When cultures die out – being one of the last ones to visit and authentic traditional longhouse in Borneo

Sanne van Oosten

We often hear people complain that traditional cultures are dying out. Is it really such a shame when cultures die out? When the youth does not want to  take part of the culture that their parents hold so much importance to, why would it really be too bad? Indeed, it does diminish great cultural exchanges for tourists, such as the cultural exchange we enjoyed. However, it might not even be in the best interest of the people to remain part of a traditional culture, so who are we to complain about cultures dying out?

While in Malaysian Borneo we decided to venture out to spend a couple of days in a typical longhouse of the local Iban people. It was a unique experience, especially because we are one of the last and one of the few tourists to do so. We took a boat trip up the Batang Rejang river for about 70 kilometers to a small town named Kapit, in the Sarawak province of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. This town had once been a popular tourist destination, but that has died down in recent years. According to a local we spoke to this is because of government mismanagement, according to us it is because of the rise of low cost aircraft carriers such as AirAsia. People now prefer to fly from one place to another, skipping over the more remote areas.

From Kapit we hitched a ride with the chief of the last traditional longhouse in the area. This longhouse is 80 years old and houses 20 families. Each step in the rickety longhouse is somewhat wobbly as it is made completely out of wood, of which most is as old as the longhouse itself. Around the longhouse are chicken cages and small vegetable gardens. In the common area of the longhouse people quietly work on making rotan mats, weave ceremonial cloths, chat, stare out in to space and drink rice wine. Dogs lazily lay around waiting to be taken on a hunting trip. Meanwhile children run around and now and then hunters walk in and out with rifles and their kill.

Most tourists venture out on extensive jungle treks using the longhouses as departure and arrival points, but we weren’t too interested in jungle treks (read why here), so we mostly soaked up Iban culture. We ogled the human skulls hanging in the common area, trophies from headhunting missions as proof that enemies were slain. We were amazed by the jaws of wild boars in the kitchen. We tried to divert the interest of attention deprived children. Also, we drank some rice wine at a time of day in which we didn’t feel it was appropriate to drink such strong alcohol. In sum, we went with the flow.

In the evening the chief held a meeting about an important impending issue. The chief did all the talking while the adult inhabitants of the longhouse sat in a circle while nodding and exclaiming sounds of agreement. We, of course, didn’t understand what they were saying, but one of the inhabitants of the longhouse spoke quite a bit of English and explained that they were talking about the upcoming move to a modern longhouse that was being built close by. It would be a modern longhouse with all of the amenities one could wish for; cool tile floors, electricity, modern kitchens, WiFi, washing machines and last but not least: air conditioning. Most of the inhabitants were thrilled to make the move.

This wasn’t to say that the traditional longhouse was devoid of all modern features. They had satellite dishes, water pipes from the nearby river, televisions and electricity through a generator. After the longhouse meeting with the chief, a few families came together in the living room / bedroom of one of the families and watched the modern version of The Smurfs. Even though they couldn’t speak English they all roared with laughter at the funny scenes of the movie.

We asked the only one who did speak English if they were going to move to the modern longhouse as well. She said that they did want to, but most of them couldn’t afford the first payments and therefore had to stay in the old longhouse. The ones who could afford it would happily pack their bags in settle in more comfortable housing.

We feel lucky to do this before the modern longhouse was going to be finished and everything would change. We were one of the last to be part of such a authentic cultural exchange. Nobody was putting up a show for us, they were just living their life and we happened to be around. However, before long this will no longer be possible. Too bad for tourists, yes. But is this really such a shame for Iban people too? I don’t know. They seem to be looking forward to more modern living quarters and less of their traditional inheritance. Most adolescent children have already preceded them as most youngsters leave their traditional residence in search of greener pastures.

Cultures die out and cultures are born. This way people keep on adjusting themselves to their exterior conditions, generation after generation. If a culture dies out, please save and document as many remnants as possible so future generations can be educated about where they come from and how their ancestors lived. But don’t be gloomy about it. If a previously thriving club is faced with a steep decline in membership which inevitably leads to the closing down of this club, is this really such a shame? If nobody wants to be a member of a certain club, isn’t that proof that the club is no longer necessary?  Isn’t it then time to bite the bullet and decide that the club has had its best time and is no longer necessary? Change needn’t be feared. Embrace changing culture and lifestyles and happily face the challenges the future has in stock.

One response to “When cultures die out – being one of the last ones to visit and authentic traditional longhouse in Borneo”

  1. floraanakjanting says :

    This is a really powerful conclusion for this post. It really got me thinking.

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