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A long night in a longhouse.

Celebrating Gawai Dayak with the Iban.

rain 29 °C


Realistically, Kapit can only be only be reached by a cramped four hour boat ride in the rather ominously nicknamed ‘flying coffin’. A busy market town, Kapit suffers traffic jams and crowds just like anywhere else but the surrounding roads here lead out into the jungle where they come to an abrupt end – not linking with the rest of the road network in Borneo. It was after a hairy 45 minute drive from Kapit, in the pouring rain, that we came to such an ending.

‘Welcome to my longhouse!’ our guide and host, Peter, shouted as we ran, rain-soaked, across a small wooden bridge and up the steps in through the nearest door. In fact, this Iban longhouse was where his wife’s family lived but he, like us, was here to celebrate Gawai Dayak, as his own Kayan tribe did not observe this particular harvest festival. By all accounts he had been celebrating quite a bit already. Along with most of the longhouse residents and family members, he’d been drinking since last night and had yet to have any meaningful amount of sleep.


Celebrated mostly by the Iban tribe across Sarawak, Gawai is a bit like Christmas in so much that people head back to their family homes in the countryside for a great social event that lasts several days. The longhouse is like a terraced street with a covered communal room stretching the length of it, which 25 or so families share. Some Longhouses are modern, made of concrete and can have up to 80 families sharing the space but the one we visited was made of traditional ironwood and had all the rickety charm you’d expect, despite being less than 40 years old.

Upon our arrival we were immediately welcomed by Peter’s family and introduced to the two chiefs of the longhouse (complicated story of longhouse politics that we were drip-fed over the night as people became more inebriated!) The party had already started so we joined in. This mostly meant sitting around on the floor with all the other men, chatting and downing shots of rice wine under the gaze of various tribal antiques - swords, spears, gongs, shields, woven cloth, beadwork and a few human skulls! The skulls date back ‘over a hundred years’ to when the Iban were still headhunters and killing a man was a rite of passage. The skulls hold significant spiritual meaning and are revered objects despite the government attempts to have longhouses remove them.


There were a few ceremonial duties to perform as well, people got dressed up in traditional clothing to sing and dance and we all got to wear an array of amazing woven hats. There was the slaughtering of a pig in which we all stepped over the pig as it took its last gasping breaths before we downed more shots of rice wine. Later on offerings were made to the harvest gods, all accompanied with copious shots of yet more rice wine, and Neil was taught how to correctly assemble the food offerings (and drink more rice wine).


As we moved in procession from home to home up and down the longhouse the party got bigger and we ate food, drank, some people slept, whilst new people arrived - organised chaos. The signal to move onto the next home came when family member from that house invited you by rubbing a live chicken over your head and by which time it was polite to have finished all the food and drink given to you by your previous hosts. I got adept at avoiding the free flow of beer and rice wine as it was still only just after lunch!



Rice wine is an acquired taste. Every family brews their own and it can vary in colour, taste and alcohol content. Some were sweet but most were quite ‘yeasty’ and often cloudy (we joked that they resembled an extremely worrying urine sample) and they soon began to take effect. Fortunately, before it got too messy and because the rain had finally stopped, someone suggested a quick, sobering swim in the river.

The party went on all night, ending with the expected free-for-all dancing you’d get at any large family gathering. We crashed out sometime after midnight but by the next morning it was starting all over again (rice wine hair of the dog?!) We caught a lift back into Kapit by mid-morning, before everyone was too drunk again to drive and headed straight to a hotel for a shower and bed, where we stayed most of the day. It was truly the weirdest, most fun we’ve ever had! The people so friendly, generous and welcoming; several times Neil and I would catch each other’s eye and with a knowing glance acknowledge that we were sharing in something special.

Salamat hari Gawai Dayak!

Posted by stuartfinch 03:12 Archived in Malaysia

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"we all stepped over the pig as it took its last gasping breaths before we downed more shots"

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