By Joanne Lane
Rumah Bundong is a 60 year-old, 50-door longhouse near Kapit in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is inhabited by about 40 families of Iban ethnicity, who are famed, amongst many things, for headhunting.
Yes that’s right—headhunting—and 40 families means there are a lot of them. Still, I’m encouraged to learn they ceased the practice around WWII because I’ve elected to stay with them for two nights and frankly I don’t want them getting any ideas.
When I first arrived at Rumah Bundong, one of the first things I saw were skulls swaying from rafters in front of the headman’s bilik (door). Whether it was a warning for unruly guests or a gruesome souvenir for tourists, who knows? In any case I soon took little notice of it because there were so many other things to take in.
The longhouse was located about an hour’s bumpy drive from Kapit and across a suspension bridge; in many ways a dramatic arrival that added to the experience.
A ruai (verandah) connected the 100-metre long structure with doors leading to individual family areas. The verandah was a communal area where women dried grains, divided the fish catch, worked on handicrafts, minded children and chatted. The men also grouped together to smoke, mend fishing nets and carve hooks. There was a real sense of a close-knit community.
I was given accommodation for a fee with the headman, Tua Rumah Bundong Tajok, and his family. His married children lived with their own families in a series of rooms in the same quarters, while single members slept in the lounge or near the guest quarters – a loft above the living area.
There was electricity, a television, they had mobile phones and lived in basic but comfortable rooms. An outhouse was used for washing and toileting, but most people bathed down at the river.
Few in the family spoke English but it didn’t matter. The headman’s wife and daughters prepared delicious meals of meat and vegetables that we ate communally on the kitchen floor. It was wonderful to be included in family life and not treated differently and I dived into the bowls with everybody else.
The first day I spent playing with the headman’s grandchildren, bathing in the river and exploring to get a sense of the rhythms of the longhouse. Most people were farmers and spent the days working in the fields. There was also a school on site for younger children. In the afternoon the workers would return home and gather on the verandahs.
On the second day I accompanied the headman, some of his family and a dozen workers to their fields. We set out at dawn, walking for 30 minutes across hillsides and rivers to reach what appeared to be a series of burnt out, hilly paddocks.
It didn’t look too promising to me but I guessed they must have recently cleared them for replanting – the task for today. While we sat eating breakfast one of the older men, covered liberally in tattoos, produced a chicken and slit its throat. When he dipped the feathers in the blood and set them in a dish of food—perhaps to bless our work—visions of headhunting came to mind again.
However it was soon clear the chicken was our lunch. The headman burnt its feathers in a fire and began to prepare it. Meanwhile the men started making holes in the ground with poles and the ladies trailed behind filling the pockets with rice seeds.
After watching for awhile I joined the women and was soon scratched, sweating and covered in ash. It was hard work. When we broke for lunch the women gave me a long sleeved shirt, pants and a conical farming hat for protection.
We feasted on chicken, rice and vegetables in a hut by a small stream. Before returning to the fields we all jumped in the water to cool off. As the midday sun came out in burning glory I wondered if I could bow out gracefully, but I didn’t want to let the side down.
By the time we were finished I realized I had earned my kudos and back at the longhouse was invited into homes, had food pressed on me and treated as part of the community.
On my final day a tour group visited the longhouse. Each was given a sip of tuak, rice wine, and food to eat and there was music and dancing. I was seated with the headman’s family throughout this and it seemed an acknowledgement I had become part of the family even just for those few days.
Joanne Lane (Australia)
Joanne Lane is an Australian freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane. A love of writing from an early age led her to complete a university journalism degree in 1996 with the idea of pursuing sports journalism, but she soon found the constraints of the newsroom too much. The travel bug soon hit and Jo has now travelled to some 40 countries or more and lived in a few as well, writing and documenting her experiences for newspapers, magazines and online sources around the world. For more details, see www.visitedplanet.com.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website