“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” There you go, I said it. I’ve always felt that it was just another cliché-stupid-feel-good-about-yourself saying, but this time, I perceived it with real meaning. As my boat cut further up the River Skrang, time came to a halt. The muddy waters, the ancient, massive jungle foliage hanging over the river, the sounds of birds and monkeys, my newfound Iban family singing and laughing behind me; I took it all in. This is what travelers spend all those long hours searching for, all that hard work, all that money spent, for this one, perfect moment. This is a journey I will never forget, one that will stay with me long after I have left this place.
Kuching, Gateway City to the Batang Ai
Kuching is the capital city of Sarawak province Malaysia. This is the place where travelers come to seek out old fashioned longhouses and genuine Dayak culture. It was for this precise reason that I decided to come back to Borneo. I had been unable to arrange this during my first trip to the region, some years before. It had proven to be extremely difficult to arrange. Sure, I could have simply taken a tour, as most people would have done, but I was in search of something more personal.
Arriving in Kuching, after so many years, was like seeing an old friend, a friend that had not changed after all the time that had passed by since I had last seen it. This sleepy port city has always been one of my favourite places to grab a beer and slow down.
My friend, Josh, and I arrived in Kuching from Sibu by boat. The journey takes about 4-5 hours. After we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we were off to find someone who, I was told, could help get us up the River Skrang and the Batang Ai Region.
Prior to this, I had been told by a travel company that to get into the Skrang and Batang Ai, I should seek out a man named Boy Skrang. Boy co-operates a tattoo shop called “Skrang Tattoos” in Kuching’s China Town. Finding Boy was very easy. I simply had to say the name “Boy Skrang” to anyone in Kuching and they pointed me towards his shop.
Upon walking into Skrang Tattoos, Boy, covered in tattoos, sporting the trademark Iban haircut was easily recognizable. Not to mention that Boy had been featured in the Borneo episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, in which he assisted in tattooing Anthony Bourdain himself.
“We want to go up the Skrang to Entalau,” I explained to Boy.
“Give me a few days, but for now come drink langkau with us,” Boy replied
As we drank, Boy told us he was from Entalau. He said that Skrang was a difficult area to get into, as there is not much for tourism there. He would have to arrange it with his family to get us there.
Mejong Long house, Skrang River
After a few laid back days in Kuching, Boy had everything arranged. We were to start by taking a bus to the Batong Junction, four hours away from Kuching. Then, an uncle of Boy’s would pick us up and bring us to Mejong Longhouse. From there, we could arrange for a boat to take us further upriver to Entalau.
Arriving at the junction we were picked up by Guyit, Boy’s Uncle. From there, a paved road goes up the Skrang River to Mejong.
Walking into Mejong is very exciting. You cross a large, concrete suspension bridge over the Skrang River. The giant, wooden longhouse sits adjacent to the river bank and the atmosphere is incredible. All the noise of the city and highway are replaced by the crowing of roosters. The air is filled with the smells of people cooking, and the fresh dew from the morning. The longhouse itself takes you back in time with its all wood interior.
Entering the longhouse, we were greeted by tattoo-covered, smiling old men who showed where we would be sleeping as well as to other important parts of the longhouse. The tattooed elder introduced us to his son, Seban, and another one of Boy’s relatives, Alex.
Iban Tattoos – The Iban are easily recognized by their numerous, vivid tattoos. In the past, the Iban would receive tattoos that symbolized important life achievements. Taking heads, learning to build boats, or traveling to far off lands would all be quantified onto a person’s skin in the form of a beautiful, symbolic tattoo. These days, the younger generation is bringing back the practice of getting tattoos for finishing education and traveling overseas.
Seban and Alex both could speak enough English for us to understand each other. The first thing we learned from them was that, upon guest’s arrival at the longhouse, Iban culture dictates they must be served Langkau* until fully inebriated. We experienced exactly this.
*Langkau – A murky home brew that can range anywhere from 25% to upwards of 90% ABV. Nobody really knows for sure. This home brew is preferred above all other drinks, and is tied closely to Iban Longhouse Culture. It’s also a great way for the Iban to get foreigners drunk.
One langkau, two langkau, meet another cousin, his name is Johnny. Three langkau, four langkau, meet another cousin his name is Mark, or Marcus, or maybe it was Anthony, doesn’t matter. Shake their hands, smile, down another langkau, this was Iban hospitality at its finest.
When the langkau took effect, we were no longer referred to as friends, we were now considered family, and residents of Mejong Longhouse.
It continued this way for many hours until our hosts, too, finally began to succumb to the alcohol.
The Batang Ai Region
The morning rooster crowed out his tune like a natural alarm clock of rural Borneo. From the kitchen, the old radio played local favourites. The smell of Seban’s mother’s cooking fills the air. Watching the longhouse wake up was incredible. Elders preformed their morning rituals; feeding the chickens, raking the pepper, and preparing to go out into the fields.
From Mejong, Alex drove us to Batang Ai. Batang Ai is famed for its virgin rainforests; where the chances of seeing orangutans are high.
To be honest, the majority of the drive is cruising by one logging block after another. This is the sad, ever worsening state of Borneo’s disappearing forest. I had imagined a scene very different from this.
Batang Ai is about an hour and a half’s drive from Mejong. When you get to the reservoir, you can rent a boat to go further up and see the flooding the dam has created. There are also many pleasant trails nearby to the boat landing. You can watch small boats glide along the waters; with beautiful green misty mountains as a backdrop.
Heading back to Mejong, we made a stop at a local market to get some bamboo. Why bamboo, you ask? The Iban are famous for a delicious dish called bamboo chicken. It consists of chicken mixed with lemongrass, garlic, chilies, and other locally grown spices. The contents are stuffed into a Bamboo pole and slow cooked over a fire.
When all of the spices are ground, all that is left to prepare for the meal is the chicken. The chickens happened to be living in the back yard and one of them was to be slaughtered. Who was to kill the chicken? The honor was, of course, graciously given to me, the guest.
Covered in blood from executing the chicken, I was given a shot of Langkau, another Iban tradition I am sure. We cooked the Bamboo poles over a rustic BBQ on the front of the longhouse. After an hour or so, we finally got eat this amazing meal with our amazing new family.
Up the River Skrang to Entalau
In the early morning mist, we fired up the boat’s engine. Our captain was a man named Guyit, and his son, Alex, was his second in command. We load the skinny wooden boat up with extra fuel, food, and a shotgun, to be used in the event we saw any jungle pigs.
Humming along the river, the sun broke away the morning mist and revealed an incredible scene. The banks of the river were thick with large, gnarly trees, twisting out from the shoreline. The river snaked through the countryside. Every so often, Guyit had to weave around rocks and large fallen trees. When the boat took a turn and the noise of the engine dimmed, it was replaced by the roar of the jungle. Bugs, monkeys and birds all made up this incredible symphony.
Journeying up the river Skrang was by far one of the most amazing things in Borneo, if not all of South East Asia, that I have ever experienced.
Unfortunately, every so often, the jungle opened up to an apocalyptic scene of logging. Complete sections of forest had been decimated by the corrupt logging industry that, most definitely, has ties to the Malaysian government.
After four or so hours of incredible jungle scenery, we arrived at Entalau, Boy’s home; the same longhouse that TV star Anthony Bourdain came to for the annual rice harvest festival of Gawai. As I am a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain, I was excited to be here.
Entalau is very different than Mejong. The wooden longhouse here has been replaced by a new concrete one. There is running water, and reliable electricity. Further up from the longhouse is a clinic and school. All this is thanks to the road that was recently extended to here. The road was created, of course, for logging reasons.
Walking the span of the longhouse many tattooed smiling elder’s wave to you, and ask “Where are you from?” It seems like everyone here is genuinely happy to see a new face; someone who wants to learn about them.
The residents of Entalau continued the practice of typical Iban hospitality by welcoming us into one of the households for delicious food, and, you guessed it, Langkau.
One langkau, two langkau, eat. Three langkau, the shotgun is brought out and we fire it into the jungle. Four langkau, our boat driver Guyit passes out on the floor from the concoction’s powerful effect. Five langkau, or was it six? Who knows, but the now the Karaoke machine is brought out and the foreigners are obligated to sing.
Skrang River Adventure, and Jungle Pig Hunting!
With our captain passed out, Alex was now in charge. Alex, having only ten or so shots of langkau was fit for the drive back to Mejong. The only problem was that it had become dark.
Our boat slowly glided down river through the darkness of the jungle. The noise resonating from the forest was much greater than during the day, giving this journey a spooky but very adventurous aspect to it. We often had to get out of the boat and push it along, as Alex could not see where the rocks where. A few times we even plowed over top of a rock, which resulted in us having to to pick the boat up entirely and lift it back into the deeper parts of the river.
“Stephen! Jungle pig, let’s go!” Alex yelled out, as he beached the boat on the river bank.
Shotgun in hand, Alex and I scrambled up the muddy cliff into the jungle. Crouched over and coming to a crawl, we approached the jungle pig (wild boar). Suddenly the branches rustled and the pig vanished.
“Better luck next time,” Alex sadly says.
Everyone in the boat is quite now as we are all looking for the eyes of another pig. Trolling a jungle river in Borneo at the middle of the night with a shotgun in hand, looking for boars, invokes a pretty surreal feeling.
Our boat pulls ashore once again and we get ready to hunt.
“Where’s Alex?” Seban says, looking around confusingly.
This time, instead of coming ashore for the hunt, our driver, Alex, had fallen off the boat some meters behind us. As he moaned and groaned, swimming back to shore, everyone laughed to the point where our stomachs began to ache.
Finally, with our passed out captain, soaking wet first mate, and slightly sober crew, we pulled into Mejong.
Final opinions of the Skrang Region
Skrang is truly a travelers dream come true. Skrang is what the pioneers of travelers would have experienced back I the 60s. Saying goodbye to our new found family at the longhouse was incredibly difficult. The Iban and their hospitality is unmatched.
Normally, I leave politics and social issues out of my posts. But Skrang is a special place, one that is slowly changing. Iban culture is beginning to diminish. This is partly to blame on the Christian missionaries who, I have been told, instruct the locals to give up there animist beliefs.
This is easily recognizable as, in the past, the Iban used to have human skulls hanging from the roofs of the longhouses. Now they either hide them or have buried them. There is also a complete generation of Iban who did not receive any of the Iban tattoos. This is also to blame on the foreign religious policies being imposed on the Iban.
The next issue is the logging. All the locals know that the logging is done by companies that have bribed the government, usually operating from China or other foreign nations. Every year, thousands of acres of forest completely disappear. As the older generation of tattooed Iban diminish, so does the forest, as they are the ones who keep the loggers at bay.
I write about these issues in the hope that we as travelers, tourists, and readers can create awareness to these issues. Let’s strive to keep the culture and forests of Borneo thriving.
Location: Skrang River, Batang Ai Region, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Tips: Come prepared, and don’t expect luxury. Traveling here is difficult and there are many obstacles. It’s best to come with an open mind and itinerary. It rains a lot bring a jacket and bug spray for the mosquitos.