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At Home with the Headhunters in Borneo


After trekking to a nomadic Iban village on a previous trip to Sarawak, our Borneo Travel Specialist, Chloe was keen to immerse herself a little more and spend a couple of nights at a longhouse home stay when planning her next itinerary. Luckily our three day At Home with the Headhunters trip fit the bill perfectly allowing Chloe and her parents (who she travelled alongside) to get a unique taste of life in Borneo’s wild jungle.
Decorative torn edge

Stopping for supplies

The Headhunter home stay is easily accessible from Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching so we chose to leave our luggage at our hotel in the city and just take a small bag to the home stay due to the small boat transfers. Our driver arrived after breakfast and stopped at local market a couple of hours outside of the city so we were able pick up ingredients for our meals during our stay. There were all different kinds of vegetables, exotic fruits, fresh fish, dried fish, meats and spices, and as a foodie I was in sensory overload!

Fruits market
Food market

Choosing gifts

We bought some perishable gifts for the chief of the longhouse, which our guide explained he would share equally between the 14 families! Ideal gifts include products that they would find hard and expensive to buy themselves given their limited income and location, such as dried noodles, tinned fish and biscuits. It’s best to avoid sweets or unfamiliar products that they wouldn’t have eaten before so I’d recommend sticking with locally made fare.

Almost there…

We were driven down to the boat ramp where a couple of our Iban hosts were waiting, given our life jackets and we boarded the boat. After 40 mins of skimming across the water we arrived at the jetty of our longhouse. By now I was starting to feel a little nervous- what if I said something to offend them? Did we have enough food? Our guide taught us to say ‘nama berita’ meaning ‘how are you’; it’s a polite greeting when you arrive, which made me feel a little more at ease!

People on the boat
Local people Borneo

The Iban Tribe

The longhouse is located in Batang Ai, near the Kalimantan border. Made up of a giant reservoir surrounded by lush rainforest, the Iban people have made this area their home for many years, the majority living traditionally in large wooden longhouses using the river as their main water resource. Best known for their fierce past where headhunting was practiced to ward off rival tribes, the Ibans are very hospitable to visitors and keen to share tales of their ancestors and culture.

‘Nama berita!’

As we walked up to the ‘ruai’ (which means common area) we waited to be invited in. There were a number of the ladies sitting weaving mats on the floor, who gave us big smiles and laughed as we greeted them with our ‘nama beritas’. Our guide led us to the house we were staying in, and sat us down on the floor from which we were offered tea, bottled water and biscuits. I had been given a book by our local partners about the Batang Ai, so I shared this with our new Iban friend who was fascinated!

People drinking tea
Man drinking rice wine

Dinner, laughter & lots of rice wine!

That evening we freshened up in the outdoor shower and joined our guide who was preparing our dinner. The chief graciously shared his potent rice wine which resulted in lots of laughter and we immediately felt comfortable and welcomed. Dinner was served on the ruai in the evening alongside the rest of the families in the longhouse, and with the help of our guide we shared stories and jokes. After dinner we gave the chief his gifts which he shared around to the families, and brought out the rice whiskey to drink with him as a thank you!

Not your average night’s sleep!

Sleeping in the longhouse was an experience, we were awoken by roosters, dogs and cats all at once, but when it was quiet it was incredibly peaceful! I would suggest bringing ear plugs if you are a light sleeper. We slept on comfortable mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets and were in the family area of the chief’s house with a curtain for privacy.

Trekking Borneo

Building bridges

A highlight of the trip was heading off for a long trek in the local area where occasionally wild orangutans are spotted! We set out with our guide and a couple of our hosts, who pointed out the various flora and fauna along the way.  When we reached a muddy part on the river which was not going to be possible to cross, they built a bridge for us right then and there!

Campfire cooking & fishing at the river

We stopped for lunch after a couple of hours of walking and our local hosts cooked on a bamboo campfire – it was delicious. We had chicken, beef, sticky rice, aubergine and tropical fruits- a welcomed treat after our trekking.

On our return to camp we were able to watch one of the ladies catch fish in her net on the tiny rivers, and she stored them in the bamboo for the walk back to the longhouse. Our journey back was more relaxing as it was by longtail boat through the mangrove rivers of the reservoir, where we were able to spot an Orangutan nest and a lot of monitor lizards!

Food Borneo

Why Meaningful Travel matters

Our final evening was spent on the ruai again with our hosts, after our long day we were less lively than the night before, but it was still so amazing to be there as we all felt so comfortable and relaxed. Our guide explained to us that most of the Iban make money from selling fruits or veg they grow, or crafts that they make and sell at markets, so the money that we are paying to visit (as well as the food we bring and eat with them) really makes a difference and gives them an opportunity to buy school books, clothing, and other staples which they may not have afforded otherwise.

Time to say goodbye

On our final day there was just time for a late breakfast before the chief showed us around the land to see his animals, and the fruit and veg patches. We packed up our bags and said our goodbyes, and the chief accompanied us down to the jetty where we took our longtail boat back to the reservoir.

We really felt like we had just had a once in a lifetime experience; I’d fallen in love with Sarawak and its people again, and I am already planning my next trip back! There aren’t many places that you can go and have such a personal homestay, and it was great knowing that we were helping them in some way by being there.

Chloe included this Headhunters homestay as part of a three week Malaysia and Borneo itinerary.

Tourists family