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Borneo island boats

Tourism as a Force for Good? Batang AI & Nanga Sumpa Rainforest Lodge


Nestled in the heart of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, Sarawak is a wildlife lover’s dream. The state is covered in dense rainforest, pristine rivers and unbelievable animals, this is one of the world’s most beautiful places. We’re going to take you through a (very) brief history of Batang Ai, and the story of the Nanga Sumpa Rainforest Lodge. A 30-year tale of how this area of the world has been using tourism as a force for good, preserving the wildlife, protecting the people and traditions of Batang Ai.
Decorative torn edge

A brief history of Batang Ai

The Iban

The Iban, (who make up 29% of the population in Sarawak and are the largest ethnic group), are the inhabitants of the Batang Ai area, deep within the Borneo rainforest. They originated from the Lower Kapuas region of West Kalimantan, migrating upriver between the 12th – 15th centuries. The Iban language is Malayo-Polynesian, and both languages are believed to have come from a language that was spoken in Borneo 2000 years ago which would explain the similarities between the Iban language and Malay. Thanks to the Batang Ai’s abundant land and resources, the Iban quickly grew in numbers and expanded into the area over the last few hundred years! In more recent history, because of the remote location of the settlements, the people of Batang Ai didn’t come into regular contact with Europeans until the mid-19th century. Which is one of the (many!) reasons why it’s such an incredible place for people to visit now, with traditional values and culture still at the heart of life for the Iban people. The people are entirely self-sufficient, which has helped to maintain the areas natural beauty.

Local man Borneo
Two local men tattoo


Skulls can be found by visitors, hung from longhouse rafters in homes of the Iban people. Relics from the days when the Iban would move into new areas of the rainforest and encounter other groups of interior people, who would either become part of the Iban community or be embroiled in all-out wars. Part of the belief of the Iban people was that the souls of the victims would seek revenge on their killers, to avoid this the victors would place the heads in a place of honour in their longhouse.


However, this then lead to headhunting becoming more like a cult. Iban women Shamen believed the longhouses with more heads would lead to better rice crops, and the human heads became a source of fertility… As you can imagine, this led to the Shaman’s convincing the headhunters to continue hunting, even in peace times. To top it off, young ladies wouldn’t marry a man who hadn’t taken part in a successful headhunt (talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place..!).

Headhunting began to decline with the introduction of Christianity in the 19th century and was all but disappeared by 1920 (it made a brief comeback during the Japanese Occupation in WWII, but stopped again swiftly after that).

Batang Ai – the river that gives life

Batang Ai is home to the largest (and sadly, the last sustainable habitat in Borneo) protected areas of Orangutan habitats in the world. We thoroughly believe that one of the top things to do before you die is to see the Orangutan in their natural environment, at a safe distance for you, and also for them not to be distressed.

Although the obvious highlight of the wildlife in Sarawak is the Orangutan, Batang Ai is also home to:

  • 200+ species of bird
  • 60 species of land mammals (including the incredibly cute Pigmy Squirrel and the Civets which are ancient cat-like creatures)
  • 10 species of primates
  • 92 species of flying mammals (that’s Bats to you and me)
  • A tonne of reptiles, amphibians, and insects!
Orangutan Borneo
Two local women

The Nanga Sumpa Rainforest Lodge – A meaningful partnership

This part of the Batang Ai story started in 1987, with our local partner Philip and his team. Like us here at Rickshaw, they have strong principles that lead to their unique offering. They wanted to create a sustainable, community-focused rainforest lodge, with the understanding that conservation, not just of wildlife but also of cultures was top of their list of goals.

The community was struggling, starving in fact, and in need of assistance, with a changing world around them. Our partner wanted to make a difference to the community, without resorting to damaging the wildlife or culture.

Working with the Iban leadership, and headed up by the late Tua Rumah, our partners worked with them to outline how the lodge could benefit the community.  To provide a secondary source of income (and not to become the primary income not to rely on tourism exclusively) and the offer the opportunity for those who aren’t working, first off building the lodge, and then continued work after that.

What’s beautiful about this, is that Philip and his team were willing to take their time, gain the trust of the community and be equal partners. The team invested in the community, providing outboard engines to help support growth, scholarships and learning programs to break the cycle of poverty (instead of hiring outside staff to do the jobs from the beginning). They also work around the schedules of the community, being careful not to interrupt the farming work that is the primary income of the local people, and that tourists who visit aren’t there to be entertained by the community, they are there to be part of it.

Throughout, our partners have maintained their stance, realising how fragile both the environment, and community can be to change, and making sure that both are improved by tourism, not damaged by it.

A lesson that can be learned worldwide about how the tourism industry can be a force for good, when done with meaning.