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Asia / Cultural Immersion / Culture / Southeast Asia

Malaysia: Highlights from 40 Years of Travel through the Asian Peninsula

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Kites can be seen all over peninsular Malaysia, but you won’t see any in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. That’s because the northern tip of Borneo lies south of the typhoon belt and is called “the land below the wind.” With the exception of 13,500 foot Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, there’s not much to see in Sabah. The government regards it as a vast agricultural plantation. The majority of the state’s timber is gone, sold to Japan for use as chop sticks.

Far more interesting is the state of Sarawak, a vast sprawl of tropical jungle where the preferred means of travel is by river boat. Though thousands of tribal people live in Kuching, many more still make their homes in traditional longhouses built along Sarawak’s rivers. The length of a longhouse depends on how many families live there – a 24-door longhouse has 24 families. More families can join by attaching rooms to either end. The longhouse chief and his family reside in the centermost room.

In the past the Ibans were the headhunters of Borneo, but now many Sarawak’s Ibans are innkeepers. From the river town of Kapit it’s easy to negotiate a fee with a guide who will escort you to a welcoming Iban longhouse. Since food in the jungle is scarce you’ll be expected to bring some canned meat or contribute money toward the cost of your meals. There is no “charge” per se for staying in a longhouse, but your visit will be merrier if you provide a can of rice wine, several cartons of cigarettes and candy for the children. If you really want to boogie bring extra D-cell batteries for the longhouse CD player.