On a sunny August morning, I woke up in my plush bed at Aiman Batang Ai Resort with a heavy feeling in my chest. Our activity for the day was a visit to an Iban longhouse called Nanga Sumpa, hosted by Borneo Adventure. As someone who hails from Borneo myself, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of visiting a longhouse. I imagined the residents all decked out in tribal costumes, performing butchered versions of traditional dances, all for the benefit of short-term visitors. But after considering that the tour operator has been in business for 29 years, I decided to keep an open mind.
GENTLY UP THE STREAM
At the Batang Ai Reservoir jetty, our group hopped aboard slim longboats that would take us upriver. As it was low tide during our visit, at times our robust Iban boatmen had to turn off the engine and push the boats to where the water was deep enough to use the propeller safely. Sitting comfortably in my boat, I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t offer any help to the hardworking men. It was then I noticed that one of the boatmen was actually a middle-aged woman.
Despite those little moments of emasculation, the journey itself was a pleasant experience. The canopy formed on both sides so thick that it felt like going through a tunnel with golden rays of light shining through.
The humid rainforest was alive with the sounds of birds and insects, and we saw not one, but two brilliantly-coloured kingfishers! Watching their riveting dive-and-fly manoeuvres with my own eyes was so fascinating that I just froze there on my seat for quite some time after the birds flew away, only to be startled when the guide asked the boatmen to turn off the engine even though we were still on the deeper part of the river. He asked us whether we noticed anything, and true enough, there was a scant funky smell in the air. He told us to look up, and there it was, up high in one of the towering trees, an orangutan nest. The orangutan was not there, but it just goes to show that the area is still a natural habitat for the endangered species.
After spending roughly two hours on boat, we arrived at our destination. Walking from the jetty to the longhouse, I wondered: Where’s the agung (knobbed gong)? Aren’t they going to welcome us with an offering of tuak (rice wine)? But no, the only semblance of a welcoming committee was a bunch of skinny dogs who stared at me accusingly. “You didn’t even get your feet wet, did you?” I could almost hear them say, so I overtook the rest of my group and was the first one to arrive at the longhouse.
Surely the locals were waiting for us inside the house, I thought to myself. But again, I was proven wrong. The house was empty except for one man who warmly greeted us, but he was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of shorts instead of a loincloth and feathered headgear. He informed us that the rest of the villagers were still out in the fields and told us to make ourselves at home. The man and our guide took turns to explain to us that what they are doing at Nanga Sumpa is not your usual staged cultural tourism where the hosts would be inconvenienced in order to please the visitors. Guests would not be staying at the longhouse, but at the Nanga Sumpa Lodge located nearby. They are welcome to visit the longhouse and interact with the locals, but they are not to do anything that would disrupt the locals’ day-to-day lives.
I felt a load off my chest as I listened to them, and I gained a newfound respect for the Ibans of Nanga Sumpa who could have easily give in to mass tourism but chose to preserve their way of life instead.
CONVENIENCE IN THE JUNGLE
We crossed a short suspended bridge to reach Nanga Sumpa Lodge from the longhouse. As we entered the lodge, both the guests and the staff shared the same warmth and casual attitude that we felt welcomed right away. We grabbed ourselves some banana fritters with a cup of tea or coffee, and took a tour around the property.
The main building has 10 basic rooms with raised sleeping platforms and shared bathrooms. An adjoining building dubbed the Ruai Wing features an Iban-style covered veranda in addition to five rooms and shared bathrooms. The newest addition is the Forest Wing, with three larger rooms that can accommodate four guests. Staying in the main building gives you easy access to the common area as well as the kitchen, but I fell in love with the newer wings’s design, which took its cue from authentic Iban longhouses but still afforded with modern facilities.
Bear in mind that the lodge is located in a remote location, and while guests will be provided with basic modern amenities such as power points and western-style toilets, you will be disappointed if you’re expecting to get hot water or air-conditioning. But if you’re looking for a simple lodging set in a natural locality, a place where you can build camaraderie with other adventurers, sharing meals that feature fresh jungle produce, then this is the place to be.
TO BE ONE WITH NATURE
The greatest pull for Nanga Sumpa is the chance to interact with the local community, but guests are also given the opportunity to do other activities such as hiking, wildlife spotting, visiting farms, and making trips upriver.
We were lucky to be given the chance to do the last one. We went further up the river for around 1.5 hours before reaching Enseluai Waterfall. There’s something about waterfalls that just brings out the kid in everyone, and before we know it, we had spent one frisky hour at the waterfall. Tired but happy, we looked forward to our lunch. Our boatmen (and one boatwoman) took us to a clearing by the river, where we were greeted by locals who were busy preparing our lunch. Soon, we were served with a delicious spread of delicacies which includes manok pansoh (chicken in bamboo) and stir-fried midin (fiddlehead fern). We feasted on the meals freshly prepared especially for us by our gracious hosts, and took in the rainforest surroundings. What else could you ask after a day of great discoveries?
SUSTAINABLE AND RESPECTFUL
You won’t find costumed locals dancing for you at Nanga Sumpa. Instead, you would be given a chance to interact with an authentic Iban community and witness their way of life. You also have the opportunity to see what the Bornean rainforest has to offer, as the area is home to Sarawak’s last bastion of wild orangutans, but your outtake from your visit here should always be the meaningful bond between hosts and visitors.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kuching from Kuala Lumpur. For flight schedules and fares, visit airasia.com.
travel 3Sixty° team’s visit to Sarawak was made possible courtesy of Borneo Adventure, Grand Margherita Hotel, Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites, Aiman Batang Ai Resort & Retreat, and Tourism Malaysia Sarawak.