A week with the Iban tribe in Sarawak

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Sarawak, Malaysia

I was just about to set up camp in a park near the road in Siburan when I decided to try hitchhiking for a few minutes more.

I had to restrain myself from showing emotions every time I saw a pair of silent but ruthless crocodile eyes.

Luckily, within five minutes, a car stopped on its way to a small town called Simunjan. Although I was planning to go to Sabah to climb Mt. Kinabalu, I decided to hop on. It was a medical courier who offered me the ride to a destination he had also never been. It took hours of searching before we found the local hospital to drop off his supplies. Afterwards, he dropped me off in a small town in the countryside of Sarawak.

Before thinking about things like where I was going to sleep, I decided to get a fresh plate of Nasi Ajam first. The local food market was still a lively place in the evening, and three young guys came up to me after noticing that a white guy had arrived. They seemed to be members of the Iban tribe, and were living in an Iban village about half an hour away. They enthusiastically invited me to come catch bats in their village, an offer I happily accepted. We set a time for the day after, and the guys left on their motorcycles.

The market turned out to be a breeding place for extraordinary travel experiences, as I became acquainted with a group of policemen the next morning when I went for breakfast. They were eager to share their durians – a local fruit with a very strong flavour – and show me a newly opened bridge about forty kilometres away. This kind of hospitality is commonly seen in the countryside, especially in such countries as this one.

Ibans were renowned for practising cannibalism and their habit of headhunting, and they had an intimidating reputation as a strong warring and expanding tribe in the past. Ibans are animistic or Christian, not Muslim, unlike other people living in Sarawak. Most families still live in longhouses, which are traditional wooden houses shared with many other families. They often drink “Tuak” (rice wine) and “Langkau” (the rural folk’s local moonshine) together in the evening.

I was just in time for the meeting with my new tribal friends. I jumped on the back of a motorcycle on the way to a village called Sekendu. Upon my arrival, I was met by many friendly people from many different families. They literally begged me to stay the night, a ritual that repeated itself every day. In the end, I stayed for a week in this little village, meeting lots of amazing people, and every day was full of new experiences.

One of the most memorable experiences was fishing for prawns at night with one of the village’s strong men. These men wisely use the physics of the tides to catch just enough prawns to feed their large family every day. I was most excited to join the hard work because of my eagerness to see a wild crocodile. After failing to show up the first night because of some excessive Langkau drinking, on the second night, I stepped onto the small wooden boat.

I had to restrain myself from showing emotions every time I saw a pair of silent but ruthless crocodile eyes. The villagers believe that saying “jaguk” – the Iban word for crocodile – out loud will make them come and eat you. I was even lucky enough to see a juvenile crocodile quickly slide right past the boat.

Crocodiles weren’t the only dangerous animals I found in Sekendu. One night, on my way to another family’s longhouse, I almost stepped on a bungarus candidus. I was fascinated to see this mighty snake in real life, as it is one of the world’s most dangerous, with a mortality rate of 70 percent. Although illegal, eating snakes is a tradition in Sarawak, and they are not very hard to find.

With other animals, it usually doesn’t end so well in the village. One can constantly see black kites floating over the village. This is the way the villagers catch fruit bats, a local delicacy. I once saw a fruit bat brought into one of the houses. The poor animal was still alive, and writhing for a chance at freedom. I noticed that, except for their wings, their bodies actually resemble a miniature human. On the last day, I also witnessed a pig getting slaughtered with a spear. During Gawai Dayak (Iban’s traditional harvest festival) and other official ceremonies, women wear traditional clothing called “Marik Empang”. In the village, I became acquainted with a few of the younger girls who were able to speak English pretty well. One day, they proudly dressed in their richly coloured apparel to show their traditional dance. The jingling beads acted as a natural kind of background music. It was a beautiful scene.