Long houses and old heads

Day 12 – Sunday 08 Jan 2012 – Kapit / Sibu

Saturday night in Kapit was a quiet one ! The rain really came down around 8:00 and didn’t let up for hours, this seemed to clean the stragglers from the street, so apart from the sound of rain it was a fairly quiet night. Glad the Fox movie channel was available on th rather small TV.

I was awake around 4am and sort of up around 6.00 when the town started to wake up. I wasn’t meeting Joshua (the Iban guide) until 9.30 so I kind of hung around till 8.30 and then went and hunted down coffee and noodles for breakfast at the cafe I was to meet  Joshua at. He arrived early and we shared a couple of coffees and talked for an hour or so – and he chain smoked the entire time, must have had 6 smokes, all stubbed out on the floor of the cafe.  You are not in NZ any more Phil ! No more tourists had arrived in town so it was not worth him, or definitely me doing an overnight trip up river, he said the market had been badly down for the past two years, his usual market is Europeans. However, he did arrange a trip to one of the local Kapit Longhouses – Sebabai.

The Iban bring in jungle and garden fruits from the longhouses to sell in the market.

Even the visit to Sebabai was expensive, costing me about $100NZ, payment has to be made to the driver, the guide (Joshua), the headman and a wee bit to the warrior chief if you want to see the heads… Normally of course this can be split amongst a group, but I was a group of one.

Joshua met again at the jetty with the longhouse car and a cold can of beer. The longhouse has a number of old Toyota Hiace vans and this one was full and had no aircon and little suspension. Joshua smoked his way to the longhouse.  The trip took about forty five minutes about 50% on sealed road, though the unsealed road I think was in better condition. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat and was unable to photograph two guys on a scooter carrying a foam double mattress!! Even the local girls were laughing.

Sebabai long house sits above a small stream used as the communal wash house.

My chain smoking friend Joshua, crossing the swing bridge to the longhouse.The Iban Sebabai longhouse is one of the few remaining old long houses left, a huge number have been replaced with new concrete ones, some of them look very nice too. At Sebabai they are building a new brick house as well, but will keep the old one for a while longer. The house has some very old ironwood sections but a lot of the roof has been replace with corrugated iron. The long house sleeps 42 families, some quite large. The house is in two rows, with a ‘street’ in the middle. Each house has separate homes and a long common area where people hang out together.

The street in between, the boards were quite dodgy in some places!The still being built new longhouse, with a proper bridge.Sunday morning is market day so the house was fairly quiet when we arrived, but over the couple of hours we were there a large number of people arrived, and a massive amount of kids. Of course these days everyone wears western clothes, lots of football shirts on the boys. The house has fallen off the tourist trail in the last couple of years so some of the younger kids were very fascinated by me.

The common area where I was allowed to go.The young boy could not keep his eyes off me, good to see kids the world over love the same toys.

The house shaman was working on some ceremonial clothing when I arrived (not sure if this is staged, but I enjoyed watching him work) and soon after the house hard man came out. We all shared a couple of glasses of extremely potent rice wine and talked a bit about our families. The shamans sons (like a number of the local young men) work overseas, and are not taking on the shaman role, when he dies the house will not have one.

The Iban men are quite heavily tattooed and a number of the women were displaying some tattoos as well. The tattoos all display individuals memories so the shaman had airplanes as he flew on one on holiday. The Iban people are the only indigenous tribe to tattoo their necks and all the older men had them. Apparently the shaman featured in a Nat Geo article in 2002!

The house hard man, he is the warrior chief of the house, as were his father, grandfather etc asked if I wanted to see the heads his grandfather collected, which of course I did. They hang from the ceiling in the common area but are covered up. When he went to unwrap them a number of the kids, and some parents,  came to look. Apparently this is very rare and some of the younger kids were quite frightened by it ! The heads were very old.

After the heads we talked a bit more and then left so I could get the ferry back to Sibu.

A lot of the men in the house smoked, the hard man was coughing up a lung every five minutes, so I imagine he was not well. The other negative to the longhouse was the amount of rubbish underneath, all cigarette butts, fruit peels, other bits of rubbish get pushed the floor boards, it was a shame to see.  Malaysia (the bits I have seen so far) is quite grubby though.

The ferry ride was uneventful, the Rejang river was up significantly on the day before due to the massive downpour overnight. As we were running down river the trip was 45 minutes faster – it is a fast flowing river.

I went back to the Li Hua hotel and managed to get a single room for $20NZ the night, TV, air and wi-fi. I had another night in.

Tomorrow a 7 half hour bus ride – I hope !

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Wannabe writer and photographer. Interested in travel and place. From Auckland, New Zealand.

7 thoughts on “Long houses and old heads”

  1. Love the story about the Iban. Ive watched a few docos on them now and spoken to a Nat Geo photog who has stayed with them for 2 months. Awesome Phil!

    1. Thanks Bryan 🙂 It is quite interesting here, and possible somewhere I will come back to. I have just spent a couple of hours with a young English anthropologist I met over an ais kacang at a hawker stall. She has spent a year living with the Penan people up near the Indo border. Just sounds so fascinating. She gave me the name of a French tribale tattoo specialist who has spent time in the longhouse I was in and knows the people I met and their tatoo history. I will look him up and link to the post if I find anything

  2. Thanks for the information.

    We are in Kapit now and our hotel has a sign saying “avoid joshua” and many websites say the same.

    We bumped into him at the port and tried to sell us a trip for 300RM. Seems quite alot to me.

    Apart from his chain smoking, was he alright?

    1. Hi, Sorry I have just logged in and seen your query. I suspect it is too late, but anyway. I found him perfectly fine, I remember having a pretty good day, I saw what I wanted to see. Given that I was the only traveler in town and I did not get to do what I really wanted I kind of had no option but to pay more to go on my own.

      I hope what ever choice you made, you enjoyed the ‘charms’ of Kapit !

      Happy travels.

  3. The Kapit guide Joshua is a main character in the book “With Pythons & Head-Hunters In Borneo”. As a struggling poor man, as most in Kapit are, his redeeming qualities are portrayed in said screed.

  4. I did buy the book “with pythons and head hunters in Borneo” by Brian Row McNamee” and it is a enjoyable read with quite a lot of history about the area and the people of Sarawak. If you catch this blog post and have the time before travelling to the area, it is worth a quick look.

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