Gawai, the Iban Rice Harvest Festival

A 100 mile trip up the Rajang River from Sibu, Sarawak


By Alan D. Ryon



Gawai Rice Festival, Nawin Longhouse, Oyan River


The jungle trip started when an Australian friend of mine, Milton Edwards, asked me if I would like to go up one of the jungle rivers to live with the (former) headhunters, the Iban tribe and celebrate GAWAI, the Rice Harvest Festival.  Well. I was pretty hesitant at first because I had heard that there are still a few headhunters left up in the jungle and I wasnít particularly interested in taking a chance.  In addition, I didnít think I would be able to arrange the time off from work.


All the plans came together and May 30th, 1985, Milton and I were in a 4 wheel drive vehicle heading down the coast for Miri which is 40 miles Southeast of Kuala Belait, near the border between Brunei and Sarawak, Malaysia.


From Miri, we caught an afternoon flight down to Sibu, a port on the river Rajang.  I was surprised at the size of Sibu.  It is quite a big city with hotels, shopping centers and open night markets.


After checking in to the hotel, we headed down to the docks to arrange transport for the following morning.  Fortunately, Milton speaks fluent Malay and we had no trouble conversing with the locals who speak a variety of languages Ė Malay, Mandarin and Iban.  English is generally understood in the cities as a result of the British influence in the region during colonization.    However, all of this is changing and the schools are reverting back to teaching just Malay.  It is sad in a way that the English language will slowly be lost because it will result in isolation of Malaysia and Brunei from the rest of the world at a time when global communications is close to uniting the world.  [Note: I wrote this before the advent of the internet, which will probably revive the need for English for worldwide internet communications].


With the boat arranged, we spent the evening sampling Chinese food from the local cafes and wandered through the open street markets.


After a good nightís sleep, we boarded the express at 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure.  Anticipating good weather for the journey, Milton and I secured a prime area of deck space so we could enjoy the view traveling up the Rajang River.


Transport up the Rajang River is very well organized and is the main means of transport in an area that has few roads penetrating the jungle.  The riverboats cater to the rubber plantations, lumber mills and the indigenous tribesí people living up the tributaries of the Rajang River in longhouses.


Express boat up the Rajang


In fact, to date, there are no roads going up the Rajang, which makes the River the only feasible method of travel to the remote areas.  The Express boat is by far the easiest and fastest mode of river transport.  These boats are 50 to 60 feet in length and are powered buy huge Yanmar diesel engines, which push the boats at an estimated 25 mph.  Although we did not enter the interior of the boat, we were told that many of them show videos on the longer trips.  [I later did travel on the interior of similar boats in Brunei].


The river was a hive of activity with the express boats buzzing passed, barges and log rafts floating by and lots of people along the banks either waiting for transport, washing clothes or bathing.  Plantations could be seen along the riverbanks and, occasionally an old European style house was visible hinting at the colonial past.


We stopped at the river towns of Kanowit and Song before reaching the furthest town up the Rajang, Kapit.  Just above Kapit, the Rajang and the Baleh rivers converge and these two rivers branch into a vast number of tributaries thus putting Kapit at the central trunk of all the branches.  The streets of Kapit are paved and there are a surprising number of vehicles considering that there are no roads leading very far from toxin.  All the vehicles were brought up river.  As in most parts of Asia, all the shops seem to be run by Chinese merchants, including the restaurants.


Express Boat Stopover


At Kapit, we had lunch and waited for the next express boat to take us up to the mouth of the Mujong River.  While waiting, we met an Englishman named Dave Keen who was traveling with his Iban wife, Mary, back to see her family at the longhouse, not far from where we would be staying.  Fortunately, they offered to take us in there longboat from the last express boat drop, at the mouth of the Mujong, to our destination.  So, with all the transport arranged we had a nice Chinese lunch and a walk around Kapit.


Sibu to Kapit had taken us 3 1/2 hours and a further 1 1/2 hours is required to the mouth of the Mujong.  After being dropped off at the mouth of the Mujong, we were met by a boat owned by Mary's family and after a short stop at Mary's longhouse we were taken to the Nawin longhouse, our final destination.  As we pulled along side the riverbank, a few women were washing clothes and a couple men were hacking away at the keel of a new longboat.  They all stared blankly at us, not recognizing Milton who had been there the year before.  For a couple of minutes the atmosphere was that of uncertainty, not a very welcoming feeling.  Then one of the women recognized Milton's voice and a big smile came across her face.  Next thing I knew, we were out of the longboat and our bags were being disappearing up the steps ahead of us.  From that paint onward, we were treated like a long lost part of the family.


The whole place came alive with people wanting to see the two curious white men (Orang Puti's in Malay).  The children were totally fascinated with us. 3 or 4 were always in tow from the minute we got up until nightfall.


The thing that most amazed them, beside that fact that Milton and I are twice the size of the average Iban, is that Milton can speak fluent Malay.  They have seldom seen an Orang Puti speak one of their languages.  It really broke the ice at all the places we visited.  Another interesting point, Dave Keen's was the only other European face that we saw the entire trip, so Milton and I were curious sights for them.


The first impression that one gets of the longhouse is that it looks like a long battered old shack with a shingle or tin roof set up on stilts.  The construction techniques could be better, but the units are totally functional and have been built to accommodate their social structure as, well as their agriculture system.  The longhouse is a long series of one-room apartments, with each family unit having one door opening up into one room averaging 50 by 25 feet.  In the door where Milton and I stayed, there were about 10 people living there, although I never did get the exact number they were constantly coming and going and a lot of relatives and friends were visiting during the festival.



The Kitchen consists of a stove built on a slab of concrete, usually an open wood burning area with two metal rods on which they put the woks or kettles.  There is no chimney!  The smoke simply updrafts along the tin roof and goes out at the peak.  It didn't smell smoky inside, yet the smoke seemed to help keep the insects away at night because we had very few problems with mosquitoes, a pleasant surprise, not what I'd expected in the jungle.


The rice is stored in big clay pots that stand about 3 feet high.  Most appeared to be very old with beautiful designs in the glazing.  Antique dealers would have a field day in this area.


The living area was also the sleeping area and the changing area.  There is absolutely no privacy other than your Sarong.  The sarong is just like a tube of material that you wear like a skirt. When you want to change, you just pull the sarong up to your shoulders and change inside of it.


There are no bathing facilities and no outhouse!  The longhouses are always built near a fresh water stream, which provides a natural plumbing system.  Drinking later is carried from the upper part of the stream, clothes washing and bathing is done downstream of this and the lowest part of the stream, anywhere around the bend, serves as the bathroom.  Milton and I always got up bright and early and rushed down to the stream to beat the crowds!


The longhouses are almost certainly built up on high ground and set back from the river's edge.  The reason for this became obvious one day when Milton and I were, plastic bags and general debris about 20 feet above the river, caught in the trees.  Andar told us that the debris marked the high-water level of the river during a good rain!  This also explains why their elevated walkways never go all the way from the longhouse down to the river's edge, they would easily be carried away in the current.  In the Nawin longhouse, there were 20 doors and probably 100 inhabitants plus a lot of dogs, pigs and chickens.  I was surprised at how easy it was to adjust to living with that many people in such a small area.  There is no privacy, yet their social structure and living habits are such that you never get that crowded feeling.



Andar was the head of the family with which we stayed.  He was very strong and wiry like most of the Iban men.  I never did get the name of his wife or daughters, mainly because we couldn't converse in any common language.  His wife took good care of us, always had food prepared for us or a pillow for us if we were lying down for a rest.


The food they cooked was pretty basic, but good and tasty.  They cook a lot of chicken and pork, local vegetables and fruit and, of course, rice which is the staple of their diet.  The food is eaten with the fingers and water bowls are provided for washing the hands.  If a meal was particularity messy, Andar's wife would usually give us spoons.  My main concern at the outset was getting sick an the local food, something all travelers are subject to in a foreign country.  However, I never once had the slightest upset to my system - other than the effects of the local wine.


When we sat down to the first meal, I was apprehensive about what they might put in front of us which would at least have to be tasted out of respect to the cook.  My worst fears were realized when the appetizer arrived, it was a wok full of corkscrew snails.  I remember my first thoughts, 'Oh shit, if this is the appetizer, what's going to come next'!  Actually, the snails were not too bad after you got the hang of sucking them out of their shells and the rest of the dishes were much like any Asian dishes containing pork, or chicken, and a few unrecognizable vegetables.  The best policy is too try it and if it looks like it is cooked well and tastes relatively good, eat it and smile.




Iban mother and child



The one thing that you must consume while at a longhouse is Tuak, the home brewed rice wine that can be found brewing in each door of every longhouse in Malaysia.  Tuak is made from freshly harvested glutinous rice and can be sampled after a couple weeks of brewing.  It is a lemonade color and varies in taste from sweet to sour, but all brews are pretty potent.  Tuak appears to be the focal point for all activities during the Gawai festival and you cannot visit any longhouse without having to taste many of the brews produced by each family.  They get offended if you refuse, but too much is too much, and by touching the edge of the glass you can refuse - more or less admitting that you are already 3 sheets to the wind and have a lot more visiting to do that day.


Tuak, Rice Wine


The first night at the Nawin longhouse, we were dragged to the far end of the longhouse and told that we were to have a drink at each door.  Both Milton and I needed no calculating to figure out that neither of us would last for 20 doors.  Fortunately, our door was placed strategically midway along the path to destruction.  When we rasched the halfway mark, both of us dove through the door and call it a night.  To save face, we finished off the rest the doors the next evening.


Al sampling the Local Brew


The lst of June was spent exploring some of the tributaries, penetrating far enough up river that we had to push the boat through the shallow rapids.  We visited 2 longhouses, both of which varied markedly from the Nawin longhouse as each had a different layout and a different character about it.  We were met by many Ibans and the inevitable offering of the teapots filled to the brim with the homebrew.




Pushing up the tributaries to visit other longhouses


One of these longhouses had water on tap.  Being curious as to the source, Milton and I were taken for a 20 minute walk up a rocky stream bed to a small dam which was the source of the tap water.  Unfortunately, the dam had sprung a few leaks, near the bottom, leaving the volume of water in the pipe to provide the 'header tank'.  Oh well, it still worked and probably supplied sufficient water for their needs.


The 2nd of June was quite interesting as Andar took us up the river to see his pepper plantation.  The Ibans all seem to have their own individual farm plots carved out of the jungle, hidden away from the river traffic.  Andar's plot was about a 45 minute run up the river and a long walk along a stream.  As we cut up into the jungle, we came upon the pepper field that appeared to look somewhat like a vineyard with the vines growing on separate, tall poles.  They use insecticides on the plants and have a lot of upkeep on the vineyards, especially just to clear the encroaching jungle.


They also grow rice, sugar cane, vegetables, fruit, and must have some form of rubber plantations because I saw quite a few latex presses along our travels.


The Ibans are hard working people and have trouble scraping a living out of their jungle plots.  Most of the younger people are attracted to the lumber camps, city life and the oilfield jobs and I imagine these outside influences have changed their whole social structure over the last 30 years.  Even so, most of the Ibans try to make it back to the longhouses for the festival, no matter where they reside.


Chopping fire wood


Christian missionaries have converted a few of the Ibans and you can tell which families are Christian by the crosses on top of the longhouses. 


Headhunting has been outlawed and the women are made to dress fully in public.  The outboard motor has greatly expanded their mobility and generators can be found at a few of the longhouses, even an occasional TV ariel.


Al helping the women make Katupot, woven reed pockets filled with glutinous rice



The old custom die hard though.  One of the more interesting things that we were involved in was being asked partake in one of the Pagan rituals, the offering of food to their ancestors.  The sons usually perform the ceremony, but Andar's neighbor had no sons and asked if Milton and I would do the honors.  The Ibans do not appear to have any gods that they worship only their ancestors.  The ceremony involves preparing a food bowl from various plates of food laid out on a mat.  The food was composed of fruits, eggs and popcorn and after the items were carefully layered in the bowl, the bowl had to be carefully placed on top of a vertical bamboo pole that is sectioned and splayed at the top to hold the bowl.  During this ceremony and many other times during the festival, a chicken was waved over our heads for good luck and a good harvest.


                                                                                    Andar, Milton and Michael building the Offering Poles and Milton placing  offerings



                                                                                                Offerings for the Ancestors


Putting the offerings atop the bamboo pole was a precarious operation for someone like myself, weighing twice the norm for an Iban.  Everyone was holding his or her breath as I inched my way up the swaying pole.


Actually, the poles comprised a series of three with cross-braces tied between them and we had to climb up the cross-braces.  Fortunately, everything withstood the load testing and the ritual ended without an embarrassing display of aerial acrobatics. (This was not so when it came to the open bamboo decking which constantly strained and bowed under my weight, but only gave way once causing a few minor scars on my leg).


                                                                                                Andarís Son involved in the Ancestral Offerings




The man that we helped during the ceremony was the only true headhunter left at the Nawin longhouse.  He told us about how he had taken the head an enemy tribesman and the handle of his sword displayed the trophy, a small tassel of the enemy's hair.  We didn't ask about where the skull was.  The Ibans were considered to be the fiercest headhunters in recent past and are probably still considered tough to deal with.



Iban Warrior


Every longhouse has at least one skull hanging somewhere in the rafters, for good luck.  At our longhouse, the skull was hidden from sight because they are afraid that some people will be offended by it.  I presume it has something to do with Christian influence in recent times.  We persuaded them to bring the out the skull, in addition one of the Ibans dressed up in some of their warrior gear and allowed us to get some excellent photos of him holding the skull.


The resident skull


The Gawai festival is not celebrated simultaneous at all the longhouses.  The local counsel schedules the celebrations so that the are consecutive, one at a time.  That way, they can visit most of the longhouses, in the area, without missing out any of the fun.  The young Iban men seem to take advantage of the scheduling so that they can party continuously for days on end, wandering in their longboats from one festival to the next, catching a bit of sleep when they're completely exhausted.


Old man checking the sacrificial pigís liver


The Gawai celebration starts at 9 o'clock at night and last until 9 in the morning.  At 9 p.m., 6 men started chanting and pacing the deck with a slow rhythmic cadence, each with a long pole that beat in time on the deck as they slowly made their way up the long corridor in front of the doors.  This continued until 9 a.m., although they did take a few rest breaks through the evening.  In addition to this, there were dancers doing the native dances to the beat of a series of brass gongs.  I was fascinated by some of the older men with their well-coordinated motions.  I was not as game as Milton, who they convinced to get up and dance.



                                                                                                                  Andarís daughter in traditional dress and two lovely sisters



The main attraction of the evening was watching the teenagers forcing drinks down each otherís throats and enjoying the dancing.  Milton and I made a conscious effort to pace the drinking and even sneaked into our door for a few minutes of rest during the night, but we were always pulled back into the mainstream of the festivities.


After an hour or two of sleep in the Morning, it was time for us to pack and leave this wonderful place.  It was sad to leave when we were just beginning to feel at home.  We stopped at each door and said "Selemat GawaiĒ which basically means have a good harvest festival.  We were even offered a few more glass of Tuak and went through two more ceremonial offerings for some of the children's good fortune and some of the travelers.  They even had a little ceremony for us to insure a safe journey.  We were given 12 hard-boiled eggs and three, yard long bamboo sticks filled with steamed rice.


Rice cooking in bamboo over the fire



We were taken by longboat to Kapit where Milton and I said our last goodbye, hoping to return the following year for the next Gawai Festival.  At Kapit, we boarded an express boat and slept the majority of the way back to Sibu where, we immediately checked into the hotel and had the luxury of a long, soapy shower.  Back in the civilized world!


I will never forget this trip, it was an experience that will never be known to most people except through the eyes of those at the National Geographic Society or other adventurous journalists.  I thank Milton for talking me into taking the trip and feel the success of the journey was due mainly to his knowledge of the area, his command of the Malay language and his icebreaking personality - I surely would not have done it on my own.



Traditional weaving done by Ibans



Post Script:


While living in Brunei, I picked up some nice Batik paintings from a Malaysian artist, who used to stop by the house every few months.  I have included them below because they are relevant to the whole Iban experience.



Iban Warrior Dress and Shield