Day 2 at Kuching. I hired Sebastian, the cab driver I got from the airport the previous day to take me to the longhouses at Benuk and Annah Rais which were around 60k from Kuching plus a side trip to Kubah National Park. I asked him if it was possible to head to all three places plus a little hiking thrown in, “Boleh!” he enthusiastically answered. On the short drive from the airport to Wo Jia the previous days, he seemed a nice and reliable guy as we made small talk about Sarawak so I decided to hire him even if it wasn’t in my budget. I figured RM 230 for the entire day including petrol was a good price. At the end of the day, the meter read almost RM 400 so it was a really good deal. Plus being a Bidayuh from Senerai I could get to ask him a lot of stuff about his people and his culture plus I get to practice my Bahasa-Melayu.
At 8 in the morning, we were well on the sealed road to Kampung Benuk . It was smooth going all the way along the Penrissen Road with hardly any vehicular traffic as we followed the gently curving road along a backdrop of magnificent mountains and small kampung along the road. It was Good Friday so everyone was probably indoors plus the sun was unbearably hot.
We arrived in Benuk to find the visitors information center close. Fortunately, someone came along on a battered sedan on the way out of the village and Sebastian got out of the cab to inquire with the middle-aged guy who sat waiting for someone. Sebastian returned and said the center close as it was a holiday we could just go to the longhouse which was just a few feet from where we were. He parked the car at a small clearing then we took the steep narrow wooden steps up to the longhouse.
It was quiet as there was hardly anyone there. “They’re at church because it’s Good Friday today.” There weren’t any other visitors either as another car with some middle-aged Chinese girls seemed to have turned back when they saw the center closed. I had the entire longhouse to myself! How cool is that!
I had known beforehand that except for the facades, the longhouses aren’t exactly the way they used to be. For one, there were satellite dishes and peeking into the open doors, you could see a few modern appliances and amenities. Some had even changed their facade with more modern materials. What seemed to be the main longhouse was on the right as we headed up the stairs. Wide bamboo pathways linked one longhouse to another which were all raised on stilts and towered above the modern concrete houses which surrounded them. It was like a mini village within a village.
Rolled large mats made from rattan and dried bark leaned against the walls while cut bamboo used for cooking were stacked neatly. As we made our way to the other side, we passed the pangah, the communal hall where everyone met. It looked fairly new but still designed in the traditional Bidayuh way of a round structure topped with a straw roof. It was closed so we didn’t get to go inside.
Down some really narrow wooden steps that looked exactly like the ones in the H’mong houses in Sapa in Vietnam and those of the Ifugao in the northern Philippines we headed down the road and up some concrete steps to the mini museum that was perched on a little hill above the village. Apparently, church service was over as the villagers were returning back to the village.
The mini museum is the house of the Paka anak Otor who died in October 2004. As a direct descendant of a Ketua Gawai (ritual chief) he made it his calling to collect and preserve the material culture of his people. Housed on the ground floor of his residence, the museum had displays of musical instruments such as gongs and drums, farming implements, baskets, rare beads with one necklace dating back to the 19th c. , traditional clothes and accessories, ritual objects and tools, and other things the Bidayuh use in their everyday lives. Most of the artifacts were unlabeled which was a pity because each piece would have made for an interesting story.
On one corner was a mini replica of the cave the Bidayuhs used to live before the reign of the White Rajahs. It was interesting to note that the Kamupung Benuk Bidayuh in the past generations used to live in the limestone caves far from the kampung. It was James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, that convinced them to abandon the caves and settle in a village. An old photograph showed the old longhouse which was longer and bigger. The section from the museum to where we exited from has since been demolished and replaced with the more modern concrete houses that lined the small paved road.
The mini museum is now under the care of his white-haired widow who gamely agreed to pose for a photo with me 🙂 Faded black and white photographs showed what a beauty she was in her youth. She couldn’t speak English nor Malay so I couldn’t understand what she was telling me as she gesticulated. I assumed that she was asking for a donation which I was more than willing to give as there was no entrance fee to the museum and any effort to preserve heritage needs some sort of support. I put RM 5 at the box and she quieted down. She kept repeating a certain word which I had forgotten. Back at the cab I asked Sebastian what it means and he said “died.” I assumed she was telling me that her husband had died already and that she needed money for her expenses.
More popular, at least as far as the travel agencies and guide books have it, Annah Rais is just a few kilometers from Benuk and close to the Indonesian border of East Kalimantan. From the sealed road, we turned to a reasonably good dirt track which terminated at the village entrance where I paid an RM 8 fee at the small information center manned by two women sewing beads. The Chinese group on the car I saw at Benuk earlier were there. Turned-out they were from Singapore and were a happy lot. We were given a welcome drink of tuak . I had expected a fiery alcoholic drink but what I tasted was something sweet that faintly hinted of freshly harvested tuba. I was given a second shot and we were told that it was the women’s version of the drink which accounted for the mild taste.
With more than a hundred doors, the Annah Rais longhouse is very long indeed. Unlike Benuk which still had a semblance of a real being-lived in longhouse, Annah Rais was deeply entrenched into tourism. One section had been converted into a homestay with more modern amenities. At the far end was a row of common showers and squat toilets. Looking down below, I wasn’t quite sure where all the waste ended-up. Maybe on the fields below?
Some sections were still quite traditional with outside stoves and looked really lived in while others were really quite modern by longhouse standards. One open door revealed someone using a laptop inside!
True to the reality that the Bidayuh have since moved on to the 21st century, a replica or a “preserved” (depends on how you look at it) interior of a traditional Bidayuh home was on display. If you still hadn’t gotten the message that the only thing traditional about the longhouse is its exteriors, then seeing the replica would suddenly have you make sense of your surroundings.
Inside the small pangah, some skulls from the headhunting days were in a locked metal basket suspended from the ceiling. There was nothing else inside except for some folded tables and chairs.
A woman sold souvenirs at a table at one part of the longhouse but the items were the same ones you could get at any of the shops in Kuching. I had read at Lonely Planet, that they actually get most of the stuff in Kuching.
I exited the bamboo pathways that connected the longhouses, down some steps and crossed a wooden bridge over a rive. It looked like a good spot to ward off the heat as the water sparkled in its cleanliness and the banks were shaded by leafy trees and shrubs. The bridge led to another row of longhouses.
Because it is bigger and settled at a better place close to the forests, Annah Rais seems much nicer than Benuk. There are concrete houses but it doesn’t look like a set of longhouses smack in the middle of a tiny subdivision, the kind that you see in provinces here. But I had a better experience at Benuk because it felt less touristy to me. Maybe because I was all alone there.
It was a long drive back to Kuching for late lunch before heading to Kubah. We stopped at a covered hawker center where I had a bowl of belacan beehon. The vermicelli was doused in a sauce of belacan, a mildly spicy paste made from fermented shrimp sold in blocks and which is a fixture in Malay cooking. The closest we have to belacan is Iloilo’s ginamos though it’s a saltier version.
The beehon was really tasty and delicious, I slurped every drop of the the belacan sauce which had a sweetish shrimpy taste. Sebastian who had a mee Jawa which were egg noodles in a thick brown gravy reminiscent of Indonesian noodles seemed amuse as I kept proclaiming that it was sedap sekali (very delicious).
Next stop was Kubah National Park but that deserves a post of its own.
1. There is no direct public transpo to both Benuk and Annah Rais. There are however shared vans. To get to Annah Rais, you have to get on a public bus to Padawan and from there get on a shared van.
2. The best way is to get a cab hire from Kuching.
3. The cheapest way is to join one of the many tours on offer though I didn’t see anyone offering trips to Benuk. Annah Rais tours include a trip Semenggoh Orangutan Center. I didn’t go to Semenggoh anymore as I have been quite contented withmy orangutan experience at Sepilok and at the Kinabatangan (yeah.. orangutans in the wild!) both at Sabah.
4. Both Benuk and Annah Rais have homestay programs that can be quite expensive if you’re traveling alone. Annah Rais’s homestay is in a separate facility a few meters from the longhouse which I passed on my way to Kampung Sitmul. There’s also hotsprings there.