“Is that for the air-conditioner”, I innocently asked our tour guide when he handed me the remote control at a homestay in a kampong (village) we had arrived in.
It’s for the fan, tour guide Antoni Sheridan Derby said, as he pointed to the ceiling.
Having backpacked in Indochina, lugged a 20kg luggage up a flight of cobblestone stairs in Granada, Spain and left on the streets on a cold and misty winter morning in Sydney, Australia, I consider myself to be adventurous traveller.
But when the invitation came to celebrate a harvest festival with a tribe community in a village, I admit I had my reservations.
“How am I to protect myself from the lizards, cats and dogs?”
“Are the bathrooms clean?”
Several questions loomed in my head.
My mother echoed a deeply seated thought: “How much more can you experience in life just by eating curry and pasta and living in a HDB? Get out and go.”
With several packets of wet wipes, a bottle of hand sanitiser, insect repellent, a box of mosquito repellent patch and a local SIM card, I arrived in Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse, about 100km south of Kuching or a 45-minute drive from the city.
There are over 4,500 longhouses in Sarawak where tribal people live in. There are the Iban (sea dayak) and Bidayuh (land dayak) tribes. The Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse would appeal to most tourists because of its semi-modern lifestyle. The homes of other tribes such as Iban are remotely located, more authentic, and only have electricity from 6pm to 10pm.
Greeting me at Annah Rais Longhouse were lush greenery all around, the exhilarating air of peace and calmness, and the slight odour of wood burning at a makeshift stove outside Macheree Homestay, one of units there. And, cats taking their afternoon nap and free-ranging chickens roaming freely in the yard and fields, to their heart’s content.
It was 31 May, the eve of Gawai Dayak, where Gawai means festival or ritual and Dayak means native people. It’s an annual end-of-harvest festival, as well as to usher in another year of generous goodness, which is one of the most important festivals for the indigenous people of Sarawak. The celebration typically lasts for three days, from 31 May to 2 June where they partake in feasting, drinking, singing, and dancing.
Young families who had moved to live, work and school in Kuching, other parts of Malaysia or beyond the border were arriving home for Gawai, including our host – Mr Presto and his young family.
A dayak or native grandmother colouring her hair at a balcony of the traditional Sarawak longhouse; a young boy shaving his grandfather’s head with an electric shaver; natives barbecuing pork on a makeshift grill; a group of native women and men cooking at an open fire in preparation for the night’s potluck dinner; and children running and playing carefreely, tossing popping pellets to the ground, taking me back to the times where I threw those into my neighbour’s house.
In the heat and with sweaty armpits, it started to feel like home – warm, comforting and smiles and laughter all around.
At sunset on Gawai eve, the Annah Rais Longhouse was transformed into a grand, Bidayuh tribal celebration. Natives and visitors tucked into a potluck spread of about 30 Dayak dishes, cooked by homeowners who lived in the longhouse.
Children, as young as four years old, put up a mini pageant to display colourful, Bidayuh tribal costumes. Boys were dressed in loincloth, headgear with hornbill feathers and weapons such as shield, sword, or spear. Girls wore hand-woven cloth around the waist with a silver belt, black top, paired with armlets and anklets.
Celebrations continued with traditional dance performances accompanied by gongs chiming in the background, drinking homemade tuak (rice wine) and langkau (rice whisky) and natives teaching visitors a simple dayak dance move.
Staying at Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse is low maintenance. At Macheree Homestay, where I stayed in, showers were cold and the bathrooms are clean. Sleep was on a thin mattress lay on the floor on the upper deck of the homestay. It was 5.56am when the rooster first crowed. Every few minutes or so, an orchestra of cock-a-doodle do was heard. Unfortunately, they don’t snooze neither could I.
Meals at Macheree Homestay were made by Mr Presto’s mother, Mrs Ringin. And they were a hearty affair – warm home-cooked meals served with greens and poultry from their own farm. Rice was always cooked wrapped in lotus leaf or bamboo tube, including chicken and other meat because it is said to be a healthy way to cook food without losing flavour and nutrients.
Being invited to stay at the longhouse and celebrate Gawai Dayak with the Bidyah tribe community was a humbling and immersive cultural experience. As much as I wasn’t receptive to the initial idea of a village stay, I admit – it was hard to leave behind the peace and calmness, smiles and laughter and wonderfully pleasant Mrs Ringin.
Just when we were leaving, a group of travellers had arrived looking for Mr Presto. They told me they had tried to phone him.
Oh, I forgot. The digital connection to another world. There wasn’t much of a need to use my smartphone – except to take photos and videos. And, it wasn’t because of the unreliable Internet reception.
Time had passed so slowly while I gazed longingly at village lifestyle, mentally distancing myself from the hustle and bustle of city life that eagerly awaits me back in Singapore.
This writer’s trip was hosted by AirAsia and Sarawak Tourism Board. AirAsia flies to Kuching once daily from Singapore, and twice on Friday and Sunday. Here’s a guide to the things you can do in Kuching, Sarawak.