Gawai, the Iban Rice Harvest Festival
100 mile trip up the
By Alan D. Ryon
Gawai Rice Festival, Nawin
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
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.
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
so we could enjoy the view traveling up the
Transport up the
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
trips. [I later did
travel on the
interior of similar boats in
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
Express Boat Stopover
we had lunch and
waited for the next express boat to take us up to the mouth of the
had taken us 3 1/2 hours and a further 1 1/2 hours is required to the
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
longhouse we were taken to the Nawin
final destination. As
we pulled along
side the riverbank, a few women were washing clothes and a couple men
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
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,
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
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.
Milton and Michael building the Offering
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.
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
National Geographic Society or other adventurous journalists. I thank
Traditional weaving done by Ibans
While living in
Iban Warrior Dress and Shield