The traditional Iban Longhouses in Batang Ai and Lemanak in Sarawak are a special places where you can both experience the Borneo rainforest and learn about Iban cultural traditions.
The Batang Ai River has been dammed to form Sarawak’s first hydroelectric plant, opened in 1985; it provides 60% of Sarawak’s electricity supply. The area was slowly flooded over a period of six month to give wildlife a chance to escape, but is has affected no fewer than 29 longhouses, 10 of which are now completely submerged.
The Batang Ai dam created a vast picturesque man-made lake which covers an area of some 90sq km, stretching up the Engkari and Ai rivers. This intricate network of river systems crawls deep into the island’s interior until it reaches the Batang Ai National Park – a heaven for wild orangutans, hornbills and gibbons. Beyond the lake, more than an hour’s boat ride upriver from the dam, it is possible to see beautiful lowland mixed dipterocarp forest.
As yet there are no visitor facilities, but five walking trails have been created, one of which takes in an ancient burial ground
A visit to Batang Ai National Park is not completed without a visit to a Longhouse. The Iban longhouses are one of the highlights in Sarawak. The longhouse building, unique to Borneo, is a village under one roof, with family apartments joined together and a long communal gallery. Longhouse dwelling is still prevalent in Sarawak, with over 4500 longhouses still in daily use, especially among rural Iban people or Sea Dayak.
The hospitable Iban, comprising the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, were renowned for practicing headhunting. According to Dayak tradition, headhunting started as a religious rite several hundred years ago.
It was considered prestigious to acquire heads in Dayak society. The social status of a headhunter as a courageous man would be enhanced if he possessed heads, either taken in battle or killing innocent victims. Following any successful headhunting mission, the Dayak would hold a thanksgiving ritual.
Today, most of the Dayaks are Catholics and live by farming hill rice, fishing, cash crops such as pepper, and the sale of rainforest products.