Borneo Lifestyles

Longhouse Visits with Sarawak's Indigenous Peoples


Experienced the history, tradition, lifestyles and architecture of the indigenous people of Sarawak. Spend the night in a traditional longhouse build with axe hewn timber, tied with creeper fiber, roofed with leaf thatch. The joyous atmosphere of the longhouse will sweep you away with drums and gongs, Pua weaving, Kuih jala (a traditional dessert), tuak (rice wine), hanging skulls carrying tales of headhunting days gone by.

Iban Bidayuh Penan Orang Ulu
Melanau Malay Chinese  Long House Visits


Sarawak's indigenous people have traditional way of living.
Iban Iban Long house Iban Cook Interior Iban Longhouse Iban weaver

The Iban race, once known as “Sea Dayaks”, built their longhouses to last fifteen to twenty years, or, until the farm land in the surrounding area was exhausted. Then they packed up their goods and chattels and moved inland, upriver, along the coast, wherever fresh farm lands looked promising. About one-third of all Sarawakians are Iban; while some of them live in towns or individual houses, a large number still prefer longhouses.

A traditional longhouse is built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fibre, roofed with leaf thatch. It is nearly always built by the bank of a navigable river, and the visitor approaches it from the boat jetty. He climbs up a notched log that serves as a staircase and finds himself on the open verandah face to face with a scene of community and domestic activity. The long covered gallery that runs the length of an Iban longhouse is called the Ruai. This is where guest are usually greeted.

Several doorways lead from the outer to the inner verandah under the roof. This is the village street of the longhouse; the individual family rooms or “doors” front the common walkway. A casual visitor is invited to sit down on a mat here for a chat with the longhouse elder; family members enter through their relatives' doors and make themselves at home.

Foot bridge to Iban Long house
Iban and Bidayu Dancers
Bidayuh Bidayu Warrior house attached to long house Bidayuh Longhouse Interior Bidayuh Long house Bidayuh Dancers

The Bidayuhs, known as the land Dayaks, account for more than 8% of Sarawak’s population, comprising of the Jagoi, Biatah, Bukar-Sadong, Selakau and Lara peoples of West Sarawak. They primarily live near the Sarawak and Sadong rivers. They built their houses in mountain fastnesses, tacked to a steep limestone hillside like a gigantic staircase. This was partly for protection against marauding enemies, partly for access to pure, fresh water.

Bidayuh Dancers
Penan Penan huts Penand Items Penand and Tourist  
The shy nomadic people of the jungle, the Penans, live in the dense virgin jungles of Central Borneo. Some are 'coming out' and learning to farm the land, others still prefer their roaming life-style.

Penan shelters are quickly constructed to last for a few weeks or months. They are sited near a good stand of wild sago trees, the Penan’s staple food; after this has been used up, the family moves on.

Another Penan specialty is the manufacturing and accurate use of blowpipes. Watch blowpipe making or try blowpipe shooting with the Penans. A wood beam of adequate length is fixed in a drilling platform, and then bored through patient manual labor. The pipe is trimmed by axe and knife, and finally polished. The bore is smoothed and ground by pulling lengths of rattan through it.

Blowpipe ammunition is a softwood plug tipped with a hardwood dart. Blowpipe poison, carefully dosed to suit the prey, is made from the sap of the upas tree (Antiaris toxicaria).

Do not blow from your mouth. Blow from your chest and your stomach." So says the Penan warrior on the art of shooting with the blowpipe at the Penan Huts.
Makeing a blowpipe
Orang Ulu Orang Ulu Mountain house Orang Ulu dancer Sape Player Orang Ulu Warrior

The gentle and graceful Orang Ulu, “up-river dwellers”, is a useful if vague term to describe the central Borneo people living in Sarawak. Accounting for 5.5% of the total population, the Orang Ulu comprises the Penan, the Kayan and Kenyah, living in the middle and upper reaches of Sarawak’s longest rivers, and the Kelabit and Lun Bawang groups living in the highlands.

In the past, the Orang Ulu were famous throughout the region as sword-smiths. They extracted iron from the ore found in their area, they forged it into excellent blades which they tempered in the cold mountain streams. They are known for their intricate beadwork and the melodiously haunting tune of the sape, their stringed musical instrument . Other interest include the art of body tattooing, parang ilang, their fighting sword, klirieng, their burial pole.

Traditionally, an orang Ulu longhouse was built to last. Many of these people practice settled agriculture, and have developed rice field irrigation to a fine art. This makes the search for new farmlands unnecessary. The solid ironwood houses are designed to last for many generations.

Orang Ulu toolmaker
Orang Ulu Man
Melanau Malanau House Front of Melanau House Sago Processing Melanu Dance

The Melanau people making up nearly 6% of Sarawak’s population, now mostly living in the central coastal region, were once more widely scattered. They traditionally lived near the sea within reach of pirates. As a means of protecting themselves, the Melanaus built massive houses forty feet above the ground.

The Melanaus differ from most other Borneo people in one important aspect: they eat sago in preference to rice. Sago palms originally grew wild in the coastal swamps, and the Melanaus took it upon themselves to cultivate these plants. The ten-meter high palm trunk accumulates starch. It swells just before flowering indicating the right time for harvesting by felling.

The pith is grated to a fine mash. This is soaked in a long wooden trough, then trodden through a mat to leach out the sago starch. The off-white sediment settles at the bottom of the trough it is spread on mats to dry into lumps. These are broken up and finally ground into flour.

Interior Melanau House
Malanau Healing

Malay Malay House Malay cook Malay Congkak Game Malay Family Shrine

The house of an urban Malay family is built of wood. The Brooke era introduced lofty ideas on columns, stucco, and indoor plumbing. From as early on as the 1860's, a few leading Malay families commissioned professional builders, often Chinese, to construct their stately homes; a few which may still be seen today in Jln. Ajibah Abol in Kuching.

From the humblest to the highest, Malay houses share certain characteristics. They are built on stilts and a visitor approaching from the front comes up a staircase. He announces his presence before he reaches the verandah. This may be quite small, leading along from the front of house. It permits a stranger to wait until somebody welcomes him in.

The area designated for the men, official occasions and the entertainment of guests, is a front room taking up the width of the house. Windows cut down to floor level admits breeze for the seated people. Much artistic skill is lavished on the decoration of the stair and window railings, fascia boards under the eaves as well as the ventilation grills above or beside doorways.

Malay dance
Chinese Front of Chinese House Chinese Interior Chinese Pepper Mill  

Chinese farmers in Sarawak migrated to Sarawak in the early 1900s, at the invitation of the Rajah who wanted to build up a solid farming middle class. Many came, most stayed; one-third of the state's population is now Chinese.

Unlike local dwellings, the Chinese farm house is built at ground level. The house is divided into two main parts; the family room which contains the kitchen, eating and living area as well as a storage area for valuables such as bicycles or agricultural machinery, and the bedroom.


Before you head upcountry to visit a longhouse, we recommend an additional half day tour to the Sarawak Cultural village to learn about the customs and history of the Sarawak's indigenous peoples. It is located just outside Kuching and is included in City Tour of Kuching or may be purchased separately.

Sarawak Cutlural Village A morning pick-up at your hotel brings you to the Sarawak Cultural Village, a living cultural museum. Here you can learn about the various ethnic groups and visit the different style community housing of the seven groups. Located about 40 minutes away at the foothills of Mount Santubong and referred to as the "Living Museum", this lakeside village offers a unique opportunity to experience the diverse cultures of the Land of the Hornbill. Here, you can tour replicas of traditional ethnic houses, see how local handicrafts are made and enjoy "live" performances of cultural dances


Tour code: KCH/LH/01

Leave Kuching City by road. The 225 km journey by road takes you past lush scenic countryside dotted with small towns, farmhouses, Malay, Chinese and Bidayuh villages, pepper orchards and rubber plantations. Stop over at Serian for lunch. Continue your journey to Lemanak River where you'll board a motorized longboat for a thrilling ride upstream. Arrive at either Serubah or Nanga Kesit longhouse and experience for yourself a way of life that has gone on for centuries.
In the evening, you'll be entertained by the longhouse residents with traditional dances and be offered tuak, their native alcohol. Spend the night in the specially built guesthouse in the heart of the rainforest.

After breakfast, take a short trek into the jungle accompanied by the Ibans dressed in traditional gear and armed with blowpipes. Depart for Kuching via the same route that you arrived.

Bring along sturdy walking shoes, rain gear, hat, sun block, change of clothing, insect repellant, torchlight, swim wear, bottled drinking water and personal toiletries.

1 night's accommodation, 4 meals, return transfer and boat ride. Accommodation at the Iban guesthouse is necessarily sparse due to its location away from civilization, although you can be assured of fresh sheets, towels, toilets and shower facilities and electricity.

Iban Bidayuh Penan Orang Ulu
Melanau Malay Chinese  Long House Visits


Sabah Sarawak West Malaysia