Written by Leong Siok Hui on 8 Sep 2008 with 1 comment. Contribute!
Frankly, I've always shunned longhouse 'experiences' touted by tourist brochures in Sarawak. Maybe it's the idea of showing up at someone's house, intruding on the family's space and expecting them to put on a 'dance' for you so you can be entertained, in the name cultural enrichment, just doesn't seem right.
Until I read about the Iban longhouse visit to Nanga Sumpa in the remote area of Ulu Batang Ai in Lonely Planet's Code Green, a book that highlights responsible travel destinations and operators around the globe. Lonely Planet dubbed Nanga Sumpa as "one of the best examples of a community tourism project in South East Asia." Basically, this project embodies the principles of responsible tourism - empower the local community, preserve the local ethos and protect the natural areas.
So in September, I showed up at Nanga Sumpa with Wild Asia's Dr Reza Azmi, the responsible tourism (RT) 'evangelist' and Star photographer Rapaee Kawi to check out the longhouse. (A Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group, Wild Asia has been pushing RT initiatives since 2003). Nanga Sumpa is also the winner of Wild Asia's Responsible Tourism Awards in 2006 under the Eco-ventures, Lodges and Homestays category (http://www.wildasia.net).
In 1987, Kuching-based travel adventure company, Borneo Adventure (BA) scouted the rural areas of Sarawak to search for an 'alternative' tourism product. They found an Iban community living near a pristine area, a two-hour boat ride from the Batang Ai jetty. Led by headman, the late Tuai Rumah Along, the community welcomed BA and were willing to work together to bring in tourists. The villagers farm rice and cash crops like pepper for their main income. Fishing, hunting and gathering of jungle produce put food on their dining tables.
BA came up with the concept of visitors arriving as "guests" of the longhouse people. The focus of the trip is the upriver travel via handcrafted longboats, hiking in a tropical jungle and experiencing the day-to-day life of a small farming community. Through their stay, visitors gain an insight into today's rural Iban lifestyle in Sarawak.
Our little entourage included BA's operations manager, Emong Tinsang, and the company's intern from Denmark, Marie Iversen. After a 5-hour trundle from Kuching, we arrived at Batang Ai jetty and were whisked off in two longtail boats steered by Nanga Sumpa villagers. The villagers own the boats and make extra income from ferrying communities along the river.
"Initially, we gave out interest-free loans to individual families to buy the outboard engines. It's a way for them to retain ownership and take full responsibility of the boats," explains Tinsang, 40*.
After crossing the massive Batang Ai dam, we entered a small river tributary flanked by lush, verdant forest. The engine's soft drone and the swishing water lent a tranquil ride as the boat snaked through the winding river. Surprisingly, the Sumpa River is pristine and crystal clear, unlike the typical teh-tarik -coloured Malaysian rivers.
Thank God there were no flower girls decked in traditional costumes to greet us when we pulled into the village. The villagers were milling about doing their chores, and the youths were lounging around, strumming their guitar and smiling at us.
To minimise visitor impact, BA built a wooden lodge away from the longhouse, using over 90% material and labour from the community, to house their guests. It's good to know we won't intrude on the longhouse folks. Spacious and airy with a river view, the lodge's twin-sharing rooms are simple but comfy with mattresses placed on wooden platforms and shielded by mosquito nets. In the evenings, soft warm hues from the kerosene pressure lamps lit up the lodge's dining area while generator-powered bulbs lit the communal bathrooms and bedrooms.
Village ladies make up the six groups of cooks who take turns whipping up delicious meals for guests at the lodge. After a scrumptious dinner of stir-fry forest ferns and bamboo shoots, curry chicken and fried fish, Tinsang suggested we visit the longhouse.
Keeping traditions alive
The Iban has a word called berandau, meaning "sit around and chitchat," Tinsang explains. So when you enter the longhouse ruai (common veranda), you don't walk directly from one end to the other. The longhouse folks will invite you to sit and have a cuppa.
"Ibans believe it's taboo to walk directly across the longhouse, bad spirits will drain the wealth from the longhouse," explains Tinsang. "But we don't impose on the longhouse people that they have to welcome the guests. We tell them 'if you're tired, just rest.' "
And unlike most organised visits to longhouses, visitors to Nanga Sumpa don't expect to see a "staged" cultural performance. Yes!
"We try to avoid the 'hospitality fatigue' syndrome," says BA's managing director Philip Yong in an interview in Kuching after the trip (Refer to The visionary). "If they have to 'perform' each time they have visitors, they'll find the effort tiresome and eventually may resent the visitors because of constant intrusion."
But on some occasions, the longhouse folks would spontaneously hold a welcoming dance for the guests. And they encourage their pre-school kids to perform ngajat (Iban dance) to help the kids overcome their shyness and encourage them to take pride in their heritage, Yong adds.
30 families, about 290 residents, live in the longhouse. During our visit, the longhouse was due for renovation so it was half its original size. Yet the roomy ruai carpeted with weaved pandanus mats looks cosy as the longhouse folks chilled out after dinner. A smorgasbord of crafts from the elaborate pua kumbu (Iban blanket), colourful bead necklaces to fancy weaved baskets lined the walls. Since tourism came to the longhouse, the womenfolk have revived traditional crafts and make extra income from craft sales.
"Each family makes an estimate of RM3000 to RM4000* annually from sales of handicrafts," says Tinsang. Following a brief introduction, the homemade tuak (rice wine) was promptly brought out. After knocking back a couple glasses of tuak, our hosts and us warmed up and the banters flowed easily.
The next day our plan for a short trek to the waterfall was shelved as it was pouring non-stop from dawn till early afternoon. We dropped by the longhouse again and chitchatted with the folks. To our pleasant surprise, one of the longhouse tourism committee members, Andah Anak Lembang, is also a skilled potter.
Andah is one of the last three remaining traditional pottery artisans still alive in Sarawak. Kraftangan Malaysia invites him to craft expos overseas and gives him a monthly stipend to keep the tradition alive. Andah also does maintenance work at the lodge.
"Unfortunately, none of my children or the younger generation here are interested to learn the craft," says Andah, 59, who showed us how he moulds the clay pot. The whole process, from sieving white clay from the river, to drying, shaping and firing, takes about three weeks to make a decent-sized pot. When he finds the time, he makes miniature-sized pots (RM25 each) for tourists to bring home. Reza, Marie and I happily walked away with a clay pot each at the end of the visit.
The other couple staying in the lodge, Connie Raaÿmakers of Holland and her husband, managed to do the trek a day earlier.
"There's so much too see, not necessarily moving wildlife, but the large variety of different plants and we learn about its practical uses from our guide, James," says Raaÿmakers. On the trek, they gathered wild ferns and vegetables. James whipped up a quick lunch with rice steamed in bamboo and stir-fry vegetables.
Protecting the Orang Utans
In Nanga Sumpa's vicinity sits one of the last natural habitats of the orang utan (a fully protected species in Malaysia). At first, the longhouse folks saw the primates as pests that destroy fruits trees and cash crops. But over time, they realised that the primate is a tourist attraction. Local guides accompanying treks are tipped lucratively each time there's an orang utan sighting. Now they're keen to protect the orang utan and keep the forest intact.
When the rain finally halted, we set out for a fishing trip with the locals. We watched how they cast the nets. Some of the gung ho locals, including Andah, armed with spears and goggles dived into the river. It was magical as our longboats glided across the river framed by a 'tunnel' of leaning leafy trees, tall ferns and gigantic bamboos.
We made a pit stop at Wong Enseluai (wong is Iban for waterfall). The locals skinned the fish, wrapped them with the fragrant bungkang leaves (a hint of kaffir-lime leaves aroma), stuffed the fish into bamboos and grilled them on a makeshift BBQ pit. We sank our teeth into the sweet, tender fish (with annoying tiny bones though) as pretty butterflies fluttered around us.
Ah, the simple pleasures of life...
RT in action
More than just a lovely longhouse experience, Nanga Sumpa defines a community tourism project done right and the symbiotic relationship between BA and the community.
BA's role is to bring visitors to Nanga Sumpa. The community provides transportation, local guides, helpers and cooks. Each visitor is charged a "head tax" of RM10 per person as a form of rental to the longhouse since the land where the lodge sits belongs to the community. BA sets up an education fund for the villagers and to date, RM31,520* has been given out for education purposes - school supplies, fees and scholarships. The community has produced 12 university graduates as a result of this fund.
"Half of the total sales we make goes back to the longhouse, 20 to 30% for guide services and transport from Kuching to the jetty. BA only keeps the other 10%," says Tinsang. "It isn't how much profit we make, what matters is the clients are happy when they come here and they will end up buying other tours from us (BA offers other tours to Mulu National Park, Kelabit Highlands, Danum Valley, etc)."
"When we first started, tourists would buy something small and the locals don't even have change for RM10," says Tinsang. "Now the village committee makes a monthly average of RM25,000 to RM40,000*" The only problem is how they will handle the money, Tinsang adds.
Nam Anak Lembang, another committee member and a carpenter for the lodge, receives financial help from BA for medical care and his eldest son received a scholarship to further his studies.
"We were approached by a timber company who offered to buy our land for huge amount of money," admits Nam, 52, whose other source of income comes from rice and pepper-farming and forest products. "But we don't want them in. They will pollute the water, we will lose tourism and we don't trust them."
"We have worked with BA for 20 years, we are familiar with their policies and philosophy, and basically we trust them," he adds.
And as Reza sums it up: "20 years - that's how long this project has lasted. Community projects do take that long - or longer - and tourism operators must have the foresight to invest in the long term."
For more information, check Borneo Adventure .
Tour package for Nanga Sumpa: A 3-day/2-night package to Nanga Sumpa costs RM1,400 per person (minimum of 2 pax) or less with higher number of guests. A minimum of one week advance booking is required.
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Leong Siok Hui
Leong Siok Hui writes for The Star Weekender. The Star is Malaysia's largest English daily newspaper.... more inside »
Leong Siok Hui also contributed 10 other articles in this section:
- Green Travel
- A Balancing Act
- Green Luxury
- One With Nature
- Trouble in Paradise
- Inspiring, earth-friendly retreats
- Wildlife at your doorstep
- Making a difference