Malaysia: At home with the Iban

Discussing life and love in the jungle with members of the Iban, Borneo's main indigenous tribe.

By Laura Holt
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:01 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:08 BST
Ronny steering an Iban longboat

Ronny steering an Iban longboat.

Photograph by Laura Holt

Deep in the Borneo jungle, we're discussing, of all things, courting rituals. Despite being surrounded by some of nature's rarest creatures — from orangutans to sun bears and clouded leopards — our discussions focus not on the seduction techniques of mother nature, but of man.

Sat beside the Delok River, we listen as the Enseluai Waterfall crashes down and freshly caught carp grill on the fire. As the flames flicker, we chortle as male members of the Iban, Borneo's main indigenous tribe, describe their tactics. It may be the potent tuak rice wine that's to blame, but spirits are high.

"The courting process takes three nights," says Ronny with a smile. Recently married, Ronny is one of the younger Iban men, sporting a football shirt and mobile phone, while adhering to the age-old practices of his tribal ancestors.

"Having met a girl at one of the annual festivals, the Iban boy will suggest he and his father go 'hunting,'" Ronny continues. "He'll turn up at the girl's house that night and have to find her room in the dark."

This, we're told, can lead to much awkwardness, as she'll often be sharing with her family. The Iban boy will have to creep in, find her bed and — somewhat alarmingly for the girl — touch her feet. He'll then beckon her to the kitchen and, whether interested or not, she'll offer him tea.

"They'll talk," Ronny continues, "sometimes until 3 or 4am, and if it goes well, the next night he'll return."

On the third night, the parents will question the suitor about his parents and their longhouse (a traditional, stilted, wooden dwelling). If both families agree, a wedding will be planned, lasting for three days and three nights.

All things told, it makes our courting rituals seem like a walk in the park.

But the Iban are used to having to fight for things.

Also known as Sea Dayaks, due to their use of traditional wooden longboats to cross Borneo's tangled rivers and waterways, the tribe were initially held in high regard by the British during the days of the Raj for their ability to navigate the island's dense jungles. However, a dispute over taxes in the Ulu Ai upriver region led to this Iban stronghold becoming a breeding ground for anti-Empire sentiment. That, coupled with the Iban's fearsome reputation for headhunting, led to a complete absence of schools and medical clinics being built in the Batang Ai area until the 1950s and little vestiges of so-called civilisation encroaching until a hydro-electric dam arrived in the 1980s.

Today, I'm happy to report that headhunting has long since been outlawed. However, historically, it was a rite of passage for most Iban men, with the gruesome trophies hung in the longhouses and hinted at in tribal tattoos — bands across the fingers denoting how many heads had been claimed. Other emblems, such as a prominent neck tattoo, signified which river the Iban came from, while ink on a female's lower arm, showed she was good at basket weaving.

Although women play a strong role in the Iban dynamic, it's undoubtedly a macho culture, with men revered for their boating or hunting skills. Hiking through the forest, they often sport bare feet, while us amateurs sweat and stumble in sturdy hiking boots.

It's all the more impressive considering they smoke like chimneys — cigarettes being linked to a man's masculinity. But there's also a practical reason, we're told, as it reminds Iban men to bring a source of fire when going hunting.

For this, they still use traditional measures, such as arrows poisoned by the native ipoh tree, although shotguns and dogs are now also commonplace.

It's easy to believe their lives are unchanging, preserved in aspic, but the Iban are not impervious to misfortune. In 2014, a fire swept through the main longhouse, resulting in a fatality. However, with the help of local tour operator Borneo Adventure, it's been rebuilt, along with smart new guest accommodation. It's a sign that the outside world need not always be at odds with traditional culture. Although, perhaps we'll agree to differ on our courting tactics.


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