Monday, September 1, 2008

Roughing it at the Panggil Longhouse


Destination: Panggil Longhouse in Sarawak (Borneo)
Number of Days there: 3
Our Best of: Friendly people
One thing unexpected: The odd financial arrangement between the people setting it up and the village
Times we took the: Bus: 2, Train/Subway: 0, Taxi/Car: 2, Boat: 0
Estimated KM walked: ??? who knows how long we spent in the jungle
Where we stayed: Panggil Longhouse (package tour)
Favorite Foods: Tuak, "Iban" fries & spicy nenas (pineapple)

We decided that a trip to Sarawak wouldn't be complete without a longhouse visit. Our hotel owners for the first leg of the trip were Iban and they offered an organized tour of a longhouse for 3 days and 2 nights for 430 RM per person (about US $150). We signed up for a visit and started the trip with a 3 hour bus ride to Sri Aman. We were promptly picked up at the airport and dropped at the longhouse for lunch. First impressions:

1. Longhouse is currently being constructed.
2. Six tourists are sitting on the porch "resting". We find out that a lot of resting is involved with this tour. The Iban rest for a period of 1 hour after every meal.
3. We ask where we will stay and they say they don't know because all of the beds in the main room are taken.
4. We ask how the bathrooms were and we were treated to furtive glances (not a good sign).

Obviously our first impression wasn't a positive one but the hospitality of the people in the longhouse wore us down. It's still not an experience I'm keen to repeat but I'm glad we did it. Living in the longhouse was an eye opening experience as it was very traditional with no power and limited running water (it was piped in from the river). This meant showers using a bucket and a smaller scoop that you pour over yourself called Mandi's (icy cold river water...some would call it refreshing I guess). Did I mention that this occurs outside behind the house inside a pseudo wooden shelter with a plastic tarp for a curtain? The bathrooms, well, use your imagination. Think of an outhouse with a squat toilet and no running water. For some inexplicable reason the platform wasn't flat but tilted back so good balance was a must. In order to "flush" you had to pour a large bucket of water down the hole. Not a pleasant experience. Water consumption was cut to an all time low so usage was very minimal. For those of you wondering, yes, we had bottled water to drink. I forgot to mention where the outhouse drain was located...that would be about 50 feet from the building itself. I'm sure it's a lack of education but where did the people living there think the waste went? Hmmm...let me think, it seeps into the ground and goes back into the river. Lovely.

When we arrived at the longhouse we met everyone including our guide Kibie and his entire family. The others in the longhouse were members of his extended family which included his wife Anna, daughter Bungha & his father, the village chief. Kibie was an amazing guide and really went above and beyond to show us everything he could about the Iban way of life. Each day we trekked through the jungle looking for food (fruits, herbs & vegetables). All were collected in bamboo baskets which the women had made. At first I thought that it was for show but throughout our stay in the area we saw many people going into the forest with empty baskets and then coming out with them full of food. Back to the jungle trekking. I didn't mention that there were no paths. We made our way through the dense jungle by trekking over rocks, trees and whatever else happened to get in our way. Kibie and his friend Chlorl brought along machetes to cut our way through the jungle. The "path" included walking seemingly endless distances on logs in water, clawing our way up vines and rappelling down the mountainside using a vine for support. Jungle Jane I was not. But as they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Other memorable activities included fishing in the river (yes we kept what amounted to minnows and cooked them up), seeing the preparation for bamboo cooking (the Iban cook rice and chicken in bamboo - very nice), trying on traditional Iban wedding clothing (my favorite), watching the women prepare bamboo for weaving & enjoying tuak (rice wine) with our new friends. I should mention that this particular longhouse has only been taking in tourists for about a week so there are still some kinks to work out. The positive part of this was that the locals were just as curious about us as we were about them! The locals came out each afternoon and evening and enjoyed coffee and conversation. The children were also very excited to have us around and became quite the camera hounds. This made getting to know everyone so much easier and we left really feeling quite a bit of affection for the people there. By the end of our stay there we were almost sad to leave. Almost.

The financial arrangement of the longhouse and the people arranging it is a little concerning to us. From what we could gather, of the 430rm we paid per person, the longhouse village only got a small portion of this. All the "food" that was not collected from the jungle was purchased by the B&B and in my opinion was the cheapest food in the market. The chicken that was used in nearly every dish was basically the leftover bones and skin, and aside from the bottled water, were the only things purchased by the tour operators. Other than transportation by public bus (19rm each way) and the aforementioned food arrangement, this was the only costs incurred by the operators. The rest of our experience was handled by Kibie and his amazing wife which from what we gathered, got paid for each activity and not necessarily for each person. So for example, a walk in the jungle for 3 hours - 15rm per group, trying on traditional wedding clothes - 10rm per group, take us fishing - 15rm per group, etc. During our visit, there were up to 9 people staying there at one time which would be 3,870rm collected by the tour operator of which the longhouse will probably see about 150-200rm of that. We don't have the whole story and it so we might be missing something, and all the people involved are extremely friendly so we don't want to be too critical, but we can only help but feel that someone is being taken advantage of to some degree. Just our two cents on it.

To see more pictures of the Panggil longhouse please click here.

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