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Borneo Long House Story

Longhouse Story

Longhouses in Sarawak and Sabah are actually very different than the longhouses designed in Europe. Europe longhouses architectural materials consist of tough bricks and just a few blocks in one unit.

In Sabah and Sarawak, longhouses are made from simple wooden trees, with stilts on it, divided into different section, rooftops made out of leaves and families living inside can be a total of 100 families all in all with a living room which they call it as the Ruai section.

Then again, with the different tribes in Sarawak and Sabah each longhouses have its’ own identity and story. Ethnic tribal groups in Sabah and Sarawak are divided into few categories. They consist of Iban, Murut, Kadazan, Melanau, Penan and Bidayuhs.

Most of the longhouses in Sarawak and Sabah tend to have long names such as Annah Rais. It is one of the popular ones located in Kuching, on the way up to Serian. Anna Rais  alone, is a Bidayuh long house which have been declared as a heritage area that has been around 200 years ago with its preserved natural buildings.

Ibans’ longhouses have different names too. Batang Ai longhouse is one of the most popular ones. In Iban, longhouses are called Rumah Panjai.

As for the Penans’, one of the most distinctive longhouses is located in Mulu named Long Iman. If you do happen to travel along the route of Mulu, be sure to try out the lifestyle of longhouse with the Penan people in Mulu for a few days.

Muruts’ longhouse is another different entity. Located on a very beautiful island and a great place for a holiday escapade, there is a longhouse by the name of Rungus in Sabah. Another one will be Penampang Longhouse that is also worth your time to drop by and have a peek on that piece of beautiful island.

Melanaus’ Longhouse located in Miri especially Mukah, Dalat, Oya, Matu-Daro-Rejang, Ba'ie (for Bintulu), and Balingian. The Melanau tribes however, they do consider themselves as mostly Malays.

The longhouse description may sound a little bit dull since they are mostly made out of wooden planks and all that. Not all longhouses in Sarawak however are built in such manner. If you travel along, you will find several longhouses which have been cemented below but wooden plank on the upper level. Those longhouses have a little bit of income; they can afford to have the Astro Channel even! With ASTRO in the community, the Football channel is a must. Surprisingly, some do have Wi-Fi and an internet connection for the community to learn and use! Other than that, it is for tourism purposes especially for tourists need to have an internet connection on spot.


Researchers and scientists did on expedition during the early days in the 70’s, suspected that the community of longhouses have been on the Borneo island since during the age of Neolithic. It was a new age whereby when small community started to understand the needs of having proper living and working side by side together as a team. It all started from Mulu Caves.

Their daily activities consist of basic plantation, rearing livestock, hunting, ritual dances, making beads, with very little simple business trades and so on.

The ritual dancing is very important in their lives. Even until today, after the harvesting season ends, a celebration known as Gawai will be celebrated. The dances are still practiced in every different longhouse with different tribes. The purpose of such dance is to pay respect to their deity gods believing it has been their protector for ages and giving them good harvest. It is a way of “thanksgiving” for the good harvest season.

In the past, before male warriors enter the battlefield, they will perform such dance. It was believed once they entered into trance spiritually, they showed no fear for their enemies. One of the well-known historical events in Sarawak was Rentap or also known as Libau. He was a fearless Iban warrior and a freedom fighter that passed away in year 1863. Until today, his death whereabouts record still remains a mystery. It was during the era of the White Rajah’s Brooke when James Brooke first landed in Kuching (now is the Waterfront) in year 1838. James Brooke was determined to get rid of Rentap and his villagers that resided in Skrang area.

The myth was that Rentap performed the ritual dance before entering battle and he was shot more than once before he eventually passed away in year 1863. His well-known quote still lives among the different tribes in Sabah and Sarawak today it is still Agi Idup, Agi Ngelaban which means I Will Fight As Long As I Live. He was a real hero not only to the people of Sabah and Sarawak but to all Malaysians.

When World War II broke out, there was a tension in Malaya and Borneo Island. The Japanese occupation started in year 1941, December, on the Island of Borneo and completed their invasion starting from Balik Papan in January 1942.

During this time of struggle, the Japanese treated the Chinese badly. The Chinese on Borneo Island had no choice but to flee into the different tribes of longhouses for protection and shelter. Some British even decided to reside in the village and became assimilated to their culture. So did Japanese soldiers who had no interest to partake the World War II events other than looking for peace.

They were well taken care off by the different tribes for the next couple of years and were even welcome to stay and made it as if their own home after the war ended.

Ironically, the Japanese was well-known for their beheading ritual. The different tribes in Sabah and Sarawak were also known as the fearless head hunter. Equipping with only a piece of wooden shield, a machete, and a 10 feet long blow pipe, they were silent killers in the forest. They could even easily killing an entire whole platoon of soldiers with only their blow pipes filling it with one shot of poison darts.

Around their longhouses compound, although different tribes, they have one similarities. Rumah Panggah is a section of the long house where they kept skulls of their enemies. A few feet away from their longhouse, they will either hang it on tree branches or even pierced the defeated enemy skull on a sharp pole or object that was protruding out from the soft ground.

Any Japanese who saw this would not enter the region. The tribes were untouchable. Not even bullets can kill them.


Once more, this is another good reason to visit Malaysia and check out the colourful tribe ethnics. A very iconic dish among the tribes is chicken or fish cooked in the bamboo. The recipe was said to have existed a long time ago for their daily menu. The chicken or fish will be filling up inside the bamboo itself and a fire will be lit under it. Then local vegies such as the young sweet potato leaves are then squeezed inside it. The fire of course must be well taken care-off to ensure the flame is not too big or even too small. Every 2-3 minutes, the bamboo needed to be turned around while cooking. This is to make sure the meat inside is well cooked.

After cooking, the food inside will be extracted out from the bamboo. As for the bamboo they will be recycled for some other carpentry needs.

Another unique iconic dish is the wine. In every tribe, the official name for wine is Tuak. The Tuak,was only served once a year in the past. But that old tradition of serving Tuak with only once a year is long gone. If you come over to Malaysia and visit Sarawak during Christmas, a glass of Tuak will be served by the Tuai Rumah. The Tuak consists of apple, rice and sugarcane. The taste is very different than that off a beer whereby it is bitter as it goes down your throat. Most Tuak is actually sweet.

In Sabah, the traditional food will be freshly grinded sago worm. The sago worm, taken down from the tree bark is extracted and then grinded with some sweet savoury and it is ready to be eaten. Some are of course will be cooked with curry, deep fried, or a mix of salty soy sauce salted or sweet ketchup.

Melanau is well-known for Umai. Umai is a type of fish dish that is made out of salmon, mixed with lemon, ginger, lime, and sugar. All that it takes for the recipe is just to grind it using a fork or stirred it using spoon. The salmon fish is definitely raw.

Kuih Jala, is also another identity well known among the tribes. It is usually made out of flour and deep fried. The Kuih Jala, looks complicated and sophisticated. Despite that, the crunchiness with simple flavoured will melt in your mouth. Making you want to have second helping.

Longhouse Activity

Once you arrive in any of the longhouse in Sarawak, if the longhouse is located across the river, you will be greeted by a boatman. The boatman will then row to get to the other side of the shore where the beautiful longhouse awaits your arrival.

On the first day, the Tuai  Rumah will greet you and perhaps maybe you will be settling down for a while and taking a break. They will serve you with great warmth and welcome and yes, with food too. Light snacks like the Kuih Jala. If you are ready for a little adventure, you may want to try out blow pipes. It looks easy but it is not.

In Sabah, you get to try and blow flute using your nose. It looks easy and simple like blowing a harmonica but truth is, it is not.

If you are interested in tattoos, some longhouse will do it the traditional way. It will take a few days to heal.

Other than that, you will experience simple fishing methods and perhaps, a little bit of fruit pickings and learning how to cook new recipes.

During the night, if you are interested, you can sit down, relax and enjoy listening to some old folk-lore tales while having a glass of Tuak in your hand.

So plan your travel wisely. You do not want to miss out the celebration in the longhouse.


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Tags: Sabah Sarawak Longhouse | Borneo Longhouse | Longhouse in Sarawak and Sabah | Annah Rais Long House | Long House in Sarawak | Iban in Sarawak | Borneo Tours |


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