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Longhouse Lives

Published November 24th, 2012

Borneo is perhaps the most famous of all places when it comes to longhouses, its fascinating tribal and (former) headhunting culture have survived and thrilled for generations, and it's still alive and well - in certain areas (not the head-hunting).
Over the past decade or so I've been fortunate enough to travel extensively through the jungles and mountains of Sabah and Sarawak, the Malaysian half of Borneo. It's in the depths of these mysterious and dense jungles and along it's endless muddy waterways that you will find the last of the longhouses.
It's close to impossible to go into too much detail in a short blog post, as they're all very different, even within different tribal groups the look, feel, the culture and traditions vary dramatically - although each is in some way or another as interesting as the other.
Longhouses are basically long communal houses, almost like a huge terraced row of houses, with a longhouse-length communal living area in-front of the various family "apartments". Longhouses are made up of entire village communities, and each family has its own "door" - behind that is where they live, shop, play, learn.. although every community is different. A longhouse size is measured by it's doors - these can range from 10 to 30 or so doors (families).
The communities are mostly found in remote jungle areas, often only accessible by long-tail riverboat. Some have electric, some have generators, some have neither - but almost all have some form of DVD player. Communal living is where life is at, and "tuak", a local home-brewed rice wine is part of every day life, as is sitting down and chatting.
In keeping with ancient tribal tradition each longhouse has a tribal council, which has a chief/head man, who is sometimes elected, and sometimes inherits the title - this is the communal government, and just about all communal issues are decided by this group of elders.
These days the occupants are generally of the older generation - and occasionally younger kids too. The younger generation usually head to the cities in search of work, while older kids attend boarding schools - but they all come back for special occasions and holidays, very much keeping the traditional way of live alive.
There are still longhouses in Sabah, but most are to be found in Sarawak, with the orang ulu (river people) of the Baram River and the Iban of the Batang Ai district being the most prominent longhouse dwellers. Although some have turned to part time tourism, with home-stay offerings, it's still agriculture and self sufficiency that is the mainstay of regular life for these communities.
Originally longhouses were built for practical reasons, the main of which was to protect the community form raiding head-hunters - so that by the time they neared the first house the word would spread through and a defence could be made - but head hunting officially died out after the second world war - and very few of the true head hunters are still alive.
A visit to a true longhouse is an amazing experience - and one of life's great "must do before it's too late" a) listers...





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