A TNT Travel Writing Awards Finalist

Author: Toby Nowlan

“You guys want to see Borneo?” We’re in Kuching, bordering Borneo’s jungle province of Sarawak. The man addressing us looks Malay and appears drunk. I’m surprised when he continues: “I’m Brian, this is my friend Dave. Come down the river!” I have yet to discover that Brian and Dave are from tribes of hard-drinking headhunters and penis piercers. “Sure,” I say gingerly.

Piling into Dave’s car, we’re immediately offered beer. Preconceptions of untouched paradise begin to fade. From the backseat I ask; “Could you teach us some Bahasa Malayu?”

“We’re not Malay,” proclaims my new friend Brian with a hearty chuckle. “We are Sarawakian!” Another assumption crumbles.

Brian belongs to Sarawak’s Iban tribe, Dave to the Berdayu. Despite history of trade with the Chinese, British occupation and recent integration of Sarawak with Malaysia, they have held steadfast to their origins.

Oil palms line the road. It’s customary in Kuching to have a grandfather who keeps a bag of human skulls in his porch. Dave launches into tales of ancestors’ headhunting habits in the ‘Rajah days’ and of skirmishes with Philippine pirates. With every mile driven, Bornean tribal identity is further unveiled. Brian describes how after a heavy night of drinking, the Iban may treat a lucky hung-over individual to a penis piercing, or ampalang, which increases the pleasure of love-making. I double check that we’ll be safely up and away before morning.

We stop to join a family gathering for lunch in a tiny Berdayu village. Dave pours lankau (local fiery rice wine) into cups fashioned from plastic bottles with a parang (machete). He pours a cupful away; an offering to forest spirits who would otherwise ensure that someone spills and wastes their drink.

Our now extended clan climbs into three longboats; half a metre wide and six long. The boats settle into the water until their gunwhales are a few inches above the river. We haul up onto an island of shingle and driftwood.

The group arranges itself in a circle, cross-legged and shirtless. Tattoos of spears and snakes wind around their torsos. The air is soon scented with the aroma of clove cigarettes. A fire crackles in the centre of the assembly and the lankau continues to circulate. A guitar appears and the group erupts into choruses of mandi ai pasi (‘bathing in the river’).

This scene is becoming less common. Mining and logging companies are ripping out the region’s forest, displacing tribal villages and endangering their ways of life. As the sun sets, the merriment falls away.

Aboard the longboats once more, intoxicated, anatomy thankfully intact, we drift silently back to the village. Throughout their turbulent history, Sarawak’s tribes have held true to their contradictory identity: resisting oppression, integration and cultural dilution. Until now, that is. My river journey leaves me fearful for the Iban and Berdayu.

Behind me an unsteady Dave reaches for his lankau which, seconds later, tumbles onto his lap. Perhaps the forest spirits have already left.

>This entry has been shortlisted vote here

>View all 2009 finalists