Exploring Borneo: The Headhunters and the Orang Utans

January 18, 2015

It’s funny how little I knew of this place I called home. As much as I pride myself of being a Borneo girl with the blood of the headhunters flowing through my veins, I’ll have to admit that there’s still much I needed to learn about home. Because let’s face it, we all tend to take things for granted.

Up till now I’ve yet to climb the Mount Kinabalu, nor dive in Sipadan or even trek the great outdoors of Mulu. I’ve not even made it to Bario!

During my recent trip to Padawan, Kuching, I’ve finally managed to strike one-off the bucket lists; I’ve finally seen the Orang Utans. Yeap. 22 years old, grew up in Borneo and I’ve yet to see the Orang Utans, at least till now.

The trip was part of the Padawan White Water Rafting event courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board (you can check out how they white water raft on just bamboos here!). We spent 3 magnificent days in Kuching, with one day set for the event and the other two exploring the sites of Kuching.


I was more than excited when I found out that we’re seeing the Orang Utans, having to fill the long drive with jittery vibes and chicken dance (like, yeay we’re seeing the Orang Utans!).

The drive from Kuching City took roughly 30 – 40 minutes, depending on the traffic itself. Likewise you can always opt for Bus No.6 from Kuching City, as taxis would be really expensive. Last bus from Semenggoh Wildlife Centre would be around 5p.m, and I’ve been told that they’ll wait for the very last visitor. Entrance fee was really cheap, RM3 if I’m not mistaken.

As part of the Nature Reserve, The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre started out as a rehabilitation centre for almost 1,000 endangered animals. Nowadays it’s widely known for its Orang Utan rehabilitation programme. To date the Wildlife Centre has successfully re-introduced countless Orang Utans back into the wild, playing a crucial role for the study of Orang Utan’s biological behaviour.

And boy, aren’t they magnificent a beast.

Despite August being a fruitful season we were extremely lucky to be able to observe the Orang Utans in the wild. They don’t usually emerge during fruit seasons, which is a telltale sign that the rehabilitation program is doing well and they’re holding on fine on their own.

As we waited at the feeding platform, holding our breath with a mix of anticipation and disappointment, a park ranger spotted this nifty one of one of the trails – and off we went excitedly just to say hello to this chap over here.

He wasn’t too happy though, as we were obviously invading his privacy. Male Orang Utans are widely territorial, so you’ll have to be careful not to aggravate them.

He did get a little grouchy towards the end, snapping off branches and throwing them at the people down below. The Park Rangers had to call off a few people not to get too close, but after scoring a few good shots it was more than enough. Then we happily left him enjoying his rambutans (a hairy local fruit that taste a lot like lychee. You should try it!).

This beats the feeding platform anytime. To be able to witness him so close among the wild was completely surreal.

I’ve always wanted to witness these great apes for quite awhile now, and thank God for amazing opportunities! There are two Orang Utan centres throughout Borneo, the other being in Sepilok, Sabah but I find the one in Kuching to be easily accessible. The last time I was in Sabah I really wanted to head down to Sepilok, but that’ll cost another flight down to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu. Now I can finally proclaim that I’ve seen the Orang Utans! 🙂


The trip was also inclusive of a homestay retreat at Annah Rais, which was nice because I’ve never been to a Bidayuh longhouse before.

There are countless indigenous tribes all over Borneo, each bearing different customs, languages and cultures. The largest tribe in Sarawak would be the Iban people (that’s me!) followed by the Bidayuh, KayanKenyah, Lun Bawang, and the list goes on and on. Not to mention to our neighbours in Sabah where there’s the Kadazan Dusun, the Murut, the Bajau and many, many more indigenous tribes yet to be mentioned.

Hence the more reason to visit Borneo ey?

Though I find both the Ibans and the Bidayuhs to be similar – there is still a distinct differences that made them truly unique in their own terms. Being an Iban myself, we too live in longhouses (well, my grandparents at least. I’m a born city girl). Yet the significant differences between the Iban longhouse compared to the Bidayuh is that the Bidayuh longhouse are built primarily on land. Hence the Bidayuh are also known as the Land Dayaks, while the Ibans are known as Sea Dayaks (as we built our longhouses closer to the waters).

Longhouses, in general are really just long houses interconnected to one another, each housing different families under the same long roof. Built generally on high stilts (to prevent floods and also to deter enemy attacks – back then headhunting was a serious thing in Borneo) a longhouse may hold up to 30 families. Divided into two areas, a long house consists mainly of a long common area (as pictured above) and separate living quarters for each families.

The Annah Rais longhouse, located 1.5 hour drive away from Kuching City is a prime example of a Bidayuh longhouse. While most longhouses has long been upgraded, favouring the more modern design – the Annah Rais still retains its old charm. Built completely out of bamboo stilts, the Annah Rais is one of the oldest longhouses in Kuching (as I’ve been told), well-preserved among its years to accommodate the Bidayuh culture.


My stay in Annah Rais was really a pleasant one. Our family host at Ma Cherie Homestay (details here) took us in with open arms and immediately made us feel at home. They cooked us dinner and fed us with abundant exotic fruits harvested from their own orchards. I couldn’t help but to be reminded of my own longhouse village – a place I haven’t visited for at least 16 years now.

The younger days when I used to climb trees scavenging for fruits, and wad horribly across the river (I was a horrible swimmer). I would tag along my older cousins as they went fishing, and hunt for prawns beneath the rocks. Those were the days when we waited excitedly for the grandparents to return with their harvest; a distinct memory of my grandfather bringing load of wild boars and deer meat. It really did brought old nostalgic memories.

We spent most of our time exploring the village, saying hello to countless families. We bought ice cream from a small vendor, browsed through endless hand crafted souvenirs, and pet countless cats and dogs around the village. The best surprise of Annah Rais was discovering these murals done by Ernest Zecharevic himself – the very same street artist that left his mark all over Penang!

The short 3 days retreat also left us stuffed to the brim, and I never knew how much I missed local traditional food. I swear I gained a few pounds over the course of 3 days, not to mention the abundant supply of fruits. I absolutely love fruit season!

Also, this is what we called as Pansuh. It’s generally marinated meat, filled into long tubes of bamboos and cooked over high fire. It’s a must try dish in Borneo (because it’s exactly my favourite). There are different versions of pansuh, made with chicken, pork or fish but I always find the chicken version to be the best. Also it won’t be as nice if you don’t use bamboos. Seriously, I’ve tried.

On the last night of our stay, we were treated with old stories and the long forgotten headhunting rituals while indulging ourselves with endless supplies of tuaks (traditional rice wine). Our host dressed us in traditional Bidayuh outfits, and taught us a few dance move while dancing to a traditional musical instrument.


Learning about the headhunters was like a trip down to memory lane. Both the Bidayuhs and the Ibans were avid headhunters. Though the rituals were long forgotten it still remained as an integral part of the society. Headhunting back then were generally used for territorial expansion, lined with inter-ethnic conflicts and wars. Acquisition of valuable properties and slaves from enemy tribes were also a common practice.

And smacked right in the middle of Annah Rais lies the Headhouse (Panggah) holding the fallen skulls of the enemies’ tribal headsman. We were told that these were one of the last of the Headhouse; with racks of skulls well-preserved throughout the years signifies the importance of the headhunting rituals back in the days.

These skulls were highly prized, as they represented power and valor of the tribe, as well as the bravery of the men. Back then adolescent boys were required to spent a night at the Headhouse in order to complete the step to finally becoming a man, representing the transition of growth. The Panggah also plays a significant role in rituals and healing ceremonies.

Despite modern living and technologies caught up with the newer generations, the preservation of a once long-lost tradition is an impressing feat itself. Nowadays headhunting is a long forgotten ritual as everybody embraced both Christianity and Islam as part of their religion.

Back at my own longhouse, the last of the skulls were removed when the elders passed away. Annah Rais really did offered that piece of experience, a reminder of the old days. Having to withstood time and hundred years of change, I would definitely urge people to visit as it’s one of the most accessible longhouse there is to date (because 1.5 hour drive from Kuching is a lot better than travelling for two days on boats to my longhouse).

It was indeed a refreshing experience having to get to know more of the Bidayuh culture, and more importantly the significant history it beholds. It’s been too long since I last immersed myself in the beauty of our own culture, that there’s still so much more to learn of this place we call home. I guess Borneo never cease to amaze me. Till next time!

Disclaimer : Photos are heavily credited to fellow blogger Hilda Teo because my Canon S100 decided to bail on me on the last minute.

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By Alyssa J

Alyssa J is an aspiring traveller and a wanderlust writer, aiming to inspire and to share the little joys of the world. Follow on her journeys on The Jaren Wanders.

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