when the longhouses were made from wood they had two devastating fires a few years apart. Thankfully no one was hurt either time but they’ve learned from that and you’ll see fire extinguishers dotted around, and they’ve spit the longhouses into eight blocks so if one catches fire the whole community won’t lose everything. We took a sneaky look inside as Lutep was handing out candy to the kids in one house, they’re light and airy and beautifully decorated with traditional artwork.

Lutep sporting a rather fetching traditional hat.

There were a four women hanging out at one longhouse, chewing red tobacco or smoking these fat home rolled things you can see all over Belaga. They look like stumpy comedy joints. We were invited to try smoking the local way but we both declined, both of us being ex-smokers. I’d probably just take a drag and expel a lung then feel incredibly self conscious for the next ten years of my life thus dooming my brain to replay the event over and over at 3am every night. We chilled there for a bit as they chatted away in the Kayan language and I tried not to look as uncomfortable as I felt because fuck being so bloody socially awkward. I did manage to ask if I could take a photo but they giggled and shyly said no which would normally have me trying to find a massive hole to swallow me up, but I coped so I’m due a medal for that.

A finished version of a traditional hat we saw a local woman making.

We left there and went back to the first longhouse to wait for our boatman and met a few more women, one of who was making a hat. They brought out a finished version to show us. They’re made from some manner of leaf which they dry out before weaving, then the hat is painted and varnished and worn on celebration days such as Christmas or weddings. I took a deep breath and asked her if I could photograph her. She laughed and joked about her appearance before agreeing, all in the Kayan language but a woman’s insecurity about her appearance transcends language. One person we didn’t meet was an old lady with tattoos. Back in the old days Lutep said that if a woman didn’t have tattoos then a man wouldn’t want to marry her, and if a man didn’t have tattoos then he wasn’t a warrior. He told us there was one woman with tattoos and he went into her home to find her but she was sleeping. Gutted. I do love old traditional tattoos.

Hat making.

Lutep is a sound fella. He told us that back when he went to school they had to take firewood and rice if they wanted to board. We’d walked past the school during our aborted attempt to visit Lirong Amo and seen the dorms. It makes sense to have them boarding rather than to come in from the longhouses everyday. But during his time at school if you didn’t have wood and rice you couldn’t board, you had to go in by boat every day and if it rained your books would get wet. These days the government pays for it all, education and boarding is all free which is only a good thing. Apparently visiting the school is the done thing, we were directed to it without asking on our first day in Belaga but I think I’d rather have hot pins inserted under my eyelids than visit a school and you can imagine my relief when the kindergarden Lutep was planning to take us to was finished for the day already. I like children about as much as I like pneumonia.

Apparently this is the chief’s house at Rumah Kahei. Ker-fucking-ching!

As we drove into Belaga from Bintulu we saw plenty of longhouses from the road, there are many you could easily visit by car or motorcycle plus that one you can reach on foot, but I think catching a boat is part of the experience. Belaga is really small and if you’ve got the bollocks for it you could probably just ask around and find someone who could take you to a longhouse or two. There doesn’t seem to be any official tourist infrastructure beyond the hotels and guesthouses, none of the guides are licensed but I would say if they’re from the area then that makes them more than qualified to be a local guide, but I think the guide makes it. Lutep is a nice enough guy but he definitely overcharged us, probably expecting us to haggle him down. I don’t think even Daniel charges that much but that’s largely down to our lack of haggling skills, and I’ve since found out we should have asked to go to Sekapan Panjang rather than just let him take us where ever he chose. Again, my fault for not researching properly. But I think longhouse tourism is dying in Belaga, for Hamdani to leave the game and openly admit that it’s not very good anymore? Perhaps Kapit will offer a better experience.

Belaga, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Daniel’s Corner

Useful shit to know…

  • Hamdani’s number is +60 (0) 19 886 5770. Lutep doesn’t have a phone.
  • You can’t visit a longhouse if someone has recently died, and some longhouses charge RM10 per person.

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